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When Orthodox Christians Marry Non-Christians

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

Dear Father Charles,

I have fallen in love with someone who isn’t Christian. He is Moslem. Recently I approached my priest to inquire about marriage, and he informed me that we cannot get married in the Orthodox Church. Can you help me understand why?

E-mail respondent

There is hardly a month that passes when I fail to receive an e-mail like the one above. Some are more impassioned and longer than this one, but they all ask the above question along with questions like the following few: Why is the Church shutting me out? Why can’t I get married and retain my sacramental privileges? Why is the Church forcing me to choose between the one I love and my faith tradition?

This article will not attempt to answer all these questions. However, it will focus attention on Orthodox Christians who marry non-Christians, with the underlying assumption that the implications and challenges related to this pastoral challenge are very complex and deserve considerably more attention.

Some General Statistics

Research studies investigating religion in this country suggest that non-Christians comprise nearly 4% of the population. These studies also indicate that some of the fastest growing faith groups in this country are non-Christian, which means that the number of non-Christians who populate America’s religious landscape will likely increase. Coupled with this, recent studies also indicate that the percentage of people who do not have a religious affiliation is on the rise, up from 8% in 1990 to over 14% in 2001. Given these and other similar statistics, one could argue that it is becoming increasingly more likely for Orthodox Christians to meet and fall in love with someone from a non-Trinitarian and non-Christian background.

How Pervasive?

We do not know the percentage of Greek Orthodox Christians who are choosing to marry non-Christians. Nonetheless, on the basis of the attention which delegates have placed on this issue during the last three Clergy Laity Congresses, it could be argued that the number of Greek Orthodox Christians marrying non-Christians may be increasing. In particular, during the last three Congresses - held in Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York - delegates who participated in the Interfaith Marriage Committee spent an inordinate amount of the committee’s time discussing the challenges they faced related to inter-religious marriage. Moreover, the committee reports given at the plenary during these Congresses reflect the importance that delegates placed on this issue.

My own personal experiences also suggest that marriages between Orthodox Christians and non-Christians are likely on the rise. In addition to the E-mail I receive from Orthodox and non-Orthodox who are typically puzzled by the Church’s stance regarding inter-religious marriage, both lay leaders and clergy often approach me asking if anything is being done to address the needs of those who choose to marry non-Trinitarian Christians and non-Christians outside of the Church.

Only a Small Percentage

My experiences working with thousands of marriages and families within the GOA has taught me that while it is true that the type of couples this article is focused upon comprises a small percentage of the marriages that Greek Orthodox Christians are entering, I believe that a sizable number of people are impacted by this trend. To be more specific, when thinking about these marriages, I would maintain that it is an error to simply limit our focus to the Orthodox partner who enters these marriages. I would further argue that Greek Orthodox Christians who crossover religious boundaries are embedded within marriages, families and extended families, and the pastoral challenges they face tend to not only impact them, but also affect their marriages, children, families and extended families. All of which suggests that more than just the individual Orthodox spouse is affected by this pastoral challenge.

Unique Challenges

Studies investigating inter-religious marriages typically group most of the challenges these spouses and couples encounter in the following categories. Moreover, these challenges tend to impact individual, marital, family and extended family well-being and stability. What follows are a few examples.

  • Individual Challenges. When compared to inter-Christian couples and single faith couples, studies suggest that Christians who marry non-Christians encounter a host of unique challenges that tend to have a negative impact on the frequency and practice of their faith.

  • Marital Challenges. Christians who marry non-Christians tend to face a host of unique challenges that can potentially have a negative impact on marital satisfaction and religious and spiritual well-being.

  • Children’s Developmental Challenges. Studies also suggest that children raised in households where parents’ religious backgrounds are inherently different indicate that some will end up identifying with one or the other parents’ religious background, others will identify with a faith background that is different than either of their parents’ backgrounds and a large percentage will fail to identify with any religious background.

  • Extended Family Challenges. Extended family challenges tend to also be more pronounced and more frequent in number due to spouses’ cultural and religious differences. When compared to inter-Christian couples and single faith couples, higher levels of culture shock are commonly reported. Higher numbers of cut-offs between one or both partners and extended family are also reported.

Current Pastoral Guidelines

For reasons similar to those listed above, the Orthodox Church does not endorse inter-religious marriage, nor does it permit Orthodox Christians who choose to marry non-Trinitarian Christians and non-Christians to marry in the Orthodox Church. Moreover, the only way that a marriage of this type can be conducted in the Orthodox Church is if the non-Orthodox partner considers conversion. Should this fail to be an option, and the Orthodox Christian chooses to marry outside of the Orthodox Church, s/he will lose their good standing and will be unable to actively practice their Orthodox faith.

Some Lingering Questions and Concerns

As I have indicated, I have received many questions related to the marriages this article has briefly focused upon. Many have perturbed me and evoked a number of strong feelings and thoughts which have also left me with a number of related questions. As a way to end this article I would like to share some of these questions. In sharing these questions, my intention is not to create controversy, but to simply indicate that the trends I have briefly described may need more prayerful attention.

Are we doing all we can for those who marry non-Christians? Other than what we presently do for those who marry non-Christians, is there anything else we can do? What pastoral guidelines do other Orthodox Churches worldwide follow in an effort to address this challenge? If the Orthodox partner desires to actively participate in their faith background, is there a way for the church to continue to minister to both the Orthodox partner and their children? And finally, is it time for our best and brightest to gather in an effort to examine this pastoral challenge more carefully?