Many people, whether they believe in God or not, seek to understand the complex issues that plague our generation. The Orthodox Church has, and continues to, address these controversial topics and help modern Christians grapple with the struggles they face in an ever-secular world.
- Birth Control and Contraception
- Capital Punishment
- Divorce and Remarriage
- Eternal Security
- Organ Donation
- Original Sin
- Sexual Relations
Abortion is perhaps one of the most controversial topics faced by the Orthodox Church today.
The embryo inside its mother’s womb is not a part of her body, as is the current secular argument. Rather, the embryo is an all-together separate human being – a “house-guest,” if you will – in the body of the mother. The embryo is and always will be human, with a body and a soul, made in the image and likeness of God.
Many Christians find themselves compromising on certain instances of abortion. (For instance, if conception results from rape or if birth would endanger the life of the mother.) The Church, however, views the deliberate taking of life for whatever reason as a grave sin. As such, Orthodoxy opposes abortion, viewing it as premeditated murder.
Even in rare circumstances, the Church denounces abortion. All things that happen to us are part of God’s will for our lives. Faith in Him heals all wounds, even those caused by horrific tragedies. God uses these events to change us, help us grow in faith, and aid us on our path to salvation and everlasting life.
Birth Control and Contraception
Another topic that many Christians struggle with understanding is the acceptance and/or use of birth control and contraception.
First, it is important to note that birth control and contraception are not the same thing. “Birth control” refers to methods that merely number the timing and number of children naturally (i.e. abstinence or Natural Family Planning [NFP]). “Contraception” refers to methods specifically designed to act against conception in the womb.
The Orthodox Church maintains its controversial position on this topic. All methods of artificial contraception are unacceptable, while birth control (NFP/abstinence) is admissible with the guidance of a spiritual father.
Some Orthodox hold fast to the Stoic view, that any form of birth control or contraception aside from abstinence is sinful. These individuals follow the Latin/Western view of marriage. They place the procreative part of marriage above the unitive part. Eastern tradition follows Saint John Chrysostom’s view: procreation is normal in a loving Christian marriage, but not essential to it.
Capital punishment is the legalization of killing an individual as punishment for a crime. Though it has existed for centuries, capital punishment has only become a controversial issue in society over the last several decades. It is difficult to define the Church’s exact position on capital punishment because of this.
Generally speaking, the Church views all life as sacred, created in the image and likeness of God. The Church will always pray for the souls of those who have sinned. She counsels mercy, compassion, and repentance in the place of violence.
Some jurisdictions of the Church have denounced capital punishment in formal statements. However, the Church in the United States has neither fully accepted or condemned capital punishment. In countries where capital punishment is not exercised to serve justice, the Church condemns its use as arbitrary and purposeless.
From ancient times, the Church has practiced burial of the dead, following the Hebrew practice. The example of Jesus’ burial is crucial here; He was buried, and so are we when we pass away.
The Orthodox Church is staunchly against the practice of cremation because it:
- destroys the body, which is a temple of God and will be resurrected and reunited with the soul when Christ comes again; and
- was used by those who denied Orthodox doctrine to express their rejection of said beliefs.
The Church views cremation as an attack against Orthodox doctrine and Holy Tradition, and thus rejects it wholeheartedly.
Divorce and Remarriage
The breakdown of any marriage deeply saddens the Church, particularly when it involves two Orthodox Christians joined together through the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ held marriage in incredibly high esteem (Matthew 19:4-6).
Divorce is seen as a failure and an evil in the Church. However, the Church does recognize that there are circumstances in which it would be better for the couple to separate. If the marriage breaks down to the point where the spouses are no longer spiritually, morally, personally, and bodily bound to each other as one flesh, the Church sees that couple as dead to each other. The marriage, in substance, no longer exists. Regardless of the circumstances, divorce is an occasion for repentance and the seeking of forgiveness from God.
For the sake of mercy and compassion, and because of Her understanding of human weakness and frailty and the spiritual well-being of Her sheep, the Church does grant divorces. In many cases she also grants the right to remarry (up to three times, depending on the ecclesiastical leadership). Before resorting to divorce, however, the Church always counsels couples to reconcile to the best of their abilities.
To sum up the Church’s position here, she “blesses the first marriage, performs the second, tolerates the third, and forbids the fourth.”
Widows and widowers can remarry without repercussion. Their second marriage is considered just as blessed as the first. One exception to this rule is the clergy and their wives. Should a married priest die, his widow will not remarry. Widowed priests are also not allowed to remarry and frequently end up in monasteries.
The Evangelical idea of Eternal Security states that salvation by its very nature changes a person so much that apostasy (abandoning one’s religious convictions) becomes impossible. The person is and will forever be saved, no matter the circumstances. However, we know apostasy is very possible, even in the hearts of those who once said they believed (Judas Iscariot being the prime example). Judas, once saved, fell away to the point of damnation. If one of the Twelve could fall away, anyone can.
The Orthodox Church does not believe in Eternal Security.
She views it as dangerous because it provides a false sense of security to those in danger of damnation.
The true healing we receive is the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. Salvation is not just a single experience (“once saved, always saved”). It is an ongoing journey. On that journey one continually returns to God for renewal, forgiveness, and cleansing by participating in the life of the Church. Penitent reception of the Eucharist assures us that we will be saved if we continue along the faithful path.
It is as the Eucharistic prayer itself says: those who partake receive purification of soul, the remission of sins, the communion of the Holy Spirit, the fulfillment of the Kingdom of Heaven and boldness towards God. Standing every week at the Chalice, we are eternally secure.
Euthanasia is the practice which holds it morally correct to take the life of a person who has an incurable illness, in order to eliminate their suffering.
The Orthodox Church firmly believes that we are not permitted to take direct action to shorten a person’s life for any reason. To do this is to usurp the authority of God, and is therefore seen as a form of murder in the eyes of the Church.
There is no official Orthodox teaching on evolution. Most Orthodox theologians do not find problems with the general idea of the “development” of our physical forms, nor have they understood the Genesis accounts of creation in a literalistic fashion.
It is important to note that there are many evolutionary theories, not just one. Those theories which presuppose purely mechanistic understanding, without place for God, are viewed as unacceptable. Those that are more open-ended tend to operate in harmony with Orthodox views about God’s creation of the universe and everything within it.
In scripture, homosexual behavior is not blessed by God and specifically prohibited: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination” (Leviticus 18: 22).
St. Paul writes, “… because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men … ” (Romans 1:25-27).
This is not the same as saying that a person who struggles with same-sex desire has lower value in the eyes of God.
Think of same-sex desire like a handicap, a condition that closes off some choices that might otherwise be available, such as the paralytic who can’t walk, or the deaf man who cannot hear. This is a hard saying that may strike the ear as fundamentally unfair, even harsh. But God calls us to live according to His commandments. The struggle the homosexual might have in conforming himself/herself to God’s commands can become a pathway to holiness.
While some believe organ donation is a wonderful, self-sacrificial way of showing love for God and neighbor, others view is as a desecration of the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Though there are differing perspectives on the matter within the Church as a whole, they are all united in one respect. When weighing such a heavy decision, it is imperative to consult a spiritual father, and pray on the matter. As Orthodox Christians, we are called to faith in Christ, who is the Physician of our souls. He has given us the gift of life. The sanctity of that gift should always be at the forefront of our minds.
The term original sin was unknown in both the Eastern and Western Church until Augustine (c. 354-430). The phrase the Eastern Orthodox Church Fathers used prior to Augustine to describe the tragedy in the Garden was not original sin, but ancestral sin.
Ancestral sin has a specific meaning. The Greek word for sin, amartema, refers to an individual act, indicating that the Church Fathers assigned full responsibility for the sin in the Garden of Eden to Adam and Eve alone.
The Eastern Church, unlike its Western counterpart, never speaks of guilt being passed from Adam and Eve to their descendants, as did Augustine. Instead, each person bears the guilt of his or her own sin. The question becomes, “What is the inheritance of humanity from Adam and Eve if it is not guilt?”
The Orthodox Fathers answer as one: death.
Adam and Eve were created to become one with God, increasing in their capacity to share in His divine life. They had the freedom to obey or disobey. To embrace their God-given vocation would bring life, to reject it would bring death, but not at God’s hands. Adam and Eve failed to obey the commandment not to eat from the forbidden tree, rejecting God.
Death and corruption began to reign over the creation (Romans 5:21). In this view death and corruption do not originate with God; he neither created nor intended them. God cannot be the Author of evil. Death is the natural result of turning aside from God.
Temptation overcame Adam and Eve just as it did all humanity. They wanted independence, to go their own way and realize the fullness of human existence without God. According to the Orthodox Fathers, sin is not a violation of an impersonal law or code of behavior, but a rejection of the life offered by God.
Fallen human life is, above all else, the failure to realize the God-given potential of human existence, which is, as St. Peter writes, to “become partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4).
In Orthodox thought, God did not threaten Adam and Eve with punishment, nor did their sin anger or offend Him. Instead He felt compassion.
The expulsion from the Garden and from the Tree of Life was an act of love, not vengeance. Thus began the preparation for the Incarnation of the Son of God and the solution that alone could rectify the situation: the destruction of the enemies of humanity and God, death (I Corinthians 15:26, 56), sin, corruption and the devil.
God and human nature, separated by the Fall, are reunited in the Incarnate Christ and redeemed through His victory on the Cross and in the Resurrection. In this way the Second Adam fulfills the original vocation and reverses the tragedy of the fallen First Adam, opening the way of salvation for all.
Because of the victory of Christ on the Cross and in the Tomb, humanity has been set free. The curse of the law has been broken, death is slain, life has dawned for all. Through His Resurrection, we are redeemed. Through Baptism, we are freed from the determining power of this condition of alienation from God. As a result of our membership in His Church, we are given the potential of restoring our proper relationship to God, our neighbor, and our own selves.
The Orthodox Church does not believe in purgatory. Rather, it believes that at the moment of death, our souls and physical bodies separate from each other.
While our bodies do return to the earth from which they came and decompose, we do not lose them. At some unknown time in the future, Jesus Christ will return in glory “to judge the living and the dead.” He will resurrect our bodies and make them incorruptible, at the time of the just judgement. Then our bodies will be united with their souls to be judged alongside them.
In the meantime, the soul lives in a middle state. Immediately after death the soul is judged individually. It remains after this particular judgement until the final judgement, at the second Coming of Christ, having a foretaste of paradise or of hell, depending on whether the soul was in communion with God.
The Short Answer:
Any sexual relations that take place outside of a healthy Christian marriage are viewed as sinful in the eyes of God.
The (Slightly) Longer Answer:
The Scriptures, writings of the Church Fathers, and current theologians are all consistent in their view that sexual relations belong only within marriage. Sexual relations outside of marriage attempt to express a relationship and union which do not exist.
The Scriptures liken the relationship between God and His Church to marriage. Thus, union between the two parties in a marriage is seen as good in the eyes of God. “Find joy with the wife you married in your youth… Let hers be the company you keep … hers the love that ever holds you captive” (Prov. 5:19). “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled” (Heb. 13:4).
God created mankind with a sexual nature, proclaiming that man should leave his father and mother and become one with his wife (Gen. 2:24).
In its proper context of marriage, which is holy and blessed by God, sex is a beautiful thing.
It provides the opportunity for those joined by God to become intimate with one another and experience oneness in both body and soul.
Those who are unmarried are expected to practice celibacy and abstain from all sexual activity. They must alienate themselves from the carnal sin of lust and focus their attention on God and His will for their lives. Just as with other desires of the flesh, the temptation to sin sexually often presents itself. In these cases, the mind must instruct the body as to the right course. “Do not follow your lusts, restrain your desires. If you allow yourself to satisfy your desires, this will make you the laughing-stock of your enemies” (Sirach 18:30-31).
Orthodox tradition urges believers to resist not only sexual transgressions, but even thoughts of sexual transgressions. As Christ says, “If a man looks at a woman with lust, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:27). Some hold this to be an impossible standard, for who can purge his heart of illicit sexual thoughts? Others (including many monastics) insist that such a purge is in fact possible, though difficult.
As Orthodox Christians, we view death as “the last enemy” (1 Corinthians 15:26). We chant during our funeral service, “I weep and I wail when I think upon death. And behold our beauty, fashioned after the image of God, lying in the tomb disfigured, dishonored, bereft of form….”
We are all made in the image and likeness of God. The reason the Church does not “condone” suicide isn’t because the individual did not obey God’s law. The Church condemns the action because he or she was unable to recognize that God is within him or her. Killing ourselves is rejecting the presence of God in the most fundamental sense, as a part of each of us.
The taking of one’s own life is considered a grave sin.
It is the ultimate rejection of God and His love for us. And it is perhaps the one sin after which there is no possibility of repentance. This does not mean the Church judges anyone for this. Rather, the Church approaches all who have suffered or are suffering with the utmost compassion.
Those who may be suffering and considering taking their own life are in need of medical and spiritual care. The Orthodox Christian Faith recognizes this, and can help shed a light in the darkness.
As Father Seraphim Solof writes: We recognize that Jesus Christ came into the world to save us, and can rejoice in it. The world – and our families and friends – will not be better off without us. Christ came into the world and into our lives willingly, knowing us intimately in all of our darkness and pain, knowing the cost and yet loving us completely, ‘to the end’ (St. John 13:1).”
Only recently has transgenderism come to the forefront of controverial identity politics. The Orthodox Church’s opinion on this topic rhymes somewhat with its position on homosexuality.
God’s love is reflected in the ordering of creation.
Apart from genetic anomalies, we are all born either male or female.
Being baptized in Christ, we begin to participate in Divine Grace as members of His Church. Part of the purpose we seek to fulfill in our lives has to do with our sex, male or female. This does not necessarily mean procreation or raising a family. But there is a purpose to our being created male or female. It is not pleasing to God for us to try to change this. Our bodies are not our own, but God’s, and they are holy (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
Do we say all this because we hate transgendered people? Of course not! But we urge anyone considering this step to turn back before it is too late. Whatever has moved them to begin going down that path, we urge them that they remain in their former state. With spiritual guidance, they can better endure the trials they face.
Is salvation possible for already transgendered people to be saved? Of course it is! Where there is repentance there is salvation. However, each case must be handled compassionately and individually under pastoral guidance.
War has remained a controversial topic for the Orthodox Church throughout the entirety of it history.
The teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ tell us to live in harmony with God and with one another. They instruct us to return good for evil, leave retribution to God, and “turn the other cheek.”
There is no denying that Jesus’ teachings reduce conflict on the personal, group, and international level. If we act in the way Jesus asks us to, we become agents of reconciliation. We bring about peaceful solutions to problems that would otherwise cause continued conflict.
But what happens if the enemy is intent on attacking you, regardless of your actions?
Despite our reluctance to do so, Jesus would much rather we suffer injustice ourselves than be the cause of it. We are called to deal with injustice righteously and seek ways to peacefully influence the enemy to change and repent. If we cannot, the most we can do is defend ourselves, without seeking to harm the enemy beyond what is necessary to stop the attack.
In short, war, violence, and insurrection are never an appropriate answer for the Orthodox Christian. They are viewed as failures to live the “Kingdom life” that God requires of us. It may be necessary that wars be fought, that criminals be captured and jailed, that revolutions be waged. But these things can never be our ultimate goal as Orthodox Christians.
We must be the “peacemakers,” always seeking to follow the example of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, the Orthodox Church holds what many may consider politically incorrect opinions on many of these controversial topics. However, God made himself quite clear when it comes to His expectations of us. We cannot compromise in areas that may affect our salvation and the salvation of others.