The deliberate taking of life is a serious sin in the eyes of the Church. The Orthodox Church has always been opposed to abortion, viewing it as premeditated murder.
The embryo inside its mother’s womb is not a part of her body, but is an all-together separate human being, a “house-guest,” if you will, in the body of the mother. The embryo was, is, and always will be human, with a body and a soul, made in the image and likeness of God.
The Church rejects as unworthy those counterarguments which appeal to economic and social reasons and so hold life to be less valuable than money, pride, or convenience. It also rejects the premise that obtaining an abortion somehow benefits the emotional, mental, or spiritual well-being of the mother or father of the unborn child. The true meaning of happiness is found in the life-giving Cross of Christ. We live each day with joyful sorrow, and we love one another because Christ loved us first and gave Himself for us. He is the Creator of life, not man, and thus is the only One with the power to take that life away.
Even in rare circumstances (i.e. rape), the Church still denounces abortion. All things in this world that happen to us are part of God’s will for our lives. Faith in Him heals all wounds, even those caused by the horrific tragedy of rape, through His forgiveness and through the workings of the Holy Mysteries. God utilizes these events to change us, to helps us grow in faith, and to aid us on our path to salvation and everlasting life.
First, a distinction must be made between birth control (family planning) and contraception. Often the two terms are conflated with one another. The latter refers to methods specifically designed to inhibit or act against conception in the womb, while the former refers to those methods that merely number the timing and number of children naturally (i.e. through abstinence or Natural Family Planning [NFP]).
During the age of the Church Fathers, during which the Church Canon developed, the issue of birth control/contraception was never raised. Aside from the condemnation of abortion, there is no official position on limiting the number of births within a loving Christian marriage.
There are many within the Orthodox Church who maintain the Church’s earlier position on the subject (1930s), stating that all methods of artificial contraception are unacceptable, while birth control (NFP/abstinence) is generally admissible with the guidance of a spiritual father.
Some Orthodox hold fast to the Stoic view, which posits that any form of birth control or contraception aside from abstinence is sinful. These individuals follow the Latin/Western view of marriage, which places the procreative end of a marital union about the unitive end. Eastern tradition follows Saint John Chrysostom’s view: that procreation is a normal feature of a loving Christian marriage, but not essential to it.
It is difficult to define the Church’s exact position on capital punishment, as it has become a social issue mostly during the last century.
Generally speaking, the Church views all life as being created in the image and likeness of God. The Church will always pray for the souls of those who have sinned and counsels mercy, compassion, and repentance in the place of violence.
Some jurisdictions of the Church have denounced capital punishment in formal statements: for example, this 1989 Resolution on the Death Penalty released by the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). However, capital punishment has not been either fully accepted or condemned by the Church in the United States. In countries in which capital punishment is not exercised in ways which serve justice, the Church has condemned its use as arbitrary, unfair and purposeless.
From the most ancient of times, the Church has practiced burial of the dead, not cremation, following the Hebrew practice of honoring the body with burial. 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 1) destroys the body, which is a temple of God and will be resurrected and reunited with the soul when Christ comes again; and 2) was used by many rationalists who denied Orthodox doctrine on the subject of bodily resurrection 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.
The Church is deeply saddened by the breakdown of any marriage, particularly when it involves two Orthodox Christians who were 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, for man has torn asunder that which God joined together, and thus is generally opposed. 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 relationship between the spouses has deteriorated so they 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 and the marriage, in substance, as no longer existing. Regardless of the circumstances, divorce is an occasion for repentance and the seeking of forgiveness from God on the part of those involved.
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, and in many cases 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 re: marriage, She “blesses the first marriage, performs the second, tolerates the third, and forbids the fourth.” Those who are widowed are permitted to remarry without repercussion and 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, it is expected that his widow will not remarry. Widowed priests are not allowed to remarry and frequently end up in monasteries.
The Evangelical doctrine of Eternal Security posits that salvation by its very nature changes a person so much that apostasy (abandonment of one’s religious convictions) becomes an existential impossibility, that they are and will forever be saved, no matter the circumstances. However, we know that apostasy is quite possible even in the hearts of those who once said they believed (Judas Iscariot being the prime example). Judas certainly fell away to the point of damnation (John 17:12, Mark 14:21), and he certainly was once saved (Matthew 19:27-28, Acts 1:17). If one of the Twelve could fall away, anyone can.
The Orthodox Church does not believe in the doctrine of Eternal Security, viewing it as dangerous medicine for salvation that provides a false sense of security to those who may be in danger of damnation.
The true medicine we receive is the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ. Salvation is not just a single experience (“once saved, always saved”); it is also an ongoing journey. On that journey one continually returns to God for renewal, forgiveness, and cleansing by participating in the life of the Church, in the Blessed Sacraments. Penitent reception of the Eucharist assures us that we will be saved if we continue along the faithful Eucharistic 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 belief and 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 the matter. 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; but 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); and from St. Paul: “… 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. Rather, the focus is on the behavior, not the person.
Same-sex desire is likened to a handicap, a condition that necessarily 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 we are called to live according to God’s commandments, and the struggle the homosexual might have in conforming himself/herself to God’s commands can become a pathway to holiness.
On Marriage Equality
The Eastern Orthodox Church does not perform or recognize same-sex marriages. The Orthodox Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality is firmly grounded in Holy Scripture, 2000 years of church tradition, and canon law, and holds that marriage consists in the conjugal union of a man and a woman.
This does not imply by any means that the Church discriminates or does not welcome those who struggle with homosexual desire to become part of the Church and strive to achieve holiness in fear of the Lord Jesus Christ. We welcome all our brothers and sisters, so long as they come in the spirit of repentance and love for God
While some believe that organ donation is a wonderful, self-sacrificial way of showing love for God and neighbor, others believe that it is 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 emphasizing that, when weighing such a heavy decision, it is absolutely imperative to consult a spiritual father, and pray unceasingly 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, and the sanctity of that gift should always be at the forefront of the minds of doctors, patients, families, and spiritual fathers.
The term original sin was unknown in both the Eastern and Western Church until Augustine (c. 354-430). Prior to this, theologians of the early church used different terminology indicating a contrasting way of thinking about the fall, its effects and God’s response to it. The phrase the Eastern Orthodox Church Fathers used 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 progeny, as did Augustine. Instead, it is posited that 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. (I Corinthians 15:21)
Adam and Eve were created to become one with God, gradually 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, thus 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.
Adam and Eve were overcome with the same temptation that afflicts all humanity: to be autonomous, to go their own way, to 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 was He angered or offended by their sin; He was moved to compassion. The expulsion from the Garden and from the Tree of Life was an act of love and not vengeance so that humanity would not become immortal in sin. 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 Person of the Incarnate Christ and redeemed through His victory on the Cross and in the Resurrection by which death is destroyed (I Corinthians 15:54-55). 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.
The great Orthodox hymn of Holy Pascha (Easter) captures in a few words the essence of the Orthodox understanding of the Atonement: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” 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, and 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 are separated from our physical bodies.
While our bodies do return to the earth from which they came and decompose, they are not lost. At some unknown time in the future, Jesus Christ will return in glory “to judge the living and the dead.” Our bodies will be resurrected and made 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 which was separated from the body 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, a fact that eventually becomes evident in all such relationships.
The relationship between God and His Church is often likened to marriage, and thus, union between the two parties in a marriage is seen as good in the eyes of God. (For more information on marriage and its sanctity in the Orthodox Church, visit our Seven Sacraments page.) “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, to 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 (Thou shalt not murder), but rather because he or she was unable to recognize that God is within him or her. Killing ourselves is wholeheartedly 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 by the Church, the ultimate rejection of God and His ever-present 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, but rather that the Church approaches all who have suffered or are suffering – whether because they attempted to take their own life or have known a friend or family member who has done so – with the utmost compassion.
Those who may be suffering and considering taking their own life are in need of medical and spiritual care to keep them from progressing any further toward self-harm or self-destruction. The Orthodox Christian Faith recognizes this, and can help shed a light in the darkness.
As Father Seraphim Solof writes: “Whatever brokenness and sinfulness we experience in our own lives, if we take the Church at its word, we are not shocked to find that we’re broken – in fact, we see ourselves as the most broken of all, the ‘chief among sinners.’ We also recognize the fact 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). He came into this world to be with us, to feed us with His broken body and spilled blood. He came to extend to us by grace, as a freely-given gift, the same relationship of love and communion that He enjoys by nature with His God and Father, who, through Him, becomes ours as well.”
God’s love is reflected in the anthropological ordering of creation. Apart from rare genetic anomalies, we are all born either male or female (Genesis 1:27), and this is part of God’s purpose for us.
Being baptized in Christ, we begin to participate in Divine Grace as members of His Church. Part of the purpose that we seek to fulfill by God’s providence 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, and 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).
Providence does not make mistakes – there is a purpose to all circumstances in our lives, even the difficult and seemingly permanent ones. Whatever we may feel, we cannot be “a woman trapped in a man’s body” or vice-versa. Our maleness or femaleness is a fact, biological, psychological and spiritual, rooted in our very being, and it is up to us to understand this as we work out our salvation with patience and humility.
No amount of surgical modification can change the fact that every cell in our body is either XX (female) or XY (male), and that we will remain so until the day we die. No hormone enhancement can change the fact that these new breasts can never nurse a child, and these reshaped organs can never create a new life. “Gender reassignment” can only change the outward appearance, but not the essential nature of who we are from the day we were born. The desire to change this is a self-willed search for self-definition that contravenes the will of God and is alien to the Christian life.
The canons of the Church forbid Christians to castrate or mutilate themselves. And according to the Canons of the Church, such people are ineligible for marriage and for the priesthood.
Do we say all this because we hate transgendered people? Of course not! But we urge Orthodox Christians that are 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, and with spiritual guidance to endure patiently the trials that brought them to that point.
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. Nevertheless, this practice can never be approved by the Church.
The teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ clearly exhort us to live in harmony with God and in love and harmony with one another, and instruct us to return good for evil, leave retribution to God, and “turn the other cheek.” There is no denying that Jesus’ teachings in this regard reduce occasions of conflict on the personal, group, and international level. If we act in the way Jesus asks us to, we become agents of reconciliation and bring about peaceful solutions to problems which would otherwise cause continued antagonism and serious conflict.
However, Jesus’ teaching presupposes the possibility that your enemy is open to dialogue and influence in this way. So 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 perpetrate it. Yet at the same time, even Jesus Himself sought an explanation for the injustice being committed against Him at His trial before Pontius Pilate. We are called to deal with all injustice righteously, to seek ways to peacefully influence the enemy to change and repent. Where 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, insurrection, etc. are never an appropriate answer for the Orthodox Christian, and 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.