The Orthodox Church has historically taken a powerful stand against birth control.
Saints and Early Church Fathers put contraception on the same level as homicide. St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. John IV Nesteutes (St. John the Faster), St. Clement of Alexandria, St. Epiphanius of Salamis, and St. Caesarius of Arles are among the holy Fathers who condemned contraception in the strongest imaginable terms.
St. John Chrysostom goes so far as to call it “murder before conception”.
Why is this the historic position of the Orthodox Church?
Why do the Saints say that birth control is equivalent to murder?
Murder in the Heart
Imagine that your next-door neighbor hates you. He does not merely dislike you;
He wants you dead. He does not merely want you out of town, or out of the country.
He wants you off the planet.
His desire is for you to not exist.
According to Christ, this person is guilty of murder. God not only judges outward sins;
He also judges sins of the heart. Just as lust makes a person guilty of adultery,
hatred and anger make a person guilty of murder.
Murder by Time-Travel
Now suppose your neighbor hatches a wild plan. He attempts to invent a real working time-machine, so that he can use it to get rid of you. He does not want to kill you, because that would make a big mess, and he does not want to dispose of your body. He simply plans to go back in time, and provide your parents with birth control during the month you were conceived, so that you would never exist in the first place.
Does this new plan make you feel better about your neighbor?
Of course not. Planning to avoid your existence is no better than murdering you. Either way, he is showing hatred for you, regardless of the fact that you are a real human being, created in the image of God. Even with his “time travel” plan, he is still a murderer at heart.
Now consider a slightly different scenario. Instead of using a time-machine to go backward, you use it to go forward in time. You and your spouse travel 12 months into the future, to see what your life will look like a year from now. After making the trip, you find out that you will have a new little baby boy named “Johnny”. He is a precious child, created in the image of God.
But you and your spouse do not want Johnny. You don’t like him, and you would prefer that he never exist. But you don’t really want to kill him. You don’t want to dispose of his body. So you just use your time machine to return to this present time. Then your family doctor provides a prescription for birth-control pills. That way Johnny will never be conceived in the first place. Thanks to you, Johnny will never exist.
If you do this, are you not showing hatred for Johnny? Are you not a murderer at heart?
Yet millions of people make this sort of decision daily. With their current sexual practices, they know that a pregnancy is likely to occur within the next 12-24 months. They have good reason to believe that a precious little “Johnny” is on the way. And with this likelihood in mind, they intentionally try to stamp out Johnny’s existence. They use contraception, for no other reason than to avoid the existence of a precious child, created in the image of God. In their minds, it would be better for Johnny to never exist.
They think about Johnny. They hate him. They seek to deprive him of existence.
By using birth control, they reveal themselves to be murderers at heart.
A child is a blessing, a human being created in the image of God. It is an act of hatred–an act of murder–to intentionally avoid that blessing, whether the avoidance is done before the fact (via birth control) or after the fact (via abortion or infanticide).
Birth Control in the History of the Church
For 1,900 years, every church in the world opposed birth control. Throughout history, the Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, and every other Orthodox jurisdiction condemned the use of birth control. Not only that, but the Catholic and Protestant churches prohibited birth control as well. Prior to the 20th century, there was not a single “Christian” group that approved of contraception.
The Early Church Fathers did not merely call birth control a sin. They called it murder.
One of the most respected saints in the history of the Church is St. John Chrysostom. The most frequently used Orthodox divine liturgy is named after him. He was the archbishop of Constantinople, and he left us with many volumes of solid Orthodox teaching. Here is what he had to say about birth control, otherwise known as “medicines of sterility”:
“Why do you sow where the field is eager to destroy the fruit, where there are medicines of sterility [oral contraceptives], where there is murder before conception? You do not even let a harlot remain only a harlot, but you make her a murderess as well. . . . Indeed, it is something worse than murder, and I do not know what to call it; for she does not kill what is formed but prevents its formation. What then? Do you condemn the gift of God and fight with His [natural] laws? . . . Yet such turpitude . . . the matter still seems indifferent to many men–even to many men having wives. In this indifference of the married men there is greater evil filth; for then poisons are prepared, not against the womb of a prostitute, but against your injured wife. Against her are these innumerable tricks”
~ St. John Chrysostom (Homilies on Romans 24 [A.D. 391]).
Another well-known early Father is St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan. In his commentary on Genesis, this saint commented on the contraceptive drugs which many people procured during his time. He lamented that people using birth control,
“lest their patrimony be divided among several, deny their own fetus in their uterus and by a parricidal potion extinguish the pledges of their womb in their genital belly, and life is taken away before it is transmitted.’”
~ St. Ambrose (Hexameron 5.18.58 [CSEL 32: 184])
According to St. Ambrose, it was dreadfully sinful for people to limit the number of offspring, merely so they could avoid dividing their inheritance “among several”. When considering their children’s inheritance, they mistakenly believed that money and land would make a better heritage than brothers and sisters.
When the Fifth Ecumenical Council singled out twelve “Holy Fathers” as being worthy of particular attention and veneration, St. Augustine was included as one of the twelve. (This list of 12 Fathers also included St. John Chrysostom and St. Ambrose, already quoted above.) In one of his letters, St. Augustine strongly condemns the use of birth control:
“I am supposing that then, although you are not lying for the sake of procreating offspring, you are not for the sake of lust obstructing their procreation by an evil prayer or an evil deed. Those who do this, although they are called husband and wife, are not; nor do they retain any reality of marriage, but with a respectable name cover a shame. They give themselves away, indeed, when they go so far as to expose their children who are born to them against their will; for they hate to nourish or to have those whom they feared to bear. Therefore a dark iniquity rages against those whom they have unwillingly borne, and with open iniquity this comes to light; a hidden shame is demonstrated by manifest cruelty. Sometimes this lustful cruelty, or cruel lust, comes to this, that they even procure poisons of sterility, and, if these do not work, extinguish and destroy the fetus in some way in the womb, preferring that their offspring die before it lives, or if it was already alive in the womb to kill it before it was born. Assuredly if both husband and wife are like this, they are not married, and if they were like this from the beginning they come together not joined in matrimony but in seduction. If both are not like this, I dare to say that either the wife is in a fashion the harlot of her husband or he is an adulterer with his own wife.”
~ St. Augustine (Marriage and Concupiscence 1.15.17, CSEL 42:229-230)
In St. Augustine’s understanding, there is very little difference between contraception and abortion. Either way, the spouses are avoiding the blessing of God, and are intentionally stopping a real human being from walking on earth. Birth control renders sexual relations illicit, even within a marriage. By default, the marriage bed is holy and undefiled. But according to this saint of the Church, birth control reduces the marital act to the level of fornication and adultery, satisfying one’s fleshly lust as with a whore.
St. John IV Nesteutes (St. John the Faster), a 6th century Patriarch of Constantinople, had the following to say regarding birth control:
“If someone to satisfy his lust or in deliberate hatred does something to a man or woman so that no children be born of him or her, or gives them to drink (pharmakon), so that he cannot generate or she conceive, let it be held as homicide.”
Many other Saints and Fathers of the Church have spoken likewise against contraception.
“Because of its divine institution for the propagation of man, the seed is not to be vainly ejaculated, nor is it to be damaged, nor is it to be wasted”.
~ St. Clement of Alexandria
“They [heretics] exercise genital acts, yet prevent the conceiving of children. Not in order to produce offspring, but to satisfy lust, are they eager for corruption”.
~ St. Epiphanius of Salamis
“Who is he who cannot warn that no woman may take a potion [an oral contraceptive] so that she is unable to conceive or condemns in herself the nature which God willed to be fecund? As often as she could have conceived or given birth, of that many homicides she will be held guilty, and, unless she undergoes suitable penance, she will be damned by eternal death in hell. If a woman does not wish to have children, let her enter into a religious agreement with her husband; for chastity is the sole sterility of a Christian woman.”
~ St. Caesarius of Arles
Marital Abstinence is Permitted
This last comment by St. Caesarius is noteworthy. While he agrees with the patristic consensus that artificial birth control is equivalent to homicide, he nevertheless observes that “chastity is the sole sterility of a Christian woman.” It would be wrong for a married couple to have sex, while using birth control to prevent conception. But it is OK to avoid sex itself. A married Christian couple is not required to copulate daily, in order to have as many children as possible.
St. Paul himself notes that marital abstinence is acceptable, as long as it is for the purpose of deepening the spiritual life of the couple:
Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time,
that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:5).
It is acceptable for a husband and wife to avoid sexual relations for a time, so they can focus on prayer. It is also acceptable for a husband and wife to have normal sexual relations, with a willingness to conceive children. But it is sinful to intentionally separate sex and conception from one another. It is sinful to have sexual relations, while intending to avoid the conception of children.
Consensus Through Recent Times
As recently as 1963, in his book, The Orthodox Church, Bishop Kallistos (Timothy) Ware states clearly and without qualification:
“Artificial methods of birth control are forbidden in the Orthodox Church.”
(Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church, Penguin, 1963, p. 302.)
Similarly, after the Humanae Vitae encyclical letter was released in 1968, reaffirming Rome’s rejection of contraception, the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople reviewed it and then wrote a letter to the Roman Pontiff, affirming the Orthodox Church’s “total agreement” with the contents of the encyclical:
“We assure you that we remain close to you, above all in these recent days when you have taken the good step of publishing the encyclical Humanae Vitae. We are in total agreement with you, and wish you all God’s help to continue your mission in the world.”
(Patriarch Athenagoras telegram to Pope Paul VI, 9 August 1968, reprinted in Towards the Healing of Schism, ed. & trans. E.J. Stormon, 1987, p. 197.)
For nearly 2000 years, the Orthodox Church has spoken with one voice.
Contraception is a sin. Artificial birth control is unacceptable.
If it was wrong for the Saints and the Early Church Fathers,
then it is wrong for us.
If it was wrong from the first century until the year 1968,
then it is still wrong today.
From the first century through the 1960s, I do not know of any Orthodox sources which advocate artificial birth control. The first hint of doctrinal innovation came in 1974 with
the article, “Morality of Contraception: An Eastern Orthodox Opinion”, written by Chrysostom Zaphiris and published in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies. Interestingly, this article ignores 1900 years of Orthodox consensus on this topic, and fails to address any of the pertinent quotes from St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose, St. John the Faster, St. Clement, St. Epiphanius, etc. Instead, Zaphiris invents a new “Orthodox” opinion out of thin air, without relying on the historic teachings of the Orthodox Church and its saints.
CJS Hayward offers an effective critique of the Zaphiris article in his booklet,
Orthodoxy, Contraception, and Spin-Doctoring, available from the Amazon.com website.
Thankfully, people like CJS Hayward, Taras Baytsar, and a number of other Orthodox Christians are remaining faithful to the historic teachings of the Orthodox Church.
Contraception is not a Christian option.
As St. John Chrysostom said, birth control is “murder before conception”.