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The bed undefiled by politics: Orthodox Christian thoughts on gay-marriage legislation

What does Christian Orthodoxy teach about homosexuality? Is any it less or more of a sin than heterosexual fornication? In light of recent court decisions, Amelia suggests tempering political views with spiritual wisdom.
On the day that I am writing this article, the Supreme Court ruled twice in favor of homosexual marriage. In response to the cheers from those on one side of the issue, as well as the jeers from those on the other, I would like to offer some thoughts on why marriage is not a "right" but a gift. It is a gift from God, and it comes with certain guidelines and restrictions.

I will preface this article by saying that I do not hate, dislike, or fear homosexuals. I do not think they should be persecuted or slandered in any way, just like no one else should be persecuted or slandered. I have friends who openly self-identify as homosexual, and I have friends who try to hide the fact that they do. This article is not meant to sow discord or offense toward anyone, homosexual or not. Whether any two people want to marry, and whether the government regards their legal union as a right worth sanctioning, is not my business. What is my business, however, is to affirm and uphold the teaching of Christian Scripture and Tradition, which unambiguously regards homosexuality as a sin.

Although the recent court rulings do not impact my personal life in any way, they definitely will have an impact on the society in which I live. They will have an impact on the values that may someday be force-fed down my children's throats. They will have an impact on the number of people that will stray from the Christian path and never return. A hundred years from now, when married gay couples are enjoying their shared insurance benefits and raising their adopted children, our great-grandchildren are going to grow up viewing homosexuality as normal and perfectly acceptable in God's eyes. Supporters of homosexuality are rejoicing over this future reality, but we traditionally-minded Christians are lamenting and praying for divine mercy.

We can teach our loved ones everything that the Church teaches about what constitutes a holy marriage, but the widespread social acceptance of something sinful is going to make those teachings more difficult to impart. It is harder to recognize a sin as dirty when some of the people whom you love and care for are engaging in it with society's blessing. We will be seen as the enemy. We will be called fanatics. We will be called ignorant. It will be an uphill battle, but it is one that sincere Orthodox Christians must be brave enough to fight.

We cannot fight it with hatred, or name-calling, or fear; we have to fight it with prayer and the truth.

The truth begins with knowing what "marriage" means and does not mean. In politics and law, marriage is about contractual agreements, legal protections, civil rights, and social liberties. In secular society, it is about vows of love and commitment. In the Orthodox Church, however, it is much more than any of those things. It is a means of saving one's soul; it is a path toward Christ and salvation. A civil wedding ceremony, whether legally recognized or not, is not the same thing as a sacramental marriage in the Church. Both may bring earthly blessings such as publicly-recognized status and tax/insurance benefits, but only one brings actual blessings from God. In the spiritual sense, a marriage does not "count" if it is not blessed by God.

How do we know that God does not bless homosexual relationships? He makes it very clear in both the Scripture and Tradition of the original Christian Church. In Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, as well as many Protestant churches, God's prohibition of homosexual activity continues to be recognized and taught.

Some examples of where we can see this teaching:
• Genesis 19:1-11
• Leviticus 18:22
• Leviticus 20:13
• Judges 19:16-24
• 1 Kings 14:24
• 1 Kings 15:12
• 2 Kings 23:7
• Romans 1:18-32
• Ephesians 4:19
• 1 Corinthians 6:9-10
• 1 Timothy 1:8-10
• Jude 1:7

Very interestingly, on this same day that America has come several steps closer to equating homosexual marriage with heterosexual, the epistle reading on the Orthodox Church calendar was this:

Brethren, the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason God gave them 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. (Romans 1:18-27)

It should be noted that it was not recently that this reading was assigned for this day. The daily readings on our Church calendar are determined by a lectionary that dates at least as as far back as the fourth century. When the lectionary was laid out 1,700 years ago, no one knew that the issue of homosexual marriage would be on the United States Supreme Court's docket on June 26, 2013.

Well, except God, that is. Evidently, He did know.

Also on this day, we Orthodox commemorate Saint Triphyllius, Bishop of Leucosia (Nicosia) in Cyprus (†370). There is a reading about him in the Lives of the Saints, which depicts several conversations that he had shared with his spiritual father, Saint Spyridon of Trimiphunteia. In one of those conversations, Saint Sypridon says the following to Saint Triphyllios, admonishing him:

Why do you incessantly think about earthly and transitory blessings? Our habitation and riches are in Heaven, to which we ought to strive.

The surfacing of this idea on this day is no less a coincidence than the epistle reading is.

How should we strive toward a habitation and the riches in Heaven that Saint Spyridon indicates? How does that striving relate to the issue of homosexuality in America? First and foremost, we should love homosexuals as much as we love any other sinners, as we all are sinners. However, we should love them with holy love, not a false love that encourages them to indulge in "earthly and transitory blessings."

Perhaps some people consider the Church's prohibition of homosexual relations to be oppressive. I would remind them, though, that homosexuality is not the only type of sexual sin that is prohibited. Just as God does not bless homosexual unions, He also does not bless the sexual union of unmarried men and women. He does not bless the solitary sexual activity of single people. He does not bless prostitution or phone-sex. He does not bless any type of sexual activity involving children, animals, or objects. He does not bless the sexual activity of groups of three or more. He does not bless so-called "open relationships" or "swinging" from partner to partner. He also does not bless any sexual activity that is energized by pornography (which is mental fornication or adultery), fantasies of other people (mental pornography), memories of past liaisons (again, mental pornography), the use of mechanical devices (fornication/adultery with objects instead of people), or the oral-genital contact that the Bible calls unnatural. Even in marriage, the bed is to remain undefiled by any of these things.

In addition, there are people who argue that one's sexual interests are not a conscious, intentional choice. This may perhaps be true in some instances (and in others not). However, there is always the choice not to act upon those interests, regardless of whether they are brought about by volition, past experiences, or anything else. (Heterosexual people also are expected to exercise this same type of restraint; not all desires can or should be fulfilled all of the time.) It does not matter whether a person's homosexual inclinations are psychosocial, biological (supposedly), or otherwise; what matters is what the person chooses to do about it. Just as there are some people who are attracted to people of their same gender, there are also people attracted to married people. Some people are attracted to their blood relatives. Some are attracted to children. Some are attracted to dead bodies. Some are attracted to animals, balloons, dolls, shoes, furniture, toys, and all kinds of other things. The heart of the matter should not be whether it is "their fault" for feeling attractions they should not feel. The heart of the matter should be how to help them overcome those attractions, or at the very least not respond to them.

To some, it might seem appealing to equate gay or lesbian marriage with the marriage between a man and woman, but only a perceived equality is ultimately possible. There are obvious physical differences. There are less-obvious psychosocial differences. The spiritual differences are perhaps the least obvious. Because of these differences, however, there are limitations to total marital fulfillment that the homosexual couple can never completely overcome. Civil lawmakers can decide to lump homosexuals and heterosexuals into a common demographic category called "married," but the reality is that such a category will always contain two distinct, irreconcilably separate groups of people.

A popular slogan is: "If you don't like gay marriage, then don't get one." This is a lovely, politically idealistic thought. For the record, there are many of us who will never stand in line for licenses to marry people of the same gender. However, the legalization of homosexual marriage is not going to be entirely without impact on us, whether we pursue it for ourselves or not. For example, there is no doubt it my mind that our churches will ultimately be robbed of their tax-exempt status if they refuse to feign homosexual weddings. Children raised by homosexual parents will be deprived of the important and necessary presence of parental role-models of both genders (aunts, uncles, and friends are not the same as primary caregivers). Many people will inevitably come to believe that sodomy is as acceptable in Heaven as it is in America. Eventually, the courts will be hearing cases about threesomes who want to marry legally, or people who want to marry their cousins. The consequences will go on and on, whether those of us who "don't like gay marriage" ever "get one" or not.

Be assured, Christians, the battle will not end with giving marriage rights to one group or another. No matter how far down the proverbial bar is lowered, there will always be people who want it to drop even further.

Does gay marriage represent a lowering of any kind of bar? A common argument to the contrary is that homosexuals can (and perhaps do) have relationships that are just as successful as some heterosexuals' relationships. The Church's prohibition of gay marriage, however, has nothing to do with happiness or satisfaction in one's relationship. Mutual care and compassion are sometimes enough to make a relationship "work," but they are nowhere near enough to make it holy. Consent, kindness, respect, patience, fidelity, honesty, sincerity, commitment, and hard work are necessary also—but they still are not enough. They do not make heterosexual or homosexual fornication any less sordid than it really is. Fornication is fornication, no matter who or what is involved. All varieties of it are equally punishable in Hell.

On the other hand, all varieties of fornication are also equally forgivable through Christ. All it takes is sincere repentance and the choice to stop. Celibacy is no less difficult a requirement of unmarried heterosexual people than it is of the homosexual, but it is the only holy option for either group. One may fall many times in trying to uphold this choice, but the resolve to get up and continue fighting must never waver. It is a matter of being willing to sacrifice something temporary for something eternal.

If we want to show true, Christian love for our homosexual friends and neighbors, what we have to do is direct them toward salvation. That begins and ends with praying for them, but in the middle it requires guiding them in the way of truth. If we stop calling sin sin (for example, by overturning age-old legal restrictions on it), we are not truly helping anyone; all we are doing is obscuring the path to Christ.

The path to Christ is narrow enough on its own; we do not need politics and secular propaganda making it even narrower. In this world, it is difficult enough to cultivate and maintain a spiritually healthy relationship with another person; we do not need to start becoming confused about what "spiritually healthy" means.

We are all sinners, but that is not an excuse to continue sinning or to condone sinfulness. To say that we are all sinners is also to say that we are all in need of Christ's healing.

God, Who is by nature good and dispassionate, loves all men equally as His handiwork. But He glorifies the virtuous man because in his will he is united to God. At the same time, in His goodness he is merciful to the sinner and by chastising him in this life brings him back to the path of virtue. Similarly, a man of good and dispassionate judgment also loves all men equally. He loves the virtuous man because of his nature and the probity of his intention; and he loves the sinner, too, because of his nature and because in his compassion he pities him for foolishly stumbling in darkness.
— Saint Maximos the Confessor