An Orthodox Response to an Anti-Orthodox Defense of Gay Marriage

The following piece by Fr. John Whiteford is a response to David J. Dunn’s 2011 article “Civil Unions by Another Name: An Eastern Orthodox Defense of Gay Marriage,” which has been making the rounds on social media in the wake of the recent discussions by the United States Supreme Court concerning same-sex marriage. Fr. John has written extensively on the topic of same-sex marriage.

David J. Dunn’s article has been out for some time, and since I have engaged him on this issue on “Ancient Faith Today” as well as on my blog, I would not have bothered to write a specific rebuttal of it at this point, except that it seems that every time gay marriage resurfaces in the news, it again makes the rounds on Facebook and Twitter, and so a more direct, written response to this particular article is necessary.

Let’s begin with a consideration of the title of this article: “Civil Unions by Another Name: An Eastern Orthodox Defense of Gay Marriage.” Is it in fact an Orthodox defense of gay marriage? Well, not according to the disclaimer at the end of the article: “Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post belong solely to the author and are not representative of the Orthodox Church.” Unfortunately, you have to read this at the end of the article, while the title suggests that at the very least this is an acceptable position that is within the mainstream of Orthodox thought. So in what sense is it an Orthodox defense of gay marriage? David J. Dunn is certainly a member of the Orthodox Church, but his position is contrary to that of his own bishop, contrary to the stated position of the Assembly of Orthodox Bishops in North America, and contrary to the statement of every Orthodox Synod that has addressed this question.

David Dunn is long on assertion, but very short on citing anything other than his own opinion to substantiate what he claims. He asserts that those who oppose gay marriage are “misguided at best and sinful at worst.” He says that they misunderstand “the meaning of “holy matrimony,” effectively denying Christ by vesting the state with divine authority.” He says that they “seem to be worshiping America, or at least a certain idea of it…”; that they are vesting “the state with the power to sanctify,” and “effectively making the state their god.” So he would have us believe that it is completely Christian to champion gay marriage, force a fundamental rewriting of American Family Law on the American people, and open the doors to homosexual propaganda in our schools; but unchristian, sinful, and idolatrous to oppose it. But as for why we should accept his assessment, he provides us with nothing.

Those who oppose gay marriage are not vesting the state with the power to sanctify, they are asking the state to conform their laws with “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” as the Declaration of Independence put it. Marriage was established by God at creation. A state can only recognize the Truth of what God has established, and make laws that recognize and conform to it, or else it can make laws that suppress the Truth of what God has established, and are contrary to God’s established order. And there is a reason why the State has an interest in real marriage, and that is because heterosexual relationships are where babies come from, and babies are best raised in two parent homes, in which both parents recognize their moral and legal responsibilities to each other and to their children, and children in turn recognize their moral and legal responsibilities towards their parents. And so a just state will protect this God-ordained institution by, for example,  having inheritance rights for spouses and children when a parent dies, will enforce the responsibilities that parents have towards each other and their children, and will try to support rather than undermine the stability of that home. Gay relationships do not produce children, and so have no such issues that should be of concern to the state.

And is gay marriage in fact contrary to nature? Aside from the fact that the human body was obviously not designed with sodomy in mind, St. Paul described homosexual sex in precisely those terms: “For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due” (Romans 1:26-27). The Orthodox Church agrees with St. Paul, and so it is impossible for there to be an “Orthodox” defense of that which Scripture clearly declares to be inherently sinful in both the Old and New Testaments.

Furthermore, gay relationships are not at all analogous to heterosexual marriage. In the relationship between a husband and a wife, as God designed it, you have the complimentary qualities of male and female balancing each other, and it is only from such a relationship that human life is produced. On the other hand, homosexual men are notoriously promiscuous, [1] and homosexual women tend to be less promiscuous, but also to have much shorter lived relationships… and both tend to have much higher instances of suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse,[2] and (where they are allowed to marry) divorce.[3] This is also true in Western Europe, where homosexuality is far more accepted. The reason for this is because you do not have the attributes of a man balanced by those of a woman, and vice-versa, but instead have imbalances magnified by the fact that both partners are of the same sex.

Dunn furthermore asserts that “Strictly speaking, our theology does not recognize the legitimacy of such marriages [non-sacramental marriages].” This is complete nonsense. Marriage was blessed by God at creation, and so any lawful marriage is recognized by the Church—and by “lawful,” we mean in accordance with God’s law. Now when the law of God is brought up, we inevitably hear mention of the ban on shrimp in the kosher laws of the Old Testament. However, while God never pronounced judgment on the heathen because they violated the Old Testament ceremonial law, and ate shrimp; He did pronounce judgment on the heathen for violating the moral law of God that even they should have been aware of – which would include proscriptions against such things as the shedding of innocent blood, sexual immorality (specifically including homosexuality), abusing the poor and orphans, etc. (e.g., Leviticus 18:1-30 and Joel 3:19). Likewise, while the Orthodox Church has never tried to use the power of the state to enforce such things as fasting during Great Lent, it has always encouraged the state to use its power to encourage morality and discourage immorality, and to apply those laws even to unbelievers or non-Christians that might reside in such a state.

Furthermore, the canons of the Church recognize lawful marriages outside the Church. Canon 72 of the 6th Ecumenical Council, after stating that it is not lawful for a Christian to marry outside the Church, specifically recognizes “lawful marriages” that took place prior to a person entering into the Church:

But in case persons who happen to be still in the state of unbelief (i.e., infidels) and to be not yet admitted to the fold of the Orthodox have joined themselves to each other by lawful marriage, then… let them not be separated, in accordance with the divine Apostle: “For the infidel husband is sanctified by the wife, and the infidel wife by the husband” (I Cor. 7:14).

The difference between a marriage that is blessed by the sacrament of marriage, and a lawful marriage that occurs outside of the Church is not that one is a real marriage, and one is not. The difference is that a sacramental marriage has the blessing and grace of the Church, and so it can become a path to salvation. However, all lawful marriages are blessed by God at creation, and in all such cases, the two become one flesh, and are made to be such by God, according to the words of Christ Himself in the Gospel (Matthew 19:4-6; c.f. Genesis 2:24).

Dunn concludes his article by declaring:

Calling upon the state to protect our sacrament is an act of extreme unfaithfulness. Only God can make a marriage holy. Christians can continue to fight about what kinds of marriages “count” as sacred, but we have also learned to agree to disagree about such things. In polite company, and for the sake of keeping peace with each other (because mutual apostasies take so much effort), we can do with marriage what we do with our disagreements about eucharist and baptism: keep our mouths shut and let God sort it out in the end.

St. John the Baptist certainly seemed to think that believers had an obligation to speak out when people wished to live in an unlawful marriage. The Gospels tell us that he was imprisoned by Herod, because Herod had married his brother Phillip’s wife, and St. John publicly declared “It is not lawful for you to have her” (Matthew 14:4). Herod, being the King, was the civil law. He could do whatever he wanted according to secular law. But it was not lawful according to God’s law, and St. John didn’t think it was “extremely unfaithful,” “unloving,” “unchristian,” “sinful,” or “idolatrous” for believers to speak out and oppose those things which were contrary to that law. And there is nothing in either the Gospels or the Tradition of the Church to lead us to believe that the Church disapproved of his stance against Herod’s adultery, or that the Church thought he should have kept his “mouth shut” and just “let God sort it out in the end.” Furthermore, we have had nearly 2,000 years of Orthodox Church history since then, and the Church has always been in favor of having civil laws that promoted morality in society, and discouraged immorality.[4]

[1] For example, an Australian Study showed that of homosexuals under the age of 50, 26.6% had more than 10 sexual partners in just the previous 6 months; 44.9% had between 2 and 10, and only 28.5% had limited themselves to only 1. Throughout their lifetime to date, only 2.9% of male homosexuals had limited themselves to only one sexual partner. (Paul Van de Ven, et al. “A comparative Demographic and Sexual Profile of Older Homosexually Active Men.” Journal of Sex Research 34 (1997) 349-60 (and personal correspondence between Dr. Robert Gagnon and the authors of the Study. Quoted in Robert Gagnon,“The Bible and Homosexual Practice,”  Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001, p. 455.

[2] See Robert Gagnon,“The Bible and Homosexual Practice,”  Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001, p. 471-480.

[3] According to a 2004 Swedish study, gay men are 1.5 times more likely to get divorced that straight couples, and lesbians are 3 times more likely to get divorced.

[4] See for example, Novel 141 of St. Justinian the Great, which restated the long standing laws against homosexuality, and cited a desire to avoid God’s wrath as the primary motivation behind the law. Annotated Justinian Code, By Fred H. Blume, Timothy Kearley, Ed., Second Edition, University of Wyoming, 4/10/2013.

For more information on this:

  • You can listen to a dialogue that David Dunn and I had on “Ancient Faith Today.”
  • You can read my blog posts on this subject.
  • And you can read Fr. Lawrence Farley’s excellent rebuttal of this article.

Editor’s note: Our editor-in-chief Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick has also written a couple of pieces on the topic of same-sex marriage:

The Rev. Fr. John Whiteford is pastor of St. Jonah Orthodox Church in Spring, Texas. He is the author of Sola Scriptura: An Orthodox Analysis of the Cornerstone of Reformation Theology (Conciliar Press). His sermons are available as an Ancient Faith Radio podcast, From the Amvon.


  1. While I appreciate both the position of the Orthodox Church and the well-reasoned beliefs as set forth by Fr. John above (and our editor’s positions published elsewhere), I am curious about our acceptance of those state-sanctioned weddings that do not conform to Orthodox Christian teaching. For example, some states currently allow first cousins to marry, which is contrary to canon law (I believe – I’m not a canonist). All states allow Godparents and relations to marry, because states don’t recognize that relationship at all, while the Church proscribes those marriages. There are cultures where polygamy is not only legal, but encouraged. A Christian and a non-Christian can marry, although this is not permitted within the Orthodox Church.

    If we are to understand that the Church accepts lawful marriages, don’t we have to make a distinction between which lawful marriages we accept? And, if so, do we have the ability to not accept homosexual unions (regardless of nomenclature) within the Church?

    I suppose the central point of my question is the relationship between Church and State. My own position tends toward simply ignoring the state, because that is not my Kingdom. Yet, I still encourage responsible citizenship, and certainly express my personal opposition to homosexual marriage for the reasons both Fr. John and you have outlined. Do I have the right, though, to deny the will of the majority in how society behaves, as long as my rights to not recognize or endorse the marriage within the Church are respected?

    And does this extend to other aspects of life? Does the Church automatically recognize the civil divorce? Isn’t adulterous behavior criminal in the eyes of God? I imagine the Christian majority in our country would be perhaps iconoclastic. Are we prepared to give up our minority rights (and we are surely a minority!) in order to eliminate the ungodly behavior of others? What would be the distinction between legislating iconography and legislating the sanctity of marriage?

    Please forgive me if I offend – it is not my intent to do so. I am simply seeking to understand. Growing up in a protestant world I am not as adept as my brothers at understanding the Orthodox ethos in such matters.

    1. Even a marriage between first cousins, while contrary to the canons, is at least not contrary to nature. If you had a couple that converted to Orthodoxy, this would be a matter for the bishop to decide, but I suspect that the bishop would extend economia to such a marriage rather than break up a family. And as for marriages between those with a spiritual relationship, because of circumstances in some situations, bishops have given blessings for people to marry under such circumstances, because they may not live in an area were they have many Orthodox available singles of the opposite sex. And again, such marriages are not contrary to nature, and have the potential to produce life. Homosexual relationships are contrary to marriage.

      Even polygamous marriages are at least not contrary to nature, though if someone in such a marriage wishes to be baptized, we require them to separate from all but one spouse (as happened in the case of St. Vladimir).

      I know the OCA recognizes civil divorces, but the Russian Church (and I think most Orthodox Churches) do not. You have to have an ecclesiastical divorce and a blessing to remarry, in order to remarry in the Church.

      Adultery is still in crime in some places, and I think it should be. In the military, it still is, and they prosecute people who engage in it — my younger brother is JAG in the Air Force, and has been involved in such cases. They consider adultery to be a potential security threat, and a threat against good order and discipline. Until very recently, sodomy was also a crime in the military, and had been since the days when George Washington led the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War.

      If the majority of people in a given state want to legalize gay marriage, obviously, we will not be able to stop them, but there is no reason why we should not try to persuade our fellow citizens that this is a bad idea… and the article that I am responding to argues that it is unchristian for us to do that.

      1. Thank you for your reply, Father. My brother was a Naval Officer, so the military analogy rings true for me. I understand the “against nature” arguments and agree also. In the final analysis, I think we agree that as citizens, we advocate for what we believe in, but accept the decisions of a democratic republic (as long as we are not required to participate in them!).

    2. “For example, some states currently allow first cousins to marry, which is contrary to canon law (I believe – I’m not a canonist).” “Even a marriage between first cousins, while contrary to the canons, is at least not contrary to nature.” Its also not contrary to the Law of Moses. In fact, it seems to me it was the norm for Israelites to marry cousins.

  2. I found at least a half truth in Dunn’s piece.
    A lot of us Orthodox converts carry in baggage and vocabulary that lingers a long time. I don’t doubt that Dunn has heard Orthodox Christians echo Evangelical expressions like “the sanctity of marriage” as reason not to “allow” same-sex couples into the institution. If he listened to me, he’d hear echoes of natural law, which has a Latin accent.
    For reasons beyond the scope of a combox, Orthodoxy doesn’t seem to have a robust voice, accessible and clear to men and women of good will who aren’t Orthodox, on a full spectrum of public policy issues. I’m not entirely unhappy with that.

  3. Fr John, homosexual marriage aside, do you believe the state has an interest in regulating relationships of long-term co-habitation? If yes, what shape does this take? If not, why not?

    1. If a co-habiting couple stays together and raises their children as a family unit, they are married under the principles of English Common Law. If they do not stay together, but are able to deal with the issues of support and visitation without needing state welfare, or state intervention, then there is no state interest. However, in most cases in which the parents do not stay together, the state does get involved, and ends up telling each party what their rights and responsibilities are in the form of a child support order.

      I was just asked on Facebook if I realized that millions of children are now being raised by parents that are not married to each other, and here is my response (without the name of the person I responded to:

      “….not only do I realize that millions of children are born and raised without married parents, that’s pretty much all I deal with in my secular job… which is why I made the point. If you ever compare a child support order with a divorce decree, there are only two things different between them. A divorce decree does not usually reference a DNA test having settled the question of paternity… because legally that is presumed to be the husband, if the child was born during the marriage — though a husband can request DNA in such cases, if they have doubts on the matter. And a Child support order does not deal with the division of property between the parents. Other than that, they are identical. But I don’t think the State needing to settle these issues, and have a judge sign an order, that tells the parents what their rights are, and when they can and cannot see their children is handling the situation “quite well”. It is in fact quite dysfunctional, and I could tell you stories for some time of the examples I have had to deal with just today. Do you want the government to DNA test you, your wife, and your child, every time you have a kid, and then write up a court order to lay out your rights and responsibilities? I don’t think that would be a good alternative to the way marriage has been handled historically.”

      The bottom line is that if people do not use their freedom responsibly, the state eventually will take their freedom away, and tell them what to do. That is what happens in a child support order… and I deal with this pretty much every workday of the week. It is not a hopeful vision of the future.

      1. I actually was not thinking of common law marriage, but other somewhat common social relationships: roommates, monastics, etc. It seems to me that, quite apart from sexuality, there is a government interest in protecting such relationships from abuse or neglect. I am not making any claim to how such an interest might be structured. But I am thinking out loud that paternity does not seem to be the only government interest…

      2. I am very curious about this topic of marriage Father. You say that if a couple lives together for a certain period of time, they are married under common English law. But doesn’t the Church teach that living together is a sin and called fornication? At what time would this couple living in a fornicating relationship become one that is recognized by the Church?

        My son’s mother and I lived in sin for twenty years, and during that time we both agreed that we either needed to separate and live in different households, or at the very least live in separate bedrooms. We were both on a journey into the ancient faith at this time.

        We both committed to each other after about a year of dating, and then two years later we had our son and lived like we were a married couple, sharing all the expenses, raising our son et al. When we came across the Way, we found that we were really not fulfilling the will of God in our lives and that is when we were actually going to separate but still co-parent our son, so he would have both parents available to him.

        So my question is, when does sin stop, after seven years living together, ten years living together? Does the common law of a state take away the sin and bless the relationship due to the time factor that we have lived together?

        I think this is why so many are no so sure of, or even really care anymore, as I am sure you know from experience, many are now choosing not to marry but would rather live in the destructive fornicating relationship. How can we as followers of the Way even begin to tell others who want same sex relationships, that they are wrong when we don’t have the same chutzpah when it comes to a man and a woman living in a sinful, unsanctified relationship?

        In Christ,


      3. Obviously, for an Orthodox Christian under normal circumstances, a common law marriage would not be acceptable. However, it is a form of marriage. Legally, it is not just a matter of how long you leave together, but whether you present yourselves to the public as married.

        Even for Orthodox, however, there are instances in which a common law or civil marriage would not be sinful, and that is when you have no access to a priest. Many Orthodox Christian in China had no access to a priest after the 60’s up until fairly recent times. When they did, these couples did get married in the Church… in many cases after having lived together 30 or 40 years. St. Raphael (Hawaweeny) also spoke of these circumstances in his epistle to the American flock in which he told them to not attend or commune at Anglican or any other non-Orthodox churches. He wrote: “As to Holy Matrimony, if there be any parties united in wedlock outside the pale of the holy Orthodox Church because of the remoteness of Orthodox centers from their home, I direct that as soon as possible they either invite an Orthodox priest or go to where he resides and receive from his hands the Holy Sacrament of Matrimony; otherwise they will be considered excommunicated until they submit to the Orthodox Church’s rule.”

        In some remote villages in Siberia this is still an issue.

  4. So after reading this, the original, and Fr. Lawrence’s rebuttal and the comments posted thereto, it seems apparent that the whole controversy is inherently tied up with much larger issues concerning the relationship between the Church and the State, in particular the role that the latter plays or ought to play in the ordering of the overall social good. It seems that both Fr. John and Fr. Lawrence see the role of government in a more positive light. Thus when Fr. Lawrence says things like “we urge the State to help feed the poor,” I am not sure I agree; certainly we are ourselves urged to feed the poor, but I am somewhat concerned about this notion of “urging the State,” seeing as, at the end of the day, it is not a person and does not have any moral agency. I know that Fr. John in particular is highly opposed to the Welfare State on both moral and practical grounds, so clearly he does not believe in the moral arbitration of government on a general level. The question then being, what is the difference between calling on the State to maintain marriage norms and say, welfare programs or progressive taxation? How about the legality of abortion? Divorce, sodomy, or polygamy laws?

    Overall I think the “Natural Law” direction with regards marriage is an interesting and perhaps very useful one, so long as it is, as Fr. Lawrence points out, not conflated with either the purely secular institution of “civil unions” on the one hand or the rightly sacramental bond within the Church and specific Christian Revelation on the other. In any case, I think a very clear understanding of what the State can cannot do or say about matters of public life is desperately needed, especially in a time where a word like “Rights” is thrown around in just about every corner without so much as a whisper as to what it actually means.

    1. If you are married, but then you die, and your wife and children survive you, the state has to decide who gets to inherit your home, car, and money. Marriage laws settle that, if there is no will in place. Without them, and no will, every such case would end up in probate court… and so again, rather than having the state less involved, you would end up with it more involved.

  5. One of the strengths of the Orthodox Church is the idea that what I think doesn’t matter a lick. I am to follow the teachings of The Church, my Bishop, etc. So sad to see Mr. Dunn follow the Roman and Protestant line of…”who cares what my Church thinks, what I think is blah, blah, blah…and what I think is what matters.”

  6. I would just like to ask for clarification on what is meant by “natural law” and “nature”. Are we talking about the sort of categorizations of species and gender as we find in Genesis, or does this refer to nature as understood from a biological and evolutionary perspective? Because that makes a world of difference when we are talking about gender issues in the church. And, just as the conundrum of women priests, homosexuality and the church seems to stem from a particular understanding of sex and gender.

  7. Regarding common law marriages: I seem to recall that the kind of situation to which Fr John refers also existed in remote villages in Alaska in the time of St Innocent. When he made pastoral trips around Alaska he would bless the unions of couples who hadn’t had a priest available in ages.

  8. Can an Orthodox Christian or an Orthodox Christian Priest attend a gay wedding without it being a sin?

  9. I am not qualified to say, but in my reading, I encountered the following canon, which may be helpful: “Council of Neocæsarea (A.D. 315)

    “. . . .

    “Canon 7

    “A presbyter shall not be a guest at the nuptials of persons contracting a second marriage; for, since the digamist is worthy of penance, what kind of a presbyter shall he be, who, by being present at the feast, sanctioned the marriage?”

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