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Question 386

Hi, Father I have a question regarding marriage. St Paul teaches that it is better for one to marry than be consumed with lust and that neither spouse is master of their own body. Yet, there are Church fathers who say that married couples should only have sexual relations to have children. All forms of contraception appears to be forbidden and are tantamount to murder. What does the Church teach about sexual relations between married couples?


Answer to Question 386


 In the Old Testament we see that marriage had as its primary goal the reproduction of human beings and the continuation of the family line, it became necessary for man to reproduce so that the human race would continue until the time that God would send the Messiah. With the coming of Christ, children took a secondary position and the primary goal of marriage was lifted to a higher spiritual level: this being for the couple to help each other attain the highest state of human existence, the state of theosis (deification). But procreation was and still is regarded as an important part of marriage. 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 should be noted that the Church definitely teaches that marriage implies childbirth. The woman, says St. Paul, “will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty” (I Timothy 2:15). However, nowhere in Scripture is it said that childbirth is the only aim of marriage. Marriage is essentially an inseparable union, both spiritual and carnal, of two beings. St. Paul teaches: “Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again.” (I Corinthians 7:4-5) I think it is clear by St. Paul’s teaching that the carnal union of a married couple is not always intended to be only for the conception of a child. If this is so then there is a need for some sort of birth control.  


So where does the Orthodox Church stand on birth control. Some Orthodox Priests and writers take the negative view and count any use of contraceptive methods even within marriage as immoral. They believe that the primary and almost exclusive purpose of marriage is the birth of children and their upbringing. They tend to consider any other exercise of the sexual function as pleasure-seeking, passion, and bodily gratification, which are held to be inappropriate for the Christian growing in spiritual perfection. These writers hold that the only alternative is sexual abstinence in marriage, which, though difficult, is both desirable and possible through the aid of the grace of God. Fortunately, most Orthodox priests and writers do not agree with this and neither does the Church.


The Orthodox Church has never considered sexual relations in marriage as sinful for as St. Paul says: “Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled.” (Heb. 13:4) How can the Church bless the union of two people in the Wedding ceremony if she considered it a sin? But the Church does teach a limitation on sexual relations. For as St Paul said, there are times to come together but also times when the couple should abstain for certain periods to devote themselves to prayer. This approach readily adapts itself to an ethical position that would not only permit but also prescribe sexual relationships of husband and wife for their own sake as expressions of mutual love.  


Such a view clearly would support the use of contraceptive practices for the purpose of spacing and limiting children so as to permit greater freedom of the couple in the expression of their mutual love.


There are two categories of birth control, the Natural and the Artificial. The natural birth control methods are

1. Total abstinence: in other words - no sex at all. For most marriages this is not an option but there are many very pious couples who having brought a number of children into this world, have agreed 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.

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. The Rhythm method or the newer Natural family planning method which again involves a limitation on sexual relations and where the couple only come together during the days that are considered safe.  


All three natural birth control methods are acceptable to the Church under the right circumstances and can be used by a couple without burdening their consciences, because they are what we would call “ascetical” methods; that is, they have to do with self-denial, self-control.


A fourth natural birth control is Coitus interruptus or more commonly the Withdrawal method which is often not mentioned as a form of birth control by Orthodox writers. I think the reason is because is often reminds us of Onan in the Old Testament who spilled his seed on the ground rather than sire children by his dead brother’s wife, Tamar. (Gen.38:1-11) This has always been interpreted as a form of masturbation and the two words Onanism and masturbation are used synonymously. In reality, Onan used the withdrawal method with Tamar, refusing to father children by her since they would not be considered his, but rather his brother’s. This displeased the Lord: and slew him. Personally I think, no matter what method of natural or barrier birth control is used, it doesn’t differ from Onan’s coitus interruptus because they all have the same intention and that is not to father a child, the avoidance of conception. Onan’s sin was not that he spilled his seed, but that he deliberately refused to fulfil his obligation to Tamar and God’s will.  


Of the Artificial birth controls, The Pill and the morning after pill, the Condom, Diaphragm and the Coil, the church has never permitted their use. However, in recent years, a new view has taken hold among Orthodox writers and Spiritual fathers on this topic, which permits the use of certain contraceptive practices within marriage for the purpose of spacing children, enhancing the expression of marital love, and protecting health. They have allowed as an “economy” the use of the barrier contraceptives, that is the condom and the diaphragm because these do not involve fertilisation and conception. The Pill on the other hand and the coil involve the aborting of the ovum which may or may not have been fertilized. If fertilization has taken place, then this is considered as an abortion and therefore murder.