How Should Orthodox Parents Talk to Their Kids About Homosexuality?

April 7, 2016 Length: 56:09

One of the extremely complicated issues with which Orthodox parents must contend these days is that of homosexuality. How do we talk to our kids about same-sex desires and relationships and how do we do so with the sensitivity, nuance, and frankness that the topic requires? At the request of Carole Buleza, the Director of the Antiochian Department of Christian Education, Bobby Maddex interviews Dr. Philip Mamalakis, an Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, about how to talk about marriage, intimacy, and homosexuality with your children. If you would like to submit a question for a follow-up program on this topic, please email Bobby at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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Mr. Bobby Maddex: Welcome to Ancient Faith Presents. I’m Bobby Maddex, operations manager of Ancient Faith Radio, and today I will be speaking with Dr. Philip Mamalakis. He is an assistant professor of pastoral care at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. Dr. Mamalakis’ interests are in Orthodox pastoral theology and marriage, family, and parenting. They also include the interface of contemporary mental health theory, research, and practice and Orthodox theology. He has published articles on therapists and congregations, working with couples recovering from infidelity, and Orthodox marital counseling. And he has presented numerous talks, seminars, and retreats on marriage, family life, parenting, and Orthodox perspectives on mental health. Dr. Mamalakis, welcome to the program.

Dr. Philip Mamalakis: Thanks, Bobby. It’s great to be here. I thought you were going to mention particularly in this case, that he also has seven children, who range in age from college to eight years old, and we live in a world where my kids have a lot of questions about what they’re seeing happening.

Mr. Maddex: Yeah, I was just going to say that one of the extremely complicated issues that Orthodox parents have to contend with these days is that of homosexuality. How do we talk to our kids about same-sex desires and relationships, and how do we do that with sensitivity and nuance, but, of course, also the frankness that the topic requires. It was actually with these sorts of questions in mind that Dr. Mamalakis and I were contacted by Carole Buleza, and she is the director of the Antiochian Department of Christian Education. You’ve probably heard her voice on some of our broadcasts of the Orthodox Institute that takes place each fall at the Antiochian Village in Ligonier, Pennsylvania. Carole is very passionate about equipping families with the insights needed to adequately respond to the culture, and it is our goal to help her here today to just that by tackling this subject at hand, that of homosexuality.

So before we begin, Dr. Mamalakis, is there some sort of opening statement that you would like to make regarding talking to our kids about these sorts of topics in general?

Dr. Mamalakis: Well, you know, I think about my kids, and they’re living in the world and they’re going around and they’re seeing things on television, they’re hearing things spoken about. They go out in the world, and they see people, and they are filled with questions, and it’s a normal and natural process. As a dad, I want to help them see and want to help them understand, so I’m happy to have this conversation with you just to talk about: how do we speak to our kids about these things, like you said, with frankness and with sensitivity. It’s a really important topic.

Mr. Maddex: Yeah, and I know personally I’m already facing it with my oldest daughter. She’s only 12 years old, but has come home telling me about more than one student who has already self-identified as homosexual, and wanting to know what exactly that means at that age, how she should respond to this individual. So how do we talk to our kids about what’s happening, not just in culture in general, but around homosexuality specifically?

Dr. Mamalakis: Well, you know, our kids are going to be exposed to things, so the answer to how do we talk to our kids about what we’re seeing is it depends on the age of the child, because we want our answers to be age-appropriate. We want to answer their specific questions rather than assume: “Oh my gosh, are they asking a deep theological question?” or did they just hear something and they want to know how to make sense of that? Did they see something on television? Did they have a friend come out at school? Or my daughter in college, who has a teacher who clearly has an ideology about this, and my daughter realizes, “That’s not quite what the Church thinks about these things.” So, number one, it depends on the age of the child, because we want that to be at their age.

And number two, it depends why they’re asking. Are they asking for themselves? Are they wondering about their own attractions and desires, or do they have a close friend and they’re confused, someone they met? Mostly, we are glad they’re asking. Although these are tough questions, and we might get a cold sweat as a parent—“Oh my gosh!”—but we have to be glad they’re asking, because they’re coming to us to learn and to understand. What we want to focus on is teaching our kids what we believe is true, how we understand what God has revealed to us. Moreso than focusing on what’s wrong with what other people believe, we want to teach our kids: This is what we believe, this is how we understand things, and not everyone really believes the same thing. So that, even as we begin to teach our children what’s true, we’re also beginning to help our kids [learn] how to understand or make sense of what other people believe—people believe things differently—and then how we’re called to relate to people who have different beliefs.

That goes for a lot of topics, because our kids might discover that our family is the only family on our block that goes to church on Sunday mornings. How come they don’t go to church on Sunday mornings? Or they might see that they go to different churches than we do, and they might ask us about this. So we use these opportunities first to teach what we believe, second to teach our kids that not everyone shares our believes, and third that we love everyone, we’re kind, and we respect people with different beliefs even as we practice what we believe to be true.

And, like many topics that we teach our kids, we’re going to teach our kids by the way we live our lives and how we relate to our kids; that we’re going to live out our faith and beliefs in the home and focus on loving our kids, getting to know them, paying attention to them, taking an interest in them, setting limits to them. And we live our home life closely connected to the Church. That’s really the way we teach, so answering their specific questions is best done in this context. We are a family connected to the Church, living out our faith in the home.

And the sooner we talk to our kids about things like sexuality, gender, their bodies, the differences between boys and girls, marriage, and relationships—the sooner we talk to them about these topics, the better-equipped they’ll be to make sense of what happens to them as they grow up and what’s happening in America. It’s important to listen carefully, even when our kids ask us, to listen to what their question really is. Why are they asking? We might even ask them, “What makes you ask that? Did you see something or hear something?” or “Tell me what you’re wondering about.”

Older kids might be hesitant to share about their own feelings and desires and attractions, or maybe they’re asking because they saw someone at school being picked on, and that might have hurt. So we can expect that our kids, like all kids, are going to experience desires, attractions, and their own sexual impulses as they enter into teenage years. We want to help them before this natural occurs, ideally, so they can not only understand what happens, but they know how to respond in ways that actually help them thrive in relationships and in their lives. As they learn how to thrive as Orthodox Christians, what we teach them about how to respond to others will make more sense. As they become clear about their own attractions, impulses, and desires and learn to thrive in their own healthy intimate relationships, they’ll be in a much better position to respond to everything that happens around them.

So to answer your question, it’s essentially: How do we raise our kids to internalize this reality about Christ and his kingdom, the Church? And this is the foundation for answering Christian questions about being gay or gay marriage or “if you don’t support gay marriage, you’re a bigot” or other comments like that, because our child might ask us, based on things they’ve heard, are we pro- or anti-gay people? Well, the fact is, we’re not anti any people. We’re not anti-gay, because as Orthodox “gay” is not a category of person, but today people identify themselves as gay, which means we have to be careful as Christians. If we say we’re anti-gay, we might be saying we’re anti-you, which we’re not.

Mr. Maddex: Yeah, I want to get into that more in a second here, but first, what about kids like my middle daughter who are more inclined to see something at school, to see something on television, and never really talk about it, just kind of mull it over in their own heads? Should we wait until they ask us a question before we address these topics, or should we introduce the topic ourselves?

Dr. Mamalakis: What I have found is we have to be really sensitive and responsive, because I believe that if we’re engaged in our kids’ lives, if we’re essentially paying attention to them and responsive to them and living life with them, life itself naturally produces these opportunities to bring things up. You see something on television, a story comes up sometimes in the news, something happens, and it really creates a natural opportunity just maybe to say something briefly. We might hear some things, let’s say that the religious right say, that we actually don’t believe like that; here’s what we believe. And we just lay it out there. Or we might hear something that happens under the political left, and say, “Well, that’s not really how we see things.”

So we might use those opportunities just to state something, but you’re right: each child is different. You might ask your daughter, “What do you think?” And maybe she’ll answer, and maybe she’ll shrug: “I don’t know.” What I have found is, if we’re close to them and living our lives close to the Church, it makes us available to answer questions, and then we might gently use opportunities as they come up just to say something briefly. As a dad I’m prone to lecture and go on and on. What’s more effective is I might just make a statement: “That’s really not how we see things.”

Mr. Maddex: In my experience over these past seven-eight years working for Ancient Faith Radio, one of the biggest things that I’ve come to realize is that the Orthodox community, particularly here in the United States, is not by any means monolithic. There are varied views on a large number of topics, and on topics that I’m often surprised, frankly, that there are opposing perspectives. So is there an actual position that the Orthodox Church takes on homosexuality, and, if so, how is it possible for two different factions to exist within Orthodoxy here in America?

Dr. Mamalakis: You know, that’s two questions, and I want to answer them separately, and I want to answer the second one first. How is it possible that people within the Orthodox Church have a different perspective on something? In some ways, that’s the beauty of the Orthodox Church, that in a sense nobody’s right; we are all encountering God liturgically and studying it theologically and really bringing this into dialogue with how we understand this reality. So there’s something beautiful about the diversity in Orthodoxy about how we understand things, that we’re free to be wrong and we’re free to be corrected.

So when we allow that natural dialogue to occur about seeking greater understanding, it really allows us to discern as a Church: What is true? How do we understand the scriptural witness? How do we understand the patristic witness? And how do we apply it pastorally to people’s lives? What I have found, if we look a little closer, is the greatest diversity doesn’t necessarily happen in what we believe to be true, but there’s a lot of diversity in how we apply this pastorally. So we’re a Church that has tremendous theological unity and beautiful sacramental unity but really diverse pastoral practice, and that can be confusing to people.

In my mind that’s a sign of health, because love can express itself in really a variety of ways, and we have a beautiful pastoral theology of guiding people in the truth and toward the kingdom for their salvation, which means it’s going to look different in a bunch of different cases. So we need to recognize as Orthodox we allow that rather than condemn it, that we’re not actually against each other. We’re actually in love, in a communion of love with each other, as we discern how the Holy Spirit is guiding us in the Church in America to respond today.

So what is the Church’s position on homosexuality? That’s a great question, because even this notion of homosexuality, you know, that’s a modern phenomenon, the term “homosexual,” and to identify people as heterosexual or homosexual is not really how we identify people in our Church. It’s not found in our Tradition, but if we’re helping our kids understand the Church’s position on gay marriage or homosexuality, I think the first thing you want to do, before you answer, let’s imagine your teenager is saying, “What is the Church’s position?” I think it’s great to ask your child what does he or she think. It really allows you to have a starting point.

You might be surprised if you ask your child what he or she thinks because, in a sense, they might actually be understanding things the way the Church thinks and might surprise you, or they might surprise you because they may have adopted some of the views that prevail in our day. But that act of listening respects your child’s capacity to think, and we want to support that. But I would respond to my child by teaching my child that as Orthodox, as human beings, we’re created to be in deep, intimate relationships, with God and each other; that we’re created to enter into the communion of love of the Trinity, unto the ages of ages; that Christ tells us that we are created to be one with him just like he is one with the Father, he says in John 17:21, because that is how we were created and what we were created for. That we thrive when we have real intimate relationships.

And by intimacy I mean what one client described as “into me you see,” that we are created to be fully known, our hearts and souls, by others. Not just to be known, but to be loved. That we are wired for that, we long for that. We’re programmed as infants to seek that out, to be fully known and fully loved. So to thrive as human beings is to have close relationships where you are known and you know the other: you are loved and you love. In fact, we come to know who we are, we come to know ourselves and others and the world around us in and through relationships. People respond to us, they give us feedback, they share their experiences of us, and we share our experiences. That we are relational beings, created in the image of a relational God, three Persons in one.

So intimate relationships are central to our person and our thriving. Healthy relationships are relationships where we are getting to know people and letting them get to know us, loving them and receiving their love. We essentially become human as we enter into these intimate relationships with others and with God. We need intimacy to thrive, but we don’t necessarily need to have sex. We are created not only to be known, but to love. We thrive, not just when someone knows us, but when they know us and love us. So we need to understand, though, that love is much deeper than desire. It’s deeper than affection or even attraction. Love is deeper than desire.

Mr. Maddex: Okay, I want to explore that a little bit more in just a second. First I want to go back to this idea of homosexuality being a modern phenomenon and the Church not viewing people in terms of their sexuality. And I think that that is great and it makes sense to me, but what my 12-year-old is going to ask me… First she’s going to say, “Yes, well, it actually is a real thing. I know some people who are. I want to know: Is the Church against people who identify as homosexual people? Is it okay to just be homosexual or is it just homosexual actions that is the problem in the eyes of the Church?”

Dr. Mamalakis: Remember, our job as a dad is to help our daughter how to see things. My answer to my daughter would be: There are people who have same-sex attractions and desires. That’s just a fact, and that fact has been around for a long time. That’s just a fact, but to identify myself according to desires, that’s actually a new phenomenon. And that once you identify yourself according to your desires, it really restricts who you are and who you’re called to become. That I am a person, and I have all sorts of desires, and these desires change, and these desires transform. In many ways, when we talk about intimate relationships, I need to know what to do with these desires in order to have that intimacy that we all are created for.

So I would have to correct my daughter and to say: Actually, someone who calls him- or herself gay, someone told them they were gay. They taught them that if you have these same-sex desires that makes you homosexual, and if you have attraction to the opposite sex that makes you heterosexual. And in fact I would say that’s not true. You have a name. My name is Philip. I am called to be transformed in intimate relationships with Christ, and as I transform, so do my desires. And if I act out on these desires, it’ll actually undermine my intimate relationships. But in fact what’s really interesting is my desires do change. When I act out on desires, it actually strengthens these desires. When I respond in love and toward virtue, it changes the power that my desires have over me.

So we recognize in the Church—my story that I would teach my child is—your desires do not define you. And I might tell my daughter: You know, this term, “homosexual,” it was only in the 1960s that people started identifying as such. And in fact the term was used way back as a medical term to define bad or destructive behaviors toward the same sex, was homosexual, and then acting out behaviors toward the opposite sex was called heterosexual. It then became that heterosexual became associated with “normal” and homosexual was called “deviant,” but that’s a modern phenomenon. And I would teach my child: Listen, the way the Church understands you is: You’re a person. You’re a female, and you’re called to become a woman in relationship to Christ and others. And you’ll notice that as you learn to seek after righteousness, to do what’s true and good, that actually you won’t be controlled by your desires, but you will choose to respond in love rather than act out in your desires.

But again, I’d want to teach my child that when you desire someone, that’s actually not love. That love is something different than feeling those feelings towards someone. So not only do we not define ourselves by our attractions and desires, we don’t pay a lot of attention to attractions and desires. We focus more on what love really is.

Mr. Maddex: Okay. Trace out that distinction a little bit more between love and desire. If love is not part of desire, what is it and how is it deeper than desire?

Dr. Mamalakis: You know, if your daughters are like mine, they’re going to have crushes on people and they’re going to feel these emotions coming up, and I want to teach them that real love is actually about being cared for, being respected, not being used by someone or in a selfish way, because when you use someone or act selfishly in intimate relationships, it hurts. It’s easy to get hurt or to feel used or manipulated or disrespected, when we don’t feel that real selfless caring, because we’re created to be in intimate relationships of selfless caring and respect, not selfishness. When someone comes close to us and they’re looking out for themselves or being selfish, we can feel it. That these impulses, desires, and attractions can actually damage your daughters’ relationships with people, because they’re not loving. They actually need to be controlled, and I teach my kids that if you’re trying to get what you want and when you want it in relationships, that damages intimacy, because it doesn’t take others into consideration. That those very desires and attractions need to be transformed in sacrificial relationships.

Because if someone loves you, they’re not going to impose their wants and desires on you. They’re going to choose to sacrifice their desires and impulses as an act of selflessness, because that’s what love is. It’s a sacrificial self-offering. To love or care for someone is to suffer for them. Real friends are those who are there for us when it’s difficult for them. They sacrifice for you. Real loving parents are the ones who struggle for your well-being. Real intimate relationships are with people who sacrifice for you. They control themselves when they’re mad, or they watch a show that they don’t like because it’s important to you, or they give you some of their lunch even if they’re hungry. That’s what love is, not: “I really want to eat. Too bad you forgot your lunch.” Even if they really want to eat, love is: they’ll share with you their food, even though they desire the food.

And you know who your real friends are, because they sacrifice their desires and impulses out of respect for you. Notice, it’s in the nature of real love to be sacrificial, to be crucified. Siblings, friends, spouses, parents, children—what we give up for the other is an expression of our love, and that’s hard, but that’s how we thrive. To have people we love enough to suffer for. We visit them in the hospital, we work hard to put them through school or we share our space and our stuff. So we’re created to be in intimate relationships of selfless caring, loving, respectful relationships, where others actually take an interest in who you are as a person and respect you as persons.

And we’re called to be in a relationship with God, who reveals to us that love is sacrificial; it’s crucified. God offers himself to us, fully, sacrificially, most dramatically by becoming one of us and dying on the cross for us. That’s what love is. And love, that sacrificial respect and care, is at the heart of healthy intimate relationships. Christ is at the heart. I want my daughter to know that healthy intimacy requires selfless love, and that Christ is the path of selfless love. Relationships in Christ keep all relationships on this path of healthy intimacy and love.

But we live in a world where there’s a strong message that to be intimate with someone requires that we engage in sexual activity. First of all, that love means “I’m attracted to you and I desire you,” and that to grow in intimacy means “We’re going to engage in a physical relationship; we’re going to act out on our desires toward each other.” But in fact the desires and attractions can actually undermine this healthy intimacy.

Consider how many relationships we have with people that should be intimate but don’t involve sexual desire. We think about good parent-child relationships, siblings, close friends, spiritual father or priest, your relationship with uncles and aunts, extended family, even a coach. And the more those relationships are really intimate, the more we allow people to know who we are and the more we get to know them, the more we thrive as human beings. So it’s important to distinguish between love and desire, and it’s important to distinguish between intimacy, which we need, and sex, because that gets confused today, and I want my daughter to know there’s a confusion between intimacy and sex, and there’s a confusion about sex, that sex is more than just our biology. Sex is more than just attractions and desires.

Mr. Maddex: Dr. Mamalakis, is it not possible for gay individuals to experience that selfless sort of love? I mean, can’t two men or two women fall in love the same way and really love each other? And if so, why is that a bad thing?

Dr. Mamalakis: First of all, I want to say: What do we mean by “falling in love”? because what you describe as “falling in love” is these feelings of affection and attraction. Number one, that’s not really love; that’s affection and attraction, which happens to all of us. Why is it a bad thing? No, two people, whether it’s two men, two women, a man and a woman, a grandfather and a grandchild, can have a deep love for each other, with deep intimacy. That is beautiful, as long as it’s loving, and what loving is is that selfless, sacrificial love, and that can happen and it should happen between lots of people. But we don’t narrowly define love as only that which happens in a marriage. No! Neither do we define intimacy as narrowly as what happens in a marriage. Intimacy and love should be the cornerstone of our relationships.

Part of the problem in our culture is that we don’t have a way to understand the deep intimacy and love that occurs between men. I have a really close friend who knows me deeply, whom I love deeply, whom I sacrifice for. That’s a critical part of really having a full life. My wife isn’t the only one who knows me deeply or loves me deeply. I need those other relationships, like my spiritual father, who knows me deeply, whom I might have a very deep love for. That’s a kind of a parent-child relationship. And I think between my kids: I love my kids deeply. Our relationship is very intimate. So “falling in love” is these feelings of attraction and desire. We don’t base a relationship like that. Those attractions and desires actually need to be contained, because they actually undermine all of those relationships, but there’s nothing wrong with a beautiful intimate relationship between two men, between men and women. That’s beautiful; that’s love.

Mr. Maddex: And yet, the Orthodox Church would say, correct?, that it is not permissible to take that selfless love that two men may feel for each other or two women may feel for each other, that proper intimacy, and have that translate into a marital relationship.

Dr. Mamalakis: Well, it’s not so much that the Church says it’s not permitted. The Church just says that’s just not really marriage; that’s just not marriage. Number one, my love for someone is beautiful, and my deep knowing of someone is beautiful. That’s not marriage, but it is beautiful. And shouldn’t we have a deep love, and if someone chooses to have a deep loving relationship with someone, why would we not celebrate that? Now remember, it’s sacrificial, it’s selfless, and I’m not going to act out on my desires with this person. Once we introduce acting out on my desires, it kind of changes the nature of the relationship. But there is nothing to condemn—in fact, why would we not celebrate, in fact, encourage more of that? That of deep brotherhood of men who know each other deeply, who will love each other deeply, who support each other, where I can go and I feel like people know me and they care about me. Where they know my struggles, and they love me, and they even have affection for me. That is beautiful.

So the Church doesn’t prohibit anything. The Church just says: Well, that’s just not marriage. But remember, marriage doesn’t have the corner on love. All of our relationships we ought to aspire to have a level of intimacy like that, but we’ve got to be clear that we have this other phenomenon that—I have these sexual desires, and what do I do with my sexual desires? And shouldn’t I just be entitled to act out on my desires?—because that’s the other story we’re faced with: In order to be fully human, I need to act out on my sexual desires. Or the other story I hear: that it’s just sex; it’s just part of my biology. So we live in a culture that looks at sex as just a biological thing and “I need to do this in order to be fully human.”

But as the Church we don’t reduce sex to just a biological urge, just like we don’t reduce food to a biological need. That while there is a biological aspect to eating, and it’s central, what eating becomes in the Church is a form of communion. We have communion with God through eating. We break bread with one another as the source of union. So the Church has this similar understanding with sex. Sex is not just about our drives and desires, and I don’t need to act on my drives and desires to have real intimacy and real love. In fact, acting on my drives and desires, because it is a selfish act, actually undermines intimacy and oneness.

Mr. Maddex: Okay, that’s a really good point, and it kind of leads me to the next question, which is: How do we define for our children what marriage is and what marriage isn’t?

Dr. Mamalakis: Well, now we can talk about how the Church understands marriage, and we want to set the stage with our kids by affirming our need for intimacy in all our relationships and also understanding what to do with all our desires and attractions, which are barriers to intimacy. We want our kids to know that all healthy relationships require self-control and that when we love someone we actually resist acting out on temptations and desires. Once we’ve done that we teach them that actually real intimacy in relationships comes from following Christ, that you don’t need to act out on your sexual desires to draw close to someone, but really you resist those impulses and you actually build greater intimacy.

So now we can share what marriage really is for the Orthodox, how the Orthodox understands marriage. I don’t see it so much as the Church prohibiting people from having something. The Church reveals to us what’s real and true, so the Church reveals to us this is what marriage is. We didn’t define it; it’s revealed to us. Just like what Christ offers to the world, the Church’s understanding of marriage is different than what a lot of people believe. Most people think marriage is really about two people “falling in love,” as you said, and hoping to spend the rest of their lives together. And by “falling in love,” we mean feeling attracted to them. Well, in fact, those feelings of attraction and desire will actually diminish as two people journey through life together. And real love is different than feelings of attraction and desire, and marriage is more than those attractions.

However, many people, even within the Church, don’t understand what marriage is really about, because often our ideas of marriage are shaped by fairy tales, fantasies, the media, or even our deep longing to be loved; that most people think that if I feel these affections for someone that’s called love, falling in love, that we should spend the rest of our life together. In fact, the purpose of marriage is to transform those very impulses and desires into real selfless sacrificial love for the other person.

St. John Chrysostom writes that the purpose of marriage is chastity and procreation, and the more important of the two is chastity. Paul Evdokimov writes that for the Orthodox marriage is actually a union of a man and a woman in Christ, that Christ is the celebrant of marriage and the author of marriage, and marriage opens each of them up to the path of divine life and perfection in Christ. So for the Orthodox marriage is a journey of deification in Christ, becoming holy. Marriage is actually a path of holiness, of transforming our fallen human desires into divine love.

St. John Chrysostom writes that if we ask Christ, he will work an even greater miracle than he worked in Cana; that is, he will transform the water of your unstable passions into the wine of spiritual unity. For the Orthodox, Christ is the celebrant of the wedding ceremony, and it is Christ who is at the heart of marriage. In fact, writes Paul Evdokimov, this wedding is the wedding of the spouses to Christ. In and through marriage, each person is united to Christ, in and through their union with each other. So I am married; that means I enslave my heart to Christ. I am the slave of Christ, writes Elder Aimilianos.

So we find out fulfillment as husbands and wives as we are united with Christ and perfected in Christ, but most people don’t understand that actually to be married is to be married in Christ and to Christ. We know that marriage is an icon of Christ and the Church. Marriage is an icon of the union of all there is with Christ. The Scriptures begin with marriage—the union of Adam and Eve—and they end with marriage—the marriage of the feast of the Lamb at the end times.

So for Orthodox marriage is a reunion of what has been made distinct in creation; that man and woman were created, were separated at creation, and through the Fall and sin, man and woman became divided. St. Maximus the Confessor writes that humanity has a special vocation of bringing a reunion of this division, as male and female reunite in Christ through marriage. Thus, for the Orthodox, marriage is re-union of that division of male and female that happened at creation. It’s an icon of Christ and the Church. There can be no real reunion without a coming together of the two genders. You can’t have a reunion without that distinction. There can be love between all people, but marriage as a reunification, specifically a reuniting of the genders, is between a male and a female.

In fact, it’s in the difference-but-similarity between male and female that makes this union in Christ possible. So marriage is specifically a path of growing in Christ with someone of the other gender. Similar—Adam recognized Eve in the garden—but not the same. And those two aspects—similar but not the same—is exactly how marriage serves to transform male and female and reunite the two genders. So marriage is not the only relationship that’s about intimacy and love, but not every intimate, loving relationship is marriage. Marriage is something distinct. It has very little to do with our desires and attractions. In fact, it has a lot to do with transforming our desires and attractions through growth in Christ.

In fact, I think that’s one of the reasons I think we have such a high divorce rate, because people imagine that this is what marriage is: I’m really attracted to someone; I can spend time with them and I’ll get my desires met. And what everyone finds is they’re hopelessly disappointed, because marriage has much more to do with the spiritual life in Christ, which is a selfless martyrdom of all our desires. And we know as Orthodox that we put the crowns on the bride and groom, and those crowns symbolize both martyrdom and kingship. And we say that, and it’s beautiful, but when you live it—whoa, it’s really hard. That I went into marriage because I really liked this person and I was attracted to them, and now I realize all those feelings of attraction disappear when I encounter the real martyrdom of marriage.

But when I understand marriage as a self-offering in Christ, that this is an offering I give to Christ, that it’s about dying to the old man in Christ, with someone who’s similar but different next to me, I find my fulfillment as a male as I die for this female. And sexual intimacy finds its place within this lifetime journey of discovery, intimacy, love, total sharing of body and soul that nurtures self-control, chastity, holiness, and children. And children are created and raised within this Christ-centered relationship and household. But there’s really nothing magic about marriage, but there’s a lot that’s transformative about marriage in Christ, because when a couple is married in Christ, Elder Aimilianos writes, they are a theophany. They express Christ.

But when a marriage is not in Christ, if it’s built on people’s desires and attractions, we see what happens: it leads to conflict, pain, disappointments, betrayal, resentment, anger, and ultimately divorce. This is also why the Church prohibits an Orthodox from marrying someone, it used to be, who was not part of the Church, because how can you have a union in Christ with someone who’s not part of the sacramental journey to Christ? Now we’ve allowed as a pastoral exception that a person needs to be baptized in Christ, they need to at least believe in Jesus Christ, because how can you have a marriage, a union in Christ, with someone who doesn’t even believe in Christ?

So my friends outside of Orthodoxy think that the Orthodox Church is medieval! “How would you prohibit two people who love each other from marrying?” So I said, “Well, we don’t really prohibit people in love from marrying. We just understand marriage to be a union in Christ, and how can you have a union in Christ with someone who doesn’t believe in Christ? How can you enter into a journey for the salvation of your soul with someone who may not believe they have a soul?” So the Church’s pastoral guidance comes out of her understanding of marriage. We don’t prohibit certain people from getting married; we just say, “This is what marriage is.” So if people are going to say, “There’s something wrong with love outside of marriage,” I say, “No, there might be, but that’s a separate issue. Love is sacrificial. Love is real intimacy, and that should happen between everybody: close relationships.”

We need intimate relationships to thrive. In fact, we need to be married to Christ to thrive. As we understand the true nature of marriage and the true nature of intimacy, we see that we are all called to intimate relationships centered on Christ, as we learn to deny ourselves and love and serve the other. We are each called to be married to Christ to find our fulfillment as human beings. Some of us are called to be married to Christ in and through marriage, but the fullness of life and intimacy comes from Christ, not from marriage. And when marriages are not Christ-centered, they’re painful, and they cause a lot of damage. Marriages, like I said, that are formed on desires and attractions, really become painful.

Mr. Maddex: Dr. Mamalakis, I’m a little confused about something, and as is typical in me, my confusion revolves around sex. So I understand that the idea here with marriage within the Orthodox Church and the ancient Christian idea of marriage is this idea of self-sacrifice and transformation, of theosis. And yet sex exists within the marriage arrangement, so you can’t just equate sex with acceding to one’s drives or desires. Explain to me how sex is more than just our drives and our desires.

Dr. Mamalakis: Well, when we think about sex we often equate it with exactly those drives and desires. There is a biological aspect to our sexual drive. You know, sex, or what’s called physical intimacy, is more than just biology, though: drives, urges, and attractions. Sex is actually a deep kind of self-giving. It’s an expression of love, a self-offering. It’s a powerful way for two people to connect, to really know each other. In fact, in the Old Testament, they refer to marital sex as “knowing”: Adam knew his wife. It’s a powerful act of two people becoming one, as they offer themselves to the other in love as an act of love, and the fruit of this self-offering love is life, is a child.

In fact, sex for the Orthodox is really about self-giving, not acting on their desires. So within the married sex life, each person is actually learning how to give of him- or herself, which requires that we give up our desires and attractions. It’s not about getting my needs met or getting what I want when I want it. Many couples have a lot of problems in their marriage because they imagine getting married means “I can just have sex; I get my desires met.” And then they discover: It’s not really working, and my spouse is really mad and hurt by that. It’s actually more about sacrificing my desires for my spouse. That’s the journey of marriage.

St. Gregory Nazianzus writes that marriage is the key that opens the door to discover chastity and perfect love. How can St. John Chrysostom say that marriage is for chastity? What does that mean, like, do we abstain? Well, sex in marriage helps couples learn self-control, sacrifice, not using my spouse for my desires. And couples can have a beautiful sex life as they learn to sacrifice for the other with their whole lives. So as a result, this type of full self-giving, of body and soul, finds its place specifically in the lifelong union of a man and a woman in Christ. Within that lifelong commitment of knowing and loving each other, sacrifice for each other, struggling for each other, this full giving finds its place.

But marriage is a very narrow part of the whole landscape of my intimate relationships. I have intimate relationships with a lot of people—at least I seek to. But sex finds its place only within this one area. However, sex is a powerful way to feel connected and to feel known and to feel love. It feels very intimate because it is. It’s practically the deepest form of intimacy between two people, and people will feel a desire for this, an attraction, both a physical impulse towards sex and that emotional desire to be loved and cared for. So notice there’s a biological aspect of our sexual drive that’s not necessarily related to intimacy. We have urges and desires, just like our urge to eat, and it’s normal, as you get to know someone, you might have sexual attraction or desire. That’s just a biological process.

But we can’t reduce sex to just a biological act, because as a person we’re more than just biological people. And we see this, because if sex were just a biological act, then when someone experienced rape or sexual abuse, it wouldn’t have such a devastating effect on people. But we see that an abuse of that sex really damages people. They feel violated. They feel traumatized. And in marriage when a spouse cheats on another it is so painful and so damaging that we see that that’s not just a biological act; there’s something powerful in that union that what happens with our bodies affects our whole persons. And when we don’t understand this, when we behave in a way that reduces ourselves to just a body, we can hurt other people by acting out on those desires.

So our desire for intimacy and closeness can become sexualized as we develop sexual desires, attractions, and urges. So when we become teenagers, it’s easy to long for connection and intimacy and have that get wrapped into our desire for sex. These normal biological processes get connected to our deeper longing to be known and loved. Because sexual desire is so powerful, not just the physical but the emotional—we feel loved through sex—that we feel drawn to that physical intimacy and in many ways instead of allowing someone to know us we just act out physically with them because it feels like they know and love us, but it’s not a real type of knowing. In fact, what we need is to be known deeply and intimately. Acting out on our sexual desires is selfish; that we’re tempted to use someone to meet our needs or desires, either physically or even emotionally.

And although it might feel in the moment very connecting, people get hurt over time when those relationships understandably end. You might feel like someone really loves you if they want to touch you, and he might feel like he loves you, but I tell my daughters, “You can’t tell if he loves you or he just loves touching you.” It’s hard to tell apart. But if you are dying to feel loved, it’s almost impossible to resist touching someone or being touched. The problem is that’s not really love, and in time you’ll discover that the person was just acting out. So I tell my daughters: If you really want to know if someone loves you as a person, you actually create physical boundaries around physical contact, because if someone really loves you, they’ll respect your words, respect your boundaries, respect what’s important to you, and sacrifice for you. They’ll control their physical impulses. So the only way to understand if someone really likes you and respects you is to set limits to those physical urges and allow the relationship to grow in intimacy as persons.

Because our sexual desires are strong and when they’re tied to our desire for intimacy and when our hormones are raging, they’re really tough to control, so setting limits to physical contact actually helps people focus on real intimacy: getting to know each other, because intimacy, being known by someone, is much deeper, much richer, and much more true than sex. And although we might feel that someone knows us and loves us if we have sex, in fact knowing someone is really about spending time with them, sharing your thoughts and feelings, your beliefs and ideas, taking an interest in someone, and learning about someone, learning to sacrifice. We all need to feel needed, important, like we’re missed if we’re not there. That’s real intimacy. People who like us, who want to share their life with us, people who care for us and who like to take care of us and we like to take care of them. We need people to be thinking about us when we’re not there. That’s intimacy, love, and connection. That’s what we need to thrive.

So I teach my daughter: if you want to really have good intimate relationships, you’ve got to put some boundaries on the physical attraction, because that’s not really love. But when people feel attracted to each other or that desire, they imagine, “This is the person I should be with; because I’m attracted, that’s the person I should marry,” but really, like we said, marriage is a lot more than that.

Mr. Maddex: While we may need to put boundaries on our sexual desires and urges, they’re nevertheless there. What are we supposed to do with these attractions, these affections? Are the feelings themselves good or bad? Should we feel ashamed of our sexual desire?

Dr. Mamalakis: Two things I think [are] important. Number one, that’s why it’s important to teach kids that to thrive we need intimacy; we need to be known. So the first thing is to be proactive: learn how to enter into intimate relationships, because if we’re lonely and disconnected, it’s almost impossible to control our desires; but if we enter into intimate relationships, we actually feel connected; we feel very fulfilled and thriving as a human person.

And the second part of our sexual desires is to understand that this is part of the asceticism of love. I’ve been married 23 years, and I’ve learned that if I love my wife, I’ve got to keep my mouth shut sometimes when I want to speak. I can’t just do what I want. And really that’s just difficult. It is difficult. So the second thing we want to teach our kids is how to learn to both control our desires and to grow in righteousness, to pursue virtue, that we focus on what God invites us to rather than just stopping our desires, but that includes stopping our desires.

We’re in the middle of the season of Lent right now, and Lent is all about cutting off these things that aren’t bad but that can take control of us, but it’s not just cutting off these things, but it’s redirecting our lives to the real good. We change our diet to focus on the real food of life in Christ. We change our behavior—we don’t go out, we cut off our technologies, and we go worship more. We look at how we’re spending our recreational time, and we take that money and we give it to the poor. It’s like God invites us to strengthen ourselves toward righteousness, because when we act out on our desires and do what we want, everything gets old, everything gets boring, we’re going to need to go back and get another kind of “fill”; but when we hunger and thirst after righteousness we encounter a deep filling, and we are really filled.

So the Church recognizes that this is a struggle and that this is a path. And we teach our kids, like anything else in God’s creation, that it takes work; it takes effort. You want to get strong? You’ve got to lift weights. You want a healthy body? You’ve got to watch what you eat; you’ve got to exercise. You want to excel in your class? You’ve got to work hard to get a good grade. That it’s in the nature of God’s reality that struggle is part of the path of becoming. So our desires and attractions—it’s just a fact. We don’t try and get rid of them; we certainly don’t condemn them. And the Church gently doesn’t focus so much on them, because the more we focus on them, the stronger they get. But we learn to redirect our lives toward real intimacy and righteousness, virtue, asceticism, fasting, loving our neighbor. And we learn to grow in real intimacy in that way.

And we want to teach our kids that, that it’s not only a struggle but it’s a good struggle. You will have good relationships. So I ask my daughter: Look at your peers and look at the ones who are sexually active, and how do those relationships end. And they end with pain and suffering. And then look at the ones who actually don’t engage in physical relations, that they remain disciplined, let’s say, and they actually have real good friendships. And those are the ones that can do things that are fun, that go out and have fun activities that build real friendships.

So we want to not only teach our kids the path but help our kids look around and see what causes damage to people and what actually leads to what we really desire. And then they learn to see that what the Church reveals to us is the good path, the most beautiful path. Because the Church doesn’t say, “Give up all that good stuff and follow me.” No. Christ says, “Take my yoke upon you; it’s light.” But he points the path of actually having our heart’s desire: real intimacy. And it comes from understanding these desires and attractions, learning to put them aside, set limits to them, and focus on real intimacy.

Mr. Maddex: Well, it sounds like to me, Dr. Mamalakis, that the first step in talking to your kids about homosexuality is actually talking about heterosexual relationships and about the Church’s view of marriage. Would you agree with that?

Dr. Mamalakis: I would say the first step is talking about all relationships, because just like we say we don’t define people as homosexual, we don’t define people as heterosexual. It’s really talking to our kids about the nature of relationships, because my daughters have to learn to share a room together and learn that if they act out on all their desires and pulling each other’s hair out and taking each other’s stuff, it just causes destruction. But if they’re patient, kind, forgiving, if they learn self-control and learn to control what they say and speak kindly and listen to each other’s words, we find the exact same reality. Self-control, pursuing the virtues, centering our relationship on Christ enables them to stay close as sisters.

That’s the structure of all our relationships, so when we use all of our relationships… And I use myself as an example. If I’m a domineering dad who comes in and demands what he wants—“I get to control what’s on the television” and “What I say goes”—if I act selfishly, they’re going to see this doesn’t seem respectful and loving. But when they see me acting selfless, kind, patient, using self-control, forgiving, they see that this is what leads to actual intimacy in our homes.

So we help them understand all relationships, because what they need is to have intimate relationships with everyone. Some of my children will be called to marriage; others might not be. But they are all called to intimacy with Christ in all their relationships.

Mr. Maddex: You have definitely given us a lot of food for thought, and there’s so much more that I want to ask you today, but we’re running out of time. I thank you so much for helping us wrestle with these questions. Is there anything else you would like to add in conclusion, Dr. Mamalakis?

Dr. Mamalakis: Well, I would add just that I know my kids, and they’re kind of always having questions and they’re always learning, and I know the thing about parenting is that we don’t just have one sit-down parenting lecture, but we have kind of an ongoing conversation. So based on what we’ve said today, I would welcome other questions. If people have questions come up—What about this? How do we answer this?—questions your kids have asked, that now that you and I, Bobby, have talked about how we understand what’s happening, that I would welcome questions from parents to say, “Well, then how do we answer this?” or “How do we apply this understanding of Orthodoxy and reality and marriage and relationships? How do we apply that in these specific cases?”

Mr. Maddex: I think that’s an absolutely phenomenal idea, so why don’t we do this. Let’s have our listeners go ahead and email me those questions and I’ll compile them for a second episode on this topic. If you do have a question for Dr. Mamalakis, why don’t you send it to me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)? And we’ll reconvene some time after Pascha. Once again, that’s .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

I thank you so much for joining me today, Dr. Mamalakis.

Dr. Mamalakis: Thank you for having me. It was great to talk.

Mr. Maddex: Once again, I have been speaking with Dr. Philip Mamalakis. He is an assistant professor of pastoral care—and the father of seven children—at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.