Gay rights activists dressed up as Orthodox priests kiss next to the Metropolitan church in Athens on December 22, 2015. (LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP via Getty Images)
By now, it’s crystal clear that whenever theological liberals invite theological conservatives to “dialogue” about sexual ethics, what’s really being negotiated is the terms under which conservatives can be persuaded to surrender. If there is a dialogue to be had among Christians, it’s how best to proclaim and to help people live out the countercultural truth about sex and the body in these post-Christian, erotomaniacal times. That’s not the dialogue that interests theological liberals; “dialogue” is what they want up until the point where they hold power, in which case the dialogue is over, because the Holy Spirit has done something new in the church, and we cannot give bigotry any quarter.
There’s a liberal website called Orthodoxy In Dialogue, which is exactly what you think it is. A couple of weeks ago, there appeared a controversial essay from an Antiochian Orthodox priest in Wichita, which is known for being a conservative jurisdiction. In the essay, Father Aaron Warwick calls for the liberalization of Orthodox pastoral practice regarding homosexuality. An Orthodox reader e-mailed the piece to me, with real dismay. This paragraph from the Warwick essay caused me to do a double-take:
In reality, I believe we should also accept that, like most heterosexuals, most homosexuals will find lifelong abstinence to be impracticable. In such cases, it is my strong conviction that we should encourage homosexuals to find a lifelong partner. While I understand this offends the sensibility of many Orthodox Christians, I again point to how our Church has dealt with the sin of divorce and remarriage. Namely, we do not enforce the strict legal and scriptural injunctions of our Church; rather, we act in a pastoral manner, allowing people an opportunity to continue working out their salvation within the Church. We never ask a remarried individual to eventually, some day leave their new spouse so their sin will not persist. We simply recognize this person needs compassion and a chance to do as well as they possibly can. Furthermore, we realize that the best way to encourage this is for an individual to belong to some form of community that requires mutual submission and the restriction of one’s sexual life to focus on no more than one person.
The whole essay is right in line with the kind of misdirecting sophistry Father James Martin has perfected in the Catholic Church: claiming not to be challenging Church teaching, but merely adjusting the application of those teachings to fit new pastoral and cultural realities. This is a clever way to change the teaching of the Church without appearing to do what you are plainly doing. It seems to be working in the Catholic Church, under this pope. But could this kind of thing really be coming to Orthodoxy?
The Orthodox Church in the United States has become refuge to a number of former Protestants escaping the moral and theological collapse of Mainline churches on sexual issues (e.g., abortion, homosexuality, premarital chastity). Some of those former Protestants have become parish priests. I can imagine that they are up in arms about this essay. But I don’t know that for a fact. Orthodoxy is very small in the US, and there’s not nearly the kind of coverage of its own internal debates in the media as there is with Catholicism and Protestantism, nor is there the kind of easily accessible coverage and commentary on Orthodox religion blogs. You have to go looking for this kind of thing. Longtime readers know that years ago, after a regrettable foray into Orthodox Church politics, I imposed a discipline on myself not to search out this stuff.
But sometimes it finds me, in some form. A reader sent me the Warwick piece to ask what I thought about it. It’s a perfectly fair question. It’s a public statement by an Orthodox priest on a controversial theological matter. Attention must be paid. My answer would be pretty predictable, but rather than lay out an argument that is familiar to regular readers, I asked an Orthodox priest I know (not my parish priest; I never ask him to give me material for my blog) to comment on Father Warwick’s essay. One thing I’m concerned about, so I told the priest, is whether or not sexual liberalism is gaining a foothold in the Orthodox clergy outside of the Fordham Orthodox circles, and some on seminary faculties. That priest agreed to respond if I didn’t use his name, a condition to which I agreed:
I was kind of shocked to see this from a priest of the Antiochian Archdiocese, if only because of the predominance in the ranks of their clergy of conservative former Evangelicals, many of whom became Orthodox at least partly because of the Church’s unshaking commitment to Biblical morality, and not least of which because of the well-known Arab aversion to sexual deviancy, an aversion that would seem to reflect the Levitical statement from God that sexual immorality vomits a nation out of its land. These two kinds of people make up the bulk of Antiochian clergy in North America.
That being said, the arguments made by Fr. Aaron Warwick here for a “pastoral” approach that pastors people into sin rather than away from it are shocking in their illiteracy of both the Bible and the rest of Orthodox tradition, not to mention what seems to be an ignorance about the pastoral practice of his brother priests. I, for one, absolutely do not look the other way when it comes to fornication between members of the opposite sex and disallow fornication between members of the same sex. Either war, fornication is a serious sin and requires refraining from communion while in an unrepentant state.
It may be that he knows clergy who do allow heterosexual fornication, but that doesn’t mean that we spread their pastoral failures to the whole Church. It means that they be expected to shape up and uphold the laws of God that have been reaffirmed again and again in Church history. And if they cannot do that, they have no business in the clergy and ought to be deposed.
Fr. Aaron’s argument turns on his analogy of second marriages for divorced people to allowing fornication with just one person of the same sex. Surely if we will let people sin by having a second marriage while their divorced spouse lives, then we can bless sin between homosexuals as well. But this is a misreading of the Scripture and Church practice. First, it is divorce that is a sin, not second marriage. Second marriage is certainly not ideal, but if it were a sin, then there would not be a church service blessing it. We don’t bless sin! We seek to be cured of it.
But let’s deal with this canard about second marriages by looking closely at the relevant Scripture:
Categorizing Christ’s teaching on divorce as a commandment that sex within a second marriage is adultery is, at best, misguided and misleading. Christ makes a brief statement in the form of a commentary on the Torah in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:31-32). Here He says that, though it had been said that whoever wanted to divorce his wife could simply give her a writ of divorce, that the man who divorces his wife for any reason other than sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Here there is an exception where a divorce is acceptable.
While it is technically the woman who commits adultery in Judaism of the time, Christ places the guilt for this sin on the man who divorced her. The emphasis in this brief statement is on the sinfulness of divorcing your wife. This statement is paralleled in Luke 16:18, but without the exception for sexual immorality, stating bluntly that the man who divorces his wife so that he can marry another commits adultery. The emphasis here, even in this brief statement, is clearly on the sinfulness of divorce, especially divorce with another wife in mind, not on the acceptability of second marriage or sexual relations within it.
This briefer text in Luke must also be read in the context of the more developed (though ultimately identical) statement later in Matthew (19:3-12). Christ is directly asked by the Pharisees about the acceptability of divorce, not second or third marriage. As segments of the Jewish community practiced polygamy until the tenth century, that certainly could have been a question, but would have been a separate one. Jesus says bluntly that divorce is unacceptable and is, by nature, a rebellion against the grace of God (Matt. 19:4-6). When asked about Moses requiring a writ, Christ replies that this was a condescension to their hardness of heart, but then in truth to divorce a wife, except for sexual immorality, and marry another is adultery (19:8-9). The disciples clearly understand that this is with reference to divorce, as they say nothing about remarriage, but question whether anyone should get married in the first place if they will not be able to ever divorce their wife (19:10). Christ’s interpretation of the Torah here is completely in keeping with that of the rest of the OT (cf. Mal. 2:14-16; Prov. 5:18; Ecc. 9:9).
Paul, on the other hand, directly addresses the issue of remarriage (1 Cor. 7:1-16). Just like Jesus, he forbids divorce (though with exceptions) and makes allowance for the weakness of the flesh (7:9). When a second marriage is permitted by a bishop for pastoral reasons, this reference from Paul, that it is better to marry than to burn with lust, is actually quoted in the rite of second marriage (toward the beginning).
Divorce is a sin. It is penanced by the Church. Second marriage is, in some cases of a hierarch’s discerning, the lesser of two evils going forward for the benefit of the salvation of all involved. When the mystery of holy matrimony is celebrated in the Church, the resulting marriage is licit. The sexual relations between husband and wife are undefiled and not sinful acts, because marital relations between a husband and his wife is not a sinful act (Heb. 13:4). To say that sex between a husband and wife joined in a second marriage is actually sinful is, in effect, to say that they are not really married, but it’s clear from the rite that the Church is saying they are married.
In this context, the contrast between Paul’s handling of this and another issue in the same context is telling. Any sexual relations between members of the same sex is not only prohibited in the strongest terms as an abomination (Lev. 18:22), it belongs to that class of sexual immorality which taints the land itself and brings God’s wrath upon not only those who participate in it, but those who abet it through silence and tolerance.
This includes especially the Church as assembly (Lev. 18:26-30). In 1 Corinthians, Paul deals with another detestable form of sexual immorality — incest as forbidden in Lev. 18:17. The contrast with his comments on remarriage could not be more stark. The person committing these acts must be removed from the congregation (1 Cor. 5:1-2). This man is to be delivered to Satan for the destruction of his flesh so that he might find repentance and be saved at the day of judgment (5:4). This is to be done publicly. He is to be purged from their midst (5:13). Their tolerance of his sexual sin is destroying the whole community. There simply is no parity between the way in which Christ and His apostles handle remarriage and the way in which they proscribe sexual immorality, including homosexual immorality.
So, all that said, it is really a shocking ignorance of both the Scriptures and Church history and practice to suggest that homosexuals fornicating only with one other person is at all equivalent to those who have sinned via divorce (and been penanced) and who are allowed to remarry for the sake of their salvation. Contrary to what Fr. Aaron says, limiting fornication to just one person does not make it not a sin. How would his wife feel if he decided to have an ongoing affair but promised that it would be only one other woman and not ten? And what about a pedophile who promises to limit himself to just one child?
What does it say that he is permitted to teach something so contrary to the Orthodox faith, and that there appear to be no repercussions for doing so? That makes no sense to me. I cannot understand how such a bold departure from Christian morality does not warrant immediate deposition from the priesthood or at least a public retraction and recanting of what he has written. Zero tolerance is the only policy here.
God help us. I am happy to say that every other Orthodox priest I’ve ever talked about this with treats fornication of any variety as sin. Sin is a disease, and God said in no uncertain terms that sexual sins in particular were ruinous to a society. He even says it was the reason that the Canaanites were vomited out of their land (Lev. 18:25-28), meaning that this dynamic is not just for those who hear the Torah or who live among Israel as Gentiles, but is written into the very fabric of creation itself.
The idea that people just can’t help themselves and so they have to be permitted and even encouraged to sin is to privilege human desire and make it the basis for morality — this has no basis in Christian tradition. It is also deeply insulting to those who struggle against their passions to bring every thought into subjection to Christ.
This is serious business, and we lead people into destruction and spiritual death when we suggest otherwise. We should not judge this as either “traditional” or “progressive,” and certainly not as “pastoral.” This is simply demonic. I really hope that something is done about priests who teach this way, and that it is done swiftly and publicly. We need that right now.
There you have it. The Orthodox Church cannot afford to give ground on this issue. We know exactly what is going to happen if it does.
UPDATE: Reader Eric LeFevre comments, quoting me to start:
“One thing I’m concerned about, so I told the priest, is whether or not sexual liberalism is gaining a foothold in the Orthodox clergy outside of the Fordham Orthodox circles, and some on seminary faculties.”
Rod: If this is the case, that Orthodox seminary faculties are promoting this, then the situation in the Orthodox Church is way more serious than you can imagine. The process takes time to play out, but Theological Liberalism follows a very specific formula when they go about conquering institutions.
1. Denominational elites become sympathetic to accommodating liberals. Note the elites might be the same as the upper leadership, but most of the time they are typically the decision-making elites within a bureaucracy. Oftentimes the leadership has no idea this process is even happening.
2. Denominational elites begin installing like-minded individuals within the church bureaucracy and seminaries. At this point, we hear calls for being a “big-tent denomination”.
3. With the seminaries firmly under their control, theological liberals begin sorting prospective pastors / priests. At this point, the vast majority of pastors, and nearly all of the laity are still committed to traditional orthodoxy, but those few liberals are given all of the prestigious pulpits and positions.
4. With key churches, seminaries, and the overall bureaucracy now under the control of liberals, the stench of decay begins to waft around. Theological liberals now begin to ask for “Pastoral sensitivity”, “Tolerance”, and say such things like, “I am firmly committed to the church, I just have a few questions about x, y and z. Can we not show some charity and be allow space for those who question?” Now is the time that the broader church becomes aware of what is happening, traditionalists begin forming parallel institutions and networks of like minded individuals.
5. Theological liberals now begin accusing traditionalists of being the “schismatics” and fomenting division within the church. The church is now divided between three distinct but overlapping factions: Liberals, Traditionalists, and Institutionalists. In most every example I have studied, the Institutionalists side with the Liberals, but there are exceptions.
6. Key doctrines are now openly questioned and what 30 years earlier would have been rank heresy is now promoted by the seminaries and taught to the next generation of pastors. At this point, a majority of pastors are now theological liberals and are basically lying to their congregations about what they really believe.
7. Last ditch efforts by traditionalists to discipline rank heresy are defeated, or the liberals merely offer a few sacrificial lambs. By now, the battle for the church is basically over and liberal ascendancy is secured. Battered and bloodied traditionalists either leave, or retreat to their redoubt parishes. But the seminaries are now overwhelming liberal, and traditionalists are systemically removed from their positions, so much for tolerance.