The Orthodox Christian Marriage


Orthodox Christianity is a way of life, not merely something we do on Sunday mornings and quickly forget when we leave church. A way of life is a whole coming together of habits and attitudes, ideas and actions: a style of life, a way to live. For us Orthodox, Christianity is our daily bread. Like a fish in water, we must swim in our Faith. As followers of Christ, we take our whole direction from Christ and His Church, and not from the standards of today's world. This seems clearest when we visit a monastery, where the environment, the atmosphere, the focus of life - everything is clearly and deliberately Orthodox.
Most of us Orthodox Christians do not live in monasteries; we are married; we have homes, children, jobs. Among many married Orthodox there exists the mistaken idea that their following Christ does not require the same dedication required of the Orthodox monastic. But of course all Christians, whether monastic or not, are equally called by Christ to repentance and eternal salvation. There are no "classes" of Orthodox Christians - all are equal and all are expected to be followers of Christ, regardless of their position in the Church.

It is, however, very difficult for us non-monastic Christians to live an Orthodox life-style from day to day and year to year because we are constantly exposed to and live within a society that is not only not Christian but even at times, and increasingly, hostile to Orthodox Christian beliefs.  But this should not discourage us, for Christ Himself understood this situation when He said: Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matt. 10:16).

A tremendous bastion of strength for Orthodox lay people in our circumstances is marriage and family life, a state that has been blessed by God for the salvation of each individual member of the family. In order fully to understand this, we must look at the doctrinal foundations of marriage found in Scripture and Sacred Tradition - which are the on-going conscience of the Church.

The Old Testament and the New Testament Views of Marriage

When we look at the practice of marriage, family life, and multiplication of the human race as described in the Old Testament, we are immediately aware of the fact that great emphasis was placed on the continuation of the Hebrew race. We have endless family trees given to us in the Old Testament. But marriage was not the only way by which the race was continued at that time. Children were also begotten through the custom of concubinage and the practice of having a man marry the widow of his brother, even though he might already have a wife. We read that Solomon, for example, "had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines," and the Old Testament records that King David "took more concubines and wives from Jerusalem after he came from Hebron; and more sons and daughters were born to him." Many of the great personages of the Old Testament had multiple wives and concubines. This emphasis on perpetuating the race seems to us extreme, and the methods of doing so seem almost bizarre. However, the primary reason for all of this mating was not the gratification of lust, but the desire for descendants. Sexual promiscuity was in no wise condoned by God in Old Testament times any more than He condones it in our own times. But during Old Testament times, God began to reveal to man what His expectations were. Gradually we see that God condemned polygamous marriages, concubines, and the practice of marrying one's brother's widow. 

He began to shift the focus of marriage from procreation to a higher, spiritual level. Finally, God made His intentions very clear by the way He dealt with people who were involved in illicit sex. To us, who consider ourselves so "cultured" and "educated," and "sophisticated," God's actions might seem to be very harsh. But He was trying to make plain that He was the ultimate source of life, not the physical union of a man and a woman. And where God is, there can be only holiness, and mystery. What procreates and perpetuates life cannot be anything but a mystery. And holiness and mystery must be protected, guarded, and preserved against blasphemy, uncleanness, and irreverence. The way in which God dealt with sexual transgressions and perversions in the Old Testament makes it very clear that marriage is an extremely wonderful and holy mystery - so holy and mysterious, that any kind of sexual transgressions is an abomination in God's sight, and to be avoided at all costs. But the sexual aspects of marriage will be considered later.

With the coming of Christ, marriage no longer had as its primary goal the reproduction of human beings and the perpetuation of a family line, although procreation was still regarded as an important part of marriage. But Christ had come to the world and brought with Him the proof and guarantee of the resurrection of the dead, therefore giving to Christian marriage a new primary goal - the attainment of eternal life by husband, wife, and all children.

The marriage service in the Orthodox Church begins with the words, "Blessed is the Kingdom, of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen." This exclamation emphasizes the seriousness of marriage, and also the goal of marriage.  According to the church canons, those Orthodox Christians who marry outside the Church are deprived of the sacraments of the Church. Some people find this shocking; they feel the Church is being too harsh. But the question is: What gives validity to marriage? From a spiritual standpoint, what gives meaning to a marriage? Unlike the wedding ceremonies in most non-Orthodox churches, marriage in the Orthodox Church is not a contract - a legal agreement with the exchange of vows or promises - between two people. Rather, marriage is the setting up, by two people, of a miniature church, a family church, wherein people may worship the true God and struggle to save their souls. It is also a family church that is in obedience to Christ's Church. As Saint Basil the Great says, it is natural to marry, but it must be more than natural; it must be a yoke, borne by two people under the Church.

Thus we see that in New Testament times the focus of marriage was switched from a primary purpose of producing children, to a primary purpose of providing a way for human beings to save their souls. The wedding ceremony itself is filled with rich symbolism that makes this whole aspect of marriage very clear.

Characteristics of a Successful Marriage

Experience tells us that two people get married and immediately begin to discover how very different they are. The fact is, we don't really even begin to know ourselves until we are married. We live too close to ourselves. It really does take someone else to help us to see ourselves as we really are. One of the fringe benefits of a good marriage is that one acquires a built-in psychiatrist: a good spouse who cares enough to listen without having to be paid for it! We know that many emotional illnesses are a result of a person having some inner burden weighing on him which he had never been able to really share with someone else. In a good marriage, husband and wife share their burdens with one another, and this sharing is without reservation, without having to worry about how the other person will react, without having to keep up a front.

A marriage is not a missionary enterprise!  It has enough problems and difficulties of its own without each partner trying to thoroughly change and remake the other. One of the most common and most serious illusions young marrieds have is that of marrying someone in the hope and expectation of changing that person.

True love does not force itself on anyone, and it does not force change; it evokes growth. How? First, by accepting one's spouse as he or she is. When we marry, we do not sign up to change the other person; we just agree to love him as he is. The best thing a husband can do to change his wife, or vice-versa, is to change himself, to correct his own faults - in keeping with Christ's instructions to His followers.

We think of disloyalty in a marriage as being when one spouse commits adultery. The fact is, we can be disloyal and unfaithful just as thoroughly by putting business, or parents, or hobbies, or someone else before our spouse. That, too, is disloyalty. And anyone who is not ready to place his spouse ahead of career, ahead of parents, ahead of friends, ahead of recreation, is not ready for marriage - and such a marriage will fail. Marriage is for adults, not for children.

If you fit the first button into the first hole of your suit, all the other buttons will fall in their proper place. But if the first button is placed in the second hole, nothing will come out right. It's a matter of putting first things in first place, of keeping priorities straight. Likewise in marriage. Husbands, if you put your wives first - and wives, if you put your husbands first - everything else will fall into its proper place in the marriage relationship.

There are many characteristics that a successful marriage has, but in my view the three most important are these:

1. Praise. No marriage can prosper if there is no praise. Everyone in life needs to feel appreciated at some point by someone. And nothing can kill love faster than continual criticism. When we husbands and wives praise each other - in small ways as well as in big ways - we are also saying to one another: I love you; I value you. Praise nurtures a good marriage. And it is the one characteristic that is most lacking in modern marriages.

2. Forgiveness. Forgiveness is essential for a happy marriage. When couples ask me, "Do you think our marriage can survive?" my answer is always, "Yes, providing you are willing to forgive each other." And this forgiveness should not be just after a major crisis in a family. It should be every single day. In a successful marriage, a husband and wife are constantly asking forgiveness of each other. When we don't do this, wounds don't get healed. We grow apart from each other. We grow cold towards one another, and we don't obtain the blessings that God sends down on husbands and wives that mutually forgive one another.

3. Time. A successful marriage takes time. It does not happen overnight. It must grow. It is a long and difficult process; like all good things in life, it comes through considerable effort and struggle. Those of you not yet married, or on the verge of marriage, should remember this: we live in a society of instantaneous gratification - we want what we want, when we want it, and that when is now. And this impatience on our part has had a very destructive effect on marriages, even in the Orthodox Church. If we have no patience with each other, and are not willing to give many years to working out a successful marriage, then our marriage is doomed.

No marriage is so good that it cannot be better, and no marriage is so bad that it cannot be improved - provided that the persons involved are willing to grow together by God's grace toward the maturity of Christ, Who came "not to be served but to serve."

An absolute essential requirement for a good marriage is the capacity to grow up. Emotional immaturity is one of the greatest causes of failure in marriage. Of course, we all come to marriage with our private assortment of immaturities and hangups. But we have to learn to outgrow them. When I was a child, observed Saint Paul, I thought as a child. I spoke as a child, I understood as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things. How essential it is to a happy marriage to put away childish things: irresponsibility, insisting on getting one's own way, egotism, lack of empathy, temper tantrums, jealousy. How important it is to pray every day: "O God, help me to grow up... to look beyond myself... to realize the needs and feelings of my wife/husband, and accept the responsibility God has laid upon me."

By Priest Alexey Young

An excerpt from: http://www.roca.org/OA/154/154f.htm.htm

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