On July 9, 2022, Archbishop Elpidophoros, the primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, baptized the children of celebrity fashion designer Peter Dundas and Evangelo Bousis in a church near Athens. Reactions to the news of the baptism of children of a same-sex couple were predictable. The Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Greece is reportedly preparing a letter of protest to Archbishop Elpidophoros and Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, as the Church of Greece does not recognize same-sex unions.
The baptism of these children raises questions for Orthodox Christians. Does the baptism of children of a same-sex couple imply Orthodox Christian approval or tolerance of same-sex unions? What requirements must parents meet before requesting the baptism of a child? Must one be completely free of sin before committing to the Christian life that Baptism inaugurates? One must refer to the meaning of Baptism itself to answer these challenging questions.
Moral Rigor in Church Tradition
Christians of the apostolic and late-antique periods certainly set a high moral bar for participation in Church life. St. Paul instructs Corinthian Christians to expel a man who committed incest from the community (1 Cor. 5:2). He admonishes the Corinthians to not associate with the “immoral” in the Church community—including idolaters, slanderers, robbers, and the greedy (1 Cor. 5:11). Christians were to address the problem of sin within the community, and the purpose was salvation; the man guilty of incest was expelled so that his spirit could be saved on the “day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5).
St. Paul’s expulsion of a sinner from the community previews an early Christian mindset of a strict insider/outsider concept of community. The first-century Church order known as the Didache—which represents a manual for maintaining order in Syrian Church life—prohibits the unbaptized from participating in the celebration of the Eucharist. Justin Martyr’s second-century commentary on Baptism and the Eucharist suggests that a member of the community must agree with the community’s teachings to partake of Holy Communion.
Post-baptismal sin (sinning after one had been baptized) was inconsistent with the apostolic Church’s concept of Baptism. Roman emperor Constantine was perhaps the most famous person who delayed baptism until he was near death, supposedly to ensure that he would not sin after Baptism. The Christian Church responded to instances of post-baptismal sin by creating a process of penance and reconciliation. Sinners who had been expelled from the community could return to full participation through confession and the laying-on-of-hands, a rite that essentially restored the penitent to the life in the Spirit originally given by God in Baptism. The creation of the series of rites of penance, confession, and reconciliation did not eradicate the mindset that committing to the Christian life in Baptism presumed a commitment to living without sinning.
Baptism and Anointing: Renunciation of Satan and Evil, Commitment to Christ
The rites of Baptism and anointing used by the Orthodox Church reveal a blueprint for the Christian life. The rites begin with a series of dramatic exorcisms in which the candidate for Baptism rejects Satan, an act that essentially means ending all association with the evil one, with demons, and with all evil acts. Two ritual components stand out in expressing the meaning of the baptismal rite. First, the candidate faces west as they renounce Satan; they then turn around, face east, and bow down before Christ. This ritual act is one of ending one relationship—with the evil one and evil—and committing to a new relationship, with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—through Christ.
The actual initiation into this life with God, in Christ, takes place in water. Water becomes a space of cleansing—God washes sin and evil from the baptized—and Christ himself enters the waters, lifting the baptized up into a new life with God, and in him. The rites themselves, then, seem to confirm the Pauline testimony and the mindset of apostolic and late-antique Christianity. A commitment to Jesus Christ through Baptism includes a rejection of association with the evil one, with evil people, and from committing evil acts.
Baptism: A Moment of Consecration and a Process
Orthodox Christians affirm that God does indeed cleanse the baptized and lifts them up into this new life in Christ. If baptized Christians have committed to ending all associations with evil, why do they still sin? Does this mean that God did not act?
Post-baptismal life is a commitment to living in Christ, to becoming a citizen of God’s kingdom. The key word here is becoming. Living the Christian life is a process from Baptism to death. One never perfects it. Transformation is not instantaneous; it is neither a moment of consecration nor magic. Members of the community are always sinners who are struggling and striving to become God’s children.
The Orthodox Church has not only conceded to the reality of post-baptismal sin; it has also normalized it. Penance, confession, and reconciliation are unlike Baptism and anointing in that this mystery (sacrament) is repeated. A Christian can confess their sins and repent every day; there is no cap on “maximum attempts” of penance before one can no longer receive God’s forgiveness, as if sinning were akin to the number of attempts one has to enter their password correctly. Christ taught his disciples to forgive “seventy times seven”—a revelation of God’s inexhaustible supply of forgiveness for human sinners.
The Root of Baptism: The Desire to Become God’s Child
Desire to enter into communion with God—to be with God in daily life—is at the root of Baptism. There is no question about God—God initiates each encounter with sinners. Beginning a covenantal relationship with God requires a human response to God’s initiative. Jesus’ response to Nicodemus’s question reveals God’s love for the world as the initiating act that draws humanity to God, so that the people can be “born from above,” “of water and the Spirit” (Jn. 3:3-17). God is eternally reaching out to draw humanity—a community of sinners—into an eternal relationship with God. There is no question or controversy on God’s activity in Baptism and the relationship it creates.
The matter, then, rests with this community of sinners, of people who are constantly striving to become God’s children. In Acts 8, an angel sends the apostle Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch who is reading Isaiah the prophet in the chariot. After a brief encounter, the eunuch asks the apostle to be baptized—and the apostle Philip grants his request. This episode took place “on the road” as it were—the eunuch requested Baptism when he saw water during his journey. Philip granted his request, and St. Luke tells us that the eunuch rejoiced; we hear nothing more about the eunuch’s life and whether or not he sinned, neither before nor after Baptism. We know only that the apostle said “yes” when the eunuch asked to be baptized. The desire for a relationship with God is a two-way street: God wants to create a community composed of human sinners, and a relationship begins when the sinners ask to be baptized.
The Athens Baptism: An Apostolic ‘Yes’
The human longing for God described above presumes that a person will ask to receive baptism on their own, like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. Once infant/child baptism became normative in Christianity, parents requested Baptism on behalf of the children. The media has focused on the parents in the Athens baptism, but the children are the ones presented to God for Baptism. The Christian tradition emphasizes the image of God reaching out to all and lifting them up to God’s self, remembering that Jesus’ response to Nicodemus ends with his declaration that God sent him to the world because of God’s love.
Throughout history, parents have presented their children for Baptism. All of these parents were and are sinners. Certainly, Orthodox parents who observed their Church’s rules have requested Baptism for their children. Others living in violation of Orthodox Church rules have also presented children for Baptism. These parents were thieves, liars, abusers, vicious overlords, slanderers, gluttons, and murderers in addition to people who committed sins that violated Orthodox ethics. Their motivations differed, too. Some people present their children for Baptism to raise them in a Christian community; others do so to please parents, to ensure salvation, and to fulfill cultural expectations. In every case, the children presented for Baptism meet a God who draws them into communion with the Holy Trinity.
The outcry over the decision to baptize these children represents today’s zeitgeist. At the official level, many of the world’s Orthodox Churches have taken sides in the culture wars on human sexual identity. Orthodox rejection of same-sex attraction, relationships, and marriage categorizes LGBTQI people as a special type of sinners that warrants expulsion from the community. The official Church teaching on homosexuality does not represent a consensus within the Church. Many theologians believe that the issue is unresolved and requires much more study, consultation with the scientific community, prayer, and reflection, even if synods attempt to mute public theological discussion of the topic. The homophobic spirit of some Orthodox who have a binary view of the world (e.g., saints or sinners) diverts attention away from the truly pastoral issue at hand: the relationship between God and the children of this couple, and any other couple or single parent for that matter.
Only Archbishop Elpidophoros knows his motivations for granting the request for Baptism, so my concluding thoughts constitute a best guess. First, he seems to have followed the established tradition, one that grants Baptism to children with the full knowledge that their parents are sinners. Second, the decision to baptize the children conforms to the social ethos document of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (For the Life of the World).
The social ethos document notes that the image of God is fully present in the youngest infants, and that children are innocent (no. 16). The innocence of children is a sign of “extraordinary holiness” (no. 16). The teaching also affirms the fundamental human right for people of all sexual orientations to be free from discrimination and legal disadvantages (no. 19). This is a crucial point—it is a rejection of the homophobic spirit afflicting some Orthodox people. The document insists, however, that human identity is not dependent upon sexual orientation, but on the presence of the image and likeness of God in all of us (no. 19).
The typical pastor—who is a sinner—encounters a sea of sinners who present themselves and their children for Baptism. Every decision to grant Baptism rests upon two fundamental Christian truths. First, God is reaching out to lift up each human being into fellowship with God, because of love. Second, reverence for the image and likeness of God given equally to all humans supersedes the imperfections and sins of any given family unit.
It seems to me that Archbishop Elpidophoros recognized the desire of the parents to present their child to God for the beginning of an eternal covenantal relationship. He then refused to deny an innocent child access to God’s love through Baptism, if we are to believe his own words: “Every person, no matter who they are, or what they have done—for better or for worse—is worthy of God’s love. And if they are worthy of God’s love, then they are worthy of our love, too.” The pastor who would deny any child access to God’s blessings will have to account for their decision before the very God who is constantly reaching out to bring all of us sinners into his flock.
Nicholas Denysenko is Emil and Elfriede Jochum University Professor and Chair and Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University in Indiana.
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 necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.