Anyone watching the news today is aware that we are living in an age where secular forms of diversity and pluralism are valued over and above biblical truth. This applies especially to issues of gender and sexuality. Activists in the so-called LGBTQ movement have successfully challenged traditional Christian understandings of marriage and family in nearly every forum of American public life, including school curricula, the media, and the courts. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Supreme Court recognition of gay marriage.
At times, Orthodox responses have been knee-jerk in their opposition to same-sex marriage and the LGBTQ agenda. But a blunt rejection is woefully inadequate. A rebuke is no reply. If Christians have any hope of defending the sacred institution of marriage then they need to articulate the reasons that the Christian theological vision requires marriage to constitute a union of man and woman. Perhaps one of the most profound, yet often unrecognized, explanations for this lies in Christian teaching of the Trinity itself.
The Holy Trinity and Human Sexuality
Orthodox Christian ethics maintains that marriage and sex are sacred mysteries that point beyond themselves to the mystery of Christianity’s three-personed God and to His redemptive self-giving in the Incarnation, which is actualized in the life of the Church.
The inner life of the Holy Trinity offers a model understanding marital relationships. The Nicene Creed, coupled with the “in” language of the New Testament to describe the intimate relations between the three Persons of the Trinity (John 14:1; 17:21 et al.), is what some Church Fathers have described as “perichoresis”–meaning “to co-inhere, inhabit, inter-dwell, or to live within.” In other words, each Person of the Trinity eternally dwells within the other two in a perfect unity-in-distinction.
The mystery of God’s own Trinitarian character is extended to human existence and reflected in the Genesis account where God says, “Let us make humans in our image, in our likeness …. Male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:26–7). Thus, the sexual intimacy that Adam and Eve experience as they become “one flesh” can be said to reflect the eternal union-in-distinction between the Father, Son and Spirit and their mutual indwelling.
In Genesis 2:18 we read, “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’” This “not good” is the only negative assessment given in the entire creation narrative. Only a woman that was fashioned from Adam’s own side could complete him. Male alone could not properly reflect the “image of God,” nor could female by herself. Alone, Adam would have been a distorted, “not good” image of God. Once Eve was present, humanity was able to reflect the personal and relational intimacy that God is. Eve’s presence meant that humanity could experience life-giving, interpersonal union–an earthly echo of God’s own inter-personal, perichoretic life. Together, their unity reflects the union-in-distinction that exists within the Trinity. Personal union (both human and divine) is the ground of all human existence.
Incarnation, the Church and Human Sexuality
A further divine mystery that models the integrity of male/female relationship is the union of Christ with His bride, the Church. Marital intimacy between a man and a woman is a sacramental image of the saving intimacy that now exists between Christ and His people. The female imagery of the Church’s bridal relation to Christ, the male bridegroom, is used in Ephesians 5 to manifest the mystery of salvation when Paul quotes the Genesis text, “‘the two shall become one flesh.’” “This mystery is profound,” he continues, “and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:29–32). There is thus a soteriological, iconic dimension to marriage and human sexuality that are to be understood in light of God’s self-revelation in Christ (the male bridegroom) and His relation to the Church (His female bride).
Christian Marriage and Same-sex Unions
Although marriage is given by God as a mystery that reflects both the interpersonal relationship of the Trinity and soteriological promise of Christ and the Church, humans sometimes join together (in same-sex unions) what should be divided, or divide (through divorce) what should be united. What God has joined we separate, and what God has separated we join. In creation, God designed Eve to be the complement of Adam, not another Adam to fulfill Adam or another Eve to fulfill Eve. The Church cannot sanctify a same-sex relationship regardless of how loving or committed the two individuals may be. That relationship is contrary to the teaching of Scripture (Lev. 18:12; 1 Cor. 6:9-11: 1 Tim 8:1-10) and fails to reflect the mystical pairing that constitutes Christian marriage. Two Adams or two Eves united in an imitation of marriage distort the “image of God” in humanity, misrepresent the redemptive relationship between Christ and the Church, and cannot fulfill the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). We read in Romans 1:25–27 that fallen human beings “exchanged the truth about God for a lie,” and are given over to sexual confusion: “For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another” (also1 Cor. 6:9-11; 1 Tim. 1:8-10).
American society will increasingly accept diverse forms of sexual behavior in the years to come. Sexual confusion and sexual indifference will likely increase in our Churches, especially among our younger members, if we do nothing to explain why we believe as we do, and offer love and support to those who struggle with their sexual identities. Neither knee-jerk condemnations or permissive silence is an acceptable solution to the challenge before us. Our tradition and our salvation are at stake.
The gospel of Jesus Christ offers positive solutions for our culture. It is our sacred duty not merely to point out the theological errors of same-sex marriage, but to actively help those who struggle with same-sex desire. All of us are infinitely loved and valuable in God’s sight. Hatred has no place on this battlefield. On the contrary, Christians should be the first to come to the defense of those who have been hurt, injured or bullied by hateful adversaries. We must continue to speak the truth in love even though it is a countercultural message that calls people to a life of wholeness through the saving gospel of Jesus Christ.
Bradley Nassif, Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, North Park University (Chicago). He is general editor of New Perspectives on Historical Theology: Essays in Memory of John Meyendorff (Eerdmans); B. Bingham and B. Nassif, The Philokalia: A Classic Text of Orthodox Spirituality (Oxford University Press); and author of Bringing Jesus to the Desert (Harper and Row). The New Republic has described him as “the leading academic expert on Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical dialogue.”
*Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.