True love in marriage supposes the bearing of children. Those who truly love in marriage will naturally have children as the fruit of their love and the greatest bond of their union. Those who despise children and refuse to offer them care and devotion do not truly love.
Of course there are those whose marriages will be childless because of some tragedy of nature brought on by the “sin of the world.” In such marriages perfect love can exist, but the mutual devotion in the service of God and man will take on other forms, either the adoption of children or some other good service for the sake of others, The childless marriage, either by voluntary choice or natural tragedy, which results in self-indulgence is not a spiritual union.
The voluntary control of birth in marriage is only permissible, according to the essence of a spiritual life, when the birth of a child will bring danger and hardship. Those who are living the spiritual life will come to the decision not to bear children only with sorrow, and will do so before God, with prayers for guidance and mercy. It will not be a decision taken lightly or for self-indulgent reasons.
According to the common teaching in the Orthodox Church, when such a decision is taken before God, the means of its implementation are arbitrary. There are, in the Orthodox opinion, no means of controlling birth in marriage which are better or more acceptable than others. All means are equally sad and distressing for those who truly love. For the Christian marriage is the one that abounds with as many new children as possible.
The abortion of an unborn child is absolutely condemned in the Orthodox Church. Clinical abortion is no means of birth control, and those who practice it for any reason at all, both the practitioners and those who request it, are punished according to the canon law of the Church with the “penalty for murder” (Council of Trullo, 5th and 6th Ecumenical Councils).
In extreme cases, as when the mother will surely die, if she bears the child, the decision for life or death of the child must be taken by the mother alone, in consultation with her family and her spiritual guides. Whatever the decision, unceasing prayers for God’s guidance and mercy must be its foundation. According to the Orthodox faith, a mother who gives her life for her child is a saint who will most certainly be greatly glorified by God; for there is no greater act of love than to give one’s life so that another might live (cf. Jn 15.13).
Within the life of the family, the father must be the leader and head. He must love his wife and children as Christ loves the Church—and Christ died for the Church. He must never be harsh. The wife must be totally devoted to her husband and must demand, encourage and enable his leadership. This is the normal way of family life prescribed in the scriptures, for “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of a woman is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11.3, Eph 5.22–23, Col 3.18–19, 1 Pet 3.1–7).
When the husband or wife is an unbeliever—and such should be the case only when one member of the marriage becomes Christian after being married, or when one member of a married couples loses his or her faith, for a Christian should not normally enter into marriage with an unbeliever—the couple, according to Saint Paul—should not separate or divorce, but should continue to live together. The believer should show the best example of the spiritual life of love to the unbeliever in every word and deed, totally without coercion or compulsion regarding the faith, and certainly without accusation or condemnation.
For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
But if the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such case the brother or sister is not bound. For God has called us to peace. Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife? (1 Cor 7.13–16, cf. 1 Pet 3.1–7).
Here the apostle, for the sake of peace, permits separation, but does not encourage it. Nevertheless, in dire circumstances, such as when there is spiritual or physical danger, the Church itself counsels separation as the lesser evil. However, in such cases the Church also counsels the separated Christian, if possible, to “remain single” (1 Cor 7.10). Second marriages, even for widows and widowers, are allowed and blessed by the Church, without the penalty of excommunication, only, in theory, in those cases where the new marriage has the possibility of being holy and pure (See Worship, “Marriage”).
Within the family, the spiritual life of love should be sought and lived as fully as possible. This means that every member of the family should live for the good of the other in all circumstances, “bearing one another’s burdens” and in this way fulfilling “the law of Christ” (Gal 6.2). There should be the constant presence of mercy and forgiveness and mutual upbuilding. There should be every expression of true love as is generally found in those who are holy.
Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things (1 Cor 13.4–7).
Such love is the basis of enduring family life, lived and expressed joyfully and cheerfully, without reluctance or compulsion (cf. 2 Cor 9.6–12). For marriage is not “holy deadlock” as one cynical writer has put it, but, in the words of Saint John Chrysostom, a “small church” in the home where the grace and freedom of God abounds for man’s salvation and life.
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother . . . that it may be well with you and that you may live long on the earth” (Eph 6.1–3, Ex 20.12).
There are those who curse their fathers and do not bless their mothers . . . If one curses his father or his mother, his lamp will be put out in utter darkness (Prov 30.11, 22.20).
For everyone who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he who has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him (Lev 20.9).
Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord (Col 3.20).
Saint John Chrysostom says that those who cannot honor, love and respect their parents can certainly not serve God, for He is the “Father of all” (Eph 4.6), the One “from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3.15).
The true father loves and disciplines his child as God loves and disciplines His people (cf. Heb 12.3–11).
He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.
Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.
Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it (Prov 13.24; 22.6,15; 23.13).
The love of the father for children is expressed in loving discipline without hypocrisy. The best teacher is one’s own example.
Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger but bring them up with discipline and instruction in the Lord (Eph 6.4).
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged (Col 3.21).
Like the pastors of churches, the fathers of families must be “temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome and no lover of money” (1Tim 3.2). He must be an example for his children “in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4.12). Like the father in Christ ’s parable, the human father must always be ready to receive home with joy his prodigal children. The wives and mothers of families must be fully devoted to their husbands and children. They must be the very embodiment of all of the fruits of the Holy Spirit as those who give life, both physical and spiritual.
A good wife, who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her . . . she does him good and not harm all the days of her life.
Strength and dignity are her clothing and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth in wisdom and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children rise up and call her blessed; her husband also, he praises her, saying: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.”
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is greatly to be praised (Prov 31.10–31).
This teaching of Wisdom is found also in the writing of the apostles of Christ.
I desire then that in every place . . . women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire, but by good deeds as befits women who profess piety (1 Tim 2.8–10).
Likewise, you wives, be submissive to your husbands, so that some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, when they see your reverent and chaste behavior. Let not yours be the outward adorning with braiding of hair, decoration of gold, and wearing of robes, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable jewel of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. So once the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves and were submissive to their husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are now her children if you do right and let nothing terrify you (1 Pet 3.1–6).
Thus in the “small church” of the family, with each member living according to God’s will, the Kingdom of God is already present and active, waiting to be perfectly fulfilled in the Kingdom of heaven which never will end, where all are God’s children, the bride of His Son.