by Fr. Paul O'Callaghan


Several years ago, U.S. News and World Report magazine surveyed 500 leading businessmen, government officials, and professionals as to what was the most influential force in America. Television came in first. I think they were right. I believe that there is no greater force in North America for influencing the way people think and behave than the media at large: T.V. especially, but also radio, movies, magazines, and to a lesser degree, newspapers.

One of the best examples of this is the so-called “sexual revolution” of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s. There were other forces at work in society to bring this about, but, as far as I can tell, the media were primarily responsible for obsessively focusing on the subject, and under the guise of reporting about it, promoting it. The media has led the charge in dismantling one sexual standard after another. If you examine films, especially, from the 1940’s to today, you can see how this process took place, step by step. The result is a total abandonment of our once cherished sexual standards.

Originally, marriage was considered to be lifelong and indissoluble, but now divorce is acceptable and epidemic. Once adultery was considered a grievous sin and act of betrayal; now it’s called “having an affair” or “open marriage”, and is widely tolerated. Once sex outside of marriage was considered to be a sin and a shame; now premarital sex and “living together” are seen as completely normal. Once sex meant a man and a woman; now homosexuality is just a different “sexual preference” and is widely accepted — it’s no more significant than the fact that some people like chocolate ice cream and some like vanilla. Who knows what is next? Only AIDS has slowed the progress of the media drive to investigate and promote acceptance of every kind of “sexual preference” or “lifestyle.”

This is why I want to take some time to examine the question of, “What is an Orthodox Christian approach to sex, pornography, and the media?” And what I think we have to do first is to establish what the Orthodox view of sex is. To do so let us turn to the Bible, the first chapter of the first book.

There we read, “God created man in his own image; in the image of God he created man; male and female he created them. Then God blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:27-8). (Then verse 31), “Then God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good.” So sex — the male-female distinction, the reproductive process, and the pleasures associated with it — is good — the Bible says “very good!” It’s part of the good world as God created it.

Let’s look at a couple of other examples from Scripture. First, from Proverbs 5:19. In the context here, the wise man is instructing his son to stay away from an adulterous woman. He says: “Rejoice with the wife of your youth … Let her breasts delight you at all times, be always enraptured by her love.” And believe it or not, the original Hebrew literally means “breasts,” although sometimes it is translated as “affection” to tone it down! God’s inspired Word teaches that a man should enjoy the physical love of his wife.

However, we should not assume the godly enjoyment of sex in marriage is for men only. The Bible records that when the angel told Sara she would conceive and bear a son to Abraham, (she was about 90), she laughed, and said, “Shall I have pleasure when both my husband and I are old?” (Gen. 18:12). In the world of the Bible, the pleasure of physical love was to be enjoyed by the woman as well as the man. (The Song of Solomon also makes this abundantly clear). This is why the Apostle Paul commands that husbands and wives not deny each other their desire unless they both agree for a period of prayer and fasting. But then he tells them to come together again so they can avoid temptation.

So the Bible clearly teaches that the enjoyment of physical love between husband and wife is a good thing. It also teaches that celibacy and virginity embraced for the sake of dedicating oneself more completely to the Lord are good things. But there can be no question that the Bible regards sex in marriage to be a good gift that is blessed by God.

The reason the Bible emphasizes the importance of sex is because it is the physical expression of the union between husband and wife. Scripture says, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife, and the two shall be one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Sex is the means by which the husband and wife are physically united to another and the expression of the absolute oneness between them. Jesus said, “They are no longer two, but one flesh,” and “what God has joined together, let no man put apart” (Matt. 19:6). Sexual intercourse is the physical expression of oneness between husband and wife.

This is why the Bible rejects sex outside of marriage. When two people are married, God joins the two into one. But if you indulge the symbol and expression of that oneness outside of the marriage bond where God intended it to be, you are outside the will of God. That’s why St. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one flesh with her?” (1 Cor. 6:16). Indulging in the physical act of union where there is no oneness is a gross violation of God’s holy design for sex. It is for this very reason that sex outside of marriage, (fornication and adultery), is condemned in Scripture in no uncertain terms. Scripture bluntly warns us that fornicators and adulterers will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9-10). (Of course, forgiveness is always available for those who would repent and confess.)

To sum up, then — sex within marriage is good and under God’s blessing, and sex outside of marriage is sinful and under His curse.

Unfortunately, however, throughout history there have been Christians who could not accept the clear and simple teachings of Scripture. There have been those who want to be holier than God and condemn as unclean what He has declared to be clean. For instance, I was reading a writer in the Philokalia, an Orthodox spiritual text, who stated that sex is good unless it is entered into outside of marriage or used for reasons other than procreation in marriages. But the Bible nowhere teaches that sex is only meant for procreation. Certainly, having children — who are fruits of the union of husband and wife, who give new being to the union of husband and wife — is one of the most important reasons for sex — but not the only reason. Not every act of intercourse has to be for the express purpose of impregnation.

At times, some Christians have become so hung-up about sex that it is not only unbiblical but ridiculous as well. I read recently about a certain sect that banned washing machines with windows. It was feared that a man might see a woman’s undergarments in the wash! Such absurdly puritanical approaches have nothing in common with a healthy biblical view of sexuality.

Having sketched a basic outline of a Scriptural approach to sex, let’s examine briefly the subjects of pornography and sex in the media.

Most of us probably know that pornography is notoriously hard to define, and all kinds of legal battles are always raging about it. Generally, we can describe it as explicit photographs or descriptions of bodily parts or sexual acts. Most people find such literature degrading and dangerous. In most television shows, movies, and popular magazines, however, what we have is a softer, less explicit, less degrading, type of presentation. But I believe that for us as Christians, the same principles apply to both, even though there is sometimes a substantial difference between the two.  Let us look at a couple of these basic principles.

The first principle for dealing with media sex is based on the saying of Jesus: “Whosoever looks upon a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). Now as far as I can tell, most sexual depictions in books, magazines, T.V. shows, movies, and stage shows are generally for the purpose of arousing passion in the viewer — in other words, causing a person to lust in his heart. For example, at night on T.V., I’ve seen ads for daytime soap-operas talking about “love in the afternoon” with scenes of people passionately making love. What’s the purpose of this? What’s really going on here? Isn’t it plainly for the viewer to derive some kind of sexual enjoyment while others indulge in sex scenes? (By the way, from what I can tell, it doesn’t seem like they’re acting anymore on TV. In the old days, when they used to kiss on TV, they used to turn to the side so you couldn’t really see and give the illusion of kissing. Now they open their mouths plainly and kiss passionately. Is this acting?) But if the Lord condemns lusting in the heart as sin, how can we sit there as Christians and just watch? Of course, I am aware that what is tempting to one person may not be to another. But in any case, we need to be struggling against our tendencies to lust, not aggravating them with film and literature. And most importantly, (and here is where the real issue becomes very clear), Scripture teaches us that our passion must be joined to our love and commitment to our spouse — that our desire should be for the person we love — not as if it were something that we can just play around with, indulging it as a kind of “spectator sport”.

The second principle that we need to understand about pornography and sex in the media is that what we are really dealing with is prostitution: men and women, actors and models, basically selling themselves for the sexual enjoyment of others. And what we’re doing when we watch it or look at the magazines is engaging in a spiritual act of prostitution. And this can never be right. We have to be careful about the movies we watch. There are times when we’ll just have to change the channel or turn off the T.V. The magazines shouldn’t be in our homes and we shouldn’t sell them in our stores. If we do, we’re involved in the sin of others, and one day we’ll answer to the Lord for it.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, we live our sexual lives like every other part of our lives, before God. If we follow His holy teachings, we will enjoy the great blessings that go along with them —both in this life and in the next. If we disobey them, we will know the pain and suffering that this causes — both in this life and the next. Let us then seek to be always pure in His sight; let us derive our sexual values from God’s holy Word, not from what’s on T.V. or in the movies.

I was in a supermarket recently, and saw this question on the cover of a magazine: “How can we replace casual sex?” This is an important question for the media, who spawned and promoted the current obsession with sex —which of course, gave us AIDS and the Herpes epidemic. We as Orthodox Christians, however, need not wonder what we will replace casual sex with. Rather, we can simply give thanks to our heavenly Father that He has given us the knowledge of His holy will — and pray to Him for the grace to follow it. May we be established in that grace. 

Father Paul is pastor of St. George Church in San Diego, California.

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
May 1989
pp. 7-8