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Orthodox Christianity and Marriage

May 13, 2012

As I was writing my earlier post about my sense that non-LDS Christianity doesn’t seem to value relationships and marriage as much as Mormonism does (and for Mormonism, relationships are so important that celibacy doesn’t really fit theologically), I realized that “non-LDS Christianity” is a pretty ambiguous term. If I could rewrite that post, it would probably be about how Conservative, Evangelical, Protestant Christianity doesn’t seem to value relationships and marriage as much as Mormonism does. (But that’s the funny thing there…because with the Protestant Reformation also came negativity about institutionalized clerical celibacy.)

So, even before I had published that article, I was trying to figure out what different traditions thought about marriage, about relationships, and about celibacy. In the same way that I feel there is a different set of responses to make to an Evangelical than there is to make to a Mormon (because of a difference in theological attitudes about the importance of relationships, companionship, marriage, and celibacy), I quickly learned that there is a whole different set of responses to make to Orthodox Christianity.

What’s particular about Orthodoxy?

Of all the major Christian traditions broadly defined, Orthodox Christianity is easily the one about which I know the least. Even though many things about Catholicism sound foreign to me, Orthodox Christianity seems even stranger to me in many respects. Yet, perhaps because I’m a Mormon, and Mormons love to emphasize that “we are a peculiar people” who are “in the world but not of it,” I have kept a sort of respect-at-a-distance with Orthodox Christianity.

Death to the World, the Last True Rebellion

I never thought I’d see iconography used to achieve a punk aesthetic.

I don’t know what my first real introduction to Orthodox Christianity was, but one of the most memorable was the idea of Orthodoxy as “radical.” And what better to show the radicality of Orthodox Christianity than an Orthodox punk ‘zine?

At some point, I was linked to Death to the World, the Last True Rebellion. Now, I’m not a punk, and I don’t share many of the sentiments that probably appealed to the people who would eventually come to read this magazine…but that this was a Thing That Existed cemented in my mind that Orthodox Christianity was hardcore.

Ever since then, I’ve seen different articles — from within the Orthodox tradition — continue to raise this idea of “radicality” as a distinguishing brand feature of Orthodox. Whereas Mormons now seem to be striving to be acceptable, mainstream, and “normal,” Orthodoxy seems to be relish in its uncompromising tradition. (That being said, now I want to read articles outside of the faithful facade…what would ex-Orthodox Christians have to say about what goes on in the religion outside of what is presented to the rest of us?)

So, in response to the North Carolina Amendment 1 gay marriage ban stuff on Facebook, in addition to the Evangelical Christian notes about which I have previously written, one of my Facebook friends had a post about an Orthodox Christian’s response to the issue. (Please note the similarity in article framings…in both the first evangelical FB post and this Orthodox post, you have the angry gay person confronting the Christian about what they think the Christian must believe about them as a result of their Christianity…is this a new trope brewing?) I wasn’t really too happy with that article, since it was really more about the author’s opposition to Calvinist ideology and his personal emphasis to focus on himself:

When my gay friend asked me whether I was required to hate her, I told her no. She asked me why. I told her it’s because, even though I see homosexual activity (though not identity) as sinful, I believed my own sins were far worse than hers. It’s true. I really do. And I am (by choice) bound by my faith commitments to believe that, to see myself as the “chief of sinners.” I confess that every time I am about to engage in the most central act of my faith—receiving Holy Communion.

I do not in any sense believe that I am better than someone else just because the set of temptations I have and those I succumb to are different from someone else’s. How can I hate someone else for his sins or his temptations? I have so many of my own.

So, to my Facebook friend, I pressed back. And in response, I got a couple more articles back.

The first I read was Understanding Homosexuality: An Orthodox Christian Perspective. At first, I didn’t like the article, because it seemed to talk about how God is love, and how the trinity itself showcases that fact, rather than saying why homosexual love wasn’t permitted:

We get a glimpse of God’s love in the writings of the Church Fathers when they spoke of the interrelationships of the Persons of the Holy Trinity. The Persons of the Holy Trinity commune among themselves in love. This love is the foundation of the creation; the cause by which creation came into being. Moreover, this love is extended to the creation as evidenced by the purpose for which Adam was created (to commune with God), as well as God’s salvific activity that began as soon as Adam ruptured his communion through sin.

It seemed that the reason we are supposed to believe that homosexual relationships are bad is because God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.

God’s love is reflected in the anthropological ordering of creation. Genesis reveals that with the creation of Adam and Eve, man was created with two modes of being: male and female. “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). (Male and female were created for communion with each other, thereby reflecting the intercommunion within the Persons of the Holy Trinity.) “Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Genesis 2:18).

Christian anthropology sees the male as the appropriate complement for the female, and the female for the male which includes moral boundaries of the sexual dimension of male and female intercommunion: ” … a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2: 24). Here we have the first reference to biblically ordered sexuality. These limitations are further elaborated later on and include prohibitions against adultery and homosexuality.

It is important to note that sexual union is ordained by God and thus deemed as good. This includes all the constituents that make this union possible including sexual desire. However, like all human desire, sexual desire must be directed into appropriate channels and expressions. St. Maximus the Confessor told us: “Scripture does not forbid anything which God has given to us for our use; but condemns immoderation and thoughtless behavior. For instance is not forbidden to eat or beget children … but it does forbid us to fornicate … ” (Philokalia II).

And of course, because there are scriptures that say homosexuality is bad, then we must of course take those scriptures at face value. Oh yeah, and only a man and a woman can have children, so there.

After reading the article, I thought I knew what the response would have to be. It would be to ask what Orthodoxy’s position on non-procreative sex was, whether Orthodoxy believes that those who are infertile can or should marry, etc., (Because quite frankly, when people say marriage should be between a man and a woman because that’s how to make babies, but then they say that all other non-procreative sexual avenues are ok…for a heterosexually married couple…then I think the latter position undercuts their former.)

Jorge Quiere Ser Hardocre, Y Su Mama No Lo Deja -- "Jorge wants to be hardcore, but his mom won't let him."

Maybe Jorge will realize that in order to be truly hardcore, he must become Orthodox?

Nevertheless, before commenting in response, I read the second article the friend had linked to me, which was the transcript to a podcast addressing radical monogamy. And there was that word again….radical.

Overall, this second post seemed to emphasize more the importance of fidelity more than heterosexuality — as its title even alludes. It’s radical *monogamy*, not radical *heterosexuality*. And so I felt, as I started reading this, that the post could easily apply to radically monogamous homosexual relationships as well.

What I read, however, was something that I hadn’t read before. Whereas before, just from reading Paul’s comments, I got the sense that celibacy was really the ideal and marriage was a good compromise to avoid sinning, here I saw a picture painted of marriage as being a living symbol and homage to various other relationships as played out in scripture and Christian tradition.

The claim is that this mirroring and patterning of the love that God has for His creation – the absolutely, unqualified fidelity of God to His creation. It is Yahweh to Israel, His people chosen and beloved; Christ and the Church; and ultimately God through Christ and the Holy Spirit for the whole of humanity and indeed the whole of creation, which is made to be the one bride of God who is likened metaphorically to a husband.

Really, you should definitely read that post for more of the examples. Parts from Isaiah, Jeremiah, the basic story of Hosea (of which I was previously made well aware during a long bus-ride when the guy sitting next to me decided to regale me tales of prostitution, both in the modern and ancient worlds…but that’s a story for another post). But here’s a major takeaway:

And if a Christian, who is baptized and sealed, is not called to a conjugal married life, then that man or that woman is called to celibacy. That would be the classical Christian tradition. Virginity and celibacy, that is the fidelity to the one God and Savior Jesus Christ. So there is only two ways for human beings to be completely and totally and perfectly faithful to God in their human relationships. And it’s to be certainly faithful to their friends, faithful to their country, and faithful to all of their relationships with people.

But the only structural way, which would involve sexual activity, that human beings can be faithful to God is either by being a celibate virgin or by being in a fully, completely, totally committed conjugal relation of one man and one woman forever. That is the original Christian teaching. That is the strict Christian teaching.

The picture painted provides further illumination about what I had quoted from Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians in my last post: Paul had spoken of celibate men and women as being able to focus on God…but the Orthodox picture here is that since radical monogamy replicates so many aspects of God’s relationship to humanity, this is a way to be faithful to God.

The hardcore, radical, uncompromising stance continued as the article went to discuss whether remarriage or marriage after the death of a spouse is acceptable. Simple answer: it is still not the ideal (and that’s the other neat thing…sin in Orthodoxy is about missing the ideal). It may be economical, but as I discovered a long time ago…unlike in Mormonism, where expedience is a good thing, for most people, expedience is a diversion from the ideal. Similarly, in this article, the expansion of economias was viewed negatively.

The Hardcore Conclusion

If I had to make conclusions about which traditions are more likely to change over time on the gay marriage or gay relationships issues, I would have to say that Orthodoxy seems like it will stand perfectly still for a lot longer than the other traditions. It just seems to me that in contrast to the other traditions, it seems to have enough in place to avoid the pressures that the other traditions will face. Since celibacy is institutionally accepted and valid, the fact that people can be called to celibacy is no big deal. However, even without that, the relationship of marriage to various traditional ideas and scriptures means that it’s not really plausible to propose of marriage outside of the one man-one woman archetype. (I mean, I still feel that radical monogamy is something that *could* certainly be pushed even for gay folks…I simply don’t get that the conclusion behind God’s relationship with Israel, God’s relationship to creation, the relationship between Christ and church…I don’t see it as being essentially male-female. Nevertheless I understand that for folks who care about how things have been traditionally stated, there’s not a way to go around that as such, everything is stated with the presumption that one man – one woman is the only way things can be.)

My thoughts remain similarly: respect. But at a distance.

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