One of the most pressing issues facing the Orthodox Church today is dealing pastorally with LGBTQ individuals. This issue has risen to the forefront as people who identify on this spectrum have been able, for the first time in history, to organize to form a community and to advocate for their human and civil rights. For most of history, publicly and openly identifying as LGBTQ simply was not possible, or at least not advisable. It’s not as though people did not have these attractions or identifications; it was simply something “kept in the closet.” So, for the first time in history, the Church is openly confronted not just with individuals identifying as LGBTQ, but also with a “movement.”
In many ways, like other movements that began in the modern Western world, the LGBTQ movement has accomplished many good things. Specifically, for example, employers are no longer legally allowed to discriminate against employees based on sexual orientation. That is to say, someone identifying on the LGBTQ spectrum has a legal right to make a basic and decent living without fear of retribution for their sexual orientation. This is undoubtedly a positive development for society. On the other hand, as with many other movements, the Church cannot accept all attitudes and demands of the broader LGBTQ movement. Some of these presuppositions are based in secular, selfish, and/or non-Christian attitudes.
My interest in writing this article for Orthodoxy in Dialogue is to discuss a pastoral approach to dealing with LGBTQ individuals in the modern world. In doing so, I am not interested in being labeled as “progressive” (whatever that means and whoever defines that!). Neither am I interested in being “traditional” (again, whatever that means and whoever defines it!). My sole interest is in being pastoral. The reality is that we priests and pastors in the church are and will be confronted by individuals—by souls who are under our care—who identify on this spectrum. And we will be judged not on the basis of how we responded to this movement as a whole, but how we respond to the souls in need of pastoral care.
I begin with this distinction at the outset because, too often, we in the Church have placed, at least in my opinion, too much emphasis on responding to the LGBTQ movement. In the meantime, we have often crippled our pastors’ ability to deal with the individual souls of those who come to us seeking salvation. We too often care more about labels of being progressive or traditional than we care about being truly pastoral. Perhaps the reason for this is that being pastoral often means being bold. Being pastoral means that others within our community will often be judgmental of us. Being pastoral means we sometimes have to take risks because we care more about the salvation of someone’s soul than safely following the letter of the law. That approach is certainly what we see in the life of Jesus of Nazareth, our Chief Shepherd and Pastor.
Below, I hope to outline a mindset I believe is important in dealing with the issue of pastoring LGBTQ individuals. (Due to the length necessary to cover this issue sufficiently, I will have to deal with the issues of bisexuality and transgenderism in a separate article.) Before I do that, however, I want to highlight what the Church presents as the “ideal.” Subsequently, I will examine how the Church deals with many types of individuals and sins that fail to live up to this ideal. Finally, based on this historic pastoral approach, I will propose some general guidelines I believe we pastors should consider in dealing with homosexual parishioners.
I put the word ideal in quotation marks because so few of us actually achieve this ideal. Nonetheless, I do not think we should move the goal post. Simply because we fallen human beings fall short of the ideal is no reason to change that towards which we strive.
To sum up the ideal, the Church promotes essentially two ways of life. The first is the monastic life lived within a community of monks and nuns. Throughout the history of the Church, we read that the norm/ideal for monastic life is to live in a monastic community. Only the most experienced and/or most rare of the saints and monastics were ever blessed to live outside of community, that is to say, on their own or in solitude. The reason for this is simple: if we live by ourselves, it is easy for us to continue our selfish, self-centered ways. As we mature and leave our households, where we began to learn the value of considering and submitting to others, we join another community to continue this way of life.
By far more common, of course, is the second way of life, the community of marriage. In this way of life we are called, as St. Paul said, “to submit to one another.” Any husband or wife can understand how the community of marriage, if it is to be successful, forces us to work on changing our selfish ways. And for those blessed with children, we learn very quickly that we cannot just come and go as we desire—we must submit to the needs of the children.
You can see the common theme between these two ways of life is community, in which a person must always be submitting to others—either their fellow monastics, their spouse, and/or their children. The primary difference between these two communities is that in the community of marriage, the married couple is allowed to engage in sexual relations with one another exclusively. In the monastic community, there is ideally no sexual activity of any kind.
Many people reading this might laugh at this ideal, realizing how few people within our Church—let alone our broader society—actually live up to this. But I truly believe this ideal is the goal for us human beings, even though we often fall short. In fact, the reality is that most of us fall short. I will discuss below how the Church deals with these shortcomings for heterosexual couples. It will be apparent that our approach to dealing with heterosexual sins in the Church is quite different from our approach to homosexual sins. With respect to the class of heterosexual sins, we are forgiving, understanding, and pastoral. Following that discussion, I will outline how we generally treat homosexual sins in the Church, which is primarily not pastoral. I will also argue that we pastors should reconsider our approach towards homosexual individuals in order to be more pastoral and to help them work out their salvation within the Church.
Pastoring Heterosexuals in the Church
Obviously, there is much more to pastoring people in the Church than dealing with their sexuality. However, for the purposes of this article, I will limit myself to that realm.
Compared to homosexuals, heterosexuals in most Orthodox parishes have it fairly easy. I am unaware of any Orthodox priest who has ever informed a heterosexual that he/she has one option: lifelong celibacy. However, that is exactly what many homosexuals have heard. I will begin with this double standard. Can we as pastors imagine the looks we would get—the complaints of difficulty, of loneliness, etc.—from heterosexuals if we informed them this was their only path to salvation? Yet, many pastors believe this is the only approach we can offer to homosexuals who wish to participate in the life of the Church.
Heterosexuals, on the other hand, do have the option to marry. Still, we promote to them the ideal—and again, I believe we should promote this—that they abstain from all sexual relations until they have been blessed by the Church for sexual union through the Sacrament of Marriage. While most of our Orthodox pastors do promote and encourage this approach to sexuality, the reality is that most of our heterosexual parishioners fall short of this goal. In fact, in my experience, the person who has no sexual contact with anyone throughout their life besides their spouse (and only after marriage) is by far in the minority. And by this I do not mean the split is like 51-49, or even 75-25 or 90-10, but more like 99-1—as in, for every one person who lives up to this ideal, 99 fall short.
Still, we Orthodox pastors find ways to work with our heterosexual parishioners through their sexual sins, incorporating them fully into the life of the Church, and trying to guide them closer to the ideal. We have no problem showing them mercy and compassion. We do not find it necessary to issue statements repeating the fact that we as a Church are opposed to masturbation, fornication, adultery, and divorce. Yet, we do find it necessary to continually repeat that we think homosexuality is a sin and we are opposed to gay marriage. And then we wonder why we have so few homosexuals in our pews or why our young children (who notice the hypocrisy) end up leaving our churches and/or complain about our lack of acceptance of homosexuals.
Of course, we justify this double standard by convincing ourselves we are “culture warriors,” that we have to push back because of cultural movements that promote values contrary to our beliefs. In this self-justification, we completely ignore the fact that there is no movement to promote masturbation, or fornication, or adultery, or divorce because these sins are completely normalized not only in our culture, but in our churches. If we held heterosexuals to the same standard to which we hold homosexuals, then my communion line would be very short on Sundays. Moreover, if our Church released statements and preached as regularly against these sins as we do against homosexuality, then our churches would also be much smaller as people who struggle with these sins (again, the vast majority of the population) would become overly burdened and despondent (and probably angry), and would leave.
To take that hard line approach would be pastorally imprudent. It might technically be theologically sound, and we could certainly claim that we are simply holding people to following the ideal and the tradition of the Church, but it would not be pastoral. And so we wisely and pastorally work with heterosexuals who struggle with sexual sins. I will briefly examine each of these sins I have mentioned and how we normally deal with them in a pastoral manner.
The first sin we pastors regularly confront is masturbation. Unfortunately, in today’s society, this practice seems to begin at a younger and younger age, especially for teenage (or younger) boys. It has also become harder to defeat as pornographic material has become easier to access. Quite frankly, many parents and even many pastors now view masturbation as “normal.” Some do not discuss it with their children, let alone confront it. But we should also note this practice is not limited to unmarried teenagers. In fact, many married men (and some women) continue to struggle with this sin after being married and after being given what the Church considers an ideal context for their sexual energy.
As pastors, we normally encourage our parishioners to understand that masturbation is a misapplication of our sexual desire. I have heard some pastors encourage parishioners to at least make an effort to give up viewing pornography as part of this practice, in an attempt to take one step towards complete purity, the ideal. Some pastors tell parishioners they must refrain from Communion if, between confessions, they fall into this practice. What I have not heard any pastor do is refuse Holy Communion to someone until this practice ceases for a lengthy time. Again, I do not think that would be pastoral. We work with people who struggle with this sin (including married people who are not asked to refrain from sexual relations entirely), encourage them to move closer to the ideal, and allow them to continue in the sacramental life of the Church.
Eventually, for many parishioners, we deal with the sin of fornication, which would be defined as heterosexual sexual acts between an unmarried man and unmarried woman. Like masturbation, this sin is very common among Orthodox parishioners. Of course, it is most especially common among the sexually mature teenagers and young adults who are, by modern standards, too young to marry. This sin is also common among widowed and divorced parishioners. In my experience, our most devout parishioners seriously fight against this temptation to enter premarital sexual relations. Many of them fail to live up to the ideal. Even those who never engage in full intercourse do often confess “heavy petting” that nearly crosses the line. Whatever the case, the reality is clear that most of our most devout young men and women fall short of the ideal. The longer they delay marriage, the more this temptation is likely to cross the line to fornication.
Still, we normally deal with this sin in a pastoral manner. We do not cut fornicators off completely from the life of the Church. In some cases, it may be advisable to forbid Holy Communion for a time. We often offer advice to help combat this sin, like never allowing oneself to be alone with a significant other. But note that whatever guidance we offer the parishioner struggling with fornication, we always offer light at the end of the tunnel: you may someday have lawful and blessed sexual relations. You just have to wait until marriage. Even with this caveat, our most devout parishioners still struggle to restrain their sexual desires, and we nonetheless provide them with opportunities to engage in the life of the Church, to be active members “in good standing,” to participate in the life of the community without being shunned or shamed for their shortcomings.
Again, what I dealt with above is the situation among our most devout parishioners. The situation is entirely different with those who are less devout, but nevertheless attend church on a semi-regular (and sometimes even weekly) basis. Many of our parishioners in this category either recognize the Church’s stance on fornication and decide to ignore it, or seem not to understand that the Church views fornication as a sin. Often, couples in this situation live together prior to marriage. In the case of divorced or widowed individuals in this category, they have told me before (with a straight face and in all seriousness): “Father, I thought those rules just applied to younger kids before they ever got married.”
What do we do with people who fall into this category? We work with them to stay in the Church. We encourage them to abstain from sex until they marry. And yet many of them, even when asked during premarital counseling to abstain from relations for a couple of months until after the marriage, indicate they “will try,” but they are not sure if they can make it that long. So, even with the knowledge that they can once again—and soon enter into lawful sexual relations (unlike homosexuals, who we often advise can never enter sexual relations)— we normally allow people in this position to continue fully in the sacramental life of the Church.
Another sin we deal with pastorally in the Orthodox Church is that of divorce. The statistics I have seen seem to indicate our rate of divorce among Orthodox parishioners is roughly the same as society at large—which, in America, is to say roughly 50% of first marriages. Canonically speaking, the real sin is not the divorce itself, but the remarriage that follows, since the divorced couple had been made “one flesh” during the Sacrament of Marriage. This is why the Lord says it is the one who divorces his wife and marries another who commits adultery. The real violation is in joining oneself to another, which makes reconciliation with the original spouse virtually impossible and impractical.
In these situations, the Church very clearly chooses to be pastoral versus being legalistic. I distinguish here between fornication and remarriage, most especially, because in the case of fornication, the person can simply end that sin (legally speaking) by marrying their partner. In the case of divorce and remarriage, legally speaking, the sin of adultery (as defined by our Lord in Scripture) never ends! So, legally, divorce and remarriage is contra-Scripture (an important point to remember as we turn below to pastoring homosexual parishioners). Yet, because our Church at its core is pastoral and not legal, we allow people to divorce and remarry. Yes, there is a period of penance that is to be pastorally (i.e., situationally) applied, but an “adulterer” who has divorced and remarried in the Church can be and usually is restored to the full sacramental life of the Church.
Importantly, I do not hear anyone in our Church arguing that these types of “adulterers” should be permanently forbidden from Holy Communion, that they should have to leave their current spouse so they are no longer committing adultery, to be full members of the Church. Parishioners in this category are eventually allowed to be restored to Communion, to serve on Parish Councils, to teach Church School, to be chanters, etc.; some even have been approved to continue as clergy in our Church. Why do we do this? Because we understand that people are imperfect. We understand we fall short of the ideal. But we want people to continue to strive towards that, and cutting them off permanently from the life of the Church until they are ideal defeats the whole purpose of the Church being a spiritual hospital for the sick!
Finally, as it relates to the sin of adultery as we most commonly understand it, the Church again is pastoral. Of all common sexual sins we face in the Church, adultery is the most severe. This is because adultery is an offense against one’s spouse. It is a violation of the purity of the marriage bed. It is destructive, in most cases, not only towards one’s spouse, but towards one’s children (the only exception is when the couple is childless). It makes reconciliation of the marriage difficult.
Thankfully, however, adultery does not have to be the end of the marriage. I have dealt with many couples who are able to put this sin in the past and become even stronger because of what they learned from it. And that is the work of the Church: to deal pastorally with fallen individuals and to bring them as close to the ideal as possible in this life. We are able to do that in the Church because after a period of penance and counseling (pastoral, as well as often professional) we deal compassionately with people who have committed this sin. We do not permanently cut them off from the life of the Church. We do not release statements annually or frequently condemning this sin and those who commit it. We work with them individually and pastorally, and focus on keeping them within the Church to work towards the ideal.
I bring up all of these situations of how we deal with heterosexual sexual sins in the Church because this context, I believe, is necessary to inform us on how we should deal with homosexuals in the Church. Anyone familiar with our Church and how we deal with homosexuality can already see where I am going, and if they have “eyes to see and ears to hear” can understand the hypocrisy I am pointing out. For those who cannot, let me spell it out more clearly.
Our Church has historically spoken loudly and clearly (through canon law and other historical pronouncements) that the following sexual acts are sinful: masturbation, fornication, divorce, adultery, and homosexual acts. The Bible condemns all of these acts (masturbation is arguably the lone exception depending on one’s interpretation of one passage) as sinful. In other words, there is a legal basis for dealing harshly with individuals who commit these sins. There is a legal basis for cutting them off, at least for a time, from the sacramental life of the Church. Yet, in all of these cases—except with respect to homosexuality—we act in a pastoral manner, bending over backwards to restore or keep sinners involved in the life of the Church, to help them work as closely towards the ideal as possible, and to ensure that even if they fall short of the ideal in terms of sexual purity, they continue to strive towards loving their neighbor, caring for the poor and needy, and being involved in the community of sinners we call the Church.
Dealing with Homosexuals in the Church
It is on this basis, and this basis alone, that I believe we pastors in the Orthodox Church should reconsider our approach to homosexuality. I am not arguing that “the Church should change.” I am not arguing we should “change or ignore Scripture.” I am not saying we should “redefine marriage.” I am not saying we should “redefine sin.” I am saying we should be informed by the historical and pastoral practice of the Church in dealing with other sexual sins to help us deal pastorally today with homosexual parishioners.
In modern times, for some odd reason—perhaps because homosexuals are by far a minority, and so their inclinations are so different from the reality most of us face as heterosexuals—we group homosexuality in a class of its own. We treat it as though it is some horrible, vile, irreconcilable sin. We put it in a class of its own. Anyone who denies this needs to reread my last paragraph in the section immediately above. Because even if we intellectually deny that we treat homosexuality differently, our actions tell us otherwise. And I find this to be very strange.
Why is it strange? It’s strange because homosexual acts are one of the least penalized sexual sins in the canons of our Church. The sins of fornication and adultery are treated much more harshly, and the reasons for this are obvious. With respect to (consensual) homosexual acts, the only people involved and impacted are those who choose to participate. In the case of fornication and adultery, there is the very legitimate possibility that offspring could result from these acts. That is to say: you could (pro)create another human being through these heterosexual acts. Moreover, in the case of adultery, you sin not only with another person, but against your spouse, potentially your sexual partner’s spouse, and your and their entire family. In other words, in fornication and adultery, you sin at least possibly and often very realistically against more than one other person.
So the Church historically has not viewed homosexuality as being a more serious sin than fornication or adultery. And today, as well as historically, we deal pastorally with all other common sexual sins, allowing people to remain involved in the life of the Church even when they persist in what the Bible refers to as sin. (See most especially the section on divorce and remarriage above.) And even when that sin does not persist, the reason it does not persist is because heterosexuals are allowed to be sexually active within very limited parameters. They are not told they must refrain from all sexual acts now and ever, and unto ages of ages.
Again, it is with all of this context in mind that I implore pastors in the Orthodox Church to consider a more pastoral approach towards homosexuals who wish to be members of our Church. All we need to do is examine our historical, pastoral approach to others who fall short of what our Church considers the ideal. We do not need to reinvent the wheel.
So, how should we deal with homosexuals in the Orthodox Church? I believe we should discuss with them pastorally the option and opportunity to live an entirely celibate lifestyle. (As a side note: we should also be doing this with heterosexual parishioners.) Our approach to this should not be that they are in some special class of sinners, but that this option and opportunity is one the Church (if not all its pastors) encourages for every individual.
If a homosexual parishioner struggles with remaining sexually chaste, we should treat them no differently from how we treat the heterosexual fornicator. There is no need to shame and guilt them; we should instead work to better align them with the Church’s ideal. We should give them many opportunities to repent and to make sincere efforts to remain sexually chaste. Ultimately, if a homosexual parishioner finds it too lonely and too burdensome not to have a significant other, there really is no reason we cannot treat them the way we treat unmarried heterosexuals. Specifically, we should encourage them to refrain from sexual acts with that significant other, while realizing they may very well fall short of that goal, as do 99% of our most devout and pious heterosexual parishioners.
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.
Just as someone who is divorced and remarried, someone who has a lifelong homosexual partner can work within the Church to fulfill the requirements of Mt 25, which we read on the Sunday of the Last Judgment and which is the basis of our final verdict. This person can still visit the sick and imprisoned, provide food and clothing for the poor and hungry, etc. This person can be involved in the life of the Church, chant at services, and serve on our Parish Councils, just as we allow the divorced and remarried parishioners to do.
If we are honest, many of our churches already allow this. It is sanctioned “unofficially” or “in the closet.” We often just “look the other way” while still publicly condemning this way of life. Not only is that hypocritical, it is not pastoral. It ends up alienating many who otherwise would be involved in the life of the Church—and who not only would benefit from that close connection and sacramental life, but who themselves would provide benefit to the local church community through their participation.
I will conclude this article by once again emphasizing that our Church already provides us with a historical and pastoral model for dealing with homosexual parishioners. Not following this model with homosexual parishioners leads to the same result as not following it with heterosexual parishioners: alienation from the Church, cynicism towards the Church and its leadership, and perhaps most importantly, despondency and despair that leads people even further away from the ideal. As pastors in the Church, many of us should reexamine our approach to dealing with homosexual parishioners to help them work out their salvation and live as closely to the Church’s ideal as possible.
Addendum 1/2/20: See Father Warwick’s Pastoring LGBTQ Individuals in the Orthodox Church: Public Statement of January 2, 2020.
Addendum 12/27/19: See Father Timothy Cremeens’ letter to the editors of December 23, 2019 and Continuing the Conversation: A Response to Father Aaron Warwick.
See the Warwick Files in our Archives 2020 for a catalogue of all articles written in response to Father Warwick.
See the Fifty Years after Stonewall and extensive Sexuality and Gender sections in our Archives, especially Bishop to Bishop: Straight from Confession to Suicide, Metropolitan Nathanael on Same-Sex Orientation, A Special Kind of Clergy Directory, and Protodeacon Theodore Feldman’s LGBTQ+ in Our Churches. See also A Bed Undefiled: Foundations for an Orthodox Theology and Spirituality of Same-Sex Love and Father Pavel Florensky and the Sacrament of Love.
Father Aaron Warwick is the pastor at St. Mary Orthodox Christian Church (AOCA) in Wichita KS. He holds an MDiv from St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and an MA in Philanthropy & Non-Profit Management from the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. He has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue, and podcasts weekly at Teach Me Thy Statutes. He is married with four young children.