In today’s secular culture, we see sex plastered everywhere – promoted on television, written about in books, lurking in the darkest parts of the internet, and celebrated openly in public. With all this exposure to sex, it’s no wonder that many people find themselves tempted by the passion of lust and all the sins it leads to. As faithful Orthodox Christians, we must do our best to learn the teachings of the Church, especially when it comes to sexuality and abstinence.
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Sexuality is based on divine love
We read in 1 John 4:7-8 that love comes from God, that “God is love”. It follows then, that human sexuality, as part of God’s creation, is based on this divine love. By this we don’t mean some sort of fleeting attraction. Rather, the divine love of God is agape love, spiritual love that is unconditional, selfless, genuine, and cheerful, with no expectation of receiving anything in return. This kind of love surpasses all codes of ethics and the scope of human feeling; it is the love we see between the Persons of the Holy Trinity, and the love God has for His creation. Because God is the source of all things, our exercise of this love must be done in accordance to God’s will and commandments.
How do we know God’s will when it comes to human sexuality? We look to the creation of Adam and Eve. God created man with two modes of being: male and female (Genesis 1:27) and created them to be in communion with one another, just as the Persons of the Holy Trinity are in communion. God appropriates male and female as perfect companions for one another in marriage (Genesis 2:24), and as Christians we must exercise our love and sexuality within these parameters. Therefore, things like adultery, homosexuality, transgenderism, bestiality, pornography, and fornication are unacceptable for Orthodox Christians.
Sexuality mirrors the work of God
God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to us, to restore the communion with God that we lost after death entered the world through sin. Christ’s death on the cross was entirely voluntary; He never sinned and thus was never under the same penalty of death as the rest of us. He chose to die for us, because He loved us. Sexual love must mirror the love of God; it should be giving, unique, and selfless, not casual, crude, and self-centered. The only way for sexual union to mirror God’s love, is for it to be blessed and sanctified in marriage.
Expressing our sexuality within the boundaries of heterosexual Christian marriage
The Holy Scriptures and the Church Fathers highlight many prohibitions against premarital sexual relations of any kind (Matt. 5:27-28; 15:10-20; Gal. 5:16-25; etc.) In sharing sexual intercourse before marriage, we express a union that doesn’t exist. We become “one flesh” with another person, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, but not with our husband or wife. In the end, we bring that “piece” of the other person into our marriage, whether we are actively conscious of it or not. Sexual intercourse thus is no longer a unique bond shared only between husband and wife; rather it becomes a twisted rendition of the bond God established for us, with other people added in that do not belong there.
For the Orthodox Church, then, heterosexual Christian marriage is the only proper social context for human sexuality. As God says: “marriage is honorable […] and the bed undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4). Marriage introduces man into eternal joy and love. He becomes King of the domestic church beside his wife, and together, they raise future saints. He gives himself to her, and she likewise gives herself to him, over and over again each day. Together, they replicate the relationship between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:25), embodying the selfless love of God. When they become “one flesh,” they act in communion with God and, in a way we cannot understand, participate in a higher reality while still remaining fully human.
Use of contraception / birth control within marriage
Many married Orthodox couples wonder what the Church allows when it comes to the use of contraception or birth control within the context of their marriage. There is a lot of nuance surrounding this topic, mainly because of the plethora of options that exist out there, whether medical or natural.
As a bottom line, the Church condemns any type of contraceptive that is abortifacient. In other words, any type of method that results in the death of the unborn child, post-fertilization. For use of non-abortifacient contraceptives, or for the use of natural methods of birth control like NFP or marital abstinence, you must always obtain a blessing from your spiritual father before taking any sort of action as a married couple. While we would be more than happy to answer your questions here, our best advice is to speak with your local parish priest, since he will know your particular situation best and can offer meaningful spiritual counsel to you and your spouse.
Practicing abstinence outside of marriage
The Orthodox Church teaches that unmarried individuals must practice abstinence, or celibacy. Those of us still not married do this to preserve the sanctity of the marriage bond that God established. Abstinence also helps us orient our lives toward God and away from our own carnal desires.
When it comes to our sexuality, we must adhere to the Divine Law of God and His Church. He established the sacrament of Marriage as the proper context for expressing our sexual love, and He has told us to reserve that love for one person, our husband or wife. When we go against this, we harm ourselves spiritually and emotionally. But there is no sin God will not forgive, so long as we truly seek repentance and desire to live the life He desires for us.
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