An Orthodox approach to sexual purity
American society in the twenty-first century bombards Christians with far too many troubling messages, from moralizing abortion to promoting sexual promiscuity – both outside and inside of marriage! In this article, we explore the Orthodox Church’s view of sex, and why it is important for those who wish to live a holy life to practice abstinence outside of marriage.
It is no secret that God created mankind with a sexual appetite. At one time or another, each one of us has felt a sexual urge of some kind. Even Adam and Eve, our First Parents! But what is the purpose of this sexual drive? Why do we have it in the first place?
The Purposes of Sex
1. Spiritual Union
First and foremost, the primary goal of sex from an Orthodox standpoint is spiritual union between husband and wife. Achieving this unique “oneness of soul” through marital love is an incredible opportunity for intimacy and spiritual growth. Sexual relations with your spouse also provide an opportunity for one or both of you to development a spirit of martyrdom.
Martyrdom essentially means living a life dedicated to Christ, or allowing your life to function as witness to the Christian faith. Jesus teaches us to constantly deny ourselves and put others’ needs above our own. When we do this, we are a witness to Him, showing our faith to those around us. Sex within marriage requires this same self-denial. It requires submission to your spouse and the prioritization of his or her physical, emotional, and spiritual needs above your own. Therefore, practicing abstinence until you marry makes you a witness to Christ in the Orthodox Church.
The second purpose of sex, according to Orthodox teachings, is procreation. This makes sense. After all, what does sex do more often than not? It results in a baby! In a way, it’s incredibly miraculous. The way God unites a man and woman, who become one. The way He creates another human being through them. This new life is the penultimate expression of man’s participation in God’s work.
In the days of the Old Testament, the Jews placed heavy emphasis on sex for the purpose of procreation. Children, they believed, were evidence of God’s blessing upon a marriage. The Orthodox share this sentiment, but we take it a step further and clarify. Procreation is an integral part of a loving Christian marriage, but not every loving Christian marriage must result in procreation.
Sex outside of marriage
Following this logic, it’s easy to guess how the Orthodox Church feels about members of her flock engaging in sexual acts outside the context of marriage. In short, the Church teaches that any sexual relations taking place outside of marriage are sinful.
The Orthodox Church teaches that unmarried individuals must practice abstinence, or celibacy. Many who take monastic vows (monks and nuns) and those who are ordained and not married (either unmarried or widowed), must follow this celibate lifestyle. Some of the Church Fathers view celibacy in higher regard compared to marriage. Others view them as equally valuable in the eyes of God, because each man and woman has his or her own gifts from God, “one in this manner and another in that.”
There are two goals of celibacy/abstinence:
- To remain free of carnal pleasure
- To orient your life toward God and away from the secular world
Marriage and abstinence, practiced with God solely in mind, are both ways of living the Gospel and achieving a life of martyrdom in the Orthodox Church, as we discussed above.
Why would anyone choose to live like this? How could depriving yourself of sexual activity until marriage be more satisfying than just doing what you want?
Why remain abstinent?
The Orthodox Church holds the virtue of abstinence in incredibly high esteem. Virtue has power. Power that comes from the joy and peace we feel when we live in a way that aligns with God’s intentions for us. Abstinence, and the resisting of sexual urges, helps us grow spiritually and focus on our relationship with God above all else.
Orthodox Christians also place incredible importance on the interconnectedness of body and soul. Thus, we realize that the things we do with our bodies affect our minds and hearts. A lot more than we think they do. Because of this, the Church recommends ascetic practice (fasting) in all its forms. Fasting has a way of purging the body of that which makes it impure. It allows the Christian to gain control of the things that once controlled him or her. This then opens the door to a blossoming relationship with God.
But it isn’t hurting anybody
Isn’t it? How can we truly show genuine love for someone else if we engage in behaviors designed to gratify ourselves? We may think sexual intercourse outside of marriage has no lasting, hurtful effect on ourselves or the lives of those we’re having such relations with, but so often it really does.
When the Orthodox practice abstinence, we protect and honor our bodies, which are temples of the Holy Spirit. Not only do we protect the purity of our own bodies, but we also protect the purity of the bodies of the people who interact with us. If we do not practice abstinence and give in to the doctrine of sexual promiscuity our society promotes, we fall into sin. We end up engaging in the harmful behavior of fornication, which has incredibly real consequences that harm ourselves and others. Just one instance: should you have relations with a man or woman who is already married, not only have you harmed yourself by committing adultery. You have also harmed the man or woman you had intercourse with, his or her spouse, and their children by acting in such a selfish manner.
Marriage as the proper context
In marriage, sex knits husband and wife in a spiritual union far more profound than anything else in the realm of human relationships. The Orthodox Church consider marriage a sacrament. In other words, it is a way of experiencing the kingdom of heaven and growing closer to God. Sacraments and their effects endure forever. Thus, marriage itself, and the union of a man and woman as husband and wife, is also meant to endure forever.
An interesting thing you may notice about the Orthodox wedding service? You won’t find the words, “Til death do us part.” Instead, our priest blesses them with the sign of the cross and says, “Receive their crown into Thy Kingdom, preserving them spotless, blameless, and without reproach, unto ages of ages. Amen.” We will be the same persons in the world to come as we are in this life. Our relationships and memories will remain with us, in a beautiful, transfigured way.
Whether we’re single or married, practicing abstinence helps us build a lifetime of faithfulness that’s priceless, and more conducive to true inner peace and joy than living in sexual promiscuity. No matter how strong any temptation might be, the power of our free will in conjunction with God’s grace is even stronger.
If we do fall into sexual sin, there’s always the possibility to repent, ask forgiveness, and receive God’s forgiveness and the joy of one’s conscience being made clean. This gives us a beautiful fresh start in the effort to live again in virtue.
Read More >> The Orthodox Church on Controversial Topics