Sexuality, Virginity, and Marriage
January 12, 2014 Length: 1:59:00
In this two-hour special, Kevin's guest is the V. Rev. Fr. Josiah Trenham, pastor of Saint Andrew Orthodox Church, Riverside, California, and the author of the recently published Virginity and Marriage According to Saint John Chrysostom (St Herman Press). They discussed and took calls on the views of the church fathers and the contemporary Orthodox Church on sex, marriage, and celibacy (monasticism) in the context of a sex-obsessed contemporary Western culture.
Mr. Kevin Allen: Welcome to Ancient Faith Today, and thank you for joining me on our first program of 2014. Tonight is a two-hour special. We’re streaming live, and we’ll be opening the lines and taking your live calls at about half-past the hour tonight, so we can establish a foundation first for tonight’s program, but that gives you an hour and a half to call in. Please do.
The call-in number is 1-855-AF-RADIO, 1-855-237-2346, as the announcer mentioned. I’ll announce the numbers again after the phone lines open after our first break. Our chatroom is now open. Go to ancientfaith.com/ancientfaithtoday, and you’ll find the link to the chatroom on that page, and you can chat with others from around the world actually as you listen. Steve Early is our moderator of the chatroom tonight. We’re also on Facebook at Ancient Faith Today. We appreciate your clicking “like”; it gives us visibility on your page.
Tonight our topic is on sex, virginity, and marriage in the Orthodox Church. We’ll cover various aspects of the Church’s moral teachings, patristic writings on virginity, celibacy, and marriage, as well as challenging questions about sexuality from a more contemporary Western cultural perspective.
I do want to mention that there is a parental guidance warning on this program. I would say it’s probably minimum PG-13, depending, again, on where your young teenager’s maturity level is on these matters. We’re not going to get graphic, obviously, but tonight’s content may be not appropriate for young listeners, so please use your discretion.
Remember, all these programs are available after they stream live as a podcast, which you can download privately at your convenience. Please call us with a question or comment that covers the gamut from the Church’s moral teachings to how they should be applied today.
I’m very pleased to have in studio tonight two guests. First, my major guest, who is the Archpriest Josiah Trenham, who brought along his beautiful young daughter, Victoria. Fr. Josiah is the pastor of St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Riverside, California. Fr. Josiah holds a PhD in theology from the University of Durham, England, where he studied under the well-known Orthodox Christian professor of patristics—some of you may know him—Fr. Andrew Louth.
Fr. Josiah teaches and writes on the subjects of sexuality, marriage, and virginity in holy Church tradition, and his recent book, which is the basis for this program tonight and which I really recommend as an excellent survey of the Church’s tradition on this subject, is titled Marriage and Virginity According to St. John Chrysostom, and it’s published by St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood. I really learned a lot from reading it.
By the way, if you’re in southern California, you really need to put on your agenda to go see the incredible temple that has been built at St. Andrew’s. I go out there just to look at it myself. It’s just a beautiful, peaceful oasis.
So, Fr. Josiah, welcome. I know you’ve had a busy day. Thanks for joining me.
V. Rev. Fr. Josiah Trenham: I’m so happy to be with you, Kevin. Thank you.
Mr. Allen: Thank you. Thank you very much, and we’re glad to have you with us. We’ll have a fascinating conversation tonight.
Father, let me begin with this. There’s been a lot written in Scripture and by the Church Fathers about virginity, marriage, and human sexuality. Why does the Church care so much about these topics?
Fr. Josiah: That’s a wonderful question, and I think the simple answer is that the Lord God loves men. This is why the Church cares so much. The Lord has fashioned human beings as the pinnacle of his creation, and he is devoted to us. These matters—virginity, marriage, and human sexuality—these are great mysteries, and they are means by which God unifies himself with men. They are, in the Church’s terminology, paths for salvation.
Mr. Allen: Yes, and we’re going to focus on that, because I think in our modern culture—and you’re very, very aware of and involved in these issues—people forget that these are paths to salvation. They’re not just the way things are. There was a design behind this.
In our correspondence, Fr. Josiah Trenham, leading up to this interview, you wrote, “Marriage and sex are matters of corporate ecclesial concern and not just private affairs.” Why do you say that marriage and what happens in the bedroom is of corporate ecclesial concern and not just a private affair? That’s going to run kind of counter to modern thinking on that subject or on those subjects.
Fr. Josiah: Which is exactly why I wrote it to you in that email, Kevin, because before we can give answers to matters of sexuality, we have to ask the right questions. This has been a cataclysmic shift in our society. We’ve left, not just Christian mores… All traditional societies, Christian or non-Christian knew, and those that are still traditional continue to know, that sexuality is not just a private concern. This is a corporate concern. Marriage is not just a legal affirmation of people who have affection for one another. It is, in fact, something that involves the unity of families, the bearing of children, the stability of society, the taming of men, and the dignity of women. These are not private affairs. Our sexuality is not just our business.
Mr. Allen: Interesting. You know, modern contraception and the sexual revolution of the ‘60s and even before that, as you know, have taken the traditional stigma away from non-marital sexual activity, but yet traditional Christianity still regards sex outside of marriage as fornication and as sin. How can we explain, Fr. Josiah Trenham, to a young man or a young woman, that sexual relations before marriage, in high school and college—you know how kids are affected by the culture around them—how can we explain to them that this is harmful, psychologically and spiritually, especially given the fact that it’s so common? And that it’s not just simply following God’s orders, which many people seem to think is less important than many other things.
Fr. Josiah: Kevin, if you’ll allow me, before I suggest ways we can answer the question of how we can explain to young people the Church’s standards on sexuality, I really think we should answer the question if we should address young people at all, because, if you’ll forgive me, we really don’t. At the same time that the sexual revolution has catapulted its agenda into Western society, the Church has also been very intimidated into silence. The Church that has spoken through her Scriptures, through her holy Fathers, through the canonical tradition… Do you know there is so much material in the sacred canons dedicated to the subject of sexuality, I might even be so bold as to suggest that it’s the subject that is addressed in the sacred canons, not just a little small issue? When we have so much wealth of God-inspired guidance to give to human beings, we’re very culpable for our silence. We’ve let people who do not share the vision of Christ articulate a vision of human sexuality which is degrading, and we’ve been silent. Before we say how, I just wanted to put that plug in there that we should.
It’s time for priests and bishops, for us who are responsible for the moral education and the moral preservation of society, it’s time for us to step up, make sure that we’re thoroughly educated in the teaching of the Church, because this is not something that just happens by osmosis. Sacred tradition is passed on from generation to generation. It must be learned by every new generation. We have a wealth—I’m hoping we’ll talk about this in this interview—of sacred tradition on this subject. We must appropriate it so that we’re not just putting a religious stamp upon secular teachings. We must appropriate it first for ourselves, and then we should impart it to those that we’re responsible for in the Church: our kids, but not just our kids. Sexuality is not just about young people; it’s about the adults. It’s about the old people. It’s about every human person.
Mr. Allen: We’re going to get to some of that tonight, but let me get to press you a little bit, because several of my listeners on Facebook and otherwise wanted to get right where the tire meets the road. How do we talk to start with young people, or those that are dating that maybe aren’t young? What’s wrong with premarital sex?
Fr. Josiah: It’s a great question. Here’s the how. I would suggest this. First, when we talk about matters involving sex, we should do so with a certain sense of awe. One of the messages that society is trying to push upon us today, secular society, is that sex is just a physiological reality. It’s just like eating. It’s like going to the bathroom, for goodness’s sake. You have the feeling, you do it. If we approach sexual education in our churches the same way, we’re really giving consent to that false premise. It’s not true. So we should speak about sex with a certain awe, even with a certain flair, I might say, if I could be so bold. Young people love to talk about the subject. I love teasing my young people in my parish, and even my own kids—I love a lot of them—about this subject and letting them know… I use the word “drama” and “juice” a lot. I say, “Let’s talk about some drama. Let’s talk about some juice.”
What I really want them to do is to get into the thought-process with me of “What is the significance of my attraction to members of the other sex? What is the significance of marriage?” Once we have a sense that when we’re dealing with the sexual potentiality, with sexual power, this is something of immense importance for our personal life and for the public, then we can make the affirmation that because sexual union is so powerful, it’s so much more than physiology, that to give it away lightly to a person that you’re not in a committed Christian union with is to denigrate yourself and the significance of the act. That’s the first thing. It’s not that we think that sex is bad; it’s that we think that sex is so important and it’s so powerful that we don’t just treat it like a common thing like taking a piece of gum or something.
Mr. Allen: Interesting.
Fr. Josiah: I would also say that premarital sex is tremendously degrading because it actually kills a reverence for marriage itself. It steals the goods of marriage. It takes the august things of the marriage-bed outside of the context of marriage, and it kills fidelity. What we end up doing is developing a relationship that is a set-up for human misery. Let me explain this.
Young people find themselves attracted to a member of the opposite sex, they haven’t been taught really what to do with those feelings, how to cultivate them in the most helpful way, so they naturally follow these things out. This is not science; this is not rocket science. They develop the interest; they start to court and date at an age far too young for their success.
As soon as they have the onset of sexual desire, they begin naturally, as they grow to love someone of the opposite sex, they want to be united to that person, and they begin to touch them and feel them, and the next thing you know, they’ve had intercourse together. Then the chances that that relationship will succeed are about zero. The average number of sexual partners that an American has when they come to marriage today is four. That’s the average number. Many have many more than that. What that means is that, for those persons, they have given their heart to someone, which is what sexual union is an expression of…
Mr. Allen: And body.
Fr. Josiah: It’s a bodily expression of having given something larger than the body. And they have given their heart to someone, they’ve had a relationship, they’ve played married, and then the relationship has shattered; their heart has been broken. The relationship ends, and then they go through the process of trying to mend their heart again. And then they get into a second relationship, and a third, and a fourth, on average, and then they get married. They’ve already gone through four tragedies that God never intended any human being to have to go through.
Now they’re married, they have their first big fight, and they’re thinking to themselves, as we all do when we’re early marrieds and we have a big fight, “Wow. Is this worth it?” And they’re thinking, “Well, you know what? I’ve left this kind of relationship before and I’ve gotten over it and I’ve started again. Why not?” This is why we see the parallel between modern approaches to sexual expression and dating, and the radical rise of divorce.
So premarital sex is just a bad idea, not just because it will degrade the act, because it will degrade the person, because it will establish some type of spiritual union—St. Paul says that the person who fornicates even with a prostitute becomes one with her—this is a deep mystery that cannot just be described by the passing of bodily fluids. This is something very serious, and it’s a misuse of the sexual power that will set them up for a lifetime of broken relationships and misery.
Mr. Allen: Thank you. I think it affects the ability to have deep and true intimacy with another if you’ve already played around with that. I agree. Do you disagree with me, Father, that we need to start talking with our young people from a Christian perspective in ways that are not just “follow God’s laws” and “don’t do it” and “shut up and don’t ask questions”; we have to make them understand the reasons why it’s harmful and damaging?
Fr. Josiah: Of course. I don’t know any priest who tells people, “Shut up and just do it,” but I understand what you’re saying, Kevin. Absolutely. We need to invest in a serious discussion, and in order to do that, we have to have a serious mind. We have to acquire the mind of the Church if we’re going to pass it on.
Mr. Allen: Yeah, which leads to a… By the way, listeners, we’re going to kind of go in lots of different directions tonight. I’m not going to be able to be as linear as I usually like to be.
Father, a listener asked a question that kind of ties in with this, and I’m not asking you to criticize another priest’s approach, but I think it kind of sheds light on the dilemma that many priests are dealing with. The listener writes:
An Orthodox priest who, because premarital sex has become such a cultural norm, this priest has stopped dealing with the teaching of remaining celibate until marriage in absolutes. Instead, he stresses that it’s better to abstain from premarital sex, but if you don’t, he gives practical advice and stresses safe sex. What are your thoughts?
Fr. Josiah: Wow.
Mr. Allen: No names mentioned. We don’t know who the priest is. We don’t even know if he’s listening. Don’t worry about it.
Fr. Josiah: You know, brother, I’m not worried; I’m just reserved. I would say first that the priests are spiritual physicians, and if we can draw the parallel, we all know in the practice of medicine that there are good doctors and bad doctors. There are medically competent doctors and incompetent doctors; we call them quacks. It is exactly the same in the Church. There are good bishops; there are bad bishops. There are good priests; there are bad priests.
A good bishop and a good priest is someone who himself has heavily invested himself in being formed by Christ in the mind of the Church. They take Tradition seriously. They, as St. Nikodemus says, they go to sleep holding the canons of the Church; they sleep with a Rudder, and they get up with it, because they know that in the pages of these sacred texts is the guidance to how to heal people, just like a physician has to study diseases; you have to know how to treat them.
I would simply say, right off the bat, that this priest is practicing what I would call malpractice. This is spiritual malpractice, and it’s also just stupid on top of that. Can you imagine saying…
Mr. Allen: Please express yourself!
Fr. Josiah: “Let’s practice safe idol-worship. Let’s practice safe lying. Let’s practice safe murder.” There is no such thing as safe mortal sin. I’m sorry. There’s no such thing, and to even use those words is really to make yourself culpable and to hurt a person. The proper pastoral response to massive Christian failure, ethically, is not lowering the unlowerable standard of God. Christians have always found themselves in situations where the culture is radically opposed to our way of life.
Greater is he who is in us than he who is in the world. Let’s call compassionately everyone to the standard of Christ, and when we fall, let’s repent, but let’s not change the standard or we won’t be able to repent.
Mr. Allen: Thanks for that, Father. Let me just give the number to call. I’m not quite ready to receive calls, but you can line up. You’ll still hear the program through the telephone as you’re waiting to come on. The numbers are 1-855-AF-RADIO, 1-855-237-2346. My guest this evening is Fr. Josiah Trenham, the pastor of St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Riverside, California, and the author of the newly-released Marriage and Virginity According to St. John Chrysostom.
Father, talking about pop culture, popular culture tends to think that traditional Christianity is negative or, at best, highly ambivalent about sexuality, even about marital sexuality. As you know, because you read up on this and you’re a specialist in this area, there is one contemporary Orthodox writer, Fr. Sergei Sveshnikov who wrote a book called There is No Sex in the Church, and he suggests that this ambivalence is due to the fact that most of the Orthodox Church teaching about human sexuality and marriage comes from our holy Fathers or elders, most of whom were ascetics and monastics, with obviously a clear bias towards celibacy. So my questions are these: What about this line of thinking? Is there not an inherent contradiction in this? That is, celibates setting standards for sexuality and family in marital relations as Fr. Sergei observes.
Fr. Josiah: Well, first I should say: Fr. Sergei is intentionally provocative. I don’t know him myself, but it’s obvious in his writings he’s intending to get a reaction and a rise from people. I’m not sure he’s actually giving wrong answers. I think he’s trying to force us to do just what I’m talking about with you.
Mr. Allen: I agree; I think so, too. He’s trying to get us to think.
Fr. Josiah: But I would say absolutely not. There is no inherent contradiction between the promotion of the Church of celibacy and also our opinion of marriage. We have a natural, godly bias towards celibacy, because celibacy deserves to be preferred. It’s the way of life of our Savior; our Savior did not get married. It’s the way of life of the most-holy Theotokos, whom we hymn as the unwed Virgin. It was the life of John the Baptist, and it’s been the life of our greatest saints ever since. St. Paul is very clear in 1 Corinthians 7 that the highest way of life is the life of complete consecration to God, and we know this in our tradition as the monastic life.
That doesn’t mean every monk is a shining, radiant example of celibacy. St. Basil the Great—this is not actually recorded in his writings, but St. John Cassian quotes St. Basil as saying that—“Though I have never known a woman, I am not a virgin.” This is what St. Basil said. Because virginity is something much higher than a state of bodily existence. It means that you are body, soul, and mind fixed to God at all times. Anything less than that is a compromise of virginity. So this is the highest life. The mother of God chose to live this way; so did John the Baptist, and our excellent monks and nuns do. The bad ones, you know, should pull themselves together.
At the same time, to prefer celibacy, which is to be Orthodox and to be Christian, does not denigrate Christian marriage in any way. This is a difference between the very good, which is what marriage is, and the better, which is what celibacy is. St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his treatise On Virginity, explains this. He says that marriage is the common way for Christians, and celibacy is the unique way; it’s the angelic way; it’s the high way. Our Fathers wrote a lot more about virginity because it’s a lot harder than to live married in the world, and they needed the support of the Fathers to encourage this. So I think rather for us, we have to say there is the good and there is the better.
Mr. Allen: Please explain just a bit, if you can, Fr. Josiah Trenham, the relationship between, again, the mother of God, [of] whom I think you did [explain] some, and monasticism in general. She’s kind of the mother of monks and nuns and so on, in that sense.
Fr. Josiah: Absolutely. Well, she’s the mother of us all.
Mr. Allen: Of course.
Fr. Josiah: This is true, and she’s the model in principle for every Christian and every aspect of Christian life, because she is the model of every virtue. But uniquely the monastics have found in the mother of God—and I should also say in St. John the Baptist; our monks and nuns are extremely devoted to St. John the Baptist—the model for how to live a life of consecrated celibacy. This is expressed beautifully, iconographically, in the icon of our Lady the Abbess of Mount Athos. Perhaps you’ve seen this beautiful icon, where she’s standing on the peninsula in the north Aegean, and you see all the holy monasteries of Mt. Athos, and she’s this majestic figure, towering over the entire peninsula, and she’s dressed as an abbess with her abbatial staff. So there are no women on Mt. Athos, but all of Mt. Athos only acts according to the will of the great woman who is the mother of God. This is really ancient. St. Ambrose of Milan, in his book On the Mother of God, lays her out, presents her as a model to true monastics. St. Athanasius the Great of Alexandria—this is mid-fourth century—is the first one to really codify monastics, especially female monastics, as the brides of Christ, and as direct imitators of the mother of God. He wrote a lot about how the monks and nuns should imitate the mother of God. This is traditional Orthodoxy.
Mr. Allen: So then, to summarize what we’ve discussed so far, virginity is the high ideal, but marriage, then, is not necessarily seen as just an accommodation, something that if you can’t be a monk or a nun, you might as well get married so you’re not just lustful all the time, although there are some patristic writers that kind of move in that direction; we’re going to discuss some of that a little bit.
Fr. Josiah: Not “some.” More than some. And this requires a real special nuance, just like I described the high calling of monastic life and pointed out simply that not every monk or nun reaches that high calling. In fact, in many of our monasteries, our monasteries are refuges—forgive me, but—for people who’ve failed in marriage. They became monastics because they couldn’t even get marriage right. I thank God that they have a place to go. I’m not criticizing them, but I’m simply pointing out that we ought not be naïve and think that when a monastery opens up and you have several monks or nuns nearby, they’re all these radiant, divine-light-seeing celibates. It’s not the case. Some are; some are not. It’s the same in marriage.
Remember, marriage, as we’re using it, is a Christian phenomenon, not a secular phenomenon. St. Paul, who wrote 1 Corinthian 7, about the glory of consecrated celibacy, also wrote Ephesians 5, where he calls marriage “the great mysterion.” It is the great mystery, and he didn’t mean worldly marriage. There’s nothing mysterious about worldly marriage, and, forgive me, lots of worldly marriage is really sick and sorrowful, but Christian marriage, which means a husband and wife living together as the tangible expression of the Gospel, the husband representing the self-denying love of Jesus Christ, pouring himself out for the salvation of his bride, the Church, his wife, and the woman functioning as the humble Church—this is the most profound expression, tangible expression, of the Gospel. People should be able to look at our families and say, “Wow! There is a God who loves man, and there is a Church that loves God!”
Mr. Allen: Father, I’ve got a call from Justin from Orlando, Florida. Justin, good evening. You’re on Ancient Faith Today. How are you?
Justin: Good evening, Kevin. Thank you for taking my call. I’m doing well.
Mr. Allen: A pleasure. Good. What’s your question for Fr. Josiah?
Justin: My question for Fr. Josiah—and I really appreciate your podcast on Ancient Faith Radio, The Arena; it’s really great—my question is: I’m someone who is a young married millennial twenty-something who teaches high school Sunday school in my parish, and I’m wondering how I can teach my high schoolers about sexual purity and these sorts of issues—sexuality, monasticism, virginity, all this sort of stuff—when I haven’t necessarily lived up to the ideal in my own personal past.
Fr. Josiah: What a beautiful question, brother, and a humble question. I thank you for saying that. There is no teacher in the Church that has ever lived up to the Gospel and to the Christian ethic. None of us have ever done that, and that reality should be a flavor. It should come out in everything that we say and do. It should imbue our teaching with humility, especially with a zeal to avoid judgment and also a hopefulness and a reminder that even those who have fallen can change. By the grace of God, what was yesterday will not be tomorrow.
I would say this: that the best way to draw near to these young people that you’re working with is to let them enter your life. Fr. Alexander Elchaninov, a great Russian priest who published a famous book called The Diary of a Russian Priest in the middle of the 20th century, he describes the role of parents in that book, and he says the greatest gift that a father and a mother can give to their kids is an authentic interior life. That’s a profound teaching. The best way to model Christianity, to teach Christianity to your kids, and in this case to those who are your wards in Church school, is to actually live it, to let them see. They’ll learn repentance by your repentance; they’ll learn compassion by your compassion. They’ll learn how to talk and think about sexuality not just by what you say but what you don’t say and by how you say it.
I would encourage you to struggle hard, struggle hard and trust that God will provide you the opportunities to invest yourself in love, and this will pay off.
Justin: Thank you. I really appreciate that. I hope that by God’s will I’ll be able to use some of my past experiences to teach some of these kids what to avoid.
Mr. Allen: Thanks, Justin. Appreciate the call very much.
Justin: Thank you very much.
Mr. Allen: You’re welcome.
I’m speaking with Fr. Josiah Trenham, the author of the newly-published Marriage and Virginity According to St. John Chrysostom, the pastor of St. Andrew Orthodox Church. Our topic tonight is sex, virginity, and marriage in the Orthodox Church.
Father, as we were discussing before, you acknowledge early in your book that there is a tension, and I’m actually quoting you, in Church tradition “between affirming the goodness of marriage” on the one hand “and praising [...] the greater good of virginity.” Do you find that the Orthodox Church, and we talked a little bit about this, in its doctrines, canons, and patristic literature, has an appropriate and balanced-enough theology of virginity as well as marriage as paths to salvation, or, in your opinion, is it still perhaps too skewed towards monasticism and celibacy? We’re going to talk a little bit about the patristic writers in a minute.
Fr. Josiah: Kevin, it seems to me that that’s two questions. The first has to do with the concept of tension. Let me address that first. Absolutely there is tension in patristic tradition, as there is tension on every dogma when you have nuance, every dogma of the Church; especially this is the case with Christology. Christology is wrought with tension, because there are things we must say and things we must not say, which is why the Church has spent so much time speaking so clearly about it. It’s the same with regards to these fundamental states of life: marriage and monastic life. So the tension is not bad.
It also means that consenus Patrum, the universal witness of the Fathers on these issues is what we must look for. We shouldn’t hold every Church Father to the standard of saying everything just the way we want. Some of the Church Fathers say things that perhaps, as censured by other Fathers, were extreme. St. Jerome, for instance, was known for and was even censured by other Fathers who lived contemporaneously with him, for saying things against marriage which were very nearly Gnostic and heretical, and he had to make a self-correction. So we shouldn’t hold every individual Father perfectly accountable, and even within the patristic tradition, there are those Fathers which are exemplary. We call them the universal teachers: St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. John Chrysostom. These are teachers of such magnitude that they really provide a foundation for a Christian ethic. So that’s my first comment. Yes, there is tension, and that’s not bad.
With regards to your second question, is the Church balanced in its theology of virginity and marriage as paths to salvation, or is it too skewed towards monasticism and celibacy, as some allege? First, let me just say this. The Church is a theanthropic miracle. She is not just a human organism. She is the body of Christ, the fullness of him who fills all in all. She’s the continuation of the Incarnation on the earth. When she speaks, she speaks the truth, inspired by the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Jesus’ promises. Any contemporary theologian, especially not a bum like myself—no one has the right to judge the Church and say she’s out of balance. Forgive me. Those who say that prove they’re out of balance. The Church judges us. We do not judge the Church.
Mr. Allen: Let me just jump in. What I’m really referring to is the paucity, perhaps, of writing on the subject of marriage as a path to salvation, as opposed to all of the patristic writings that we’ll discuss in a minute that refer to the beauty of virginity and monasticism, because most of us aren’t monks and nuns.
Fr. Josiah: Absolutely, and that’s always been the case, although the percentage of monks and nuns have varied, and there have been times when there are much higher percentages of monastics than there are now. But I would just say, Kevin, forgive me, in contemporary Orthodoxy, there’s a lot of writing being done that criticizes the Church, as though somehow the Church Fathers were captives to Greek philosophy. This is absolute nonsense. The Church Fathers were well-educated in Greek philosophy, masters of Greek philosophy, but they were constantly pulling Greek concepts and words, stretching them here, poking them there, making them fit and serve the purposes of the Gospel and Christ.
Sometimes they would take a word, “ousia, hypostasis,” something like that, and they would alter it. Sometimes they would just make up a new word. One of the words I’ve been talking to my parish about a lot recently that Church Fathers simply invented is the word “charmolypē,” which appears first in patristic tradition in the writings of St. John of Sinai, in The Ladder. “Charmolypē” means something like joyful sadness. It’s a description of our fundamental way of being: joyful in the Lord, but always repenting.
So this idea that somehow the Fathers slavishly imported Greek Hellenistic concepts, this is simply nonsense. The Fathers can be relied on, and we can trust our lives to them. The fact that the Fathers are always encouraging askesis and praising monasticism is not because they disdain marriage, because there is an organic connection between marriage and monasticism. Many people view these two states as two definitively separate. Nonsense; that’s not true. I like to put it this way: for all of us, the question with regards to marriage and monasticism is not if but when, because the vast majority of married people will spend some part of their life as celibates. What’s the number of people who die on the exact same day as their spouse? What’s the number of married people who have a spouse who doesn’t get sick and with whom they cannot sleep? Do we all of a sudden say, “My spouse is sick, I’m going to have to go get a prostitute; my spouse is sick, I’m going to go get a lover”?
Mr. Allen: God forbid.
Fr. Josiah: Absolutely not. And if you love celibacy, if you honor it, not only would you understand the greatness of the Virgin Mary as a married person, not only will you adore John the Baptist and our great saints, who really gave as a love-offering which is something so beautiful which is their own sexual energy… They gave it to God, not because they degraded it. The Church forbids monks and nuns to become monks and nuns because they have a low view of marriage. There’s a lot of that, believe me. I tell you, I spend a lot of time undoing bogus monastic counsel on this very point. There’s a lot of that for sure, but the great monks and nuns became that with a great love. They know that without marriage, they don’t exist. These two states are mutually interconnected. The monks and nuns are a model for us, and married people are a support for the monks and nuns and provide future monks and nuns.
Mr. Allen: Interesting. Father, let’s take a call first, and then we’ll take a break. The number is 1-855-AF-RADIO, 1-855-237-2346, and I have Aaron on from Novi, Michigan, and I know exactly where Novi is. Aaron, how are you this evening?
Aaron: I’m fine, Kevin. How are you, my friend?
Mr. Allen: I’m very, very well. Welcome to Ancient Faith Today. Please give your question for Fr. Josiah. I think it’s a good one at this point in the show.
Aaron: Thank you. Fr. Josiah, I’m [an] Orthodox Christian. I’ve been Orthodox for two years now. I come from the Roman Catholic world, and I’m a celibate man, meaning I haven’t had sex yet. I feel like it’s an albatross, and that’s my word, of trying to date, because I think women can see through that, and they don’t want to date a virgin guy, although we as men want to date virgin women. That’s an argument for another time. I just don’t know how to deal with that, I guess.
Fr. Josiah: Well, brother, let me suggest this. If your virginity, which is precious and something to be rejoiced in, if it still exists because you have struggled to keep it and it doesn’t just exist because there’s no one who’s been willing for you to spill it, then I would say that this is something not to be ashamed of. This is something to be really proud of, not in a sinful way, but really thankful to God that he’s preserved you. I would not look to marry or date a woman who didn’t share with you an opinion of the value of chastity.
Traditionally, the greatest gift that a bride and groom give each other on the day of the wedding is to entrust their virginity to the other. They give their virginity away, and this is the crown of the offering in the marriage service. In fact, speaking of crowns, it’s the reason crowns are on the head. In the wedding service we say that crowns are placed on the heads of those getting married as a reward for their continence. They fought a good fight. It’s not that it was easy. They fought because they wanted not to defraud their brothers. They wanted to give their virginity away in marriage to one person who would hold it as a treasure and receive it as a great gift, and you have the possibility of doing that. That’s something to be thankful for.
Aaron: I am thankful for that, Father, but I just feel like, because I’m part of a Christian minority, I guess, being Orthodox, specifically Greek Orthodox, because that’s where my family comes from, I guess because our country is more Protestant and they don’t understand theology that much that they just are all willy-dilly about our virginity and our sexuality, and they just allow divorce for whatever reason whatsoever. I was very happy to hear you say that marriage should be something that is valued and not just a secular state.
Fr. Josiah: Brother, don’t be discouraged by being a minority. Be thankful, because our opinion of chastity and our opinion of marriage is Christ’s opinion and has been the historic Church’s opinion. Please—you sound discouraged, but I’m trying to blow a little encouragement. I’m blowing it in the microphone right now, a little encouragement to you. This is a blessing, and trust the Lord.
I send people a prayer for one seeking a spouse. I have this on my computer. If you email me, perhaps offline you can get my email address, I’ll send you that prayer for one seeking a spouse, and then trust the Lord God. He’s the one who puts couples together. He brings them. Read the Book of Tobit if you don’t believe that. He predestines husbands and wives for each other, and you can pray and trust that the Lord who loves you will bring you the Eve you need.
Aaron: And as you, Kevin. Thank you. Have a nice night, gentlemen.
Mr. Allen: Thank you. We’re going to take a break now. When we come back, my guest again will be Fr. Josiah Trenham, the author of the excellent book, Marriage and Virginity According to St. John Chrysostom, and we’ll take a short break. Please give us a call. The number is 1-855-AF-RADIO, 1-855-237-2346. The lines will be open.
Mr. Allen: I’m very glad that you’re joining us this evening. This is the first show of our 2014 series, and we’ve got really quite a great agenda of programming for you this year. By the way, for those of you who donated to the wonderful work of Ancient Faith Radio in 2013, on behalf of Ancient Faith Radio, I want to say: thank you very, very much. Remember that we are here to both promote Orthodox Christianity worldwide, and especially in the English-speaking world, and also to enlighten and encourage and instruct with wonderful spiritual teaching like we have tonight those of us in our Church. Thank you for that.
Father, I have, let’s see, a call for you from Amelia from Spokane, Washington. Amelia, good evening and welcome to Ancient Faith Today.
Amelia: Hi. Thanks so much.
Mr. Allen: You’re welcome. What’s your question?
Amelia: My question is: I’ve heard from a couple of different people in the Church, and I haven’t done my own reading, so that’s why I’m calling to ask you, but some of the Fathers have taught that there was no sex before the Fall and/or that marriage exists only to sort of corral our sexual desires. My question is kind of multi-faceted, but first of all, if that’s the case, if sex didn’t exist before the Fall, then, first of all, why do we have reproductive organs? Did they just suddenly appear after the Fall? Did we reproduce in a different way before the Fall and we just had these organs that were just dormant and had no use? So that doesn’t make sense to me.
In Genesis, of course, it says that man shall be joined to his wife, and they will become one flesh, and as far as I know we understand that to mean sex and marriage. I always thought God married Adam and Eve. That just seems like the fullest sanctification there could possibly be, to be married by God, in the presence of God himself.
Also, I am wondering if marriage is just to corral sexual urges. That kind of implies that celibacy is the greater feat or greater calling or ideal, but if that’s the case, then why did God tell us to be fruitful and multiply, because he’s commanding us to do that? Again, it sounds like that’s the ideal. It’s seems like, if sex wasn’t created in the beginning and that’s not how our natural state [is], then it sounds more like God didn’t create it, but we degenerated into it, and I don’t think that’s the understanding of the Church.
Mr. Allen: Amelia, you’ve asked about five questions in there, not just one, and I’m going to try to break those down. You know what I’m going to do, because we’re getting calls in? I’m going to let you go, and you can listen to Fr. Josiah’s answers. I’m going to try to break those down into bite-sized chunks. Is that okay?
Amelia: Okay. That’s totally fine. Thank you so much.
Mr. Allen: Thank you so much. Appreciate the question and the call. So, Fr. Josiah, Amelia raises a very good series of questions, one of which is… And she’s right; St. John [of] Damascus says, as you know, because I got it from your book, writes that virginity was practiced in paradise, before the Fall, and many other Fathers taught the same. I assume this is the line of thinking that leads to the patristic idea that virginity and therefore monasticism is the original and paradisal condition. First off is: can you shed light on any scriptural confirmation that virginity was practiced in pre-lapsarian—that is, before the Fall—paradise, or is this merely speculation by our wonderful ascetic forefathers?
So first would be: give me some Scripture that tells me virginity was practiced in paradise, because Amelia quotes “be fruitful and multiply,” “become one flesh”—that was my next question—so she’s right on the mark with those.
Fr. Josiah: Wonderful questions. Excellent questions, and questions that the Fathers heard and some of which they posited themselves, and some of which they gave answers to. In fact, one of the great mistakes that we make as fallen persons today is to project our current state of existence back into paradise and sometimes future into the new age which is to come. We criticize those who… We Orthodox are very aware of the mistake of turning heaven into some sort of earthly paradise, like the Muslims do, for instance, where you’re going to have lots of virgin wives, for instance; this kind of thing. We know that heaven is not a material thing, and we also recognize really clearly that there’s no sex in heaven. No Christians have any problems with this. Christians don’t think that somehow we’re going to be less than human in heaven. We know the reason there’s not going to be sex in heaven is because we’re going to be more human, and we’re going to have a union that’s deeper than anything we can effect through sex in this life. That’s not to criticize sex on principle. I’m just saying that we should not make the mistake of projecting our current fallen existence either backwards or into the future. We all know not to do it into the future, but very few Orthodox understand that we should not do it back into the past.
This is the first thing to get, Kevin, is that our existence in paradise was not as it is now. St. Gregory of Nyssa, in his book The Great Catechism, he describes the Fall of man as a radical deformation that can only be understood in comparison to Jesus’ transfiguration on Mount Tabor. Inasmuch as our Savior has elevated humanity to an incredible height, so deeply did we fall at the time of the Fall of man. As a matter of fact, he lists twelve realities of fallen life that did not exist in paradise, things like old age, memory lapse, dirt—I love that one—and sex, gestation. These are some of the things he mentions. These are fallen realities. That doesn’t mean that they’re good or bad. That doesn’t mean that they’re evil. There’s nothing evil about them.
Mr. Allen: Different.
Fr. Josiah: Exactly. But what we do now, the way we think, the way we eat, the way we have sex—none of these things are the way that we would have had the comparable things in paradise. Just think about eating. In paradise… Right now you eat and, forgive me, you know what happens afterwards; we won’t talk about that, but defecation happens. There was no defecation in paradise. There was no corruption; there was no death. That doesn’t mean that we were somehow not human; we were more human before the Fall.
Thinking: right now we think, and the way that we think is through rational processes with a dark and fallen mind, St. Paul says in Ephesians 4. We didn’t have that noetic bondage in paradise. We were able to think and prophesy under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in a way… I mean, how did Adam even know about parents, yet he prophesied: “A man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife.” This is what Adam said. There were no fathers and mothers! He was a prophet, the Church Fathers say.
So this is my affirmation, and this is the affirmation of the Church: Paradisal life was one thing, the Fall was a terrible deformation, and it brought many things into existence, like eating, intestines—what would the purpose for intestines have been in paradise? There was nothing to expunge. And St. Paul says just this. In 1 Corinthians 8, he says that food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, and God will do away with both of them. We’re not going to need our stomachs in paradise like we need them today. The only paradisal food that we eat today that doesn’t come out the wrong place is the Eucharist. It’s the true food of heaven.
Now you asked for scriptural examples. Let me just say this. There are two chapters in the entire Scriptures about paradise, and they tell us very little about our question. They neither say that there was physical sex as we know it in fallen existence today, or not, but what we can affirm is that the first mention of coitus in the entire Scriptures is in Genesis 4:1, after the Fall of man. The Fathers say that’s because, in our paradisal existence, we moved in a spiritual way. We moved in a spiritual way, just like we ate in a spiritual way, just like we thought in a spiritual way. So we ought not impose fallen categories on that type of existence.
Mr. Allen: But let me just follow up and press you up on this, because Amelia’s point is one that I’ve been wondering as well. We’re not saying that the body parts, the reproductive body parts, came after the Fall as a result of the Fall. Are we going to assume that they were not there prior to the fall, and if so, what purpose were they if they were not for reproduction through sexual intercourse?
Fr. Josiah: You’re asking a great question, and I would say that is, in fact, exactly what we’re saying. Do you think that in the resurrection to come, we’re going to look exactly like we are today? Absolutely not.
Mr. Allen: Well, no. We know that. St. Paul talks about spiritual bodies.
Fr. Josiah: Think about all that we have. There is a continuity. 1 Corinthians 15, which is the resurrection chapter in the New Testament affirms a continuity and a discontinuity between the present body and the body which is to come. The continuity, however, and the discontinuity is expressed between a seed and a tree. Do a seed and a tree look the same? They don’t. They have continuity, but they don’t look the same. The glorified body is a radical transformation, as was the movement from the paradisal body to the fallen body.
Just think about our life. Right now we have eyelashes. I’m looking around here in the studio. Everybody’s got eyelashes. Eyelashes are designed to protect our precious eyes from sweat. Did sweat exist in paradise? Sweat was a result of the Fall, a punishment upon Adam for his sins. Someone could say, “Did you have those? Why would you have eyelashes in paradise if you didn’t have any sweat?” We don’t know exactly what we were like in paradise. The Fathers do talk about it.
Mr. Allen: Or when we got eyelashes.
Fr. Josiah: No, we don’t. We don’t. We do know, however, some of the Fathers say, if indeed we had these things, they were in anticipation, in God’s wisdom, of the Fall, but perhaps we didn’t have them.
Mr. Allen: Okay. The number, by the way, is 1-855-AF-RADIO, 1-855-237-2346. I’m speaking with Fr. Josiah Trenham. His book is Marriage and Virginity According to St. John Chrysostom, and we’re talking about sex, virginity, and marriage in the Orthodox Church. Phone lines are wide open, so please do give us your call.
Father, speaking of and following up on what Amelia said, in the Book of Genesis we read that God blessed Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply and to become one flesh. This seems to be a holy obligation, to become one flesh, even more than just merely a physical act for the purpose of procreation. Yet, and I again get this from your book, Tertullian, an early patristic writer, whom as you point out doesn’t reject marriage as a path to salvation—he does not reject it—but he writes that the command, “Be fruitful and multiply,” is supervened by St. Paul’s admonition in 1 Corinthians 29 that, quoting St. Paul, “the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, for the form of this world is passing away.” Is this line of thought how most of the Church Fathers got from the Genesis account, “Be fruitful and multiply,” to the idea of consecrated celibacy, and is it due to the idea that they felt that the second coming and the parousia was imminent?
Fr. Josiah: Mmm. I do not think that Tertullian, on this point, is normative. The procreation and dominion mandate that God gave to Adam and Eve had a unique paradisal application, and we would make a mistake if we took fallen norms, once again, and read that command, to be fruitful and multiply, only through our fallen norms.
Remember, back then the call to reproduce a human being was the call to reproduce his divine image, body and soul. In our fallen existence, when a husband and wife have a baby, this is not the fulfillment of the procreation mandate. It only is a part of the fulfillment, because it’s the reproduction of the body alone. The soul must be resurrected through baptism, through the work of the Church. It’s a collaboration to fulfill the procreation mandate to reproduce the image of God in that person, body and soul. What I would say is this: up front, there is no patristic debate about the universal teaching that sex as we know it today did not exist in paradise.
If you give me just a second, Kevin, I brought a chart with me that I wrote down. I want to read to you the Fathers just up to the time of St. John of Damascus who explicitly denied that sexuality as we know it today, coitus as we know it today, existed in paradise. Then I want to read you the list of those who affirm the other position, that sex as we know it today did exist in paradise. So here’s just a brief listing of those who were clear: St. Justin Martyr, St. Irenaeus of Lyons, St. Athanasius the Great, St. Basil the Great, St. Gregory the Theologian, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, St. Jerome, St. Ephraim the Syrian, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. John of Damascus. How’s that for a list, huh?
Mr. Allen: A good list.
Fr. Josiah: A few Fathers. Now let me read the other list. This is a list of Fathers who affirm the opposite…
Mr. Allen: Zero. The sound of silence.
Fr. Josiah: That would be zero. So we who think we know a lot about things and such-and-such is so obvious, we really ought to be very careful about what we’re affirming.
Mr. Allen: You know, your point’s very well taken. I take that as good advice, because I love the aspect of mystery in our faith, and I am pressing because I want to get you as close as I can to you giving me a response, but I do respect the fact that there is mystery in all of this and we can’t necessarily get Western-style answers to every question. So thank you for that.
Let me just follow up one more point on Amelia’s excellent series of questions, because some Eastern Church Fathers, and I’m speaking of Philo of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, St. John of Damascus, Maximus the Confessor, wrote that if Adam and Eve had not fallen that sexual reproduction would not have been necessary at all. The implication there would have been [that there was] kind of an asexual means of reproducing and that sex therefore was created by God only as a result of the Fall.
Let’s morph to popular culture that already thinks that Christianity is negative about human sexuality. Doesn’t this kind of confirm this kind of negative view of sexuality? To her point about the body parts, you’ve explained that very, very well, but speak a little bit about the perception of negativity when you have very, very well-thought-of Fathers saying you wouldn’t even have had sexual reproduction if there weren’t a Fall.
Fr. Josiah: First let me say that it might be true that this supported what you’re saying if, in fact, the Fathers had said what you said they said. They didn’t say that. First we should just note Philo of Alexandria was a Jew; he wasn’t a Church Father. He was an influential Jewish philosopher in the first century, who was read by Church Fathers for sure. But the other Fathers that you mention did not affirm that the reproductive mandate didn’t apply. They simply said—John of Damascus posits this question and answers it; John Chrysostom does the same—that they would have reproduced in a way consonant with their existence, and we don’t know exactly how that is. What John of Damascus says [is that] they would have reproduced in some sort of more angelic way.
So it’s not that they’re denying anything. They’re simply affirming that they would have lived according to what they are. Our problem with that is that we are insisting, once again, that our current state of existence be projected back into theirs, and that’s not a wise thing to do.
St. Basil the Great says this. He says that the procreation mandate, that is, to be fruitful and multiply the image of God, is primarily a calling to pray and think beautiful, true thoughts. So his interpretation is a noetic interpretation, an interpretation that starts with the heart of man and only works itself out to the body. The fact that we read “Be fruitful and multiply” and we think just of sex and just of having babies, this is not a great paradigm.
Mr. Allen: Well that goes to show you when you argue with a patristic scholar about patristics. That’s my job, I guess.
Let’s take a call from Tim, and then we’ll take a break. He’s been holding patiently. Tim from Ohio, welcome to Ancient Faith Today. Good evening.
Tim: Good evening to you as well. While I was on hold, I thought of a comment that I wanted to just put in here real quick about the eyelashes. I would contend that probably we didn’t even have eyes in the garden as well, and part of the curse was actually having eyes, but I don’t know if anybody’s ever written about that, but I thought that quite interesting, just to think about that.
Anyway, my question is: There’s been a lot of talk about premarital sex and that type of thing, but what about sex in the marriage itself, especially if you’ve been married for a number of years, are beyond the child-bearing years? Maybe you could touch base on that with what the Orthodox Church position is on that type of thing.
Mr. Allen: Great question. Thanks.
Fr. Josiah: This certainly moves from the ethereal and the deeply theological to the practical and ethical. It’s a fantastic question and also a question that the Church has pondered and sought to give counsel for to her children.
Earlier Amelia talked about the purpose of sex in its taming function, as a solution to lust, and she presented it as maybe not that important. I would, however, say that this is no small matter. This is no small matter. The Church affirms that God has blessed conjugal union in marriage for three fundamental purposes, and I’d like to mention those. The first is the purpose of taming man through sexual union. Listen to this. This is from the Apostle, St. Paul:
Because of immoralities, let each man have his own wife and let each woman have her own husband. Let the husband fulfill his duty 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 also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Stop depriving one another except by agreement for a time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer, and come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control.
Here is a fantastic affirmation about the importance of escaping Satanic temptation through conjugal union in marriage. That is not a small thing. St. John Chrysostom beautifully describes the wife functioning as the pharmakon, literally “drug” for her husband. She is his safe harbor. He’s in the ocean of life—Chrysostom says that men have “the hotter flame”; I think that’s indisputable—and the wife is the one who cools him, who brings him to himself. This is a very, very important function of sexual union in marriage, and it should not be in any way looked down on as somehow degrading or small.
This is the way that a husband and wife can actually get to a position of calm so that they can embrace the rest of life. We know that people who are crazed—and we have lots of them today because of internet pornography, men who are living in a constant state of sexual arousal—they can’t get anything done. They’re constantly divided. Their nous is scattered all over the universe, and only a wife can solve this problem for them.
A second purpose of sexual union is to create life, to be the context, the milieu, in which new life, the miracle of co-creation takes place. This is an incredible miracle itself.
A third purpose is to promote marital union and harmony, to strengthen the bonds of sacred companionship and friendship, of intimacy, of fidelity between the husband and a wife, that will provide the strength for them to go through this wilderness, wandering, that we’re in.
I want to read from St. Gregory the Theologian his commentary on Proverbs 5, perhaps in wisdom literature in the Old Testament the most graphic and beautiful description of marital sexual intercourse. He says:
For man and wife, the union of wedlock is a bolted door, securing chastity and restraining desire, and it is a seal of natural affection. They possess the loving colt which cheers the heart by gamboling (that’s “gamboling,” not “gambling” with money), and a single drink from their private fountain untasted by strangers, which neither flows outwards nor gathers its waters from without. Wholly united in the flesh, concordant in the spirit by love they sharpen in one another a like spur to piety.
This is a beautiful description of the positive effect of conjugal, beautiful Christian lawful intercourse nourishing a spirit of friendship and harmony of concord in marriage. These are the purposes of marriage. Having laid that foundation, then we can ask the question: How does this apply to people in different states of life?
Mr. Allen: Tim, if you want to stay on the phone, because I want to ask, do a follow-up there, Fr. Josiah Trenham. You know, there’s one school of patristic thought, especially in the West—I’m thinking Ss. Ambrose and Augustine—that see procreation and child-bearing as the only or primary purpose for human sexual intercourse, and therefore the primary purpose of marriage. So if we accept that idea, when one is old beyond the child-bearing years, what purpose does sexuality play at that point if we follow that patristic line of thinking?
Fr. Josiah: A great question. It’s a great question. I’ve affirmed what the Church says are the fundamental purposes of sexual expression in marriage. Let me now try to apply it to different states of marriage itself.
Those three realities—marriage as promoting the image of God through reproduction, marriage as taming sexual desire, and marriage as strengthening unity and harmony and concord—they all have different levels of importance depending on where the couple’s at. If they’re very young and their body is full of desire still, then the aspect of marriage as taming sexual desire is going to be extremely important for them. But as we get older, naturally, in God’s providence and wisdom, the libido decreases. We’ve had our children.
And by the way, I should emphasize that the Church Fathers never conceive of the idea of sex for pleasure without responsibility. The idea of taking any one of these three purposes of sexual expression and taking one off and saying, “I’m not going to follow that,” this is unheard of. Can you imagine if a couple comes to a priest and they want to get married, and the priest is explaining the purpose of marriage and sexuality, and he says, “Look, you need to be faithful to each other, each other’s solution for desire, you need to have children, and you need to nourish your companionship and friendship,” and then the young man says to the priest, “Well, Father, I really like that. I want to get married, but that part about fidelity… Not yet. I want to get married, but for the first few years of marriage I want to have a couple lovers, just because I’m full of desire; I can’t be confined to my wife”—what would the priest say? He’d say, “You know what son, you need to repent, and you’re not ready for marriage yet.”
Now if he came to him and said, “You know, Father, I’ll accept that, fine. I’ll be faithful to my wife. I’ll be her solution; she can be mine. We’ll have kids, but I’m not going to be her companion. I’m not going to nourish concord and friendship.” The priest would say the same thing. He’d say, “Sorry, that’s part of the package. You can’t get married and not pursue the friendship you have with your wife.” Everyone would expect that.
Today, however, many come to priests and say, “I want to get married, I want to be her friend, I want to be faithful, but no kids. Not for two years, five years. We want to spend some time together.” The priest should look at that couple and say exactly what he said in the first two counts. He should say, “Look, if you’re not ready to have kids, that’s part of the package of marriage as God made it. Pleasure is always linked to responsibility. The Fathers say that he infuses the sexual act with pleasure in order to encourage husband and wife to become parents and to have kids, because it’s re-a-al-ly hard to parent!” And we can no longer treat marriage like a wax nose and say, “Well, that one I’m not going to follow.” These are the purposes of marriage.
As you get older and you’re fulfilling these purposes, the idea of worshiping youth, which is what infuses the mentality of our culture today, it’s what’s behind the whole craze for Viagra and all sorts of drugs so that people who are my age and—forgive me, Kevin—your age want to keep their vitality like they’re 18. First of all, I would say, “Why in the world would any man want to do that: stay in a state of sexual craze?” It’s nuts! In fact, we should embrace, the Fathers say, embrace getting older, embrace the reduction of your libido. The reason it’s happening, in God’s providence, is because he wants you to get less attached to things of the earth, because you’re getting ready to make your transition to the next life. If you’re still looking about sex, sex, sex when you’re 50, 60, 70 years old, how are you actually going to be ready to die? You aren’t. So just embrace it; don’t complain about it. I know it’s harder to do than to say, believe me.
Mr. Allen: Especially when you’re in the early stages of your marriage and development. So how does this speak, then, Fr. Josiah Trenham, to people who are infertile and who intended to have children but find out perhaps afterwards that they cannot? Where and how does sexuality fit in to there? I think what I’m really looking for here is a positive view of marriage that is not exclusively connected with procreation, because it seems to me that it may be a little bit reductionist. I understand that it’s patristic, I really do, but I’m wondering: do you think that’s just a little bit reductionist, or does God have no other intentions or purposes for marriage other than procreation? And what do infertile couples do?
Fr. Josiah: Well, Kev, you haven’t heard that from me. You haven’t heard from me that the primary purpose of sexual intercourse is procreation.
Mr. Allen: You hear it from Origen, that sexual intercourse is just by virtue of procreation. St. Clement: husbands and wives should become like brothers and sisters after the conception of a child. I’m getting them from your book.
Fr. Josiah: Absolutely, you are. You’re getting references from my book, but my book is primarily—this is a recommendation for folks to read it—about the teaching of a Church Father far, far more important than Clement and certainly more important than the heretic Origen. St. John Chrysostom explicitly denies that procreation is the reason for sexual intercourse. He says the primary reason for sexual intercourse is to tame man, is to tame man and woman, is to be the solution for desire. This is exceedingly important. He calls procreation the great and specious reason for sexual intercourse.
Now, there are other Fathers who disagree, very important Fathers. So there is patristic disagreement on this point. However, I think St. John Chrysostom certainly is not a minor character in the patristic tradition.
Mr. Allen: Certainly not.
Fr. Josiah: He is a universal teacher of the Church.
Mr. Allen: And very important on this particular subject matter.
Fr. Josiah: Absolutely. Almost no one has written more about this than St. John Chrysostom, and his radical promotion of monastic life and, and the same time, his radical love for marriage and family life… In his teaching, Kevin, he describes really in practicality—I dedicate chapter four of the book to this—to what a spiritual marriage is, what a monastic family is, and what a domestic church is in St. John Chrysostom’s teaching. He says that marriage has the potentiality to create saints such that when you die you’ll be right next to the most pious monks and nuns. This is his vision of the glory of both states of life. This is a very positive view.
He never blesses—as a matter of fact, he explicitly castigates contraception. No Church Father, not a single one, has ever blessed artificial contraception. It’s very clear in our Tradition. However, to have a very positive view of sexuality, this is very Chrysostomian and very Orthodox.
Mr. Allen: And I want to talk a little bit more about that, Father, after we take our break, because I think that some people believe that there’re only negatives about sex and things of this nature in Christianity, so I want to start to build a foundation for the positive understanding of it, and we’ve been doing that, leaning towards marriage.
We’re going to take a short break. Tim, thank you very much for your call. Appreciate that. Have a great 2014. The number is 1-855-AF-RADIO, 1-855-237-2346. We’re going to take a short break, and my guest and I will be right back [in] just a minute.
Mr. Allen: Thank you, and welcome to Ancient Faith Today. My guest is Fr. Josiah Trenham. His book is Marriage and Virginity According to St. John Chrysostom, published by St. Herman Brotherhood, and we’re discussing sex, virginity, and marriage in the Orthodox Church.
Father, we finished up a minute ago, but I want to come back to the aspect of sexuality for those who are not in the child-bearing mode, either because they are infertile or because they are beyond the child-bearing years. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the book by a Dr. Ed Wheat. It’s a very popular book being cited by many Evangelicals out there, called Intended for Pleasure. What we’re talking about seems to be quite different from that, so maybe you could kind of, I don’t know, wrap all of this together in a response. Is pleasure not part of human sexuality from a patristics standpoint, number one; number two, what do you do if you’re beyond the child-bearing years or infertile, in terms of sexuality and how do you regard it and so on?
Fr. Josiah: You really drew me back 26 or -7 years ago, Kevin, by mentioning Ed Wheat’s book, because when I was going through premarital counseling as a Presbyterian—I was raised a Presbyterian—in fact, my wife and I were counseled, and that was one of the required books to read. You know Ed Wheat in his book… He’s an Evangelical Protestant. In general, Evangelical Protestants do not believe in ascesis, do not believe in the Church’s tradition, our concept of spiritual struggle and the spiritual disciplines at all like we do, so it’s not surprising to see someone who has, from an Orthodox perspective, a very naïve view of pleasure and giving it a broad swath without care, like we would.
That doesn’t mean that the Church Fathers castigate sexual pleasure or that you’re supposed to, when you have sex, try not to enjoy it. That’s absolutely ridiculous. The Lord has given wine to gladden the heart of man. The Lord has infused the conjugal act with pleasure, both to delight the couple and to encourage them to embrace children and life. The embraces of a husband and wife are a great consolation in a crazy world, and we celebrate that aspect of marriage, for sure.
What does this mean for people who are infertile? Well, it depends how old they are. If they’re young and they’re trying to have children, they’ve never had children before, the Church blesses their efforts to pray. Many people who were infertile were miraculously healed. Think: St. Elizabeth, mother of the Forerunner. Think: St. Anna, mother of the most-pure Theotokos. The Lord is a great healer, and we have many icons, many holy Fathers who great the great gift of child-bearing to couples. We take that very seriously. In our day, we have to be very careful, however, about the use of medical technology that has arisen in recent decades to create life in an illicit way, things like in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and other things.
Mr. Allen: By the way, I’ve got to be frank, some priests encourage that or allow it.
Fr. Josiah: Yes, they do, but the Church doesn’t. The Church doesn’t, and we have to be very careful not to want what we want when we want it more than God’s will. It’s ironic that in our culture where we talk so much about, as though it’s just a given—even in our Church it happens a lot—couples get married and they think that having children or not having children is something that they just decide themselves, as though when they decide, God’s going to cooperate, like they’re rabbits just reproducing. That’s just not how it works. Kids are a great gift of the Lord, the psalmist says. He gives the womb fruit or he doesn’t, and it’s much better to allow him to guide this, allow him to plant this, and to seek his blessing. If he doesn’t give it, I wouldn’t spend their whole marriage, 10, 20 years trying to have children, obsessed with this. If it can’t happen, accept it. That means God has a special calling on their life to do something else, perhaps adopt children, perhaps be missionaries in ways that parents couldn’t be. There are all sorts of ways God would meet us like that. Think of Priscilla and Aquila as a good example of a childless couple who were incredible missionaries.
When you get old, however, there’s a natural process of becoming infertile, and the Church encourages couples, as they get older, to calm down and to get ready for the next life. She doesn’t go around, searching out, saying, “Are you past 40 years of age? You can’t have sex if you’re past 40 years of age.” St. John Chrysostom explicitly, in his fifth homily on Titus, says that the Church does not judge those who are in old age and have sex. We don’t judge them, but we don’t honor it. That’s an attempt to… If you’re 75 years old and you’re still seeking to have relations with your wife, when are you going to stop? You know you’re going to stop when you’re dead. Why don’t you get a little bit ready, get a little bit prepared?
This is why, in the Orthodox tradition, so often our older folks are a tremendous example for us: because they dispossess themselves, they set their life in order, and they spend their last years really seeking the Lord. This is why our churches are so full of active retired people who run the ministries. Forgive me, I know this is my experience, but everywhere I go, I find this. The real workers are our people who are getting ready for the next life, and they have pushed aside the dominance, the tyranny of raising children. They still love their grandchildren, of course, but we can positively give up the earthly pleasures of sexual union when we know the greater pleasure of an eternal union with our spouse and Christ in heaven is coming.
Mr. Allen: And, Father, I have a call from Joe from Pensacola, Florida. Joe, welcome to Ancient Faith Today.
Joe: Hi. How are you guys doing?
Mr. Allen: Doing very well. Thank you for your call, and what’s your question for Fr. Josiah Trenham.
Joe: Yes, Father, as I told the gentleman who took my call, me and my wife are Roman Catholics. I’ve been moving for I think about three years now I’ve been on I guess a journey to Orthodoxy or however it may be properly put. But as you know, in our church before you get married, you’re encouraged to go to counseling, and they tell you to use natural family planning. So me and my wife have been faithful to doing that since 2002 when we got married. Three times we were open to sex when we knew that my wife was fertile. Well, guess what? We have three kids.
But I kind of feel that, natural family planning, sometimes I feel like I’m using it as a means to an end. I don’t always feel like open to life. Why not just be open to it all the time? I guess what I’m wondering is: what is the Orthodox Church’s position, do you think, on natural family planning? Is it okay, or… I don’t know. I guess that’s my question.
Fr. Josiah: It’s a very good question, and let me answer it this way. First I would say that the purpose of marriage—one of the purposes of marriage—is to participate with God in the creation of eternal human beings, and there is nothing more glorious, and the process of conceiving a child then raising children, parenting, is salvific. St. Paul writes to Timothy that “a woman will be preserved through child-bearing if she continues in faith, sanctity, and self-restraint.” She’ll be saved, actually, many English translations [have]. That is the word sōzō. The process of parenting is salvific. Giving yourself, learning to love others instead of yourself, to lay your life down for your children: this something to be embraced, and that’s normative. So I would say that.
If you’re getting married, you’re going to have children, try to accept what God gives you. If for some reason, you can’t, you should decide in consultation with those who are your important counselors. Of course, spouses with each other, the couple with their pastor or with their spiritual father, with their bishop, something like that. This is normal. And then, that would be the opportunity for the embrace of natural family planning.
Let me tell you why I would bless natural family planning, and why I think the Church does so in counter-distinction to artificial contraception. Natural family planning does not separate on principle pleasure and responsibility. What natural family planning tells you is that if you don’t want to have a child, then you don’t sleep with your wife when she’s fertile. Artificial contraceptives say: sleep with your wife whenever you want; you’re hungry, eat, and you can just avoid the responsibility. At least natural family planning, though it’s not normative, though it’s not to be recommended as normal, at least it calls upon the couple to exercise some spiritual effort, some self-denial, not to sleep with each other whenever they want to, for the greater good. This is what I would say.
Mr. Allen: Joe, thanks for your question. Appreciate it.
Joe: Thank you. Take care.
Mr. Allen: Thanks for listening.
Father, I don’t mean to get controversial, but I do want to come to you with a quote from a book that I read during my research for our program. It has to do with contraception, and let me quote it to you, please. I won’t mention the author or the book, just to keep it so it’s not personalized, but he writes:
I suggest, therefore, that a Christian couple may legitimately use some form of contraceptive, assuming of course that it is a true contraceptive, that is, that it prevents conception and not just implantation of the fertilized egg within the womb. The couple may want to consult a doctor to confirm that the form of birth control that they are considering is not abortifacient, producing abortions. Orthodox Christians believe that human life begins at [conception]. (Etc., etc.)
So obviously, and I’ve heard this from other priests, this view of family planning only, no in vitro fertilization, no use of [abortifacient] contraception. That may be the minority position among current pastoral advice in the Orthodox Church today. Give me your thoughts on that.
Fr. Josiah: Well, Kevin, I would question you immediately that you aren’t trying to be controversial, but I’m so glad you are being controversial. There is no chance to talk about procreation, in the Church even, without being extremely controversial, and that is because contraception is the great sacrament of secularism. The whole basis of the secularist, worldly life as has been promoted since the time of the sexual revolution and by the radical feminists is built upon the embrace of contraception. The Pill is their Eucharist. It is impossible to live their life selfishly, without children, without it.
So of course it’s going to be controversial, especially because many of our people have been educated in secular universities in our country. They’ve watched our shows, TV, the media’s propagated this. For goodness’ sake, this is the gospel—even though it is no gospel—this is the gospel of America. We’re promoting this nonsense through the United Nations, abortion and contraception, all over the world, and we’re even making poor countries sign onto it before we give them any food for their hungry people. Shame on us.
This is America today. So we can’t be foolish enough to think that in wake of the sexual revolution, combined with the fact that so many of our priests have not yet become educated, or I should say our bishops, too… I have heard some atrocious things out of the mouths of bishops about this subject which have no patristic foundation whatsoever. We need to be educated. We need to acquire, to re-acquire, the mind of the Church and speak authentically about what the Fathers say.
I would say in response to that quote you made: First, of course, we would never bless anything that kills a baby. So to say that we don’t permit abortifacient contraception is… There’s no controversy about that, although, however, there is a lot of controversy about the fact that some studies suggest that the Pill can function in an abortifacient way. And a lot of our ladies are on the Pill. But I would say this: the Church has never ever blessed any use of contraception whatsoever. I could give you a long list of Church Fathers, just like I did earlier, on one side, saying that explicitly contraception is wrong. And believe me, let me say this: contraception’s an ancient reality.
Mr. Allen: That was my question. Stick with that. Was there natural contraception in those days?
Fr. Josiah: Absolutely. Contraception… We have pharmacologies from the sixth century B.C. in which contraceptive practices, both abortifacient and non-abortifacient contraceptive practices… This was part of the patristic terminology amongst the Church Fathers. They have words for abortion. They have words for contraception. They have words for contraception that is abortion. Every type of contraceptive mention today—barrier methods, chemical methods, spermicides—they all existed in an ancient form.
Mr. Allen: They existed, and so the Fathers writing about this understood all of those pharmacological approaches?
Fr. Josiah: Absolutely. There is no question about that.
Mr. Allen: Good. Thank you for clarifying that.
Fr. Josiah: This is not one of the contemporary issues like bio-technology, like in vitro fertilization, that the Fathers didn’t address, but contraception’s old. The Church has always, with one voice… As a matter of fact, more than the Church, every Christian tradition castigated artificial contraception until the 1930s. The Anglican Church, the Church of England, was the first church to allow it, and even they allowed it care-... They opened the window with lots of qualifications, and then it flooded the Protestant world, so today it is normative in the Protestant world. Even the Catholics, who have a very clear papal teaching in 1968 [when] Humanae Vitae came out and Pope Paul VI, very prophetic, I would even say, teaching against artificial birth control is very clear—yet 60% of Roman Catholics in America—this is of 2011—60% do not believe in their church’s teaching on contraception and think that they can be good Catholics even though they disagree with papal teaching. That’s not as important to us, but the unbroken patristic teaching is that contraception is wrong, which is why in that book and in every one of the scads of contemporary books by Orthodox theologians, there’s never a saint quoted. Not a one. Forgive me, since when do we establish teaching and ethical guidance without reference to the saints and to the Tradition?
Mr. Allen: By the way, I want to pick on the Catholics, and I’m not picking on the Catholics, but I want to make this equivalent. In the Pew study on religion in I think it was 2010, and you’re probably familiar with it, 65% of Orthodox polled, sadly, believed that abortion in one or more of its stages should be legal and normative. So it’s not only the Catholics that are not following their papal injunctions. We’re also not following our patristic injunctions. Just as a point there.
Let me give the phone number, because we’re going to have about a half an hour left, so this is your chance to talk to a patristic expert and a contemporary expert on the subject, Fr. Josiah Trenham. The numbers are 1-855-AF-RADIO, 1-855-237-2346.
Father, we’re about to get to.. I really want to focus in on St. John Chrysostom’s teachings in a minute, but before I do, people like St. Clement, Ambrose, Augustine, say things like, “The Christian man ought not to look on his wife with sexual desire.” You mention in your book the apostolic injunction that “he who marries should be as unmarried.” There’s also extensive writing about chastity in marriage. What does chastity in marriage really mean? I immediately looked up in the dictionary what the dictionary term is, and it says “celibacy.” It’s got to be more than that!
Fr. Josiah: You know, Kevin, you’re just really getting me enthused. You’re really getting me enthused. That question itself could be a whole two-hour interview.
Mr. Allen: We’ll do it again.
Fr. Josiah: I love it. I love it, and I think our people are really, really asking this question. We should reference Hebrews 13, where St. Paul says, “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage-bed be undefiled.”
Mr. Allen: Right. So what does that mean?
Fr. Josiah: Let me answer that as best as I can; God help me. First of all, there is such thing as marital chastity, which is different from monastic or angelic chastity. Monastic, angelic chastity is virginity, complete consecration to God. Marital chastity, which by the way is mentioned many times in the crowning service. It’s in our wedding service; we ask God to bless the undefiled marriage-bed.
By the way, this is one of the reasons that you have to use the Church’s official marriage service. There are some books that have been revised in the mid-20th century that excised references to the undefiled marriage-bed, to the woman’s obedience to the husband. Really, some of our service books need to be chucked. But in the traditional, universal service, we ourselves pray that this couple would keep their marriage-bed undefiled and that they would practice marital chastity.
What does that practically mean? Well, it means this. Marriage is not a legal cover for perversity. If it’s perverse outside of marriage, it’s perverse in marriage. Fornication is a sin, but it’s not an unnatural act. The relation between a man and a woman, sexually, this is how they’re designed, and it’s out of place. That’s in great distinction, for example, compared to sodomy, which is an unnatural act. St. Paul calls it an unnatural affection. Men were not made for men like men were made for women.
In marriage, the perverse cannot come in. This means, practically speaking—let’s put the wheels onto the ground…
Mr. Allen: We’ve got a PG-13 warning on here already. It’s all right.
Fr. Josiah: This means that a man’s seminal juices are not made for a woman’s rectum. Anal sex, so popular today in perverse sexual culture, is a tragedy. It is barren by definition. It is unnatural, and it’s very seriously criticized and censured as an expression of outrageous lust. Another practice that is unnatural is a man discharging his semen into a woman’s mouth. I know this is very shocking. Oral sex today is so popular.
I had an eighth-grader—an eighth-grader—in my church come to me because he was so shaken up, and he was shaken up because he was coming home on the school bus—what’s eighth grade? he was 13 years old, coming home on the school bus—and the bus driver pulled over and he stopped the kids and he got onto the PA, and he said, “Everyone, listen. No oral sex on the bus.” He had to stop oral sex from going on on the school bus. Really, if you’re listening and your eyes are big: Welcome to America. Hello, are you awake? Welcome to America. This is not natural, for a man to discharge his semen into his woman’s mouth. This is the place she receives the holy Eucharist! This is the place he should kiss.
So these are unnatural: the use of pornography, the use of sexual toys. All of these things are really degrading, even sexual expression, conjugal acts that are animalistic. What I mean by that is that don’t communicate intimacy and love. This is why the Fathers place a big emphasis upon the eyes. Husbands and wives should not have sex in such a way that they don’t see each other. When they do that, what they’re really saying is, “I’m just in this for my gratification,” but they’re not just in this for their gratification, and the part that is, they’re trying to decrease that. And they’re trying to increase their thirst for children; they’re trying to increase their desire to please and be close to their partner. They’re not trying to increase their own thirst for lust.
Another way that we practice chaste relations in marriage is through moderation. What the Church Fathers mean by moderation is regulation, just like we don’t eat whenever we want to. We have meal times, and there are also sexual meal times. The Church Fathers ask us to tame our sexual impulse by not having sex on fast days, on Wednesdays and Fridays. Now, if you do, okay, fine. It’s not the end of the world. It’s not a perverse act; it’s a weak act. It’s like eating a hamburger. When you eat a hamburger, you broke the fast. You’re not showing the kind of thirst for being near God that you should. It doesn’t mean that eating meat is a sin. Eating meat is not a sin. Having sex is not a sin. There’s nothing inherently sinful about having intercourse with your partner, with your spouse.
But there are times for us to deny that desire, and those times are on fast days, those times are on Saturday night when you’re preparing for the holy Eucharist. It’s not because that makes you a sinner, not at all. By the way, we’re sinners. Period. We’re sinners, and the Eucharist is the solution for us being sinners. What is means is that when you should be calming yourself for the great act of uniting yourself with the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son of God, instead of doing what you should be doing, you are thinking about something else that’s earthly. It’s not sinful; it’s earthly. It can be sinful, especially if it’s defilement.
Mr. Allen: Important distinction. Very important distinction.
Fr. Josiah: Absolutely.
Mr. Allen: That also plays into or answers a question that I’ve struggled with all along as an Orthodox Christian, which is: What is the real point of any form of ascesis, and I think you’ve answered it. It’s to prepare one for the life where these things are not going to be either existing or central to our existence.
Fr. Josiah: What they typify will be in existence. Something far better: we’re trying to be with and near God. This is what our faith is. It’s not just about being self-satisfied religiously: “We have fulfilled the Law.” That is not… This is about a tangible, organic union with the living God that will transform us from glory to glory.
Mr. Allen: Yes.
Father, I have a call from your neck of the woods. I’ve got a call from Sarah from Riverside, California. Sarah, welcome to Ancient Faith Today. Good evening.
Sarah: Good evening.
Mr. Allen: Please go ahead and ask your question.
Sarah: My question is: What is the Orthodox view on artificial insemination within a married couple who is infertile?
Mr. Allen: Great question.
Fr. Josiah: Thanks for the question, Sarah. This is what I would say. I believe that the Church honors the privacy and uniqueness of the husband and the wife in the marital act, and that we are not to bring others into that miracle for the creation of a new life. This is the problem with the improper use of science. If, in fact, we involve doctors in the creation of life, we have stepped outside of the God-ordained means for doing that. This is why things like in vitro fertilization or the use… surrogacy, in which you now have two mothers: You have the mother who initially produced the eggs or at least contributed to the conception of that child and the woman who carries the child in her womb, which is a part of the maternal act: now you have that child essentially being born with two mothers, and this is why, so often, there is a legal challenge by the surrogate mother at the end of the gestation period, because she’s become attached to the child in her womb.
Artificial insemination is not as complicated or as fraught with these types of sins as in vitro fertilization or surrogacy, but it does involve the collection—usually, at least—of the man’s sperm, most often outside of the marital act, although it is possible to collect this in some circumstances through the marital act itself, and the placement of the fertilized ovum back into the woman by an exterior source. I think that’s a very complicated matter, and something that should generally be avoided.
Mr. Allen: Sarah, you have another question on that?
Sarah: Thank you.
Mr. Allen: Thank you very much for your call. Appreciate that. Bye-bye.
So we’re starting to descend, although we have another 20 or so minutes, so we’ll keep the phone lines open, producers, because this is an opportunity to speak with Fr. Josiah Trenham on a very important topic today in our culture and family life and so on, so we’ll keep the phone lines open until the end of the show.
Let’s go ahead, though, first, and take a pre-recorded message call that came in from Cheryl. We’ll take that now from Cheryl from Arizona.
Cheryl: My name is Cheryl. I’m in Bowhead City, Arizona, and I was calling to ask a question about marriage in the eyes of the Church. I was in a marriage of 15 years. It ended in divorce by his choice, and I ended up almost having to pay a significant amount of money to a man who was emotionally abusive to myself and our children during most of that time. My question really is: Does one have to be married in the eyes of the state, have to have a state-sanctioned marriage license, in order for the Church to perform a marriage and to consider a couple married in the eyes of God and in the eyes of the Church? I don’t want to put myself in the position of the legalities that I found myself in and this is a question that has been on my mind quite a bit, so I’m hoping you can answer my question. Thank you.
Fr. Josiah: Thank you, Sarah, for that question.
Mr. Allen: Cheryl, actually.
Fr. Josiah: Cheryl, forgive me. Cheryl. This raises the question of the difference between a civil, state marriage and an ecclesiastical or a Church marriage. Marriage belongs to God. It certainly does not belong to the state, which is one of the reasons that the state is not free to change it and alter it into whatever it wants, as our state in America is presently doing, as though marriage can be redefined constantly in its constituent parts.
Christians have always been required to have the blessing of the Church upon their unions. This elevates their marriage from something that’s natural, beautiful and natural, to something that’s Christian, and there’s a difference between natural marriage and Christian marriage. Natural marriage is something that belongs to the whole human race, but Christ has come to elevate earthly conditions and earthly states and to turn them into uniquely Christian ones and spiritual ones. For Orthodox Christians, this means that we are not allowed to be married outside of the Church. Of course, that marriage would simply be a legal contract that wouldn’t be the bestowing of God’s blessing and the mystical union of those two persons that’s effected through the sacrament of crowning.
This is why the Church insists that her people get married under her care, under her pastoral care. If they don’t, if they choose to go outside of the Church and get married by the state, they are not allowed to receive Communion until they bring that natural and now civil union into its Christian existence, into its Christian stature. We don’t call it fornication. We’re not saying it’s that, but it’s not Christian, and it must be, because these are Christian people.
Our arrangement with the state is an occasional one, meaning that throughout the history of the Church we’ve had a different relationship with the state. Sometimes the state has wholly delegated the process of forming and registering marriages to the Church. Today we work in tandem with the state, so I as a priest always insist, according to my bishop’s directives, that the couple that I’m going to marry brings a certificate of civil license for their marriage that I then sign in order to register them with the state. Remember, as we mentioned at the beginning of the show, marriage is not just a private matter, and it’s not just a Church matter, although it is primarily that. It’s also a state matter. The state has a vested interest in supporting traditional marriage between a man and a woman and family creation, because this is the stability of the state itself.
Mr. Allen: Although it’s changing, as we know. That’s a topic for another show.
Fr. Josiah: For sure.
Mr. Allen: Yeah. Thank you for your call. Let’s take one final call. I have Constantine from Boston. Constantine, good evening. Welcome to Ancient Faith Today.
Constantine: Thank you very much. I have a question. What would you say to a young couple who have several young children and are feeling very burdened by parenthood? Hypothetically they walk into your office in Riverside and they don’t want to use contraception, but to add another child to their family could be extremely challenging and stressful. Just to add to that, how would a kind of pastoral use of the concept of oikonomia play into this?
Mr. Allen: It’s a good question.
Fr. Josiah: It’s a fantastic question, and it’s certainly not hypothetical. This exact reality takes place in our church offices all over the world. Pastors are constantly confronted by this very question. I’m very, very sympathetic with the sense of burden that our young people have. I would only say this: I would say, “Welcome to the cross of Jesus Christ.” Any Christian who wants to be a Christian knows that our Lord has not promised an easy, comfortable, unchallenged existence. Just the contrary. He has promised that if anyone wants to follow after him, he must take up his cross, deny himself or herself, and follow him.
Nothing beautiful comes into existence without tremendous pressure. Our young men really dig deep when they’re young to buy a beautiful ring for their wives when they marry. They want something that is a token of their devotion, and they buy a gold ring or something with a diamond. That beautiful gold and that diamond doesn’t just appear. It’s not as though a jeweler walks over to a mountain, sticks in his hand, and pulls out this beautiful gold. That gold becomes beautiful through heat, pressure, a kiln, sometimes lasers.
This is why St. Paul says our faith is like gold tried by the fire. For most of us in this life, that fire is parenting and marriage, learning to endure what we didn’t think we could endure. The Lord constantly finds, puts us in positions where we need him, where we’ve reached the end of our rope, our energy is gone, and then we turn to him in our emptiness, and we say, “Lord, I can’t do this,” and he says, “I know. I’m so glad you figured that out and you’ve turned to me. Here. Let me bless you. Let me support you. Let me give you this blessing.” And he’ll help you through. So this is what my usual counsel is.
If the couple is resistant to that, as some are, if they think that they really just can’t do it, that they’re going to end up breaking up or something, then I would encourage them to reach out to their family, reach out to members of the parish, who can provide support and assistance. A lot of the burdens on young families today are because the art, the domestic arts, are completely neglected. No one knows how to run a house. No one knows how to parent. No one knows how to discipline. No one even knows how to cook!
Mr. Allen: Two people are working.
Fr. Josiah: Two people are working, absolutely. So cultivating the whole domesticity is really, really important, and that means connecting to older couples in the parish who have raised their kids. They have the scars of that experience, and they can help. This would be the next thing I would encourage.
If still they can’t do it, what does oikonomia mean? I think in this case, it doesn’t mean the blessing of illicit means. It means that you bow very low, and you say, “Okay, look. Recognize this is not normal. Give me some goals. Give me something where you will say: Okay, I’m at a position now that I can have another child if God so wills.” And then we work towards those goals. Maybe they practice natural family planning in order to space their children, until such a time as they reach those goals, but it can’t be just something that we say: “I have this bad feeling, and therefore I want to stop.” That’s not a healthy idea.
Mr. Allen: Constantine, thank you for your call. Appreciate it very much.
Fr. Josiah: Thank you.
Mr. Allen: Thanks for listening.
Father, we’re coming down to our landing here, and I want to get a couple of final questions in. Thanks for all the callers that have called in this evening. The Eastern Church, and later the Reformers, especially Luther and Calvin, rejected the idea of clerical celibacy as, obviously, the Catholics in the 12th-century Lateran Councils didn’t; they required clerical celibacy. So what was the… Given the fact that in the early Councils—the Council of Gangra (I’m not sure sure if I’m pronouncing that correctly) and others—there was universal acceptance of and even more than that, they favored virginity and celibacy and so on. Why did the East and why, then, did the Reformers reject clerical celibacy? Maybe we’ll talk about the East.
Fr. Josiah: Well, Kev, you started with the Protestant Reformers, mentioning the fact that Martin Luther and Calvin rejected consecrated celibacy, which was absolutely true. Of course, Martin Luther, who was a Roman Catholic priest who became a monk after he became an adult, who ended up marrying a nun who had become a nun after she was an adult, needed to get rid of this dogma to justify his own oath-breaking and sins. He was a man who wrote his theology on this subject very, very poorly, in my opinion.
Mr. Allen: But he did say—excuse me for interrupting—that the urge to procreate is as deeply planted in human nature as eating and drinking, and to try to check it is to keep nature from being nature. This is on celibacy and marriage. So it’s a theological point he’s also making.
Fr. Josiah: Absolutely. It’s a horrific theological affirmation, in fact, because what he’s affirming is that grace cannot triumph over nature. He’s asserting that nature is normative, and never can the grace of God… And what that means, practically speaking, if you push this Christologically, is that Jesus Christ was not a man. If to be a man was either to sin or get married… Jesus did neither, so Luther has a serious Christological problem.
He also affirmed… He knew he couldn’t say, “It’s absolutely impossible to be a celibate.” In fact in his writings he said that not more than one in a thousand persons possibly has this gift. I took that, his own ridiculous quote percentage, which I think is way, way out of line, but I thought, let’s give it to him: one in a thousand. I took at the time—I remember doing this study some years ago—I took the population of the Holy Roman Empire and divided one in a thousand. Even if his numbers were right, they would still have something like 400 monasteries, with an average of 20 monks and nuns! But, in fact, under Lutheranism they had not one. He turned his monastery into his family home. He drove out the monks. He helped many of them renounce their oaths, and justified it because he said they became monks when they were minors, which certainly does not apply to him So Luther is just messed up, and unfortunately he’s bequeathed that anti-ascetical, anti-monastic spirit to Protestants in itself. This is why there are no monks and no nuns in Protestantism in principle.
Mr. Allen: With the exception of Anglicanism.
Fr. Josiah: Even Anglicans, it’s a handful in the whole world, and most of them are imitators of Catholics and Orthodox.
Mr. Allen: Okay.
Fr. Josiah: So this is the sad reality of Protestantism, and the Protestants in our nation should know where they got this and that they’re inheriting a very, very skewed mentality which leads, practically speaking, to many Protestants, when they lose their spouses in old age, can’t imagine living the celibate, single life, even when they’re in their 60s and 70s. They want to go and find someone else to marry and do this whole thing again.
What about us? In fact, I would say, Kevin, we do not reject clerical celibacy at all. What we reject is mandatory clerical celibacy. In fact, half of Orthodox priests in the world are celibate.
Mr. Allen: Is that right?
Fr. Josiah: Absolutely. And we honor them. Think about all the priests who are hieromonks, all the priests who are monks in our monasteries. Many, many priests in the Orthodox Church are priests and are celibate, and we honor them. In fact, if they’re standing at the holy altar with a person like myself, they stand as my senior. I honor them for that. I love that. I have some young monk-priest friends, and when they come to my altar, I love to stand below them.
Mr. Allen: Is that right? Oh, I didn’t know that.
Fr. Josiah: Absolutely.
Mr. Allen: Even though you were ordained before them?
Fr. Josiah: Absolutely.
Mr. Allen: Okay.
Fr. Josiah: I’m an archpriest. They might be a hieromonk one year, but I adore what I see in the image of Christ in them and in their monasticism. It’s just a tremendous encouragement.
So what we oppose, and this was opposed very clearly in the Sixth Ecumenical Council… One of the canons of the Sixth Ecumenical Council says that Rome has made their mistake by going above the apostles. So this is what the Church says. The Orthodox Church says that the later Catholic legalization, the enforcement of mandatory clerical celibacy, is to make the mistake of going from something that’s recommended and honored to something that’s required. The result of that is to go above the apostolic mandate, because the apostles ordained married men, and made no requirement that they couldn’t have children, that our priests and deacons can’t have children.
Of course, I should say there are lots of requirements for priests and deacons in the Orthodox Church to have a higher standard of sexual regulation than lay people. Priests who serve in the altar have a very high standard, and that’s something that we honor. We adore celibacy wherever it’s found. Just think about our Church here in America. Some of our bishops—not a few—some of our really good bishops in this country were married priests. Their presvyteres, their matushki, their khouriyeh died, and they were ordained… As a matter of fact, I have a bishop friend whom I really love in this country who has his wedding ring placed in the top of his pateritsa, in the top of his staff. He sees and he remembers his marriage covenant there. He’s a bishop who’s been crafted in marriage and has embraced celibacy, of course, because his wife was taken to paradise.
Mr. Allen: Interesting. Well, as we’re coming to a close, Fr. Josiah Trenham, let me just kind of wrap up St. John’s understanding, and then I’ll ask you one last question. St. John makes a cogent and positive defense of marriage. Therefore, we can assume—and correct me where I’m wrong—that marriage and sexuality in the marital relationship is not, then, sinful.
Fr. Josiah: On principle, absolutely not, on principle. Of course, in practice, often, it is sinful.
Mr. Allen: It can be, but it’s not in principle. And it’s not necessarily only for procreation. There is a greater understanding of it than simply reducing it to procreation, or am I…?
Fr. Josiah: St. John Chrysostom is exceeding clear that the primary purpose of conjugal union is not procreation, but is the solution for man’s rascally, wily nature. It is [an] effective taming and maturation of man’s character.
Mr. Allen: Thank you. I think you’ve really done a good job of explaining how the ultimate state of our future life plays into every aspect of our current life and really must be a beacon to guide us. That really resonated to me in all of our conversation tonight. This is not just about sexuality and marriage; it’s about every aspect of our lives. We have to keep in mind that we’re not going to be this way forever. We’re moving somewhere.
Fr. Josiah: We have a glorious future, brother. And would you allow me to make an encouragement to some of our listeners? I know that when we talk about the Church’s standard and we lay out the beautiful, pristine goals that Christ has set before us to strive for, sometimes when we recognize that we haven’t attained those goals, or perhaps in our past we have serious stains and we carry wounds that the evil one can come sometimes and take a little stick and smack us on the head and say, “Look, you’re not like that, and you didn’t do that…” I really want to encourage our listeners not to give him a place.
St. John Chrysostom says something so beautiful about the love of Jesus our Savior for our souls, in the mess that we are in, and we are all a mess. He says that Jesus is unique as a boyfriend, as [an] engaged partner, and as a husband, unlike earthly suitors who are looking for the beautiful woman and who want to take her virginity from her, that Jesus is exactly the opposite, that he actually comes to us in our degradation, in our filth, in our poverty, even though we don’t have anything to offer to him except our own hearts.
He takes us to himself, and in the act of baptism, where he marries us and he joins himself to us, in opposition to what happens in a normal marriage, where the groom takes the virginity of the bride in marriage, it’s just the opposite: Jesus, in uniting himself to us, takes the person who’s not pure and grants them virginity in the baptism, so that they, in their union with him, come out restored and whole. This is my encouragement to all those who are wounded and feel the tyranny of the sexual impulse which has driven them to things that are not honorable. Jesus loves us, and Jesus is not hindered in his love for us by our past sins and mistakes. He even heals them and restores our purity and chastity to us in the baptismal font.
Mr. Allen: One last question, Father, along those lines. What should people, Orthodox people, do who have not preserved themselves in purity and chastity?
Fr. Josiah: They should do what every other sinner in the Church does. You know, today our message, the gospel lesson for the Sunday after Theophany, is the record of Jesus’ first public homily. The first time he ever, after his baptism, after fighting the devil in the desert, the first time he opened his mouth to speak to human beings publicly, he said this word: Repent. Repent, because the kingdom of God is here. That was the beginning of his sermons, that was the middle of his teaching, and just before he ascended into heaven, 40 days after his resurrection, he gathered his apostles and he told them: Go into the whole world and preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
So this is the counsel. Repentance is the greatest medicine. It heals every wound. It overcomes every sin. Repent! Like everyone else. This is what we’re doing in the Church, which is a hospital for our souls. We’re repenting and finding new life and wholeness in the risen Christ.
Mr. Allen: Well, Fr. Josiah Trenham, it’s been a pleasure to have you. Thank you so much. This has been a really great interview. Thank you so much. I appreciate for you being my guest. Victoria, thank you for joining your dad. It’s great to have you with us. Fr. Josiah Trenham’s excellent book is titled Marriage and Virginity According to St. John Chrysostom. Again, it’s published by St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood.
Join me on January 26 for our topic: How does the Orthodox Church reclaim its tradition of evangelism? With Fr. John Parker, the chair of the OCA’s Department of Evangelization.
Many thanks to our production team this evening, to our engineer John Maddex, our producer Bobby Maddex, our call screener Troy Sabourin, our chatroom moderator Steve Early, and my production assistant Jennifer Trenery.
Please tune in next week at the same time for the live call-in program, Orthodoxy Live with Fr. Evan Armatas. I’m being told that it will be a pre-recorded Orthodoxy Live next week, so you won’t need to call in. Thanks. Many blessings.
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