Breaking the Silence on Sexuality within the Orthodox Church

St. Paul, the Fathers, and some thoughts. (Michael Berrigan Clark)

This little document of mine serves two purposes; I hope everyone will indulge me in what the French would call *un document polyvalent* — a multi-purpose paper.

Purpose number one: clearing up some confusion about what St. John Chrysostom said and did not say, and, with any luck, proposing a way forward for today’s Orthodox Christians to read patristic documents in an authentic way… a way that doesn’t distort the original author’s intent and doesn’t force artificial parallels between ancient society and contemporary culture.

Purpose number two: sharing a bit of personal history about how I came to my understanding outlined in Purpose number one. The beauty of the Orthodox Tradition is that it is never a story of abstractions, bodiless truths floating in space. Ours is an incarnational faith; Tradition has a *personal* character and progression.

So… Purpose number one:

∆ιὰ τοῦτο οὐ τὸ δόγμα αὐτοῖς σατανικὸν μόνον ἦν, ἀλλὰ καὶ ὁ βίος διαβολικός.

An improperly amplified translation of the above citation from St. John Chrysostom’s commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans has appeared recently on the web as:

“And thus not only was their homosexual doctrine satanical, but their life too was demonically diabolical.”

The proper translation of the excerpt should read:

“For this reason not only was their teaching satanic, but their life also (was) diabolical.”

“Demonically diabolical” is just an overheated redundancy, but there is no word signifying “homosexual” in the Greek text of Chrysostom. This would have been very strange indeed had it been there, since there was no exact equivalent of the word “homosexual” in ancient Greek. The word “homosexual” is a neologism that dates from the middle of the 19th century.

So who were these “satanic” teachers, these “diabolical” men St. John seems so concerned about? The (anonymous) mis-translator was so convinced that these men were “homosexual” that he/she inserted the word to make St. John’s meaning clear. Many well meaning Orthodox Christians are convinced that St. John surely intended to condemn “homosexuality” by making these and other characterizations in his commentary on the first chapter of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Surely it’s clear that St. John condemned “homosexuality” in exactly the same sense we understand the term today, whether or not the word was available to the 4th century preacher?

But it is this assumption that must be challenged. There is a short passage later in the same homily, rarely cited, that virtually proves the opposite. I think it is worth quoting in the original Greek, and analyzing carefully.

After some more overheated rhetoric (St. John, alas, was quite given to such excess on many different occasions), Chrysostom settles down for a closer look at St. Paul’s text and makes some important comments in identifying St. Paul’s idolatrous men of Satan:

Σκόπει δὲ πῶς καὶ ἐμφαντικῶς χρῆται ταῖς λέξεσιν. Οὐ γὰρ εἶπεν, ὅτι ἠράσθησαν καὶ ἐπεθύμησαν ἀλλήλων, ἀλλ’ Ἐξεκαύθησαν ἐν τῇ ὀρέξει αὐτῶν εἰς ἀλλήλους.

“And consider how vividly/forcibly he makes use of (his) words. For he does not say that they fell in love and desired one another, but rather they were burned up/were consumed in their yearning/desire/lust for one another.”

St. John wants to make it very clear that St. Paul was not talking about *love.* He explicitly excludes the possibility that the men of Romans 1:26-27 *were in love* or *loved passionately.* The verb is ἠράσθησαν (erasthésan), the same verb whose root is *eros,* passionate love. The men of Romans chapter one are victims of their own ὀρέξις, *orexis,* a word usually with a strong negative connotation–my translation alternative of “lust” is not too strong. It is contrasted by St. John with the more generic (and appropriate form) of desire *epithumia*, the noun related to our verb ἐπεθύμησαν. The men of Romans chapter one were “burning and lusting after…” not “loving and desiring…” St. John is only bringing to our attention what he finds very obvious in the text of St. Paul.

St John *assumes* it is clear that St. Paul is not talking about persons who love each other. St. John is not addressing the possibility that two men, or two women, might *love each other* and so *desire* to spend their whole lives together. He explicitly excludes this possibility. I’m not trying to read approval into St. John’s silence, I merely want to point out that he is undeniably *silent* about the possibility of a loving same-sex relationship. Realistically, I think it quite likely that St. John would have denied such a thing could exist; and perhaps St. Paul as well. Their view of same sex relationships was probably dominated by the exploitative and impermanent arrangements for which there existed such an abundance of examples in the late Greco-Roman world.

No one should waste their time speculating on what St. Paul or St. John *might have* approved in other times or under other circumstances; but we can certainly affirm that assigning a blanket condemnation of all things “homosexual” to the writings of St. John or St. Paul before him is merely anachronistic–neither the Apostle nor the Church Father were operating with the same vocabulary we work with today nor had they the same models of human behavior before their eyes that exist in the contemporary world. To assert otherwise is purely anachronistic.

None of this means that the Church is somehow now obligated to approve relationships she has only condemned in the past; what it does mean is that a great deal of the alleged biblical and patristic evidence in opposition to same sex relationships is more like silence than it is like loud and clear condemnation.

As far as I am aware, all the patristic evidence against “homosexuality” is tied to a condemnation of it’s exploitative, cruel, impermanent nature, often condemned along with it’s associations with prostitution and slavery. The writings of Clement of Alexandria come to mind especially in this regard.

The silence of the Bible and the Fathers is probably a more difficult concept to deal with for some persons than finding isolated passages that might challenge their thinking on some subject. But as we progress through human history, questions on which the biblical and patristic witness is largely or entirely silent will only increase. It behooves us to articulate a way forward in those circumstances. We might start by really reading and studying Lossky’s article “Tradition and Traditions” which has been linked to elsewhere on in this Facebook group.

Remember I had a Purpose number two? I know I’ve been so long winded you are excused for forgetting.

But anyway… Purpose number two:

A personal reflection on how I came to the approach I described in Purpose number one above. It was not because I am such a careful and thoughtful scholar of ancient texts. Though I am not a complete incompetent in these matters (I have an undergraduate degree in Greek and an unfinished graduate degree in early Church History), it was something else entirely that forced me to look at biblical and patristic texts in a different light. Please indulge me in the following story:

Imagine an 18 year old university Freshman away from home for the first time. He has only recently taken an interest in the Christian faith (having been raised in an essentially non-religious home) and is nervously attempting to come to terms with his new found religious directions as well as his now undeniable homosexual orientation. Our new Christian undergraduate has been pointed in the direction of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans–here, at last…. perhaps… he hopes to find the description of his condition and the proper approach to reconciling the pieces of his life which have, heretofore, resisted reasonable organization.

He reads Chapter 1.

Imagine now that he closes the book. Thinks deeply for several minutes, and realizes, to his horror, that he is worse off than before. Horrified, not because he has now been so deeply convicted of his sin, but horrified because where he had hoped to find answers (even unpleasant ones) he found only silence. Where he had hoped to find a description of his own condition (even an exceedingly sinful one) and to catch the eye of a wiser man, the Apostle Paul, who might show him the way forward, he found instead that he was entirely *invisible.* Our undergraduate had, as yet, confided in no one… no one saw him for who he was… no one had heard him speak about his inner anguish and fear… and now, it seemed, he was invisible to the new God he had just discovered, the God in whom he had placed such great hopes.

How is this possible? How did our rather precocious and excessively self conscious undergraduate leave his first encounter with the First Chapter of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Romans with such an… unexpected emptiness?

Let’s see… Paul was condemning idolaters (our 18 year old was already a Christian) who had, as a consequence of their idolatry, abandoned the use of sex with women to be inflamed with lust for each other (our undergraduate was still a virgin, who had had no use of women in a sexual way at all–and still hasn’t some 36 years later, thank you very much–and had no interest in defending “lust” of any kind) idolators who had furthermore not thought it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God (whereas our serious adolescent was tortured by his sexuality precisely because he had found the knowledge of God at age 18, and refused to give up on it)…

As time went on our serious young Christian adopted the conservative wisdom of those Evangelical Christians around him (he would become an Orthodox Christian only much later) and simply assumed that he was the intended target audience for the sinners of Romans 1, though this made absolutely no sense to him at all.

Everyone agreed that this passage is the most devastatingly clear condemnation of homosexuality in the Bible (he would not read the Church Fathers, except, in good Evangelical fashion, St. Augustine, until years later) and yet…

It eventually dawned on me (yes it’s me! I’m going to abandon the little third person pronoun game) that there had to be a better way. Everyone was so convinced that Romans 1 was a description of my condition; but all I could think was that St. Paul was a miserable apostle if that was the best description he could come up with. Either St. Paul had the worst imaginable understanding of human psychology, or… or what? or my conservative Christian friends had totally misconstrued Paul’s purposes in Romans 1 by thinking he was issuing a blanket condemnation of homosexuality.

Out of deference for the Apostle, I opted for the latter interpretation.

I didn’t need to figure out exactly whom St. Paul meant when he condemned the idolaters in Romans 1–I have since read several perfectly plausible, though not all mutually consistent, interpretations of what he meant–because it was perfectly plain to me that I was not described therein. Not specifically, at any rate; not any more than every other human being who has “suppressed the truth by their wickedness.” (Rom. 1:18)

I understand how a person who is not gay might read the first chapter of Romans (and St. John’s commentary on it) and conclude that this was a clear description of all homosexual sin. It is only my experience as an actual gay person that let me see that this *could not* be what St. Paul was doing.

I don’t know why it was so many years later before I read with real understanding the summation to the whole of Romans 1 (actually the first verse in Romans 2): “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.”

How could anyone use Paul’s letter to the Romans to point out someone else’s sin and still maintain a straight face?

So where did that leave me?

With a lot of silence– first from the Bible, and later from the Fathers. And a lot of noise (from theologians, bible commentators, Vatican functionaries–I was a Roman Catholic for 22 years–and more recently, from spokespersons for the Orthodox Church). Silence, or noise? Hmmm… not an inviting environment for a gay person attempting to find a place in the Church.

I know many “conservative” Orthodox Christians (or “traditionalist,” if you prefer) will be surprised to find out that I wouldn’t mind if the Church eventually decides that celibacy is the only genuine option of holiness for the gay Christian. It’s not the result that matters. After all, genuine Christian faith, the Orthodox Christian faith is not about *ethics* or *morality.* Only when Christian faith has really degenerated do moral and ethical questions become the center of Church life… The Orthodox faith is about *transformation,* and that comes about only when the Church has truly examined the human condition *in it’s entirety* and has truly wrestled with the questions in a way that exposes the truth about who we are… who we all are.

But right now the noise and the silence predominate. Shouting out verses from St. Paul and the Fathers back and forth does not constitute wrestling with the human condition and speaking in a way that represents the truth.

A lot of work remains to be done.