In the recent article at Orthodoxy in Dialogue, Pastoring LGBTQ Individuals in the Orthodox Church, Father Aaron Warwick presents a case for including sexually active LGBTQ individuals into full communion with the Orthodox Church, and doing so while maintaining the traditional Orthodox stance on human sexuality. He does this by appealing to the Orthodox concept of oikonomia, a pastoral principle in the Church which accommodates for Orthodox faithful who are not living according to the moral ideal of its teachings. Father Warwick asserts that the way in which pastors are taught to respond to the commonplace moral challenges of heterosexual relationships is not afforded to persons with differing sexual orientations. If the majority of heterosexual relationships find the Church’s moral ”ideal” of chastity to be ”impracticable,” why then would we believe that it is best for those with near exclusive homosexual orientations not to approach Holy Communion unless they be celibate (or at least trying to be)? Not only does Father Warwick try to expose the seemingly unjustly discriminatory applications of church law, he even points out that canon law has historically assigned greater penances to adultery and other sexual sins over homosexual intercourse. If we were to truly apply the law equally based on this fact, how many of our parishes would be virtually empty?
I want to respond to Father Warwick’s pastoral approach by highlighting three moral dilemmas which, I believe, constitute three central problems which any theory of pastoral theology involving LGBTQ+ people will inevitably have to face. For now I will call these the problem of moral degrees, the problem of moral limitations, and the problem of spiritual well-being. After this I will evaluate how Father Warwick’s own approach deals with each of these problems, and then I will propose ideas for further discussion.
1.0 The problem of degrees of morality
I propose that a certain unspoken question regarding the inclusion of non-celibate LGBTQ+ persons is a concern about the moment when morality moves from ”ideal” to a necessity when it comes to who is in communion with the canonical Church. If the Church accepts that there exists a sort of moral development, such that it is better to have some sexual morals than to have none, at which point is one made unworthy to receive Communion? What kind of basic morality does communion with the Orthodox Church require? The logic of oikonomia seems to lead somewhere with which some theological and politically active conservatives are fairly uncomfortable. Some go so far as to place it in a narrative of moral approval, or a slippery slope to this, rather than pastoral care.
One may ask, if oikonomia applies here, what other classes of sinners might the Church encourage to approach the Altar Table for whom Orthodox morality seems ”impracticable?” The concern seems to be that all classes of sinners potentially could—if proven their intentions are good and the situation crippling enough—be encouraged to receive Christ in the Eucharist. Right-leaning theological folks may ask, in other words, must there be an unconditional behavioral ”line” somewhere in the conditions for receiving the Holy Eucharist worthily?
2.0 The problem of moral limitations and the human condition
Let’s say that we accept Father Warwick’s moral reasoning and pastoral approach (which is not new, except for whether this can validly be applied to the situations involving homosexuality). This still leaves the problem that resisting sin is generally not supposed to be ”impracticable” in Christian theology. When the illumined exercise moral effort in their relationship with Christ they do so on the premise that they will receive divine assistance. Moral effort alone is not enough. The baptized are encouraged to continue to pray, ”Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy,” with hope in grace which will not disappoint them, Christ having shed abroad in their hearts the love of God.
What happens when it appears that, in fact, hope in grace has seemingly disappointed? Personally, I have found this to be the one taboo question to ask in more theologically moderate (but still conservative) discussions of Christian faithfulness and homosexuality. Even among the new so-called ”Side B,” gay Christian celibacy movement, it is proverbial heresy to insist that for some people a single lifestyle may not actually be doable.
What does it mean for the Orthodox theology of grace and salvation if indeed Orthodox divorce rates are at nearly fifty percent, or that most priests have to look away at times with unchaste engaged couples if they want to keep some semblance of a parish? These are questions whose burden lies on those who advocate for a theology excluding any notion of impracticability.
3.0 The problem of spiritual well-being
The final problem in the pastoral theology of sexual minorities (or really any person who is in an extraordinary circumstance) on which I would like to focus concerns notions of well-being in the spiritual life of the person being pastored. What do we take to be spiritually healthy for those who are sexual and gender minorities? To what extent should we expect the Orthodox take on well-being to fit with our intuitions in our society?
Common versions of well-being broadly construed include things like healthcare, employment, housing, good health, personal autonomy, value alignment or fulfillment, goal achievement, companionship, and reasonable levels of happiness or positive mental states. These seem to be constituents of well-being that are present in many cultures throughout history. Humans seem to find these compelling enough to institute social norms which cater to them.
In Orthodox theology there is no strict separation between the material and immaterial facets of the spiritual life. Orthodox offer to God the goods of creation during the Divine Liturgy. They believe that in the incarnation God redeems water, bodies, trees, animals, psyches, and the entire cosmos. This raises the question, when is it appropriate to ask another human being to relinquish what historically has been seen as central necessities of well-being? To ask a frightened, devoted, 16-year old Orthodox Christian girl (since this is what we are really talking about—our children)? How many of these seemingly central constituents of well-being, with which we raise our children, can we ethically ask a young Christian to relinquish until we can no longer say they are even spiritually thriving? Unless we are dualists we will have to say at some point that they are both temporally and spiritually suffering, either way.
There is a situation where the Tradition encourages its members to give up every other constituent of their own well-being. It is called martyrdom. But what is martyrdom as it has been historically understood in the Church, and can our situation properly be called a martyrdom of sorts? These are the complexities of determining the spiritual well-being of a queer identifying person which any competent theory of pastoral care for LGBTQ+ persons must consider. We cannot always judge temporal and physical well-being as co-determining factors, when asking when it is appropriate to ask a child to give up central aspects of their temporal good over their lifetimes. This will be true even if we can mitigate this as much as possible through Christian community.
4.0 Oikonomia and the well-being of LGBTQ+ identifying Orthodox Christians
When it comes to viable ways that someone can be queer and in communion with the Orthodox Church today in light of the traditional theology of human sexuality, Father Warwick’s position has been exactly my view. It is also the view of a number of LGBTQ+ Orthodox Christians whom I have had the pleasure to know. It seems to be the least theologically costly and most historically continuous way Orthodox pastors can commune them without demanding lifelong celibacy from the get-go.
Does oikonomia adequately address my three proposed theological problems for pastoral approaches to LGBTQ+ inclusion? It is my opinion that it does not, in its currently articulated form by Father Warwick, but that upon further development it has the high potential to do so.
First, oikonomia for non-celibate LGBTQ+ persons needs to supply an account of what sorts of behaviors require the sinner to live outside of communion with the Church, regardless of good intent or moral effort. If it does not, it will likely be vulnerable to accusations of moral relativity.
Where oikonomia does well is in its ability to address the problem of moral limitations. It simply concedes that there are moral commands which remain real moral obligations but are highly unlikely to be obeyed with real consistency due to many outside factors. I do wait, however, for an account of why exactly it is the case that there are such commands, with dire biblical consequences attached, if they seem this impracticable by the majority of the faithful. I do believe that there are some real candidate explanations; however, I have yet to hear them articulated formally by those who advocate this position even in the case of remarriage.
How does this version of oikonomia articulated by Father Warwick fare as a pastoral theory in answering the problem of spiritual well-being? Not surprisingly, my answer is, it depends. Remember that oikonomia as he articulates still retains the traditional view that, ultimately, it is best for the priest to encourage celibacy for the LGBTQ+ person. Accommodating a life partner is a sad last resort.
For many queer Orthodox Christians this will still sound like a statement explicitly against universally held ideas of well-being for humans. To defend this, the priest has a daunting, and potentially dangerous task. He has to tell a young, bright-eyed Orthodox Christian (with all of the anguish that can come living with this orientation in the world), that contrary to every one of her normal sensibilities about what is good for human beings, celibacy is unconditionally what is morally ”ideal” for people like herself. In our current social configuration, this inevitably means a life filled with intense loneliness, depression, anxiety, lack of elder care, unhappiness, and economic disadvantage.
For our concerns here, what are the psycho-spiritual results of this? What does it mean for her experience of her relationship with God that she will live her life ”technically” morally compromised if she wants the permanent support of a partner and avoid anguish? This is, of course, in the context of an unchosen sexual orientation and the unchosen socio-economic-psycho-ecclesiastical context in which single queer people find themselves today.
There is at least one foreseeable way in which Father Warwick could deal with this issue—but may not be comfortable with—and that is to simply bite the bullet. The Church does in fact ask our young person to give up some serious aspects of her economic, psychological, and physical health in order to do what is best for her spiritual life. Her relationship with God entails the rejection of certain constituents of her temporal welfare. Other aspects of her welfare are only contributing to her ”all things considered” well-being, in so far as they are fulfilled along with traditional sexual morality. But for many this will remain unsatisfying. It would take a special kind of LGBTQ+ person to accept their existence in the communion of the Church as a mere accommodation.
Those who have concerns about exercising oikonomia with LGBTQ+ persons, however, need to answer what oikonomia is, and when it is appropriate in general, or else offer a sound argument for why oikonomia toward same-sex couples is not legitimate; that is, while affording it to those who have second (and third) marriages in the Orthodox Church.
See the Warwick Files in our Archives 2020 for a catalogue of all articles written in response to Father Warwick.
See our Archives 2017-19 and Archives 2020 for the Fifty Years after Stonewall and extensive Sexuality and Gender sections.
Joshua Rainwater is an undergraduate student in philosophy and classics at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, wth a primary interest in the philosophy of well-being, morality, and the social sciences. He is also a co-founder of the Effective Altruism community in Kansas City, which focuses on alleviating the greatest amount of world suffering with available economic resources. He attends two OCA parishes in Kansas City and Lawrence KS.