Gay Marriage and Eastern Orthodoxy

crown-2The historical and cultural context of the Eastern Orthodox Church has meant that She has not had to grapple with many of the same questions as Christians in the West.

The instability of the West following the barbarian invasions, together with the role that the papacy played in bringing some measure of religious and political stability following the fall of the Western Roman empire, virtually guaranteed that theologians throughout the West would have to explore an array of political questions — including questions about the appropriate relationship between Church and state.

By contrast, the relative stability of the Eastern Roman empire during the early Middle Ages, and the subsequent isolation of Eastern Christians in lands dominated by Islam, has meant that Orthodox theologians have never been forced to struggle with these same types of questions, at least not to the degree they have in the West.

However, this is changing.

With the widespread immigration of Orthodox Christians to the New World throughout the twentieth-century, and more recently the rise of converts to Orthodoxy from other Christian traditions, the Church is now having to address new issues that were never before on the radar. However, this can be a challenge since there is not a large body of literature to draw upon from within our own tradition. As a result, it is to be expected that there will be some confusion, and that Orthodox Christians will arrive at a variety of different conclusions on contemporary political issues. This is why, as Orthodox Christians, we must face these questions head-on as they arise, asking what wisdom our tradition might be able to provide. It is up to us to draw from the rich teaching of our tradition and apply these principles to the new and unfamiliar territory of the modern world.

The issue of gay marriage is no exception. As Orthodox Christians, there can be no doubt that gay relationships are contrary to the created order, and to marriage as a sacrament/mystery as understood by the  Holy Fathers. However, it is less clear how we should respond to the political questions being raised by gay “marriage.” Since we are not called to use the state to impose Christianity on the world, is it even legitimate for Orthodox Christians to oppose same-sex “marriage?”

In order to answer such questions — and to help Orthodox Christians think coherently about these and related questions — I have written a number of articles on the subject. In these articles I have been interacting with Christian thinkers (both Orthodox and non-Orthodox) who embody a number of perspectives on gay marriage. I wanted to make these resources available to Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy readers, as one small step in the process of our collective journey towards a genuinely Orthodox mind on contemporary political issues.

The first article is one that I wrote for Christian Voice titled, Why Gay ‘Marriage’ is a Public Threat (part 1). In this article, I interacted with Frederica Mathewes-Green, who has raised some legitimate questions about whether or not Christians should be involved in anti-gay activism. I suggest that although our calling as Christians is not to force everyone to act in ways consistent with Christian morality, the move to legalize gay “marriage” represents a public threat that, in the name of Christian charity, should be resisted.

Drawing from the experience of nations that have already legalized same-sex “marriage,” my article shows that any government legalizing same-sex “marriage” is saying something about the relationship of government to every marriage and family. Gay marriage is thus a public concern, because it affects not only homosexuals but also the rest of the population.

In the follow-up article on the same topic, I continue my response to Frederica Mathewes-Green by demonstrating that Christians will directly suffer once gay marriage is introduced. Just as we should be concerned if a president instructs his army to burn down monasteries — and just as we should do everything possible to prevent such a tragedy — so we ought to be concerned with laws that will remove our freedom to practice Christianity in the way embodied by our Orthodox faith. It is true that many people do not realize how same-sex “marriage” will lead to the persecution of Christians, but in the article Why Gay ‘Marriage’ is a Public Threat (part 2), I have demonstrated why this is not an empty concern.

Even so, some Orthodox figures have questioned whether opposition to same-sex “marriage” is legitimate, given the necessary separation of Church and state that our tradition seems to affirm. Just as Tertullian asked what Athens and Jerusalem have in common, so many Christians are now asking: “What does sacramental marriage of the Church have to do with the civil marriage regulated by the state?”

On the surface, this argument is compelling. After all, if marriage is one of the Church’s sacraments — so the argument goes — then marriage outside the Church is not sacramental and therefore not really marriage at all. But if so — the argument continues — then we shouldn’t really be concerned about governments debasing the meaning of marriage, as civil marriages have nothing to do with religious ones. This is an attractive line of reasoning  because it promises to make the Church immune to the artifices of secular government, suggesting that religious marriage and civil marriage occupy what we might call “Non-overlapping magisteria.”

In my article Can Ecclesiastical Marriage Be Separate From Civil Marriage?, I have tried to demonstrate that this position is not only false, but also un-Orthodox. Building on the excellent article that Fr. John Whiteford has already contributed to O&H, I argue that although it is possible for there to be a complete separation between civil marriage and sacramental, this is a scenario that, as Orthodox Christians, we should not welcome.

Still — some may wonder — is there really a lot that Orthodox Christians can say about gay “marriage” that will be persuasive to  those who do not hold our theocentric worldview? The impasse of communication that persists in the gay marriage debate has left some Christians suspecting that genuine dialogue with unbelievers about the meaning of marriage is futile. The thinking tends to run: If someone doesn’t share our Christian worldview, there isn’t much we can appeal to when defending traditional marriage. Moreover, why would it make sense for the other side to listen to us, given that they don’t share the worldview that gives rise to our understanding of marriage in the first place?

This seems to be the position towards which Peter Leithart and other writers at First Things are leaning. I have attempted to articulate the problem with this position in my Colson Center article Gay Marriage and Creational Realism. In this article, I argue that underlying Dr. Leithart’s approach is a radically nominalist view of creation. The spectre of Nominalism is never far from even the best Protestant theology, and is particularly potent in the reformed tradition to which Leithart generally belongs. In the case of gay marriage, an implicit nominalism is seen in the turn from teleology towards a type of divine constructionism, in which ethics are reduced to a competition in creation between the wills of both God and man. In Gay Marriage and Creational Realism, I have tried to demonstrate that once a nominalist framework is operational (even on an implicit level), all we can do is retreat from the public conversation, or else make a nuisance of ourselves by trying to enter the public conversation armed only with handfuls of Scripture references.

But what might a realist (i.e., a non-nominalist) approach to the gay marriage issue look like? This is a question I have tried to answer in my three-fold series on the meaning of marriage that I wrote for the Colson Center earlier this year (2013). Because my argument is dense (so I have been told), I will not attempt to summarize, but will simply include links to the articles:

Finally, I have attempted to bring the discussion up to date in my recent assessment of the winners and losers of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on gay marriage.

One thing is certain: this issue is not going to go away. All the more reason why it is crucial for Orthodox Christians to develop a prayerful and thoroughly Orthodox approach to these important questions.


  1. I will try to read these articles, but in the meantime, can you give any insight as to what we should encourage gays to do, instead of seeking stable relationships in marriage? As an Orthodox Christian with several gay family members and friends, I’m trying to place myself in their shoes and see this issue from their perspective. The fact is that gays are not going anywhere and they are going to seek relationships, *permanent* relationships even, just like you or I would. What is the loving thing to do, then?

    We know the power of sexual attraction and its deep place in the development of healthy human beings. And I understand, if a Christian struggles with this, that we encourage them to channel that energy towards God and to bear their particular cross. But surely we don’t expect non-Christians to do such a thing? The rate of gay suicide should be a clear indication that not having intimate relationships can destroy a person. If we are going to put our foot down and tell our gay family and friends that we will actively oppose any sort of civil protection or encouragement for stable relationships, what do we give them instead?

    1. That is a tough question. What can we do? We can blast them with fire and brimstone as the Protestants or we can show them love and charity as Orthodox. But, what love and charity will they see as honest and healing, for them?

      I can only say that I have taken the approach with two ladies, I know. as what I consider love and charity. The three of us had a long intimate conversation about church and homosexuality. I could tell the one woman was looking for a church that would support her homosexuality. Her partner, on the other hand, admitted she knew what she was doing was wrong and had no interest in attending church, for fear of bringing God’s wrath upon her. The first woman was raised as a Roman Catholic and the latter a Southern Baptist.

      In our conversation I told them point blank that the Orthodox Church sees homosexuality as a sin. I then reminded them that my sins were much worse than theirs and the church is there to heal all sinners, so they should come to Liturgy.

      The one woman came a few times and with the exception of receiving the Eucharist she was welcomed as any other. When she realized there would never be an opportunity for her to receive the Eucharist, while in the state she was in, she wandered off to one of the local Lutheran Churches which have “open communion” and outright support homosexual relationships.

      They are still friends of mine, and I think they respect me for not blasting them with fire and brimstone and showing them they are welcome in our church. I think showing them they would have to deal with their sins just as everyone else deals with their own sins made the difference. They made their choices, but at least one of them got to witness the Divine Liturgy in all its glory. I am sure that will weigh on her spirit more than any fire and brimstone talks or anything I could possibly think to say.

      I know this probably doesn’t answer your question, but I guess love of those made in the image and likeness of God is paramount. In the words of St. John Kronstadt, “Never confuse the person, formed in the image of God, with the evil that is in him; because evil is but a chance misfortune, an illness, a devilish reverie. But the very essence of the person is the image of God and this remains in him despite every disfigurement.”

      1. Thank you, Donald, for a thoughtful reply. I agree wholeheartedly. We should love our gay neighbors and invite them to experience Christ in the Church. I just think that gets complicated when we take an active stance against them, for reasons that I personally don’t feel are valid.

        Despite the author’s thoughtful posts, I don’t understand how the ontology of marriage is in any way altered by what one specific government, in one time and place, decides to do with it as a social reality. Was the ontology of our planet Earth altered when Pluto was deemed to be no longer a planet? Of course not. The sheer reality of marriage, that we hold to as Orthodox Christians, can in no way be changed if two men or two women enter into a social contract with each other, that grants them the same legal benefits that we receive as married people from the state. And on the other hand, our ontological reality before God as married people would in no way be threatened if the government no longer recognized marriage as a social entity.

        The point of non-overlapping magisterium doesn’t really matter unless we assume what we allow or define somehow changes ontological reality. A rose is a rose by any other name, and all that…

  2. The historical record does not make it clear that any State that endorsed same-sex marriage has ever influenced what the Orthodox Church (or the Catholic Church) has taught about the Mystery of Holy Matrimony. I specifically think of the Roman Empire as I type this. Emperor Nero had two gay “marriages,” one in which Nero himself as the bride, and another to a teenage boy in which Nero was the husband. Yet, I see no evidence that the Roman celebration of gay “marriage” had any lasting effect on the Christian theology about Holy Matrimony.

    We may be persecuted; however, there is so much spiritual filth in American Christianity and Western Christianity generally, that a temporary period of persecution may be the only tool God has to purify His Church. Just like the Middle East, we Orthodox and Catholic Christians may have to pay the price once again for the crimes of Protestants. Israel was exiled in Babylon for a period of 70 years before her captivity was ended by Cyrus. Russia was persecuted by the atheistic Communists for 74 years before the Soviet Union was consumed by St John Paul II’s ideological Kulturkampf.

    It is not homosexual persons themselves generally who would use the gay marriage struggle as a reason to persecute Christianity; rather, this is the atheists. The atheists though will find themselves sharing the same fate as the Russian Marxists.

    1. The question is not whether a State that endorses same-sex marriage will influence what the Orthodox Church teaches about the Mystery of Holy Matrimony. The question is whether the state can change the relationship between the holy sacrament and the wider culture. And here the historical record is clear: in Canada, once same-sex ‘marriage’ was legalized, ecclesiastical marriage underwent a shift with respect to its contextualization in the wider society.

  3. One must believe that the legalization of gay marriage will bring the judgment of God upon our country if we view things spiritually versus merely politically and legally. St. John the Forerunner did not take an apathetic attitude towards King Herod’s illicit union with his brother’s wife. Sts. Irenaeus and Justinian both believed that the practice of homosexuality came with dire (even eschatalogical) consequences:

    St. Irenaeus:

    “Watch ye therefore, for ye know not in what day your Lord shall come.” [In these passages] He declares one and the same Lord, who in the times of Noah brought the deluge because of man’s disobedience, and who also in the days of Lot rained fire from heaven because of the multitude of sinners among the Sodomites, and who, on account of this same disobedience and similar sins, will bring on the day of judgment at the end of time (in novissimo); on which day He declares that it shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah than for that city and house which shall not receive the word of His apostles. (Against Heresies Bk. 4.36.3)

    St. Justinian the Emperor:

    For, instructed by the Holy Scriptures, we know that God brought a just judgment upon those who lived in Sodom, on account of this very madness of intercourse, so that to this very day that lands burns with inextinguishable fire. By this God teaches us, in order that by means of legislation we may avert such an untoward fate.

  4. The connection between defending same-sex marriage and nominalism is actually quite interesting. I have increasingly found it to be the case that most of us in the post-“Enlightenment” period, including Orthodox, hold a more or less nominalist worldview, whether we know it or not. I assume the author’s argument would involve a critique of the idea that all marriage outside of the Orthodox Church is marriage in name only.

  5. AJ,
    I think there are three (3) things we can look at when it comes to our government’s involvement in this decision.

    1. As you and I obviously agree, we must never forget every human walking this earth is made in the image of God. So, we should love them and help steer, those who are lost, toward God, whether their sin is homosexuality, fornication, adultery or any of the multitude of sins WE wretched humans commit.

    2. We don’t want to become like the Nicolaitians and become lax in our beliefs and make a comfortable compromise with the world. As in the Apocalypse we see that God is not happy with those who do and the consequences are severe.

    3. If the government is making this decision, it could only be a matter of time before the Church will feel the wrath of a liberal government and we will be “forced” to accept more compromises upon our faith. Acceptance of gay marriage could lead to our Priests being “forced” to perform gay marriages and ultimately, “forced” to allow folks access to the Eucharist. I’m sure with threats of loosing our tax exempt status then to discrimination law suits and so on.

    I say “forced” because I believe the Orthodox Church will never bend to these matters.

    I agree with you that if the government changed the definition of marriage we, Orthodox Christians, know God would still honor our marriage since it is a sacrament. But, when you change the definition, in the opposite direction then, as stated above, it could have a negative impact upon our churches when Big Brother decides we need to be more fair in how we do things in our Temple.

    Even though we should love them and steer them gently instead of throwing rocks at them or protesting at their funerals we do have to draw the line and stand on our foundations. We must make sure it is known we do not agree with homosexuality, fornication, adultery and the rest of OUR sins.

    I think even though we can and should love them, we still must discern the truth and never veer from it. Believe me, this is a 180 degree move, for me, coming from a Southern Baptist background.

    I think we, Americans, loose touch with reality, sometimes. A group of people have decided to do something that was not allowed. They invoked their right to challenge the law and won; somewhat. Those who disagree will also challenge it. That is the way our country is supposed to work. We should remember that the group fighting for their right to marriage is a minority, so they did not win this battle by a majority, but they did win it by convincing others to support their cause. Who knows, maybe this is how the Nicolatians fell.

    1. I agree with what you have to say. The thing is civil marriage at least in the West is no longer about children, or even gender difference or even permanence. It’s already been changed, so we do not have a legal leg to stand on.

      Now, I agree, that countries that have not embraced this re-structuring of civil marriage, should not be compelled to accept gay marriage. They should stand their ground. It’s too late for us.

      The best we can do, now as Christians in the post-Christian West is accept the reality that we are missionaries in this culture and live the faith ourselves, so our witness might shine like light in the darkness.

  6. I generally try to avoid these types of political discussions. I can’t help but think of the faces of my friends who are gay when I read both sides of the debate. I’m a baby in the Orthodox Church so I have a lot to learn, but I think this debate shows a bit of hypocrisy in Christians (Orthodox and non-Orthodox).

    Most Christians fighting gay marriage claim they want to protect marriage. But what about divorce? I think the destruction of a marriage is, well, far more destructive to marriage than granting two same-gender people legal civil protections. By our words we say, “My sins are worse than yours,” but by our actions we say, “divorce isn’t good, but two same-gender folks being granted a civil union by the government will bring God’s judgment on our country, persecution on the Church, and a complete collapse of our society. Divorce: tolerable. Homosexual unions: the end of the world.”

  7. I will consider your points more deeply over time, but at first reading they seem terribly inconsistent and superficial. You condemn the practice of government coercion towards Orthodox behaviors on one hand, then spend the rest of your article arguing back towards that practice. You claim that the practice of non-Orthodox homosexuals in secular marriage is somehow equivalent to the persecution of Orthodox marriage among heterosexuals, but offer no evidence that their practice would compel Orthodox to imitate them. If that were the case, we as Orthodox would be Crusaders, marching around the world and putting to the sword (because Force is ultimately what government is) any non-Orthodox practices as being an attack against us.
    I will take some time to reconsider, because this is a very important topic not just about homosexuality but about how and where the Orthodox church should be involved in secular governance. In the meantime, if I have misunderstood please forgive me and take some time to help me understand.

  8. “I suggest that although our calling as Christians is not to force everyone to act in ways consistent with Christian morality, the move to legalize gay “marriage” represents a public threat that, in the name of Christian charity, should be resisted.”

    I realize I’m a little bit late coming in here but I must ask if since we Christians should oppose gay marriage at a civil level, should we therefore do something about divorce, adultery, etc., and impose our moral values into the legal system? Should we assert that if someone has oral sex, they should be legally charged with a misdemeanor at the least? This is the entirety of the argument that asserts that gay marriage should be allowed at a civil level. I know that even Christians opposed to homosexuality as being immoral wouldn’t go as far to actively oppose it at a civil level. They certainly would not entertain the idea that gay marriage could be sacramental marriage.

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