When Father first asked me to speak on the topic of sexuality, I was somewhat taken aback. I had no real idea why he would choose me, of all people. Perhaps it was because of my former work as a Chippendale’s model — and if you can believe that, I have some property I’d like to sell you — or maybe he just wanted to challenge me. It is true that in my former church I did teach a class on several occasions called “Dating, Love & Sex,” but it was designed for teenagers; that didn’t seem at all appropriate for Orthodoxy 101, which is attended almost entirely by adults, many of whom are married.
But it occurred to me that Father wouldn’t offer me this challenge without a reason (whatever it might be), and as the subject has long interested me — as it does nearly everyone in our society — I decided to accept the challenge, if for no other reason than that I thought it might help me come to a better understanding of the subject.
And in that I believe it indeed has. By forcing myself to read a number of truly insightful and astute books and articles on Orthodoxy’s view of sexuality, it has helped me to see that so much of what I formerly understood barely scratched the surface. I can only hope that I might be able, in some small way, to impart some of what I’ve learned so that we all can see what a beautiful, holy, sacramental, and God-given gift human sexuality is — or at least should be.
Society today in general maintains a very low view of sex. That may sound absurd, given that nearly everything in our culture is saturated through and through with sexuality of one form or another. Indeed, if one came from another planet and looked at our culture one would think that sex itself is our god, as it actually has become for many. But by taking sex out of its proper God-given context, society basically reduces it merely to a physical function, something that’s part of our animal nature — a pleasurable aspect to be sure, but in actuality nothing more than a mere physical function. It is an animalistic impulse that we all have, and it’s something they say that we shouldn’t deny or shy away from but should embrace as part of our basic existence. (If you don’t agree with the assessment that society today debases sex, simply look at the current trend of young people “hooking up.” These are defined as encounters for the sole purpose of sexual activity with no emotional component or expectation of commitment involved. Some kids who’ve been interviewed about the practice actually admit that the people they have sex with are people they don’t even like, and they have no desire to pursue any kind of relationship with them. It is all about the “physical function” as an end in itself.) These basic attitudes about sex also have to varying degrees invaded much religious thought in our culture today. Many of the more “progressive” churches now openly embrace premarital sex and “gay sex.” And even some of the more conservative fundamentalist churches, while endeavoring to maintain traditional biblical sexual behavioral values, nevertheless are deeply influenced by society’s view of sex as something purely animal or physical, something that exists on its own apart from any existential context. This has contributed to some exceptionally legal ideas about sex and sexual behavior among a number of fundamentalist adherents.
I myself grew up in one of those fundamentalist churches, and I went to undergrad at one of their colleges where I remember having discussions about sex with a number of young people. Because of the rather legalistic approach this religious body took in its method of interpreting scripture, that legal thinking pervaded the way young people approached nearly everything, including sexual attitudes. While it never was the stated position of the church as a whole, I knew many young people who believed that the word “fornication” was defined exclusively as genital intercourse; this, to their mind, meant that anything up to that point was “legal” or acceptable in God’s sight. They felt that they could engage in almost any kind of sexual activity up to — but not including — genital intercourse and still uphold the idea of sexual purity.
But these attitudes were not necessarily limited only to the young (or, for that matter, only to Fundamentalist Christians). I recall also a discussion I had once with a middle-aged lady in this church. That church’s teaching on divorce was that it was not permitted except in the case of adultery. If a woman divorced her husband, the only justification for a “scriptural divorce” was if the husband had committed adultery with another woman. In the case I was discussing with this lady, a woman in her church had divorced her husband because he’d been caught having sex with another man. The lady questioned whether that was grounds for scriptural divorce because she didn’t know if that technically was adultery since it wasn’t with another woman, which was how the church described the term. That was her legal understanding.
These examples stem from a highly legalistic view of sexual behavior and values, and also from the secular view of sex as simply a function of physical behavior. That latter attitude makes the biblical directives concerning sexual behavior appear to be completely arbitrary because, in at least some sense, it separates sex from its rightful context and begins to look at it as an end in itself. While Christians with this view may still adhere to the belief that the rightful place of sex is strictly within the bonds of marriage, they come to view sex more as a legal benefit than as a holy, sacramental, and integral part of the unifying aspect of marriage.
In this view, marriage comes to be viewed as a contract that allows sexual activity between the two parties involved but with no other. It is almost a business arrangement: “The undersigned may freely engage in intercourse with each other exclusively; but should either party participate in such activity with a third party, then this contract will become null and void.” Fornication comes to be viewed less as a betrayal of a holy union and more as simply the breaking of a contract — a rather arbitrary contract, as many see it, limiting sexual activity only to the “undersigned” and completely forbidding all sexual activity with anyone prior to the signing of the agreement.
When I was a teenager, this seemed extremely arbitrary. It was as though God has been capricious with us, having created something beautiful and then telling us, “You can’t have it!” As a teenager myself, I used to wonder why God made that legal clause that said sex was permitted only in marriage. It seemed quite arbitrary and, in a way, cruel. We teens had sexual urges — very strong ones at times — but we were told to curtail them; it wasn’t permitted for us to be sexually active. That did indeed seem arbitrary and unkind, because we were viewing sex as something that exists all on its own.
That was at one time my view of sex. Sadly, it is also how many Christians still view sex today. They may understand that it is a blessed part of God’s creation and that it can be wholesome and beautiful, but they still see it as a carrot dangled in front of the unwed to taunt them with something they simply cannot have. They tend to view it as something legal, something that’s permitted only with a certain legal construct.
But tonight we want us to look at the Orthodox view of sexuality. And allow me to say at the outset that, contrary to the picture the world likes to paint of the Church’s attitude toward sex, Orthodoxy does not have a negative view of sex. Many try to say that the Church considers sex something dirty and evil — something “nice people” don’t talk about, much less engage in.
Society has this idea about the Church primarily from some Western (especially Victorian) attitudes of the past, but also because of their own attitude that since the Church will not bless every and all forms of sexual deviancy then it must be “down” on sex.
But let’s look at what Orthodoxy’s view of sex really is. In order to do that, we must begin at the beginning. [Genesis 1:26-28] “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. Then God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”
God created man. He created man male and female. He created both the male and the female in His image, and He gave them to rule over all other creation as coequals. He charged them to “be fruitful and multiply.”
I find it distressing that we actually have to begin our study by pointing out that God created gender. All of human history — including even the pagans — up to our present day has accepted the idea of gender. But today we have people who say that individuals should choose their own gender, that assigning gender at birth is equivalent to child abuse. They insist that we shouldn’t force gender on a child simply because of the body parts they may be born with, but that the child should be allowed to decide what gender it wants to become; if they were born with the “wrong” body parts, they can have that surgically corrected later on. There really are people — intelligent people — who advocate this. And while I don’t want to get sidetracked on this issue so early on, I do think it worthwhile to point out that so-called “gender reassignment surgery” is a myth. A surgeon may be able to mutilate a human body to the point that it externally resembles something it is not, but it is not possible to alter the DNA or to make the “new” sexual organs capable of reproduction. Whether we like it or not, gender is assigned at birth ... actually long before birth, while the child is still in its mother’s womb. It cannot be — and according to Orthodox teaching — should not be altered. Fr. Thomas Hopko has written, “According to Orthodox Christianity, all human persons are spiritual, psychic, and bodily beings created after the image and likeness of God. They are made this way, male and female, to live forever in loving communion with God, each other, and the whole of creation.”1 In the creation story Man (or, as we would say today, mankind or humanity) is man and woman together. (We won’t get into the exceptionally rare cases of children born with ambiguous genitalia at this point, but we’re talking here about people who want voluntarily to change their or another person’s gender from one sex to another).
God made man male and female in order to make one complete person — one being when joined together. [Genesis 2:18 — the second creation story] “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.” It was not good that man should be alone ... this takes us back before the end of Genesis 1; remember that at the end of the first creation story God looked at all that he had made and “behold, it was very good” (Hebrew tov meod) — essentially saying it was superlatively good — but this is now a time when everything was not good. It was not good for man to be alone; he was only half a person. None of the animals was found to be a suitable companion. So God took a part of the man himself and from it formed a true counterpart, a “helper comparable to him” (I hate the old King James term “an help meet” ... nobody today understands what that means) — the Hebrew literally says “as in front of him,” meaning face-to-face, or a true counterpart to him.
What was Adam’s response? [Genesis 2:23] “This is now bone of my bones And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman [ishah] because she was taken out of Man [ish].” The man now has a counterpart, one that will make man whole. Hence the next verse: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Therefore a man in future society will leave his father and mother, severing the most intimate and sacred of ties, and be joined to his wife.
Here we find the origin of marriage, expressed in the creation narrative as that which was designed by God from the very beginning. Many moderns try to insist that marriage is a mere human institution that developed primarily for economic reasons — that it was based on the patriarchal idea of women as chattel and was a legal sign of ownership. That, however, is a demonic distortion of what marriage is or was intended to be. What we must keep in mind are three inseparable elements regarding creation and natural order: (1) Everything that God created was good and was made as an expression of His divinity; (2) everything has become corrupted and perverted by human sin; and (3) everything is redeemed, sanctified, and glorified by the risen Christ.2
And why, you might ask, are we talking so much tonight about marriage when our topic is sexuality? Well, contrary to the humorists, the two are not mutually exclusive. We shall find that the proper place of sexual activity is within the context of marriage. This is how God designed it and intended it to be. This is where it is truly holy and sanctifies us in the Lord. This is where we are blessed in the activity, where we reach the highest form of human interaction that approaches the communion within the very Trinity Itself.
Sex should never be isolated from marriage — it is part of the harmony. I tend to think in musical terms (which I suppose is appropriate given that I’m supposed to be a composer), and I like to compare marriage to a beautiful symphony. Imagine, if you will, listening to a wonderful symphony (Bruckner’s 8th, perhaps) with all the instruments playing together. Suppose we then just listened to the horn part by itself. It is a beautiful part, but it is just that: a part. It’s only “sounding brass” when isolated from the rest of the instruments. It is when they all play together in harmony that we understand the true beauty of the symphony. And sex is like that in marriage. If we isolate it from the rest of the relationship we have only “sounding brass.” It is only within the context of the entirety of the blessed marital relationship that it reveals the celestial harmony of the mysterious symphony of true love.
But getting back to our text, here in Genesis we have the biblical definition of marriage. The man and the woman are to be joined to each other, becoming one flesh. They are charged with ruling over the earth as coequals, ruling as one person. They were charged with being fruitful and multiplying ... in other words, with being sexual. And God pronounced it all tov meod. Marriage was to be between one man and one woman becoming one flesh and repopulating the earth. (We will discuss the implications of that in relation to the current debates about same-sex marriage a little later, but for now let’s look more specifically at the biblical definition or marriage itself.)
For what did God create or ordain marriage?
First of all, for reproduction — fecundity. This was, from both an historic and observable view, the primary purpose of sex, to continue the creative work that God began (and blessed) and to propagate the human species. Some — especially in the Western church — came to view this as it’s sole purpose, sometimes even teaching that sex wasn’t introduced until after the Fall and is itself part of fallen humanity and therefore not part of God’s original creation. By extension, they believed it to be evil ... a necessary evil for means of procreation, but to be avoided for any other reasons. This, of course, is not true. In the creation story we see a tremendously positive view of sexuality. “It was created by God and was essential to the goodness of His creation. It was an integral part of humanity’s being made in the image of God.”2
While Orthodoxy does acknowledge sex to be indubitably for the purpose of procreation and bearing offspring, is that indeed it’s sole function? A second purpose of marriage, which we’ll see developed even in the Old Testament Scriptures, is to provide physical and moral assistance to two individuals who have become willingly yoked together. “Orthodoxy describes marriage as szygia — partnership under a common yoke — which implies equal rights and responsibilities in the same household.”2
What can we learn from the Old Testament references?
In ancient times marriage was the fundamental building block of society. Society’s concern, therefore, was on preserving the stability of the family. Hence, the wisdom literature of the Old Testament had much to say about adultery, warning not only about how it might lead to disease, public disgrace, and financial ruin, but also about how it is detrimental to the family unit, particularly the relationship of husband and wife. Proverbs 5:15-19 says,
“Drink water from your own cistern,
And running water from your own well.
Should your fountains be dispersed abroad,
Streams of water in the streets?
Let them be only your own,
And not for strangers with you.
Let your fountain be blessed,
And rejoice with the wife of your youth.
As a loving deer and a graceful doe,
Let her breasts satisfy you at all times;
And always be enraptured with her love.”
The Hebrew text exults in the sexuality of married love, demonstrating that sexual desire’s natural, spiritual home is to be found in marriage. (And note how graphic are the last two verses, which are often toned down for our English translations. The Hebrew Bible does not skirt around the issue in such fashion.)
The Song of Solomon reinforces this idea. The entire book is a hymn of praise, a duet sung by two lovers who are totally enraptured by each other. They look “relentlessly and unceasingly at each other [alone], with no possibility of a third coming between them.”5 In this Song, which speaks to the ideal relationship as God intended, the very idea of polygamy, infidelity, or even divorce, is inconceivable. The Song harkens to two individuals who become one flesh in every way, and its inclusion in Scripture validates the idea that sexuality as God originally created it (between one man and one woman in the context of marriage) is indeed tov meod.
It is worth pointing out here that the Song of Solomon is not a hymn of a man praising his wife as the best and most valuable of all his property, but is rather a song between two lovers singing to each other. It raises the woman far beyond the typical Middle Eastern status of chattel, putting her (as in the creation story) on equal footing with the man. The two were made to be fellow-rulers over all creation. She too is made in the image of God and is an ontological equal with the man, the two completing each other, her being literally “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”
So what do we see in the Song of Solomon? Sexuality here is much more than a vehicle for procreation. It becomes a way of “self-transcendence, of receiving a joy that takes one out of oneself and roots one’s joy in another.... [E]ven in the Old Testament sexuality can become the beginning of sanctification.”6
And note too that the Song of Solomon in no way isolates the sex act from the relationship itself — it is an ontological part. And, it should be pointed out, neither is the physical intimacy that the writer so extols limited to the act sex itself. What we see here is a delighting in each other’s mere presence, the physical contact being only the most outward expression of that inner warmth the couple shares. This is why even couples who, for various health reasons, may no longer be able to engage in sexual activity can nevertheless continue to express their deep love and passion for each other in various other forms of intimacy — snuggling, kissing, caressing — even when such activity does not lead to sexual intercourse.
So in summary thus far, we see that sex is (1) for procreation and (2) for the unification of two into one on an intimate, physical, and spiritual level. Fr. Lawrence Farley has written that “God invented sexuality not merely for procreation, but also for love, for enduring investment in another with whom one can find enduring security and the possibility of mutual emotional attachment.”7
Much of today’s society sees sex as primarily for recreation (literally recreation, not re-creation), the procreative aspect becoming almost an afterthought. (How many times have we seen a couple surprised that the woman in a sexual relationship becomes pregnant, as though that is some kind of anomaly?) Society today even places value on what is called “casual sex” — sexual activity, such as “hook-ups” — divorced from any kind of commitment. This makes the act of sex the object of desire rather than the person. It devalues both sex and the individual. C.S. Lewis wrote about this concept as far back as 1960: “We use a most unfortunate idiom when we say, of a lustful man prowling the streets, that he ‘wants a woman.’ Strictly speaking, a woman is just what he does not want. He wants a pleasure for which a woman happens to be the necessary piece of apparatus. How much he cares about the woman as such may be gauged by his attitude to her five minutes after fruition.”8
In truth, there is no such thing as “casual sex.” As Fr. Lawrence has put it, “Casual sex as such is not so much wrong as impossible and a contradiction in terms. Sexual intercourse is not casual and never can be. It is profound, for it involves opening ourselves up, even if for a brief time, in complete vulnerability to the other; it involves sharing on the deepest physical and psychological levels.”9
“Sex,” he goes on to say, “is meant to be fundamentally unitive, to lead a person to find in another a source of joy, delight, and endurance. Fornication [sex outside of marriage] devalues sex so that it becomes fundamentally not about another person but about an experience located in one’s own body. True love doesn’t just want the pleasure; more than anything it wants the other person as a person. For the true lover, sex is not about a bodily experience so much as it is about one’s eternal delight in the beloved.”10
This explains why in the Bible sexual intercourse is often described as “knowing.” This means that it is “more than a momentary union for hedonistic purposes.”11 It’s about knowing each other thoroughly, identifying lives with each other, loving deeply and profoundly. And not only knowing for the present, but also a state of continuous becoming. The ultimate objective for both partners as one is theosis or deification. Orthodoxy describes sexual intercourse as synousia, meaning a community of essence. Basil the Great used this term to refer to the relationship between the three persons of the Trinity. There is a profound “knowing” at the deepest levels of existence, a mingling of essence, a oneness that transcends ordinary human understanding — a divine mystery that brings both pleasure and infinite joy.
So another brief summary before we move along: (1) God created sex and called it good as originally ordained, and (2) sex was ordained to be set within the context of marriage for (a) procreation and (b) as a unitive experience and for joy.
What does that have to say about modern ideas of sexual freedom, of premarital experimentation, and the idea of “open marriage”?
I think we can clearly see that all of these concepts violate the rightful purpose of sex as originally created by God. Even the ancients, who were allowed to practice polygamy and divorce because of the hardness of their hearts, gradually came to recognize that polygamy was not illustrative of the Edenic ideal of marriage — how much less would “open marriages” defy the ideal?
Premarital sex also devalues the sanctity of sexuality, as it does not honor the unitive aspect or the commitment desired of spouses. And far and away in most cases it is never for procreative purposes, so that part of the original purpose is eliminated from the start.
So what are the unmarried to do? Both Scripture and the Church tell us that they are to abstain ... an idea that the world scoffs at and ridicules. We are told that abstinence is not possible — but the lives of countless saints and other faithful belie that. The unmarried are to remain celibate for as long as they are single, their chastity being itself a worthy offering to God.
Remember in our talk on Christian ethics how we said that we should move beyond looking at abstinence as a negative, as a “not-doing,” as though sex is that wonderful carrot dangled in front of us but which we are forbidden to touch. We have to remember that our behavior is determined by our internal values. Our ethics comes from the center, from our world-view (which is founded on God), and it progresses outward to our behavior and not vice versa. If we concern ourselves only with the point of behavior, then in terms of sex outside of marriage we understand only that we have an arbitrary law that says the single Christian isn’t allowed to engage in sex. This could be viewed as an arbitrary rule set up by a capricious god; it would be seen, in such a case, very negatively: We need not understand why the activity is forbidden, but we need only to adhere to this external rule.
But if we understand first that God is a righteous God who is true to Himself and in whom the concepts of fidelity and unity have some absolute meaning, then we can see how chastity would itself have value, since chastity reflects the holiness of God. Therefore, if we hold chastity to be of value, then that will directly influence our sexual attitudes, which will cause us to view sex outside of marriage as opposing our sense of value. This attitude regarding the true value and meaning of sex in its rightful place will in turn determine our behavior. So our behavior, then, is determined by the internal value; it is not forced to conform to an arbitrary, external standard imposed upon it from without. This understanding of our ethics can have a tremendous effect on our motivation, for we begin to view behavior from a completely different perspective. We change from the view that perceives sex outside of marriage as something of value that is denied to us, to the view that chastity is itself something of great value. This is a dramatic change from a negative to a positive view of sexual abstinence.
Remember too that married couples also engage in abstinence (though, granted, on a lesser scale), as St. Paul admonished in I Corinthians 7:5 — “Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer.” Just as we fast from food on various occasions, we are encouraged to fast from sexual activity even within marriage so that the couple may devote themselves more wholeheartedly to prayer. But this should be done “with consent” and only “for a time,” lest Satan “tempt you because of your lack of self-control.”
Moderns try to tell us that sex is simply a bodily function, no different from eliminating waste, and that it shouldn’t be “glopped up” with sentimentality or, for that matter, with morality. “It is a part of life,” they say, “so why resist your urges, whether married or not?” “Sex is sex” is the argument. It’s just a bodily function. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, no reason to be inhibited, it’s just like going to the bathroom.
For all our glorification of sex in modern society, reducing it to a mere “bodily function” diminishes and devalues its psychological and spiritual significance exponentially. We are told that if we “de-mystify” sex then we will be free to enjoy all its pleasures without guilt and inhibition — that we’ll be happy. But Frederica Mathewes-Green has observed that “As sexuality is stripped from the fabric of personhood and isolated as a sheer mechanical act, severed from context and emotional ties, women are lonelier than ever.”12 It parallels how mankind itself, beginning with its proud, proud humanism, setting man himself up as his own god, has come full circle to viewing man now as nothing more than a collection of molecules of no higher significance or value than a slug. According to the “free love” proponents of the last century, sex was to be set free, it was to liberate us and raise us all to our highest human potential; it wasn’t to be imprisoned in outdated notions of morality; we were all to be free to act out our sexual wants and desires without guilt or inhibitions. But in the end it has become simply another bodily function of no higher value than a bowel movement.
And these are the people who say the Church has a negative view of sex! In reality, the Church sees sex as one of the most beautiful and deeply spiritual things that God created. It represents the same level of intimacy as exists between Christ and His Church. [Ephesians 5:31-32] “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church.” (It would be best if each of you would read that entire section, Ephesians 5:21-33. It is a beautiful analogy that compares the marriage of two people to that of Christ and His Church.) In Orthodoxy, “Marriage and the family is likened to a miniature Church.”13 Marriage also mirrors in some ways the very integration or union of the Holy Trinity itself inasmuch as two persons become one in the sex act.
All right, we’ve been saying that sexuality’s place in life is set firmly within the context of marriage, so let’s discuss what marriage is.
What defines marriage?
In Christ’s day (and for many people today as well) marriage was seen primarily as a social contract between a man and a woman. This contract allowed the couple to live together, the man supporting his wife, and to raise children together. As a contract, it could be dissolved by divorce.
But Christ laid down a different law for His disciples. When the Pharisees asked whether a man could divorce his wife (attempting to force Jesus to choose between the two competing schools of thought on divorce at the time), He took them back to the creation story where the original intent of marriage could be found — where the two became one flesh. Christ drew the conclusion that the man and his wife had been made one by God Himself in this divine mystery, and what God had made into a unity man had no right to tear apart. Rather than choose between two competing doctrines of what would allow for divorce, Christ instead made divorce an act that is unthinkable. The Mosaic Law, He said, had given concession for divorce because of the hardness of the people’s hearts, but that was not the final will of God. God’s perfect will had been declared in the creation narrative; divorce had been allowed later only because the people were fallen and not yet ready to bear the full weight of God’s original design. Jesus showed us in this that marriage is more than a social contract. It is a new creation, a joining of two people together so deeply and profoundly that they are inseparably joined and are “connected on an ontological level.”14 Being so joined, a couple could not separate without doing violence to the bond that joins them. No simple legal divorce could destroy that. Christ thus raised the status of marriage from a mere contractural agreement to an ontological and mystical union of two people. He increased and strengthened the idea of marriage.
This is one reason why the Church views marriage as a sacrament. What is a sacrament? The common definition is “a visible sign of an invisible grace.” It is God granting grace through material things (such as the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the water of baptism, etc.) Here we see that marriage itself — and by extension the sexual union within marriage — is sacramental in that God blesses it, granting grace for this mystical union of two individuals becoming one flesh and mirroring the relationship of Christ and His Church. It is holy. As early as I Corinthians 7:30 (around A.D. 55) St. Paul indicates that marriage already had a sacramental character, inasmuch as he forbade widowed Christians to marry outside the Christian community. This sacramental union should never be broken. At least that is the ideal as God ordained it from the beginning.
Just as we’ve seen in Ephesians how marriage is this mirror image of Christ and the Church, we also see this reinforced in the Apocalypse of St. John [Revelation 21:9], the Church being the Bride of Christ, and Christ the Bridegroom. So while references to marriage in the Old Testament were primarily about sexuality, in the New Testament they are primarily about Christ — sexuality is given a Christological context. The earthly married couple is to mirror the eternal union of Christ and His Church. They each are to have their mutual roles and obligations one to the other. Violation of this union through adultery or fornication is unthinkable and is the only thing that can destroy the sacred bond.
According to Christ, fornication is the only reason for the dissolution of a marriage. So what then is fornication?
When humans “misdirect and misuse their God-given faculty of passionate desire..., it becomes perverted ... into sinful lust, which in its specifically sexual expressions is generally called ‘fornication.’ ... In the traditional Orthodox Christian view, passions that are simply sexual — in that they have nothing to do with love in any of its forms, but are wholly self-centered and exclusively driven by a desire for carnal and emotional pleasure as an end in itself — are always sinful.... They ‘miss the mark’ for which they are given by God.”15 Fornication is not simply a breaking of a contract. It is the violation of a sacred bond.
Obviously, a sexual encounter with a third party would defy the sanctity of the marital union, but Christ said fornication goes well beyond the act of adultery itself. [Matthew 5:28] “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Does this mean that every time we are sexually aroused by another that we are guilty of adultery? I think we have to recognize that God created us to be sexual beings, and inherent in that is a natural attraction to one another (unless you look like me). Happening to see a beautiful woman and being tempted to have sexual thoughts about her is simply how the demons endeavor to use the good and beautiful that God created and pervert it into something unholy — which is what the devil always does. (Note that the devil never invents anything new, he merely twists and perverts that which is good.) Having that initial thought is involuntary and is part of how we are made. Jesus is talking here of entertaining that thought, elaborating on it, and even making plans for acting on it — or at least wishing that one could.
Jesus does not say that people with sinful sexual thoughts and feelings are guilty of sexual sin.... [He] rather says that people become guilty of sexual sin when they intentionally look upon others in order to lust after them in ungodly, selfish, and exclusively carnal ways.”16
I think most of us know that the word for fornication in Greek is porneia, from which we get the word “pornography.” And that too would be considered a violation of the bond between husband and wife: One becomes a spectator (and in some wise a participant) in sexual acts between other people, usually people who are not themselves married to each other. This also demeans the sex act, making it an end in itself, and it objectifies the participants.
And lest you think pornography is unique to our time, the seventh-century Council of Trullo issued a special canon condemning “pictures which incite to the enkindling of base pleasures.” We’ve found pornographic drawings on the walls of Pompeii — it’s as old as art. Immoral pictures were addressed specifically in the 10th and 12th centuries as well, and the Orthodox Church has long advised against pornographic representations and the use of other sexual stimulants as they do in themselves represent porneia (fornication).17
St. Paul said in I Corinthians 6:18: “Flee fornication. Every sin that a man does is outside the body; but he who commits fornication sins against his own body.” Whose body does he sin against? His own. And to whom does his body belong? [Ephesians 5:28] To his wife. Fornication is a sin against the one body of the two made one flesh in the Lord, it distorts the image of God in this divine union.
All right, let’s change gears. We can’t discuss Orthodoxy and sexuality without also mentioning celibacy, since we are a Church that historically has placed great value in our celibate saints. This could well be an entire evening’s discourse in itself, but we’ll mention it here only briefly.
Celibacy and virginity are highly valued in Orthodoxy (and I am deeply saddened by the fact that today virginity is actually disparaged as something abnormal, especially on many of our college and even high school campuses — as Frederica Mathewes-Green has lamented, today “‘purity’ and ‘chastity’ have become empty vessels”18 Orthodox tradition highly values both celibacy and marriage as holy states. The supreme example of celibacy is found in the Theotokos, and many Christians throughout history have elected to practice celibacy based on her example and the words of Christ and of St. Paul, particularly in I Corinthians 7.
Celibacy became so enshrined in the early Church that some, particularly in the West, began to denigrate marriage as some kind of lower state or even as something outright sinful. Some theologians even went so far as to claim that mankind was originally created as sexless beings and that sex was created only after the Fall and thus represents our fallen nature. This idea, however, was roundly condemned at the Council of Gangra in the 4th century: “If anyone 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, let him be anathema.” (We could also talk about the Eustathians — a fascinating group of heretics who believed a person could not be saved if they were sexually active, even in marriage — but I think it really isn’t necessary to go there this evening. Or we could talk about a group I knew of in Bedford a few years ago that believed the exact opposite — that a woman couldn’t go to heaven unless she slept with a man, and if she had no husband, a male member of the congregation would assist in her salvation. But let’s move on.)
In conclusion in regards to celibacy, let it be reiterated that the Church considers both marriage and celibacy as holy states ... but note that while marriage has been elevated by the Church into a sacrament, celibacy — though highly prized — never has.
So once more let’s summarize.
First, sexuality was created by God, is deeply ingrained in our natures, was given to us to share mutual love between husband and wife, and was pronounced by God as tov meod. From this Fr. Lawrence Farley makes three observations: (a) Fornication violates the basic purpose of sex because it isolates the physical act from any real relationship of love. This is what our culture calls “casual sex.” (The argument that many men make when caught cheating is “It didn’t mean anything!” Well, it certainly wasn’t love, but sex cannot ever be said not to mean anything.) “Unless one has,” as Farley puts it, “eroded one’s authentic humanity and reduced sexual activity to mere animal mating, casual sex is not possible between human beings. All sexual encounters deeply involve the two partners.”19 (b) Engaged Christians are to wait until marriage to begin their sexual relationship. The rationale for abstaining is something the world can’t understand. It lies in the fact that in the wedding ceremony a gift is given — not the gift of the legality of a marriage “contract,” but the blessing of the Church, of Christ Himself sacramentally uniting the two believers and joining them each to the other. We don’t rush to take the Eucharist in the Divine Liturgy — neither do we rush to embrace the divine sacrament of marriage before it is lovingly offered before Christ. “To have sex before [marriage] would be like a communicant helping himself to the Chalice” during the Liturgy.20 (c) Sexuality in marriage is meant to unite the couple in love and in an ever-deepening emotional bond. “Helped and inspired by the pleasure sex brings, each partner stays with the other in mutual service, fidelity, and kindness.”21
Secondly, sexuality was meant for procreation. As we’ve seen, this is not (as some erroneously have taught) its sole purpose, but it is nevertheless a crucial aspect of sex’s divine purpose and original design. That said, we see then how this would make a homosexual “marriage” a contradiction in terms. We’ll discuss this in more detail in a bit, but I believe this a vital consideration in the current debate.
Today’s world also maintains that there is a third aspect to sex, and that is that it is strictly for pleasure, or “fun sex.” This is the predominant view of society today. But to separate pleasure as an end in itself is to dissect and mutilate the gift that has been bestowed on humankind. Certainly there is pleasure in sex, but the highest pleasure arises when it is engaged in within its proper context — in a permanent, loving, life-affirming relationship — but not when it is viewed as an end in itself.
In conclusion for this section, allow me to quote again from Fr. Lawrence Farley: “We should take sex seriously as we take all God’s gifts seriously — that is with gratitude and determination to use it well, as He intended.”22 To do otherwise is to do violence to the sacred bond of marriage and to bring distress and woe upon our very selves.
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Any discussion about Orthodoxy and sexuality eventually will come round to the question of birth control. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which has a well-established, universally applicable ruling on this matter, the Orthodox Church has never issued a blanket canon about the use of birth control. Aside from maintaining that no marriage should remain purposely childless, the decision of whether couples may employ birth control methods remains, in most jurisdictions, between the couple and their spiritual advisor. “The whole domain of the relations between husband and wife,” writes Constantelos, “is too intimate to provide the investigations of the priests.”23 The Ecumenical Patriarch himself has “silently left the matter to the discretion of husbands and wives in consultation with their priests.”24
Orthodoxy does not “share [with the Roman Catholics] the deterministic understanding of [sex ... that] ignores love as a dimension of great value.... Indeed,... love ... is viewed ... as the marriage partners’ own response to the love of God Himself for man, a human love which is also a paradigm of Christ’s love for the Church.”25
In earlier times birth control was seriously frowned upon primarily because communities constantly hovered on the brink of extinction. Infant mortality was so high that couples typically had 10-12 children in the hope that at least 2 or 3 would survive to adulthood. One generation with a below-average birth rate could well mean the demise of an entire community.
This is not so today, and in our day our concern is less on the preservation of the population than it is on economic considerations. Frankly put, children are expensive. A household with a meager income in today’s world generally can hardly afford to provide adequately for 10-12 children, all of whom are likely to live to adulthood. Most Fathers understand the rationale in employing birth control after a given number of children have been born, or for various health reasons.
The type of birth control employed, however, is of great concern. While the Church is rather lenient in regards to the question of birth control, “she is unanimous and definite toward abortion. Abortion is viewed as murder.”26 Orthodoxy considers abortion murder, whether it is performed in the 8th month of pregnancy or in the first hours. Once a child is conceived, new life is given, and no one has a right to extinguish that life. Therefore, both abortion itself and any form of birth control that would act as an abortifacient or prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine wall would violate the Church’s stand on abortion.
Using birth control to prevent a pregnancy from ever occurring (that is, a couple that voluntarily chooses never to have children without good reason) is also considered inappropriate according to Orthodox understanding. We’re talking here not about couples who are incapable of conceiving, nor about those who choose to remain childless because of health reasons or other factors deemed acceptable by their priest; instead we’re talking about those who willfully choose childlessness for purely selfish reasons — those who voluntarily elect not to have children because they “don’t like kids,” they don’t want their lives interrupted, or they simply don’t want to be bothered. Such attitudes deny one of the two primary and God-ordained purposes of the marital union. As we’ve seen, in the beginning God commanded the couple to “be fruitful and multiply,” and to deny that aspect of sexuality for selfish purposes would be just as offensive as denying that sex also has a unitive and sacramental element. [Psalm 127:3] “Children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb is a reward.”
One of the most hotly debated issues today is the proposition of allowing same-sex “marriages,” otherwise known as “gay marriage.” Not only in our secular culture, but also within our own Orthodox fellowship we see people strongly — almost militantly — advocating for same-sex marriage. Many equate it with the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, honestly believing that they are standing for equality and love in the face of bigotry and hatred.
The debate has become so emotionally charged in many instances that it is impossible for honest, open discussion of the issue to even transpire. One is reminded of the prophesy of St. Anthony the Great: “A time is coming when [people] will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack [them] saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’”27 It is felt by many who support the idea of same-sex marriage that its opponents simply “hate” gays or are genuinely homophobic or downright bigoted.
But the Church neither hates homosexuals nor does it endorse homosexual “marriage.” But its stance against the idea of same-sex marriage is not based on bigotry or homophobia, but on the definitions of genuine marriage that we find in Scripture, in history, and in the canons of the Church.
As we’ve stated already, one of the prominent and essential purposes of marriage is procreation. Whether we like it or not, this requires a man and a woman ... not two men or two women. Without the possibility of procreation between the couple alone, there simply cannot be a marriage. One might wish to call it that, but it would not stand up to the biblical and Orthodox definition of marriage. The only way one might be able to have an actual “gay marriage” would be if one redefines marriage as simply a “legal/social contract.” But as we’ve already seen, Christ Himself showed us that marriage is far more than a simple legal contract, and such a view of marriage distorts spiritual reality and is not recognized by the Church. The state might choose to redefine it as simply a social contract, but the Church cannot recognize it as such and cannot bless such a union. A same-sex “marriage” “can never be complementary, unitive, life-creating, and life-enhancing in the ways that God intended human sexual intercourse to be between a man and a woman.”28
Does the Orthodox Church accept homosexuals? Certainly it does. Just as it also accepts adulterers, liars, thieves, and all manner of sinners. We all are sinners, each one of us considering himself the chief of sinners, and “homosexual sin” is no worse (and no less heinous) than any other. We all are called to a life of repentance, regardless what our personal demons might be. This means we embrace one another in true love, in compassion, and with an effort to help each one of us attain the prize that is the high calling in Christ Jesus.
Far too often I see even Orthodox Christians say things like, “The Church needs to change.” I hear it often in discussions about “gay marriage.” Such a statement reveals a misunderstanding not only of what marriage is but also of what the Church is. If one views the Church as a mere human institution, then I suppose it could do whatever it wanted — there would be no objection to its bowing to the social conventions of the day, whether that be abortion, same-sex marriage, assisted suicide, premarital sex, etc. Just look at what a prominent supposedly Christian “pastor” said the other day, that in order for Christianity to survive it has to do two things: It has to get rid of Scripture, and it has to embrace gay marriage.
In truth, the Church is the Body of Christ (I Cor. 12:17). Christ does not change (“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” Heb. 13:8; “I the Lord do not change” — Mal. 3:6). Where the Church has spoken, Christ has spoken, for His Spirit speaks through the Church and leads her into all truth (John 16:13). Should any one of us conclude that we are wiser than the Spirit of God? When we find our views in conflict with the teachings of the Holy Church, should we be demanding the Church to change, or should we rather consider that perhaps we ourselves should change in order to conform to the will of God? To paraphrase Frederica Mathewes-Green, We shouldn’t want to change the historic faith; we should want the faith to change us.29
Suppose the Church did change. Where would that leave us? What basis would we then have to determine answers to any moral or theological question? Rather than asking the Church to change, let us humble ourselves to the wisdom of Her Truth and seek day by day to be conformed to God’s likeness.
But the argument still comes back as a drumbeat, “Shouldn’t the Church change because ‘God loves everybody’ and people can’t help what they are”?
Whether the propensity to same-sex attraction is a choice or totally involuntary (and there are debates even within the homosexual community itself which it is), it does not alter the fact that homosexual activity and lust are condemned by Scripture and the Church — just as all forms of fornication are, whether homosexual or heterosexual. As Frederica Mathewes-Green points out, “Whether desires spring from choice or compulsion, we are still bound to self-control. Strong desire is not a ‘Get out of the rules free’ card. It speaks with commanding voice, but not the voice of God.”30 Perhaps we don’t choose our sexual feelings and predispositions; but “we do choose whether to accept and act on them, or to resist and reject them when the feelings are sinful.”31
Our highly secular society has conditioned people to believe that their sinful thoughts, especially when related to sex, are perfectly normal and actually define who we are in our essential being. As a result, we’re told that we shouldn’t resist these desires, that whatever they might be actually defines us. Instead we are to embrace them fully and even develop pride in them. We’re told that to resist, to discipline, or to destroy these sinful desires would be to deny and destroy ourselves.
Orthodoxy sees the exact opposite. In order to become what we were created to be (to be deified — to become by grace what God is by nature) we must deny ourselves and bring these thoughts and desires under His control. Our sins should not define who we are.
Some people appeal to science in an attempt to justify homosexual behavior and to make the claim that it is perfectly normal. Fr. Thomas Hopko, however, had some rather serious warnings about this inclination to place the findings of modern science over the Church. What he had to say I think is worth quoting at length:“While taking the results of scientific studies most seriously, Orthodox Christianity traditionally gives at least two warnings about science that are pertinent to the issue of same-sex attraction and love. The first is that natural science in itself is restricted to physical nature and human behavior. It is not concerned with metaphysical, spiritual, and divine things. It analyses, describes, and explains the manifold activities of physical and living things, including human beings with their unique characteristics and properties, but it says nothing about the origin, meaning, and destiny of that which it studies.
“The second warning is that science is concerned with physical, animal, and human natures in their presently deformed forms, not in the forms in which God originally created them, nor in the state in which they will be in God’s coming kingdom. Therefore, for example, the fact that a certain percentage of human beings is proven to be of ‘homosexual orientation’ is irrelevant in a theological and moral discussion of same-sex attraction and love.... It says nothing about what was intended for humanity from the beginning and will be for humanity at the end, in the resurrection of the dead beyond the boundaries of this world. It merely provides data (always welcome, interesting, tentative, and debatable) about sinful humanity in a disordered and corrupted world in need of salvation.
“An additional warning that must also be noted today in respect to scientific findings is that political correctness and vested interests often make it immensely difficult for scientific opinions that do not conform to current conventions to get a fair and objective hearing.”32
The argument often is made that people with same-sex attraction cannot help their orientation and that therefore it should be accepted and blessed by the Church. But it is also now being proposed that people who are sexually attracted to children cannot help their orientation and that theirs also should be an accepted “alternative lifestyle.” It is even being suggested by some that the behavior of those who are sexually attracted to animals is to be accepted. Perhaps these people too did not choose to be as they are. But that does not validate their behavior, any more than the wanton promiscuity of a hyper-sexed, inveterate heterosexual lecher would justify flagrant adultery.
All these people are to be loved (for yes, God does love everybody), but as the saying goes, “God loves you as you are, and He loves you so much that He won’t let you stay that way.” And that saying goes for each one of us, for we all have our own demons to overcome, whether it be in relation to sexuality, to drunkenness, to gluttony, to lying, to drugs, or whatever. Perhaps my personal weakness is something that I was in fact born with a propensity to have, that it took very little for me to fall into. But that doesn’t mean I want it not to change for the Lord’s sake.
If my heart’s desire is to be like Christ, to obtain theosis, then I will bend to His will in love and devotion and spend every ounce of my being endeavoring to become more and more like Him in every way. If that means giving up something I am deeply attracted to, then may God give me the grace to offer it up to Him in the form of abstinence. (For Archimandrite Sophrony, that was giving up painting and a bright and promising artistic career.) Again, this should not be viewed as something very enjoyable that I simply must never allow, but rather that I ought to choose abstinence as something that is of itself of great value — not a negative abstinence, but a positive embracing of that which pleases my Lord and which conforms to His will for me as established from the very beginning. St. John Chrysostom wrote, “Even if lust makes imperious demands, if you occupy its territory with the fear of God, you have stayed its frenzy.” “The final issue.” says Frederica Mathewes-Green, “is not inborn rights, but behavior. Passions may not be chosen, but actions are.”33 It is argued that the homosexual — even the pedophile and the heterosexual philanderer — ought to embrace his or her proclivity in order to build up self-esteem. But it has been said most aptly that “We don’t need self-esteem. We need a Savior.”34 It is our place to put every aspect of our lives under the Lordship of Christ, and that includes even our most private, most intimate of all, for only by doing so will we inherit the supreme blessedness that is intrinsic in all of God’s creation.
Copyright © 2015 by Oswin Craton. All rights reserved.
1 Thomas Hopko. Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction (Ben Lamond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2006), p. 17. [Back]
2 Hopko, p. 15. [Back]
3 Lawrence Farley. One Flesh (Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2013), p. 21. [Back]
4 Demetrius Constantelos. Marriage, Sexuality & Celibacy: A Greek Orthodox Perspective (Minneapolis: Light & Life, 1975), p. 22 [Back]
5 Farley, p. 28. [Back]
6 Farley, p. 31. [Back]
7 Farley, p. 40. [Back]
8 C.S. Lewis. The Four Loves (NY: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1960), p. 94. [Back]
9 Farley, p. 39. [Back]
10 Farley, p. 41. [Back]
11 Constantelos, p. 24. [Back]
12 Frederica Matthews-Green. Gender (Ben Lamond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2002), p. 116. [Back]
13 Constantelos, p. 21. [Back]
14 Farley, p. 58. [Back]
15 Hopko, pp. 23-24. [Back]
16 Hopko, p. 24. [Back]
17 c.f., Constantelos, pp. 41-43. [Back]
18 Mathewes-Green, p. 65. [Back]
19 Farley, p. 145. [Back]
20 Farley, p. 146. [Back]
21 Ibid. [Back]
22 Farley, p. 158. [Back]
23 Constantelos, p. 65. [Back]
24 Ibid. [Back]
25 Constantelos, p. 64. [Back]
26 Constantelos, p. 27. [Back]
27 Hopko, p. 57. [Back]
28 Hopko, pp. 24-25. [Back]
29 Mathewes-Green, p. 169. [Back]
30 Mathewes-Green, p. 174. [Back]
31 Hopko, p. 39. [Back]
32 Hopko, pp. 93-94. [Back]
33 Mathewes-Green, p. 175. [Back]
34 Mathewes-Green, p. 179. [Back]
Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States. 2013 Assembly Statement on Marriage and Sexuality.
Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the United States. Response of Assembly of Bishops to Obergefell v. Hodges.
Bacic-Tulevski, Amelia. “Reasons not to fornicate, besides ‘God said so.’”
Bacic-Tulevski, Amelia. “The bed undefiled by politics: Orthodox Christian thoughts on gay-marriage legislation.”
Cabe, Benjamin. On Gender and the Soul: An Exploration of Sex/Gender and its Relation to the Soul, According to the Church Fathers. Bozeman, MT: Fish and Vine Publishing, 2021.
Constantelos, Demetrius. Marriage, Sexuality & Celibacy: A Greek Orthodox Perspective. Minneapolis: Light & Life, 1975.
Dreher, Rod. “The ‘Orthodox’ gay wedding.”
Farley, Lawrence. One Flesh. Chesterton, IN: Ancient Faith Publishing, 2013.
Harakas, Stanley. Contemporary Moral Issues Facing the Orthodox Christian. Minneapolis: Light & Life, 1982.
Hopko, Thomas. Christian Faith and Same-Sex Attraction. Ben Lamond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2006.
Lewis, C.S. The Four Loves. NY: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1960.
Martini, Gabe. The Official Orthodox Christian Position on Marriage Equality.
Mathewes-Green, Frederica. Gender: Men, Women, Sex, Feminism. Ben Lamond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2002.
Orthodox Church in America. “Sexuality.”
Orthodox Church in America. “Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs Regarding Marriage”
Orthodox Church in America. Synodal Affirmations on Marriage, Family, Sexuality, and the Sanctity of Life
Sanidopoulos, John. “Prohibited Marriages in the Orthodox Church.”
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