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Intermarriage and Our Sacred Texts

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Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

 

What is the effect of your sacred texts and beliefs on interfaith marriage and how have these ethical teachings affected the everyday lives of believers?

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In an effort to answer your question, my response will be divided into three interrelated sections. The first section will provide some brief observations of marriage that are based on what our sacred texts teach – sacred texts like, Holy Scripture, the Sacrament of Marriage, our Holy Canons. The second section will briefly outline the pastoral guidelines the Orthodox Church employs in its efforts to minister to inter-Christian couples and their families. The third section will consider some of the challenges that intermarried couples face as a result of the pastoral guidelines the Orthodox Church uses in its efforts to (1) protect its theological integrity, and (2) minister to inter-Christian couples and families who worship in its churches. Some general observations and conclusions will serve to complete my response.

A Brief Definition of Marriage

A definition of marriage from an Orthodox perspective assumes that both partners – husband and wife - are actively cultivating a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This definition would also presuppose that marriage is a God-given, and God-inspired, lifestyle whereby both spouses struggle together toward sanctification and salvation within a faithful community of believers. Additionally, marriage is also conceptualized as an eternal gift, and eternal bond, and not a disposable commodity that we discard after it has ceased to meet our individual needs. To that end, during the celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage, the newlyweds are called to enter into an undying commitment and holy partnership. These are concepts that are generally missing from any definition of marriage that our dominant American culture espouses and promotes. Nevertheless, they are absolutely crucial to an understanding of marriage from a Christian and Orthodox perspective.

The Intermarriage Challenge

Up until the 19 th century, the Orthodox Church only permitted intra-Orthodox couples to receive the Sacrament of Marriage – couples where both partners have an Orthodox faith background. However, as more and more Orthodox began to enter inter-Christian marriages, the Orthodox Church was compelled to address this growing population’s special needs. In an effort to do this, it determined to permit inter-Christian couples to wed in our churches so long as they were willing to adhere to the following pastoral guidelines. Inter-Christian couples must be willing to marry in the Orthodox Church, and raise and nurture their future children in the Orthodox Church.

It should also be emphasized, that while the Orthodox Church has permitted inter-Christian couples to wed in its churches, it concurrently seeks to respectfully encourage these couples to enter into the community of marriage as intra-Orthodox couples. And while it understands that individual and family needs may preclude this from occurring, the Orthodox Church maintains that when spouses have an identical religious background, rather than a similar religious background, the family’s religious and spiritual development and well-being is positively impacted.

Challenges Intermarried Couples Encounter

Over the past 20 years, nearly two thirds of all marriages (63%) conducted in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA) have been categorized as inter-Christian, inter-Church marriages. Given these large numbers, a research project was commissioned to develop a thick, rich, description and systematic conceptualization of the challenges that inter-Christian couples experience in their efforts to worship in the GOA. This research project would later be known as the Interfaith Research Project (IRP).

While most of the participants involved in the IRP reported being satisfied with their marriages, participates also described a number of challenges in their efforts to both worship in the Orthodox Church and promote individual, couple and family religious and spiritual well-being. Some of these challenges are directly related to your question. Here is a sampling of the challenges they described related to what you’ve asked.

  1. While most couples who desired to worship together, the fact that the Orthodox Church does not share its sacraments with non-Orthodox often precluded couples from worshiping together. That is because some non-Orthodox partners indicated their religious and spiritual needs could not be adequately met as a result of the Orthodox Church’s position related to inter-communion.

  2. Non-Orthodox partners in this study often reported feeling excluded and unwelcome as a result of the Orthodox Church’s position related to sacramental participation. In particular, since the Orthodox Church does not permit non-Orthodox to participate in the sacraments, the non-Orthodox spouse felt excluded.

  3. The non-Orthodox partner often reported that members of their extended family felt unwelcome and excluded as a result of the Orthodox Church’s position related to sacramental participation.

  4. Many Orthodox partners often indicated that their personal commitment and participation in their faith tradition was negatively impacted because their non-Orthodox spouse and their extended family felt excluded and unwelcome.

  5. Since the Orthodox partner was unable to clearly articulate the Orthodox Church’s pastoral guidelines regarding inter-communion and sacramental participation, this lack of knowledge tended to have a negative impact on individual, couple and familial religious and spiritual participation.

  6. Participants also identified a number of challenges they faced as parents related their efforts to baptize, raise and nurture their children’s religious and spiritual development.

For more information, in addition to the Interfaith marriage Web site, I would recommend that you consider reviewing the following two resources: When You Intermarry: A Resource for Inter-Christian, Intercultural Couples, Parents and Families, and Ministering to Intermarried Couples: A Resource for Clergy and Lay Workers. These books can be ordered on the Interfaith Marriage Web site.

Conclusion

The Orthodox Church continues to struggle with this issue. With God’s help, it has attempted to protect its theological integrity, while also trying to concurrently meet this growing population’s unique religious and spiritual needs. This has not been an easy task. At times, some have viewed the Orthodox Church’s decision to administer the Sacrament of Marriage to inter-Christian couples as a violation of its sacramental theology. Others have maintained that the Orthodox Church must do more to meet this growing population’s needs. These individuals have asked what the church intended to do for those Orthodox who choose to intermarry non-Christians.

There are many questions left unanswered, and both sides continue to voice their opinions with regard to this challenge. Moreover, as this debate continues, it seems to me that the Orthodox Church’s leadership continues to seek a balance that will protect the integrity of its belief system while also meeting this growing populations’ religious and spiritual needs. What new revisions and decisions that may take place remain to be seen. Yet, in the midst of this prayerful dialogue, one thing remains certain. In a society where Orthodox Christians comprise less than one percent of our population, Orthodox faithful of marriageable age will continue to fall in love and marry non-Orthodox. That being the case, with God’s help, the Church will continue to be challenged to find suitable ways of ministering to the intermarried couples who choose to worship in the Orthodox Church.

Our Lord continue to richly bless you,
Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT