Homosexual Marriage and the Orthodox Church

Saints Sergius and Bacchus

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.

The Truth of Orthodoxy

The Martyrdom of St Polycarp

The Martyrdom of St Polycarp

My father is a fundamentalist, a dispensationalist, and an ordained minister. For many years he taught courses on a variety of subjects, and has recently collected his lecture notes into a series of books. In one entitled The Kingdom of the Frauds, he describes a number of Christian and non-Christian religions. In the section on Eastern Orthodoxy he writes:

The Orthodox Church traces its development back through the Byzantine or Roman empire, to the earliest church established by St. Paul and the Apostles. It practices what it understands to be the original ancient traditions, believing in growth without change.[1]

Now if what Orthodoxy claims is actually true — if the Eastern Orthodox Church indeed descends from and continues in the teachings of the Holy Apostles — then its truth claims have to be taken seriously. It is not enough to dismiss them out of hand, as the historical evidence is all there. Nor is it enough to claim some great apostasy took place, without pointing to evidence of the early church apostatizing.[2]

My sister recently encountered this all-to-easy dismissal of Orthodoxy. Not long ago she attended her class reunion at Colorado Springs Christian School (CSCS). She was sitting with some of her friends when a former classmate approached. When the subject of my sister’s recent conversion to Orthodoxy came up, her classmate snidely commented: “Oh, they’re the ones who think they are descended from the original Church.” After making this comment, her classmate turned and walked away. My sister’s friends then asked: “So why did you become Orthodox?” My sister replied: “Because I became convinced they are descended from the original Church.” [Cue rim shot.]

The historical evidence is all there. For me, there were perhaps three works that had the greatest impact upon me. The first was the Didache, aka the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.[3] This is an ancient church order, one which scholars now think could date between 50 – 120 AD, although it seems likely to have been written before the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.[4] There is a clear continuity of thought and practice between the Didache and other ancient church orders such as the Didascalia Apostolorum, (c. 200-250 AD)[5], the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome (c. 215A.D., and written by Hippolytus)[6], and the Apostolic Constitutions (c. early 3rd century, with interpolations dating out to 400 A.D.)[7] A comparison of these documents shows a certain creative elaboration, or as my father put it, “growth without change.”

The second major influence was the Commonitorium of St. Vincent of Lerins (c. 434 A.D.) St. Vincent wrote following his participation in the third Ecumenical Council in 431 A.D.; his Commonitorium was written to capture the methods used by the Ecumenical Council to define Orthodox doctrine over against error.[8] The famous rule of Vincent of Lerins is summed up on three words: catholicity, antiquity, and consent. St. Vincent writes:

This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.[9]

While the protestant translator chose to use the word “universality”, the actual word is “catholicity.” The term “catholicity” has to do with a faith which is whole, complete, and entirely sufficient.[10] This meaning is clearly different than the term “universal”, which term is generally used as a replacement for “catholic” or “catholicity.” The term “universal” has reference to the Protestant doctrine of the invisible church, that which is made up of all saints, whether dead or alive. This hidden or invisible church is by extension the “universal” church, as opposed to the sectarianism of the visible church. But the idea of catholicity is a rebuke to all schisms, sects, and denominations.

Following the rule of St. Vincent of Lerins, we must search out that which is whole, entire, and sufficient (catholicity); we must search out that which is from antiquity; and we must search out that which is of common consent (not new or innovative.) Thus a new doctrine — such as the Roman Catholic dogma of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, or the Dispensational Protestant doctrine of the secret return of Christ and the subsequent Rapture of the Church — is automatically excluded. By common consent we refer to the consensus fidelium — the widespread agreement, or the general consensus of the faithful.

The third major influence is The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp,[11] which is a rather obscure reference. St. Irenaeus, in his book Against Heresies, writes concerning St. Polycarp:

But Polycarp also was not only instructed by apostles, and conversed with many who had seen Christ, but was also, by apostles in Asia, appointed bishop of the Church in Smyrna, whom I also saw in my early youth, for he tarried [on earth] a very long time, and, when a very old man, gloriously and most nobly suffering martyrdom, departed this life, having always taught the things which he had learned from the apostles, and which the Church has handed down, and which alone are true.[12]

What I find most interesting is St. Polycarp’s response to the Roman proconsul who had asked him to recant his Christian faith. Polycarp replied: “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour?”[13] St. Polycarp, at that time an 86 year old man, proclaims himself to have been a Christian for 86 years. In other words, this man who was the companion and disciple of the apostles was baptized as an infant. By extension, then, the apostles practiced infant baptism.

In the Didache we see an ancient church order of the apostolic church, one untainted by the supposed “Great Apostasy.” This church order is liturgical, hierarchical, and sacramental, all of which are anathema to the Protestant church of my youth. In the Rule of St. Vincent we see the manner in which the ancient church determined and maintained the apostolic faith over and against all manner of theological errors and heresies. When applying these principles to the Protestant church of my youth, or the Lutheran church of my adulthood, I was forced to acknowledge them to be weighed in the balance and found wanting. And then the witness of St. Polycarp, while not conclusive in itself, was nevertheless the final straw.

The evidence was all there, right in front of me. I could no longer deny that the Orthodox Church was indeed the lineal descendant of the church of the apostles. The only question was whether I was going to accept the historical evidence and adapt myself to the church, or whether I was going to continue to try and get the church to adapt itself to me and my desires. Despite become Orthodox, this is a struggle that will be with me until the day I die.


 

Bibliography

Ancient Christian Writings. n.d. “Didache.” Ancient Christian Writings. Accessed May 25, 2015. http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/didache.html.

Carlson, Norman. n.d. “The Kingdoms of the Frauds: The Major Religions And Cults Of The World.” The Colorado Free Bible College. Edited by Norman Carlson. Accessed May 25, 2015. http://www.thecfbc.com/sites/thecfbc.com/files/The%20Kindoms%20Of%20The%20Frauds60a.pdf.

Chapman, Henry Palmer. 1913. “Didascalia Apostolorum.” Catholic Encyclopedia. Accessed June 9th, 2013. http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/Didascalia_Apostolorum.

Hippolytus. 1997. “The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus of Rome.” Kevin P. Edgecomb. July 8. Accessed May 25, 2009. http://www.bombaxo.com/hippolytus.html.

Martini, Gabe. 2015. “Vincent of Lérins and the Catholicity of the Church.” On Behalf of All. May 24. Accessed May 25, 2015. blogs.ancientfaith.com/onbehalfofall/vincent-of-lerins-and-the-catholicity-of-the-church/.

Schaff, Philip. 1884. ANF01. The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. Edited by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Vol. 1. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

—. 2004. ANF07. Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily, and Liturgies. Edited by Philip Schaff. Vol. 7. 10 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

—. 2004. NPNF2-11 Sulpitius Severus, Vincent of Lerins, John Cassian. Edited by Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace. Vol. 11. 14 vols. Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library.


 

Endnotes

[1] (Carlson n.d., 167)

[2] When I was a young man, I remember being taught that the “Great Apostasy” took place immediately after the death of the last apostle. The evidence for this was taken from Revelation chapter two, in the letter to the church of Ephesus, where it is stated: “Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee, because thou hast left thy first love.” (Rev 2:4) Additional evidence is from Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, where he says there will be “a falling away” before the “day of the Lord.”(2 Thes 2:1-3) No historical evidence was ever provided to back up this claim, even though those making the argument claimed to be using the “grammatical-historical method” of exegesis. As it turns out, the greatest proponent of the “Great Apostasy” occurring immediately after the apostolic era is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, aka the Mormons.

[3] (Schaff 2004, 552)

[4] (Ancient Christian Writings n.d.)

[5] (Chapman 1913)

[6] (Hippolytus 1997)

[7] (Schaff 2004, 573)

[8] (Schaff, NPNF2-11 2004, 207)

[9] (Schaff, NPNF2-11 2004, 214)

[10] (Martini 2015)

[11] (Schaff, ANF01 1884, 65)

[12] (Schaff, ANF01 1884, 688)

[13] (Schaff, ANF01 1884, 69)

On the Death of a Christian

A fellow parishioner is being taken off life support soon, and we are beginning preparations for his funeral. I have begun looking at the funeral for an Orthodox Christian, and I am struck by how theologically rich the service is. Here is an excerpt of the Funeral Service (after the Greek Orthodox tradition).


Detail of the Dormition [falling asleep] of the Theotokos

Detail of the Dormition [falling asleep] of the Theotokos

Look upon me and have mercy on me, in accordance with the judgement of those who love your name. Alleluia.

I am young and despised; I have not forgotten your statutes. Alleluia.

Hear my voice, O Lord, in accordance with your mercy; in accordance with your judgement give me life. Alleluia.

Rulers have persecuted me for no reason; and my heart has been in awe of your words. Alleluia.

My soul will live and praise you; and your judgements will help me. Alleluia.

 

I have gone astray like a lost sheep; seek out your servant, because I have not forgotten your commandments.

Evlogitaria for the dead in Tone 5

Blessed are you, O Lord, teach me your statutes.

The choir of Saints has found the source of life and the door of Paradise; may I too find the way through repentance; I am the lost sheep, call me back, O Saviour, and save me.

Blessed are you, O Lord, teach me your statutes.

You Holy Martyrs, who proclaimed the Lamb of God, and like lambs were slain, and have been taken over to the unending life which knows no ageing, plead with him to grant us abolition of our debts.

Blessed are you, O Lord, teach me your statutes.

All you who trod in life the hard and narrow way; all you who took the Cross as a yoke, and followed me in faith, come, enjoy you in faith, come, enjoy that heavenly rewards and crowns which I have prepared for you.

Blessed are you, O Lord, teach me your statutes.

I am an image of your ineffable glory, though I bear the marks of offences; take pity on your creature, Master, and with compassion cleanse me; and give me the longed-for fatherland, making me once again a citizen of Paradise.

Blessed are you, O Lord, teach me your statutes.

Of old you formed me from nothing and honoured me with your divine image, but because I transgressed your commandment, you returned me to the earth from which I was taken; bring me back to your likeness, my ancient beauty.

Blessed are you, O Lord, teach me your statutes.

Give rest, O God, to your servant (s) , and settle them (him/her) in Paradise, where the choirs of the Saints and all the Just shine out like beacons; give rest to your servant (s) who has/have fallen asleep, overlooking all their (his/her) offences.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Triadikon.

Triadikon.

Let us devoutly hymn the threefold light of the one Godhead as we cry: Holy are you, the Father without beginning, the Son likewise without beginning and the divine Spirit; enlighten us who worship  and snatch us from the everlasting fire.

Both now and for ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

Theotokion.

Hail, honoured one, who bore God in the flesh for the salvation of all; through you the human race has found salvation; through you may we find Paradise, O pure and blessed Mother of God.

Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.

Glory to you, O God (x3) .

Tone 8.

With the Saints give rest, O Christ, to the soul of your servant, where there is no toil, nor grief, nor sighing, but everlasting life.

And after the Ekphonesis, we begin the Idiomels.

By Monk John, the Damascene.

Tone 1.

What pleasure in life remains without its share of sorrow? What glory stands on earth unchanged? All things are feebler than a shadow, all things are more deceptive than dreams; one instant, and death supplants them all. But, O Christ, give rest to him You have chosen in the light of your countenance and the sweetness of your beauty, as You love mankind.

Tone 2.

Alas, what an ordeal the soul endures once separated from the body! Alas, what tears then, and there is none to pity her! She turns towards the Angels, her entreaty is without effect; she stretches out her hands to men, she has none to help. Therefore my dear brethren, thinking on the shortness of our life, let us ask of Christ rest for him who has passed over, and for ourselves his great mercy.

Tone 3.

Everything human which does not survive death is vanity; wealth does not last, glory does not travel with us; for at death’s approach all of them disappear; and so let cry out to Christ the Immortal one: Give rest to him who has passed from us, in the dwelling of all those who rejoice.

Tone 4.

Truly most fearful is the mystery of death, how the soul is forcibly parted from the body, from its frame, and how that most natural bond of union is cut off by the will of God. Therefore we entreat you: Give rest in the tents of your just ones, him/her who has passed over, O Giver of life, Lover of mankind.

Another, outside the Typikon.

Tone 4.

Where is the attraction of the world? Where the delusion of the temporary? Where is gold, where silver? Where the throng and hubbub of servants? All dust, all ashes, all shadow. But come, let us cry out to the immortal King: O Lord, grant your eternal good things to him who has passed from us, giving him rest in the happiness which does not age.

Tone 5.

I remembered how the Prophet cried out: I am earth and ashes; and I looked again into the tombs and saw the naked bones, and I said: Who then is a king or a soldier, a rich man or a beggar, a just man or a sinner? But give rest, O Lord, with the just to your servant.

Tone 6.

Your command which fashioned me was my beginning and my substance; for wishing to compose me as a living creature from visible and invisible nature, you moulded my body from the earth, but gave me a soul by your divine and life-giving breath. Therefore, O Christ, give rest to your servant in the land of the living, in the tents of the just.

Tone 7.

Give rest, our Saviour, to our brother/sister , whom you have taken over from transient things, as he/she cries, ‘Glory to you!’

Another, outside the Typikon.

Tone 7.

Having fashioned man in the beginning in your image and likeness, you placed him in Paradise to govern your creatures; but led astray by the envy of the devil he tasted the food and became a transgressor of your commandments; and so you condemned him, O Lord, to return again to the earth from which he had been taken, and to beg for rest.

Tone 8.

I grieve and lament when I contemplate death, and see the beauty fashioned for us in God’s image lying in the graves, without form, without glory, without shape. O the wonder! What is this mystery which has happened to us? How have we been handed over to corruption, and yoked with death? Truly it is at God’s command, as it is written, God who grants rest to him who has passed over.

Priest: O God of spirits and all flesh, who trampled down death and crushed the devil, giving life to your world; do you, Lord, give rest to the soul of your servant N. , who has fallen asleep, in a place of light, a place of green pasture, a place of refreshment, whence pain, grief and sighing have fled away. Pardon, O God, as you are good and love of mankind, every sin committed by him/her in word or deed or thought, because there is no one who will live and not sin, for you alone are without sin; your righteousness is an everlasting righteousness, and your word is truth. For you are the resurrection, the life and the repose of your servant N. , who has fallen asleep, Christ our God, and to you we give glory, together with your Father who is without beginning and your all-holy, good and life-giving Spirit, now and for ever, and to the ages of ages.

People: Amen.