71. Orthodoxy and LGBTQ – Part 1

Back in the 1930s my mother, an intelligent well-read small town professional woman, had heard of “homosexuality”. When she was in her 30s she finally asked my father what it was – and could scarcely believe it.

Times have changed.

I trust you know what LGBTQ means. If not, look it up. I think I understand except for Q which used to be an extremely derogatory term for G, which is a replacement for H, which I hope is not derogatory. Nomenclature changes too.

And let me say here at the beginning that I dislike designating any individual solely or even chiefly by his or her sexual predisposition. We certainly don’t describe heterosexual persons this way.

The Church’s Principles

Lest there be any misunderstanding, let’s also be clear about 2 things: 1 In obedience to Our Lord’s command, we must be compassionate to all people. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The Orthodox Church does not approve of sexual relations outside of heterosexual marriage. Neither of these are going to change.

Some of what follows now is the Church’s teaching. Some is just obvious. Some is my opinion. It’s your job to separate it all out! If I say anything unkind or inaccurate, please correct me.

Yes, times have changed, and rapidly.

I guess the chief evidence of this is that 3 years ago the United States Supreme Court ruled that all states must recognize same-sex civil marriage. This would have been unimaginable not so long ago. When I was young, homosexuals were shamed and even prosecuted. 25 years ago I had never heard of gay marriage. Now gay marriage has become legal everywhere, and with no big fuss. Homosexual and trans-gender themes are common in the media. These days to say homosexuality is not completely acceptable is often considered offensive, even tabu.

In 2000 35% of Americans favored gay marriage. Today, not 20 years later, about 65% of Americans favor it – over 70% of those age 35 and under, and over 60% of Republicans of that age! As of 2014 70% of Roman Catholics believe homosexuality “should be accepted by society” – and 62% of Eastern Orthodox (!), almost as many as “mainline Protestants”, despite forceful statements by the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas. (All these statistics are from Pew Research – http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/12/18/most-u-s-christian-groups-grow-more-accepting-of-homosexuality/)

Three American Protestant denominations (the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the ELCA Lutheran Synod) now bless gay marriages and ordain practicing homosexual clergy, while others are edging up to it.

What has caused this change in attitude?

I’m no sociologist, but here’s my guess:

1 As I said before, gay themes are now all over the media, whether in news or movies or TV programs – emphasized way out of proportion, I think. This has had a massive impact on public opinion. It is very hard not to go with the flow. Now it is those who disagree who are made to feel ashamed of themselves.

2 Individualism. In recent times in America there has been ever more tolerance for “doing your own thing”. “Things” which once would have been kept hidden now come out in the open, are even flaunted. “Gay Pride Week”, for example.

3 Compassion for human beings. Some, apparently through no fault of their own, have strictly homosexual inclinations. Should gay people be condemned to a life of private loneliness? And should those whose interior identify, through no fault of their own, doesn’t match their body be denigrated?   

4 Secularization. Americans, especially younger people, are turning away from Christianity. About 23% of Americans now say they have no religious affiliation. “Why?” is a subject for another time. But honestly, folks, given the state of Western Christianity today I’ve wondered: Were I religiously unattached, would I now be drawn to an organized church? Jesus, yes! The Orthodox Church, yes! if I could find it and figure it out. But I’m wandering… 

What the Church says about homosexuality

Let’s go back to the Pew Research poll and the question: Should homosexuality be  “accepted by society?” That is a rather misleading question, for it concerns tolerance, not necessarily personal approval. One may hope so, for the Orthodox Church teaches that homosexuality is disordered, not in accord with what God wills, as we’ll explain below. The Church condemns homosexual relations. However we do not reject people who have homosexual identity or tendencies. Nor should we reject people of whatever sex who want to be together strictly for the sake of companionship and support. And, by the way, the Orthodox Church certainly doesn’t disapprove of affection between people of the same sex. I’ve never seen so many men hugging and kissing (Eastern style, without sexual connotation) as since I’ve become Orthodox! And I’ve become one of them. It has caused me to feel closer to male friends than I have before. This is a good thing.

Why the Church’s teaching about homosexuality? Because, for those of us who believe that mankind is not an accident but rather created by God (whether quickly or slowly, no matter), it is self-evident from our physical makeup that man was made for woman and woman for man. Genesis 1,2, Mark 10, Matthew 19  Nor can homosexual relations fulfill one of the chief purposes for which sex was created: the procreation of children. Therefore we conclude that homosexuality and homosexual relations are disordered. Is homosexuality “sinful”? Yes, but let’s use that word very cautiously, lest others misunderstand. Sin (“amartia, ἁμαρτία) in the New Testament means “failure” or literally being “off the mark”, not what God intends. Being off the mark does not imply personal culpability, unless the “sin” is purposely chosen.

A good friend of mine who is gay, having read my earlier writing about this elsewhere, commented, “You’ve got to say what your Church says.” No. This is what I believe. I think it’s self-evident.

A short history of the Church’s teaching about homosexuality

Some people oppose homosexual behavior because “that’s what the Bible says”. Indeed it does: Old Testament Law required death (literally) for homosexual behavior.  Is that what we really want?

Homosexuality is definitely not a major theme in the New Testament. Christ never mentioned it – perhaps because disapproval of it was taken for granted in Jewish society? However, homosexuality was rampant in the Empire, and surely His followers were (or in the future would be) aware of this. If this had been one of His first concerns, why did He not say something about it? He was very specific about the evil of other sins. Matthew 25:31-46. 

The Apostolic Council in Jerusalem Acts 15 clearly said Christians need not adhere to Old Testament Law, but they retained the condemnation of “sexual immorality”.

In Romans 1, Saint Paul described homosexual relations as “against nature”, as one of the many ways * in which mankind has turned away from God’s purposes. He mentioned it again only in 1 Corinthians 6:9–10 and I Timothy 1:9–10. In I Corinthians 6 he explains why all sexual relations outside marriage are wrong. It’s because of the fact that sexual union creates spiritual union, whether “participants” believe it or not, though most do understand this. Therefore going “all the way” sexually (as they used to say) should be the natural expression of commitment that goes “all the way”, namely in marriage. I think one of the reasons many modern lives seem so disoriented and unfocused is that people have been torn apart spiritually by sex with multiple partners.

  • Please note that Paul equally condemns “wickedness, greed, maliciousness, envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness, gossips, backbiters, haters of God, [the] violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful”. (He gets more positive later!) Nowhere does he suggest that sexual immorality is worse than the other kinds. I wish conservative Christians would get equally agitated about the immorality of greed and ignoring the poor and lack of mercy. And cruelty and taking innocent little children away from their parents – and don’t let me get started on that. You get my point.

Some of the Church Fathers seemed especially concerned about homosexuality – perhaps because of the difficulty of keeping their vows of celibacy in an all-male community? I’m just speculating. I’m no expert on the Fathers.

How should the Church deal with homosexuals?

Why some people are tempted to homosexual relations, who can say for sure? Many say the tendency has been “built in” to them. If so, is this similar to those who have a “built in” tendency or temptation towards drugs or anger or greed, for example? Many homosexuals say it goes deeper than that, to the core of their self-identity in a way that other passions do not. In any event, no one should be condemned or rejected because of their passions. All should be welcome in the Church, so long as they are trying to fight against their temptations, as I hope we all are – even if they fail sometimes, as we all do. If sinners are to be excluded from the Church, only the Lord Jesus and his Mother will be left.

All who are trying to overcome sin (“off the mark”, remember) deserve our support, and forgiveness if they fail and repent and try again. Dealing with homosexual temptation seems to be particularly difficult, especially in today’s culture which almost glorifies it. (Again we can say exactly the same about greed, which is so glorified in our culture that it doesn’t even occur to many Christians that it’s a sin.) I don’t doubt that struggling valiantly with sexual temptations has turned some people into saints, made them holy.

The only people not welcome in the Church are those who say that sin is not sin.

You might want to read a short insightful book on this subject by the late Father Thomas Hopko: Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction  

How will the “homosexual revolution” affect society?

This will be a short section. No one knows. This is a new thing under the sun, at least since ancient times. Same sex marriage was legalized for the first time in history in the Netherlands in 2001 and in Massachusetts USA in 2004. At least 25 countries now permit it.

Will gay marriage be a threat to heterosexual marriage? Again, no one knows. I doubt it. Heterosexual marriage is not being abolished, nor are heterosexuals being forced into gay marriages! So far as I can see, the great threat to traditional marriage and family is from the many heterosexuals who have sex and children outside marriage, who cheat on their spouses and who divorce easily and often – and I wish people would get more worked up about all that. A cynic might say that homosexuals will now be able to devalue marriage in the same way many heterosexuals do.

Episcopalian Bishop Gene Robinson and spouse, who divorced in 2017: from “The Living Church” magazine

I hate to pause on this note, but this is getting too long. So…


Next Week: LGBTQ, Part 2. We’ll start with the difference between civil marriage and Christian marriage – of which many Christians seem to be unaware.

Week after Next: We’ll begin the conclusion (I’ll bet you thought it was never going to end) of our series on Orthodoxy and Other Faiths – Modern Protestantism and how it got this way.


5 thoughts on “71. Orthodoxy and LGBTQ – Part 1

  1. Wow, as usual this article gives me much to consider. There’s been so much uproar lately about developments in the Orthodox community that it’s good to hear a sound, calm perspective. Thank you!

  2. Thank you, Father Bill. I was almost scared to read this post after reading other Orthodox blogs! My daughter is bi-sexual and I have struggled for many years about this, and people who are transgender. I”m a middle school public school teacher and have had students confide in me. I finally came to the conclusion: love them all and let God sort it out. I also try to focus on my sins, not others. It ain’t easy.

    1. Yes. To love people doesn’t mean we need to agree with them or their decisions or their behavior. That doesn’t mean we are compromising what we believe, or even what we believe they should do. If that were the case, Christ would never have come to save us “while we were yet sinners”. And when he got here, the only people he beat over the head were the proud unloving Scribes and Pharisees. P.S. I was expecting more negative reactions to the last post. So far there have been none.

  3. Fr. Bill,

    Thank you for your honest and sincere discussion of this issue. I’d like to comment on a few points in your article where I think things are a bit more complex than they first appear.

    1. I agree that “LGBTQ” has become increasingly unhelpful as a seemingly endless string of letters continues to be added. However, we must remember that naming something is a powerful thing as it denotes a common and shared experience. I also dislike describing a person chiefly by their sexual orientation, yet it does have a use. We don’t ever describe heterosexual persons this way precisely because they are the majority. One would never speak of “heterosexual identity” because it is already the experience of the vast majority of people. LGBTQ has value in that it helps people describe their experience as a minority within society and identify one’s self so as to find others like themselves.

    2. This is more trivial but I think still important to point out. I don’t think you intended this, but you describe the number of people who believe homosexuality “should be accepted by society” and then note that “62% of Eastern Orthodox (!)” agree with this. The “(!)” seems to suggest this is both surprising and wrong/unfortunate. However, just prior to this you said that when you were young homosexuals were shamed and even persecuted. Surely society accepting the existence of gay people is far better and Christians should support that? You correct this later on by stating that the question is misleading, but it would have been wiser to lead with that.

    3. When you speak about the change in public opinion……what precisely should public opinion be? Later on you try to draw a distinction between gay people and their sin, yet here, and in the previous poll questions you cite, the question is about gay people generally. Should society generally have a negative view of gay people as such?

    4. You mention that ‘“Things” which once would have been kept hidden now come out in the open, are even flaunted.’ This again suggests that you think society shaming gays is better than the situation today.

    5. You wonder what people would think of a “Straight Pride Week.” If you research the origin of Gay Pride it began as a commemoration of the Stonewall riots, a protest against the persecution of gay people. There has never been a need for a “Straight Pride Week” as straight people have never had to fight against discrimination due to their sexual orientation. This may seem a minor issue in our country today, but in many countries it is only recently that anti-gay laws have been overturned. In many Muslim countries gay people can still be, and often are, sentenced to death. Recently in Uganda, severe anti-homosexuality laws were passed at the urging of Christians churches, by which gay persons can be sentenced to life in prison (lessened from the original law that called for the death penalty). In Russia severe anti-gay laws have been passed with the noticeable silence of our Orthodox clergy.

    6. In speaking about the Scripture I think that you error in saying “Christ never mentioned homosexuality.” Properly speaking, neither Christ, nor the NT, nor the OT actually speak of “homosexuality” as such, because it is a modern concept that involves one’s sexual orientation. Scripture speaks of sex acts only, there is was never a sense that persons could be either straight or gay, heterosexual or homosexual. There is a lot of evidence that suggests in the ancient world homosexual acts were seen simply as an excess of lust. The disorder was in that the person, being so extremely lustful, was incapable of being satisfied with only the opposite sex and turn to the same sex as well.

    7. St. Paul’s discussion of homosexual relations being “against nature” can be read in a similar way. The vast majority of “homosexual” activity in St. Paul’s day (I use scare quotes because it was homosexual sex, not necessarily homosexual orientation) was fundamentally abusive in ways I won’t go into here. Sparta is a good example. Furthermore, if people would take the time to read ancient penitential manuals they might be surprised to learn what else falls under the rubric of “against nature.”

    8. Next is what I deem the most problematic paragraph in your article. 

You state “Why some people are tempted to homosexual relations, who can say for sure? Many say the tendency has been ‘built in’ to them. If so, is this similar to those have a ‘built in’ tendency or temptation towards drugs or anger or greed for example? Many homosexuals say it goes deeper than that, to the core of their self-identity in a way that other passions do not.”

    When you say, “tempted to homosexual relations” you’ve already made a key move that often happens in these discussions. Homosexuality gets turned from a sexual orientation into sex. For instance, this would be like saying that heterosexuals are not really attracted to the opposite sex because they crave the intimacy of romantic relationship, want to find a partner in life, to marry, make a family with, love and cherish etc. etc. No, heterosexuals just want to have sex with someone from the opposite sex. Obviously it would be foolish to say this. In the same way, being gay is not just a ‘temptation to homosexual relations.’ 

Rather than “many” you should say “almost all” homosexuals understand their homosexuality as something innate, over which they do not have control. Likewise, it does touch self-identity. Simply saying “many” suggests there is a debate or various opinions that simply do not exist among gay people themselves. For all of these reasons drugs, anger, and greed are the worst possible things to compare homosexuality to. One can have a passion of lust that tempts them to fornicate, but that is equally true of heterosexuals AND homosexuals. Homosexuality is not a temptation to homosexual sex, it is a general attraction to the same sex. That is a VERY different thing.

    It is obvious from the previous comments in your post that you have a high view of the importance of gender and the importance of sex as something more than an act of pleasure. I entirely agree. As a result of those two ideas it should be clear that sexuality MUST touch the very core of self-identity. Most straight people have never had to carefully consider the role that their sexuality plays in their identity because being part of the majority it goes wholly unnoticed. If you really take the time to carefully consider the course of your life these things can become more clear. Consider all of your parent’s expectations for you, that you would one day marry and give them grandchildren. Consider society’s exceptions for you, even today it becomes increasingly strange if you’re in your 30’s and not married, or at least dating. Consider growing up and going through puberty, bonding with your peers, talking about girls and going through the trials and tribulations of dating. Then imagine for a moment that all of that was annihilated from the first moment, because you always knew you couldn’t be what your parent’s wanted, you couldn’t follow the path society so neatly seemed to lay out for everyone else, and you could scarcely relate to your peers because you either always saw how different you were, or were reminded by them about it constantly.

    I could keep going but I’ve already gone on too long.

    Again, I appreciate your sincerity. I hope these comments are helpful as you continue thinking about the topic.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. That’s a lot to reply to! (1) I wish people didn’t now feel the need to identify anybody’s sexual “identity”. (2) By the “!” I meant only that I was startled when I saw the statistic. Still am! (3) I wish public opinion were simply that people are people. (4) and (5) I grew up in the 1950s. I wish many things which, since the 1960s, have been flaunted were still dealt with quietly and discretely. (6) I agree entirely. (7) Yes! (8) Do you mean “romantic” attraction to the same sex? Is this the same as “sexual” attraction? How is this related to general personal attraction? Speaking for myself, I find many people of both sexes personally attractive and love them dearly, but I can’t imagine having a romantic attraction to anyone but a woman, and I find even very few women sexually attractive. (Thank God my wife fits all 3 categories! or I would not have married.) Where do we draw the distinctions here? As for some of the rest of what you say, this also is an example of how times have changed. When I was young, there were in the 2nd generation before me usually a number of offspring who never married. Was it because they were gay? shy? content by themselves? ? Who knows? It just was, and so far as I could tell nobody thought much about it one way or the other. Now, as one young woman friend said to me when I was in my late 20s and still single, “If a man is 30 and not married, it’s because he’s gay”. Balderdash. Last, I also appreciate the sincerity of your comments and have listened to them more closely than my short answers would indicate.

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