As a blogger who writes on both theological and psychological themes it seems inevitable that I would have to join the discussion on same-sex marriage. I have avoided it like the plague because, well… it is a plague; it’s a guaranteed lose-lose outcome for someone like me.
From a religious standpoint I am an Orthodox Christian with firmly established views on same-sex marriage. From a professional standpoint I am a psychotherapist, a field in which same-sex marriage is roundly defended and applauded. Hence the lose-lose: if I side with same-sex marriage I am in conflict with my faith, but if I oppose it I am in conflict with many in my profession.
I believe this fear of the ‘lose-lose’ challenges many Christians from every stripe. For many the potential social and professional damage from entering into the debate is too great. Instead, they, like me, silently observe the back-and-forth on the news, on social media, and around the proverbial office water cooler as fellow Christians are harassed and condemned as bigots for not happily embracing same-sex marriage. For those who fit this description, I’m with you. I’d rather just shut up and watch, since, let’s be honest, entering the debate is a little like voting in a national election with an electoral college – your vote really doesn’t matter. But I’ve determined to share an Orthodox perspective for two reasons: (1) some of the reasons Christians give for opposing same-sex marriage make me cringe every time I hear them, and (2) I think advocates of same-sex marriage have the right to hear what exactly historic Christianity has against the practice rather than the usual “the Bible says homosexuality is a sin” thing.
So here’s my best shot. I’ll start with a quick look at the two most popular arguments one hears from Christians today, the first of which I just mentioned.
“The Bible says homosexuality is a sin.”
Is this true? Its true if the phrase is stated more accurately as “The Bible says homosexual acts are sin.” I think this is indisputable, whereas homosexual attraction is a different question. For some this nuance is irrelevant but it can only seem so for him who equates sexual attraction with the actual act of sex. How is a man who is attracted to men more or less sinful than a man who is attracted to married women? Does the Bible not condemn adultery? The issue, it seems, turns on actual engagement of the desire. Besides, the Bible never uses the term “homosexuality” since the word wasn’t invented until the 19th century, but it describes homosexual acts as clear as day. Getting the nuance right helps discourage miscommunication. At any rate, I think those who argue that the Bible is neutral on homosexual acts are attempting a hermeneutic stretch that (impressively creative as it is) will never transcend the historic Scriptural interpretation held by both the East and the West for the last 20 centuries. But this is not the primary reason why Orthodox Christianity is against same-sex marriage (I speak specifically of the Orthodox Church in this article). We can all think of hypothetical situations which would make it impossible for a married couple to have sex. For example, it is not unheard of that a couple will marry while one partner is incarcerated for life. But even with this scenario, where sex would be impossible, the Orthodox Church would not marry a same-sex couple. More examples could given but let this one suffice to demonstrate that in principle it is not simply homosexual acts that constitute the Church’s rejection of same-sex marriage.
“Procreation is the primary reason for marriage; ergo marriage precludes same-sex couples.”
Is procreation THE foundation on which marriage is built? No, and as anyone can deduce this argument has fatal flaws. Marriage based strictly on procreation is neither Biblically defendable nor logically defendable since many couples have no chance of procreating, yet have never been denied marriage in the Church. Consider for example a couple in their 70’s tying the knot, or a couple who have a physical disability preventing them from having their own biological children.
St. Basil the Great observed that children add to the fullness of the nuptial union; they are epakolouthema, an “appendix,” a possible but not indispensable result (P. Evdokimov).
St. John Chrysostom wrote, “There are two reasons for which marriage was instituted… to bring man to be content with one woman and to have children, but it is the first reason that is the most important. As for procreation, it is not required absolutely by marriage… The proof of this lies in the numerous marriages that cannot have children. This is why the first reason of marriage is to order sexual life” (Homily 12). He further explains that their intercourse in marriage effectuates the mysterious joining of their bodies as one, becoming an image of nothing on earth, but of God Himself.
And it was Chrysostom who gave perhaps the clearest expression possible of what marriage is in the eyes of Christianity: “Marriage is the mysterious icon of the Church.” Throughout Scripture the image of Christ and His Bride, the Church, is well known. Clement of Alexandria was one among many who taught that, “God created man male and female. The male is Christ, the female is the Church.” Summarizing St. Paul’s teaching on marriage in Ephesians 5:32 (“This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church”), Paul Evdokimov states that, “The love of Christ for the Church becomes the archetype of marriage… Thus marriage goes back before the Fall; as archetype of the nuptial relations it explains the name of Israel and that of the Church, the Bride of Jahweh.”
The main reason the Orthodox Church does not and will not recognize same-sex marriage is not due to some built-in hatred of gays, it is because marriage is an icon of salvation.
To alter its image is to alter the historic Christian understanding of salvation, which will simply never happen. It is not a matter of being “anti-gay,” it’s a matter of sacramental significance that transcends such modern accusations of bigotry.
Each of the sacraments have their specific content, marriage is no exception. Being baptized in water and not in Jell-O is not a slam on Jell-O, it’s a matter of sacramental significance. Likewise, marriage between a man and a woman rather than a same-sex couple is not a slam on gays, it is a matter of sacramental significance.
To disparage the Church for defending its sacramental life is an act of bigotry, not the other way around.
Thanks for reading.