Marriage is a part of human life on this earth as created by God.
Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh (Gen 2.24, cf. Mt 19.5–6).
God created male and female so that man and woman would live their lives together in marriage as one flesh. This union should be broken for no earthly reason.
What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.
They said to Jesus, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to put her away?”
He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife except for sexual impurity and marries another, commits adultery.”
The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry.”
But he said to them, “Not all men can receive this precept, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (Mt 19.6–12).
Human marriage exists by the will of God on the earth as the created expression of God’s love for man and as man’s participation in the creative love of God. The union of man and woman in the community of marriage is used in the Bible as the image of God’s faithful love for Israel, and Christ’s sacrificial love for the Church (cf. Is 54, Jer 3, Ezek 16, Hos).
Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, His body, and is Himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present the church to Himself in splendor without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of His body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one. This is a great mystery, and I take it to mean Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (Eph 5.22–33).
These words of Saint Paul, read at the sacramental celebration of marriage in the Church, contain the whole program for spiritual life in the community of marriage. The husband must love his wife to the point of death, as Christ loves the Church. And the wife must be totally given to her husband in everything as the Church is given to Christ. The union in love must be perfect, total, complete, enduring and lasting forever. Within this union, the sexual act of love is the mystical seal of the total union in love; the act whereby the two are united in mind, heart, soul and body in the Lord.
According to the spiritual teaching of the Orthodox Church, marriage, and so the sexual act of love, is made perfect only in Christ and the Church. This does not mean that all those who are “married in church” have an ideal marriage. The sacrament is not mechanical or magical. Its reality and gifts may be rejected and defiled, received unto condemnation and judgment, like Holy Communion and all of the sacramental mysteries of the faith. It does mean, however, that when a couple is married in the Church of Christ, the possibility for the perfection of their marriage is most fully given by God.
When a man and a woman truly love one another, they naturally desire that their love would be perfect. They want their relationship to be filled with all virtue and every fruit of the Spirit. They want it to be ever more perfectly expressed and fulfilled. They want it to last forever. Those who do not desire such perfection for their love, do not really love.
When a man and woman have such a love, they can find its fulfillment only in Christ. He makes it possible; no one and nothing else can do it. So, for those who love truly, the savior and accomplisher of their love is Christ. He gives every virtue and every fruit of the Spirit. He allows them to grow ever more perfectly one. He allows them to live and to love for eternity in the Kingdom of God. A marriage in Christ does not end in sin; it does not part in death. It is fulfilled and perfected in the Kingdom of heaven. It is for this reason, and this reason only, that those who seek true love and perfection in marriage come to the Church to be married in Christ.
A truly Christian and spiritual marriage is one where true love abides. In the community of marriage true love is expressed in the total union of the couple in all that they are, have and do. It is the love of each one living completely for the good of the other, the love of erotic union in total oneness of mind, heart and flesh; the love of perfect friendship.(See “God is Love,” above).
Within such a community of love, the sexual act is the expression of all of this. It was created for this purpose by God. It is the intimate act which finds its total joy when perfected by those who are fully devoted and dedicated to each other in all things, in every way, forever. It is for this sacred and divine reason that the sexual act cannot be done casually or promiscuously for one’s own spiritual or bodily pleasure. It is the act of loving self-sacrifice in eternal fidelity. Only when accomplished in this way does it yield divine satisfaction and infinite delight to the lovers who enact it.
Sexual dissatisfaction in marriage is virtually never simply a bodily or biological problem. It is with almost no exception, the result of some defect of mind, heart and soul. Most basically, it is the defect of love itself. For when each considers only the good of the other, desiring total spiritual and bodily union in perfect friendship, the sexual act is always most satisfying. When this is absent, and something other is central, the gratification of some unworthy passion of body or mind, then all is lost and the perversion of love brings sadness and death to the union.
Normally the sexual act in marriage bears fruit in the procreation of children. The marriage ceremony in the Church prays for “chastity, a bed undefiled, the procreation of children, and for every earthly blessing that they may in turn bestow upon the needy.” The sexual act of love, however, is not limited merely to the bearing of children. It exists as well for the union in love and the mutual edification and joy of those who are married. If this were not the case, the Apostle Paul would not have given the following counsel:
. . . each man should have his own wife, and each wife her own husband. The husband should give the wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through each of self-control (1 Cor 7.2–5).
The apostle does not say that the married couple should be separated and come together only with intentions of bearing a child. He says rather that they should stay together, separating “by agreement, for a time,” and that for the purpose of being devoted “to prayer.” The words “by agreement” are central in this counsel, for each one must live totally as belonging to the other.
Sexuality in pure marriage is pure. For, as the apostle says in another context:
To the pure, all things are pure, but to the corrupt and unbelieving nothing is pure; their very minds and consciences are corrupted. They profess to know God but they deny Him by their deeds; they are detestable, disobedient, unfit for any good deed (Titus 1.15–16).
There are those whose marriages are impure because they are corrupt and unbelieving, unfit for any good deed. Even though they are married and the sexuality is, as they say, “legal,” nevertheless it is ungodly and impure. The fact that a couple is “legally” or even “sacramentally” married does not make their marital life pure and free from sinful passion, perversion and lust. Only those who truly live the spiritual life in genuine love and devotion have sexual lives that are holy and pure, mutually satisfying and fulfilling, and well-pleasing to God. This is guaranteed when the spiritual life is in Christ and the Church. But as Saint John Chrysostom has said, even heathen marriages are holy and pure when true love is present and the couples are eternally given to one another in unending fidelity and mutual devotion. For where such love is present, there is the presence of God.