The approach I took in writing this essay might be perceived by some as an ultimatum. I hope my decision to be utterly transparent and painfully honest will be seen as an opportunity for dialogue rather than defiance.
As I began to compile these questions, most of my thoughts were aimed towards the challenging decision of whether or not to write such an essay. The Church, as the arbiter of doctrine, can often be quite unforgiving to questions of belief. The dogmas of our faith do not allow much room for division of assent; instead, the Church exerts upon its faithful the mandate to succumb to the authority of Tradition, in all its forms.
I feel, in order for me to maintain communion, I must, on most occasions, seek to jealously guard the questions I have about the Church’s theological and liturgical responses to pertinent social issues. My decision to include in this essay those questions about my faith that I usually strive to keep hidden has made me feel completely anxious about how my image as an Orthodox Christian will be affected. However, I have taken comfort in the knowledge that the pursuit of truth is noble.
A colleague at The State of Formation, Tim Braun, recently published an article about how he publicly left during a homily at Mass on the contentious topic of abortion and how the Church can remain pertinent at time when it is more necessary than ever. I have to be honest; I was inspired! This action resonated with me, in a metaphorical way. Leaving the Church over something that is morally, intellectually, or conscientiously deplorable is a bold action. The more stories I hear in the news about Priests and Pastors denying LGBT parishioners the opportunity to participate in the Eucharist and political candidates saying that homosexuality makes G-d want to vomit, the more I feel the need for bold action.
My wife and I have been discussing such a powerful action for a little over a year, since the pregnancy and birth of our daughter, Sophia. However, we have been asking ourselves at what point are we no longer in communion with our Church, particularly because of the ideological, moral, or theological differences we hold about homosexuality?
Instead of leaving the Orthodox Church outright, we have absconded to a pedestrian religious life that boasts a mediocre participation in the Holy Sacraments and life of the Church. This transfiguration has been gradual. It began with personal discussions after each Divine Liturgy. Each discussion, however, ended with the acknowledgement and frustration that the Church has not substantively addressed its approach to the social issues that are of importance to our faith. However, this article is about reasserting my voice into a topic and discussion that needs perspective.
Therefore, I would like to pose a few questions, in this post, about homosexuality and the salience it has for the 21st Century Orthodox Christian Church.
This article is more of a microcosmic electronic post to a virtual Wittenberg church door. This is a debate in which the Church needs to participate. The Church needs to provide a sound rationale, based upon Scripture and Tradition, for continuing to deny members of the LGBT community access to full participation in the Sacraments.
Based upon my understanding, I do not see a historical or Scriptural reason to continue doing so. In the Orthodox Church, we often discuss “tradition” in two ways: Tradition and tradition. The “big T” traditions are those that cannot change; they are established by Ecumenical Councils throughout history. These are concepts of our faith such as the Incarnation, the Transfiguration, Soteriology, and the Trinity. These are fundamental to Orthodox Christianity.
The “little T” traditions are those that can be discussed, challenged, and changed. Therefore, if the Church wants to make the systematic refusal of participation in the life of the Church for the LGBT community a “big T” tradition, they need to answer a couple of questions. If the answers to the following questions prove that the aforementioned is actually a “little T” tradition, the Church needs to welcome our fellow lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons into full communion with the Church.
The questions to which I would like to have some answers consists of determining the Bible’s message to the Church about homosexuality, given the incomplete and isolated mentions of homosexuality. I think that one would find it difficult to argue that there is consistent opposition to homosexuality in the Bible, in any modern sense of the word.
In fact, I would argue that the modern concept of homosexuality is only in the Bible twice, both times it is presented positively: David and Jonathan’s relationship and Jesus and the Beloved Disciple’s relationship. Nowhere is there specific mandates about not participating in a loving, committed relationship with someone of the same genitalia.
It seems as though Orthodox Christians pick and choose the texts from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that they think will justify their positions biblically. One of the most often quoted proof-texts come from the Holiness Code in Leviticus. 18:22 – 20:13. The text says, “Do not lie with a man as one does with a woman.” The underlying importance of this “Holiness code” is the fact that the Hebrews were trying to separate themselves from the surrounding Canaanites. This is the time when they were “becoming” the chosen people of G-d. The surrounding cultures were very similar and many participated in homosexuality; it was an acceptable practice. It seems to me that the “chosen people of G-d” were simply trying to change their behavior as a way of looking different than everyone else.
However, two passages earlier we are commanded not to have sex with a woman while she is menstruating. Both of these claims have the same force of holiness. In fact, men were supposed to wait seven days afterwards before having sex, mostly because the women were considered ritually unclean and not allowed in the camp during menstruation and seven days afterwards. I think it is difficult to choose one of these commandments to make Orthodox Christians follow and not the other. The Church needs to either mandate both or neither one of them. Rather, should we not look at this passage as something that served its purpose for that time and it is no longer socially or theologically relevant to Orthodoxy?
Another text is about Sodom, in Genesis 19:1-11. Most Orthodox Christians know the story. The townspeople wanted to rape Lot’s male visitors and eventually G-d destroyed the city. Aside from the fact that most Orthodox fail to even discuss the fact that Lot, the person G-d was willing to save, was all too willing to pimp/prostitute his underage daughters to an angry mob, who would have no doubt gang-raped them.
The Orthodox want to use this story as justification for condemning homosexuality. Would it not be more appropriate to see this story in relation to power and not homosexuality? Nowhere does the text mention that G-d destroyed the city because two people, who love each other, are committed to one another in a sexual relationship. The story does not address a same-sex relationship, but rather it is about a group of people who want to force a sexual act on an unwilling participant. I wonder if the moral of the story we are supposed to take away is one that states that G-d will not tolerate the dehumanization of the minority (male visitors) by the majority (angry mob) rather than a condemnation of homosexuality?
In the New Testament, there are primarily three instances of Scripture that are used to justify the condemnation of homosexuality by the Church. The first consists of Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 1:26-27, wherein he discusses the “unnatural” and “shameful lusts” of the Romans. During the First Century, there was a practice that many participated in called pederasty. In Greek culture, it was an honorable and accepted practice that society valued very highly. Basically, it was a teaching mechanism used to educate boys—it included an erotic component wherein the men had sex with the boys. It included a specific etiquette and rules from which the participants could not deviate. Those who did deviate from the rules and etiquette were typically outcasts.
The Greek word Paul uses here to discuss those who have violated the rules is the same word used in other Greek texts for this type of man. He uses the same words in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 – arsenokoites (male prostitute) and malakoi (lack of Roman masculinity). He could have used another, easier word but he chose this word. Could we not argue that this is the type of sex and “unnatural” relations about which Paul is talking? He is definitely not talking about two consenting adults in a committed relationship. Could we not see this request as an attempt to convince the Romans to stop violating the real rules of the game, and stop raping the children and stop resisting giving them the educative, spiritual element that they claimed pederasty provided–in a healthy, non-sexual way?
There is no doubt that Paul is aware of pederasty, particularly the stories in Homer’s The Iliad about Achilles and Patroclus. The context of the passage, when understood in light of an uncommon word usage, indicates that Paul was referring to pederasty; this is seen in the fact that Paul spoke of “shameful lusts” and being given over to “unnatural” relations. I see the unnatural aspect to which Paul is referring (when seen in the context of the passage and interpreted in light of other extra-biblical sources that employ the same language) as the deviation that pederasty in particular fosters. In other words, Paul is not saying “stop having consenting-adult same-sex relations,” but rather he is saying “stop asserting your sexual dominance.” It seems to me that Paul was more concerned with the violations of the power differential than he was with the Greek’s cultural expression of same sex behavior.
Moreover, could we also see this passage as saying that the created order is that homosexually oriented persons should have sex with those who are homosexually oriented and heterosexually oriented persons should have sex with those who are heterosexually oriented, which is natural? The “unnatural” would consist of homosexuals engaging in heterosexuality and heterosexuals engaging in homosexuality? Could it be that the natural order is for a person to follow how they were oriented? Is committing “unnatural” acts to purposefully disobey one’s created order an act of defiance towards G-d, which is what Paul is actually condemning?
I am not arguing that the Bible or the Apostle Paul is in favor or would ever support our understanding of homosexuality. I am simply saying that what we understand homosexuality to be is not in the Bible. Period! It has not been addressed substantively by the Church or the Bible. Therefore, should we not acknowledge that the Bible is unclear, at best, on what to make of same-sex behavior, particularly for a 21st century understanding of homosexuality? Would not doing so enable the Orthodox Church to have a constructive dialogue with the LGBT community about their role and participation in the Orthodox faith? This provides us with the perfect opportunity to see that with whom Christians have sexual relations does not dictate the path of or the destruction of our salvation.
What does seem to be a clear about the connection between the Bible and same sex behavior is that we should not see it as an abomination, but rather it presents a message about not exercising sexual power over others. To separate yourself from those that do, and be hospitable to the various peoples of G-d. I cannot help but find it ironic that this is exactly what we do as Orthodox Christians. We try to exercise our heteronormative sexual power and authority over others, the exact thing that the Bible is clear about us not doing.
Rather than literally walking out on the Church, I have metaphorically departed from the Church’s “homily” on homosexuality. My questions do not lead to an ultimatum. I am not leaving the Church. I love the Orthodox Church. I love its Traditions and its traditions. I want to challenge the Church to move in the right direction. However, I do not believe that I am challenging a Tradition, a fundamental component of our faith. I think that if we believe something that is not justified by our Traditions or our traditions or even mandated by our Faith, we should reevaluate it and make the necessary changes. Homosexuality is this tradition. We should change this tradition that exists because of historical and social rigidities. With whom a person has sex is not pertinent to Theosis or their becoming like G-d.
If Orthodoxy does not change its approach to homosexuality, it risks becoming irrelevant just like the Pharisees. It is going to lose the opportunity to share the Gospel. I would like to see the Orthodox participate in a constructive dialogue with the LGBT community rather than every conversation beginning with their non sequitur that participation in the Sacraments is prohibited by those who are not heteronormative.
Joni and I want our daughter to know a Faith that proclaims, as does Paul in Galatians, that “There is neither Jew nor Greek [nationality or race], there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female [there is neither homosexual or heterosexual]; for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus.” We will continue to ask questions and progress towards Theosis. We, as Orthodox Christians, need to depart from the Church’s ‘homilies’ on homosexuality until they recognize the importance of changing traditions in ways that promote and further the Gospel rather than diminish its power.
P.S. I do not speak for the Orthodox Church and I do not speak for the LGBT community. These thoughts are my own.
Image taken from Wikimedia Commons, a “media file repository making available public domain and freely-licensed educational media content.” The link to this image can be found at: