The Orthodox Christian Marriage

Nowadays, of course, our society considers children more of a nuisance than a blessing, and many couples wait one, two, three, or even more years before they have a child. Indeed, some decide never to have children. And so, although in the Orthodox Church the first purpose of marriage is not merely to have children, the desire of most young marrieds today to wait before having children is considered sinful.
| 10 August 2008


  (continued from previous issue)

The Orthodox Christian Home What is an Orthodox Christian home? To answer this question we must go back to square one and talk about the three main ingredients of true love. Our Faith teaches us that love is composed of three parts – not all of them of equal importance:

  1. the physical
  2. the mental
  3. the spiritual

The physical is obvious: a boy is naturally attracted to a girl physically. This is the part of love which is usually very dominant early in a relationship. But there must also be a mental attraction between a man and a woman if they are going to have a successful marriage: by that I mean that they should have many interesting things to talk about, and genuinely enjoy each other’s company, being interested in each other’s total personality. This is an aspect of love that must last for the duration of the marriage, until death. Sadly, it is often the first part of love that dies; and it dies simply because it has not been nurtured by both spouses. Thirdly, love consists of spiritual attraction. When two young people can talk about God and agree. They must be able to talk about the goals of life and agree; no wall should exist between them when they talk about the purpose of life. In other words, they have common goals. If they do not have common goals, if they believe differently about God, how can they seriously travel the path of life together? So, the most important ingredient of true love is this spiritual oneness.

What most often happens, however, is this: the spiritual attraction of love is completely overlooked or ignored by two people contemplating marriage. They experience a physical and mental attraction and they get married. They have never really dealt with the spiritual aspect, so that does not exist in their marriage, and soon, because of a lack of hard work and nurturing, the mental attraction that had originally existed begins to fade and finally dies. Then they are left with the physical attraction. And if there is nothing more substantial to base a marriage on than a physical attraction, then the first time a third person comes along to whom one of the partners is more strongly attracted, the marriage dissolves, and we have the tragedy of adultery being committed by one of both spouses and, ultimately, divorce.

Our society completely ignores the spiritual side of love, and is hostile even to the importance of a mental compatibility between a man and a woman; but the physical, the sexual – that’s another matter: that is one aspect of love that our society exalts above all others. You have only to walk into a bookstore and count the number of sex manuals to get the point.

Orthodoxy, on the other hand, seeks to keep all three ingredients in a state of harmony, but the spiritual aspect governing the other two. If we remember that the primary purpose of a marriage is the same as that of the Church: the attainment of eternal salvation, then we can see why the spiritual part of a marriage must not only govern the physical and mental, but must be nurtured and encouraged to grow.

Sex, Children, Birth Control, Divorce

Now we come to a delicate issue: sex. It must be stated at the outset that the commandments and prohibitions concerning illicit sex in the Old Testament do not mean that there is something sinful about sex in itself. These commandments are like a fence that God has built around sex in order to protect it, because it is something sacred, something reserved by God for a special relationship – the marriage relationship – within which He gives the gift of life to our race. And there is something else: we know from revelation that our first parents in the Garden of Eden did not have sex. The sexual relationship between a man and a woman came into existence when Adam and Eve fell; for when they fell, their bodies took on the curse of suffering, sickness and, ultimately death, and it became necessary to reproduce their kind so that the race would continue until the time that God would send the Messiah. Sex, then, is a function of our fallen human nature, just as hunger is a function of fallen human nature. Neither the appetite for sex nor the appetite for food are in themselves sinful, but both can be abused and even perverted, and so God gave laws for us to use in governing these appetites (and others), so that they would not get out of order and cause harm. The sexual function of our nature, then, is something that dies when our bodies die – and that is why the New Testament says that there will be no marriage or giving in marriage in the Kingdom of Heaven. Our sexual nature is not eternal, and ceases when we die. In the same way, in Eden Adam and Eve did not hunger for food, nor were they sexually attracted to one another.

This is important to remember, because we have all grown up in a society which exalts sex and the sexual side of our nature to a very high degree, making sexual fulfillment the sign of the “good life,” and despising celibacy or a controlled sexual appetite as being somehow Victorian, puritanical, or even mentally and emotionally unbalanced and unhealthy. Furthermore, we know that at the time woman was created, God said: It is not good that the man should be alone, let us make for him a help suitable to him (Gen. 2:18, LXX). This “suitable helper,” woman, is of course much more than a helper; she is also bone of man’s bone, and flesh of his flesh, and when a husband and wife come together in sexual intercourse, there is the coming together – the fulfillment and consummation- of two halves of a human person, two, which become one; as Scripture says, “and they shall be one flesh. This is the mystical side of our sexual nature. And this is why adultery is such a serious sin.

Just as we cannot give free rein to our appetite for food without doing severe damage to ourselves, undermining our health, and eventually even killing ourselves, so the sexual appetite must also be subject to control. Thus, even in the Old Testament we learn that married couples underwent times of abstinence from each other – usually during fast times, or before going to the Temple in Jerusalem. And this practice was affirmed in the New Testament. Saint Paul speaks of it in his first epistle to the Corinthians (7:5), when he recommends that man and wife abstain from each other at certain times of prayer and preparation. Consequently, to this day in the Orthodox Church, fast days and fast periods – such as Great Lent – are times not only of abstinence from certain foods, but of abstinence from each other as man and wife. Unfortunately, this ancient practice of our Faith is being neglected by more and more people today, who seem to think that the rules having to do with sexual activity are simply quaint old-world customs that have nothing to do with spiritual laws. Furthermore, it is the consistent teaching of the Church from the time of the Apostles, that a man and a wife abstain from one another on the evening before receiving Holy Communion and the evening after. Why? So that each individual can give himself over to prayer and preparation on the night before, and prayer and thanksgiving on the evening after Communion. This is a standard that we should be striving to attain; those of you who are not yet married should be aware of this now, and understand why the Church has these rules – not in order to be stuffy and puritanical, but in order to show us how to control and properly use our appetites and maintain harmony between the body and the soul in the marriage relationship.

We see, therefore, that just as the Church prescribes rules of fasting to keep in check our appetite for food, it similarly imposes restraints upon our sexual appetites, so that we do not ruin the delicate balance between soul and body.

This brings me to the most difficult and controversial question of all – what everyone wants to know about and no one wants to ask about: birth control.

Frankly, it is difficult to know where to start because the subject has many ramifications. Perhaps I might begin by mentioning how other churches tend to view this question. In the Roman Catholic Church, for example, artificial birth control is forbidden under any circumstances. The reason is because the Roman Catholic Church officially teaches that the primary purpose and function of marriage is to have children; thus, procreation is the primary reason for sexual intercourse. This teaching is rooted in the augustinian tradition, which treats sexuality, even within marriage, as basically sinful, and therefore procreation is held to be a necessary justification for the marriage act, as it serves to fulfill God’s command to be fruitful and multiply. In Old Testament times there was a legitimate concern to perpetuate the human race. Today, however, that argument is unpersuasive, and many Roman Catholics feel justified in disregarding it.

Protestants, on the other hand, had never developed a clear teaching on marriage and sex. Nowhere was birth control explicitly mentioned in the Bible, so when the Pill became available in the early ’60s, they welcomed it and other reproductive technologies as milestones in the march of human progress. Very soon these came a proliferation of sex manuals, all developed on the notion that God had given man sexuality for pleasure. The primary purpose of the marriage act became not procreation but recreation, an attitude which simply fortified the Protestant teaching that God wants man to be personally fulfilled and happy, and therefore sexually gratified.

Even abortion was accepted. It was only in the mid ’70s, when the Roe v. Wade debate heated up, and it became increasingly evident that abortion was murder that evangelical Protestants began to rethink their position. In the late ’70s they came aboard the pro-life cause, where they remain in the forefront today. It was the issue of abortion that made them realize that human life must be protected from the moment of conception, and that contraception by means of abortifacients was impermissible. Meanwhile, liberal Protestant mainline churches remain committed to the pro-abortion position, and have no restrictions on birth control.

It is important for us to be aware of the teachings of these other churches on the subject of sexuality, for they can unconsciously affect our own views. We must be aware, furthermore, of the pervasive influence on our society of the sexual revolution unleashed by the availability of the Pill. The promiscuous attitude that it fostered still prevails today. Because of our culture’s obsession with sex and sexual gratification, it is essential that we have a clear understanding of our Church’s teaching concerning sexuality. This teaching is found in Scripture, in the canons of various Ecumenical and Local Councils, in the writings and commentaries of various Holy Fathers of the Church, who far from avoiding or tiptoeing around this issue, write about it very frankly and at length; and, finally, this teaching is mirrored in the lives of many of the saints (the parents of Saint Sergius of Radonezh come to mind).

The specific subject of birth control is less readily accessible; one cannot simply look it up in a concordance or index. It can, however, be extrapolated from the very clear teachings of the Church on abortion, on marriage, and on asceticism. Before plunging into a discussion on the subject, we should point out that the Orthodox Church is not as dogmatic here as the Roman Catholic Church, and it is very much a pastoral issue where there may be multiple considerations. Nevertheless, liberty should not be used for license, and we would all do well to keep before us the age-old standard given us by the Church.

Having said all this, what exactly is the Church’s teaching concerning birth control?

The practice of artificial birth control – by which is meant “the pill,” condoms, or any other kind of device – is actually condemned by the Orthodox Church. The Church of Greece, for example, in 1937 issued a special encyclical just for this purpose, to condemn birth control.

Likewise, the Romanian and Russian Churches, to name just two others among many – have more than once, in former times, spoken out against this practice. It is only in recent times, only in the generation since World War II, that some local Churches (the Greek Archdiocese in this country, for example) have begun to teach that it “might” be all right to practice birth control in certain circumstances, as long as this is discussed with the priest beforehand and has his agreement.

This teaching of our Church, however, should not be construed as being the same kind of teaching as is found in the Roman Catholic Church. The consistent teaching of the Church of Rome has been and is that having children is the primary function of marriage. This is not the teaching of the Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy, by contrast, gives the first place to the spiritual purpose of marriage – which is the mutual salvation of the husband and wife. Each is to help and encourage the other in save his or her soul. Each exists for the other, as a companion, a helper, a friend.

But secondarily, children are the natural result of a marriage, and, until relatively recent times, they were the expected and much-desired result of a marriage. Children were sought as a fruit of the marriage union, a proof that a man and a woman had become one flesh, and this was always seen as a very great blessing on a marriage. It was considered a great tragedy, a great sorrow, if the marriage was childless; so much so that, although the Church always permitted a childless couple to continue to live together as man and wife, if a wife was barren or a husband was impotent, it was accepted by the Church as grounds for divorce, so that either would be free to enter into a marriage relationship with another, in the hope of having children.

Nowadays, of course, our society considers children more of a nuisance than a blessing, and many couples wait one, two, three, or even more years before they have a child. Indeed, some decide never to have children. And so, although in the Orthodox Church the first purpose of marriage is not merely to have children, the desire of most young marrieds today to wait before having children is considered sinful. As a priest, I must say to any couple that approaches me for marriage that, if they are not prepared and willing to conceive and bear a child, without interfering with the will of God by means of artificial birth control, then they are not ready to be married. If they are not prepared to accept the natural and blessed fruit of their union – that is, a child – then it is clear that their primary purpose in marrying is to have legalized fornication. This is a very serious problem today, possibly the most serious and the most difficult a priest has to deal with when counselling a young couple.

I’ve used the term “artificial” birth control because I want to point out that the Church does permit the use of certain natural methods for avoiding conception, but these methods may not be used without the knowledge and blessing of the priest, and only if the physical and moral well-being of the family demands it. These methods are acceptable to the Church under the right circumstances and can be used by a couple without burdening their consciences, because they are “ascetical” methods; that is, they have to do with self-denial, self-control. Those methods are three:

1. Total abstinence. In very pious families this is not at all as uncommon, either today or yesterday, as one might think. It often happens that after an Orthodox husband and wife have brought a number of children into this world, they agree to abstain from one another, both for spiritual and worldly reasons, living the rest of their lives in peace and harmony as brother and sister. This has happened in the lives of saints – most notably in the life of Saint John of Kronstadt. As a Church which very much cherishes and protects monastic life, we Orthodox have no fear of celibacy, and no silly ideas about how we will not be fulfilled or happy if we cease to have sexual activity with our spouse.

2. A limitation on sexual relations. This of course already happens with the Orthodox couple that sincerely tries to observe fully all of the fast days and fasting periods of the year.

3. Finally, the Church allows the use of the so-called “rhythm” or the more recently developed Natural Family Planning method, about which ample information is available today.

In former times, when poor parents knew nothing about contraceptions, they relied exclusively on God’s will – and this should in fact be an example for us today. Children were born and they accepted the last one just as they had the first, saying, “God gave the child; He will also give what we need for the child.” Such was their faith, and it often happened that the last child proved to be the greatest blessing of all.

Now, what about the size of a family? Well, one thing that has a tremendous affect on how we view this is the fact that over the last one hundred years we have changed from a mostly agrarian or agricultural society, to a mostly urban and industrial society. This means that whereas in previous times large families were actually needed in order to run the farm or ranch – and there was always enough food and work to go around – today we have the opposite problem, and it is sometimes very difficult to support a very large family, although there are people who manage to do it. From a strictly spiritual point of view, one should try to have a large family so that the family will be strong and durable and full of love, with all of its members bearing the burdens of life together. A large family accustoms children to being concerned about others, makes them more sensitive, etc. And while a small family might be able to provide more of this world’s goods for each child, a small family does not at all guarantee a good upbringing. Single children are sometimes the most difficult of all, for they often grow up spoiled and self-centered. No general rule can be given about this here, but we should be prepared and expect to have as many children as God will send and the moral and physical health of the mother and the family as a whole will allow, always staying in close touch with one’s priest on these matters.

We must be careful, however, not to over-emphasize this whole business of having children, having a certain number, etc. Saint John Chrysostom says, “Giving birth to children is a matter of nature. Far more important is the parents’ task of educating their children’s hearts in virtue and piety.” Indeed, this puts the emphasis back where it belongs, rather than on negative things about birth control and family size. For what the Church wants us to understand and remember is that the children we bring into the world do not belong to us; they belong to God. We did not give them life; rather, God, using us as His instruments, called them into existence. In a certain way, we parents are really only babysitters for God’s children. And so our greatest responsibility as parents is to bring up our children “in the Lord,” so that they come to know, love, and serve their Heavenly Father.

Eternal salvation is the whole goal of our earthly life. It is a goal that requires a constant striving, for it is not easy to be a Christian. The influence of our society make it extremely hard. The parish church and the home are the only bastions where God can be praised in spirit and in truth. Our lives, our marriages, and our homes will remain as inferior, poor wine, however, like the wine that was served first at the wedding feast at Cana, if we do not actively seek to be mature men and women, mature husbands and wives, and mature Orthodox Christians, willing to accept the responsibilities of the position in life to which we have been called. And it is only after we work – hard – at preparing ourselves, as individuals, and our families and home in order to receive Christ, that our lives, our marriages, and our homes will become like the good wine which Christ miraculously made from water at that joyous wedding. Amen.

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