The Orthodox Church’s Teaching on Contraception

It goes without saying that the Orthodox Church does not approve of the use of contraception or birth control 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! In this post, we focus instead on married Orthodox couples and the uses of contraception and birth control.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Birth control vs. contraception

Often, birth control and contraception get confused with one another in conversation. So first, a clarification: Contraception refers to methods that 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

Is it okay 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? The Orthodox position on contraception and birth control somewhat 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, done to continue the human race. Over time, Catholicism has embraced the unitive aspects of marriage as well, but still insists 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. 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, we do it to nourish our bodies and to enjoy what 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 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. These Orthodox typically follow the Church of Greece in 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 uses, the sperm and egg produced die. Fertilization does not happen, and thus, 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, some 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 (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: Abstinence: The Orthodox Approach To Sexual Purity >>

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6 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.

    2. If no one ever used any form of birth control, the Earth would be even more overpopulated, and the poverty and hunger that is already experienced in many countries today would become far worse. Surely God would prefer people to have manageable families than cause millions suffering?

      Besides, it is bizarre that the Catholic Church still prevents birth control. At the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control (1963-1966), theologians and church leaders discussed the topic, and a majority of 80% recommended that the Church expand her teachings to include artificial contraception, and when it could be used. If a council that spent three years discussing the issue, in the 60s, which was a lot less progressive than today, decided so much in favour of artificial contraception, isn’t it ridiculous that the church still teaches what one Pope, who was in the minority wrote (and mainly because of church politics rather than any strong feeling about birth control).

      1. A response to your first question. I think we often forget that God has bigger plans for us than this world. All the suffering in the world would not be worthy of his grace. And yet ours is enough. Why would more humans not be worthy of his grace?

  2. Over population is a lie. There is more than enough food and space for everyone alive. Poverty and hunger are caused by human corruption not by lack of food or space. The more people alive the more advanced we become in our means growing and getting food. Do research before you suggest something awful like this. Turn off your TV and open a book.

    1. Jackie,

      Christ is in our midst. We do not recall ever mentioning over-population in our post. Are you perhaps responding to someone else’s comment? God bless.

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