Orthodox Christian Morality in Public:  Reflections on Sexuality and Bioethics

December 6, 2013 Length: 36:52

What is a person? Is our culture confused about what a person is? What is morality? What does it mean to be moral? How does sex fit in? What about homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research and assisted suicide? How should we as Orthodox Christians live regarding these matters? How should we talk to our family and friends about them? How should we talk to the wider society about them? Should we engage in political action over them?





There are few things that give the impression that traditional Christians are a bunch of mean killjoys like discussions about morality, especially sexual morality. Surely we are a bunch of puritanical monsters who want nothing more than to ruin everyone’s fun. Sacrifice everyone’s freedom and tell everyone they are going to hell, unless they follow suit right? Well not.

But there are certainly people who think of us this way and there are Christians who help them think that way by behaving that way. But if we are going to engage the world on topics like sex, abortion, stem cell research euthanasia, and so forth, we can’t just settle back into finger-wagging moralizing. Telling people that they are being bad if they don’t follow our rules.

For one thing, they just aren’t going to buy into that. But for another many of the people in our own churches do not know what Orthodox Christians believe about these things or why we believe them. In both cases, if all they get is that we who are trying to follow the Orthodox Christian tradition and spiritual life are just disdainful people then they are not going to be inspired to change anything about themselves.

So what is the basis for our understanding of all these issues? Are these really new problems that Orthodox theology has no answer for? Does Orthodoxy need to change with the times? What does it actually mean to be moral? Over the next few minutes we are going to touch on these questions and more.

First, since all these topics fundamentally have to do with the human person, we have to ask; “What is a person?” Do we know? In modern society, it is generally assumed and agreed that all human persons are valuable based on our political tradition of individual rights. But that tradition did not come out of nowhere. It is not self-evident that everyone is valuable and everyone is equally valuable, after all why shouldn’t a strong man be more valuable than a weak one?

Why shouldn’t be a beautiful woman be more valuable than a less attractive one? Why shouldn’t smart people be more valuable than the intellectually challenged? Why shouldn’t someone whose productivity is over, be killed so that he won’t take up resources from the people who are producing something useful to society? Why shouldn’t men have total control over the lives of women?

It may come as a surprise to many of us that for much of human history and even now in many places, that every person is not only valuable but equally valuable is not self-evident. That basic ethical doctrine on which we base so much of our culture is not universal to every time and place.

That belief only comes with the introduction of Christianity into the world and when it came, the revolution that it brought was nothing less than astonishing. No longer was it consider okay for Roman mothers and fathers who had too many children to just leave a new baby out in the wild to be eaten by wild beasts. That was normal.

No longer was it considered possible for the father of a house to kill or exile his wife or children just because he didn’t want them around anymore. That was normal. No longer was it considered normal for the strong to take advantage of the weak or the powerful to rule absolutely over the powerless. That is how everyone assumed it ought to be.

But no longer was a man higher than a woman or one race better than another.  Even slaves were considered by Christians of the same worth as their masters. There is neither Jew nor Greek. There is neither slave nor free, there is neither male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus-words from the Apostle Paul.

You are all one in Christ Jesus—that is the basis of the Christian ethic of the equal value of every human person and this doesn’t mean just members of the church either. When Jesus came into this world it revealed something about human nature that had not been revealed before, something someone would have never thought possible, something that seemed crazy to anyone who claimed it? And what was that?

Jesus’ coming revealed that the very highest and best and most beautiful and powerful and noblest being that there could be, God himself could be found in a human person. Jesus Christ the God/man is the very God of the universe come here to earth as a man. That all seems very normal and obvious to those who are Christians, of course, but to pagans and to Jews of the first century, that was complete craziness.  God was so high and glorious and infinite, that He would never stoop to becoming something as limited and solid and fleshy as a human person.

God would most certainly not become a man but that is what we believe. And it is that doctrine that shook the world to its core and turned everything upside down.  Because if God could become a man, if the presence of the Divine life could be manifest not just in a man but in a child, not just in a child but in a tiny baby, not just in a tiny baby but inside the womb of a teenage Jewish virgin and that means the human nature is something a lot more important than we had ever realized and that means all of human nature from conception into eternity.

And the reason why human nature can convey the presence of God is because it had been designed from the start, according to the image of God, our basic design was to be a vessel for the energies and power of God and that is something that goes beyond all race, class, sex, age or social status that is everyone who has ever lived. This then is what it means to be a human person.

We are distinct beings, who are made to live in Communion with God and with each other. I’ll say that one more time, this is a human person, we are distinct beings who are made to live in communion with God and with each other. Our life came from God from the start and so our worth comes from God as well.

Everything is always referred back to him. Why is human worth absolute and inviolable? It is because God is absolute and inviolable. And why in our time is absolute human worth becoming questioned once again? It is because human life is no longer being referred back to God, instead of inalienable rights being endowed by the Creator, they are understood as coming from the government. That is a rather different model. If only because the government unlike God has been known to change its mind.

So what does all this have to do with sex? How does traditional Christian sexual morality derive from what we as Christians believe about human personhood? First we should probably should say what the content of that morality is. For Orthodox Christians, sexual relations are good when they are in the context of a marriage of one man and one woman and that marriage is meant to last for life. It should also go without saying that sex within marriage should never be violent or forced although some people might think that is ok, it is not.

Sexual activity outside that life long bond is spiritually and sometimes physically destructive and not according to God’s design. It doesn’t matter whether it is heterosexual, homosexual, polyamorous, masturbation, BDSM, pedophilic, bestial, incestuous, etc. and if you don’t know what all those things are, good for you!

Anything outside God’s design for marriage is a problem. It doesn’t matter if it feels right, feels good, feels like it was meant to be, feels like you can’t help it, etc. There are people who seem to think that sex outside marriage is ok if you really love the person but not if the other person is the same sex as you. But it is the same, it is outside of the design.

Homosexuality is still somewhat scandalous, although it is getting less so, pedophilia is even more scandalous though even that is getting less so. There are all whole sorts of organizations dedicated to promoting pedophilia as a sexual orientation that needs to be permitted and blessed.

But heterosexual sex outside of marriage should still be considered scandalous, divorce should be scandalous, adultery should be scandalous but they are almost not anymore. Yet if you are not expressing it in a lifelong one woman, one man marriage, all sexual activity are outside God’s purposes. It should all be cause for scandal and I think we cannot emphasize that enough.

This is about God’s purposes. Often when it comes to love and sex and marriage, people think only of their own purposes; “will this make me happy?” “Will this make me feel fulfilled?” But they often do not ask whether it is what God wants them to do or they may fool themselves into thinking that whatever they want, must be what God wants too.

Just follow your heart and everything will be ok, if you have a purified, perfect and holy heart, go ahead and follow it but if your heart still has some selfishness, some self-interest, some laziness, some pride and so on, then your heart shouldn’t be followed, it has to be led.

And for us who are Orthodox Christians our hearts are led to what God wants by listening to the teachings of the church, not just when we like them but especially when they are hard. Sex is an especially tough topic because it is so intimate and it is so private, yet we have brought it out in public in a big way in our modern culture. And because there is so much discussion going on in public and Orthodox Christians have to join that conversation too.

But we have to do so carefully and with great love because many whom might listen to us are predisposed to think that we speak on such things out of hatred. But the Orthodox Church hates no sinner at all. We are all sinners, my sins are worse than yours, worse than anyone’s. How am I better than someone who has temptations that are different than mine? They may fall into those sins and I fall into mine and all keep us away from God unless they are repented of. One of the key things that Orthodoxy has to say to the modern world about sex can be summed up in four words: “you are not sex.”

That is you do not have to be having sexual experiences in order to be a whole, fulfilled, happy authentic human person. Not getting any is not a proper diagnosis for what might be wrong with someone. This is one of the biggest lies of the modern age that because there is a sexual aspect to human persons then we are something less than human if we are not having sex.

This is why there are now movements dedicated getting everyone to accept and bless whatever kind of sex people feel they want to have. Because people have to be having sex to be authentic people then that must mean that there are sexual desires no matter what they may be are therefore good, and maybe even from God. God made me this way how can it be wrong?

But we have to remember two things here- not only are all of our desires shaped by the presence of sin and corruption in the world ever since the fall of Adam and Eve, so we can’t claim that the way we feel is the way God made us.

But there are numerous people who have not only been happy and fulfilled human beings but actually superior human beings who never had sex ever. That describes many of the saints and that describes Jesus Christ himself. The only totally perfect human being, perfect in every way never had sex once.

And there was not only nothing wrong with him but he was the very definition of right itself. So Orthodox Christian life is not about fulfilling personal desires. I is about fulfilling God’s desires. We often think if we want to be authentic or fulfilled or happy then we have to do whatever our feelings tell us but our feelings are wrong.

Why don’t we try to do what the one who made us tells us? Doesn’t he know way more about the workings of the human body and soul than we do? He desires us to be perfect which doesn’t just mean being morally upright but living to our full potential. That is God’s true desire for us. So we should fulfill God’s desires and not our own.

And God does not desire us to be using our bodies outside of the design He created. And some of those uses are even just biologically nonsensical. Certain human parts were obviously made for certain functions and using them in ways that prevents, ignores or even harms that function cannot be according to human nature. We know what happens when one man and one woman have sexual relations, they could have a baby that is the most obvious uses of those parts. Anything else is to use those parts for something they were not designed for.

But you don’t even have to believe in God to see that, it is just biology. It is important here to understand that when God teaches us to be moral he doesn’t do it because he doesn’t want us to be happy. He does it because he wants us to be as human and authentically as possible. He knows how humanity works, doing things His way works.

I can tell you from personal experience that I have seen numerous people whose happiness has been destroyed, whose families torn apart, whose mental health has degraded precisely because they decided to use their sexuality their own way and not God’s way.

God’s way really is the safest, best way. And that is part of the message that we have to get across, traditional sexual morality isn’t just following rules in some book, it is actually good for you and it is good for you because God made you and he knows what he is talking about.

This is practical truth here and because that is what we have to offer the world then out attitude should never be nasty, angry or condemnatory. A doctor who is trying to get you to take good care of yourself shouldn’t yell at you, the same is true when that doctor is a spiritual doctor who works in a hospital for souls.

So if you have friends or family who do not agree with Orthodox Christian sexual morality don’t reject them or hate them, remember that you are a sinner too. Love them and in appropriate ways, help them gradually see that traditional Christian morality is what actually works.

Orthodox teaching on the person is that he was meant to live in communion and in community that is why what he does with his body needs to have moral guidance. It is not just a private matter, the person who does only what he prefers for himself is actually cutting off his ability to live a fully authentic human life. And the most critical communion and community that we need to cultivate is our communion with God and the community that he established for us to nurture that communion, the church.

So now that we have talked about sex for a while, let’s turn our thoughts to something closely related and that is some of the things that we do after people have engaged in sexual relations and the human nature that God created naturally does the things natural to it. When people have sex outside the stability of a lifelong marriage bond, they may conceive a child, the biology still works after all.

If they fool themselves into thinking that sex has nothing to do with babies then they need to go and do some basic study on human reproduction again. Sex has to do with babies, it is really obvious, it is really obvious but then finding themselves pregnant they may be tempted to just fix the situation by getting an abortion, now we should take note that not all abortions happen in the context of some well to do suburbanite, just not ready for kids yet. Many happen in poverty and desperation in which a woman finds herself abortion minded because she can’t see any way out.

Some happen because there is a genuine threat to the life of the woman, not just to her emotional feelings but to her actual life. So we have to proceed carefully here but we need some clear thinking here about how we see abortion and also how to see two related topics, three actually, stem cell research, euthanasia and assisted suicide. These things may not all seem connected but they all are.

First we again have to ask ourselves again what it means to be a person. We are going to keep getting back to that. We have already said much about being in Communion about being created by God about having our absolute worth as human beings coming to us because of our absolute God.

We also said earlier that there was only one truly perfect human being who ever lived, perfect in every way. Jesus Christ is the very definition of what it means to be human. He is the total human. The paradigm of a human person. He is not only the best and perfect but he is also the template used when we were created.

We read in the book of Genesis how man was created according to the image of God. And we later learn in the New Testament who the image of God is. Jesus Christ is that image, the image of the invisible God as Saint Paul says in Colossians chapter one. So when God makes man, he makes man according to Christ. According to the eternal son of God, that means that what Christ is, tells us about what it means to be truly human.

So let us now consider that moment the Son of God becomes the Son of Man. The annunciation. This feast is one of the oldest in Christianity and it is universally celebrated on March 25, exactly 9 months before Christmas. I also learned this week though that in the Malankara church it is celebrated a second time on the third Sunday after your church’s new year, so you just celebrated the annunciation this past Sunday, November 24 is that not correct?

I should be fresh on your minds. At the moment of the annunciation the Archangel Gabriel comes to the Virgin Mary announcing to her the conception of the son of God in her womb. And the Holy Spirit comes upon her and she conceives Jesus Christ. The God man.

One of the great hymns of the annunciation sung in the church which I serve goes like this: “Today is the beginning of our salvation and the manifestation of the mystery from the ages. For the son of God becometh the son of the virgin and Gabriel proclaimeth grace. Wherefore do we shout with him to the Theotokos, rejoice O full of Grace, the Lord is with thee.” This may have been the work of Saint Athanasius of Alexandria, one of the most beloved Saints among all traditional Christians. Listen closely to these words, “Today, the son of God becometh the son of the virgin.”

That is at the Annunciation the son of God becomes truly and fully human the son of the Virgin Mary. He is conceived in her truly her son, truly a human person, truly both God and man. So if we look into the womb of the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation, the God/man is present there.

This is universal Christian doctrine that nearly every Christian of any kind has believed since the beginning of Christian history. Now, let’s put that foundational Christian doctrine into the language of today’s discussions of about human personhood and what is in the womb of a pregnant woman. The son of God did not become a clump of cells, the son of God did not become a potential person at the Annunciation.

What is in the womb of the Virgin Mary will not become human nine months later at Christmas. The nature that the son of God took on at the Annunciation was human nature, not potentially human nature. There is no such thing as a nature that is potentially something other than what it is. He was not incarnate as anything other than human. Jesus Christ is fully human from the moment of his conception by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. Becoming man.

Since all that is true, and since Christ is the paradigm of what it means to be human, then how can we see that what is in the womb of any pregnant woman is something other than fully human? Something other than a human person. It just makes no sense. There are Christians who want to say that about pregnancy. But what are they therefore saying about Christ? That he is a special case?

But if he is a special case, then is he really one of us? So you can see that central Christian doctrine completely precludes the idea that what is in any woman’s pregnant womb is anything less than a human person. It is impossible to be a Christian and to believe that what is in the womb of the woman who is pregnant is anything less been truly human. Impossible.

So this also means that any kind of research, scientific activity, or fertility treatments that destroys human embryos are killing human beings. Now some stem cell research does not rely on harvesting human embryos. So that is a different matter. We have to be careful about these things. Stem cells can also be taken from adult tissue without killing anyone. And the use of stem cell cultures that have been around with years without an ongoing destruction of embryonic babies is not the same as taking a new embryo and killing it.

The reason why abortion and harvesting embryos essentially another form of abortion are wrong is not just because they take life. It is because they take a life that God has given. Orthodox Christians are not pro-life just for the sake of life, we are pro-life because life comes from God. And it is His to give. That is also why we cannot condone euthanasia or suicide or even assisted suicide. Life is God’s to give and to take.

We are pro-life because it is God who gives life, and most especially because the life that God gives to every human being no matter how large or small, young or old, useful or useless, etc. is a life created according to the image of God, created according to Christ. We should note here of course that sometimes taking life is unavoidable.

In the case of a tubal pregnancy for instance, once the child becomes implanted there, if the pregnancy goes to term both the mother and the child will die. Only the mother can be saved and saving her requires abortion. We do not condemn such a woman but we mourn with her as she weeps over the reality that she participated in taking of her child’s life, even if she could not help it.

Sometimes we have to weep and repent over acts that we have no choice to commit, even if they are purely accidental because they still wound our souls. What matters is not who is at fault, but who has been wounded and people who take the lives of innocent children have certainly been wounded even if it was totally unavoidable.

Likewise euthanasia or assisted suicide are not the same thing as simply letting someone die who’s body has already died. Unhooking someone from complex life-support systems, whose his body is already shutting down is not killing them, it is allowing them to die.

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are taking the life that is not already dying, so having said all that I hope we have brought some moral clarity to some very difficult moral problems in today’s world. But the question that remains once we understand what orthodox Christianity teaches on these things how do we live them? And how do we preach this to the world?

In terms of living these things out it is probably obvious for some that we could say: “well don’t do that!” “Don’t have sex outside of one man one woman marriage,” “Don’t have an abortion,” and so on. But dealing with such temptations is not always so easy. We have already heard the answer of some of these, we have to see the beauty and understand the safety of stability and the pathway to holiness that is marriage as God designed it.

That is a positive reason for pursuing that path, not just a negative reason for not doing other things. We also have to see the worth of every human life because it was given by God and because it was made according to Christ, who is our template. Morality is not really about “Don’t do this” rather it is about pursuing what is good and beautiful and holy and knowing how to avoid what hinders that pursuit.

But the world often does not see it that way, so we have to learn how to show that to the world. In many cases, it is done best simply by modeling what a holy life looks like. People from broken homes do not need people to tell them that divorce is harmful but people who tended to divorce need to see what a good marriage looks like, so they can know that is possible.

People with sexual feelings that would lead them outside of traditional marriage, are probably not going to hear the voice of anyone who tells them they’re wrong. What most of them really need are friends and family who will love them anyway. The truth is that most of them are not in stable relationships, despite what the media might depict.

Most of them are in highly unstable situations, we need to model stability and be ready to listen to them. We also need to know that some people with certain kinds of feelings may not ever be able to feel differently, as long as they live this earthly Life.

Some temptations never go away. We all have temptations like that, so we need to give them support and love them in their loneliness and help them in their struggle for holiness. Women who have had abortions almost universally regret them, no one talks about that. Some feel like they had no choice, they need to see that there is hope and there is help and we have to be ready to step in and help them have lives that are either equipped to have kids or equipped to pass those children on to people who are ready to love them through adoption.

It is not enough to say: “don’t get an abortion.” We have to help change the conditions that led them to it. Also relevant to all this is how we should act politically, many of you are now getting to the age or are at the age where you can act politically.

Should all these things be outlawed? Some of them.  Here too we must have discernment, in some cases I believe that law is appropriately used to protect the innocent. In the cases of things like Abortion, euthanasia, or assisted suicide, we cannot treat them as essentially different from other people.

If it should be illegal to kill a five-year-old, it should be illegal to kill someone in the womb, or someone who is too old to be useful, or someone who just doesn’t want to live anymore. Someone who says that abortion who is killing a human person but once it kept legal is fundamentally contradicting himself. If it is wrong, it is wrong because it takes a human life. And if it should be illegal to take human life and I know almost no one who thinks it should be legal, then it is the same inside the womb too.

Now remember there are cases in which it is unavoidable to take a human life, we mentioned tubal pregnancies, but there is also self-defense, against someone who is attacking you or accidental deaths like in a car accident, those things should not be prosecuted by law if they really are unavoidable.

But we should have no problem using the law to protect the innocent.  To say that it is a decision that should be made within the family, if that kind of language cannot apply to a five-year-old or 10-year-old, why should apply to someone in the womb? There is no difference.

Other issues such as sexual ones, do not have to be illegal because they do not constitute the same kind of threats to life as things like abortion and euthanasia do. And in the very few places in the United States were things still are illegal, no one enforces these laws. Now, that is not the same thing as using the law to support that-which in most cases is what the redefinition of marriage in the law does.

That is, if it is a case of live and let live, then I don’t see how the law needs to be involved but when the resources of the state are mobilized to support what is sin, then we have every right to protest and try to get the laws changed.

At the same time, we should keep in mind that people who are not Orthodox Christians, may not understand why we support the things we do, and oppose the things that we do. We should not yell at them, we can also not pretend to them or to ourselves that Orthodox Christian teaching about these things is going to change.

Orthodoxy is not subject to political correctness or cultural expedience. And for many of them we cannot assume that they will come to agree with us on moral issues unless they become part of our church community. Once they begin to walk the path with us toward holiness in Christ then things may become clearer.

In all cases though, we have to love, we can speak with boldness but it must be a loving boldness. Likewise we can be compassionate but it must be a compassion informed by where people need to get to in Christ, not one that excuses them and enables them for self-destruction. Love cannot do anything else.