Sexual Purity and the Vocation of Marriage
“The sacred nature of the God-established union and its lofty spiritual content explain the Apostle’s affirmation in Heb. 13:4. That is why the Orthodox Church condemned any defilement of its purity (Eph. 5:2-5, 1 Thes. 4:4, Heb. 13:4ff)” (Chambesy Statement). The Church indeed must emphasize sexual purity, or chastity, today more than ever, especially for the benefit of young people, as a calling to the integral unity of body and soul in Christ. Orthodoxy envisions chastity as an ascetical discipline whereby people achieve an embodied wholeness fulfilling them in synergy with God’s grace. Holy matrimony and monasticism are both icons of chaste participation in the mystical marriage of Christ with His Bride, the Church. Such purity minimally requires abstinence from genital expressions of sexuality outside of monogamous marriage between a man and a woman. Authentic chastity, however, involves much more than simple refraining from certain behaviors.
In chastity, one’s identity is found in relationship with others, centered in the Personhood of Christ, rather than in consumerism and its modern secularist definition of desire as an objectifying lack. St. Maximus the Confessor writes of a dynamic and transfigurative recognition of the human being (anthropos) as created both male and female, following his exegesis of Genesis 1:26-27 (Ambigua 67.10). This dynamic and transfigurative sense of embodied self in Orthodoxy goes far beyond contemporary models of essentialist sexual orientations and identities.
The Orthodox experience of chastity is not one primarily of deprivation, but the bright sorrow of struggling to direct one’s deepest desires to their fulfillment in God with the help of His grace. Rather than an objectifying lack, authentic chastity expresses the beautiful fullness of a desire for authentic relationship in Christ. Rather than the repression of sexuality, chastity in the Church is an active and transfigurative state that empowers human beings to experience the true fullness of life of those created male and female in the image of God. For young people who struggle in cultures increasingly oriented toward instant gratification and materialistic media, along with postponement or avoidance of both marriage and monasticism, support from spiritual fathers, spiritual mothers, and the Church as a whole is crucial to help them establish their chastity within the full noetic life of the Church, including a deep relational identity in Christ.
“Marriage is the key that opens the door to discover chastity and perfect love” (Gregory the Theologian, Poemata moralia, section II, PG 37:541-542). Indeed, Orthodoxy points to the unlimited potential of marriage as an avenue for growth in holiness. The challenges of making their common life an entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven–in all its interpersonal, economic, and physical aspects—present profound opportunities for spiritual growth to the man and the woman as unique people and as a married couple. By openness to the blessing of children through their love for each other, husbands and wives participate in the overflowing love of the Holy Trinity. As they work with God’s help to purify their passions out of love for each other, their children, their neighbors, and their Lord, husband and wife grow together in holiness. As St. John Chrysostom teaches, spouses who embrace this vocation may “rival the holiest of monks” in spiritual perfection (Homily 20 on Ephesians). By making their marriage an embodied icon of the Kingdom of Heaven, the spouses manifest the salvation of the world in every dimension of their relationship. Thus, they show that holiness does not entail an escape from the physical body or the Creation, but instead requires their glorious fulfillment. God calls husband and wife to make every aspect of their marriage, including their bodily union, an icon of the holy joy of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The vocation of marriage is Eucharistic, for it is through communion in the Lord’s Body and Blood that the Church participates mystically in the Wedding Feast of the Heavenly Kingdom. St. John Chrysostom notes the marital nature of the Eucharist: “Our relationship to Christ is the same; we become one flesh with Him through communion” (Homily 20 on Ephesians). The Church is the Bride and Christ is the Bridegroom; communicants become one flesh with Him by receiving His Body and Blood. In this light, God calls spouses, who wear the crowns of the Kingdom, to make their marital union a pathway for ever greater communion with Christ. Even as the God-Man offered Himself without reservation on the Cross, holy matrimony in the Church invites spouses to give themselves sacrificially and fully to each other and to the Lord.
The vocation of marriage is also a call to heal the broken relationship between the sexes that resulted from the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Rejecting the typical corruptions of domination, and even violence, in the life of men and women, St. Paul teaches that spouses should “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and that husbands, as heads of the family, should love their wives “as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph. 5:21, 25). As a means of participation in the mystery of salvation, marriage must manifest the healing, restoration, and fulfillment of the distorted relationship between man and woman that is so evident in contemporary cultures.
While it remains a mystery how people are transfigured in the life of Heaven, the Church’s iconography witnesses that Christ maintained His male body in His Ascension, and the Theotokos retained her female body in her Dormition and Assumption. The Church also hymns the Theotokos as both the Mother of God and Bride of God. That somehow the gendered existence of human beings abides in eternity undergirds Orthodox belief that the blessed union of husband and wife in the Body of Christ finds glorious fulfillment in the Kingdom of God in ways that are beyond rational comprehension.
In light of the exalted dignity of our existence as male and female in God’s image, Orthodoxy urges everyone to embrace the high calling of sexual purity, which is a healing medicine from the only perfect “Doctor.” Indeed, the Church calls all human beings, married or celibate, to prepare for the Heavenly Wedding Feast.
This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.
David C. Ford is Professor of Church History at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, South Canaan, PA.
Mary Ford is Professor of New Testament at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, South Canaan, PA.
Fr. Philip LeMasters is pastor of St. Luke Orthodox Church, Abilene, TX and Professor of Religion at McMurry University.
Dr. Philip Mamalakis is Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.
Alf Kentigern Siewers is Associate Professor of English at Bucknell University and coeditor of Glory and Honor: Orthodox Christian Resources on Marriage (forthcoming from St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).
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