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On the Undefiled Marital Bed

by George S. Gabriel, Ph. D


As he spoke, eyebrow after eyebrow was raised. A deep blush moved across the faces in his audience, betraying souls gripped by embarrassment at his words. He was exalting “the rich pleasure” of marital love that makes husband and wife one flesh: “Their intercourse accomplishes the joining of their bodies, and they are made one, just as when perfume is mixed with ointment.”
The speaker, was John (Chrysostom), Archbishop of Constantinople, speaking to his flock 1,600 years ago. He knew his audience well and continued:My words embarrass many of you, and the reason for your shame is your own licentiousness. Why else would you be ashamed at what is honourable, or blush at what is undefiled? I want to restore marriage to its due nobility and to silence those heretics who call it evil. Some of you call my words immodest because I speak of the nature of marriage, which is honourable. By calling my words immodest, you condemn God, the author of marriage.”23

Then as now, the influence of pagan philosophical ideas about matter and the body caused some Christians to feel that marital love is impure and defiling. In those days, several sects that were condemned by the Church advanced this evil view that St John Chrysostom speaks against so strongly. St Basil the Great calls these sects “heretics who abominate marriage and call polluted what God has created.”24

Ultimately, their influence was greatest in the West because, through Augustine’s (Manichean) teachings, they shaped the Latin Church’s refracted and punitive view of marriage up to the present day.25 It is a view that sees marriage and marital love as a vulgar instrument for a higher good, i.e., reproduction or procreation, and not as a healing mystery in its own right. In other words, marital love is not a good thing in itself; only when spouses approach the marital act with the conscious intention of procreation is it exempt from condemnation.

The consciences of Orthodox Christian spouses need not be laden with these alien burdens, but too often this is the case. What follows here is not a survey of marriage in general, or an exhaustive study of our topic of sexuality and marital relations. It is offered simply as a helping hand to lift away these “heavy burdens [that are] grievous to be borne” (Mt.23:4).

God created sexuality and the attraction of the sexes.

It must be said at the outset that God created all things and not just certain things. There is no other spirit or lesser creator who created sexuality. Such an idea is a pagan one that vilifies God and His Creation. The Scriptures say God created human sexuality. He created it as two complementary, mutually fulfilling sexes from the beginning, and then He called it “good,” indeed, “very good” (Gn.1:27,31). Christ reaffirms to us that it was God “Who from the beginning made them male and female” (Mt.19:5). God created the attraction of the sexes in order for man to find the completeness of his nature not in himself alone but in another person. This is the meaning of the passage, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Gn.2:18). “From the beginning, God in His providence has planned this union of man and woman, and has spoken of the two as one (Gn.2: 24). There is no relationship between human beings so close as that of husband and wife…The power of this love is truly stronger than any passion; other desires may be strong, but this one alone never fades. This love (eros) is deeply planted within our inmost being. It attracts the bodies of men and women to each other, because in the beginning woman came forth from man. Can you see how close this union is, and how God providentially created it from a single nature? He permitted Adam to marry Eve, who was more than sister or daughter; she was his own flesh…He made it impossible for men and women to be self-sufficient.”26

The desire of the sexes for each other, therefore, is deeply planted in us by the divine plan and is not evil: “Desire is not sin. But when it falls into immoderation and will not remain within the laws of marriage, and spills over to the wives of others, it then becomes adultery, not because of desire but insatiability.”27

“Thus, marriage was given to us for procreation also, but much more for the purpose of extinguishing our burning nature. And Paul is a witness to this, saying, `Because of fornications, let each have his own wife,’ and not for the purpose of procreation. And he commands that you come together again, not for you to become fathers of many children. But to come together again for what purpose? `So that Satan may not tempt you,’ he says. He continues, but he does not say, `come together if you wish children.’ But what does he say? `If they cannot abstain, let them marry,’ for in the beginning, as it was said, marriage had two purposes. But later, with the earth and the sea and the entire world filled, one reason alone remains: to cast out debauchery and lasciviousness.”28

“What, therefore, is the purpose of marriage and why did God give it? Listen to Paul who says, `Because of fornication, each should have his own wife.’ Thus we may avoid fornication, subdue desire, live together in moderation, and please God by being satisfied with our own wife. Therefore, for one reason only do we need to take a wife: so that we may avoid sin and be freed from every fornication. For this purpose, marriage is given so that all things in it may work in behalf of temperance.”29

In some patristic writings, we should point out, it is possible to find a passing reference to procreation as the purpose of marriage, but it is never intended as a canon or formula. Because if we look further in the same Fathers, we will find that in other places they also say that marriage is for temperance and chastity against fornication. Chrysostom alone put it all together and wrote in such a comprehensive and thematic manner on the subject. It is crucial, therefore, that we understand the spirit of the Fathers in the context of their complete thought and work.

“Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled.”

If the union of husband and wife is not something good in itself, then marriage is a “sacrament” only in the legalistic sense, and there is no holy mystery that is “crowned with glory and honour.” But another of the great Fathers of the Church said, “Are you not yet married in the flesh? Do not fear this consecration; you are pure even after marriage.”30” If the marital act is defiling and must be redeemed by procreation, then marriage is not honourable, and St Paul would not have said, “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled, but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.” (Hb.13: 4) Chrysostom suggests that fornicators would not be guilty if marriage did not exist and if sex were meant only for procreation. But the marital bed is honourable precisely because its purpose is beyond procreation. “Having first set down that `marriage is honourable and the bed undefiled,’ Paul rightly added what followed. For if marriage has been given, justly is the fornicator punished, justly does the adulterer suffer vengeance.”31” In the Bible’s passages on marriage, including Paul’s several discourses, procreation is never mentioned.32 To say that procreation is the reason for marriage’s existence is like saying that baptism exists to increase the Church’s membership. The discussion here is not against procreation, but against the perverse notion that the marital act needs to be legitimized by the intention to procreate.

In both the Old (Gn.2:24) and New Testaments (Mt.19: 5) the Lord said, “And the two shall be one flesh.” In both places, the context is completely free of commands to procreate, or of any negative connotations. To “be one flesh” refers to the unity of male and female in their mutual fulfillment as “helpmates.” The Augustinian mentality, however, brings only a narrow focus and negative meaning of sinful sex to the word “flesh” here. The restorative power of complete marital love, the wholeness of the mystery, and its healing grace are beyond the vision of the Latin mind set. This mind set is ignorant of the breadth of marital love’s potential for the denial of self and unselfish love, the love that “seeketh not its own” (1 Cor.14:5) and walks the way of the Cross. Knowing this potential, the Church especially invokes the example, assistance, and intercession of the holy Martyrs at the Nuptial Crowning.

Self denial and sanctifying unselfish love, however, only exist in freedom. It is in freedom that we approach and take up the Cross. These are things that we are unable to do merely as a discipline. If husband and wife attain to unselfish love and the denial of self between themselves, even in childless marriages, it is a bloodless martyrdom and it fulfils the mystery of the Crowning. In the Scriptures, marriage is neither defined by procreation, nor compelled to procreate.

Procreation is the sacred co-creatorship of God and man, but it is dishonoured when the Augustinian minded also interpret it as the chance penalty for marital love. In humans, procreation is not by imposition, not by blind chance, not by “natural law,” but by their free disposition, decision and prayers. This is the way reasoning creatures embrace the mystery of procreation and parenting, if that is the expression their love leads to. Love has many ways of bearing fruit. Coercion, inquisitiveness and judgements about a couple’s marital bed and intentions about childbearing violate the honour and intimacy of the marital bed, where there is only room for two.33

In contrast to Roman Catholicism, the Orthodox Faith does not believe that human seed of either sex alone constitutes human life in any way. If such a notion were true, then either of the sexes, or at least the woman, would be able to reproduce completely without need of anything from the other. But God “did not enable woman to bear children without man; if this were the case, she would be self- sufficient.”34” Orthodoxy rejects the Latin belief system that ascribes being to “pure possibilities,” i.e., to abstract ideas of the potentialities of things. Scholastic theology says it is a sin to prevent a sperm cell and an ovum from forming a life and that the pure potentialities or possibilities of things exist fulfilled in some manner in the eternal mind and essence of God because He enjoys thinking about them.35 Therefore, Papism says, to prevent a conception is to destroy something that has a reality and being in God. This system of thought is not rooted in the Gospel but in the definitions and presuppositions of the Greek philosophers.

As Adam’s descendants, we are fallen from the unity of complementary sexes, of “helpmates,” into the discord of opposite, that is, opposing sexes.36 The non-Orthodox view ignores this and, therefore, is blind to marriage’s restoration of the unity of male and female. It is blind to its capacity to heal the human personality torn asunder by our fallen nature’s predatory quest for biological survival and for immortality through posterity, polygamy, promiscuity and fornication. It is blind to the chastity and temperance that monogamy fosters: “For through lawful intercourse, marriage uproots desires’s raging impulse and does not permit men to be lead in a frenzy to unlawful acts.”37” It is blind because it lacks a true vision of the Resurrection of Christ and, in its darkness, it hides a failure in faith. Christ’s bodily Resurrection grants immortality to us because He destroyed the power of death and the devil, liberating men and women from a sexuality of death. That is, from the sexuality of domination, of power, of reproductive competition; from the sexuality of the herd and the survival of the species, or the tribe; from the sexuality of previously unredeemed humanity.

In Sexual relations there is equality of husband and wife.

Husband and wife become one flesh and restore to its fullness the single nature of their humanity. One sex, therefore, is not more or less human than the other, or more or less self-sufficient than the other. For this reason, while the Apostle and St John Chrysostom, in other matters assign greater authority to husbands, in this regard, they emphasize the equality of spouses. Conjugal fidelity is equally incumbent on both: “Husband and wife are equally responsible for the honour of their marriage bed.”38

“Let each man have his own wife and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband fulfil his [conjugal] obligation to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 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. Do not deprive one another, except by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to fasting and prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you in your weakness. Yet I wish that all men were even as I myself am. However, each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I. But if they are not able to keep abstinence, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn [with passion].” (1Cor.7:2-9)

“Why does Paul introduce so much equality? In other matters there needs to be a superior authority, but here where chastity and holiness are at stake, the husband has no greater privilege than the wife.”39

“Notice Paul’s choice of words. There is no mention of greater or lesser authority. Why does he speak here in terms of equality? Because his subject is conjugal fidelity. `The husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another except by agreement.’ A wife should not abstain without the husband’s consent, and vice versa, because great evils, adulteries, fornications, broken homes often result from this kind of abstinence. If one abstains without the other’s consent, it is an act of fraud and theft. When they refuse their husbands they commit a sin which outweighs the righteousness of their abstinence. They are responsible for the result. Instead of behaving this way, they should value harmony above everything. Imagine a household in which the wife abstains from marital relations without her husband’s consent. Suppose he commits fornication, or he remains continent but frets and complains, loses his temper, and constantly fights with his wife. Either way, what good is all the fasting and continence? No good at all. It has broken love to pieces. How much abuse, trouble and fighting have come from it! When husband and wife are at odds with one another, their household is in no better shape than a storm-tossed ship in which the captain and the pilot disagree. That is why when Paul says, `Do not deprive one another, except by agreement for a season,40 that you may devote yourselves to fasting and prayer,’ he is referring to unusually intense prayer. Otherwise, if he forbids those who have marital relations to pray, his words about unceasing prayer would have no meaning. It is certainly possible to be married and to pray at the same time, but prayer can be intensified by abstinence. Notice that he does not merely say that `…you may pray,’ but that `you may devote yourselves to prayer.’ He does not mean that sexual relations would make the prayer unclean. He simply means that they occupy one’s attention.”41

The Resurrection is hymned in the metaphor of marital love.

The Scriptures do not hesitate to use the rich images of betrothal and even intimate marital love as a metaphor for the eros or total and mutual love of Christ and His bride, the Church. “I betrothed you to one husband that I might present you as a pure virgin to Christ.” (2Cor.11:2) “Husbands love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for her…So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies… For no man yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth it and cherisheth it, even as the Lord does the Church, for we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones.” (Eph.5: 25, 28-32)42

“Paul has combined two illustrations, the natural body and Christ’s body…God surely reveals in Genesis that for two to become one flesh is a great and wonderful mystery, for [the Son] left the Father and came down to us and married His bride the Church…Paul says well, `This is a great mystery,’ as if he were saying, `Nevertheless, the allegorical meaning does not invalidate married love.’ See how Paul does not despise physical unity, but uses spiritual unity to illustrate it. How foolish are those who belittle marriage. If marriage were something to be condemned, Paul would never call Christ a bridegroom and the Church a bride, and then say this is an illustration of a man leaving his father and mother, and again refer to Christ.”43

Christ as the Bridegroom Who goes to the Cross for His Bride the Church is a major theme of Great (Holy) Week. The Bridegroom theme continues into the Paschal week, in which the risen Saviour, emerging from the sepulchre shining and immortal in the flesh, is likened to a “glowing bridegroom emerging from the bridal chamber.” In the bridal allegory, He dies for her and comes to her in death where she is held in eternal bondage. There in the grave, He destroys death, frees her and takes her to Himself, uniting her to His triumphant Body so she may share His eternal life and love.44 The pinnacle of Christ’s saving works is the destruction of death by His Resurrection, and the most reverential and uplifting liturgical period in the Church year exalts it through the metaphor of marital love!

See how the Holy Spirit speaks through the Fathers and the Scriptures and shames our unclean attitudes regarding marital love. Men may have a dirty view of marital love, but God clearly does not. “Paul legislates concerning marriage without being ashamed or blushing, and with good reason. His Master honoured a marriage and, far from being ashamed of it, adorned the occasion with His presence and His gift. Indeed, He brought a greater wedding gift than any other, when He changed the water into wine. How then could His servant blush to legislate concerning marriage?”45” By attending the wedding at Cana with His Ever-virgin Mother and rejoicing, He showed that marriage is not merely marginally moral, or a legal form of fornication. And to leave no doubt in our minds, He changed water into wine as a promise of His Holy Eucharist. And in the Holy Eucharist, marriage and all the mysteries are completed and become efficacious in the healing of the whole man.

The nuptial couple is united by the descent of the Holy Spirit, symbolized by the marriage crowns. The priest prays, “Crown them into one flesh.” “Crown them with glory and honour,” cries the Church. It is an image of Pentecost; the same uncreated glory or grace of God descends upon the couple’s heads. The mystery of their union is sealed, sustained, and advanced by their continued participation in the Holy Eucharist. Blessed by the Crowning and imbued with the Eucharist’s regenerative power, the union is capable of restoring to men and women their humanity made whole by the martyrdom of self denial and unselfish love.

Among many blessings asked by the Marriage Service are also the fruit of the womb and the joy of good children. It does not say “many children” but “good children.” These may even be one or two. Indeed several examples of holy couples are cited in the prayers; each couple had but one or two children. (The exception was Jacob who, with two wives and two maids, had to sire the patriarchs of the twelve tribes.) These couples increased and multiplied their virtues. Abraham and Sarah, Elizabeth and Zachariah, Joachim and Anna, Isaac and Rebekka, for example, far from “filling the earth,” did not quite replace their own numbers on the earth. For all couples, the Service only asks “for the fruit of the womb as is expedient for them.”46

The same Marriage Service is performed for all couples. It would be superficial, therefore, to understand its invocation for the fruit of the womb as a divine commandment. Not every couple that the Church marries can or ought to have children. Some are barren, some are ill, some are over age, some are indigent, some are encumbered in other ways, but all47 are covered by the same loving providence of God: “It is not good for man to be alone. Let us make a helpmate suitable to him. And Adam said, This now is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh…Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall cleave to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh. (Gn.2: 18, 23-24) Let each man have his own wife and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband fulfil his [conjugal] obligation to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband…If they are not able to keep abstinence, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn [with passion].” (1Cor.7:2-3,9)

“Marriage does not always lead to childbearing. We have as a testimony to this the many marriages that do not have children. So the purpose of temperance takes precedence, especially now that the whole world has been filled with the human race.”48” Invocations of childbearing are made in the spirit of what is “expedient” and appropriate for the unique case of each couple. Otherwise, we would all be automatons and God the oppressor and violator of man’s free will and sovereignty.49

“Increase and multiply, and fill the earth…”

The commandments of God are given for all men. If “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gn.1:28) refers exclusively to sexual reproduction, then consider how grave the sin is of those who pass their whole lives stubbornly refusing to keep this commandment. Among them are not only childless couples, but also monks, nuns, bishops and all the unmarried who keep virginity.

But the Fathers say that reasoning creatures are endowed with other ways of increasing, and this commandment is not fulfilled by procreation alone: “And God blessed them, saying, `Increase and multiply, and fill the earth.’ Increase, therefore, in the growth which is perfection in God, the perfection of the inner man; multiply in the blessing of the Church. Let not the knowledge regarding God be confined to only one person. Rather, let the Gospel of salvation be declared to the whole earth. Who should `multiply?’ Those who are born in the Gospel. `Fill the earth?’ Fill the flesh given to you with good works… For the same words were also said to the unreasoning creatures (Gn.1:22). And the words are fulfilled when we conduct ourselves according to that image with which we were honoured. The unreasoning creatures are to increase in bodily numbers, while we are to increase spiritually. While they fill the earth with their numbers, we fill it with good works. `Fill the earth’ not by occupying it and thus puzzling if the earth is sufficient for our numbers, but fill it with the dominion that we discharge with our reasoning.”50” “The command `Be fruitful and multiply’ certainly does not refer exclusively to multiplication through the marital union…It is necessary that we understand the lawful commandment more spiritually. For there is a spiritual seed and a conception which takes place in the spiritual womb through the fear and love for God, and it labours and delivers a spirit of salvation.”51

“At the beginning, the procreation of children was desirable, so that each person might leave a memorial of his life. Since there was not yet any hope of resurrection, but death held sway, and those who died thought they would perish after this life, God gave the comfort of children, so as to leave living images of the departed and to preserve our species. For those who were about to die and for their relatives, the greatest consolation was their offspring. This was the chief reason for desiring children. Now that the resurrection is at our gates, we do not speak of death but advance toward another life better than the present, the desire for posterity is superfluous…So there remains only one reason for marriage, to avoid fornication, and the remedy is offered for this purpose.”52

The law of chastity is given for all.

Celibate and monastic life is called the angelic life because it imitates the bodiless nature of the angels. Nevertheless, God gave to all men the single path to salvation called chastity, a path travelled by the married and the unmarried, by virgins and monastics. Virginity and chastity in marriage does not mean marriage without marital relations, although such marriages exist. And it is not the virginity of periodic abstinence from marital sex, although this too exists. It is the virginity of fidelity in marriage, fidelity in the heart and mind, as well as in the body. It is chastity and purity of two who have become one and are chaste as one.

When a single person or even someone pledged to celibacy commits fornication, the harm is not the same as when it is a married person. Then the act is adultery and the harm far greater: to himself, because any hope for finding human completeness and fulfillment in the unity of husband and wife is now shattered; and to his household, because such a wrenching equally tears asunder the integrity of the wife’s existence and threatens to bring down the whole household, like a cornerstone torn away from the foundation of a house. But the Lord says even to look upon another with a lustful eye is to commit adultery already in the heart (Mt.5:28). Anyone can commit adultery or fornication spiritually, even if not bodily, with similar but silent results of the sin inwardly. “Fornication is possible without intercourse with another body.”53” The true virginity and chastity is that which is kept first in the heart and mind.54

This is the law of chastity that God requires of us all, monk and nun, married and single, young and old, male and female. When husband and wife keep this, they fulfil all the meaning of the Crowning they received “unto one flesh… temperance…love for each other…the marital bed preserved blameless…oneness of their souls and bodies.” Do they persevere in the blessings invoked by the Marriage Service, the honour of the marital bed, their oneness in soul and body? Their “one flesh” knows no fornication or adultery? Then this is the chastity and virginity of marriage. Chaste are the husband and wife whose desire is confined to one another. Then they have kept the law of God, and, according to a marriage prayer, He “shall receive their crowns in His kingdom.

Understandably, theological issues can seem theoretical and academic to most people and, therefore, irrelevant to the “practical” Christian life. But the fact is that theological issues do exert an enormous force on the lives of Christians. See, for example, the devastating effects of Latin theology on marital relations and the entire relationship in marriage.55 The true theology of marriage is uplifting and liberating for the spirit and the wholeness of man, while the false teaching is oppressive and dehumanizing.

The Church understood this. And in her deep experiential knowledge of Christ, she rejected efforts, even from within, to deny marriage to the clergy. She knew that those efforts proceeded from an extreme zeal for asceticism, a zeal without understanding, and from the influences of pagan philosophy and cults. She was forced to defrock, anathematize, and excommunicate, but she protected the mystery of Christian marriage: 
“If any Bishop, or Presbyter, or Deacon, or anyone in the clerical rank abstains from marriage, or meat, or wine out of abhorrence thereof, forgetting that all things are exceedingly good and that God made man male and female, and blasphemously misrepresenting God’s work of creation, let him either mend his ways or be deposed from office and expelled from the Church. Let a layman be treated similarly.”56

“No Bishop, Presbyter, or Deacon shall put away his wife under the pretext of reverence. If, however, he put her away, and if he persist in so doing, let him be deposed from office. Interpretation: Let him be deposed altogether from the priest- hood because it is clear that he disdains marriage, which is honourable according to the Apostle, and that he regards the marital bed and intercourse to be unclean, which the same Apostle called blameless.”57

These and other canons on marriage are free of any notion that the marital bed is tolerated by the Church because of procreation. In the 7th century, the Church acted against the rising tide of Augustinian theology of marriage in the West. Rome had begun to disdain married clergy and require celibacy. The Church had acted to protect the mystery of marriage and decreed that the married clergy should certainly not give up marital relations, and she even emphasized that their marriages ought to be made stronger by this means. In the following canon the only stipulation made is “in due season,” implying only the standard abstinence times and preparation for serving and/or communing at the Divine Liturgy,58 which are the same for the laity and the clergy: “Since we have learned that in the Church of the Romans it is regarded as tantamount to a canon that candidates for ordination to the diaconate or presbytery must solemnly promise to have no further intercourse with their wives, we, however, continuing in conformity with the ancient canon of Apostolic rigorism and orderliness, desire henceforth that the lawful marriages of ordained men be made stronger. And we are in no way dissolving their intercourse with their wives, nor depriving them of their mutual relationship and companionship, when maintained in due season…If, therefore, anyone acting contrary to the Apostolic Canons require any person who is in sacred orders to abstain from intercourse and association with his lawful wife, let him be deposed from office…If any [cleric] expel his wife on the pretext of reverence, let him be excommunicated.”59

The idea that God created human sexual relations only or primarily for procreation denies the special creation of man that separates him from the animals. Furthermore, it makes God the author of evil and a cruel tempter worse than even the devil. It teaches a Calvinistic Orthodoxy and elitism, because, on the one hand, God removes the elect (i.e. celibates) to the cloister and desert, away from the world and the presence of tangible temptation. And on the other hand, He condemns the non-elect and yokes men and women to the grievous burden of living in the closest and most intimate proximity, of being tempted and drawn to one another, but permitting them to come together only for procreation, because the marital act is evil. Because this perverse premise tramples on the words of God and the Apostle, it was condemned by the Apostolic Canons, the First and the Sixth Ecumenical Councils, and other local Councils.60

We find yet another kind of marriage in the lives of some (but not all) married saints, who pledged celibacy and adopted a “brother-sister” relationship. This is not some hidden, deeper meaning of the mystery of marriage. It offers an alternative ideal, but it is not a rule or norm.61 To conclude that married people can only be saved and sanctified by becoming celibate spouses would be a delusion. In the monastic life, a small percentage of monastics withdrew each to his or her own solitary life in the desert. Some of them were sanctified. But it would be equally false to conclude that, to be saved and sanctified, monks must abandon the brotherhood of their monasteries and become solitary hermits in the desert. (We cannot assume that all who ever went into the desert, or into avowed celibate marriages, were saved.)

Few husbands and wives are chosen to be “brothers and sisters,” just as few virgins, celibates, and monastics are chosen to be hermits. But every human being, married or single, monk or nun, is called to the denial of self and of the self will. And every man is commanded to “love his neighbour as himself” (Mk.12:33). The nature of the “love that seeketh not its own” is the same in the cloister, in the community, and in marriage and the family.

St John Chrysostom tells husbands and wives not to speak any longer of “mine” and “yours,” but to consider their bodies as well as all their possessions common property. And he adds, “Pray together at home and go to Church, and when you come back home ask each other about the meaning of the readings and the prayers. If you are overtaken by poverty, remember Peter and Paul, who were more honoured than kings or rich men, though they spent their lives in hunger and thirst. Remind one another that nothing in life is to be feared, except offending God. If your marriage is like this, your perfection will rival the holiest of monks.”62

Our Saviour said regarding celibacy, “Not all men can bear this word but only those to whom it has been given.” (Mt.19: 11) Not everyone can be celibate. Celibacy must be given, but in the case of marriage, it must be given to two (and not merely to one and imposed on the other), because the Scriptures require the agreement and like mindedness of husband and wife. The Apostle says it would be ideal if everyone were celibate, “as I myself am,” but he tacitly admits that this is idealistic. And he says a remarkable thing that too often escapes our notice; either manner, marriage or celibacy, is providentially given to each of us: “Each man has his own gift from God, one in this manner [marriage], and another in that [celibacy].” (1Cor.7:4-7) In other words, either gift of God saves and sanctifies.

The “good portion”
 must not be hidden under a bushel.

In the Western world today marriage has been trivialized. Conjugal relations and cohabitation without marriage are broadly accepted by modern society. It is naive to suppose that Orthodox Christians and especially our children and young people are unaffected by the world around them. The mystery of marriage should be offered to them free of the legalism and perversion created by Augustinian, i.e., Latin, doctrines.63 For in these no mystery can exist. Heresy can never take the place or do the work of truth. The Papal idea of marriage is only a sterile and cold legal formula. It is powerless to inspire and transform, because it is empty and has no love. It knows neither God nor man. Its fundamental premise that the marital act is evil is the same one that St Basil called heretical, St John Chrysostom called evil, and the Councils condemned.

This evil view and the Orthodox mystery do not mix. Attempts to mix them introduce pollution into the pure faith and, at best, only create an ambivalent doctrine that fosters confusion, doubt, and misplaced guilt. What a striking about-face from the Crowning that once exalted the nuptial couple “with glory and honour” and joined them into one flesh blamelessly and without defilement! Such pollution can lead to prurient views of sex and to promiscuity in thoughts and acts.64 Where then has the mystery gone? Where then are temperance and chastity? Where then are the blessings of the Crowning, the honour of the marriage, and the blameless marital bed if love is replaced by guilt, and faith by doubt?

The “good portion,” the true mystery of marriage, therefore, must not be hidden under a bushel. This mystery embraces the divine creation of marital love, love that is blame- less and without guilt, love that is crowned with the descent of the Holy Spirit.65 While heretical doctrines say the marital chamber is defiling, Orthodoxy exalts it as an image of the holy sepulchre aglow with the loving union of the risen Bridegroom and His Bride. And the union of husband and wife completes the unity of their human nature and is an image of the unity of the Holy Trinity: “The two have become one. This is not an empty symbol. They have not become the image of anything on earth, but of God Himself.”66



23. 12th Homily on Colossians.

24. 2nd Canonical Epistle to Amphilochios. Such sects were the Marcionites, Encratitae, Apotactitae, Saccophori, Manichaeans, etc. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (5th cent.), the leading father of Roman Catholicism, who had been a Neo-Platonist and a Manichaean, held similar views, even after he became a Christian. He believed that sex is the instrument that transmits both inherited guilt of original sin and its punishment, death. The Western heresies of inherited guilt and of death as a punishment created by God are the inventions of Augustine. Chrysostom was the Patriarch of Constantinople near the end of his life as Augustine was just embarking on his ecclesiastical career.

25. For Augustine then, and for the Papacy today, sexual instinct is part of evil desire, and sexual pleasure is culpable. In Latin moral theology, the marital act, therefore, is acceptable only when accompanied by the meritorious intention of procreation; indeed, marriage itself exists for, and is defined by, procreation.

26. St John Chrysostom, 20th Homily on Ephesians.

27. St John Chrysostom, 13th Homily on Romans.

28. St John Chrysostom, On Virginity. The plain meaning of Chrysostom’s words is, 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. He spoke in a manner that was understood perfectly by his audience. In their world, contraception, that is, prevention of conception, and induced abortion were well known for many centuries. Both existed side by side, but the Church condemned abortion and not contraception. This was not an oversight. If the Church was inspired in the canons she adopted, she was also inspired in those she did not adopt. She condemned the taking of existing life (Certain contraceptives, however, e.g., the IUD and the “morning-after pills,” are indeed abortive methods that expel a fertilized ovum. Accurate medical information is best gotten from qualified physicians.) Some Orthodox confuse contraception, or conception control, with abortion and believe that the canon against abortion also applies to preventing fertilization. But a fertilization or life already formed is one thing, and mere theoretical possibility is quite another. Further confusion arises from careless reading of the story of Onan in Genesis (38:8-10). The Law required Onan to take as a wife the childless widow of his brother Er, and “to raise up offspring for his brother.” The Law said, “The firstborn whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out from Israel” (Deut.25:6). Onan did not want a child that would bear Er’s name and not his own: “And Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went into his brother’s wife,” he withdrew and “he wasted his seed on the ground in order not to give offspring to his brother. This was displeasing in the sight of the Lord; so He took his life.” Onan’s sin was not “birth control,” but his refusal to provide seed for his dead brother’s child.

29. St John Chrysostom, Encomium to Maximus.

30. St Gregory the Theologian, Oration on Holy Baptism.

31. 23rd Homily on Hebrews.

32. Among all the authors of the Bible, none wrote on marriage as much as St Paul did. And among the Fathers, none interpreted St Paul as thoroughly as Chrysostom, or wrote as extensively on marriage as he did. The Church’s tradition reveres Chrysostom not only as the most authoritative commentator on the Epistles of St Paul, but as the very voice of the Apostle speaking through him by the grace of God, an honour that the West generally assigns to Augustine instead. (See the life of Chrysostom.)

33. In a 1960 article, Fr V. Palchkovsky, on the subject of contraception, wrote, “In the regular practice of the Russian Church, the priests, out of discretion, never ask questions on this subject…In the opinion of the confessors, the entire domain of the relations between husband and wife is too intimate to provoke investigations by the priest…The question is never asked, not wishing to penetrate the intimacy where the unity of two in one flesh is accomplished and where the presence of a third is superfluous, even when invested with the priesthood and if only by his questions.” Quoted by Paul Evdokimov in his excellent study, The Sacrament of Love, p.175 (SVS Press, 1985). There is also the example of St Seraphim of Sarov: “When he spoke with married people, the starets never got into details of the marital life. It was sufficient for him to ask of spouses that they have mutual faith and love.” Irene Goreinov, St Seraphim of Sarov.

34. St John Chrysostom, 20th Homily on Ephesians.

35. “Pure possibilities possess true, even though only ideal being, in a middle ground between nothing and actual existence…God also loves the purely possible and delights in the infinite numbers of possible things which He comprehensively understands.” Msgr. J. Pohle, God: His Knowability, Essence, and Attributes, London, 1946. So-called natural theology is derived from the same philosophical presuppositions. The teaching that ideas, potentialities, archetypes, and pure possibilities are real in the divine essence leads to polytheism. This teaching is the basis of the Latin heresy that says God’s uncreated energies, i.e., His omniscience, prescience, providence, love, power and creativity, are identical to His uncreated essence. This heresy, too, has its origin in Augustine’s teachings. It fuelled the attacks by the Latins against the Hesychasts and St Gregory Palamas, the anti-Scholastic. Following the holy Fathers, the Pan-Orthodox Councils of Constantinople in 1341 and 1351, re-affirming the Orthodox teachings, condemned the following Latin teachings: the uncreated energies and the divine essence are the same thing; the grace which man participates in is a created energy.

36. St John Chrysostom says God honours the unity of husband and wife above all things: “God reunited them into one. Husband and wife…are two halves of one organism. God calls her a `helper’ to demonstrate their unity, and He honours the unity of husband and wife above that of child and parents.” (12th Homily on Colossians).

37. St John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Bk.4, 24.

38. St John Chrysostom, 19th Homily on 1st Corinthians.

39. St John Chrysostom, 1st Homily on Marriage.

40. A Lenten period, for example.

41. St John Chrysostom, 19th Homily on 1st Corinthians.

42. The Old Testament’s Song of Songs is the allegorical eros of the Bridegroom Christ for His Bride. A prayer before Holy Communion reveals this intimacy of the members of the Body of Christ with the Bridegroom: “Thou hast smitten me with yearning, O Christ, and by Thy divine eros hast Thou changed me.” Most English translations incorrectly render the original Greek word “eros” as “love.”

43. St John Chrysostom, 12th Homily on Colossians; 20th Homily on Ephesians.

44. See also stichira of Sunday Matins, Tones 1 and 2, and the lity of Great Vespers of the Myrrh-bearing Women.

45. St John Chrysostom, 1st Homily on Marriage.

46. A petition of the first litany of the Marriage Service.

47. Included here, among others, are not only spouses who discover after marrying that they are not able to have children, but also those who, before marriage, were known to be unable to have children because of infirmity, illness, age, or other reasons. The Church has never adopted a canon prohibiting the marriage of such couples, or requiring them to abstain from marital relations. Such a canon would violate God’s explicit words in the Scriptures. Nor does the Church require a cessation of marital relations between spouses who later become infertile due to menopause or other causes. Nursing mothers, for example, do not normally ovulate and are therefore “infertile” as long as they are lactating. Even if it were from within the Church, coercion against the marital bed in these instances would approach the kind of Pharissaism condemned by Christ because it adds laws to the Law and “binds heavy and grievous burdens on men’s shoulders” (Mt.23:4). Moreover, it would violate the commandment of the Lord: “They are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let no man put asunder.” (Mt.19:6)

48. St John Chrysostom, 1st Homily on Marriage.

49. One of the marriage prayers says, “Thy will is for the lawful conjugal union, and childbearing that comes from it.” That is, conjugal union without marriage is illicit and against God’s will and is not what He wills for the rearing of children. It does not mean that God demands children of everyone.

50. St Gregory of Nyssa, 1st & 2nd Homily on Genesis 1:28.

51. St John of Damascus, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Bk.4,24.

52. St John Chrysostom, 1st Homily on Marriage.

53. St John of the Ladder, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 15.

54. “Now the virgins should listen to what follows: virginity does not simply mean sexual abstinence. [One] who is anxious about worldly affairs is not really a virgin. In fact, Paul says that this is the chief difference between a wife and a virgin. He does not mention marriage or abstinence, but attachment as opposed to detachment from worldly affairs. Sex is not evil; but it is a hindrance to one who desires to devote all of [his or her] strength to a life of prayer.” St John Chrysostom, (19th Homily on 1st Corinthians)

55. See footnote 13 above for a vivid example of how so-called theoretical issues can effect “practical” Christian life. See also footnotes 2 & 3 and footnote 6 above.

56. 51st Apostolic Canon.

57. 5th Apostolic Canon with the Interpretation by monk John Zonaras, who, for 900 years, has been universally recognized by the Church as one of a handful of authoritative canonologists.

58. Some would argue that, for propriety’s sake, the Councils did not wish to discuss the subject, and they say that for this reason it is left to the private preserve of confession, for discussion only “under the priest’s stole (epitrachil- ion).” But it must be observed here that the Church has legislated in great detail where necessary about many matters in life, even matters less important than marriage and family. Yet she neither legislated against avoiding conception, nor required procreation in order to exculpate sexual intercourse. The Fathers were not too prudish to speak or to legislate in councils about explicit acts of incest, bestiality, abortion, adultery, homosexuality, etc. Chrysostom is eloquent about his “immodest words.” and in such canons where there are penalties of excommunication and defrockment, the Fathers were not vague, prudish, or “delicate.” In particular, the canons regulating the clergy in all matters are thorough and explicit. The Church Councils clearly respected the honour and intimacy of the marital bed, and did not legislate or permit a third party to regulate the relationship of two who became one.

59. 13th Canon, Sixth Ecumenical Council, from the Session in Trullo, A.D.692.

60. The heretical sects that were precursors of Augustine in the evil view of marriage were condemned by the Council of Gangra in 340. (See footnote 2 above.)

61. Catherine P. Roth, in her superb introduction to the book, St John Chrysostom on Marriage and Family Life (SVS Press, 1986), from which many of Chrysostom’s texts here were taken, rightly comments, “Theologians have said too much about the value of virginity and about the sinfulness of the flesh, and too little about the possibility of a transfigured human love. Some hagiography gives the impression that married saints are those who gave up marital relations to live as brother and sister. This is not the way for most of us. As Evdokimov says, `It is not in spite of marriage, but in its fulfillment that spouses live the supernatural and [the] holiness of their union.’” Avowed or pledged celibacy in these marriages is different from normal easing of passions over the years.

62. 20th Homily on Ephesians.

63. Given the Latin heresy of created grace, it is no surprise that the Roman Catholic sacraments and the Orthodox mysteries share only a vague similarity of a few words, but virtually no identity of theological content. An unbridgeable chasm lies between Orthodoxy’s theosis of man by participation in the uncreated and transfiguring glory of God, and the Latin priesthood dispensing at will created grace from the Papacy’s treasury for the fulfillment of legal formulas. The present Pope, John Paul II, periodically reemphasizes the traditional Latin doctrine of marriage. The atheism and moral decline of the Western world and Europe’s pantheistic and nihilistic philosophies of the last two centuries arose as a rejection of the untenable deity formulated by Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas.

64. Chrysostom alluded to this when he said, “My words embarrass many of you, and the reason for your shame is your own licentiousness.” (See p.1) He had already seen the effects of this poison in the souls of his flock.

65. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the service of the Crowning and of the Ordination of a priest have certain hymns and processions in common.

66. St John Chrysostom, 12th Homily on Colossians.