Why does the Orthodox Church have married priests?

Married clergy is one point of difference between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. The Orthodox Church allows priests to marry, as long as they do so before their ordination. However, only celibate or unmarried priests can become bishops.

In the early Church, we see that some of the Lord’s disciples were married. Τhe Scriptures talk about Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. At the time of the apostles, when the titles ‘presbyter’ and ‘bishop’ were used interchangeably, St Paul advised that a bishop “must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded…” (1 Timothy 3:2). Even later, when the roles of presbyters and bishops were more clearly delineated, each could choose to marry. However, in the 5th Century, the Church decided that bishops must remain celibate, for pastoral reasons (so that family matters did not get in the way of overseeing the Church). In the West, this requirement was extended to priests and was clearly articulated by the 12th century.

By allowing married men to enter the priesthood, the Orthodox Church affirms the blessedness of marriage without lessening the affirmation of the blessedness of celibacy. St Clement of Alexandria writes: “Celibacy and marriage each have their own functions and specific services to the Lord”, and so “we pay homage to those whom the Lord has favoured with the gift of celibacy and admire monogamy and its dignity” (The Stromata, Book 3). Marriage according to the will of Christ, and celibacy as a devotion to Christ, are two different spiritual paths, equally valid for a true living of the spiritual life. This is so for ordained clergy as it is for everyone else.

Unmarried men who feel a calling to the priesthood must decide whether to get married first and then be ordained or to become a celibate priest. It must be understood that celibacy is a special gift from God. When Elder Paisios was asked about this matter, he said that all obstacles in the path to a celibate life in Christ can be overcome with prayer and spiritual struggle. However one thing cannot be overcome, and that is the need and desire for having a family, because this desire is implanted in us by God (Genesis 1:27-28). This is why the vocation of the celibate life is a special gift of God.

God has blessed both the celibate and the married life. It is up to each one of us to use our given vocation to earn salvation for ourselves and those around us. Our vocation is merely the path to our salvation. The priest, especially, strives to be a model of Christian life; to be, as St Basil the Great says, “a blameless worker, rightly proclaiming the word of truth” (Commandments of St Basil to Priests). This may be achieved regardless of whether the priest is married or celibate.

† Fr G. L.


Source: December-January 2014 Lychnos Edition