by Fr. John Whiteford
When it comes to the interpretation of the Scriptures we speak of “exegesis” (which refers to bringing the correct meaning of the text out through proper interpretation) and “eisegesis” (which is reading an incorrect meaning into the text of Scripture that is not in fact there), but in the case of the recent article “Orthodox Pastoral Response in the Past to Same-Sex Behavior”, written by an anonymous author we have to coin a new term to describe its peculiar approach to Scripture: “obscurantegesis” (which is the intentional obscuring of the meaning of a text or texts of Scripture). It is clear that the anonymous author is not interested in what the Church has actually taught or what the Scriptures have to say about homosexuality. The author is only interested in dismissing and obscuring them both.
The basic argument against Tradition that is put forth is that there are canons of the Church that have taught things that we no longer adhere to, and so therefore, anything goes:
Many times the Church has clearly proclaimed a standard for behavior or belief but then developed a pastoral response to accommodate changing social realities. One example of this involves the charging, or payment, of interest on loans.
Here is the argument: Sure, the Church says that this or that is inherently wrong, but that does not mean that what was inherently wrong yesterday is inherently wrong today. Everything is up for review. Anything can change.
It is certainly true that as times and circumstances change, how the Church applies principles to different situations will vary… but that does not mean that the principles are up for grabs. In the case of charging interest, the Church was opposed to charging interest… in the context of a society that had currencies that did not inflate in value (being based on things like Gold, silver, and copper that tended to either retain their value or increase in value over time), and in which individuals lent money to people without regulation, usually at exorbitant interest, and in a context in which debtors who could not pay their debts ended up in prison or being sold into slavery (and quite likely their wives and children along with them). In our current context, in which the value of our money decreases with inflation, money is lent in a regulated fashion, in a context in which people who cannot pay their debts can walk away not only without paying the debt but in many cases without losing all that they have purchased with the money they borrowed, and without any fear of jail or slavery, things are just a wee bit different. In the former context, to lend money to the average person with interest was exploitative, and could lead to their complete and utter ruin. In our current context, when a bank refuses to lend to someone because the bank doubts their ability to repay the debt, this is considered to be an injustice. Anyone lending money at no interest today will not only not have the use of their money in the mean time, but will be repaid with money that is worth less than it was when it was lent in the first place. To argue that the fact that the Church does not treat these different circumstances in the same way therefore means that gay sex may not be a sin is not an argument made by a person who desires to illuminate the truth — it is the argument of one who willfully obscures the truth.
The same thing is true of the argument regarding Christians holding secular office. There are no canons which forbid this. There are no teachings in Scripture which present universal prohibitions against it. Only some quotes from early Christian writers which stated that in the context of a pagan Roman state which was persecuting the Church, and in which pagan worship was part of the package deal with being an official, Christians should not accept such offices. In Scripture we find many officials who were believers and commendable. And when you had Christian kingdoms there was no reason to believe that the Christians would need to employ pagans to rule over them to avoid violating some fundamental principle of the Christian Faith. Again, what we have is the willful obscuring of the truth, rather than a sincere attempt to seek it out or explain it.
The anonymous author then turns to the question of divorce, and remarriage. Rather than allowing the red herrings to further divert us from the real purpose of this article, suffice it to say that the Church’s principles on those issues have not changed. Those who divorce and remarry are still penanced. Divorce is still discouraged. But as with all the canons in general that prescribe penances, the Church does not normally impose the same degree of strictness that it did in during the earliest centuries of the Church. It is also no doubt true that too many in the Church have a lax view of the seriousness of divorce, and one could question the level of economia that is given in many cases. But pastoral application of penances is one question — principles are another. Remarriage is not inherently sinful, though it is inherently less than the ideal… which is why it is still the case that clergy may not be ordained if they have been married more than once, and clergy who are widowers are not allowed to remarry and remain clergymen.
“In terms of “gay sexuality,” the historical practice of the Church is far from what many modern people might expect it to have been. Even the Bible is not always as clear as we would like it to be. Although the epistle to the Romans clearly condemns those men who have sex with other men, in the pastoral epistles (I Timothy 1) the condemnation is of malakoi (the “soft” or “effeminate,” those who resemble insipid, weak-willed, easily beguiled women rather than those who are sexually penetrated) and not “homosexuals” as some modern English translations of the Bible read.”
The anonymous author apparently did not bother to look up the Greek text of 1 Timothy 1:10. The word in that passage is not “malakoi” (effeminate) but “arsenokoitais“, which is a word without a non-Jewish or non-Christian prehistory in Greek. It is a word that is derived from Leviticus 18:22
“You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.”
The word in the Septuagint text here for “man” is “arsenos” and the word for “lie” is “koiten” and so the term rather directly refers to a man lying with another man for the purpose of having sex, and the Scriptures clearly and unambiguously state that this is inherently evil. There is nothing about two men having sex today that has fundamentally changed between today and the time that the Scriptures were being written. To suggest that there is anything ambiguous or unclear here is simply a disingenuous attempt to obscure the truth.
Now the author attempts to muddy the waters further:
“The pastoral application of these biblical injunctions has varied considerably over time. Although many canons condemn various sexual acts it is important to see how those canons also condemn other behavior in order to see which sins are considered more serious than others.”
What the anonymous author means when he speaks of pastoral application here is unclear, and that is not by accident. The principle in Scripture and Tradition is that that homosexual sex is inherently sinful. How one pastorally deals with a homosexual who acknowledges his sin, and wishes to repent of it is an entirely different question. Whether the priest will tell him that he needs to repent, or tell him that homosexuality is natural and that he can go on engaging in homosexual sex is a question of the basic moral principles of the Christian Faith. Any priest who suggests that homosexual sex is not inherently sinful, and must be repented of is in fact a heretic… a man who slams the doors of repentance in the face of sinners, and seeks the damnation of those who wishes to persuade.
The anonymous author asserts:
Meanwhile St. John the Faster suggests a penance of only 80 days for the sin of male-male sex “between the thighs,” i.e. face-to-face which he certainly considers less serious than heterosexual fornication (two years penance) or adultery (three years penance).
Here is the actual text of the 9th canon of St. John the Faster:
“As for sexual intercourse of men with one another, such as practicing double masturbation, it received the stated penance of up to eighty days.”
This canon references the preceding canon, which states:
“Anyone having committed masturbation is penanced forty days, during which he must keep himself alive by xerophagy and must do one hundred metanias (prostrations) every day.”
It should be noted that the canon for double masturbation is precisely twice the penance prescribed for solo masturbation because, as St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain notes: “each of these offenders is not only hurting himself, but is also hurting his brother, and this makes the sin a double sin” (The Rudder, p. 938).
Canon 18 of St. John the Faster states:
“It has seemed advisable to exclude any man who has been so mad as to copulate with another man from Communion for three years, weeping and fasting, and towards evening confined to xerophagy, and doing two hundred metanias. But as for one who prefers to take it easy, let him fulfill the fifteen years.”
So where is the ambiguity here? There is none.
The anonymous author attempts to score some points for sodomy with this argument:
“Furthermore, even though a second-third marriage came to be permitted to heterosexual couples, such marriages still had a penance attached, which indicates that such marriages were more problematic for the Church than even arsenokoetia.”
This is complete nonsense. As St. John indicates, the full penance for homosexual sex was 15 years… three years of weeping and fasting and 200 prostrations a day was pastoral leniency. The full penance for a second marriage is 1 or 2 years. The full penance for a third marriage is 2 or 3, but there is no mention of doing daily prostrations or strict fasting or exclusion from standing with the faithful. Thus to argue that the canons treat homosexual sex as less serious than a second or third marriage is simply based on either an astonishing degree of ignorance, or more likely, a willful desire to obscure the Truth of the matter.
The reference to the rite of Brotherhood shows the agenda of the anonymous author. He alludes to the argument of the homosexual scholar John Boswell, who sought to argue that this was some sort of same sex marriage rite, which was based on nothing other than his own imagination and speculation. The fact that a later Patriarch found that men who had gone through this rite had in some cases used it as a cloak for their sin is hardly evidence that the Church intended to facilitate such aims… and the fact that the Church discarded this rite because of such abuses is proof positive of just the opposite.
Grasping even more desperately for straws, the anonymous author states:
Although the canonical literature is the normative source for what behavior is “allowed” or “punished,” sermons are often sources to be considered as well. It is interesting to note that virtually none of the Fathers preach on same-sex behavior, even when commenting on biblical texts that mention it.
If the anonymous author had any actual sense of what it means to be pastoral he would not find it odd at all that the saints of the Church where hesitant to discuss sodomy in their sermons. One can find even fewer references to incest and bestiality in sermons, but that does not mean that this is because the Church has an ambiguous stand on those questions — rather it means that in a congregation mixed with men, women, and children, one has to be careful about what it said in a sermon.
The anonymous author then seeks to dismiss St. John Chrysostom with specious arguments about the ban on Jewish physicians. In the ancient world, there was no such thing as secular medicine as we know it today. Non-Christian Jewish doctors mixed their beliefs with their practice of medicine and so it was a religious issue for a Christian to go to such a doctor… but the anonymous author no doubt knows that, he simply finds it a convenient smoke screen for the moment.
St. John Chrysostom is the exegete of exegetes in the Orthodox Church, and so his homilies on Romans 1 are very significant, and no one who had ever had an Orthodox thought in their life would seriously believe that St. John’s interpretation was some aberrational take on the question of homosexuality. But any doubt on the position of the Church on this question is removed when one looks at the canons embraced by the Ecumenical Councils of the Church. St. Basil’s canons were affirmed specifically at the 4th, 6th, and 7th Ecumenical Councils, and his 7th canon states:
“Sodomists and bestialists and murderers and sorcerers and adulterers and idolaters deserve the same condemnation, so that whatever rule you have as regarding the others observe it also in regard to these persons. But as for those who have been for thirty years penitent for an act of impurity which they committed unwittingly, there is no ground for our doubting that we ought to admit them. Both the fact of their ignorance renders them worthy of pardon, and so do also the voluntary character of their confession, and the fact that they have been exhibiting good intentions for such a long time; for they have surrendered themselves to Satan for nearly a whole human generation, in order to be educated not to indulge in shameful acts. So bid them to be admitted without fail, especially if they have shed tears that move you to compassion, and are exhibiting a life that deserves sympathy.”
His 57th Canon states:
“As for any man who uncovers his nakedness in the midst of males, he shall be allotted the time fixed for those transgressing in the act of adultery.”
The canons are clear, as are the Scriptures:
“Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals (malakoi), nor sodomites (arsenokoitai), nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
“For this reason God gave them up to vile passions. For even their women exchanged the natural use for what is against nature. Likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust for one another, men with men committing what is shameful, and receiving in themselves the penalty of their error which was due” (Romans 1:26-27).
But there are none so blind as those who will not see. The teachings of the Scriptures and of the Church are abundantly clear. Only those who choose to deny history can argue otherwise. Now if you wish to say that you simply reject the teachings of the Scriptures and the Church, at least you are being honest with yourself, but please don’t patronize us by pretending these teachings are not clear.
What is also clear is that we have a small group of modernists who for whatever sentimental reasons like to dress up in Orthodox vestments, and sing some of the hymns of the Church, but who love neither truth, the Church, nor its Tradition. Our bishops need to speak up, and need to speak up clearly to rebuke such people. Today it is a small but nevertheless serious problem. Eventually, this problem will lead to division and confusion and a grand scale, if we simply hope that the problem will go away without confronting it head on. And the fact that the person promoting this nonsense, Mark Stokoe, is a member of the Metropolitan Council of the OCA, and that he has several OCA priests advancing the same homosexual agenda is something that should concern all Orthodox Christians, but especially the bishops of the OCA.
For more on the meaning of the Biblical texts related to homosexuality, see:
The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics by Robert A. J. Gagnon
The Bible and the ‘Gay Marriage’ Question (Part 1)
The Bible and the ‘Gay Marriage’ Question (Part 2)
The Bible and the ‘Gay Marriage’ Question (Part 3)
A New Testament Perspective on Homosexuality, by Dr. Thomas R. Schreiner