13 Obstacles on the Way to Becoming a Priest

Ecclesiastical hierarchy plays a very important role in the life of the Church. The Church cannot exist or perform Her salvific ministry in the world without the hierarchy that traces its origins to the holy apostles and was laid out by the Lord Jesus Christ himself. That is why it is vital that would-be priests meet the high moral and spiritual requirements of the Gospel.

This post lists 13 obstacles that prevent a person from becoming a priest. Those requirements were developed by the canon law of the Orthodox Church based on spiritual and practical challenges of priestly ministry as a pastor and a teacher of God’s people.

Physical Obstacles

1. Age.

One has to be mature, strong in his convictions, and have a solid experience in life to be a member of the clergy or even help the priest or the bishop as an altar server. Consequently, the person has to reach a certain age. The canonical required age for a presbyter (priest) is 30. …[T]hat a presbyter be not ordained before he is thirty years of age, even if he be a very worthy man, but let him be kept back. For our Lord Jesus Christ was baptized and began to teach when he was thirty. (Canon 14 of the Quinisext Council). Canon 15 of the same Council orders those who were ordained contrary to the prescribed time to be deposed. Practically speaking, this requirement is sometimes waived both nowadays and in the ancient times. Thus, according to the current Code of the Russian Orthodox Church, a person can be ordained into priesthood at the age of 18 and into bishopric at the age of 30.

2. Physical Defects and Illnesses.

Though they generally don’t preclude one from becoming a priest, there are several defects that render priestly ministry hardly possible. Apostolic Canon 77 states, If any one be deprived of an eye, or lame of a leg, but in other respects be worthy of a bishopric, he may be ordained, for the defect of the body does not defile a man, but the pollution of the soul. However, Apostolic Canon 78 adds, But if a man be deaf or blind, he may not be made a bishop, not indeed as if he were thus defiled, but that the affairs of the Church may not be hindered. As far as eunuchs (castrates) are concerned, Canon 1 of the First Ecumenical Council states, If any one in sickness has been subjected by physicians to a surgical operation, or if he has been castrated by barbarians, let him remain among the clergy. but, if any one in sound health has castrated himself, it behoves that such an one, if [already] enrolled among the clergy, should cease [from his ministry], and that from henceforth no such person should be promoted. Zonaras explains that the person who voluntarily lets someone else castrate him also counts as a person who castrates himself. If a man suffers from mental disorder, he cannot be among the clergy, either (See Apostolic Canon 79). However, if that person recovers and is worthy of ordination, he may be ordained.

Spiritual Obstacles

3. Apostasy.

The faith of a candidate for priesthood must be tried and tested because if that person apostatizes in the time of persecution, he cannot be restored in the priestly rank even if he repents. If any who have lapsed have been ordained through the ignorance, or even with the previous knowledge of the ordainers, this shall not prejudice the canon of the Church for when they are discovered they shall be deposed.

4. Baptism For Fear of Death.

Canon 12 of the Council of Neocæsarea states, If any one be baptized when he is ill, forasmuch as his [profession of] faith was not voluntary, but of necessity [i.e. though fear of death] he cannot be promoted to the presbyterate, unless on account of his subsequent [display of] zeal and faith, and because of a lack of men.

5. Recent Conversion.

Recent converts are typically characterized by a lack of faith, hence they are not ordained, per church canons. This is what Apostle Paul writes to Timothy with regard of ordination of bishops, Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil (1 Timothy 3:6). Canon 3 of the Council of Laodicea sums up Apostolic Canon 80 and Canon 2 of the First Ecumenical Council thus: “He who has been recently baptized ought not to be promoted to the sacerdotal order.”

6. Non-Christian Relatives.

Apostle Paul writes that a candidate may be ordained into bishopric only if he has faithful children (Titus 1:6), hence Canon 36 of the Council of Carthage prescribes the following: None shall be ordained bishop, presbyters, or deacons before all the inmates of their houses shall have become Orthodox Christians.

7. Mortal Sins.

Those were the sins that required public confession in the Ancient Church. They include murder, theft, grave robbery, sacrilege, fornication, adultery, sodomy (See Canon 6 of St. Gregory of Nyssa and Apostolic Canon 61). Canons of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa also prohibited even those who had committed manslaughter to become members of clergy. Usurers may be ordained only if they donate the ill-gotten money to the poor and go out of business.

Social Obstacles

8. Second Marriage.

He who has been twice married after baptism, or who has had a concubine, cannot become a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or any other of the sacerdotal list, Apostolic Canon 17 reads.

9. Passive Polygamy.

Apostolic Canon 18 states, He who married a widow, or a divorced woman, or an harlot, or a servant-maid, or an actress, cannot be a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or any other of the sacerdotal list.

10. Wife’s Adultery.

If the wife of a layman has committed adultery and been clearly convicted, such [a husband] cannot enter the ministry; and if she commit adultery after his ordination, he must put her away; but if he retain her, he can have no part in the ministry committed to him. (Canon 8 of the Council of Neocæsarea).

11. Marrying a Close Relative or a Non-Christian.

These facts also make it impossible for a man to become a priest, based on Apostolic Canon 19 and Canon 36 (45) of the Council of Carthage, respectively.

12. Liabilities to the State, Which Make It Impossible for a Priest to Perform His Duties.

Apostolic Canon 83 reads, If a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, shall serve in the army, and wishes to retain both the Roman magistracy and the priestly office, let him be deposed; for the things of Cæsar belong to Cæsar, and those of God to God.” Aside from soldiers and officers, people who are sentenced to jail time, cannot be ordained, either.

13. Bad Reputation.

Apostle Paul writes, Moreover he [i.e., a bishop] must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:7). Therefore, people of certain occupations cannot be candidates for ordination (e.g., loan sharks, actors, casino owners).

The aforementioned obstacles, no matter how serious they are, especially concerning moral purity, aren’t absolute. In cases of dire necessity or owing to the candidate’s exceptional qualities, the legitimate church authorities may forgo the general rules out of mercy and in view of the well-being of the Church. This often occurs with regard to canonical age of the candidate. There are just two absolute and peremptory obstacles for ordination in the Orthodox Church: sex – only men can be priests; and not having been baptized – for in this case, the man does not belong to the Church.

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  1. Well, I’ve just read through this listing. I have some questions/comments that some of you may not like, but they are fair and legitimate questions and I’d loved to see future articles that addreses them in a full and honest matter rather than writing off the person as being a troublemaker or telling them to leave the Orthodox Church (and yes, I’ve gotten that sort of reaction in the past…but I’m not leaving lol)

    Anyway, this list strikes me as somewhat stringent, judgmental, unfair, and in some cases, un-Biblical. These rules in many cases appear to be man-made, and were created in order to eliminate “competition” rather than allow a person to recognize a legitimate calling that’s given by God.

    RE: The remarks re: converts not having enough faith! Ok, as I am an Chrismated Orthodox Christian of 8 years standing, I find that comment particularly hurtful. It seems people still want to label my faith as not being ‘good enough’ yet there are cradle Orthodox who take things for granted and who are sometimes downright irreverant but they’re ok because they’re ‘grandfathered’ in as it were? Why the two tiered system? When do we converts get to stop being viewed as “converts” and start being viewed as legitimate Orthodox Christians same as anyone else?

    As for some of the other requirements for the priesthood: Some of those strike me as very antiquated, judgmental and more than a little misognyistic against women. Not saying women should be allowed to be priests but to judge the wife of a potential priest? What’s wrong with being an actress? or being a widow? Are they damaged goods or something? Are they supposed to live lives of loneliness because of it? What if a woman got divorced because she had a husband who abused her or was an alcoholic or addict? and she’s found happiness with a man who is good and pious and wants to be a priest. The idea that she is somehow “damaged goods” or an “inappropriate partern” who is holding him back is just offensive! Also, I know of some priests in the Antiochian churches who have had 2nd marriages and who are still allowed to remain priests. I think there should be exceptions made for widowed priests with minor children: it’s hard enough to have the responsibilities of a priest and also to raise children alone, so it seems to me that to allow a 2nd wife would be a good thing so that there is 1) a sense of a full family again…and 2) there would be less temptation for that priest to fall into sexual sins that come from depression/loneliness and from missing a regular sex life with a wife…cuz once you get used to having something in your life, the reality is you do miss it! or is it maybe a question of not allowing the re-marriage is because dating/marrying a man who is already a priest is also considered sort of a power/over relationship similar to a student dating a university professor? That the woman might say yes because it will confer some sort of status she wouldn’t otherwise have or maybe she’d feel pressured because of his rank?

    Also, is it fair to judge the priest because the wife cheated when he’s the innocent party? Whatever happened to forgiveness?

    Overall, it seems to me that Church may be missing out on some good men for the priesthood because their real or imagined past (or the real or imagined past of their wives/potential matushkas) is being held against them. What about what we say in Vespers about “if thou shouldst mark inquities, who would stand?” Now I know it’s unlikely to change, but still I think these are fair and valid questions that need answers that help us understand better.

    1. In an era where finding a partner for the night was harder than in modern days, and standarts for such things were different, widows were, very often, lonely women who had reputation of being “more approachable” by strangers. Soldiers that were returning from their service and passing through a village would ask around about which house belongs to a widow.
      So a lot of this obstacles has a reputation of a priest, or a future priest, in mind. For example, there could be rumours if a wife of a priest, who is also an actress, would have to kiss somebody in a movie scene. The reputation of a priest is probably even more important than that of a politician.
      My point is – in our modern life we have lost a lot of perspectives from which these recommendations were created, but that does not necessarily mean that they are stupid or primitive – they have logic behind them, even if we don’t always understand it. If we were to introduce changes to these recommendations, we would have to research and understand them first, and preserve the intentions with which they were created in the first place. For example, if we would decide to change the recommendation about widows, we could throw the term away, but we would have, in my opinion, change it to something like: “He who married a woman that has a reputation of being previously with many men, cannot be a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or any other of the sacerdotal list.”
      Same thing is with wife’s adultery. It’s not about who is at fault, and who should be forgiven – it’s up to God. There is a simple practical reason behind that – there will be people in a future priest congregation, who would talk about that behind his back. Unfair? Maybe, but we accept that a good reputation is essential for politicians for the same reasons. Leaders have to be as impeccable as possible (of course, we are all humans, so not ideal, but still.)
      From my perspective, we are hasty to dismiss the tradition and recommendations from the past, which often has reasons and logic behind them that we may not yet understand – and since they are just that, recommendations, that can be overruled, except for the two critical ones, we can afford to try to understand them before we rush to criticise. That doesn’t mean that they are immune to criticism, only that they should be understood first.

  2. Dear Observer in Christ, Thank you very much for your sincere comments, I appreciate reading it and you know, I personally agree with you. The idea of this article was to show the current situation in canon law, which is very very insufficient and should be revised many years ago and with the help of God, it will be done, because our Church needs it. The canons are not dogmas and can be changed for the necessity of the Church,

    What concerning converts, you know, Church history and practice knows the converts who were ordained bishop almost immediately after being baptized, for example, Saint Ambrose of Milan who became the Great Saint and the Father of the Church. Also, Saint Photios who was ordained the Patriarch from the laity. So, as we see there are some ancient rules, however the Church does not always abbey the rules, when it is useful. Sometimes, the so called converts has more wisdom and love to Christ than the “normal” Orthodox.

    I totally agree with you what concerning the wife things. Actress in ancient times was forbidden to be a wife of the priest, because the priests were forbidden to go to the theater due to erotic scenes and vulgarism. So, modern actress, I guess, do not match the ancient rules. As for the widows and 2nd marriage – I guess, in the nearest future the situation will be better. See, the example of the Constantinople Church, the history and the time will show if there will be the benefits of this practice.
    There are some saints, for example the neomartyr Gabriel, the Patriarch of Serbia was not against the 2nd marriage for priests. Also many bishops in Russia in the beginning of the XX century were agree that the 2nd marriage for young priests whose wife dies while parturition ( the number of such priests was very high) is a good and biblical solution. The ideal is one thing and ideal can be very beautiful and pious, but the Church life does not always correspond the ideals.

    I thing, that currently in almost all cases the Church concerns mostly two main obstacles for the priesthood – sex and being unbaptized.

    I hope that our Church will be always very attentive and faithful to the Gospel and will be striking against the spirit of pharisayl.

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