Orthodox teachings concerning sex overwhelmingly hold that it ought to be confined to the sacrament of marriage (which is assumed to be voluntary, monogamous, heterosexual, and permanent). That is, Orthodox believers are expected to choose between two paths of equal dignity: (1) a life of virginity or celibacy, possibly including monastic vows; or (2) the married life. Various biblical and patristic writings condemn sex acts which occur outside of these bounds, including:
- Adultery (sex which violates the marriage commitment)
- Fornication (sex before, or without, marriage)
- Various sexual practices other than penile-vaginal intercourse
- Sex between human and non-human partners (e.g. animals, angels)
- Sexual fantasies
In addition, we should consider the related issues of
- Abortion, and
- Birth control
While all of the above have fallen under the condemnation of one or another Orthodox authority, no unanimity exists for many of them, and in any case, one's spiritual father may make allowances based on the principle of oikonomia. Note that sexual sin is not regarded as especially different from other types of sin, to which all are susceptible. ("One is holy...") As the Sayings of the Fathers reminds us,
- The same God who said "Do not fornicate" also said, "Do not judge."
A focus on sexual sin obscures the fact that Orthodoxy views sex within marriage as fundamentally good--at least in this world. (Apparently sex does not exist in the afterlife, though marriage may.) In contrast to Western (Roman Catholic) views of sex as an instrumental good (thus accounting for that church's well-known opposition to birth control, as the "purpose" of sex is said to be procreation), the Orthodox tendency has been to prefer a sacramental over an instrumental interpretation.
Love and morality
Biblical and patristic literature abounds with moral pronouncements, many of which are now alien to Orthodox tradition. For example, internet satirists cite Old Testament verses to the effect thatGod Hates Shrimp to counter similar diatribes from Protestant pastor Fred Phelps, whose well-known opposition to homosexuality is likewise based on Old Testament prohibitions. Granting that not every rule in the Bible or church tradition is applicable any longer, how does one distinguish those which remain in force, from those which do not? To what extent are social mores a factor? For example, we no longer accept levirate marriage, or marriage between partners who are very young. Are other moral strictures similarly subject to revision?
Christ's teaching of the New Commandment or Greatest Commandment suggests that "love" is the principle by which all other commandments are to be evaluated. (Note that caritas here refers not to romantic love, but perhaps be better translated as "caring.") Is it possible to love someone, and yet rape them? Surely not. Is it possible to love someone, and yet sleep with them outside of the bonds of marriage? Very likely, yet many Orthodox voices would insist that such a choice represents a fundamental miscalculation. While the act may seem harmless enough, they say, in fact it violates the Greatest Commandment by not allowing it to occur within the context of the supreme commitment and unity that is the sacrament of marriage.
Theologically, the sacrament of marriage is bestowed not by the priest upon the couple, but by the husband and wife upon one another. In that light, might a couple legitimately sleep together without benefit of clergy? On a desert island, yes. However, for those of us living amidst human society, it behooves us to arrange our lives in conformity with good order, which entails (among other things) ensuring that marriage be undertaken seriously, and with public acknowledgement. At least our hypothetical couple might take into account the opinions of the church, including their spiritual father, who would be expected to raise objections to any sort of unofficial marriage. (Some Orthodox thinkers, however, do recognize "de facto" marriages or marriages "in God's eyes" as morally binding in some circumstances, such as a couple living together.)
The purpose of sex
Orthodox interpretations of the first chapters of Genesis inform the Church's view of sexuality. There God is credited with the origin of life on earth, the commandment to "be fruitful and multiply (Gen. 1:22), and human sexual differentiation (Gen. 1:27, cf. 2:18 ff).
In the patristic tradition, marriage is a consequence of the fall of the protoplasts. Athanasius the Great remarks that in God's initial plan for man, marriage was not part of it, but marriage arose because transgressed the law given to him by God. Adam’s fall, which resulted to death, created the need of putting on "garments of skin" (Gen. 3:2). This garment is interpreted as man adapting to the condition that was created after the Fall and does not belong to the pre-Fall condition; it does not belong to the condition of the Kingdom of God. St. Gregory of Nyssa elaborates on the "irrational skin," saying what man put on includes the following: marital relations, procreation, food, growth, old age and death, none of which will exist in the transformation and assimilation of humanity in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Until humanity lives for eternity in the Kingdom of Heaven, God has ordained marriage as pathway leading to salvation. Marriage is a sort of adaptation to the new condition of man created after the fall of the protoplasts. St. Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians makes recommendations on how people can avoid fornication by getting married. According to the Apostle, true sexual relations can exist only within marriage, because marriage restores sexuality. In the Patristic tradition and in Holy Scripture this view is present, as it is apparent in St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.
- "… a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh" (Ephesians 5:31).
- "…each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except perhaps by agreement for a set time, to devote yourselves to prayer, and then come together again" (1 Corinthians 7:2-5).
It is important for one to understand marriage is not a license for unlimited marital relations, but an opportunity for asceticism. The ascetic character of the Christian life also covers the marital life of the believers. According to St. John Chrysostom marriage preserves purity, chastity, and even virginity. Marriage as a communion of persons is not restricted to the level of matter and material sense; contrarily matter and material sense serve the communion of the person and in this way, they acquire a spiritual content. The prayers of the marriage service clearly address this pastoral issue. The priest prays for the bed of the couple to remain "undefiled."
Sexual arousal, intercourse, and gratification must not be the priority of the couple; however, it is this act and pleasurable experience, which strengthens the bond of love between the couple and assists the couple in growing closer to Christ. Fasting, prayers, continence, endurance of suffering are virtues expected not only for monasticism, but also for married couples. Marriage is to move constantly from the carnal to the spiritual perspective. Such progress is only possible within the perspective of the couple’s perfection in Christ. The personal relations of the couple ought to be primarily spiritual in order to preserve and to increase their spiritual communion and union. This is the reason why there cannot exist an independent ethic of sexuality according to the Fathers of the Church.
It is also important when speaking about sexual relations among spouses to speak about the product of this conjugal union. The creation of progeny is a natural consequence of marriage. There is a direct link between spouse relations and child bearing. Procreation is the fruit of the union of spouses and an expression of their participation in God’s creative work. St. John Chrysostom in reference the mystery of the conjugal union saying:
- "And how become they one flesh? As if you should take the purest part of gold, and mingle it with the other gold; so in truth here also the women as it were receiving the richest part fused by pleasure, nourishes it and cherishes it, and throughout contributing her own share, restores it back to the man. And the child is a sort of bridge so that the three become on flesh, the child connecting, on either side, each to each… What then? When there is not child, will they not be two? Not so, for their coming together has this effect; it diffuse and commingles the bodies of both. And as one who has poured ointment into oil has made the whole one; so in truth is it also here" (St. John Chrysostom. "On Marriage and Family Life").
St. John Chrysostom also says, "He created one from one, and again these two he makes one and thus He makes one; so that even now man is born from one. For a woman and a man are not two but one man" (St. John Chrysostom. "On Marriage and Family Life"). With this great gift of childbearing man becomes the donor of life. Clement the Alexandrian describes the progeny of man as, "man’s creation in God’s image."
Lust and temptation
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 list, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart." (Matt. 5:27) Some critics 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 purgation is in fact possible, though difficult.
In this context, the question of masturbation is an interesting one. Several church fathers (such as Nicodemus the Hagiorite) condemn it as "onanism," although scholars now agree that Onan's sin was avoiding a divinely-ordered impregnation (Gen. 38:10). The prevalence of masturbation--indeed, standard psychology texts describe it as developmentally normal--leads critics to complain that its proscription represents an impossible command. At the same time, the popularity of a sin does not prevent it from being a sin ("the way is narrow..."). Also, a few people apparently never masturbate, or succeed in resisting the impulse.
But why is masturbation a sin? In contrast to adultery or rape, what harm does it do? One answer is that a masturbator is probably also entertaining lustful thoughts--precisely the sin mentioned by Christ. The principle that sinful thoughts lead to sinful actions is widely recognized.But might one legitimately fantasize about one's spouse, or intended spouse? Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the question is not mentioned in the creeds, nor has Orthodoxy produced the equivalent of papal encyclical capable of finally deciding the matter.
If lust is to be avoided, then how are Orthodox believers to approach courtship, dating, romance, and falling in love? Obviously, it is natural for such couples to feel sexual attraction for one another, and as long as this is the "price" of marriage, such feelings must be conceded to be good. What, then does the Church have to say about kissing--not to speak of progressively greater forms of non-marital intimacy?
Some illicit sex acts
Many sex acts are proscribed de facto because their participants are not allowed to marry (or more precisely, because any marriages which they might attempt would not be recognized by the Church). For example, since the Church does not accept "gay marriage," all homosexual acts are therefore forbidden, sex being limited to marriage. The same could be said of sex between close relatives (including certain fictive kinships such as in-law, adoptive, or godparent relationships), or sex between humans and nonhumans. On the other hand, sex between Orthodox believers and non-Orthodox is not similarly proscribed, since mixed marriages are recognized (though not celebrated) by the Church. If an Orthodox believer happens to be married to a non-Orthodox, they are of course permitted to have sex. If that believer happens to be "married" to a same-sex partner, however, then the Church would tend not to accept that, even if their "marriage" were legally recognized.
Other sex acts are mentioned in various places as inherently illicit, even when performed by married couples. "Sodomy" is usually taken to refer to anal sex (including heterosexual), though depending on the context it might have other meanings.
Virginity as the Par Excellence of Marriage
Parallel to the married life, Christian tradition and ethics recognize another equally challenging and rewarding lifestyle, that of virginity. Virginal life consists of virginity and purity in the physical and spiritual aspects. One may see this in the life of Jesus Christ, the proto-type of this lifestyle.
Chrysostom says in regards to virginity,
- "I am persuaded that virginity is much more honorable than marriage, but this does not force me to place marriage amongst those that are dishonorable, but rather I praise it"(St. John Chrysostom. "On Marriage and Family Life"). The acknowledgment of the value of marriage accentuates the superiority of virginity. Virginity supersedes the law, because it supersedes the fallen nature. A virginal life prefigures the life of the Kingdom of God, where carnal desires and secular cares do not exist.
Virginity is a life filled with eschatological expectation. Virginal life does not come into contradiction with marriage, but it is its par excellence. St. Paul, although he refers to marriage as the "great mystery," makes plain his preference for virginity, which is what he himself followed. Jesus Christ also says clearly in reference to virginity, is not for all to follow, but those whom this calling has been granted (Matthew 19:11). Choosing virginity places a human person above every social expediency or biological determinism, it underlines humanity’s freedom and absolute value. The human who practices a life of virginity lives as an angel, although having a body, lives like those among the bodiless powers. For this aforementioned reason, the possibilities of perfection following this lifestyle are numberless. On the contrary, the despising of marriage is an insult to the magnitude of virginity. Marriage serves death by bringing forth children; however, virginity raises a barrier to its breaking and interrupting the transmission of the inherited obligation to death.
The goals of virginity and virginal living are not just to remain free of carnal pleasure, but they aim to emancipate a believer from secular cares and straighten the persons’ orientations towards God. Consecrated virginity is a marriage with God that does not involve carnal pleasure. It is solely spiritual. One may say the marital relations of marriage are spiritual too, but they have a carnal aspect. In virginity, the voluntary self-exclusion from carnal pleasure does not aim to mortify Eros in the soul, but to transform it into a godly Eros. This virginity has its ultimate ontological reference to the Triune God.
Contemporary Ethical Issues Which Threaten the Sanctity of Sex
"Adultery refers to voluntary sexual intercourse between a married man and someone other than his wife or between a married woman and someone other than her husband" ("Adultery" in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).
St. Paul repeatedly attacks this vice in his Epistles. He urges the flock to flee from sexual immorality because it is a direct defiling of the temple of the Holy Spirit (Corinthians 7:18-20). In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul says plainly, those who live with a carnal mind live in enmity with God, thus convincing the faithful to believe they are not debtors to the flesh (Romans 8:7-9). It is appropriate to understand that the Apostles were very concerned with the spiritual and physical purity of the faithful. To emphasize the severity of the carnal sin of adultery, Nikodemos the Hagiorite says in reference to Leviticus 20: 10,
- "Adultery is such a great evil that God commands the man and the woman committing it to be put to death" (The Hagiorite, Nikodemos, The Exomologitarion. Trans. Fr. George Dokos. Republic of Greece, 2006).
Society has slowly begun accepting adultery, because the sanctity of conjugal union has slowly demised. Society has separated the divine aspects of marital relations and simplified sex to a carnal act. In another poll seven years ago, more than 3 out of 4 Americans say the way television programs show sex encourages irresponsible sexual behavior (Teens, Sex, & the Media. [www.mediascope.org], 15 March, 2000). The encouragement of immoral sexual behavior is clear, especially on the World Wide Web. For example, if a person is not satisfied with their spouse’s sexual performance, companies will facilitate for the customer an adulterous relationship. In particular, the Ashley Madison Agency assists married individuals in finding sexual gratification outside of marriage. "When monogamy becomes monotony," is the commercialized slogan of this agency. Another online company that facilitates affairs is, the Meet to Cheat Company. This agency has offices all over Europe and North America and is dedicated to providing desperate homemakers with the man of their dreams.
Many Christian Churches also have begun accepting behavior the Orthodox Church believes is sinful and immoral. Immoral thinking has managed to take over the consciences of major denominations. According to a report taken in 1991 by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church,
- "it does not matter who sleeps with whom or whether sexual activity is premarital or marital, heterosexual or homosexual, but whether it is responsible, mutual, honest and full of joyful caring" (A report to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, as reported by Peter Steinfels, "What God Really Thinks About Who Sleeps With Whom," The New York Times, June 2, 1991).
- Stanley S. Harakas, Living the Faith, Minneapolis, Minnesota
- Homily on Colossians, X. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. XII, p. 304
- Homily on Colossians Chapter 12, 5