Married or Celibate? The Evolution of the Views on the Celibacy Rule for Orthodox Bishops

In the Russian Church tradition, bishops have historically been drawn from monastics, and rarely from the Ryasophore monks*. Conversely, in the Greek tradition, Ryasophore bishops have been more common. Yet, in the ancient Church, bishops could be celibate or married. How did the views on the celibacy of the episcopate evolve?

The early period: from the first to the fourth centuries

The Apostle Paul himself did not rule out the possibility of marriage for a bishop: “Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach” (1 Timothy 3:2). The apostle also spoke highly of marriage and even drew parallels between a married union and the union of Christ with His Church (Ephesians 5).

Yet, in these apostolic times, the idea of marriage in priesthood had multiple opponents, and some faithful even disdained marriage as such. The apostle spoke out strongly against these views: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth.…” (1 Timothy 4:1-3).

The question of marriage in priesthood was also addressed in the Apostolic Rules, and the answer was consistent with the views of the Apostle Paul:
«Let not a bishop, presbyter, or deacon, put away his wife under the pretence of religion; but if he put her away, let him be excommunicated; and if he persists, let him be deposed.» (Canon 5)
«If any bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or any one of the sacerdotal list, abstains from marriage, or flesh, or wine, not by way of religious restraint, but as abhorring them, forgetting that God made all things very good and that he made man male and female, and blaspheming the work of creation, let him be corrected, or else be deposed, and cast out of the Church.» (Canon 51)

Thus the apostles were not opposed to marriage in general – or married bishops in particular. There is little doubt that some of the apostles also had families. For example, the Gospel Synoptic Gospels mention the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law (see Mt 8:14-15, Mk 1:29-31, Lk 4:38-39).

Simultaneously, Christ (cf. Mt 19:11-12) and the apostles (cf. 1 Cor 7) also spoke in praise of celibacy. Although they never put celibacy above marriage, they saw celibacy was the preferred lifestyle for a clergyman. As the Statutes of the Apostles affirm, it would be best for a bishop not to marry. Later in history, as we shall see, episcopal celibacy gradually became the norm.

The second period: from the fourth to the sixth centuries

The fourth century was a remarkable time in the history of the Church. Religious tolerance came to reign, and the persecution of Christians ended in the Roman Empire. Christianity became the Empire’s official religion, giving the Church unprecedented freedom for its growth.

In the fourth century, religious and spiritual life blossomed, giving rise to monasticism, which became a way for many to strive for the evangelical ideals of asceticism. Monasticism began to influence all aspects of church life to the point that the laity was adopting monastic customs and rules. In Byzantine, it became common practice for spouses to separate by mutual consent when they reached old age and their children grew up, and on separation, both went to live in monasteries.

Marriage was still permitted for bishops. But, understandably, their number was dwindling. Unmarried bishops were increasingly being preferred. Yet even among married bishops, there were great saints, e.g. St Gregory of Nazianzus the Elder and St Gregory of Nyssa.

The rule of celibacy for bishops was also brought up at the First Ecumenical Council. For some time, the position of a strict ascetic and celibate, Bishop Paphnutius, prevailed. He said: “Do not place an excessive burden on the ordained: marriage is honourable and the bed is pure. Let us fear that too much austerity might cause harm to the Church, as not everyone can accomplish the feat of celibacy.”

Yet, controversy arose in everyday life. As stated previously, celibate bishops were preferred and were thus treated wth more respect. Bishop Antoninus of Ephesus divorced his wife before his ordination, but eventually began to live with her after the event and even had more children. When this fact became known to the patriarch, John Chrysostom, Antoninus was deposed. In all probability, Antonius was not an isolated example.

The rise of monasticism strengthened the tendency to ordain celibate bishops.

Third period: the 6th century and onwards

Justinian’s Novella of 528 reads: “Ordination of bishops must be done in strict observance of the rule that an otherwise worthy candidate will be unmarried and childless, and be attached to the church as others would be attached to their wives, live in celibacy and treat the people of the Church as his children”.

The above tendency became most pronounced in the 7th century, as reflected in the 12th rule of the sixth Ecumenical Council:
«If any bishop, presbyter, or deacon, or any one of the sacerdotal list, abstains from marriage, or flesh, or wine, not by way of religious restraint, but as abhorring them, forgetting that God made all things very good and that he made man male and female, and blaspheming the work of creation, let him be corrected, or else be deposed, and cast out of the Church.»

However, monastic tonsure never became a formal requirement for the episcopate. A bishop was free not to take monastic vows, and if he did not, he was tonsured to the Ryasophore.

Formally, the Ryasophore is a degree of monasticism, but tonsure to the Ryasophore does not necessitate the taking of the vows, and a Ryasophore monk is free to leave a monastery at any time to return to the world, take administrative positions, marry, and have children. As we stated in the introduction to this article, in the Russian Church tradition, bishops are commonly chosen from the monks of the minor schema, while in the Greek tradition, more bishops come from the Ryasophore monks.

It is hard to say why. There are multiple theories, but all are grounded in hearsay and assumptions, but not on the hard facts.

In rare cases, bishops may advance from the minor to the greater schema. However, that typically happens towards the end of their episcopal ministry, the greater schema means withdrawal from the management of the diocese and concentration on solitary prayer.

Conclusion

Technically, marriage is not prohibited for bishops. Married bishops may still be ordained when needed. Despite the occasional mishaps with monastic bishops, they are more exceptions than the rule. Yet the bishop-monk betrothed to the Church is still the ideal image of a shepherd of the Church.

Admittedly, celibacy is not a suitable life choice for everyone (see Matthew 19:11-12), but the episcopate is the highest church office. So it is reasonable to expect those willing to take it to disregard its discomforts.

The married episcopate was restored in the Renewal Church, a quasi-religious organization under the patronage of the Soviets. Yet the innovations of the Renewalists were more political than a real religious. The main goal of the Renewalists was to be separate from the canonical Church.

The Catholic churches that broke away from Rome (e.g. the Old Catholic churches, Apostolic Episcopal churches and some national churches) enjoy full freedom regarding celibacy at all levels, as a reaction to the strict celibacy rule at the Roman Catholic Church.

In the Orthodox church, the return to the married episcopate is not on the agenda. Attempts to bring it to review at the Local Council of the Russian Church in 1917 failed: the Council judged it to be of too little importance.

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* There are three degrees in Orthodox monasticism — the rasophore, the minor schema and the great schema. Bishops of the Russian Church were always drawn from the most experienced monks of the minor schema. Great schema monks are barred from performing any obediences other than prayer, while the Ryasophore monks do not take formal monastic vows, which explains the low number of both among the bishops.

About the author

John Malov,
Reader, theologian, member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team.

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