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Consequences and Challenges When Orthodox Marry Non-Christians

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

I recently got engaged to a non-Christian man with a Moslem background, and I went to my priest to discuss marriage. He informed me that he could not perform a wedding for an Orthodox Christian and non-Christian. He also informed me that if I married my fiancée, I would lose my sacramental privileges….I was so upset by this news that I left without asking some other important questions. I was hoping you might be able to answer them. First, if I marry outside of the Greek Orthodox Church, how do I get back into good standing? Second, if I lose my sacramental privileges, can I baptize my future children in the Church? Third, I am a godparent and I am wondering how my decision to marry outside of the Church may affect my status as a godparent? Fourth, do you think my non-Christian partner will feel welcomed in my Church? 

E- mail Respondent

I receive E-mail like this regularly. Like this respondent’s message, the preponderance of this E-mail includes a number of difficult, unsettling questions. This article will provide short answers to the above questions. Other questions which are more particular to specific couples and their families will not be addressed here. It is my hope that the following information will help educate more of our faithful with regard to the challenging realities that Orthodox encounter when they consider marriage to a non-Christian.

Consult Your Priest and Hierarch

In my efforts to address questions and concerns, I always preface my comments by urging respondents to validate any and all guidance I give with their parish priest. I suggest this protocol because their parish priest can help respondents understand their hierarch’s specific positions related to the questions they ask me.  With that stated, after reviewing what follows, if you have additional questions or concerns, I urge you to E-mail me and/or consult your priest for clarification.

Question #1:  How do I get back into good standing?

If an Orthodox Christian chooses to marry a non-Christian outside of the Orthodox Church he/she falls out of good standing and can no longer participate in the sacramental life of the Church. For example, sacraments like Holy Communion and Holy Unction are not available to him/her. In an effort to get back into good standing, the Orthodox partner must receive the Sacrament of Marriage in the Orthodox Church.

While this guideline appears to provide an easy fix for Orthodox who marry non-Christians, in reality it is a very complex because the non-Christian partner must convert to the Christian faith in order for the couple to receive the Sacrament of Marriage. In most cases, this is not a viable option, since such a step requires the non-Christian partner to reject their non-Christian background.

To compound the difficulty, most Orthodox partners are either ambivalent or unwilling to make such a request of their partner. The following short statement from an E-mail I received the other day from another respondent begins to explain why. “I could never convert to my partner’s religious tradition, and I would never ask my future spouse to do something I wouldn’t be willing to do.” In short, these couple dynamics - along with others that I have not elaborated upon in this short article - make it extremely difficult to impossible for Orthodox to get back into good standing when they marry non-Christians.

Question #2:  If I lose my sacramental privileges, can I baptize my future children?

It is especially challenging for Orthodox spouses who have fallen out of good standing with their faith background to raise and nurture their children in the Orthodox Church. However, despite the numerous challenges, if intermarried couples/parents can help the priest understand how they intend to raise and nurture their children in the Orthodox Church when neither parent is in good standing, most priests will baptize their child(ren). 

Question #3:  How will my decision to marry outside of the Church affect my status as a godparent?

Greek Orthodox Christians are blessed with godparents who are expected to assist parents in helping their children form a religious identity. To accomplish this task, godparents provide a much needed role model that their godchild can emulate when maturing in the faith. However, godparents who fall out of good standing are seriously impaired and at a distinct disadvantage in their efforts to perform their role as completely as the Church prescribes.

Question #4:  Will my non-Christian partner feel welcomed at our Church?

Based on my research, I have found that most non-Orthodox partners find our congregation open and welcoming. This is not to suggest that there are no exceptions, because I am certain that there are instances when non-Orthodox partners and outsiders have been treated inhospitably. Yet, I believe these instances are exceptions and not the rule. As such, I believe that your spouse would feel welcomed in our churches.

I would nonetheless urge you to make an appointment with your local pastor to obtain his opinion and counsel. Such an appointment could also address any questions you may have, as well as further educate you with regard to the level of participation and involvement you and your partner can have in the life the Church community you attend. 

A Few Concluding Thoughts

In our pluralistic, multi-religious, multicultural society, the probability that some Orthodox will meet, date and fall in love with a non-Christian is reasonably high. For this reason, I believe it is increasingly more important that we educate our young people with regard to the pastoral guidelines the church follows with regard to Orthodox who marry (a) non-Orthodox Christians, and (b) non-Christians. (Orthodox who marry non-Orthodox Christians who believe in the Trinity can marry in the Church and retain their sacramental privileges.)

All too often I have encountered Orthodox who dated and are engaged with a non-Christian who were unaware of these pastoral guidelines and emotionally devastated when they discovered the Orthodox Church’s position regarding Orthodox who marry non-Christians. When this occurs, the Orthodox partner is forced into making some very difficult decisions. In many cases, these decisions compel the Orthodox partner to leave his/her faith tradition.

To increase awareness among our faithful, the Interfaith Marriage Web site (www.interfaith.goarch.org) has a downloadable, readable brochure that can easily be reproduced and shared with adolescents and young adults which is entitled:  Pastoral Guidelines for Intermarriage. There is also a considerable amount of useful information on the sidebar of this Website under the subsection, When Orthodox Marry Non-Christians. This information is available to educate, ameliorate and prevent as many future pastoral problems as possible that result when Orthodox marry non-Christians.

Fr. Charles is a faculty member at Nyack College in the Department of Counseling. He serves St. Nicholas Church in Newburgh, NY and is the Archdiocese’s resource person to intermarried couples and their families.