Marriage is a sacrament, children are a blessing, and the Christian home has always been a prime source of Church growth. By raising up godly children, souls are added to the Church, future priests and monastics are born, and the population of heaven is increased.
Holy Scripture tells us why God brings a husband and wife together, making them one flesh:
“But did He not make them one, Having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one?
He seeks godly offspring.” (Malachi 2:15)
St. Nikolai Velimirovic said it well:
“Did the New Testament bring any change concerning the bearing of children? The bearing of children in the pre-Christian marriage aimed ‘to replenish the earth,’ whereas the Christian marriage has for its aim to replenish Christ’s Church on earth and in heaven. And, finally, to replenish Paradise.”
(St. Nikolai Velimirovic, The Faith of the Saints, p. 68)
For this reason, Satan has always been intent on attacking marriages, and preventing the birth of godly children. Whether by abortion, or by contraception, the devil seeks to diminish the growth of the Church.
That helps us understand why the Saints have been unanimous in their prohibition of birth control. With no exceptions, Orthodox Saints have always forbidden the use of contraception.
However, in recent years, some people have questioned this position. While they acknowledge the Church’s prohibition of abortion, they have sought for a way to justify contraception methods which do not involve an abortion. The argument usually goes something like this:
“Until recent advances in medical science, people didn’t have many options in regard to birth control. The few contraceptives they had could cause abortions. The Early Church Fathers were not necessarily opposed to birth control, but they were opposed to abortion. They prohibited all contraception, only because they didn’t want to risk there being any abortions.”
In other words, they claim that the Early Church was not opposed to sex-while-avoiding-procreation. They just were not medically capable of accomplishing that goal, yet.
Indeed, such a position is false, and is not supported by the historical evidence. When we take a look at history, we find the following:
Numerous forms of birth control were available in the Early Church
In fact, they have been available for much longer than that. For approximately 5000 years of recorded history, there have been many well-known methods of contraception, including coitus interruptus, pessaries, spermicides, barrier methods, and herbal medications, including several which in modern times have been proven to have contraceptive qualities.
Condoms were used as early as 3000 B.C., when it was recorded that King Minos of Crete used the bladders of goats to shield himself during intercourse (John M.Riddle, Contraception and Abortion from the Ancient World to the Renaissance).
As Megan Evans has noted:
“By 1000 B.C., Egyptians were using a linen sheath around the penis to protect from spread of disease. . . . there is some evidence from cave paintings and historical documents that a condom-like device was used in Europe and imperial Rome.“
(Megan L. Evans, A DESIRE TO CONTROL: Contraception throughout the ages. The George Washington University School, Volume 1, Issue 1. E08.)
As noted by John T. Noonan, a scholar on the history of contraception:
“The existence of contraceptive technique in the pre-Christian Mediterranean world is well established. The oldest surviving documents are from Egypt. Five different papyri, all dating from between 1900 and 1100 B.C., provide recipes for contraceptive preparations” (John T. Noonan, Contraception, p. 9)
And even though the Israelites had left Egypt behind, it appears they brought some of this knowledge with them:
” the means of contraception known to the Jewish communities included not only coitus interruptus, but postcoital ejection, occlusive pessaries, sterilizing potions, and sterilizing surgery.” (John T. Noonan, Contraception, p. 11)
By the dawn of the Christian era, society had already acquired thousands of years of experience with contraceptive methods and medications. And a number of these medications prove themselves potent, even today:
“over a hundred different plants have been reported to contain substances affecting human fertility. Reports of such plants come from every continent in the world. . . . Some of the plants appear to have properties effecting temporary sterility, and would be true contraceptives. . . . the experiments do show that contraception is possible by means of distilled or crushed plants. Without being able to determine accurately whether the potions used by a given society were effective, we can say that the use of plant potions to affect fertility was a rational method of trying to achieve temporary sterility.” (John T. Noonan, Contraception, p. 12)
Noonan also mentions various passages from Aristotle, and from Pliny the Elder, shedding light on the many methods of contraception which were available at the time.
Suffice it to say that access to numerous forms of birth control is not a recent development. For thousands of years, women have had many types of contraception at their disposal. This is a situation which the Early Church Fathers were well aware of, even 2000 years ago.
The Early Church had access to birth control which did not cause abortions
The ancient woman had access to many forms of birth control. But were any of them true contraceptives? Or was abortion always a risked side-effect? According to Noonan:
“Contraceptives were discriminated from abortifacients in theory. . . . Use of the sterile period, precoital pessaries, postcoital exercise, and gum for the male genitals were all intended to work only contraceptively.” (Noonan. p. 17)
“It is also germane to the Christian judgment that almost all the methods used were intended to achieve only temporary sterility. Only a few potions were apparently intended to sterilize permanently. The other potions and all the other means proposed were ways by which pregnancy might be postponed for a given time.” (John T. Noonan, Contraception, p. 17)
Specifically, what forms of birth control were available to ancient people, which had zero risk of causing an abortion? Here are several examples:
People in the Early Church were aware of numerous forms of contraception, many of which did not bring about any risk of abortion.
If a couple’s goal was only to avoid pregnancy, that could be accomplished via abstinence. So why would people practice sex in any of the ways listed above? The answer is obvious. They want to separate procreation from sexual pleasure. They want the pleasure, without accepting the responsibility which is connected to that pleasure. Contraception is a tool for seeking pleasure, in a way which God the Father has not blessed.
The Early Church condemned all forms of birth control, including ones which were not abortifacient
We have established the fact that numerous forms of birth control were available in the early Church, and that many of those contraceptives did not cause any risk of abortion. And according to the Saints, what is the Orthodox Church’s position regarding these various “safe” forms of birth control?
How has sex been understood by Orthodox Saints throughout history? Are there any cases in which it is permissible to have sex merely for the sake of pleasure, while artificially removing any possibility of pregnancy?
To answer these questions, consider this sample of quotations from Orthodox Saints throughout the first millennium of the Church, from both the East and the West:
1st – 2nd century
“Thou shalt not be like to those whom we hear of as committing wickedness with the mouth with the body through uncleanness [orally consummated sex]; nor shalt thou be joined to those impure women who commit iniquity with the mouth with the body through uncleanness”.
(Letter of Barnabas 10:8 [A.D. 74])
“Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted.”
(Clement of Alexandria, The Instructor of Children 2:10:91:2)
“But this kind of chastity is also to be observed, that sexual intercourse must not take place heedlessly and for the sake of mere pleasure, but for the sake of begetting children. And since this observance is found even amongst some of the lower animals, it were a shame if it be not observed by men, reasonable, and worshipping God.”
(Pope St. Clement of Rome, Recognitions 6.12)
3rd – 4th century
“But let those also be of good cheer, who being married use marriage lawfully; who make a marriage according to God’s ordinance, and not of wantonness for the sake of unbounded license; who recognize seasons of abstinence, that they may give themselves unto prayer; who in our assemblies bring clean bodies as well as clean garments into the Church; who have entered upon matrimony for the procreation of children, but not for indulgence.”
(St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 4.25)
“[Some] complain of the scantiness of their means, and allege that they have not enough for bringing up more children, as though, in truth, their means were in [their] power . . . or God did not daily make the rich poor and the poor rich. Wherefore, if any one on any account of poverty shall be unable to bring up children, it is better to abstain from relations with his wife.” (Lactantius, Divine Institutes 6:20 [A.D. 307]).
“They [certain Egyptian heretics] exercise genital acts, yet prevent the conceiving of children. Not in order to produce offspring, but to satisfy lust, are they eager for corruption.”
(St. Epiphanius of Salamis, Medicine Chest Against Heresies 26:5:2 [A.D. 375])
“And fornication is the destruction of one’s own flesh, not being made use of for the procreation of children, but entirely for the sake of pleasure, which is a mark of incontinency, and not a sign of virtue.” (Apostolic Constitutions 6.28)
“The same argument holds with regard to copulation. Blessed is the man who in his youth having a free yoke employs his natural parts for the purpose of producing children. But if for licentiousness, the punishment spoken of by the Apostle shall await the immoral and adulterous (Heb. 13:4).” (St. Athanasius, 1st Epistle to Amun, The Rudder, pp. 576–77)
5th – 6th century
“Intercourse even with one’s legitimate wife is unlawful and wicked where the conception of the offspring is prevented. Onan, the son of Juda, did this and the Lord killed him for it.”
(St. Augustine, De coniug. adult., lib. II, n. 12, Gen, XXXVIII, 8-10 – cf. Genesis 38)
“For the virtue of each thing then discovers itself when it is brought to its own fitting work, but when to one that is alien, it doth no longer so. For instance, wine is given for cheerfulness, not drunkenness, bread for nourishment, sexual intercourse for the procreation of children.”
(St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Colossians, Homily XII)
“I am supposing, then, although you are not lying [with your wife] for the sake of procreating offspring, you are not for the sake of lust obstructing their procreation by an evil prayer or an evil deed. Those who do this, although they are called husband and wife, are not; nor do they retain any reality of marriage, but with a respectable name cover a shame. Sometimes this lustful cruelty, or cruel lust, comes to this, that they even procure poisons of sterility [oral contraceptives]”
(St. Augustine, Marriage and Concupiscence 1:15:17)
“Husbands and wives are to be admonished to remember that they are joined together for the sake of producing offspring; and, when, giving themselves to immoderate intercourse, they transfer the occasion of procreation to the service of pleasure, to consider that, though they go not outside wedlock yet in wedlock itself they exceed the just dues of wedlock.”
(Pope St. Gregory the Great, Book of Pastoral Rule 27)
“Who is he who cannot warn that no woman may take a potion [oral contraceptive] so that she is unable to conceive or condemns in herself the nature which God willed to be fecund? As often as she could have conceived or given birth, of that many homicides she will be held guilty, and, unless she undergoes suitable penance, she will be damned by eternal death in hell.”
(Caesarius of Arles, Sermons 1:12 [A.D. 522]).
“[I]n truth, all men know that they who are under the power of this disease [the sin of covetousness] are wearied even of their father’s old age [wishing him to die so they can inherit]; and that which is sweet, and universally desirable, the having of children, they esteem grievous and unwelcome. Many at least with this view have even paid money to be childless, and have mutilated nature, not only killing the newborn, but even acting to prevent their beginning to live”.
(St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew 28:5 [A.D. 391])
7th – 8th century
“Again, vice is the wrong use of our conceptual images of things, which leads us to misuse the things themselves. In relation to women, for example, sexual intercourse, rightly used, has as its purpose the begetting of children. He, therefore, who seeks in it only sensual pleasure uses it wrongly, for he reckons as good what is not good. When such a man has intercourse with a woman, he misuses her. And the same is true with regard to other things and our conceptual images of them.”
(St. Maximos the Confessor, Four Hundred Texts on Love, Philokalia, Vol. 2, 17)
The quotations above are only a representative sample. Additional quotes are available. According to the mind of the Church, it is never acceptable to pursue the pleasure of sex, while unnaturally interfering with the possibility of conception. As Fr. Josiah Trenham has noted:
“It is particularly a perverse act when we note that the primary reason God attended the sex act was to encourage procreation. This consistent link between pleasure and procreation is emphasized by Chrysostom on many occasions. Those who would separate the two realities, something which Chrysostom says cannot be done, must invent a new perspective on pleasure not taught by the Church.”
(Josiah B. Trenham, On Contraception: according to the Holy Fathers of the Church, pp. 24-25)
The Orthodox Church has historically had severe penances for the sin of contraception
In 7th century England, according to the Penitential of St. Theodore (Archbishop of Canterbury), married couples were forbidden from performing sex acts which resulted in the spilling of seed in unnatural places. The following penances were prescribed:
St. Theodore calls oral sex “the worst of all evils”, and accordingly grants it the longest and most severe penance. It was well understood that the mouth was ordained to receive the Eucharist, which may help explain St. Theodore’s severity in regard to this particular sin.
So far, we have only considered sources from the first several centuries of the Church. It is important to note that the second millennium brought no changes to the Orthodox prohibition of contraception. As the Orthodox Faith grew and expanded in the Slavic nations of the East, the Orthodox understanding of sexuality remained steadfast.
According to a Serbian Orthodox penitential document from the 14th century, there is a close parallel between abortion and contraception:
“It is worth asking both men and women how long they were in that state and how many children they killed . . . for what reason and in which manner. There are those who make a potion to drink so that they cannot conceive a child. This is worst of all, because they do not know how many would have been born. . . . If they do not stop this, they may not receive communion.”
(Mount Sinai 17(17), ff. 1170v-171r; Bulgarian National Library 251(200), ff. 137v-138r. Cited in Eve Levin, Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs 900-1700, p. 176)
As Eve Levin points out,
“From the medieval Slavic perspective, contraception, abortion, and infanticide were similar offences . . . All three represented the same thing: an attempt to forestall the introduction into the world of a new soul. For that reason, all three offenses were sometimes called dusegub’e, literally, ‘the destruction of a soul.’ . . . Voluntarily preventing conception or aborting a pregnancy could carry a penance of three to ten years.”
(Eve Levin, Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs 900-1700, pp. 175-176)
According to Slavic Orthodox canons, mutual masturbation between husband and wife was forbidden as a sinful activity, and penances of two to three years were prescribed for oral sex. A deacon or priest could be barred from communion, if guilty of practicing coitus interruptus, or any sort of non-vaginal marital intercourse. Under no circumstances was it permitted to artificially separate sexual pleasure from procreation.
In the 18th century, St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite provides grave warnings regarding the serious nature of sexual sin. Like a number of Saints in the Early Church, St. Nikodemos mentions the biblical story of Onan in Genesis 38, and identifies his sin of contraception via coitus interruptus. St. Nikodemos includes this sin under the general category of “masturbation”, which is the term he seems to use for any illicit spilling of seed in an unnatural location. An excerpt from his treatise is included here:
Masturbation is a sin so abhorrent to God that on account of it He put to death Onan, the son of Judah, the son of Jacob, because he was the first to commit the act upon the earth, and it is therefore also called onanism. For the Holy Scripture says in Genesis (38:10): “And the thing which he (Onan) did appeared as evil before God: wherefore He slew him.”
So then, this sin is like a pestilence and corruption of the human race, and causes masturbators to live here and now a disgraceful and miserable life, and to be tormented eternally in the next life in the fire of hell.
(Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite, On Masturbation)
Indeed, Orthodox Saints favored contraception no more in the second millennium, than they did in the first. For 2000 years, there is not a single Orthodox Saint who has approved of any form of birth control, regardless of whether it involved coitus interruptus,oral sex, or chemical contraceptives. There is only one place in the universe where a husband is permitted to issue his seed.
A faithful Orthodox Christian seeks to follow the teachings of the Saints. And in regard to this current topic, the consensus of the Saints is clear: All contraception is off-limits, even if it presents no risk of abortion.
Faithful Orthodox Christians continue to avoid contraception today
In modern times, a number of Orthodox bishops and priests continue to teach faithfully in regard to the Church’s opposition to birth control. In agreement with Orthodox Saints throughout history, godly Christians continue to recognize contraception for the sin that it is.
In 1957, the Greek Archdiocese Yearbook made the following statement:
“If a husband and wife do not desire to have any children, they ought to abstain from all conjugal relations until they are able to have children, and then to come together again in sexual union, relying entirely and solely on God’s omniscience. The use of contraceptive devices for the prevention of childbirth is forbidden and condemned unreservedly by the Greek Orthodox Church.”
(Greek Archdiocese Yearbook – 1957, pp. 50-51)
In agreement, Archbishop John Shahovskoy says that we must not interfere with procreation:
The Church of Christ suggests a way, of which the Gospel revelation speaks quite clearly. Continence outside a marriage, and continence in marriage itself. So says the word of God, and such is the understanding of the word by [the] best Christians of history . . . The Orthodox Church, without doubt, categorically rejects interference with the mystery of childbirth.
(Abp John Shahovskoy, 1961 Yearbook of the Metropolia)
Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, in the first edition (1963) of his famous book, “The Orthodox Church”, simply points out:
“Artificial methods of birth control are forbidden in the Orthodox Church.”
Fr. Dimitru Staniloae acknowledges that husbands and wives sin, if they seek sexual pleasure while trying to avoid pregnancy:
St. John Chrysostom declares that a marriage is accomplished even when only it’s principle purpose – the regulating of sexuality – is achieved without the fulfillment of it’s second purpose, the procreation of children. He adds, however, that the marriage is realized without the birth of children when this occurs not through the will of the spouses but apart from their will. For when the birth of children is intentionally avoided, the bond between the spouses declines into a simple occasion of satisfying the desire of the flesh and thus shifts towards acts that are sinful.
(Fr. Dimitru Staniloae, The Experience of God, Vol. 5, pg. 182)
Fr. Seraphim Rose classifies birth control as a “severe sin”:
On the subject of birth control, the Orthodox Church is certainly no more “liberal” than the Catholic, and any kind of interference with the natural object and result of intercourse, i.e., the begetting of children, is strictly condemned as a severe sin. Certainly the “pill” falls into this category. The “wisdom” of man is one thing, the law of God another. As to abstinence [from sex] on fast days, this is part of the same asceticism or self-denial that decrees fasting from foods. Married love is not regarded as evil any more than meat or eggs are, but our life here is a preparation for an eternal life where there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage, where there is an endless feast not of earthly foods, and a part of the discipline on the way to this Kingdom is through taming the flesh to the Spirit. St. Paul speaks of husbands and wives denying each other (1Cor. 7:5), and this is interpreted as referring especially to preparation for Holy Communion, but also to other fasting periods.”
(Fr. Seraphim Rose, Letters from Father Seraphim: Letter May 5/18, 1970)
Bishop George (Shaeffer) of Mayfield simply explains, “No contraception is ever allowed.”
And according to St. Justin Popovich’s disciple, Bishop Artemy (Rantosavlievich):
The Church cannot condescend any further, and she considers sinful any means of method, whether natural or artificial, to prevent conception and avoid procreation. For they who employ such means prove that they consider sensual pleasure the sole purpose of intercourse. From this it becomes evident why the Church does not permit Holy Communion to such individuals, nor to anyone else who does not conform to the Apostle’s ordinance concerning self-control (1 Cor. 7:5) and to the sacred canons of the Orthodox Church [See Canon LXIX of the Holy Apostles and the commentary, as well as Canon XIII of the 6th Council, Canon III of Dionysios of Alexandria, Canon XIII of Timothy of Alexandria, Canon V of John the Faster].
(Bishop Artemy , “The Mystery of Marriage in a Dogmatic Light” in Divine Ascent: A Journal of Orthodox Faith vol. 1, nos. 3/4, p. 57)
Fr. Josiah Trenham sums up the historic teaching of the Orthodox Church on this subject:
Those not prepared to assume the responsibility of sexual relations ought not engage in them. The intense pleasure of sexual relations are designed by God to promote the procreation of children, since the difficulties inherent in childbearing and Christian parenting might otherwise tempt spouses to avoid this solemn responsibility. Today’s contraception culture strikes at the heart of the God-designed unity of pleasure and responsibility, opting to embrace pleasure while avoiding the responsibility of childbearing and calling it “family planning.” Such planned parenthood and family planning is in reality planned barrenhood and family banning, and as such has been vigorously forbidden by the Holy Fathers throughout the history of the Church. St. Paul teaches that married women find their salvation in and through childbearing.
(Fr. Josiah Trenham, Orthodoxy Today: Sexual Relations, November 16, 2005)
In 1968, when Pope Paul VI released his Humanae Vitae encyclical, condemning all forms of birth control, Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople said, “We are in total agreement with you.” The Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church may differ on many things, but this is not one of them.
What about Menopause, Pregnancy, and Infertile Times of the Month?
While the Saints of the Orthodox Church have consistently forbidden birth control via artificial methods, they have not uniformly forbidden sexual activity during times of infertility. While some have discouraged sexual activity in such cases, the consensus of the Saints is not strict in this regard.
St. John Chrysostom, in his fifth homily on Titus, says there is nothing sinful about sexual relations between an elderly husband and wife. What God has blessed during their fertile years, does not become illicit when a woman reaches menopause. Likewise during pregnancy, and infertile times of the month. The Church does not require couples to engage in sex, or to avoid sex, based on fertility.
What the Church does require, is for sex to take place in one context alone. There is only one place where a husband may issue his seed, which can ever lead to pregnancy. And that is the only place where he is ever permitted to issue it.
What about Priests who Disagree?
Throughout the history of the Orthodox Church, it has been possible to find bishops and priests who are in error, and who do not hold to the fullness of the Faith. Today is no different. It is possible to find bishops and priests who are ignorant of the Church’s traditional teaching, or who are aware of it, and reject it. Whenever faced with this unfortunate situation, what is a faithful Orthodox Christian to do?
The answer is clear: Follow the consensus of the Saints.
In the entire universe, there is only one place where a Christian man may legitimately issue his seed. His seed is intended for the wife of his youth. She has a sacred chamber, and that chamber is the only place where sexual activity may take place in a holy way.
As the Orthodox Saints have unanimously agreed for the past 2000 years, the seed is neither to be killed, nor to be spilled in an unnatural location. This principle makes every form of birth control forbidden. At no time is it ever permissible to seek for the pleasure of sex, while artificially avoiding the possibility of pregnancy.
For more information on this topic, the following resources are recommended:
Jesus Calls Our ChildrenIn “Abortion”
Christian Education in the Early Church – part 1In “325 A.D. – Nicea I”
Holy of HoliesIn “40 Days of Blogging”
I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with seven children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.