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When Interfaith Spouses are Highly Religious

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

In this short article you will meet two interfaith spouses who have strong attachments to their religious backgrounds, and consider these attachments of paramount importance to their individual, couple, and family well being. Moreover, while this couple is fictitious, rest assured that these types of interfaith couples do fill our pews on Sunday mornings, and the comments and information that follow are typical of highly religious interfaith couples' perceptions and lived experiences.

Meet Joe and Ellen

Joe (46) and Ellen (45) have been married for 19 years. Joe is Catholic, and identifies himself as a "third generation Italian-American." Ellen self identifies herself as a "second generation Greek-American who was raised in a Greek-American Orthodox home." In addition, Joe is a successful small business owner, and Ellen is an elementary school teacher. Both describe their marriage is positive terms, and boast about their three children during our conversation.

When asked how they met, Joe states that, "we were introduced through some mutual friends at a small Christian liberal arts college." Ellen agrees, and continues the conversation by offering the following observation. "What attracted me to Joe was his strong faith in God: a quality that I had difficulty finding in the Greeks and non-Greeks that I dated before Joe."

Joe continues this line of thought and also states, "if either of us were marginal believers, I don't think we would have considered marriage. We fell in love with each other because of our mutual Christian faith. And it's our faith in Christ that continues to play a central role in our happiness as a couple and family."

When this couple is asked if they attend one church or two, Ellen states, "we try and respect both of our religious traditions, because we believe that, that is what God wants. But we probably attend the Greek Orthodox Church more frequently because we have chosen to baptize our children in the Orthodox Church. So I guess what you might say about us is that we're a Christian family who work at being Christians through two closely related Christian traditions."

"Absolutely," Joe emphatically adds. "We believe that we are both Christians who are part of Christ's Church, but we also respect our individual religious preferences. The truth is, Ellen feels more comfortable in the Greek Orthodox Church, and I feel more comfortable in the Catholic Church. We respect and honor this very private and important part of our spiritual walks, and also celebrate our common Christian Faith."

"It's also a lot of work," Ellen adds. "We have spent considerable time becoming very familiar with each religious tradition. And I might also add here that Joe, bless his heart, has sometimes struggled with all the Greek in the services, but he is doing better then he was when we first got married."

After making this latter point, Joe nods in agreement, but chooses to change the subject and talk about their struggles as parents. "And we've also labored long and hard to help our three children gain a respect for our Lord, as well as both parents' religious traditions."
"That's right," Ellen states. "That's always been very important to us."

By now both spouses are talking very freely about their marriage and family, and Ellen, with a twinkle in her eye continues, "And maybe people might think that our focus on being a two-church family may create confusion, but nothing could be further from the truth. The real truth is that our efforts to honor and respect both religious traditions have been a real plus for our family, and if (for some reason) we hadn't proceeded in this way, I believe that this might have been very harmful to our marriage and family."

Ellen looks at Joe for confirmation, and Joe continues our conversation. "It's like Ellen said. We're pretty happy with where we find ourselves at this time in our life, because we believe it's where God wants us to be…. Sure, we'd like things to be different between our two churches, and we pray that things may be different one day in the future, but we understand that won't happen anytime soon. So, we love and respect both traditions, and try and help our children to do the same."

Some Observations About this Short Interview

  1. Inter-Christian couples like Joe and Ellen, not only have strong attachments to their religious traditions, but also believe that they are a single faith family who worship God through two closely related Christian faith traditions.
  2. These types of couples do not generally consider conversion a viable alternative for reasons like the following few.
    • They strongly believe God has not called them to become a single religion couple and family.
    • They believe that God desires that they continue to respect each partner's faith tradition.
    • They respect each other's religious needs and preferences, and maintain that conversion could function to disturb their partner's personal relationship with God.
    • They believe that conversion might function to negatively impact couple and family well being, rather then having a positive affect on their marriage and family.
  3. These types of couples also tend to espouse an ecumenical vision of the church, and conceptualize themselves as Christians who were born into one Church that has many religious/cultural traditions.
  4. As parents these types of couples will likely baptize their children in one church, and raise their children in one church. Nonetheless, because of their ecumenical perception of the church, these types of couples will also seek to enhance their children's developing religious identity by exposing them to each parent's religious traditions.

Serving these Types of Couples

While the recommendations that follow may be far from comprehensive, they are representative of some of the suggestions that highly religious interfaith couples have given during their participation in the Interfaith Research Project.

These types of couples desire that both our clergy and lay people to avoid making any disrespectful inferences or judgments regarding their decision to remain in an interfaith marriage. In this later case, they suggest that clergy and other members of the congregation might remember that their present choice has prayerfully emerged, and it is not the result of laziness or certain philosophical secular influences.

These types of couples also suggest that they are more likely to remain engaged and supportive of their local Greek Orthodox Church if their church refrains from (a) being overly ethnocentric, (b) overly critical of other Christian faith traditions, (c) extends a welcoming hand to everyone who wishes to pray in our Churches, (d) cultivates a Christian environment, (e) provides a Christ-centered youth program, and (f) utilizes enough English in an out of the services to assist them in their religious and spiritual development.