The Orthodox Church’s Teaching on Contraception

Is it acceptable for a married Christian couple to have sex without the goal of conceiving a child? Could a husband and wife “be together” in that way without falling into sin? In this post, we address the Orthodox Church’s view on contraception and birth control, particularly within Christian marriage.

Premarital sex

It goes without saying that the Orthodox Church does not approve of the use of contraception for anyone not married. Unmarried Orthodox Christians should remain celibate until marriage. While this is difficult to do and requires a lot of self-discipline, it is not impossible.

Birth control vs. contraception

Often, birth control and contraception are confused with one another in conversation. So first, we need to make a clarification. Contraception refers to methods that inhibit or act against conception of a child (i.e. the morning-after pill, IUDs); birth control, in contrast, refers to actions that limit the number/timing of children naturally, like NFP and abstinence.

The purpose of sex

The Orthodox position on contraception and birth control significantly mirrors that of the Roman Catholic church. However, the reasoning behind our teachings differs in a few subtle ways, when it comes to our views of sex.

The Roman Catholic church historically understood sex as a purely procreative act, one descended into with regret (per St. Augustine). In other words, we only do it to continue the human race. Over time, Catholicism has embraced the unitive aspects of marriage as well, but still maintains that procreation is essential. The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, views human sexuality as beautiful when ordered according to God’s design. She also always highlights multiple purposes for sex, not just procreation. To the Orthodox, intimate union and protection against the selfish abuse of sex are just as important as procreation. And while it may be ideal that all three purposes are present in every marital sexual act, nowhere are we taught we must always have all three.

The Orthodox Church in America states: “Married couples may express their love in sexual union without always intending the conception of a child”. Think of it like this: when we eat food, we do it both to nourish our bodies and to enjoy the things God gave us. If you eat a piece of chocolate, you engage the second purpose, but not the first. And that is completely okay. So long as we do not abuse it and eat so much of it that it damages our health and undermines food’s other purpose. So it is with sex within marriage.

Orthodox teachings on contraception

The Greek Orthodox Church explicitly permits the use of certain contraceptives in marriage to “space children, enhance the expression of marital love, and protect health”. Many Orthodox agree with this in general. However, the difference between birth control and contraception matters for certain Orthodox Christians, who follow the Church of Greece in her 1937 statement condemning contraception, but not natural methods of birth control.

Other Orthodox writers and thinkers point out an interesting nuance: Using contraception that prevents fertilization (non-abortifacient) is essentially the ethical equivalent to abstaining from sex altogether or using the rhythm method, both of which the Roman Catholic church considers acceptable. Regardless of which method the couple utilizes, the sperm and egg produced die. Fertilization does not happen, and thus, a life is not created. Therefore, the Orthodox Church typically views these situations as ethically identical re: contraception, and thus allows non-abortifacients if their use is blessed by the couple’s spiritual father.

As an aside, a small minority of Orthodox might hold another view, that anything other than abstinence is sinful, and that procreation is the only permissible reason for sex within marriage. This view that procreation is essential for a valid marriage, and that procreation is more important than spousal unity, is more prevalent in the Latin West. Thus, not many Orthodox hold this belief, since the Orthodox East sees procreation as normal within marriage, but not essential to it (per St. John Chrysostom). Put another way, this means that marriage does not always have to lead to children.

In summary, most Orthodox churches do allow both birth control and some forms of contraception within marriage, subject to the following conditions:

1. Human life cannot end as a result

Human life, according to modern science and ancient theology, begins at the moment of conception (fertilization). At this moment, a human being has all the genetic information she needs to be a unique individual separate from her mother. This is why the Church considers abortion a form of murder and condemns abortifacient contraception.

2. You have the blessing of your spiritual father

Secondly, you must have the approval and blessing of your spiritual father if you desire to use non-abortifacient contraception. And this is typically unusual, since most priests will counsel abstinence or NFP first, barring any medical concerns.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the Orthodox Church’s position on contraception boils down to understanding marriage as an exercise of agape love. If a person decides to use contraception within marriage purely for selfish reasons, this violates that principle. So long as these decisions are mutual between both marriage partners, and are blessed by your priest, agape love is still the focus of your marriage.

Read More >> Moral and Ethical Issues for Orthodox Christians

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2 Responses

  1. Birth control and contraception is a mortal sin in the Catholic Church. Birth control obstructs the God created natural process of pro-creation. This indicates a morally defective god in Eastern Orthodoxy (EO). A god that allows birth control is not the greatest conceivable being (not God). Altering one of God’s attributes alters them all, since they are coordinates. Allah of Islam is also morally defective. I see the EO practice as a kind of Onanism, and worse than self-abuse, because two people are involved in the sin. I also see it as abuse on the temple of the Holy Spirit. I have not heard a single argument explaining how the god of the EO could be the greatest conceivable being and morally perfect, while at the same time permitting birth control. The EO acceptance of birth control devastates it’s claim to being true Christianity.

    1. Albert,

      Christ is risen! Allow us to clarify a few things for you re: the teachings concerning contraception and birth control. The voluntary control of birth in marriage is only permissible when the birth of a child will bring danger and hardship. Those who are living the spiritual life will come to the decision not to bear children only with sorrow, and will do so before God, with prayers for guidance and mercy. It is not a decision to be taken lightly or for self-indulgent reasons. According to the common teaching in the Orthodox Church, when such a decision is taken before God, the means of its implementation are arbitrary. There are, in the Orthodox opinion, no means of controlling birth in marriage which are better or more acceptable than others. All means are equally sad and distressing. Contrary to popular misconception, Orthodox Christians do not just get permission to use contraceptives or birth control will-nilly.

      To address your point about God and perceived moral deficiency, God’s mercy, and His allowance and concession of human weakness (see also, for example, our article on the Orthodox teachings re: divorce), does not contradict His absolute perfection. The teaching does not alter God’s attributes in any respect; in fact, that’s a rather bold leap of logic. The Church allows these concessions for the spiritual well-being of her faithful.

      God bless.

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