In his book Contemporary Ethical Issues: An Armenian Orthodox Perspective *, Professor Vigen Guroian writes: “The ancient world did not possess a concept of fixed sexual orientation. In other words, the ancients did not speak of the alternatives of heterosexuality and homosexuality. This form of speech emerged fully only in the 19th and 20th century. In early Christian thought, the temptation to engage in homosexual acts was simply taken to be a part of the sinful human condition. It was assumed that all men and women are in jeopardy of falling to that temptation.”
* You can find the book online, or do it the easy way as I did: Google “same sex marriage saint george orthodox church”, then scroll down a little way to this section. Dr. Guroian has authored many books, including a lovely one – Inheriting Paradise: Meditations on Gardening.
This may open up to us the classical Orthodox approach to this issue, which like all things Orthodox is grounded in the mindset of the ancient world and the early Church. Should we stop categorizing individuals and see them as just people? Should people stop categorizing themselves? Is this possible today? (I’m just wondering.) We Orthodox are not against people, whoever they are. We are against sin, being “off the mark”. We are in favor of people overcoming sin, for the sake of their salvation.
Now, before getting on with Part 2 of this article, if you have not done so please read Part 1. Never begin anything in the middle!
Civil Marriage and Christian Marriage
Please distinguish these carefully.
Civil marriage is an institution for the ordering of society, grounded in civil law.
Christian marriage is not primarily a social institution or contract but a sacrament, a Mystery (μυστήριον) of the Kingdom of God – leading us into the mystery of the Kingdom, showing us and allowing us to live something of what the Kingdom is like. Christian marriage is grounded not in the values of society nor on the U.S. Constitution nor on equal rights, but rather on the Tradition of the Church and the teaching of Holy Scriptures.
Christian marriage is designed to be an image, a microcosm of the eternal love shared by the God-Man Jesus Christ and Holy Mother Church – Christ the Bridegroom, the Church the Bride. It is a training ground for God’s eternal Kingdom of love. The husband is to play the role of Christ, out of love forever pouring out his life for his spouse. The wife plays the role of the Church who responds to his love with her unending love. Ephesians 5, Revelation 21 This does not at all fit the popular modern roles of women and men. It isn’t intended to. And if in time the popular relationship of men and women changes again, Christian marriage will remain the same. * Same-sex marriage destroys this Christian symbolism and purpose. (So does divorce, by the way.) This is perhaps the chief reason why same-sex marriages and unions are not blessed in the Church. However, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t support the drive for women’s rights in civil society. I certainly do.
- While we’re on the subject, read the beginning of the Church’s wedding Epistle (Ephesians 5:20-33) very carefully. Paul says not only that the wife is to be subject to her husband, but that they are to be “subject to one another”. Some years ago a woman from a “Bible church” came to me saying that her husband was abusing her and her children, and she had gone to her pastor who told her, “He’s your husband. Be subject to him.” I told her to take the kids and get out of there as fast as she could. I think if the husband refuses to play Christ, the wife is not obligated to play Church.
How will the “homosexual revolution” affect the Church?
I think very little, if at all.
When I was Episcopalian years ago, I reacted to the homosexual movement defensively and perhaps nastily, for there the Tradition of the Church on this matter was threatened – and now indeed has been abandoned. But the Holy Orthodox Church does not bend with the winds of the times, whether they blow from the left or from the right. This is the house built on the Rock. Matthew 7:24 So far as I know there is no organization promoting the acceptance of homosexuality or gay marriage in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Therefore I think we Orthodox Christians should be able to handle this change in secular society circumspectly, without over-reacting.
The Church is not required to perform same-sex marriages. In fact, the decision of the U.S. Supreme Court specifically protected us in this matter: “The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.”
In this country, clergy of all religious groups act as agents of the state when we perform marriages. (I have always thought it odd that clergy perform civil marriages in a country where there is no “established church”, where the state has no commitment to a Christian understanding of marriage.) If Orthodox clergy should someday be required to officiate at same-sex civil marriages – and I don’t think this is at all likely – the solution would be for us to stop performing all civil marriages. Orthodox brides and grooms would then first get a civil wedding just as they now obtain a civil marriage license. (Maybe they could have that little civil wedding by the seashore or wherever, as some want!) This would keep everything legal in the eyes of the state. And then they would come to church to have a big Church wedding which would be celebrated just as it is now.
When gay rights and religious freedom conflict, will there be pressure on individual Christians to conform? On these things, civil law is unclear. If this should happen, Orthodox Christians certainly know from our history how to handle difficult times and situations. We know how to be counter-cultural. We can handle it.
How should we Orthodox relate to people who identify themselves as gay or trans-sexual?
The same way we relate to everybody else. We are commanded by our Lord Jesus to love and do good to everyone, whether we approve of their beliefs and behaviors or not. I mean, I don’t avoid Indian restaurants because their owners are Hindus – only if the food isn’t good. So long as they seem honest and competent people in other respects, what difference should that make to us? Orthodox Christians lived for centuries in Muslim societies that allowed polygamy. American Christians have long been living in a society that, contrary to Christ’s specific teachings, has ignored many of the poor and sick and homeless, and has glorified greed. I think we can handle living in a society that rejects Christian standards about sexual behavior, too.
Saint Paul’s advice to the Christians in Corinth is to the point here. There had been immoral sexual behavior in that church, and he had told them not to “associate with sinners”. By this he had meant: Preserve the Church’s disciplines; don’t be in communion with Church members who teach or do anything contrary to Christian standards. The Corinthians had misinterpreted this to mean that they should avoid contact with all sinners and pass judgment on those outside the Church. Paul corrected them: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men, not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world entirely. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother [a Church member] if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, or verbal abuse, a drunkard, or a robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the Church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside.” I Corinthians 5 When I was in Greece one time, the mayor of some city had just married a gay couple from western Europe. When the local bishop was asked for his reaction, he said (this is not an exact quote), “What business is that of ours? They’re not Christians.” On the other hand, some bishops have reacted quite differently.
So should Orthodox oppose or favor same-sex civil marriages? Which is better for the stability of a non-Orthodox society? Or maybe what does the least harm to society? Or is it maybe none of our business? Yes, please comment below on this!
Note that Paul again lists greed, drunkenness, thievery, verbal abuse and the like in the same category as sexual misconduct – another indication that we should be careful not to isolate sexual misbehavior as the only kind of sin or as the worst.
However, we should now take special care to avoid being influenced by the bad behaviors of the “world”, and should very carefully teach and warn our young people in this matter.
The Church and the World
Christ “came into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.” John 3 Nor is it our job to condemn the world or to condemn individuals – we who at every Divine Liturgy confess that we are the “chief of sinners”. We Orthodox must be extremely careful not to form a defensive, “bunker” mentality towards the world around us. “Circle the wagons, men!” No. Ever since Eden, the world has been both glorious and horrendous. The wheat and the weeds have been growing together, as they will till the “harvest”. Matthew 13:24-30 I’ve lived long enough to see that when something goes wrong, suddenly something else goes right, and vice versa. Our mission is not against the world but to the world, to reach out to people, as Christ did, and try to bring them to the Church, to God and his righteousness.
Regarding same-sex marriage, our work now as Orthodox Christians in our society is to promote traditional heterosexual marriage and family life positively. We do that not by chastising others, but by having solid “attractive” Orthodox Christian marriages and families that are filled with love, faithfulness, devotion, piety, kindness and joy.
Or to put all this another way…
The Church has been called a “hospital for sinners”. We welcome any who want to get well, who seek to overcome temptation and sin of whatever sort, and grow in love and goodness. That’s why we’re all here. Remember how repentant sinners, prostitutes and tax collectors flocked to Jesus, and how gently he dealt with the woman caught in adultery, saying simply “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more”.
But the Orthodox Church is not a “hotel for sinners”. All of us who come here must be willing to humbly learn from the Church and her Tradition and repent and try to become spiritually healthy, even though it’s difficult. But if we are to be a sign to the world that there is a better and higher Way, the Church’s standards must be maintained. Despite us sinners, they always have been, and they always will be.
The Next 2 (at least) Weeks: the conclusion of our series on Orthodoxy and Other Faiths – Modern Protestantism and how it got this way. Oh, help! This is extraordinarily complicated.