Unfortately, it is a widespread belief that the Orthodox Church approves of contraception. Even many Orthodox Christians propagate this error, and try to use it as some kind of distinctive feature of “therapeutic” Orthodoxy in contrast to “legalistic” Roman Catholicism, however this is complete and utter foolishness. As Fr. Josiah Trenham has pointed out in a recent video, there have been numerous Holy Synods of the Orthodox Church that have explicitly condemned the use of contraception as a grave sin, and this is a view shared not only by the early Fathers of the Church such as Sts. John Chrysostom, Ambrose, Augustine, Theodore of Tarsus, Jerome, and many more, but also our contemporary Fathers such as the holy elders of Optina, St. Porphyrios, and St. Paisios of Mt. Athos.
As I showed in my previous article, the Tradition of Orthodoxy is only established through Ecumenical Councils, spiritual inheritance (prayers, liturgies, etc.), and the witness of the Holy Fathers, both ancient and modern. Thus, it does not matter what individual members of the clergy have said on the subject of contraception, nor does it matter what even a non-Ecumenical Synod of bishops has said, rather all that matters is the witness of Holy Tradition, which clearly condemns any and all attempts to prevent the conception of children during the sexual act. Moreover, the Holy Tradition itself is simply an exposition of the teaching of Holy Scripture which, as we shall see in this article, clearly condemns contraception.
The first time we’re introduced to the concept of contraception in Scripture is actually pretty early on. In the book of Genesis we read:
Then Judah said to Onan, “Sleep with your brother’s wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to raise up offspring for your brother.” But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. What he did was wicked in the Lord ’s sight; so the Lord put him to death also. (Genesis 38:8-10)
So what’s going on here? Although Judah’s command to Onan to “sleep with your brother’s wife” may seem strange to us moderns, to any reader of the Torah, this would have made perfect sense: Onan’s brother had died, thus leaving his wife a widow and without children and so, in order to ensure that his brother’s blood line would continue (and his inheritance would be passed down to rightful heirs), Onan had an obligation to become a “kinsman-redeemer.” This concept is later fully explicated by Moses:
If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel. However, if a man does not want to marry his brother’s wife, she shall go to the elders at the town gate and say, “My husband’s brother refuses to carry on his brother’s name in Israel. He will not fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to me.” Then the elders of his town shall summon him and talk to him. If he persists in saying, “I do not want to marry her,” his brother’s widow shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, take off one of his sandals, spit in his face and say, “This is what is done to the man who will not build up his brother’s family line.” That man’s line shall be known in Israel as The Family of the Unsandaled. (Deuteronomy 25:5-10)
Notice the punishment given to the man who does not want to follow through on his obligations to become a kinsman-redeemer: he is to be publicly shamed by the widow and the wider society at large, but he is kept alive. This is significant because, what happened to Onan? His punishment for failing in his duties as kinsman-redeemer wasn’t public shame, rather it was death, because what he did was “wicked in the sight of the Lord.” Thus, we know that Onan was not simply being punished for failing to have children with his brother’s wife, rather he was being given the punishment for sexual crimes against nature (Leviticus 18:22, 20:10-13). Given what we’re told about Onan, what did he do that would warrant this punishment? There’s only one answer: “he spilled his semen on the ground,” i.e. intentionally prevented the procreation of children during sex (contracepted).
The reason why things like sex outside of marriage or between two members of the same gender was punishable by death was because these things disfigure God’s creation as it was established in Genesis 1-2, hence “All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18). In the beginning God created mankind as male and female, joined them together as “one flesh” in marriage, and intended for the literal manifestation of this one flesh (the conjugal union) to be the means by which the human family is “fruitful” and “multiplies,” thereby participating in the divine act of creation (consider how God created “fruit bearing trees” and “multiplied” plants and animals during the creation week). As I’ve described before, the reason this is so important is because this isn’t just arbitrary symbolism, but rather this mode of existence reflects God’s very own inner-life as Father Son and Spirit, and so marriage and procreation are the means by which the human family most perfectly manifests the divine image within itself. Thus, any deviation from the standard of the Living God necessarily leads to death, just as it did in Genesis 3, and that’s what the laws regarding capital punishment for sexual immorality are getting at.
So what does this all mean for contraception? As should be obvious: that Onan received the punishment due to sexual immorality (death) means that contraception, like adultery and homosexuality, disfigures God’s plan for the creation. This is because being fruitful and multiplying is intrinsically linked with sexual activity between a man and a woman, and indeed reflects something true about God’s own inner being (see here for details). Thus, any and all attempts to prevent the conception of children during sex is intrinsically immoral, a fact that has been recognized by the Church since the very beginning. Thanks for reading!
For more on this, see Seraphim Hamilton’s excellent article “Divorce and Contraception; Catholicism and Orthodoxy.”