Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Orthodox Church. Part I

The question is often asked what the Orthodox position is on marriage. The answer to this question should be sought in the Orthodox teaching on the “mystery or the sacrament” of marriage. We also know that the Roman Catholic Church considers marriage as a sacrament. There is however a very important difference which should be clarified here. In the first place, the Roman Catholic Church holds that the bride and bridegroom execute the marriage themselves, in their vows to each other. In the Orthodox Church it is the priest or the bishop who consecrates the marriage, who calls upon God in the name of the community, and asks that the Holy Spirit be sent down (epiclesis) on the man and woman and in this way make them “into one flesh”. In addition marriage is for the Orthodox Church rather a spiritual path, a seeking after God, the mystery of oneness and love, the preparatory portrayal of the Kingdom of God, than a necessity for reproduction.


Marriage is a mystery or sacrament that has been instituted with God’s blessing during creation. The chosen people saw it then as a mystery that had its beginnings at the divine creation. This is confirmed by Christ who says: “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female’. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and two will become one flesh”. (Mark 10, 6-8).

According to the Holy Scriptures marriage is built on:

- the distinction, at the first creation of man, between man and woman (“Also God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”, Gen. 1:27)

- the creation of the woman out of Adam’s rib (Gen 2:21-24);

- the blessing of God on the first created with the words: “be fruitful and increase in number” (Gen. 1:27-28).

These three elements make marriage a spiritual praxis par excellence, not only due to the simple covenant between two people, but especially due to the fact that it is an expression of God’s will. The natural covenant of marriage becomes as it were also a divine covenant, hence also its fully mystical character which the church emphasizes. The principal and therefore the most essential element of marriage is the joining of each person with one single person of the opposite sex. This element of one single person in marriage is maintained even after the fall of the first created creatures in the Old Testament, although this may not always have been adhered to in practice. This element of marriage assumes a resemblance to the relationship between God and the chosen people. This element of one single person in marriage is confirmed by Christ’s teaching on marriage.

Paul is the first to understand the essence of Christ’s teaching on marriage and its sanctity. He describes it as “a great mystery in Christ and in the Church” (Eph. 5, 32) The definition “in Christ and in the Church” means, according to Paul, that the spiritual bond of love, of commitment, and of the reciprocal submission of the partners — which is the bond of their complete oneness — only exists when it conforms to the love of Christ for His Church (Eph. 5, 22-33). The relationship of the partners that grows out of marriage is, in other words, so essential, so intense and so spiritual, as the existing relationship between Christ and the Church. The oneness of the Church — as community of the baptized — with Christ, and its maintenance, takes place through the sacrament of the Divine Eucharist. This is the centre of all the sacraments and puts mankind in an eschatological perspective. In this way marriage also “transfigures” the oneness of man and wife into a new reality, namely, seen in the perspective of life in Christ. This is why the apostle Paul does not hesitate to call this decisive step in human existence “mystery” (or … sacrament) in the image of Christ and His Church. This is the only reason why a truly Christian marriage can be unique, “because it is a Mystery of God’s Kingdom, that introduces mankind to eternal joy and eternal love”. This oneness — brought about with the sacrament of marriage — is no one-sided action of the Church. Man is not called after all to participate passively in the grace of God, but as God’s co-worker. And even when man becomes a co-worker, he remains subject to the weakness and sinfulness of human existence.

In this light even reproduction (1 Tim. 2, 15) is seen as man’s co-operation with creation. The mystery or sacrament of marriage becomes immediately related to the mystery of life, of the birth of human souls, of immortality and of their death.


Here it becomes evident that the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church differ in their understanding of the purpose of marriage. In orthodox theological thinking this is firstly the reciprocal love, the relationship and the help between the marriage partners with view to their completion in Christ. Only subsequently comes the restraining of their sexual passion and the reproduction of the human race. It is remarkable that in the New Testament we find no reference relating marriage to reproduction. In the Roman Catholic Church it is evident that the ultimate purpose of marriage is “procreation” or reproduction. To see reproduction as the principal purpose of marriage is a narrow perspective on the conjugal life of man and wife. What value does sexual intercourse have between man and wife in the case of sterility or after the menopause, or if the wife is medically unable to have any more children? It is certain that the married couple have precedence above the family, however praiseworthy the purpose of family is. The story of the establishing of marriage is found in the second chapter of the book Genesis, which deals with the fact that “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Gen. 2, 24), without mention of reproduction. The Holy John Chrysostom refers to this: “There are two reasons for which marriage was established …to cause the man to be satisfied with one single wife and to give him children, but it is the first which is the most important…As for reproduction, marriage does not necessarily include this…the proof is to be found in the many marriages for which having children is not possible. This is why the primary reason for marriage is to regulate the sexual life, especially now that the human race has already populated the whole world".


The Church Fathers say it characteristically: “Where Christ is, there is the Church”, which demonstrates that the marriage relationship has a church character. This is why Paul speaks of “the church that meets at their house” Rom. 16, 5) and John Chrysostom of the “small Church”. At Cana in Galilee Jesus “revealed his glory” (John 2, 11) in the womb of a “house church”. Paul Evdokimov suggests, “this marriage, as it were, is the marriage of the bridal couple with Christ. He is the one who leads and – according to the Church Fathers   does so in all Christian marriages". The reciprocal love of man and wife is a communal love for God. Every moment of their lives becomes a glorifying of God. John Chrysostom says it this way: “Marriage is a mystical icon of the Church”.


We have already said that marriage in its purest form is a natural order according to divine intention. It is the basis of the family, which is the community where man’s noblest feelings are able to develop. Marriage is in its essence a holy institution and its holiness has been sealed through the Church, which views marriage as a divine institution and mystery. It is not therefore the agreement and free will of the marriage partners that establishes the marriage, but it is the grace of God in particular which is essential, and this is given through the approval of the Church, in the person of the bishop.

Doctrine regarding the indissolubility of marriage is based on its holiness. The holiness and indissolubility of marriage exalt monogamy. References are often made to the Old Testament in this regard (Mal. 2, 14).

But as mystery or sacrament the Christian marriage is undoubtedly confronted with the “fallen” state of mankind. It is presented as the unachievable ideal. But there is a distinct difference between a “sacrament” and an “ideal”, for the first is “an experience involving not only man, but one in which he acts in communion with God”, in this he becomes a partner of the Holy Spirit while remaining human with his weaknesses and faults.

The theory of the indissolubility of marriage has a strong pedagogical significance. The motivation Christ gives is a command. Those who commit themselves to the covenant of marriage should do all they can not to separate, as they have God to thank for their oneness. But the additional motivation: “Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (Mark 10, 9; Math. 19, 6) does not signify a magical adherence. In every mystery or sacrament, excluding baptism, the exertion of man’s free will is required. The “not separate” is a divine request, as is “do not kill”. But man is free and can dissolve his marriage and kill his fellow man. In both cases he commits grievous sin.

The Church has been faithful throughout the centuries to the principle referred to by Paul, that a second marriage is an aberration of the Christian statute. In this sense the orthodox doctrine confirms not only the “indissolubility” of marriage, but also its uniqueness. Every true marriage can be uniquely the “only” one.