Same-sex relations and the Orthodox Church

There is renewed interest today in the nature of relations between people of the same sex. The relationships that are of interest are not traditional ones of friendship or even self-sacrificing love, but romantic or even sexual ones. Several states have enacted bills that address “same-sex marriage” and the United States Supreme Court has decided to take up the legal issues involved. Many of those around us, including many Christians, increasingly assume that such relations are perfectly natural and in will of God. There is even activism aimed towards various churches and their members with the aim of getting them to accept these positions on the issue with the threatened costs of splitting these churches, removing tax exempt status or denouncing the particular church in the media. It is therefore natural in such a charged atmosphere for Orthodox Christians to ask about the teachings of God and Church on this topic. Is it proper and Christian for couples of the same sex to be romantically involved with each other and how does God view such relations? While the topic is wide, this article will give some general guidelines for a beginning understanding.

The subject of relations between people of the same sex is not a new topic. Given that sexual relations are a fundamental aspect of life which encompass the spiritual, mental, psychological and physical nature of man, the nature of such relations goes back to the very purpose of the creation of man by God. The Church and the Scriptures have long been rich with teachings about the topic. Such teachings are unified and without ambiguity.

Friendship and self-sacrificing relations of spiritual love between people of the same sex have always been considered a blessing by God. For example, the friendship between King David and Jonathan in the Bible was considered by both to be a deeply endearing friendship that was worth one’s life (I Sam. 18 on). Jesus had such endearing and intimate relations with his disciples (John 13:23). Among the Fathers of the Church, a close friendship developed between St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory the Theologian (of Nazianzus), which continued throughout their life. They regarded themselves as “one soul in two bodies”.

Nevertheless, it is clear from the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church that romantic and sexual relations are reserved for the purity of marriage between one man and one woman. All sexual relations outside of that marriage are a sin against God. Before we go through some of the references, it is important to put this point in context. Sexual sin, whether homosexual (same-sex) or heterosexual (opposite-sex), or romantic activity, outside of a holy marriage between one man and one woman, is not a worse sin than many other possible sins. Sins can come in many forms and while the Church condemns all sin, she encourages the sinner to repent, confess and receive forgiveness and spiritual healing. God loves those that sin and calls them out of sin. The reason that sexual sins are isolated and highlighted is that the institution of marriage and its associated sexuality was created to mystically capture the relationship of God and his people (Song of Songs, Jer. 11:5, Ezek. 16, Mt. 22:1-14,25:1-12, Heb. 13:4, Rev. 19-7-8). A defilement of this special relationship means that the all-important understanding of God’s love for his people would be marred.

The Scriptures are clear about this topic both from the point of view of what they say and what they don’t say. In the Creation account, God is quoted saying that it is not good that the first created man, Adam, be alone with the animals (Gen 2:18). God proceeded in vss. 21-22 to create a woman, Eve, out of Adam’s innermost body and bring her to him. The Scripture comments in vs. 24 that, in the normal process of God’s purpose for a man, he is to leave his father and mother and become “one flesh” with his wife (i.e. become a husband). This expression refers to a man’s intimate physical union with his wife for the purpose of uniting them to each other and begetting children. It is clear that God’s purpose does not enable two human beings of the same sex to enter into such a relationship because they cannot “become one flesh” in the meaning of that term. The silence of the Creation account on homosexuality (as on many other issues such as pedophilia, bestiality, etc.) shows that the original purpose of God did not involve those kinds of relations.
Later, when God gave his redemptive Law (Torah) to fallen man in the form of the nation of Israel, one of the teachings that He gave them was that “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination” (Lev. 20:13). This was the known teaching of God when Jesus came among Israel to expand the teachings of the Law. Jesus never did away with this principle and only enhanced the teaching of the Law (Mt. 5:18-48). Later, the Apostle Paul, in going outside of Israel to Gentiles who did not know the Law of Israel, had to make this even more explicit: “For this reason God gave them [certain Gentiles] up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error.” (Rom. 1:26-27).
Given the fundamental relation of homosexuality to marriage and the Christian life, the Church Fathers have not been silent on the topic. Contrary to popular belief, such relations are not new to the history of man. Clement of Alexandria wrote of the Genesis account of Sodom (Gen. 13): “The fate of the Sodomites was judgment to those who had done wrong, instruction to those who hear. The Sodomites having, through much luxury, fallen into uncleanness, practicing adultery shamelessly, and burning with insane love for boys; the All-seeing Word, whose notice those who commit impieties cannot escape, cast his eye on them. Nor did the sleepless guard of humanity observe their licentiousness in silence; but dissuading us from the imitation of them, and training us up to his own temperance, and falling on some sinners, lest lust being unavenged, should break loose from all the restraints of fear, ordered Sodom to be burned…”.
St. Basil the Great wrote to certain men: “He who is guilty of unseemliness with males will be under discipline for the same time as adulterers”. Also, “If you are young in either body or mind, shun the companionship of other young men and avoid them as you would a flame. For through them the enemy has kindled the desires of many and then handed them over to eternal fire, hurling them into the vile pit of the five cities [associated with Sodom] under the pretense of spiritual love.” St. John Chrysostom, commenting on the passage of Scripture cited in Romans says, “All of these affections [in Rom. 1:26–27] . . . were vile, but chiefly the mad lust after males; for the soul is more the sufferer in sins, and more dishonored than the body in diseases.” Also, “”[The men] have done an insult to nature itself. And a yet more disgraceful thing than these is it, when even the women seek after these intercourses, who ought to have more shame than men.”
The Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church did not deal with all of the psychological and biological arguments that are made today supporting the right to homosexual relations. These would take too long in this short article to scrutinize in detail. Suffice it to say that the God-given spiritual mind, created in the image of God, and purposed for the likeness of God, is given great powers of overcoming and repentance with the help of the grace of God and direction of a spiritual father. No genetic, cultural or familial pre-dispositions can overcome this principle, when there is a will to come out from under sin.
Apart from these, the very nature of language is being changed around us to favor the sinful directions. Homosexual relations are referred to as “gay”, a word that used to connote a jovial disposition. People that point out the sinful nature of these behaviors are labeled as “homo-phobic” (meaning fearing those who engage in same-sex relations) as though the truth about the nature of the behavior implies a fear or hatred of the people who engage in it. The latest linguistic innovation is “same-sex marriage”. The word “marriage” comes from the Latin meaning to “take a husband”. There used to be in ancient languages a different word for “take a wife”. Marriage is not an act that can be done by a two of the same sex. “Matrimony” means to become a mother in Latin. The meaning was that motherhood was entered with a husband who would enable the wife to bear children, not something that applied to women of the same sex, nor certainly to men.
Given that these kinds of practices and relationships are becoming mainstream, legal and accepted by most of society, we need to be aware of the possibility that they will show up at our doorstep in the form of weakened views on the purity of marriage or in the form of militant actions by those wishing to get us to accept the new points of views. In all these cases, we must exercise the love of God towards all while upholding the teachings of the Church. We must protect our families and our children by upholding the very relations that point towards the infinite love of God towards his people.

The Holy Prophet Isaiah

“I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me!” (Isaiah 1:2) quoted a father against his unruly sons in the country of Israel. Unfortunately, the King James translation above does not do justice to the beautiful poetry of the Holy Prophet Isaiah. The meter and rhythm of the words and their rhyme as quoted in the ancient Hebrew of Isaiah  is not matched by anything in English. The words sounded more like “Ba-nim Gi-dal-ti Ve-romam-ti, Ve-hem Pash-oo Bi!” (syllables in bold receive an accent) and they had the effect of stopping the ear of those of us that heard him.  That father would then go on to quote the rest of the poetic words out of memory and those that heard him would be mesmerized by the words of Isaiah recited live. He had memorized them out of the synagogue lectionary because the words were as haunting and piercing as they were to those that heard them 2800 years ago.

The Prophet Isaiah the son of Amos lived in the latter half of the 8th century B.C. and is presumed to have died early in the 7th. He was called to prophetic service for over 60 years during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Singularly, he is one of the most important prophets to Judaism (ancient and present) and Christianity, and even influenced music and literature up to our age including significant portions of Handel’s Messiah. Overall, there are at least 71 passages in the New Testament in which the book of Isaiah is either quoted, cited or paraphrased. Except for the book of Psalms, no other Old Testament book is quoted or referred to more times in the New Testament. Jesus even began his ministry with a quote from the prophet (Luke 4:16-20). Both Jewish and Christian tradition report him as having been martyred by being sawn in half with a wooden saw which may possibly be the reference of Heb. 11:37. As such, Saint Isaiah is counted among one of the earliest martyrs.

The English transliterated name Isaiah was originally pronounced Ye-sha-ya-hu in Hebrew and means “salvation (is) of the Lord”. In the Greek Old Testament it was transliterated as Esaias which is the name used in the New Testament. His name has significance in relation to the Hebrew name Ye-ho-shu-a (Joshua in English, or Jesus in Greek) which means “the Lord is salvation”. The two names, our Savior’s and Isaiah’s, have exactly the same root words of “Lord” and “salvation”, only transposed. Thus Isaiah’s name was highly prophetic of his role in uttering key prophetic insights concerning the Messiah, as well as of the heavy use made of his book in the New Testament which is about the salvation of the Lord.

The Fathers of the Church agreed that Isaiah was the greatest of the literary Prophets. Isaiah’s poetry, descriptive, lyric, or elegiac is unsurpassed by any other writer of the Old Testament. This was partially recognized by the imagery of the book. But since its poetic impact was partially lost in translation it was not until the 19th century, when there was a growth in appreciation and study of Hebrew poetry, that we now have a deeper understanding of his masterful use of language. The Holy Spirit used Isaiah’s learned abilities to give us writings of uncommon elevation and majesty. He was probably attached to the royal court and was thus educated with a masterful use of the language as well as knowledge the political and moral circumstances of the nation. His language was adapted with care to the occasions and his audiences going from severe austerity to motherly tenderness.

More importantly is the content of the book, some of which may be due to his prophetic school rather than singularly from his pen. Isaiah’s book contains both moral and prophetic warnings to Israel for straying from God, as well as messages of hope and love for the deliverance of the future. He clearly enunciated God’s high expectations of Israel. Israel was to be holy to God and an example to the gentile nations of God’s deliverance, benevolence, and wisdom. However it also becomes clear that Israel did not fulfill that task. Thus in the book of Isaiah there is the rise of a description of the servant of God. That description poetically shifts back and forth from the reference to Israel who had failed as God’s servant to a unique individual who would fulfill the task that was not carried out by Israel. When one reads carefully, one comes to see that this unique individual has unusual qualities, even pointing to divine ones. Suddenly this unique individual becomes a suffering servant, one who suffers for the whole world and bears their burdens and sins. Who could this suffering servant be? The Jewish people said that the servant must be Israel but it is clear from the message that Israel had failed the task. When the gospel came along, the first Jewish Christians perceived the reference of Isaiah and even preached it to the gentiles (Acts 8:26-35). This insight about his writings and many more like it were expanded by the church Fathers.

Isaiah’s book is thus far more than a simple prediction of the future. It is a book of God’s judgment, of the care necessary to give to the poor and downtrodden, of God’s mercy and of God’s love and forbearance for his people as well as God’s promise to restore them in the end with his salvation.

Isaiah also touches the liturgy of the church in important ways. One of the most important comes through his original vision of heaven (Isaiah 6). In this vision Isaiah sees God on a throne which is covered by six-winged Seraphim. Isaiah hears the Seraphim continuously praising God with words that he transcribes and that would eventually end up in St. John Chrysostom’s liturgy as the Trisagion Hymn: “Holy, Holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory”. (For particular reasons, rather than translate “of hosts”, the Greek Bible transliterated the Hebrew word “Sabaoth”, which was transliterated again into the English liturgy).

Thus the Holy Prophet Isaiah, for his unique and poetic contribution as God’s prophet, as one who first heard the Trisagion in a heavenly vision, as one who prophesied of the coming of the Messiah and as one who was martyred in the service of God, is honored by the church on May 9.