Human beings are sexual; human bodies are places where love, affection and respect are often accompanied by physical desire; places, therefore, of both great joy and struggle. Orthodoxy recognizes the tension which often exists between love, desire and respect. Questions of sexual ethics are dependent on an understanding of the human person as participating in an ongoing transformation into the likeness of God, one that includes joy and blessing as well as sin and repentance (see: deification). As unique, irreducible and dynamic, personhood and relationship cannot be reduced to ‘natural’ or civil law. The pertinent questions for ethical decision-making are, who am I (or we) becoming, and how does a particular relationship, sexual behavior or action enable me (or us) to be more like God, that is, to better love God and my neighbor?
Modern sexual ethics must honestly confront an ambiguous Orthodox past. While tradition has its outspoken defenders of the body and sexual relations in the context of marriage, it has its detractors as well. Nor can we ignore that while both men and women are called to the same standards of virtue and sexual integrity, double standards exist which accept cultural assumptions of women’s weakness and supposedly greater struggle for virtue, overly sexualizes women and metes out harsher penalties for wrongdoing. This imbalance has not gone unnoticed by the tradition, but the misogyny pervasive in late-ancient and Byzantine cultures nonetheless affects the development and application of canon law, theology, and pastoral care. This is especially important to bear in mind as Orthodoxy makes its home in Western cultures and encounters feminist insights regarding the shared dignity of men and women. Re-envisioning gender roles must grapple with the difficulty engendered by phrases such as the “manly-woman of God,” a compliment to late-ancients completely lost on women today (see: Women in Orthodoxy).
Discerning pastoral care modifies rhetorically extreme views of sex and the body, and sexual relations are acknowledged as potentially deifying. Comparing the early and late work of both Gregory of Nyssa and John Chrysostom evinces this shift from an initial idealization of virginity to a recognition of the life-giving potential of faithful, married intercourse. Especially in the case of Chrysostom, his early work reflects his ascetic longing. Later, as a pastor faced with the grief and life-giving joy marriage brought to his congregants, his attitude shifts.
Canon law regarding sexual behavior is developed to address problematic behavior. It is not a manual, but an indication of boundaries. Further, given the contextual nature of canons, their application in varying social contexts and relationships requires the careful exercise of discernment and compassionate application by all parties involved, the tradition of oikonomia.
Sexual expression is a way of relating to another, and the same criteria for human relationships, that is, the treating one another as ‘neighbor’, granting love, dignity, respect and joy to another, governs sexual behavior. Pornography, prostitution, domestic abuse, and sexual exploitation of any kind deny and destroy the image of God in another person. Sexual relations are best entered into through a relationships committed to these elements, and Orthodoxy presumes a faithful marriage as this place.
Marriage is intended as a means to deification. Families are characterized as a “domestic church.” Children are a blessing, and parenthood is a respected and vital task. This respect underlies Orthodox critique of social movements and systems which denigrate or make difficult motherhood or fatherhood. Traditionally, contraception has been forbidden, not only due to the value of children, but because until recently contraceptives were abortifacients. Non-abortifacient contraception allows for discerning family planning. While couples who choose not to have children are unfortunately characterized as selfish by some theologians, oikonomia respects that many factors contribute the decision and ability to bear or adopt children. Oikonomia recognizes the complexities of both entering into and remaining in a marriage. Divorce is strongly discouraged, but when the relationships between spouses is irreparable, it is permitted. Initially only permitted because of adultery, the list has expanded over the centuries to account for a wide-variety of circumstances, including spousal abuse, alcoholism and drug addiction. These recent inclusions indicate an awareness of contemporary difficulties and concerns.
The Church holds that life begins at conception. Modern science discerns the process of human development, but does not indicate when personhood is granted by God and the community to the child (see: Bioethics). Abortion has been consistently rejected by tradition, and is frequently referred to as murder for which canon law proscribes a period of excommunication as penance. However, the Church also recognizes that threats to the life of the mother, abject poverty and the helplessness of women complicate what many portray as a simple issue. Pastoral practice is compassionate towards non-elective abortions, done in consultation with medical experts, family members and pastoral counselors. Further, Orthodoxy recognizes that social circumstances aggravate beginning of life decisions, and advocates for the creation of conditions that protect parenthood, encourage adoption, and generally address dire circumstances of which abortion is a symptom, not a cause. (Russian Bishops, 2000)
The cultural androcentrism of Orthodoxy is particularly evident in liturgical practice and prayers for miscarriage and the churching of infants. Traditionally, miscarriage is attributed to a mother’s sin and forgiveness is requested on her behalf; likewise the forty-day presentation of a newborn prays for the restored purity of the mother, implying that the birth process renders her unclean. The long-standing dispute regarding women not receiving the Eucharist during menses reflects an ancient social context in which blood and purity held significantly different meaning than today. Many priests rightly modify prayers to remove elements which imply sin, shame or wrong doing, and some priests church male and female infants identically: either bringing both or neither into the altar. The 20th c. has seen increased conversation regarding the whole issue of women’s place in the church’s ministries, and the related issues of how sexuality and gender stand in need of extensive reconsideration in the church today, in light of how different philosophical and social conditions illuminate in new ways the ancient yet ever fresh and responsive Orthodox tradition of the appropriation of the gospel.