Saints Sergius and Bacchus. 7th Century icon. Officers of the Roman Army in Syria who were tortured to death for their refusal to worship Roman gods. Some scholars believe they were united in a ceremony called Adelphopoiesis, which is roughly equivalent to what we today call civil unions.
I wonder if one day the Eastern Orthodox Church will accept homosexual marriage as sacramental. I will not see it in my lifetime, and I do not expect it to happen for several hundred years. I am not arguing that this should happen, only that I see a path where it could happen. Let me explain.
Let me dispose of the most simplistic argument first, crassly phrased as follows: “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” If you can make that argument with a straight face, you do not understand the scriptures.
First, it is not at all clear that Adam and Eve are proper names. Adam is a word that means “to be red”, referring to his skin color, and is a play on the Hebrew word ‘adamah’ meaning “earth”. Adam is also a term that could apply to humanity in general. ‘Eve’ means either ‘to breath’ or ‘to live’. Thus, the words Adam and Eve symbolize that we were made from earth, and that God breathed into us the breath of life.
Second, the creation accounts themselves are highly symbolic and spiritual in nature; they have a higher and deeper meaning than the crass literal interpretation. This ties in well with our first point, which is that the names Adam and Eve are symbolic of their natures, and describe the relationship between God and Man.
There is more to be said here, but let us move on.
You might argue from the nature of marriage as symbolic of the relationship between God and Man, particularly in the differing roles each plays. In this view, the husband symbolizes God and the wife symbolizes humanity. As a preacher once said, we are all female before God. However, this view is theologically incorrect. The married couple become one flesh; this symbolizes the distinction of persons within the trinity, while also symbolizing their essential unity. Each member of the trinity is consubstantial with the others; a married couple symbolizes this consubstantiality.
You might argue that gender distinctions themselves are symbolic of the distinction of persons within the trinity. It is true that we all share a single human nature, but that nature is the same regardless of gender. We are different persons sharing a common nature in the same manner as the trinity is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God. Gender is a characteristic of a human person, but is not an essential element of personhood. The apostle makes this clear by saying: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” This oneness is our common human nature; the other characteristics described make no difference in the human person.
You might argue from tradition, saying that no thriving society has ever allowed homosexual marriage. This is an argument I’ve heard from the pulpit, but it happens to be incorrect. Same-sex unions occurred in ancient societies such as Greece, Rome, and Mesopotamia. It has occurred in China and in medieval Europe, and in native American societies. These unions were at times informal, and at other times involved rituals analogous to marriage. It is true that homosexual unions were frowned upon in Judaism and early Christianity, but the existence of these prohibitions serve to reinforce our understanding of ancient Greece, Rome, and Mesopotamia.
You might argue from scripture. These are perhaps the strongest arguments. However, there are a lot of things in scripture that we no longer practice. The Old Testament is full of religious and civil practices we no longer practice. Both the Old and New Testament prohibit the loaning of money at interest. Being in business was frowned upon; selling things for more than you paid for them was considered a form of theft. In the Wisdom of Sirach, we read: “Many have sinned to make a profit, and he who seeks riches will turn away his eyes. As a stake will be driven between fitted stones, so sin will be wedged between selling and buying.” The bible condemns the practices that form the basis of modern economies, yet churches routinely borrow money from banks for building projects, and religious organizations create non-profit businesses to fund their activities. For example, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press is a profitable business and helps to fund the seminary. Priests routinely borrow money to buy houses, something the Wisdom of Sirach warns against.
While we claim to believe the Bible and to follow its teachings, it is clear that we creatively reinterpret (or spiritualize) certain passages when they no work for us. This is an ancient and time-honored practice. For example, in ancient Judaism the biblical injunction to stone a disrespectful son was rarely obeyed. The most extreme example of this is our changing attitudes towards slavery. The Old Testament permits slavery, and the New Testament never condemns it. In the American South, it was routine to use the Pauline epistles as endorsements of slavery. After emancipation, some former slaves loved the gospels but to the end of their lives couldn’t stand the apostle Paul. Other examples are the Old and New Testaments prohibitions against women wearing jewelry, styling their hair, and wearing fancy clothes. These were things the prostitutes would do. By biblical standards, modern women are adorned like harlots.
There are different ways of interpreting the biblical passages most often used as arguments against homosexuality. I do not argue the interpretations of homosexual clergy are always correct, but a number of them have merit. For example, in Middle Eastern cultures being hospitable to strangers is a social norm. Being inhospitable made one a pariah and, depending on the infraction, was sometimes punishable by death. It is argued that the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah is more about the violation of this social norm than about homosexuality. Given that homosexuality and same-sex unions were widely practiced in the Middle East, it seems odd that Sodom and Gomorrah were singled out solely because there were homosexuals living there. I do not argue against the traditional interpretations of these passages, only that we give these alternate interpretations a fair shake.
Even if we accept all of the above, the argument could be that the Orthodox Church never changes. Strictly speaking, that is not correct. Today we all use the same creed, but in the ante-Nicene Church creedal variation was common. Today the Orthodox Churches all use a common liturgy, but this was not the practice for the first several centuries of Christianity. Even secular people know the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” What most do not know is this saying arose as a result of differences in liturgical practice in the early church. It is said that a nun was travelling to Rome, and asked St. Ambrose how she should behave. St Ambrose is said to have replied: “si fueris Rōmae, Rōmānō vīvitō mōre; si fueris alibī, vīvitō sīcut ibī; (if you should be in Rome, live in the Roman manner; if you should be elsewhere, live as they do there). Many of the liturgical practices we have today did not exist in the early church, at least not in their current form. For example, the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts is first mentioned by Pope Gregory I (560-604), and is mentioned in the canons of the Quinisext Council (692AD). It probably existed prior to this time, but in a variety of forms that were standardized. The prayer of Saint Ephraim is used in services throughout Lent. Scholars believe that this prayer was written in his name.
You say this is all true, but that the Orthodox Church never changes in the essentials of dogma. Thank you for making my point for me. The Orthodox Church has never defined its position against homosexuality in dogmatic terms. Yes, it is part of the general consensus of the church fathers, but there are no doctrinal formulas concerning this subject.
When a church father like Gregory of Nyssa endorses universalism (the idea that eventually all will be saved), we chalk it up as theologoumena (theological opinion). This is the same reason we accept Augustine as an Orthodox saint while rejecting his theological ideas that conflict with Orthodox teaching. The strength of Orthodoxy is its acceptance of agreement in essentials and diversity in non-essentials.
I contend (and this is my theological opinion) that eventually there will be an understanding that when the church fathers spoke out against homosexuality, this was their theological opinion. Just like we reject things like slavery and the subjugation of women that were common in biblical times, we will eventually reject the prohibition against homosexuality. But like I said, this will take time. A lot of time. Hundreds of years, in fact. But it seems likely to happen.