The Teaching of the Orthodox Church
One of the most emotional, moral and politically charged issues the United States (and the world at large) has dealt with over the last 35 years or so has been that of homosexuality and the rights of those citizens who have openly identified themselves as homosexual or gay. Statistically speaking, this group may comprise as much as 10% of the general population of the U.S. or as many as 28 million people. Even if conservative estimates for half that amount are more accurate, this group still encompasses a large number of people. My intent and purpose in writing this paper is to respectfully acknowledge the Orthodox Church’s teaching on this topic and yet at the same time offer my own thoughts and opinions. The latter will be based on readings on this subject, written most notably by Frs. Harakas and Hopko who express the Church’s teachings and view on this topic more eloquently and thoroughly than I ever could hope to do. But I may additionally offer some views from a social ethics perspective as well as some pastoral actions to be taken by say a priest or by fellow Orthodox Christians. My basic premise for doing so is that although I will restate the Church’s position on homosexuality, my ultimate (and the Church’s) concern are the people that are engaged in this activity or have identified themselves as homosexuals. In short, my concern is not the sin but the sinner.
The Church’s View and Teachings
The Church is very clear in its view on homosexuality. Homosexuality is defined as ‘an attraction to the same sex; sexual attraction to and sexual relations with members of the same sex.’1 There are numerous references in scripture with regard to same sex relations and sexual activity. Starting with Genesis 19 where there is reference to homosexual activity among the men in Sodom (hence the term sodomy), as well as in Leviticus (18:22, 20:13) which makes reference to the adopted ‘Holiness Code’ and the penalty for such an action-“If there is a man who lies with a male as those be with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act.” – was death. The Old Testament viewed sexual relations to be ‘normal’ as those between a man and woman (confined to intercourse facing one another) with the express purpose of the procreation of children. This view, thoughts and teaching continued to the New Testament as well with St. Paul writing the most extensively on this subject. He condemns male prostitutes and homosexuals in 1 Cor. (6:9-10), “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral nor the idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals (arsenokoitai), nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor robbers shall inherit the kingdom of God.” These two examples do show the evolution of the Church’s view on homosexuality. The Old Testament’s view is consistent with its ‘judgment and retribution’ (death penalty) ethos found in Jewish society in those times. The New Testament writing by St. Paul, reflects Christ’s teaching, where the ‘judgment’ consisted of a stern yet ‘tough love’ warning that these types of activities would prohibit you from ‘inheriting’ the kingdom of God. This evolution of thought and teaching is significant for it signals the importance of the eschaton and a genuine concern for the individual in a loving, outreaching yet solemn way. St. Paul’s writing is also significant because the activity of homosexuality is mentioned in the same context as other sinful activities and passions. I will address this ‘pastoral concern’ for the individual in the next section of this paper. The Fathers of the Church also wrote on this and expressed the same view and teaching that homosexual acts are immoral and wrong. The Didache, as well as St. Basil (Canons 35, 77), Sts. John Chrysostom, Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, John the Faster (Canons 9, 18) contain some of these writings as well as the 6th century code of Justinian and the Quinnisext Synod (Canon 87). In all the writings of the New Testament and of the Fathers, ‘there is no example of approval, acceptance, or even tolerance of homosexuality.’2 In fact, this is one topic that all Orthodox jurisdictions are in agreement on, as indicated in the 1978 SCOBA statement on homosexuality.
The Actions versus the Condition of the Person
Fr. Harakas cites a ‘balanced’ definition of homosexuality as – ‘a predominant, persistent, and exclusive psychosexual attraction toward members of the same sex. A homosexual person is one who feels sexual desire for and a sexual responsiveness to persons of the same sex and who seeks or would like to seek actual sexual fulfillment of this desire by sexual acts with a person of the same sex.’3 This speaks volumes on this subject from a specificity and pastoral aspect on this topic. Of particular note to me is that the homosexual is a person first and foremost and that the actions they commit are under scrutiny and thus sinful. This is a significant point in that the writings that have been cited thus far condemn the actions of people and in this way there is a ‘clear distinction between homosexual acts and a condition in a person attracting them to these acts.’4 In essence, these writings (as I mentioned in my introduction) aim their attention to the acts of people engaged in this type of activity. A nice summary statement that can be offered, ‘the Orthodox Church does not condemn the person who keeps this propensity (homosexuality) in check, and ministers to homosexuals who wish to find release from this inclination.’5 Again, this is significant because it points to the Church’s fervent desire to minister to those committing these acts. As is the case with other sinful acts and the combating of the passions there has to be a sincere acceptance that this behavior is wrong coupled with an equally sincere desire for correction thru prayer and repentance. I am reminded of Christ’s own words to the paralytic (John 5:6) ‘Do you wish to be made whole?’ Therefore there is a direct correlation between homosexuality, in the Church’s view, with adultery, fornication or any other sexually abusive behavior that is sinful. The definition cited by Fr. Harakas contains some key words in it that give us an insight as to how homosexuality and these other behaviors are viewed. In essence because homosexuality is ‘psychosexual’ therefore it is a combination of a mindset (that is contrary to Church teaching) that manifests itself in sinful sexual activity, just as the other sexual sins mentioned beforehand. They are all, as Fr. Harakas notes, passions, which we even though we are created in the image and likeness of God, because of the consequence of the Fall of Man, we now unfortunately possess. These sexual oriented passions are strictly dealt with and addressed as noted (Scripture, Canons, Patristic writings) because they are a threat to the Church’s major theme and teaching of marriage. Symbolic of its importance within the Church is shown by the fact that Christ’s first miracle was performed at the Wedding of Cana (John 2: 1-11), forever sanctifying the sacrament of marriage. Although marriage is not the choice of all of the members of the Body of Christ (choice of monasticism), there can be no doubt as to its centrality of importance within the Church and certainly to the only proper context of having sexual relations (for procreation). The bride and groom are joined together thru the sacrament and become one flesh much in the same way the ‘Church is joined to Christ’6. Even during the sacrament itself, they offer their lives to Christ, to each other and are symbolically crowned as martyrs.
Social Ethics of the Issue
The issue of homosexuality has indeed raised ‘up a notch’ the dialogue, debate amongst the citizenry of the U.S. who in turn have urged their representatives to compose and enact legislation. What has started out as an ‘equal rights’ movement, which was mainly concerned with discrimination (job, housing market) due to sexual orientation, the focus of proposed legislation for at least the last dozen or so years has been the acceptance of same sex unions in the same way that marriage is recognized by the State. This is obviously a concern not just to the Orthodox Church alone. The aim of this legislation is acceptance of their behavior. Fr. George Morelli, speaking at an O.C.A.M.P.R. conference at Holy Cross School of Theology in November 2006 states, ‘In our day, effort is being to create a moral parity between heterosexuality and homosexuality. Sanctioning homosexual marriage would go a long way in removing the moral prohibitions against homosexual behavior. Gay marriage advocates borrow the moral teachings and assert that they also apply equally to the homosexual. In other words, just as heterosexual activity is to be relegated to heterosexual marriage, so too should homosexual activity be relegated to homosexual marriage.’7 The position therefore being advocated by ‘gay rights activists’ is not just for acceptance of their ‘union’ in marriage, but acceptance of their behavior (sexual activity) as well. Why else would they specifically advocate that their ‘civil union’- which has been suggested to be the term used in legislation – be called marriage? I believe that is the case (and I am not alone) that the term marriage still connotes in our society the acceptance of a union hence the behavior that occurs within its context. The Church goes further than acceptance, stating that it is sacramental and therefore blessed by God. What is to be understood is that the Church is not condemning or discriminating against homosexuals but rather their activity which is considered to be against its teaching in the same way as other passions are. They are not considered as having lower value in the eyes of God, the focus is to be directed toward the correcting of the behavior and removal of the particular passion.
Social and Pastoral Action
The Church extends an open invitation to those who suffer from the passion of homosexuality. Admittedly, the Church could certainly do a better job with this group that exists within her flock, as well as reach out and embrace them as persons; with as much compassion as when dealing with other people who suffer from other sexual passions. The Church still considers these sexual behaviors as passions even in the light of recent scientific research that points to homosexuality in particular having a genetic origin as well. A study by ‘Camperio-Ciani estimates at this time 20% of the variance in sexual orientation can be attributed to genetic factors, while the other 80% await further specification and probably include other biological factors as well as social and emotional elements.’8 Although this scientific research points to a genetic origin or biological disposition to homosexuality the same argument can be made for heterosexual passions as well – adultery for example – where studies show that males are more pre-disposed to having multiple partners versus women. What can be said in both instances is that environment, upbringing and other social factors come into play (the other 80%). Hence there is a definite biological element as well as one of choice. There is definitely a biological and physical urge (bodily passion) that has an influence on the choice (our mind/spirit) one makes to engage in a certain activity. My point is, as well as I believe the Church’s, is that there is a cognitive decision (of free will) made by us to proceed to act out this bodily passion. This can be said for all the passions that are sexual in nature. From a social ethics perspective, to use Jane Jacobs terminology9, the ‘guardians’ of our society are charged with enforcing the laws of our country, thereby protecting all of its citizens including homosexuals that have been discriminated against. But at the same time, they also charged with (in the Byzantine tradition of symphonia), ‘to oversee public morals and to encourage the ethical, moral and spiritual development of its citizens.’10 This would signal to me that although the ‘guardians’ of our society are protecting all its citizens (regardless of their sexual orientation) they have an equal call to be faithful to the ethics and morality upon which our nation was founded.
I would like however to conclude on a compassionate and pastoral note. All of us can arm ourselves with spiritual weapons to combat the passions that present themselves to us, and at times overtake us and still at other times totally consume us. That is why the struggle against them is a life long journey and we are called to always be on guard and vigilant in this ‘battle’. The Church offers to us the ‘weapons’ to aid all sinners to overcome their passions and temptations. ‘These spiritual weapons include prayer, worship, reading of Scripture and patristic writings, fasting, Holy Confession, Christian fellowship, as well as pastoral and psychiatric counseling which should be used by all including those who suffer from homosexual tendencies...The Church should do this with the same compassion, love and sensitivity as it does with all others who struggle to overcome their passions and grow in Christ.’11 I think the spirit of the Church’s outreach (the pastor and the membership at large) and embrace should be as Fr. Harakas stated in the last part of that statement-with the same compassion and love, etc. It takes courage to do so since at times many ‘social stigmas’ may have to be overcome. One such stigma may even be the use of the term homosexual versus ‘same-sex attraction’ that Fr. Hopko uses in his book of reflections on that subject as well as the Courage movement in the Roman Catholic Church. ‘God does not make human beings homosexual….to live human lives of love through their complementary communion with each other on a physical, emotional, spiritual and sexual level…because of the fallen state of humanity some are subject to same-sex desires.’12 In this way one can understand that we are not born homosexual as we are of a particular skin color or gender. The key for us as Orthodox Christians is to embrace and respect one another and as being mutually created in His love. Then we can join together in our mutual struggle against the passions that beset our fallen world.
Official Orthodox Statements
- SCOBA's Statement on Homosexual Unions
- Statement from the Coptic Orthodox Church
- On Same-Sex Unions - Epistle of the Clergy of the Western Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (2004)
- The Canadian Conference of Orthodox Bishops Speaks Out on the Issue of Same-Sex Marriage
Articles from an Orthodox Perspective
- The Homosexual Christian - by Fr. Thomas Hopko
- Gays and the Orthodox Church: Can I still join the Church if I'm a homosexual? - Fr. Ted Stylianopoulos
- Homosexuality and the Church - by V. Rev. William Caldaroni
- Orthodoxy, Homosexuality, the NCCC and the UFMCC - From Holy-Trinity.org
- Homosexuality and the Church - by H.H. Pope Shenouda III, also available in PDF format (495k)
- Christianity and Homosexuality: Russians Speak Out by Srdja Trifkovic, August 17, 2000
- Gay ... But Not Funny by Fr. Joseph Huneycutt
- "I was in Hell" - A light-bearing post from Huw Raphael
- Considerations Regarding Proposals To Give Legal Recognition To Unions Between Homosexual Persons - from the Roman Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
- Straight & Narrow?: Compassion & Clarity in the Homosexuality Debate by Thomas E. Schmidt. InterVarsity Press: 1995. (ISBN 0830818588)
- Homosexuality: A New Christian Ethic by Elizabeth R. Moberly. James Clarke Company: 1997. (ISBN 0227678508) (Orthodox author)
- Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction: Eastern Orthodox Reflections by Thomas Hopko. Conciliar Press: 2006. (ISBN 1888212756) (Orthodox author)