Orthodox America

  The Church’s View of Mixed Marriages

A bird may love a fish, but where will they build a home together? Tevye, from Fiddler on the Roof

The July 24th (1988) issue of The Church Messenger, published by the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Diocese iv the U.S.A., carried an article entitled "Perspectives in Marriages to Non-Christian Spouses" by Fr George Papaioannou of the Creek Archdiocese. The thrust of this article is that Orthodox Christians may marry outside the Faith. Fr. George wrote in part as follows:

      "Living in a pluralistic society such as ours, we cannot ignore those who marry outside the Church Like a good shepherd, the priest has to serve them. Yet, there are others who find this approach condemnable. Is it? On the contrary, this writer believes that this approach is justified by both the Bible and the history of the Church."

      Having made this statement, however, Fr George fails to back it up. The only justification he offers from "the Bible and the history of the Church' in support of mixed marriages is a passage from St. Paul's first Epistle to the Corinthians:

      If any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any Woman has a husband who is an unbeliever and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him; for the unbelieving husband is consecrated by his wife and the unbelieving wife by the husband. (1 Cor. 7:12 13)

      The implication here is that, since St. Paul mentions mixed marriages, the early Church must have permitted believers to marry non-believers. But this was not the case. In St. Paul's day, the vast majority of Christians, including the Apostles and even Paul himself, were converts. They had come into the Church of their own volition as adults. And many of them were already married and had families before they were baptized. Since one's convictions are a very personal thing, it naturally follows that the decision to become a Christian did not always come to both husband and wife simultaneously in every family. Thus it was that the Church in St. Paul's day included a significant number of couples in which one partner had embraced the Faith and been received through baptism months or even years before the other. And that is how we must understand this passage of Scripture.

      That's how St. John Chrysostom understands it. In his nineteenth homily, he addresses this very passage and then cautions,

      "...the issue here does not concern those who are contemplating marriage, but only those who are already married. He did not say, 'If any brother wants to marry an unbeliever,' but 'If any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever.' This means that if anyone receives the Word of Truth after getting married, and the wife remains an unbeliever but wants the marriage to continue, then it should not be broken. 'For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife.' The purity of the believer is the stronger force."

      In 691 A.D., the Quinisextine Ecumenical Council convened in Trullo and deliberated on this very question. The assembled bishops spoke out against marriages between Orthodox and unbelievers in no uncertain terms:

      "An Orthodox man is not permitted to marry an heretical woman, nor is an Orthodox woman to be joined to an heretical man. But if anything of this kind appear to have been done by any, we require them to consider the marriage null, and that the marriage be dissolved. For it is not fitting to mingle together what should not be mingled, nor is it right that the sheep be joined with the wolf, nor the lot of "sinners with the portion' of Christ!' But if any one shall transgress, the things which we have decreed let him be cut off. But if any, who up to this time are unbelievers awl are not yet numbered in the flock of the Orthodox, have contracted lawful marriage between themselves, and if then, one choosing the right and coming to the light of truth, and the other remaining still detained by the bend of error and not willing to behold with steady eye the Divine rays, (and if) the unbelieving woman is pleased to cohabit with the believing man, or the unbelieving man with the believing woman, let them not be separated, according to the divine Apostle, for the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife by her husband." (Canon LXXII)

      And the "divine Apostle" himself, in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, had this to say about marrying a heretic:

      Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness. And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? (II Cor 6:14-15)

      The message is unmistakably clear! Scripture, a universally acclaimed Church Father and a canon of an Ecumenical Council--all three inveigh heavily against marriages between Orthodox and heterodox. The teaching of the Orthodox Church is very clear on this subject an Orthodox Christian may NOT marry someone who isn't Orthodox. And a mixed marriage is permitted only when both partners were outside the Church when the marriage took place. The testimony of Scripture and Tradition specifically and emphatically denies any notion that marriage between Orthodox and heterodox is a practice that can be "justified by both the Bible and the history of the Church"!

      In fact, the wording of Canon LXXII above is so uncompromisingly strong in forbidding such a practice, that it appears even to deny any and every local hierarch's traditional discretionary right of economia in applying it, to wit: 

      "...But if anything of this kind appear to have been done by any, we require them to consider the marriage null and that the marriage be dissolved..." (emphasis mine). 

    And yet, despite these clear prohibitions, mixed marriages are not uncommon, even in our own Synod. How do they occur?

      No doubt each mixed marriage is unique, a special case unto itself, But we can be sure that all of them involve, to a greater or lesser degree, ignorance of or indifference to the canons and traditions of the Orthodox Church.

      A number of factors combine to create this deplorable situation in the Western world. First of all, there is the popular image of Jesus Christ as a false, permissive god who loves everything, demands nothing and, in the name of divine love, rescues even the unrepentent from the consequences of their own behavior

      Then there are the three philosophical pillars of contemporary society: humanism, secularism and skepticism, which put man instead of God at the center of the universe, advocate a legal fiction that one religion is as good as any other, including no religion, and constantly question every tenet, every dogma, every accepted convention and revealed Truth in the name of Progress and Intellectual Freedom (false gods if ever there were any), and thereby deprive their adherents of ever knowing what it is to have firm ground under their feet.

      There are also contemporary notions of romantic love, a heady form of dementia this writer knows only too well It feels great for a season, but unless the starry-eyed couple has something more in common than just an intense physical attraction, they will inevitably, wake up one day to find their mutual infatuation has evaporated, leaving them to consider a range of real issues like paying bills and raising children.

      Finally, there are compassionate priests who painfully, understand the dynamic interaction of all the factors just mentioned. They are constantly frustrated at their inability to keep the sheep Christ has put in their care safe from the pernicious influences of contemporary society. To their eternal credit, they never stop caring for the lost sheep, the ones who've willfully wandered away from the Church's salvific fold. But in their desperation to bring in all the sheep, they sometimes err by attempting to redefine the fold. Theirs is a misplaced compassion. In stretching the boundaries of the fold to accommodate the lost sheep, they endanger the rest of the flock. 

      We are fortunate enough to live in a free country. No one old enough to marry can be forced to be Orthodox. Membership in the Orthodox Church is ultimately a matter of choice. So why would anyone call himself Orthodox if he rejects the Church s authority and refuses to abide by the canons and standards of behavior She has upheld throughout Her history? Perhaps more to the point, why would one choose to be an Orthodox priest if he feels the Church is too rigid and out of step with the times? Rather than call upon the Church to lower her standards, such persons should reassess their personal views in light of Scripture and Tradition and, if 'hey still prefer their personal convictions to the teachings of the Church, they ought to leave it. Given the multitude of so-called Christian churches in America, it would be a simple matter to find a congregation with a more elastic theology and join it.

      Father George asks: "How do we deal with these people who were baptized and confirmed in the Orthodox faith but not married in the Church?" Canon LXXII of Trullo directs that the marriage be dissolved. But if the Orthodox partner refuses to acknowledge the Church's authority and continues to cohabit with an heretical spouse in a union not blessed by the Church, then let him (or her) be cut off. Surely Father George must be aware of this canon. Why isn't it acceptable to him? What other course of action is there? Would he administer the Sacraments of the Church to those who remain obdurate and unrepentant in defiance of Her authority? Is this the sort of behavior that defines a responsible shepherd? How will he answer for such behavior before Christ, Who Himself has said, ...if he [the sinner] neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican (Matt. 18:17)

       God made us to be with Him forever in His Heavenly Kingdom; He doesn't want to see anyone going to hell. But He has given us free will. He lets us make choices, even if these choices separate us from Him. This is what free will is all about. So let Father George remember, as any parent of grown children knows, that good people sometimes make bad choices---and sooner or later they have to face the consequences.

       It's not our place to speculate on the consequences in the hereafter. But anyone with eyes can see what bitter fruit mixed marriages often bear in the here and now. The Orthodox partner in a mixed marriage is compromised at least as often as the unbelieving spouse is consecrated. Contemporary, sociologists have observed that marriages between persons of different faiths are peaceful enough provided both partners are indifferent to their respective religions. Conflicts occur when one partner attempts to bring his religious convictions into the home.

       If the Orthodox spouse is devout and sincerely tries to live his faith, sooner or later this will be perceived as an imposition by the heterodox partner.

      As impositions build, resigned acceptance-will give way to passive resistance, which itself will be replaced eventually by ridicule and even hostility. And gradually Saturday vespers, fasting, morning and evening prayers, prayers at mealtime, and even Sunday liturgy will be abandoned for the sake of domestic tranquility. This is how the Orthodox spouse is separated from the Body of Christ and defiled.

      The real losers in such a marriage are the children, raised in an environment wherein an Orthodox mind-set is just a dim memory for one of the parents.

     We Orthodox are a peculiar people, a people set apart. Since Christ’s Resurrection, we are the New Israel. We are the children of Abraham. We are heirs to the Promise made to Jacob. And we claim our inheritance, not through genealogy or ethnic derivation, but through a dynamic faith in Christ. It’s an awful lot of risk for the sake of a transitory infatuation.   John Hudanish

Editor’s Note:  Although one cannot fault the author for his rigorous view of the Church’s judicial/canonical tradition regarding mixed marriages, one must keep in mind that the very purpose behind the Church’s enactment of these and other canons is the salvation of souls. In her canons, the Church provides a wise standard, not a rigid law which spells perdition to the transgressor. (New Martyr Grand Duchess Elizabeth, a Lutheran when she married into the Russian Imperial Family, provides an outstanding case in point). Nor does adherence to the canons guarantee success; the person who converts to the Faith solely in order to marry someone within the Church is building on shaky ground.

      As stewards of the Church, bishops must not be denied their right to exercise economia in the administration of the canons, and in certain limited circumstances this has meant permitting a mixed marriage. “Wisdom” is the operative term here. When a mixed marriage is permitted simply because it has become widely tolerated or because the faithful are not being properly instructed in the purpose and spiritual duties of marriage, economy is being abused.

      While God’s mercy can in no wise be invoked as a blanket coverage for the disregard of canons, it is only thanks to such mercy that any of us can call ourselves Orthodox.