Sex, or sexual relations, includes not only sexual intercourse, but also other sexual activity, even to the extent of hand-holding or kissing. In order to understand this, sex must be understood not only as a matter for the body, but also as a matter for the mind.
God created mankind with a sexual appetite. "[A] man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh" (Gen. 2:24). In its proper context of marriage, sex can be a good thing.
- "Sexual relations within marriage are holy and blessed by God. Saint Gregory the Theologian says: 'Are you not yet married in the flesh? Do not fear this consecration; you are pure even after marriage' (Oration on Holy Baptism, quoted by George Gabriel, You May Call My Words Immodest, p. 3). The sexual union of man and woman in Christian marriage is sanctified, set apart, hallowed, sacred, holy. And it is good. At the same time—and I cannot emphasize this point strongly enough—the Church teaches us clearly that sex is not the essence of Christian marriage."
Sex provides an opportunity for a married couple to become intimate with one another.
- "The goal of sex in marriage is spiritual union. Through the joining of two physical bodies in marital love comes a unique oneness of soul. Saint John Chrysostom instructs us: 'Their intercourse accomplishes the joining of their bodies, and they are made one, just as when perfume is mixed with ointment" (12th Homily on Colossians).
- "Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband" (I Cor. 7:3).
- "Sexual relations provide an opportunity for the development of a spirit of martyrdom. This is the type of martyrdom that exhibits self-denial and submission to the other."
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 marital relations and childbearing. Procreation is the fruit of the union of marriage and an expression of man's participation in God's creative work. St. John Chrysostom, in reference to the mystery of the conjugal union, says:
- "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. St. Clement of Alexandria describes the progeny of man as "man's creation in God's image."
In the Old Testament, sex for the purpose of procreation was emphasized, as children were evidence of God's blessing on a marriage. However, procreation is not the reason for marriage. "Procreation is not the only purpose of sex in marriage, but sex and procreation go hand in hand."
- "Saint John Chrysostom writes: 'If for a certain period, you and your wife have abstained by agreement, perhaps for a time of prayer and fasting, come together again for the sake of your marriage. You do not need procreation as an excuse. It is not the chief reason for marriage. Neither is it necessary to allow for the possibility of conceiving, and thus having a large number of children, something you may not want' (On Virginity, quoted by [George] Gabriel, [You Call My Words Immodest], p. 3)."
Context of marriage
- See main article: Marriage.
Marriage is assumed to be voluntary, monogamous, heterosexual, and permanent. Within marriage, a man's body belongs to his wife, and a wife's body belongs to her husband. For this reason, one should care for one's body not only for oneself, but also for one's spouse. "The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does" (I Cor. 7:4).
There is much Scriptural basis to support marriage as the only context for sexual relations. The Song of Songs is often taken as a metaphor for marriage; similarly, the relationship of God and the Church is also likened to marriage. Union between the parties of marriage is therefore good. "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 specifically created Eve for Adam's benefit. This creation forms a new being, a new unit, even before there are children within a marriage. " 'It is not good for man to be alone,' but it is also positively good to be together." Outside of marriage, one may engage in sexual activity because of one's own desires; sexual relations within marriage follow God's mandate to "be one." Marriage provides a commitment and a family structure, so that a sexual relationship is uniquely provided with stability, security, the ability to work as a unit, and a basis for trust. "When sexual activity is kept within the bounds of life-long commitment, babies are more likely to survive and women more likely to feel secure and loved."
- "There are many centuries of evidence showing how the concept [of a nuclear family] works in practice: pretty good, usually resulting in the survival and success of a new generation, humankind’s first responsibility. Bonuses of companionship, romantic love, pleasure and joy often appear as well. In comparison, an ethic of sexual freedom, where one in four pregnancies ends in abortion and the numbers of children in single-parent homes keeps rising, fails this goal like clockwork. Indicators for sexually transmitted disease, divorce, abandonment, impoverishment of women and children, unwed motherhood, and abortion are at record levels; the heartbreak index is at an all-time high."
It is good for a child to have married parents, and sex within marriage best provides the child with this protection. "Marriage is particularly important for the rearing of children as they flourish best under the long term care and nurture of their father and mother."
Many couples keep the crowns (stefana) from the wedding service (often in a box or stefanothiki) above the marriage bed, another reminder of the sanctity of marital love. "They serve as a reminder that God has united them to each other and to Himself and that He has bestowed His grace upon them to live in unity, faith and love."
- "If any one shall condemn marriage, or abominate and condemn a woman who is a believer and devout, and sleeps with her own husband, as though she could not enter the Kingdom [of heaven] let him be anathema" (Canon 1).
- "If any one shall remain virgin, or observe continence, abstaining from marriage because he abhors it, and not on account of the beauty and holiness of virginity itself, let him be anathema" (Canon 9).
- "If any one of those who are living a virgin life for the Lord's sake shall treat arrogantly the married, let him be anathema" (Canon 10).
- "If any woman shall forsake her husband, and resolve to depart from him because she abhors marriage, let her be anathema" (Canon 14).
- "Since we know it to be handed down as a rule of the Roman Church that those who are deemed worthy to be advanced to the diaconate or presbyterate should promise no longer to cohabit with their wives, we, preserving the ancient rule and apostolic perfection and order, will that the lawful marriages of men who are in holy orders be from this time forward firm, by no means dissolving their union with their wives nor depriving them of their mutual intercourse at a convenient time. Wherefore, if anyone shall have been found worthy to be ordained subdeacon, or deacon, or presbyter, he is by no means to be prohibited from admittance to such a rank, even if he shall live with a lawful wife. Nor shall it be demanded of him at the time of his ordination that he promise to abstain from lawful intercourse with his wife: lest we should affect injuriously marriage constituted by God and blessed by his presence, as the Gospel saith: 'What God hath joined together let no man put asunder'; and the Apostle saith, 'Marriage is honourable and the bed undefiled'; and again, 'Art thou bound to a wife? seek not to be loosed.' "
- See article: Fasting.
Although sex within marriage is often seen simply as "good," abstaining from sex also provides its own good. This abstention, often referred to as "marital fasting," should be voluntary on the part of both husband and wife. "Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control" (I Cor. 7:5). Marital fasting offers an opportunity to resist fleshly desires and redirect energies into worshiping God, just as one fasts from the desire for food. "Rather than repudiating the legitimate pleasure taken in eating and in marital relations, fasting assists us in liberating ourselves from greed and lust, so that both these things become not a means of private pleasure but an expression of interpersonal communion." Marital fasting is advised for all the usual times of fasting, including before partaking of Holy Communion. "[A]s with all other spiritual efforts, this must be done under the supervision and at the direction of a wise spiritual father." "[Fasting] also involves abstinence from marital intercourse, not because there is anything evil in it—it is part of God's creation—but to purify it and to provide us the opportunity to concentrate on the upbuilding of our lives in Christ."
"Some Orthodox saints have even been called upon to abstain completely from that which is good in marriage itself. The holy martyrs Cecilia and Valerian [(November 22)] gave themselves entirely to God from the very first night of their arranged marriage. They were united in spiritual vision during a time of intense Roman persecution in the early Church. After great struggle for the Faith, they died together as martyrs for the love of Christ. More recently, Saint John of Kronstadt and his wife lived together in the same manner, so that Saint John could give himself over more completely to the tremendous burden of ministry that God placed upon him as a priest in nineteenth-century Russia."
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."
Abstaining from sexual relations before (and outside of) marriage aids in the ascetic practice of fasting from marital relations within marriage. 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.
- See main article: Celibacy.
Unmarried people should be celibate, that is, refrain from sexual activity. Those who have taken monastic vows, or who have been ordained and are not married (either unmarried or widowed), are held to follow a celibate life.
Some of the Church teachings say that celibacy is better than marriage, while others hold them more equally. "One of the paradoxes of Christian ethics is that marriage and celibacy, if they presuppose different practical behaviors, are based on the same theology of the Kingdom of God and, therefore, on the same spirituality."
St. Paul indicated his preference for celibacy: "It is good for a man not to touch a woman. ... For I wish that all men were even as I am myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am" (I Cor. 7:1,7-8).
The goal of celibacy is not just to remain free of carnal pleasure, but to emancipate a believer from secular cares and orient the person towards God.
- "[B]oth marriage and celibacy are ways of living the Gospel, anticipating the Kingdom, which was already revealed in Christ and must appear in strength at the last day. It is, therefore, only a marriage 'in Christ' sealed by the Eucharist, and celibacy 'in the name of Christ,' which carry this 'eschatological' Christian meaning—not marriage concluded casually, as a contract, or as a satisfaction for the flesh, and not celibacy accepted by inertia, or worse, by egotism and self-protective irresponsibility."
Although children are a consequence of sexual relations, the inability to procreate does not necessarily mean that sex is no longer a good thing. In the Old Testament, barrenness was often seen as the result of sin. However, many Old Testament figures underwent barrenness, later to conceive through God's will.
Several saints are turned to especially with the problem of barrenness and childlessness, including Ss. Anna, Elizabeth, Roman the Wonderworker (November 27), Hypatius of Rufinus (March 31), and Irene Chrysovalantou.
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 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 purge is in fact possible, though difficult.
Not only should one avoid yielding to temptation, but one should also take care not to offer temptation to others. "A wink of the eye, and a man makes trouble; a bold rebuke, and a man makes peace" (Prov. 10:10).
King David allowed his desires to get the better of him when he desired Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah. After Bathsheba refused David's advances, David sent Uriah into battle, so that he would be killed. When the Prophet Nathan advised David that his actions were displeasing to God, David became angry at the truth until he repented, confessing his sin (2 Sam. 11-12).
Monastic rules often include injunctions to fight against sexual temptation.
Sexual sin may include adultery, fornication (including premarital sex), rape, incest, bestiality, prostitution, pornography, masturbation, sexual fantasies, and homosexual practices. These are condemned by the Church not for their own sake, but to protect her members from harming themselves and others through inappropriate behaviors. Note that sexual sin is not regarded as especially different from other types of sin, to which all are susceptible.
"In Christian marriage, sex, like so many other aspects of our lives, undergoes a transfiguration. In the world, sex is an expression of lust, of conquest, of using others for the satisfaction of self. This is why, in the moral disintegration of this fallen world, preoccupation with sex inescapably leads to and is linked with preoccupation with violence and death. Unbridled, nonsanctified sexual activity is satanic, filled with the devil's hatred of God, mankind, and life itself. It is suicidal."
"It is important to note that sex is not always 'good' just because it occurs within the confines of Christian marriage. In marriage, sexual relations which are the fruit of 'passionate lust' or are the expression of violence and/or physical control are not blessed. In Christian marriage, sexual relations must always be freely entered into and must never be forced. Manipulation in sexual matters is always inappropriate. Likewise, any sexual union outside of marriage is a union with death."
The ten commandments include injunctions against adultery and coveting a neighbor's wife (Ex. 20:14,17). Other books of the Old Testament, such as Proverbs and the Wisdom of Sirach, also advise against sexual sins:
- "Take no notice of a loose-living woman, for ... her words are smoother than oil, but their outcome is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death..." (Prov. 5:2-5).
- "But the adulterer has no sense; act like him and court your own destruction" (Prov. 6:32).
- "This is how the adulteress behaves: when she has eaten, she wipes her mouth clean and says, 'I have done nothing wrong' " (Prov. 30:20).
The New Testament continues to uphold these ideas. Christ, when explaining his teaching to his disciples, said, "For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man" (Matt. 15:19-20; cf. Mark 7:21-23). St. James, in the Apostolic Council, sought to teach the Gentiles, not to trouble them, "but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood" (Acts 15:20).
St. Paul also wrote to the Corinthians with warnings:
- "Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God" (I Cor. 6:9-11).
- "Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord" (I Cor. 6:13).
- "[H]e who is joined to a harlot is one body with her. For 'the two,' He says, 'shall become one flesh' " (I Cor. 6:16).
- "Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own?" (I Cor. 6:18-19).
"The libertines in Corinth—as some do today—argued that illicit sex (adultery and fornication) is as necessary for the body as eating, and both are irrelevant to the spiritual life. Paul contends the body belongs to God, and everything is relevant to the spiritual life. Therefore, dealing with sin means controlling our bodies."
Confession and guidance
When one struggles with sexual issues, it is good to have a spiritual guide to assist in the struggle. The sacrament of confession not only provides the opportunity to shed past sins and to obtain guidance, but also to receive the grace of God through the sacrament.
Marital fasting should also involve the guidance of a father confessor.
- Preserve Them, O Lord by Fr. John Mack. Ben Lomond, California, Conciliar Press: 1996. p. 116.
- Preserve Them, O Lord by Fr. John Mack. Ben Lomond, California, Conciliar Press: 1996. p. 119.
- Preserve Them, O Lord by Fr. John Mack. Ben Lomond, California, Conciliar Press: 1996. p. 123.
- Preserve Them, O Lord by Fr. John Mack. Ben Lomond, California, Conciliar Press: 1996. p. 121.
- Preserve Them, O Lord by Fr. John Mack. Ben Lomond, California, Conciliar Press: 1996. p. 118.
- Why Humans Mate by Frederica Mathewes-Green
- A Letter from America's Religious Leaders in Defense of Marriage (DOC) whose signers include His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios of America, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, and The Most Blessed Herman, Archbishop of Washington and New York, Primate, The Orthodox Church in America.
- What is the significance of the wedding crowns? (Antiochian)
- The Council of Gangra
- The Canons of the Council in Trullo: Canon XIII
- Christian Fasting (PDF) by Dimitri Oikonomou)
- Fasting for Orthodox Christians by Fr. John Townsend
- Preserve Them, O Lord by Fr. John Mack. Ben Lomond, California, Conciliar Press: 1996. p. 117.
- Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective by Fr. John Meyendorff. Crestwood, New York, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press: 2000. p. 69.
- Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective by Fr. John Meyendorff. Crestwood, New York, St. Vladimir's Seminary Press: 2000. pp. 70-71.
- Orthodox Saints for Special Intentions
- Preserve Them, O Lord by Fr. John Mack. Ben Lomond, California, Conciliar Press: 1996. p. 119.
- Preserve Them, O Lord by Fr. John Mack. Ben Lomond, California, Conciliar Press: 1996. p. 121.
- The Orthodox Study Bible:New Testament and Psalms, note on I Cor. 6:13, p. 385.
- Homily XIX: 1 Cor. vii. 1, 2 by St. John Chrysostom
- Homily X.: Colossians iii. 18–25 by St. John Chrysostom
- Homily XII.: Colossians iv. 12, 13 by St. John Chrysostom
- Homily XX.: Ephesians v. 22–24 by St. John Chrysostom
- Against Publishing the Errors of the Brethren, chapters 6-10 on barrenness and infertility, by St. John Chrysostom
- Orthodox Icon of the Conception of the Theotokos
- Church's view of masturbation (OCA)
- For the Health of Body and Soul: An Eastern Orthodox Introduction to Bioethics by Fr. Stanley S. Harakas (GOARCH)
- The Real Meaning of Sex by Frederica Mathewes-Green
- What to Say at a Naked Party by Frederica Mathewes-Green
- The Oneida Experiment by Frederica Mathewes-Green
- Let's Have More Teen Pregnancy by Frederica Mathewes-Green
- Overthrown by Eros by Frederica Mathewes-Green
- Born That Way by Frederica Mathewes-Green
- Sexual Purity and Healthy Relationships (RAM) video (GOARCH)