In the wake of recent Supreme Court ruling Obergefell v. Hodges—legalizing same-sex “marriage” in all fifty states—a conversation among Christians regarding both potential consequences and the appropriate response has ensued.
There are also conversations taking place between Christians and non-Christians as to the role of faith in the public square as it relates to marriage.
Opposition, Not Hatred
One dimension of these conversations is the question of how Christians have historically treated homosexuals, and whether or not there is any new data informing a potential change in the Christian response.
Those who consider themselves “open” and “affirming” claim that traditional Christians have long oppressed or mistreated homosexuals or those enduring the temptation of same-sex attraction. They indict Christian dogma—e.g. that homosexuality is a sin—as being in some way unjust or wrong, thus feeding attitudes that are inflammatory towards those with a homosexual orientation. The fact that homosexual relationships are seen by the Church as defective in significant ways is judged as unfair or hateful.
This perspective is often accompanied by the conceit—sometimes implicit but often explicit—that the enlightened progressives (over and against the Church) have finally come to see the light and recognize homosexuals as fellow human beings, created in the image of God and deserving all “rights” and dignity that entails.
It is true the Church affirms the sinfulness of homosexuality, affirms the sacramental nature of Christian (one man, one woman) marriage, and opposes the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples. However, the idea any of this amounts to devaluing homosexuals as people, denying their humanity or dignity, or even that the Church is especially condemnatory of this particular sin (and not others) is rarely seen—and yet is often asserted by the progressive opposition. And when it is asserted, the assertion falls flat.
There is Nothing New Under the Sun
Homosexuality is not a twenty-first century phenomenon, as such assertions would have us believe.
And there have been no scientific or otherwise discoveries related to this temptation that undermines anything about the traditional perspective of the Church on the issue.
In mercy and wisdom, the Church has offered healing of the sexual passions for over two thousand years. She knows all of our desires and struggles all too well, and is more than well-equipped to handle them—should one be willing to make use of what she has to offer.
What is relatively new—as recent as the nineteenth century, in fact—is the idea of homosexuality (and heterosexuality) as natural “orientations.”
This conceptual shift is a novelty. Human beings are not defined by illicit objects of desire or sinful passions (thanks be to God). These desires and passions are mutable, and by our cooperation with God’s Grace in the life of the Church they can be tamed, conquered, and re-oriented to a proper end.
And still, homosexuality—that is, sexual acts between members of the same sex, and the desire for same—is not anything new.
The holy scriptures, both old and new testaments, condemn these acts and desires, and our Lord Jesus Christ re-affirms traditional, Christian marriage as a blessed mystery (effectively condemning all other aberrations of “marriage” himself). But the picture of a Church that simply shuns, chases away, or demeans anyone who falls into this sin (or temptation) rings false in light of our tradition.
In his Exomologetarian (seventeenth century), St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite interprets the disciplinary canons of St. John the Faster.1 Commenting on canon eighteen—which prescribes a penance for sodomy—St. Nikodemos remarks that a manuscript codex of St. John draws distinctions for this particular sin. One of those distinctions is between marital sodomy and sodomy outside of marriage:
[T]he married couple which falls into that which is against nature [i.e. sodomy], is penanced more heavily than a sodomist committing it upon another man or upon a woman who is not his wife.
This is revelatory in two ways.
First, within the context of St. Nikodemos’ interpretation of other disciplinary canons, sodomy isn’t given a particularly significant attention or condemnation. The penance prescribed is comparable to other sexual sins, such as heterosexual fornication.
And secondly, it’s notable that a married couple guilty of sodomy is penanced more strictly than a man who commits the same act with another man.
The Church is absolved of upholding any double-standard here.
This highlights for us as Orthodox Christians that sin is not what human beings are. Rather, sin is a movement away from what we truly are—that is, icons of God in whom we have our being, continually called into a more intimate communion in Him. And this is a calling towards non-being; towards what we are not. To wholly locate our “identity” in such movement is death.
Another testimony can be found in the life of blessed Seraphim Rose.
Once a practicing homosexual, Fr. Seraphim found repentance—not only for that particular sin, but also for everything else in his life—and converted to Orthodox Christianity under the patronage of St. John of San Francisco. He later established a monastery in Platina, California, living a beautiful life wholly dedicated to serving the One True God. The influence of his writings reached even into Soviet Russia, being a tremendous encouragement to many Christians during times of great uncertainty and persecution. His grave site at his monastery (St. Herman’s) is now a site of pilgrimage, and his spiritual sons carry on his legacy to this day.
Orthodoxy and Aberration
To be fair to those who offer critiques of the Church on this issue, their criticism is almost wholly launched at contemporary, western Christianity. They generally aren’t aware of Orthodoxy—though if they were, they’d note we are in full agreement with western Christians regarding the sinfulness of homosexual activity, not to mention the unique, Christian perspective on marriage (one man, one woman).
Since the Reformation, and especially since developments in the Protestant world throughout the twentieth century2, there has been a “privatization” of the marital bedroom such that the prevailing, popular notion is that once a couple is married, anything goes. And in some cases, even the prohibitions on pre-marital sex are judged to be “out of date” and “unrealistic” to expect of our young ones.
In the face of such aberrations, the Orthodox Church’s non-double-standard with respect to sodomy—as seen with St. Nikodemos above—is eclipsed. That there are unnatural and illicit desires even for the married is something not commonly known or recognized in contemporary Christian circles.
Of course, for those who think the scriptures and an unbroken, sacred tradition on this point are flat out wrong (for whatever elusive reason), none of this will matter. For these so-called progressives, anything less than the “equality” of both sin and sacrament is unthinkable.
Nevertheless, perhaps the examples above will open eyes to see that the caricatures of traditional Christianity are false. Homosexual sins are not vehemently railed against while heterosexual sins are excused.
There are churches in America that have obscured this truth through their own failures—Westboro Baptist in Kansas, for example. And it’s a common temptation to condemn sins we ourselves are not afflicted with more harshly than our own, these are aberrations of the Church and not authentic expressions of the tradition.
The genuine tradition of our holy Church is that she calls all men and women to repentance equally, offering the means to conquer our passions. To conquer passions that blind us to the fact that all true identity is not found in those desires, but rather in the God-Man Jesus Christ.
- Tenth century, which take as their basis the apostolic canons, and the canons of both Ss. Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa, ca. fourth century A.D. ↩
- I’m thinking particularly here about the Lambeth Conference in 1930, where Anglicans approved birth control, as well as the “sexual revolution” more broadly, not to mention its impact on other mainline denominations. ↩