Church History and Same-Sex Marriage


Relevant to several recent postings here on same-sex marriage is this May 2012 piece from the Roads From Emmaus weblog. It is mainly a clearinghouse of links to other resources on the position of same-sex marriage in the history of Christianity. It has been slightly edited for this publication.

There have been several postings online in the past few days of various articles claiming that the Christian Church at some period in history formerly sanctioned same-sex weddings and treated them just like marriages between a single man and a single woman, based mainly on the work of the late John Boswell. Someone even posted one of those articles in the comments section of my previous post. The one making the most rounds is called When Same-Sex Marriage Was a Christian Rite. These articles are served up as “gotchas” to unsuspecting Christians who were under the impression that Christian history is pretty unanimous about what Christian marriage is about. (Spoiler: Their impression is correct.)

Mind you, someone may reject the Church’s historic teaching on marriage. But there really are no legs to stand on when it comes to the claim that the Church used to teach that marriage could also be between two men or two women (or any other combination). (And note here that I mean the historic Church, which is Orthodoxy. But this would also include almost all churches that are more than about 100 years old.)

Anyway, there are numerous articles which thoroughly debunk Boswell’s work. His fellow historians didn’t take it seriously, and neither should you. The only people who do (and I really am not making this up) are those who either don’t know better or quite desperately want him to be right. Boswell himself was gay and the founder of the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale. He died of AIDS-related complications in 1994 at the age of 47. He was also a convert to Roman Catholicism from the Episcopal Church (despite his much greater similarity with the latter on sexual morality).

Anyway, the point of this post is not to invite debate (because for me, the matter really is settled, and there are a quadra-gazillion other places to debate these questions), but rather to point out some of the several places online where one can read refutations of Boswell’s work, far better than anything I could put together. The slams, as they say, are already quite dunked.

  • In the Case of John Boswell by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus (a Catholic convert from Lutheranism) examines the scholarly reception of Boswell’s work.
  • Gay Marriage: Reimaging Church History by Robin Darling Young is a detailed examination especially of the numerous specious translations in Boswell’s work (upon which his conclusions very much hang). Interesting in this piece is especially the reminiscence that its author experienced a same-sex union in an ancient church and was surprised to be told later by Boswell’s book that what she had experienced was actually a marriage. This is the first piece I ever read on this subject, and it packs a powerful punch.
  • Failed Attempt to Rewrite History by Fr. Patrick Viscuso is an examination specifically of the canonical and liturgical claims that Boswell makes and how they fail to square with the actual contexts of the rites being examined. Viscuso is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Church and a canonist specializing especially in marriage questions. He is also cited(!) in Boswell’s work.
  • Rewriting History to Serve the Gay Agenda by Marian Therese Horvat is a general review of Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, especially focusing on what the author calls Boswell’s “advocacy scholarship.”
  • A Groom of One’s Own? by Brent D. Shaw shows how anachronistic and tendentious Boswell’s readings of documents are. Shaw is himself in favor of the “liberationist movements of our time,” but he concludes that “tinkering with the moral balance of the past is a disservice to the study of history and to the reform of society.”
  • Procrustean Marriage Beds by Robert Louis Wilken can best be summed up by its last two sentences: “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe creates a world that never existed, misrepresents Christian practice, and distorts the past. This is a book on a mission, scholarship at the service of social reform, historical learning yoked to a cause, a tract in the cultural wars, and it is in that spirit that it should be read.” Wilken is one of the most respected patrologists of our time.
  • Do you take this man… by David Wright shows how Boswell’s Same Sex Unions is essentially a rehashing of his earlier work that fails to take into accounts the criticisms the earlier one drew.
  • Remarks to the Catholic Press by Fr. Robert Taft is not really a review but just some blunt offhand remarks by one of the most respected Jesuit liturgiologists of all time. (Warning: Do not read this out loud to children!)
  • Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, the famed liturgical translator from the UK also did a review of Boswell’s work for the journal Sourozh for its February 1995 issue, but it doesn’t appear to be online. There are bits of it quoted in the Wikipedia article on Adelphopoiesis (“brother-making”), the rite Boswell claims was a same-sex marriage.

I would be remiss if I didn’t note that I found some of these links at the excellent Mystagogy weblog’s recent post on this subject.

If readers find other pieces offering up similar debunkings, feel free to send me the links, and I’ll add them here.

Again, just to be clear: I don’t hate homosexuals or people whose politics would have homosexual marriage enshrined and enforced as a civil right by the state. I also don’t hate people who reject Orthodox Christian teaching. The point of this post is to point you to some information debunking the claim that the Church has not always taught that same-sex attraction is a temptation that has to be struggled against and repented of when indulged. I also do not believe that those who act on that temptation are worse sinners than I am.

Oh, and this bit is pretty good when it comes to laying out a clear sense of what it means to be a Christian who believes in traditional Christian morality and isn’t going around hating people who don’t or who fail to live up to what they do believe in.


  1. You wrote: Again, just to be clear: I don’t hate homosexuals or people whose politics would have homosexual marriage enshrined and enforced as a civil right by the state.

    But according to the Supreme Court in the Windsor decision, the only, the only reason to be against an inclusive definition of marriage is because of bigotry and animus. There are no constitutional arguments to be considered. It’s because you’re a bigot, plain and simple.

    No matter what we Orthodox say, we are going to be labeled as bigots and, I suspect, eventually, enough of our flock will grow tired of being labeled as such that they will start to demand change to clear them of the charge. That’s the m.o. of the anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, anti-Orthodox: Take a church position and say that to hold on to it is bigoted, racist, sexist, homophobic, ignorant, etc. and label the people as such until they grow tired of it and demand change.

    1. You are right, yet the thing to remember is that the tricks of the enemy are meant to keep the Church from being able to do its job. The Church does not need to change its stance against sexual immorality, it needs to prepare the people for the worldly persecution that will come because the will not and should not say that it is o.k. to sin. The message that I perceive from the Orthodox Church is that it is a place of spiritual healing and selfishly engaging in the feel good at the moment sin does not lead to spiritual healing. There will be those that struggle with the passions, they will trip and fall, but to say that it is proper to engage in the passions because there is an aspect of love in it or that is the way God made me is not right.

    2. I feel for them since I myself have struggled with sexual sin, not the same one though. I’ve known gay people (probably most of us have), with discusions like these we often forget that they are human beings, too.

      But I’m afraid you’re right. We will be labeled bigots if we stand in opposition to gay “marriage”. It reminds me of a child who wants what he or she wants, no matter what, and they hope to wear you down till you give them what they want. They use all kinds of emotional rhetoric, like comparing gay rights with slavery abolition movement; and, of course no one wants to feel as though they’re on the loosing side of history, so they’ll rally with the boisterous side since it seems like they’re the winners! These are maddening times! Kyrie eleison.

  2. “Mind you, someone may reject the Church’s historic teaching on marriage. But there really are no legs to stand on when it comes to the claim that the Church used to teach that marriage could also be between two men or two women (or any other combination). (And note here that I mean the historic Church, which is Orthodoxy. But this would also include almost all churches that are more than about 100 years old.)”

    Historical revisionism (by gay marriage supporters) seems overrated. They need it so much also for scientific faux pas; claims for gay genes and stuff and how these genes are “preserved”.

  3. Fr. Andrew, I’ve noticed that most Orthodox apologetic writings on the interweb these days (and from other confessions that hold to a more traditional line) emphasize that homosexuality is no worse than other sexual sin. You do the same in the fine print above and, I assume, elsewhere. While I can understand the rhetorical and even pastoral reasons for the claim, is it really true? It seems to me that Romans 1 places homosexuality in a category of its own, as a sign of the extremes of corruption to which humanity reached when it strayed from God. Various fathers and canons also come down harder on it. I understand that we don’t want to be overly legalistic, but we have to pay careful attention to the details of Tradition if we want to provide a truthful and loving response to the problem.

    Perhaps one way to clarify if it that all of these witnesses from tradition seem to relate to the act itself and not the temptation (one of the important common-sense distinction in patristic writing on spiritual warfare). In another witness, the correspondence between St. Dorotheos and his spiritual fathers Ss. Barsanouphios and John among the collected letters of the latter two (highly recommended, by the way!), there seems to be a different approach. Dorotheos confesses his attraction to a fellow monk, and is guided through the process of fighting the temptation by his wise elders. The difficulty in that case lay particularly in Dorotheos avoiding occasions of temptation without making it obvious, in order not to cause a scandal. I don’t know if St. Dorotheos had a homosexual orientation as some might describe it today, or if it was just coincident with being in an all-male community. In any case, if I remember correctly the elders never directed harsh words against him regarding the temptation, although it took quite some time and effort to solve. I don’t know if any Orthodox writing on this topic today have looked at this passage or any similar ones from the corpus of monastic writings, which had to deal with such issues rather frequently.

  4. My simple apologetics:

    The church cannot alter its rites I understand; so how can it offer marriage to homosexuals ? Alter its wedding most ancient rite just to suit people ? This is not permitted. Argument over . . let us be labelled bigots, backward and whatever else is fashionable. If any gay is wanting to be married in the orthodox church, I would ask why; other than to stir provocation and conflict. The contents of the service would suffice to give them an understanding of the unmovable stance of the church and remind them that the church does not share their opinion. The church supports freedom of the individual and I am sure many a celebrant would abound to assist their union.

    Why would a gay couple seek this marriage ? other than to stir provocation and conflict, and persecution of the church ?

    For this cause shall a man forsake his father and his mother, and cleave unto his wife, and two shall be one flesh‑” and “whom God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” And now, O Master, Lord our God, send down Your heavenly Grace upon these Your servants, (Name) and (Name), and grant unto this woman to be in all things subject unto the man, and to this Your servant to be at the head of the woman that they live according to Your Will.

    (+) Bless them. O Lord our God, as you blessed Abraham and Sara. (+) Bless them, O Lord our God, as You blessed Isaac and Rebecca. (+) Bless them, O Lord our God, as you blessed Jacob and all the Prophets. (+) Bless them, O Lord our God, as You blessed Joseph and Asenath. (+) Bless them O Lord our God, as You blessed Moses and Zipporah Bless them, O Lord our God, as You blessed Joakim and Anna. (+) Bless them, O Lord our God, as You blessed Zacharias and Elizabeth. Preserve them, O Lord our God, as You preserved Noah in the Ark.

  5. I tend to look at these things a bit differently than the “interview”… though not with a different conclusion. What I think we miss is on the language and failing to turn it completely around from the negative to the positive.

    So I wonder why the language couldn’t begin by shifting from with sin as a word, to focusing on what it is and why we have a problem with it: Sin is an obstacle… plain an simple that stands between us and salvation. Sin puts something between ourselves and God as more important. We don’t say that Christ can’t heal us in spite of this… of course he can, and he can heal gay people, or even people as broken as ourselves who have other sins – often of more consequence, but that if every time Christ begins to do so, we put an obstacle between him and our wholeness… we obstruct the process. And this is the problem. Christ can overcome it, yes, but what we see as the Christian life lies in seeking to remove these obstacles from our own lives so that Christ can act through us to allow us to do more than heal ourselves… and become a healing presence to others.

    Just sayin’.

  6. Rev. Andrew,

    There would be lots and lots of things to be said. As you say, «the point of this post is not to invite debate», and I also have better things to do than to try to convince a «the matter really is settled»-minded WASP reverend. I shall try to be concise. It’s unfair to say «no comments, please» and «I don’t hate homosexuals», but then to just express hate in your post.

    The first point is that «Church’s historic teaching on marriage», as there’s no Church’s historic teaching on maleness and femaleness, on geocentrism or heliocentrism, on slavery, on veganism etc. Individuals have spoken about these topics, but they are not necessarily inbailible or authoritative. Even the Norman-grounded word «marriage» which we are using today is not so clear. The Euchologia speak about «stephanoma» and «adelphopoiesis». And even if the councils had proclaimed something in support of slavery, sex differences, 7-day-of-24-hours-creation, or geocentrism, they would have no importance in light of the scientific facts.

    «Forasmuch as many enrolled among the Clergy, following covetousness and lust of gain, have forgotten the divine Scripture, which says, “He has not given his money upon usury,” and in lending money ask the hundredth of the sum [as monthly interest], the holy and great Synod thinks it just that if after this decree any one be found to receive usury, whether he accomplish it by secret transaction or otherwise, as by demanding the whole and one half, or by using any other contrivance whatever for filthy lucre’s sake, he shall be deposed from the clergy and his name stricken from the list.» (can. 17 of Nicæa I) If you think that this is still applicatory today, and still have a bank account, please resign from your priestly office.

    Now, about Boswell’s revisers. Marian Therese Horvát hasn’t even read Boswell (she has barely leafed through his books). Patrick Viscuso doesn’t make any point in his article, because he contradicts point whereto Boswell had already answered. I suggest you to read Gheorghe Cront; you will find out that in the Romanian principalities the adelphopoiesis service was used instead of the crowning, by male-female couples. Boswell make a lot of little mistakes in interpreting liturgical terms (if he had asked those things to someone… even my unschooled grandma would have been able to answer him properly!), because he was unfamiliar with the Byzantine rite. But I saw no error on the essential points.

    As another commentor commenter put some of the crowning prayers forth, I suppose you don’t take literally those words: «Bless them, O Lord our God, as thou didst bless Abraham and Sara […] Isaac and Rebecca […] Jacob and all the Prophets». Really? Abraham and Sarah had an incestuous marriage, and Abraham was a very adulterous man, and a very bad father, who rejected all his children except his second. Isaac had an arranged marriage with his first cousin, and was inique towards his children. Jacob had two wives and Bilha and Zilpa sex-slaves. With such “blessings” are you “blessing” straight couples at church? You should look after the beam in your own eye, instead of searching motes in Boswell and LGBT’s eyes! Shame on you, reverend!

    Concerning the Tradition and the LGBT/women “issue”, I invite you (although you seem to know everything about anything) to read this article:
    Read it entirely, please, especially the latter half, beginning with «What we stand for…».

    And, as you are a priest, you should know personally people, before you blame them. How many times have you ever been to have supper with a gay-parenting family at their home? How many times have you visited intersex persons and trangenders? I bet not one single time.

    Just to be clear: I don’t hate you, although I hate your sin. I don’t think you are a biggot. You’re just a protestant-minded. You may have got [re]baptized; you may get rebaptized and rechrismated hundred times and reordained hundreds of times; that would make of you only a wet oily protestant with kneelache. You may write hundreds of books about presumed orthodoxy and presumed Tradition. If you haven’t grown with them, within them, if you haven’t dwelt at least three years in an Orthodox Church country, all you can do is speculation. I’m sorry for you, reverend.

    1. Hi George, it is wrong of you to make accusations of homophobia, though that is the tactic of those that wrongfully rationalize of sin today. The Church has always maintained that homosexuality is a sin, just as adultery, lying, stealing, murder, worshiping other gods. To attempt to cloud the issue with more rhetoric is just another tactic in rationalization. In some places it is illegal to say anything against homosexuals or you will be accused of persecuting them, this hyperbolic view only succeeds in allowing folks to not be informed that contrary to their beliefs that engaging in homosexual activity is a sin. It is what it is and you can never convince me that sin is right, although it is forgiven.

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