Fr. Thomas Hopko · May 2, 2012
What do the Scriptures and the Fathers say about fidelity in marriage, sex outside of marriage, or same-sex marriage? Fr. Tom gives extensive teaching on this subject in today's episode.
We reflected recently in this series of podcasts, Speaking the Truth in Love, about the fidelity of God. And we’d like to proceed now with a further reflection about fidelity, particularly the fidelity that exists in marriage – marriage as understood and hopefully, allegedly practiced by Christians; what the teaching is about monogamy and about marriage and about fidelity.
Generally speaking, we can say that fidelity is a quality of God. We said that in the other podcast, where God deciding to create a creation; a world; many worlds; galaxies; stars; planet Earth; and human beings, it is certainly the Biblical Christian teaching that the One, True, and Living God who creates is completely and totally faithful to His creation. He never abandons it; never forsakes it; never gives up on it; certainly, He does not destroy it; He does not forget it. In fact, in the Bible, it would be claimed that if God forgot something it would stop existing. We are kept in existence by the memory of God and God’s memory for us.
But this complete, total, radical, unconditional, unwavering, and unqualified fidelity of God to us, this is our Christian conviction that God is faithful to the whole of creation. And certainly very specifically that Yahweh – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – is completely and totally faithful to his beloved people Israel, from whom the Savior of the world comes. For the ultimate King of Israel, Jesus the Messiah, becomes the King of the whole creation – the Lord of all Creation.
And he opens up the covenant with God through Himself and His broken body and spilled blood to all the nations of the Earth, to all people, and to all the Gentiles. Everyone in Christ on the planet Earth has exactly the same possibility for the relationship with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit as anybody else, and certainly as the Gentiles have exactly the same as the Jews. So this fidelity of God through Israel is for the sake of fidelity to the whole of creation and certainly the fidelity to the whole of humanity.
Now in the Bible, the fidelity of God to creation; of Yahweh to Israel; of the Lord God Almighty to Israel His chosen people and then of course of God through Jesus Christ to the Church and to all of humanity through Christ, certainly the relationship of Christ and the Church, is likened more than any other way to a human marriage; to marriage itself.
And here in the Scriptures, marriage would mean a committed relationship between a man and a woman. And the Bible would teach us that to speak about marriage as heterosexual or homosexual would be nonsensical, because the very definition of marriage presupposes a man and a woman. It does not presuppose friendship or unity between people of the same sex. You can’t even use the term marriage technically as being anything other than a very particular relationship between a man and a woman.
Now this relationship between the man and the woman in marriage, according to the ancient Christian view in Christ when the ultimate perfection comes for the human race that that act of marriage between a man and a woman has to be completely and totally faithful forever. So basically, it’s a relationship and a communion in love of one man and one woman forever. There is no polygamy taught, no bigamy taught, no sexual relationships that are existing outside of this covenanted community of one man and one woman in a complete and total union of love forever.
The claim is that this mirroring and patterning of the love that God has for His creation – the absolutely, unqualified fidelity of God to His creation. It is Yahweh to Israel, His people chosen and beloved; Christ and the Church; and ultimately God through Christ and the Holy Spirit for the whole of humanity and indeed the whole of creation, which is made to be the one bride of God who is likened metaphorically to a husband.
And here I think that we must underscore again, as we did many times in these podcasts and certainly when I was giving the podcast on the 55 names and titles of Jesus that I chose to reflect on from the Holy Scripture, one of the first titles of Jesus is the Bridegroom and we are the bride. Creation is the bride. The Church is the bride. The human soul is the bride.
And Jesus is bridegroom and we are bride and he takes us into an eternal covenant of love and communion and union and intimacy forever and ever and ever. And Jesus is totally faithful to his one bride. And here you can say, “Well, if each individual is a bride of Christ, doesn’t he have many brides?” Well, the ancient Christian theology would say that God’s love is for humanity, for mankind, for men and women together become the spouse of God Almighty and then each one individually.
So there isn’t any kind of competition between humanity and mankind as a whole and the individual person. It really amounts to the same thing. In fact, St. John Chrysostom commenting on St. Paul’s teaching about marriage, about Christ and the Church, and especially about marriage where the man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife; the two will become one flesh, Chrysostom even uses that expression. “They become one man”, and they show through that unity the oneness of humanity as a while vis-à-vis God.
But the point that we want to make here now is about fidelity. And here of course, there’s a general teaching of fidelity. First of all, the creation – human beings – certainly, we want to speak about first and foremost those of us humans who live on the planet Earth. We are taught to be completely and totally faithful to God, because God is completely and totally faithful to us.
And this imagery is found, as I said already, just throughout the entire Bible. And it’s the most used imagery; certainly, the most used metaphor for the relationship of God with us is marriage and conjugal union. It’s not father and son by the way. That comes in Jesus that we all become sons of God through Jesus in the Father by the Holy Spirit.
There are many metaphors. They clash. There is fatherhood and son, husband and wife, and so on. But in the Old Covenant, if we take the Law, the Psalms, and the Prophets, there is no doubt whatsoever that the dominant imagery is husband and wife and that the Lord is the husband of his people, He chooses them as a bride. And this is in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel; it’s the whole meaning of the prophecy of Hosea. In the Song of Songs, the lover and the beloved are one. There’s one. There’re not many sexual partners or many wives or concubines and so on. You don’t have that at all.
But we want to see here this imagery of the husband. Let’s take for example, Isaiah 54. I would recommend that you simply read that chapter. It begins:
Sing, O barren, who did not bear; break forth unto singing, and cry aloud, you who have not been in travail: for the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her that is married, says the LORD.
Enlarge the place of your tent, let the curtain of your habitations be stretched out, hold not back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left and your descendants will possess the land and will populate the desolate cities.
For your maker is your husband, the Lord of Hosts is His name, and the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer, the God of the whole earth He is called, for the Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off says your Lord.
For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment, I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you says the Lord, your Lord and your Redeemer.
But let’s just take this one verse, “For your maker is your husband.” I mean, you can’t get clearer than that. Now if you take Jeremiah, you find exactly the same things. I would just recommend, just for example, that you read Jeremiah chapters one to three. You will see how he puts it.
The whole imagery there is that God’s people are loved by God as their one husband, and He is totally faithful to them, but they are not faithful to Him. And they seek many lovers. They are like an adulterous wife. The husband is faithful, but the wife is adulterous So let me just read a little bit from this third chapter.
“If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her? Would not that land be greatly polluted? You have played the harlot with many lovers – and would you return to me?” says the Lord.
“Lift up your eyes to the bare heights and see. Where have you not been lain with? By the wayside you have sat awaiting lovers, like an Arab in the wilderness. You have polluted the land with your vile harlotry.
Therefore the showers have been withheld; the spring rain has not come. Yet you have a harlot’s brow; you used to be ashamed.
Have you not just now called to me: ‘My Father, you are the friend of my youth, will he be angry forever?”
The Lord said to me in the days of King Josiah, “Have you seen what she did that faithless one Israel? How she went up on every high hill and under every green tree and there played the harlot. And I thought after she has done all this she will try to return to me but she shall not return, for her false sister Judah saw it”
And then it continues to develop this particular imagery of faithful husband and adulterous bride. Now in Jeremiah, there’s a very important section. It’s especially important for Orthodox Christians, because in the Orthodox Church, these readings from Jeremiah are read all the time in the festivals of the Lord. And so there’s this one that’s read all the time. It’s Jeremiah 31. It’s read at every great feast day in the Orthodox Church, and this is what it says. It’s Jeremiah 31:31-34.
“Behold the days are coming,” says the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them out by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband,” says the Lord.
“This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my law within them; I will write it upon their hearts. I will be their God; they shall be my people.
And no longer shall any man teach his neighbor, and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” says the Lord. “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
And of course Christians think this is applied to the New Covenant in Christ. It’s the ultimate, final covenant in Christ. But notice that he says when he brought them out of the land of Egypt and they broke the covenant, ” ‘though I was their husband,’ says the Lord.”
Now one of the most powerful chapters in Ezekiel would be the sixteenth chapter. I would suggest that you read the sixteenth chapter of Ezekiel where they whole imagery again is conjugal love, even erotic love. The sixteenth chapter begins by saying how the Lord God said to Jerusalem that He chose Israel from the very beginning and Judah. He saw these people when they were weltering in their blood and when they were still young. And then he said to them:
“Live and grow up like a plant of the field, and you grew up and you became tall and arrived at full maidenhood. Your breasts were formed. Your hair had grown, yet you were naked and bare. When I passed by you again and looked upon you, behold, you were at the age for love. I spread my skirt over you and covered your nakedness. Yay, I plighted my troth to you and entered into a covenant with you,” says the Lord God, “and you became mine.”
Then it says all the marvelous things that God did for his people.
“I bathed you with water, washed off your blood from you, anointed you with oil, clothed you with embroidered cloth and leather, swathed you in fine linen, covered you with silk, decked you with ornaments, put bracelets on your arms, a chain on your neck, a ring on your nose, earrings in your ears, a beautiful crown upon your head. Thus, you were decked with gold and silver, your raiment was fine linen and silk emboldened and embroidered cloth.
You ate fine flour, honey, oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful. You came to regal estate, and your renown went forth among the nations, because of your beauty because it was perfect through the splendor which I had bestowed upon you,” says the Lord God.
But then what happens?
“But you trusted in your beauty. You played the harlot because of your renown. You lavished your harlotries on any passerby. You took some of your garments and made for yourself gaily decked shrines, and on them you played the harlot – the like has never been nor ever shall be seen again.”
And then it speaks about the harlotry of the people; the adulterous bride; the one who is not faithful to the one husband. So this whole imagery here of course is the Lord God chooses His people as their husband and is totally faithful to them, and they are to be faithful to Him as their bride.
Hosea, which I will not read, the whole thing is about this. God orders Hosea to take to himself a wife of harlotry; to have children of harlotry, because God has taken a wife from harlotry. But God is totally faithful to her, and no matter how bad she becomes and how she pursues other lovers and everything, the Lord God never casts her off. He never forsakes her. He stays with her, and that’s what he tells Hosea to do, so that ultimately by his love, she may finally be converted and return to become his bride after committing adultery with all kinds of foreign idols and foreign gods and every kind of thing.
So you have it in Hosea. You could almost at random pick any chapter. For example, chapter five:
Therefore your daughters play the harlot. Your brides commit adultery. I will not punish your daughters when they play the harlot, nor your brides when they commit adultery. For the men themselves go aside with harlots and sacrifice with cult prostitutes. A people without understanding shall come to ruin. Though you play the harlot O Israel, let not Judah become guilty.
And it goes on and on in that same fashion. But the point being of all of the Prophets is that God ultimately remains totally and completely faithful. Now of course, in the New Testament that fidelity is crowned by the fidelity of God in the person of Christ. And in the Gospels, among the first titles for Jesus is Bridegroom. It’s in Mark; it’s in John. And you have St. Paul using this imagery, most famous of which is in Colossians and then in Ephesians which is read at a Christian Orthodox marriage ceremony.
The relationship of Christ and the Church is a husband and wife relationship. And the husband is to be faithful to his wife as Christ is faithful to the Church, and he’s completely faithful unto crucifixion and death. He loves the Church and gave Himself up for her to sanctify her, cleanse her, present her in splendor without spot or wrinkle or any such thing to be holy without blemish.
“So even husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves his very own self, for no man ever hates his own flesh but nourishes it and cherishes it as Christ does the Church.” So we are members of His very own flesh, and so he says, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife. The two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one; a great mystery. I’m saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.
“However, let each one of you love his wife as his very own self and let the wife see, that she may respect and reverence her very husband.” So the Christian teaching, when it comes to the marriage of a man and a woman is radical, unqualified, unconditional monogamy. Every man is to have one wife. Every wife is to have one husband. You’re not to have many wives. You’re not to have many husbands. And you are certainly not to have many lovers or many with whom you lay in fornication and have erotic sexual intercourse and communion with. That is absolutely excluded.
And here the Christian teaching would be that sexual intercourse belongs properly only within a committed and conjugal relationship of one man and one woman forever. There is simply no sexual, erotic, genital activity to be taking place outside the community of marriage. Between people of the same sex, it’s never supposed to take place – any kind of erotic, which then can only be anal and oral.
You can’t really have a communion and a union between people of the same sex. The union can only take place sexually and erotically between a man and a woman. Our bodies are made for that purpose. The man penetrates and goes into the woman, and the two become one flesh, and the result is the creation of a child, and this is the child of love.
So it would be certainly the very, very clear ancient Christian teaching that erotic sexual love takes place only between one man and one woman, and it takes place only between them once they have committed themselves forever in a communion of friendship and love. And here you have the Song of Songs in the Old Testament that prefigures all of this with one lover and one beloved. And in that particular book of the Bible, the lover calls his beloved, “My beloved, my kinswoman, my sister, my friend, and my bride.”
And here, it would definitely be the Christian teaching that a husband and a wife first of all must be brother and sister in God. They must be friends in God. They must learn how to be friends first, and then they become sexual lovers. And in a sense, this patterns our relationship to Christ and the Church.
For example, when a person wants to become one flesh with Christ and to become a member of the body of Christ, and through Christ to have God as Abba Father and to be filled with the Holy Spirit, they begin by cultivating a spiritual relationship with Christ. You learn His teaching; you see what He says; you see if you love Him; you see if you’re ready to be committed to Him; if you see that you are ready to have Him as your husband forever and ever with no qualification or condition.
And when that takes place, then you get baptized into Christ. Then, you are sealed with the Holy Spirit, and then you receive Holy Communion. And here I would say, there’s an exact analogy between receiving Holy Communion in the Church and having sexual communion in a fully-committed, heterosexual, monogamous marriage. It’s exactly identical. You first become spiritually united, and then you crown the unity with the fleshly union. So it is in the Church.
For example, no one can come to the Church and say, “I want to see if I love Christ and see if I belong to Christ, so I’m going to come and go to Holy Communion sometimes. And then, if I like Communion, I think maybe I’ll commit myself to Christ, and then maybe I’ll die with Him in Baptism.” It’s just the opposite. Holy Communion is the crown of love. It’s what seals the relationship. It’s the consummation of it. It’s not the beginning of it.
Now of course in the secular, fallen world you’ll have people who will say, “Well, why would I commit myself forever to anybody anyway? Maybe we’ll fall out of love. Maybe this is only good for a time. Maybe we’ll love somebody else. Maybe we’ll love many people. Maybe we’ll want to have sex with everyone.” Well the ancient Christian and Scriptural Christian answer would be that that’s part of the corrupted world, but that’s not the way Christians behave. That’s not the way Christians do it. If you’re a Christian, you just don’t do it this way. Period.
If somebody would say, “How come, as a Christian, you can’t have fornication and sleep around with boyfriends and girlfriends and have many of them? Or get married and decide you’ll break it up or have an open marriage where you can have sex with other people? Why wouldn’t you do that?” The very answer would be very simple. Christians don’t do that.
Christians’ view of what that reality is comes from God and the world, from Yahweh and Israel, from Christ and the Church. We are patterning the behavior of God. To put it another way, we are loving one another with the love which God loves us. And it’s a jealous love. God does not have many lovers. He has only one lover. We only have one lover. Our lover is Christ. And then because of our unique love for the one Christ and the one God and the one Holy Spirit, we in are human relationships only have one communion of conjugal love on Earth – one man and one woman.
And if a Christian, who is baptized and sealed, is not called to a conjugal married life, then that man or that woman is called to celibacy. That would be the classical Christian tradition. Virginity and celibacy, that is the fidelity to the one God and Savior Jesus Christ. So there is only two ways for human beings to be completely and totally and perfectly faithful to God in their human relationships. And it’s to be certainly faithful to their friends, faithful to their country, and faithful to all of their relationships with people.
But the only structural way, which would involve sexual activity, that human beings can be faithful to God is either by being a celibate virgin or by being in a fully, completely, totally committed conjugal relation of one man and one woman forever. That is the original Christian teaching. That is the strict Christian teaching.
Now people could say, “Well, who could do that? Who can possibly do that?” Once, I gave a talk at Vassar College, when all this sexual license was beginning, and they started having not only co-ed dorms, but co-ed bedrooms, and there was simply just open sex. This was in the late 60s and early 70s, I would go there. And once I gave a talk at the Chicago Hall, packed with people, and they said they hadn’t had so many people come to a talk since Dr. Ruth, the sex lady was there. And they had pictures of me all over the campus with a cassock and a cross on, pointing a hand in the sky or something on the poster. And it said, “Heterosexual monogamous marriage.”
So I went there and I talked about that. And I went through all the Scriptures including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Song of Songs. Then I went through the Christian teaching of Christ as the Bridegroom who dies for His bride. Then, I went to the early Christian teaching, where the Lord Jesus said very simply and very clearly. I can read it to you in St. Mark’s Gospel. It simply says this:
The Pharisees came up, in order to test Jesus and they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to put her away.” But Jesus said to them, “This was because of your hardness of heart.”
In Greek, that is one word scleocardia, sclerosis of the heart.
“This was because of your hardness of heart that he wrote this commandment, but from the beginning of Creation it was not so. But from the beginning of Creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother. He shall cleave and be joined to his wife. The two shall become one flesh, so they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not human beings put asunder.”
And in the house, the disciples asked Him again about this very same matter. And He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
That’s all Christ says in Mark. Now most people know that in Matthew, there is the very famous Matthean exception to this rule. It’s found in the Sermon on the Mountain, and this is what you hear in Matthew. This is what Jesus says. It’s recorded in the Sermon on the Mount.
“You have heard it said that you shall not commit adultery, but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away. It is better that you lose one of your members than to lose your whole body that your whole body would be thrown into Hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off; throw it away. It is better that you lose one arm and one of your members, than that your whole body may go into Gehenna.
It was also said ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce,’ but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of pornea (sexual sin) makes her an adulteress. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
That’s the Christian teaching. That is simply the Christian teaching. Now there’s much more that can be said about this. Let’s say a few things. First, in the Old Testament this was not the practice. When you read the Old Testament, all Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David the King (the very great prefiguration of the Israelite King, whose Kingdom will have no end, namely the Messiah) had many wives and many concubines. David had the daughter of Saul first, Michal. Then of course he commits adultery with Bathsheba, and he arranges for her husband to be killed. Then, he has to repent of it.
So you had concubines and you had many wives. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob had many wives. And the Lord Jesus said this was all because of the hardness of their heart. Now, we should remember also that in the Old Testament a wife was considered a property of the man, like his cattle or his field. And so a man could have many wives, but committing adultery would mean that he took the wife of another man or that another man took his wife. So there could be polygamy, but there could still be adultery when there’s infidelity.
By the way, I was reading the Old Testament, many times in my life when I used to be a teacher in the school, trying to find this question. Was there anyone who was really monogamous in the Old Testament? Well, let’s ask about Moses. Moses was married to the daughter of Jethro, Zipporah. But later on in the first chapter of Numbers, he marries a Cushite woman. And then Miriam, his sister, and Aaron, his brother, get angry with him and they have a fight. You can read about that in Numbers 12.
Now it doesn’t say whether Zipporah was still alive or not. I always assume that Zipporah was dead, and so he took a second wife. But I don’t know whether Moses had two wives at the same time as David. And then of course, there’s this crazy man Solomon who had like 300 wives and 700 concubines, just totally impossible Solomon. I don’t even know why we ever put a fresco of him in our church, except that he’s a prefiguration of the wisdom that comes in Jesus, who is the Wisdom of God.
But there’s one person who I found that I think really was totally monogamous and so was his wife. And that is this great prefiguration of Jesus, perhaps the most important one besides Moses in the Old Testament, and that would be Joseph. Because it says in the Scripture that Joseph was given, as a wife, the daughter of the priest of Potipherah in Egypt. And her name was Asenath.
So Joseph did have this wife that was given to him by Pharaoh. She was the daughter of the priest, and he got married to her when he was about 30 years old and when he was ruling as the King of Egypt, as a regent or vicar for the Pharaoh. It’s in the end of Genesis. And then it says that when the famine came, Joseph had two sons whom Asenath, the daughter of Potipherah the priest of On, bore to him.
Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh, for he said “God has made me forget all my hardships in all my father’s house.” And the name of the second was called Ephraim. Now when we have the listing of Israel’s children, Jacob’s children, only Manasseh and Ephraim are listed as coming from Joseph, and they’re coming from Asenath. However, a whole lot of those other guys had children from several different wives.
Certainly it’s the case that Jacob, Israel himself, had children from different wives. Jacob had not only from Rachel, but he had from Leah and so on. So the Old Testament definitely had concubinage and polygamy, but it still had strong teaching about adultery, but it even said that you could divorce a wife. The wife couldn’t divorce a husband, but the husband could divorce a wife.
Now when they asked Jesus about that, He said it was because of the hardness of your heart. This was allowed in Moses’ law because of the hardness of your heart. It should not be so. From the beginning, it was not so. From the beginning, it was one man and one woman forever. And the one man and the one woman, they symbolized the love of God for the whole of humanity.
There was something deeply mystical and symbolical about the marriage of a man and a woman. It was a created imagery of how God acts toward us. That’s why there could be no fornication, no infidelity, no open marriage that people could have sex just with whomever they wanted, and certainly no sexual communion, except in that communion of love for those who belong to Christ.
Now, my own opinion is I could never understand why Christians would try to get non-Christians to act this way. It’s madness in my opinion. If people don’t believe in Christ and everlasting life; in the unique love of God for us; in the unique love of Christ for us as our one Bridegroom and us as his one bride, why in heaven’s name would they get married at all?
It makes perfect sense to me why all these people don’t get married – from LeBron James to I don’t know who. It makes sense even where a guy, like Newt Gingrich and all that about him and his three wives; at 19 he marries this 27 year old science teacher. In a sense, if you’re not committed to God in Christ or if you’re committed in a very strange and crazy way, you can understand why people would do this.
But an Orthodox Catholic Christian; following the Holy Scripture; within the Church of Christ; being baptized into Christ; sealed with the Spirit; participating of Holy Communion, that’s simply completely and totally out of the question. And it’s not because sex itself is evil. Sex is good. Everything is good that God mad. What makes it evil is its use, its perverse and corrupted use.
So for example, if we would say that people have sexual communion like man and wife and even live like man and wife without being married, we wouldn’t say that the sin there is because their sex is perverted or corrupted or that the sex is evil. Or that sex becomes good once you become married, but otherwise sex is evil. No, it’s good, but it has to be used in the proper way, to the right end, and in the right context, and for the right purposes.
And this is why all sexual activity between people of the same sex is excluded. And why all sexual activity between a man and a woman who are not married is excluded, because it’s a misuse of this particular part of humanity that’s given to us by God.
So if you wanted to put it another way, you could say, “Why is sex before marriage or outside of marriage a sin?” The answer is because it’s not being used the way God wants it to be used. It’s a very good thing, but it is a good thing being defiled. It’s a good thing being corrupted. It’s a good thing being abused and misused.
And we can remind ourselves again that according to the Holy Fathers, every sin is a misuse and abuse of something good. All evil is a corruption of something fundamentally good, and sexuality is good. God created sexuality for human beings. Maybe he created it because He knew what would happen, and this was the best way of creating things. Some of the Church Fathers think that is so. But in any case, it is the will of God that we are male and female, and it was so from the beginning and Jesus Christ our Lord has said so.
Now another question that could come up, which does come up is, “What about getting married when your spouse dies, like a widow or a widower? Can you then get married to someone else?” And here, the strict, radical Christian teaching is absolutely not. And one of the greatest witnesses of this in Christian tradition is St. Paul, when they were enrolling the widows that he testifies to this in 1 Timothy – the Early Church, following Paul’s teaching.
Perhaps he didn’t write the letter with his own hand, but it certainly was a Pauline teaching that if widows were going to be enrolled in the Christian Church with the virgins, they had to have been a widow who was only the wife of that one husband. Widows who had more than one husband could not be technically enrolled among the sacred, consecrated widows in the Christian Church.
Just like, you could not be the bishop or the priest unless you were the husband of one wife. And that doesn’t mean the husband of one wife at a time, and it doesn’t mean the husband of one wife, after you’ve divorced a wife or the woman is divorced. And the priest can’t be any woman’s second husband either. That’s against the Bible and the canons of the Orthodox Church. Absolutely against it!
Now this is violated of course, and it’s even justified by economia, and there is a kind of economia, I mean, it’s already in the Bible. St. Paul said, if you have younger widows and are going around making trouble and gossiping, rather than letting them loose, you should let them get married again and let them have a family and take care of the household and raise up children, and that will be better than sinning. But it still is not the ideal.
And originally, this was not the ideal for any Christian. And then as the Christianity got weaker and economias came in and all kinds of penitential disciples entered, then at least these rules were kept for the clergy, not only the male clergy (the deacons, the presbyters, and the bishops) but even for the female so-called clergy, those who belong to the clerus, like the virgins and the widows. The virgins have to be the wife never of any husband, but the widow had to be a woman who was only the wife of one husband. And that proves, it seems to me, when it speaks that a man cannot marry a widow, or a widower cannot marry again and become a priest, because you can only have one forever.
Now if you get beyond St. Paul and go to St. John Chrysostom, and here if you’re interested, I would just recommend on this point that you read Homily 20 of St. John Chrysostom’s on the Letter to Ephesians. Read Chrysostom’s Homily 12 on Colossians. Read Chrysostom’s Homily 10 on First Timothy, where he says that if people are having sex, and they’re not chaste before their marriage, why do they come to be crowned, because the marriage ceremony had a crown. And our Orthodox marriage ceremony to this day has crowning. He says:
If you have already surrendered in battle, why do you come asking for a crown? If you’ve already been subdued, how can you wear a garland? He that is chaste before marriage, much more will he be chaste after it. And he that practice fornication before will practice it after.
So Chrysostom is claiming that a fornicator is not likely to become very chaste when he gets married, which I think is empirically proven just by looking at humankind. And how many famous men in our time were not faithful to their wives? The two most famous people of my lifetime childhood were John F. Kennedy, the president who was shot, and Martin Luther King Jr., who was also assassinated.
The night that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, according to one biographer and it’s pretty much verified, he slept with three different women, none of whom was his wife Coretta. He also had women in various places that he would visit for sexual purposes. And he even went to his wife, when she was sick in the hospital, thinking she was going to die, where he repented and confessed his infidelity to her.
Now I guess sexual fidelity perhaps need not be the litmus test of a person’s virtue. I think it should be frankly and personally, but that’s my opinion. But it is a great test of how a person is otherwise, and it even gives a kind of meaning to the other things that they do in life. You can do very great things, but if you can’t be faithful to your own spouse, what kind of a human being are you, whether you’re a man or a woman?
So this fidelity in marriage, this radical monogamy, it really is a very, very strict Christian teaching. And if you’re not married, then you are a virgin. You engage in no erotic sexual activity with anyone, although you are friends and in communion and intimate love with everybody. You love everyone equally and have sex with no one, because love does not necessarily have to be expressed in sexual activity. And of course sexual activity may be done without any interest in love at all. It’s just done for pleasure and carnal satisfaction and fun as mutual friends with benefits and all that kind of stuff. That’s not the Christian teaching.
And so John Chrysostom has a fantastic letter, which you might want to find and read. It’s called The Letter to a Young Widow. And he encourages this young widow not to marry again, even though by economia, by condescension, it might be allowed in the Church.
The Church came even to allow divorced people to marry, if it was really and pretty provable and demonstrable in their behavior that they were penitent about it. They just couldn’t go from wife to wife. Like I don’t know, you could have three wives, but not four. That’s not the teaching. If you fail, you may repent and God may give you another chance at a second marriage.
But the second marriage ceremony in the Orthodox Church is a very severe penitential rite, and I’m afraid most priests don’t even use it when they ought to. It’s begging God for mercy to have a second marriage, because that’s not the norm. That’s not the rule. That’s not the strict patterning of behavior of God, who is totally faithful to His people.
So Chrysostom writes to this younger widow and says that if you didn’t share your bed with your husband, when he was alive with you on Earth, why would you share the conjugal bed with another man now that he is with the Lord? You are still married to him. You are still in communion with him.
In fact, we even believe, and I preach this many times in my life that when a man’s wife dies or a woman’s husband dies, as real Christians they remain faithful to them forever, and they cultivate a new relationship with them since they are in the presence of the Lord. But Chrysostom says that explicitly. He said if you’re really a strict Christian, you will be faithful even through death. And we have no expression in our marriage service until death do us part. There is no parting.
So really this monogamy is the most perfect expression of the love of God for creation as is also virginity. Those are the two perfect human expressions of the love of God in human form. Sure, they can be penance. Sure, there can be economia. Certainly, there can be condescension to people’s sins and weaknesses, but they should be understood as being sins and weaknesses. They should not be justified in any case.
And the fact that, at least in theory, the Orthodox Church preserves all these norms and canons for the clergy should be demonstration enough that this is the Christian teaching, which really should not be violated. When it’s a violation, it should at least be acknowledged as a violation, and it should be approached penitentially, not as some kind of right to people. No, we have no rights over our own body.
In 1 Corinthians 7, the Apostle Paul says, “You have one husband; you have one wife. You come together, lest the devil tempt you,” not necessarily in fact to have a baby, but lest the devil tempt you. And then he says very specifically that your body isn’t your own. It belongs to your wife, if you’re a man. If you’re a woman, your body is not your own. It belongs to your husband.
And that’s why we cannot do with our bodies anything we want. Not only can we not commit adultery and fornication, but we cannot commit masturbation. How can a person masturbate in their own body when their body is not their own but belongs to their spouse? So when we do it, it’s a sin, because we have stolen something from another that is not our own.
Once we got married, we gave our body to the other person, just like once Christ comes on Earth and gets crucified. He gives His body to us. He gives his flesh to us completely, totally, unconditionally and total purity. And we cannot defile that flesh. And that’s why we cannot defile our own flesh. As St. Paul will say in that same 1 Corinthians letter, “Don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit? Don’t you know that your body is a member of Christ?”
Well if that is true, then there’s really only two ways for Christians to live when it comes to sexuality. One way is a celibate virgin or a celibate penitent. Maybe a person defiled their virginity, but then they offer their celibacy to God. Or the other way is they enter into a monogamous marital relationship, which means one man and one woman. That’s what it means. And then their intention is to live that way forever and to enter into the Kingdom of God that way.
And in the coming Kingdom every married person, if they were really following Christ, strictly would really only recognize one other person in the Kingdom as their wedded wife or husband. Now of course in the Kingdom, there will be people who had many wives and husbands. Jesus speaks about this in the Gospel – the woman who had up to seven husbands because of the Old Testament law that you had to raise up children for her.
But when people say, who gets the girl in the Kingdom? The answer is nobody. In the Kingdom, there is no marrying or given in marriage. There is no sexual activity. However, our earthly life does extend into the Kingdom, and that’s why it would be the strict teaching that every man should only have one wife forever, even through death. A woman should have only one husband, even through death.
This is so that in the Kingdom they could really say, “Lord, we loved the way you loved, because we only had one wife, one husband, one spouse, one marriage. Just like you only had one marriage and just like we are faithful to you, not by having spiritual and religious intercourse with idols and like a stallion in heat, as the Prophets say. But we are completely and totally faithful to you, as you are completely and totally faithful to us.”
So radical monogamy together with virginity before marriage or virginity forever if one does not marry, that is the ancient Christian strict teaching. There is no doubt about it. Everything else is a condescension. Everything else has to be related to in a penitential manner if we are a Christian. We can hope on the mercy of God when we fail and fall. God can forgive us, but we should never justify our sin. We have to confess it as a sin.
And when you have more than one husband and more than one wife and more than one lover and are having sex outside or before marriage or within marriage other partners, then you are sinning. You are missing the mark that God has set for humanity. Now once again, in ending, we can say “Who can do this?”
And when I was telling about my talk at Vassar College, I never finished the story. The story was that when I finished giving this whole talk to these young people in Chicago Hall in Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, some fellow, I can picture him in my mind right now, with a black afro, wire glasses, and wearing a lumberjack shirt, probably of Jewish origin, he simply said to me, “My first question to you sir is this, do you actually believe that?”
And I answered and said “Well, I believe; help my unbelief. My name is Thomas. If you know Christian tradition, Thomases are known for doubting. But yes I try to believe that way; I try to live that way.” And then he said to me, “If you ask me, it would take a miracle to pull that off.”
And I loved my answer. To this day, I loved my answer. Just out of my mouth came the following words, “I’m very happy to let you all know that at least one person in this auditorium tonight understood my talk.” Because it does take a miracle, and to live as human beings are supposed to live, which Christians believe is in a Christian manner, is humanly impossible without the grace of God. It’s humanly impossible without the power of God.
If you ask the Lord Jesus, “Who can do what you teach?” His answer is, “With human beings, this is impossible, but with God it becomes possible.” So the Christian life is the life of human beings, living a humanly impossible life that becomes only possible by the grace of God; by the power of God; by the gift of God in Christ by the Holy Spirit.
So our teaching would be that virginity and radical monogamy are our teaching, but that is possible only with God with whom all things are possible. So with God all things are possible, and so is virginity; so is celibacy; and so is radically committed monogamy even through death.