A casual observer might easily accuse the Orthodox Church of being old fashioned or even “antique.” After all, look at our worship services, our music, the way our Priests dress. I think it might be more accurate to describe us as “conservative.” We do change. We used Greek but now we also use English because we live in an English speaking country. We have electricity and indoor plumbing. I am writing this article on a fairly new Apple laptop. You might say we are cautious about change. We might complain sometimes about how conservative our Church is, but do we really want the Church to be “trendy”? Relevant yes; trendy no.
For a number of years, sexual morality has been a divisive topic in Christian Churches. Along with most Western countries, America experienced the so-called “sexual revolution” in the 1960’s when young people and then society as a whole began to redefine sexual morality. In the years that followed that turbulence, we learned that being sexually “free” came with a number of costs: certainly emotional scars and pregnancy, but also STD’s, and then HIV. Now we no longer talk about “free love” but “safe sex.” But since that time, our American culture has not been the same. The old restrictions are gone.
There is a trend that grew out of this sexual revolution that increasingly disturbs us Priests. It the casual cohabitation of unmarried young people, usually but not always young people who plan to be married. Somehow the message has gotten out that if you love someone and maybe plan to marry him or her, then it is OK if you have sex and even live together. If you have gotten that message, it has not come from the Church. The Church’s expectation is and has always been that engaged couples remain apart and celibate until they marry. There are plenty of couples who do struggle to remain chaste, but the trend is going the other way. It puts us in a very difficult position because we care deeply about the couples who come to us, and we want them to get married, but we do not want to support their sin! It is especially difficult for us when one partner is Orthodox and the other is not, and that is more and more common. How do we talk to them? Where is the common ground? Common moral ground does not exist in our culture any more, and increasingly even the Orthodox partner does not know what the Church expects.
I suspect that part of our problem here derives from the example of the identical lamentable trend in Greece. Couples live together and have a wedding when the first baby is baptized. Part of our problem here also derives from our absolute ignorance of the Holy Scriptures. We have to adopt some standard of sexual behavior. We cannot just do whatever occurs to us without offense or even arrest. The question is this: Whose standards do we take? Our own idiosyncratic standards? The ever-changing standards of our culture? Or God’s standards? If we want to be Christians, we must take the last option. Let me summarize the Traditional, Biblical, Christian standard for sexual morality this way: God expects all of us to practice sexual self-control. God allows most of us to get married, and God blesses sex in marriage. Sex outside of marriage is sinful, that is, it does not conform to God’s expectations. The standard for sex outside of marriage is celibacy. Read the Apostle Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 5 – 7. Bear in mind that he is writing to people living in a very sensuous and promiscuous culture. Also read the excellent article by Fr. Stanley Harakas “The Stand of the Orthodox Church on Controversial Issues” on our national website (http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/controversialissues).
That is some of the theology, in the nutshell. Let me be practical as well. There are some reasons why it is potentially dangerous to “move in” with someone. There is always the embarrassment of disapproval or of an “unplanned” pregnancy. Beyond this, there is the problem that sex functions to strengthen a relationship, physiologically and psychologically. When you have sex with someone, your brain gets marinated in hormones that tell you to trust that other person. Obviously, if you “get physical” too soon, your crucial critical faculties that otherwise might alert you to problems with this person are going to get short-circuited! “Living together” without the commitment of marriage is also dangerous because high percentage of those live-in relationships do not survive. Remember that the overall divorce rate in our country is around 50%. The failure rate for live-in’s (harder to track) is estimated to be upwards of 90%! “Breaking up” is not as traumatic as divorce, but it is still painful and leaves emotional scars that will affect you in the next relationship. Why put yourself through that? Living together before marriage does not mean that your marriage will fail, but it will not help make your marriage any more successful or enduring either. Why “play house” with someone? If you truly love someone and he or she is a Christian and would make a good spouse, and he or she loves you, then why not get married? It is not complicated.
The message here is this: God does care about how we behave sexually, so take yourself and your sexual behavior seriously. He is not trying to frustrate us or keep some important pleasure from us. He wants the best for us, and the best is sex within a loving, committed marriage relationship. On behalf of The Holy Church, myself and Father James and every other Priest in our Church, on behalf of all the Saints throughout the years who have made heroic efforts to live in chastity and keep themselves pure in and out of marriage, please take this to heart! If you have questions, please come talk to us. We love you and we want the best for you.
Fr. Timothy Robinson