Sexuality and Gender: Response to “Orthodoxy in Dialogue” Open Letter

On September 24, 2018, the “Orthodoxy in Dialogue” website published an open letter to the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States of America, calling upon them to make a radical revision of the sexual ethical teachings of the Orthodox Church. The following is a point-for-point response, arranged roughly according to topic, with relevant quotes from the OiD piece.

Abortion

1). Cease issuing condemnations of abortion, participating in the March for Life, and advocating for the elimination of legal, accessible abortion.

Instead, create a committee of clergy, laypersons, and especially women to explore options for a pan-Orthodox initiative to offer financial, material, emotional, spiritual, and social support to pregnant women in need and to their children after birth.

Abortion is the murder of the most innocent and vulnerable among us. Orthodox Christians must unequivocally condemn such an act in the strongest possible terms. It is among the most heinous acts of mankind in our day. To cease condemnation of murder is to become complicit in murder. We encourage our hierarchs to continue to lead us in public opposition to legalized abortion and thank them for their heroic and loving witness in this regard.

That said, there is absolutely nothing inconsistent with that condemnation and also offering “financial, material, emotional, spiritual, and social support to pregnant women in need and to their children after birth.” Indeed, numerous Orthodox parishes all over America do this by supporting local crisis pregnancy centers and/or the Orthodox ministry Zoe for Life.

There is no contradiction between opposing the killing of the unborn and also providing as much support as possible for those who may find themselves drawn to that horrifying “solution” to whatever pressures or crises they may face. They are often driven in that direction by situations most of us hope we never find ourselves in. So we do not condemn, but rather give love and authentic support, while seeking to rescue that most precious gift of life from God.

Same-Sex Attraction

2). Cease issuing condemnations of same-sex orientation.

These condemnations inflict lasting emotional and spiritual harm on Orthodox children, teens, and adults who regard their orientation as a good and natural part of their personal identity. They seek from their Church, not a cover for sexual permissiveness, but a profound and affirmative theological articulation of how their orientation reflects the divine image and participates in the acquisition of the divine likeness through the collaboration of human ascesis with uncreated grace.

The teaching of the Orthodox Church is not about condemning an “orientation,” however one defines that (feelings, very deep feelings, psychological tendencies, attraction, etc.). So this is disingenuous on its face. The sin is not an “orientation” toward homosexuality but rather in acting upon it. The exact same thing is true for any sexual sins, whether homosexual, heterosexual, adulterous, or whatever else.

It is also not ascetical to give in to sin, so listening to the thoughts and feelings that are oriented toward sin is not an ascetical act.

It is true that individual Orthodox Christians or even clergy may treat someone badly because they express having same-sex attraction (SSA), but it is not the teaching of the Church to condemn an “orientation.” It is also wrong to treat people badly. And even then, condemnation is not the Church’s approach when it comes to sin, but rather an invitation to be healed of it. What is worthy of condemnation is teaching against the path of healing. The anathema is reserved for those who lead others astray, not for those so led.

Even if someone cannot remember a time feeling anything other than SSA, it is not the way God made anyone. Rather, such feelings are a result of the Fall as are every other inclination toward sin. An inclination toward sin is not sin, but it is also not what we were created to be.

Instead, create a committee of clergy, theologians, psychologists, therapists, laypersons, and especially Orthodox individuals who identify as same-sex oriented to study questions of sexual orientation in all their complexity.

Would such a committee include those who identify themselves as experiencing SSA and yet remain chaste according to the teaching of Christ? Would that study include scientific studies which don’t support the asked-for revision of the Church’s sexual ethics? Would that study include the Biblical and patristic teaching on sexuality?

I’m guessing probably not.

The committee should be open to examining possibilities for blessing Orthodox same-sex couples who wish to make a monogamous, lifelong commitment to each other.

The committee definitely should not. Marriage is between one man and one woman, not any other combination. To bless such a union would be to bless a plan to sin. The Church does not bless plans to sin. The Church calls for us to repent of our sins. It does not matter how many times we sin. We repent as many times. We can’t say, in effect, “It is okay to sin in this way so long as you commit to sin with only this one other person.”

The blanket excommunication of Orthodox Christians who present as same-sex oriented must cease.

Citation, please. Where is there a “blanket excommunication of Orthodox Christians who present as same-sex oriented”? Again, the problem here is not how one “presents” or is “oriented” but rather what one does with one’s body. Those who sin in certain ways sexually are excommunicated of their own accord. But they are also invited to repentance and restoration. There is always a path for wholeness.

This is not to say that someone who experiences SSA can be “cured” of that attraction. There are of course some who say that that has happened for them (and if we are to believe those who say that it cannot happen for them, we also have to believe those who say it can — both are their lived experience), but I can’t claim to know whether it can happen for everyone. But we do know that we do not have to obey our attractions. We are not our thoughts and feelings.

3). Remove from the websites of the Assembly, its member jurisdictions, and each jurisdiction’s individual dioceses all past condemnations of same-sex orientation.

In other words, simply capitulate to this radical revision of the Church’s sexual teachings. But, again, there are no “condemnations of same-sex orientation.” Rather, there is the teaching that homosexual acts are sin. All sexual acts outside of God’s design for marriage are sin.

And what is the Church’s approach to sin? It is to “open the doors of repentance,” which is a positive, vivifying, healing, loving way of return to the Father, to become like our Lord Jesus Christ and stand with Him as sons of the Most High.

Transgenderism

4). Instruct the clergy to cease issuing condemnations of transgender identities.

Arguably these condemnations inflict even greater emotional and spiritual harm on those targeted than condemnations of same-sex orientation. It has been demonstrated statistically that transgender persons comprise one of society’s most vulnerable demographics.

We as Church have not even begun to examine—let alone understand—the complex interplay of emotional, spiritual, psychological, social, and even biological factors that lead a person to identify as transgender and then to commence his or her transition to the gender opposite the one assigned at birth. Indeed some persons experience themselves as having both genders or neither gender.

One’s sex is not “assigned at birth.” Rather, it is written into the very fabric of one’s DNA, which is a creation of God and a normal function of human life.

What is condemnable is the teaching that people can change their sex just by thinking it so. Those who think this way ought to be loved and shepherded to accepting the reality of who they are, not into denying the plain evidence that stares at them nakedly in the mirror. To reject the reality of one’s body is essentially a gnostic sensibility. Human beings are not putty that may be remade into whatever we feel — even if we feel it very deeply.

Human beings are both body and soul. Neither is plastic in the sense that their very nature can be rewritten. Both body and soul need to be reoriented toward God because of the Fall, and so we cannot merely trust in our thoughts and feelings to guide us correctly. Our thoughts and feelings are broken. That does not make us worthless, but it does mean that we need to be healed, and that we are indeed worthy of being healed because we are created according to the image of God.

Because our thoughts and feelings are so untrustworthy (Jer. 17:9), we trust in Christ, in His apostles and prophets, in the Holy Fathers, in the successors to the apostles and our own father-confessors. We do not have to make this spiritual life up for ourselves, and we actually should not — because Christianity is a revealed faith, not one that has to be discovered through committees.

Others are born intersex, which means that their biological bodies possess some configuration of both male and female organs, whether externally, internally, or both.

This is extremely rare and actually has almost no bearing on the current movement toward transgenderism. In such difficult cases, one must do the best one can, but these cases do not set the rule for anyone else.

The blanket excommunication of Orthodox Christians who present as transgender or intersex must cease.

Again: Citation, please.

Ministry to Orthodox Christians related to the above

5). Authorize, endorse, and sponsor—as an official, permanent ministry of the Assembly—an international support organization for Orthodox Christians who identify anywhere along the LGBTQI spectrum.

This is actually not a bad idea, but it ought to be an organization about the healing of all who find that their internal inclinations are toward sexual sin, not toward one that encourages obeying those inclinations. There is no shame in this, by the way. We are all inclined toward sin.

Final Thoughts

To be quite frank, I don’t think that the website in question is generally worth responding to or even reading, not just because their articles so often contradict the teachings of Christ and His Church but because they make a pretense at academic integrity which they rarely have. But this seemed like an opportune moment to reiterate a few of these things.

I know that reiterating the Church’s teachings on these things will be received by some as hateful, insensitive, etc. But it is not. It is love to speak reality and to embrace someone however he presents himself.

And let me state unequivocally that I absolutely reject mistreating anyone on account of their personal identification with any of the issues mentioned above — no one should be condemned, bullied, harmed, ridiculed, rejected, etc. Every person who comes to the Church must be treated with love, care, understanding, an orientation toward listening, support and blessing. All this is toward the goal given by Christ Himself, in the words of the apostle:

I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:1-2)

This is the true ascetical struggle — not to believe our thoughts and feelings on their face, but to present ourselves as living sacrifices to the Lord and to be healed of our addictions and sinful inclinations, aware that while they may never fully disappear in this life, there is nevertheless the possibility to be conformed to Christ, to be transformed in the renewing of our minds and to be made holy by His love.