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Society is currently coming to terms with those who identify as “homosexual” (i.e. those who are “gay” or “lesbian”), especially in terms of what is called “marriage equality.”

Many Orthodox, when confronted by acceptance of gay and lesbian people by the larger society, simply assert, “It is forbidden!” without examining the previous practice of the Church. For many people, the label “holy tradition” simply describes what they have experienced or what has become typical practice in the last fifty years rather than a description of the Church’s life over the millennia of her existence. 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.

Before the development of modern banking and financial practices, the sin of usury (charging interest) was one of the most serious sins an Orthodox could commit. Charging interest was condemned loudly and repeatedly but as banking realities developed and changed, the condemnation of charging interest was allowed to wither and finally fade away altogether.

Another example of this pastoral accommodation involved the holding of secular authority by baptized Orthodox.

Originally condemned by the Church, the holding of secular governmental office involved not only the possibility of offering pagan sacrifice but other duties, also seen as conflicting with the Gospel: the necessity of collecting taxes, judging others, punishing or executing those found guilty and waging war, administering and taking oaths. Even after the legalization of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine, the Emperor was expected to remain a catechumen until he was dying and it was only on his deathbed that the Emperor was to be baptized. It was a political crisis of unimaginable proportions when the Emperor Theodosius not only survived his deathbed baptism but recovered completely and refused to step down from the throne.

Gradually the possibility of baptized Christians serving in political office was not only grudgingly accepted but wholeheartedly endorsed as the nature of society changed and the expectations of what governmental actions were incompatible with Christian morality changed as well.

Another practice the Church strongly condemned was remarriage after divorce or widowhood.

The condemnation of re-marriage began to gradually abate somewhat but the original expectations were still strong enough to provoke the “Tetragamy” crisis over the Emperor Leo VI’s multiple marriages. It was only in the eventual resolution of Leo’s marital situation that the current practice was hammered out: one marriage, celebrated with the Wedding Service, although permission for a second and third (but never a fourth) marriage could be obtained from the local bishop and a Service for a Second-Third Marriage celebrated (which includes significant departures from the liturgical practices associated with the first Wedding Service). As the practice of remarriage after divorce or widowhood became more generally accepted in society, the Church eventually found a pastoral response that both upheld the previous standards of behavior while making room for those whose lives departed from those standards but yet wished to remain as members of the Orthodox Church.

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 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.

Charging interest is condemned by St. Nicephorus the Confessor, who writes that such a person should not be allowed to participate in the Divine Liturgy or the social life of the parish, and he also insists that those who enter a second or third marriage abstain from communion for two and three years.

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).

Over the course of time, various canonical collections came to distinguish between arsenokoetia (anal sex) and other same-sex genital behavior. While arsenokoetia was regarded the more serious offense (often with penances of three years), the other same-sex behavior was considered little more than masturbation. Even so, it was only the man who penetrated the other in arsenokoetia who was subject to this penance; the man who was penetrated was held to be guiltless, unlike the practice in pre-Christian Mediterranean society which saw the penetrator as guiltless while considering penetration to be shameful.

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.

That there was a Service for Brother-making (adelphopoiia) is clear and it was celebrated to cement relationships between men, although these relationships need not have been sexual. Byzantium was a very “network” conscious society and established these patterns and networks of kinship which were an important way members of Byzantine society related to each other, similar to the “kum” (godparent) relationship among the Serbian Orthodox. Nevertheless, the men who were “made brothers” do seem to frequently have a sexual aspect to their “brotherhood,” as Patriarch Athanasius I of Constantinople (b. 1230 – d. 1310) complains.

This tolerance for same-sex behavior in the Church stands in marked contrast to the civil law, which often condemned arsenokoetia as a capital offense. Though we have no records of any men ever actually being executed for this behavior, we do have records that men could be imprisoned, tortured, and fined.

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. The exception that proves this rule is St. John Chrysostom’s fourth homily on Romans 1, in which he deals with the description of men who exchange the natural use of women for the use of each other. This sermon is fascinating for several reasons and though it still awaits a thorough analysis, suffice it to mention here that the congregation to which St. John preached surely knew that the parish handbook, Apostolic Constitutions which was composed at about the same time and place as St. John was preaching, took a much more lenient view of same-sex behavior. His stern condemnation of men who had sexual relationships with other men is similar, in many ways, to his equally stern condemnation of his congregation who went to Jewish physicians.

St. John also wrote a tract in which he discussed the proper education of children in which he urges parents to forgo giving their sons an education based on the “classical” model. His objections to the “classical” education were twofold: first, that the pagan mythology was taught as literature; and second, the instructor in this educational model would use his male students as sexual partners. Remembering that this “classical” education was precisely the kind of education that his mother struggled financially to provide for him, we can guess that much of St. John’s antipathy for same-sex behavior is based on his own experience as a student.

No Orthodox today would consider himself betraying the Gospel by going to a Jewish doctor and ignoring St. John’s admonitions to only be treated by Christian physicians. Few parishioners would look askance at a heterosexual “blended family,” the result of divorce or widowhood and remarriage. Just as the Church found a pastoral response to these and other issues, she can build on her previous experience of tolerance and find a pastoral response that strives to include, rather than exclude, those seeking the Kingdom.


Apostolic Canon 44; Nicea I, Canon 17; St. Basil the Great, Canon 14; Apostolic Constitutions, 4:6; Sixth Ecumenical Council, Canon 10; Nicephorus the Confessor, Canon 31.

Emperor Leo VI attempted to outlaw charging interest throughout the Byzantine Empire.

See Tertullian, Apology 21: Caesar is necessary for the world and if Christians could have been Caesars.
(“Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,” Matthew 22:12)
(“Judge not,” Matthew 7:1-2)
(“…but I say unto you to love your enemies,” Matthew 5:39, 44 and “Do not become angry,” Matthew 5:21-22)
(“Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no,’” Matthew 5:33-37)

See Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society (Stanford University Press.) 1997.

St. Nicephorus the Confessor, Canon 31.
St. Nicephorus the Confessor, Canon 2.
St. John the Faster, Canon 9.
St. John the Faster, Canon 12.
St. John the Faster, Canon 13.
Cf. St. John the Faster, Canon 18.
Cf. St. John the Faster, Canon 9.

See Matthew Kuefler, The Manly Eunuch: Masculinity, Gender Ambiguity, and Christian Ideology in Late Antiquity. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press.) 2001. P. 36.

See Eve Levin, Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs, 900-1700. (Cornell University Press) 1989

R.J. Macrides, “Kinship by Arrangement: The Case of Adoption” in Dumbarton Oaks Papers No. 44 (1990), p. 110.

Procopius, Secret History 16.
Apostolic Constitutions VI.28.
John Chrysostom, Against the Jews
John Chrysostom, Against the Opponents of Monasticism III.7
John Chrysostom, Against the Opponents of Monasticism III.8.

See J.N.D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom – Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books.) 1985.





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