We are excited to share our very first post by a guest author! Jim is a dear friend who’s journey into orthodoxy has been inspiring to me and who’s insights I’ve found very helpful as I branch out of my strictly evangelical thinking.I really appreciate his willingness to represent a largely unrepresented perspective here, as I hope you will as well. – Katie
First and foremost, this is not my blog. I’m a guest, and it is important to me that this essay and any conversation it generates respects the intended context of this blog. That being said, I’ve been asked to write this essay to articulate my (admittedly limited) understanding of the way the Eastern Orthodox Church approaches the subject of same sex attraction and Christianity and how that approach may differ from Western Christianity. It is important to me that any conversation here not turn to a critique (or defense) of Orthodox Christianity or be mistaken for an attempt to assert that Orthodoxy is superior, or the current state of Western Christianity. I am more than happy to discuss those topics with interested parties, just not here.
Some brief words about my background:
I grew up in the United Methodist Church. I attended and graduated from Gordon College in 1995. I spent the next year living with the Jesus People USA intentional community in northern Chicago. On the basis of these experiences I came to the decision that I could not remain a Protestant, and sought to enter the Orthodox Church. For reasons which are complex and unimportant here, this ended up taking until 2009 to achieve. The delay was at times extremely distressing, but ultimately taught me many things which have turned out to be crucial for my new journey within this very ancient tradition. I was originally completely unprepared for just how different this approach to the life of faith the Eastern Church truly is. I write about these differences across a wide array of subjects on my own blog, but I will restrict my comments here to the appropriate topic.
The most important differences to highlight here are the Orthodox understanding of salvation, temptation, sin and repentance. Ultimately, what it means to “be a Christian” will be seen to not be something different, but to be understood in a different way.
Recognizing that there is an enormous spectrum of precise beliefs, I believe that we can say that in the West, salvation is understood primarily as an event. An assent of the will is made to “accept Jesus Christ” (either with or without accompanying ritual), repentance for past sins is expressed, and from this point forward a person is “saved” and is a Christian. For the most part, the only way this salvation can be lost is through explicit apostasy — abandoning Christ and willfully turning back to a life of sin.
In the East, salvation is not an event which occurs at a point in time, rather it is a journey which may have its beginning with a willed assent (but can also begin by being born into a family of faith who begins this journey for you long before you consciously acknowledge it) to follow Christ but which does not end until death, possibly not even then. Repentance, rejection of sin, the pursuit of a relationship with God, these are the activities of every moment of our lives. God’s plan to save all of humanity from death and sin is something which we must continually participate in throughout our entire life. Whether any given person is “saved” is for God alone to judge, and only in specific cases is a human life so infused with the divine energy of the Holy Spirit that we can say with confidence that such a person was saved. We call such persons Saints which is a word that has its etymology in the same Greek word (agios) we use to describe God — holy. We can become by grace what Christ is by nature.
We were created to live in loving relationship with God. God loves all creation unconditionally. God is boundless, infinite love. There is nothing we can do to lose God’s love. The life of faith is neither about suddenly receiving God’s love or earning God’s love, rather it is about growing into a being which can return that love through the way we live our life. This can easily be mistaken for “works based” religion, often placed under either the Pelagian or semi-Pelagian heresies. It is important to stress that our salvation comes not from the effort we put into loving God. We are saved by God’s grace. However, in just the same way that if I love my wife I am simply incapable of behaving toward her in any way except those which express that love, so too if I love God, I am incapable of behaving in any way except those which express that love. The grace comes first, then the faith, then the love, and then the works flow inevitably from that love.
The reason this is important is because it creates a very different view of sin in the life of a Christian. In the West, there is always this (in many cases unspoken, but in some cases explicit) sense that Christians do not sin. The life of faith therefore becomes predominantly focused on moral living. Of course, it is the heartfelt desire and goal of all Christians not to sin. But fallen creatures are fallen creatures, and in spite of ourselves, we all Fall from time to time. For many of us, certain sins have become such a habit that they may require months, years, even decades to fully overcome — unless God’s Providence delivers us immediately which He does do, but not in all cases. We do not all become agios overnight. Some of us, I dare say many of us, will never be agios in this lifetime.
This is why the Orthodox Church has the sacrament of confession. It is also why we receive the sacrament of the Eucharist so frequently. The body and blood of Christ, receiving him directly into our bodies, is medicine which heals both body and soul from the disease of sin. We repent, we confess, we receive that which cleanses us. We pray daily for forgiveness, for grace, for the strength to resist today what we failed to resist yesterday. This is the life of faith. Not merely the pursuit of a moral and pure life, but a relationship with God in his love which so infuses us that there is no longer a place for sin to abide. Moral living is the fruit of the spirit which comes after rather than being what we quest for from the beginning.
To be a Christian is not to spend each day trying to live a moral, pure life. To be a Christian is to spend each day pursuing God’s love and seeking His grace to be capable of returning that love to Him. To allow oneself to be filled with divine energy until sin must flee and we become agios.
We also understand that temptation itself is not a sin. Christ himself was tempted. Temptation is an opportunity to resist sin. To cleave to God and reject sin. We do not fall when we are tempted, we only fall when we choose the sin over God’s love. Some of the Fathers of the Church have even suggested that without temptation, salvation would be impossible because we would never have the opportunity to choose God.
I have said nothing yet about sexuality. How is any of what I have said relevant? I will test your patience no longer and I will get to the point. That God has very specific commandments for us about sexuality is not a point of debate. Christ is the bridegroom and the Church is his bride. This union is eternal and has always been and shall always be. He has no other bride and she has no other head. Their fidelity is perfect. The Scriptures are unflinching in teaching us that the union of a man and a woman are the archetype of this cosmic reality. Any sexual act which is beyond the boundaries of this radical monogamy violates that reality. What our contemporary society calls homosexual acts are in no way distinct from this comprehensive view of human sexuality. They are neither exempt, nor especially sinful. Pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, and sex which cannot be marriage are all “equally” outside of the archetype God has given us.
Sex is a beautiful gift from God, but like all gifts it can be distorted, destroyed, even rejected. It is neither a necessary part of life without which our existence is in some way incomplete or invalid, nor is it a right which we can demand. Saint Paul’s epistles make it quite clear that not all are called to be married. The Orthodox Church has preserved this teaching through a rich monastic tradition which has existed since at least the 3rd Century in a formal manner, while recognizing that many of the Faithful lived chaste and celibate lives both before the monastic tonsure as well as after without entering that tonsure explicitly. Christ’s own mother is our example par excellence of the celibate life outside of monasticism.
We live in a culture today which is saturated with sex. Our culture teaches us that sex is a crucial part of our happiness, and that anything which seeks to curtail our pursuit of it is an aberration of nature. Within this context it has become acceptable in the minds of some to insist that the Christian teaching about God’s plan for human sexuality is outdated, bigoted, unnecessarily puritanical, in a word, wrong. But we must never make the mistake of believing that God’s Truth is subject to human culture. The Church has always taught and continues to teach that “sex outside of marriage” is a sin, and that “marriage” is the sacrament of a man and a woman entering into a permanent, exclusive union. It has taught and will always teach these things not because it is “stuck” in some outmoded mindset, but because these things are part of the very fabric of Creation itself which God has revealed to us through The Scriptures and his Incarnate Word.
Our culture also espouses notions of sexual orientation and identity. These are surprisingly modern concepts which have much more to do with politics than with actual sex. Consequently, these terms appear nowhere in either The Scriptures or the Patristic Tradition. This has left Christianity (both East and West) with something of a problem when it comes to discussing the question of whether or not “homosexuality is a sin”. When we refer to the act of homosexual sex, The Scriptures are quite clear. But when we refer to the orientation itself, or the self-identity, we have very little to go on directly. But I would like to suggest that this is a problem for the categorical labels our culture has adopted, not for Christianity.
Western Christianity seems to have taken the approach that a person who identifies as homosexual is therefore by definition unrepentant, and therefore cannot be a Christian. There are several problems with this. The most important being that many homosexuals never actually have sex — just like a great many heterosexual people never have sex. Whether that abstinence is voluntary or not is largely immaterial. But what happens is that if we say the homosexual orientation itself is a sin, whether sexual acts ever actually occur or not, what we are really saying is that temptation itself becomes a sin. Because what the self-identity as “homosexual” really says is “I am a person who is tempted to a particular kind of sin”. It is little different from someone identifying themselves as an alcoholic or greedy, or power mongering or even just ill tempered — the difference being that (essentially) no one embraces those terms as a culturally empowering self-identity. For the most part our culture has not slid so far downhill that we fail to be ashamed of all of our temptations.
But we cannot mistake temptation for sin. Not merely because Christ himself was tempted as we’ve already said, but also because it explicitly denies that heterosexual persons ever experience sexual temptation if we assert that homosexuality is a sin, but heterosexuality is not. Worse still, it creates an artificial “gate” to a relationship with God which is explicitly Pelagian heresy. It insists that a person cleanse themselves of sin before they can become a Christian and receive God’s grace of salvation, forgiveness and love. It merely compounds the heresy to say that this gate only applies to a particular type of sinner who, despite everything The Scriptures say to the contrary, are somehow so especially sinful that God cannot love them until they stop sinning.
We need not even get into the destructive and dehumanizing prospect of seeking to “reorient” someone to actively desire something they have no need to desire. That they do not sin, that in time they are even no longer tempted, is what is needful. Abandoning the identity as “homosexual” is not about the replacement or removal of the temptation, but about accepting that this label has no value when one’s true desire is to love God above oneself. At any rate there is certainly no need to replace it with a self-identity as heterosexual. We are not ultimately sexual beings, we are ultimately relational beings and our orient is to God’s love, not carnality (and this is true for all human persons).
In the Orthodox Church, we recognize that all humanity is composed of sinners. What our particular sins may be are largely unimportant. Even our priests are sinners. We come together as The Church to pray, to worship, to receive sacramental healing and to buoy one another with love to have the strength to live out our repentance each day. If I am tempted to cheat on my wife, I am no different from another man who may be tempted to have sex with men. Both of us need to be in The Church, receiving the same grace and the same love and the same forgiveness. There is no difference between us. In both cases we are tempted. In both cases if we resist that temptation, we are reflecting our love of God. In both cases, without The Church, we will certainly perish in our sins.
Because of all these differences in understanding, The Orthodox Church is able to largely side-step the “culture war” regarding homosexuality. We don’t need to debate about “loving the sinner and hating the sin”. We just love the sinner, with God’s help. Judgement is for God alone. Another man’s sin is between him and God and I must attend to the plank in my own eye. The Church is a hospital. We are all sick, and we all need the medicine that The Church offers to any who come in faith to receive. We stand firm in our Traditional understanding of God’s plan for human relations, while rejecting elevating any specific sin or any contemporary cultural concept to be in some way unique, or distinctly sinful. The Church’s monastic tradition and recognition of the life of celibacy (either under a tonsure or not) as a valid and even laudable endeavor put it on much more tenable ground when it demands that those who have no wife (or husband, I apologize that I have been writing in exclusively male terms) abstain from any and all sexual acts. We have no particular expectation that any member of The Church is sinless and we require no one to assert or demonstrate freedom from any sin before they are either welcome to attend services, or able to enter membership into the sacramental life.
All have sinned and fallen short. It does not particularly matter how or why. All that matters is that we gather as The Church and seek to overcome in the hope that someday, by God’s grace, we will become agios.
Jim Marks is the author of The Life of Meaning blog .
He and his wife live in Houston,Texas.