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Civil Unions by Another Name: An Eastern Orthodox Defense of Gay Marriage

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New York's recent legalization of gay marriage is being hailed by many as a watershed moment in the history of the fight for equal rights for same sex couples. Whatever the long-term consequences of this decision may be, chances are, in the near term, it will be met with increased opposition from Christian conservatives. Their efforts, which reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of marriage, are misguided at best and sinful at worst. There will always be Christians who oppose "homosexuality" on moral grounds, but enlisting the state to protect "the sanctity of marriage" is a mistake. Such efforts demonstrate a fundamental - even idolatrous - misunderstanding of the meaning of "holy matrimony," effectively denying Christ by vesting the state with divine authority.

California's infamous Proposition 8 and similar measures sure to make it onto the ballots during next year's election fall prey to the so-called Constantinian temptation. When Constantine legalized Christianity in the early fourth century, some began to see an almost godlike authority in the state. An increasing number of Christians found it difficult to tell the difference between the things that belong to Caesar and the things that belong to God.

Yet, despite their confusion, those earlier Christians generally knew there was a difference between God and the state, even if they could not always tell where it was. Our sin is worse. Today's Christian conservatives seem to be worshiping America, or at least a certain idea of it, when they ask the government to protect the "sanctity" of marriage. In doing this, they have vested the state with the power to sanctify.

"Sanctity" is a holiness word. It is what happens when the Holy Spirit (the Spiritus Sanctus in Latin) transforms an ordinary thing into a means of salvation. The Spirit turns bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. She makes ordinary water into the instrument of our second birth. I am Eastern Orthodox, so in my church marriage is another kind of sacrament (like baptism and eucharist). The Holy Spirit turns the husband and wife into an image of Christ and the church.

I mention my church because we take the idea of marital sanctity to the extreme, at least in our official theology. Marriage, for us, is not a contract or a covenant but a miracle! We have no vows in our ceremonies, only prayers, because only God can make a marriage. We allow but discourage remarriage because, as the Spirit transforms bread and wine, she has transformed the couple into one flesh. Because marriage is sacred, we must be married by a priest in a church, not by a judge in a courthouse or an Elvis impersonator somewhere on the Vegas Strip.

Strictly speaking, our theology does not recognize the legitimacy of such marriages. They are not sanctified by the Spirit in the church. On the other hand, it is not as if the average Orthodox Christian thinks people married in secular ceremonies are not "really" married. For practical purposes we tacitly recognize these civil marriages even if they don't quite meet our theological standards.

This tacit recognition of a distinction between sacred and civil marriages is one my fellow Christians would do well to keep in mind as they consider how to proceed in their efforts to protect the sanctity of marriage. Anyone who thinks marriage is something sacred needs to recognize that from the church's perspective all marriages granted by the state for tax and inheritance purposes are just civil unions by another name. Christians who truly believe that marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman are welcome to their belief. But Christians who demand the state take up the task of defending marital sanctity are effectively making the state their god. They seem to think that their local capitol can perform miracles when only the Holy Spirit has the power to sanctify.

If marriage truly is a sacrament, as many Christians (including myself) believe, then we need to be much more concerned with developing a robust theology of marriage and making that understood among our congregations than with mobilizing them to deny the right of a civil marriage to same-sexed partners. If we believe marriage is a sacrament, then all marriages performed outside the church are civil marriages, and however the state defines marriage can have absolutely no bearing on its sanctity as far as the church is concerned

Of course, there will be some Christian churches who see gay marriage as a sacrament. In a pluralistic society they are welcome to their belief. It should have no bearing on how Chrsitians relate to society at large but only each other. Disagreements about sacraments are nothing new to the church. We cannot agree on whether we should use leavened or unleavened bread in communion. We cannot agree if Christ is "really" or "spiritually" present in the elements. We cannot agree if baptism is inherently effective or an "outward sign of an inner grace." Infighting about such definitions is one of the church's oldest and most venerable traditions! In medieval times a prince or an emperor might have been called in to settle the matter. How strange it would be for Christians today to demand the state protect the sanctity of the eucharist or baptism! How Constantinian!

Denying civil marriage to homosexuals does nothing to protect its sanctity. If the state stopped granting marriage licenses altogether, making every union a civil union, the church would still have the sacrament of holy matrimony.

Christians opposed to gay marriage can continue to see civil marriages as sacramentally illegitimate without sponsoring ballot initiatives to ban it. They are free to join churches that share their views without essentially vesting judges or Elvis or the U.S.A with the power to sanctify. Christians can continue to bicker with each other about which kind of marriages are sacraments, but civil marriages like the kind New York extended to gays fall beyond the purview of the church because they cannot be sacred by definition. This is true for straights and gays.

Calling upon the state to protect our sacrament is an act of extreme unfaithfulness. Only God can make a marriage holy. Christians can continue to fight about what kinds of marriages "count" as sacred, but we have also learned to agree to disagree about such things. In polite company, and for the sake of keeping peace with each other (because mutual apostasies take so much effort), we can do with marriage what we do with our disagreements about eucharist and baptism: keep our mouths shut and let God sort it out in the end.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post belong solely to the author and are not representative of the Orthodox Church.

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