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


The problem of divorce is a very delicate question as it often touches on a painful human reality.

The tradition of the Church of the first centuries — which continues to have authority for the Orthodox Church — put the emphasis very strongly on two related points:

1) the “uniqueness” of the authentic Christian marriage,

2) the permanence of married conjugal life.

We may recall here the analogy that Paul makes between the unity of Christ and his Church and that of the bride and bridegroom. This analogy that is as it were at the root of the mystery assumes the real and continuing unity of the married couple, which therefore totally excludes a simultaneous polygamy and views one single marriage as the ideal.

Divorce does not heal the diseased marriage but kills it. It is not a positive action or intervention. It is about dissolving the “mini-Church” that has been formed through the marriage relationship. The Holy Scripture attributes divorce to the callousness of man. This is seen as a fall and sin. And yet the Orthodox Church can however permit divorce and remarriage on the grounds of interpretation of what the Lord says in Matt. 19:9: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.” According to Bishop Kallistos Ware divorce is an action of “economia” and “expression of compassion” of the Church toward sinful man. “Since Christ, according to the Matthaean account, allowed an exception to His general ruling about the indissolubility of marriage, the Orthodox Church also is willing to allow an exception”.

A question we can ask ourselves is whether Christ considered marriage as being indissoluble? We need to be very clear in this as when Christ teaches that marriage may not be dissolved that does not mean that He is stating that it cannot occur. The completeness of the marriage relationship can be tainted by erroneous behaviour. In other words, it is the offence that breaks the bond. The divorce is ultimately a result of this break. This is also the teaching of the Eastern Church fathers. A quotation from the testimony of Cyril of Alexandria will be sufficient to make our point here: “It is not the letters of divorce that dissolve the marriage in relation God but the errant behaviour”.

The violation of a marriage relationship is divided into two groups:

1) those resulting from adultery (unfaithfulness and immoral behaviour)

2) those proceeding from the absence of one of the partners (this absence must however have certain distinctives).

According to the spirit of Orthodoxy the unity of the married couple cannot be maintained through the virtue of juridical obligation alone; the formal unity must be consistent with aninternal symphony. The problem arises when it is no longer possible to salvage anything of this symphony, for “then the bond that was originally considered indissoluble is already dissolved and the law can offer nothing to replace grace and can neither heal nor resurrect, nor say: ‘Stand up and go’”.

The Church recognizes that there are cases in which marriage life has no content or may even lead to loss of the soul. The Holy John Chrysostom says in this regard that: “better to break the covenant than to lose one’s soul”. Nevertheless, the Orthodox Church sees divorce as a tragedy due to human weakness and sin.


Despite the fact that the Church condemns sin, she also desires to be an aid to those who suffer and for whom she may allow a second marriage. This is certainly the case when the marriage has ceased to be a reality. A possible second marriage is therefore only permitted because of “human weakness”. As the apostle Paul says concerning the unmarried and widows: “If they can not control themselves, they should marry” (1 Cor. 7, 9). It is permitted as a pastoral concession in the context of “economia,” to the human weakness and the corrupt world in which we live.

There is in other words a close relationship in every dimension between divorce and the possibility of remarriage. It is important here to explain a fundamental element of the Orthodox Church’s doctrine, namely that the dissolving of a marriage relationship does not ipso facto grant the right to enter into another marriage. As we look back to the time of the primitive Church, the Church of the first centuries, then we will have to agree that the Church did not have any juridical authority with regard to marriage, and did not therefore, make any statement concerning their validity. The Holy Basil the Great, for example, referred not to a rule but to usage, as far as this problem was concerned. Speaking concerning the man who had been cheated by his wife, he declares that the man is “pardonable” (to be excused) should he remarry. It is good to remember that the Orthodox Church has in general always had a sense of reluctance regarding second marriages. It would subsequently be completely wrong to assert that orthodox Christians may marry two or three times.

Orthodox canon law can permit a second and even a third marriage “in economia”, but strictly forbids a fourth. In theory divorce is only recognized in the case of adultery, but in practise is also recognised in light of other reasons. There is a list of causes of divorce acceptable to the Orthodox Church. In practise the bishops sometimes apply “economia” in a liberal way. By the way, divorce and remarriage are only permitted in the context of “economia”, that is, out of pastoral care, out of understanding for weakness. A second or third marriage will always be a deviation from the “ideal and unique marriage”, but often a fresh opportunity to correct a mistake”.


The question arises here, what is this “economia” exactly? In a theological, scholarly contribution, the present Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos, while still the Metropolitan of Philadelphia, explained in a clear and concise way what “economia” is. He suggests that it is generally accepted that the ecclesiastical economia is an image of the divine economia and love and kindness. That the economia is as old as the Church itself is evident from a reading of the New Testament. This is very clear for example in Acts 16, 3 “so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek”. However the economia in the Orthodox Church has never been systematically or officially defined. “It concerns a characteristic, a true privilege and precious treasure of the Church”. In the pan orthodox meetings of the 20th Century there have been attempts to give a definition to economia, but in the end this has been abandoned, “because economia is something that is rather experienced than described and defined…in the Orthodox Church, in which it is a characteristic and ancient privilege".

But now the question remains, what is “economia”? Well, according to the canon law of the Orthodox Church economia is “the suspension of the absolute and strict applications of canon and church regulations in the governing and the life of the Church, without subsequently compromising the dogmatic limitations. The application of economia only takes place through the official church authorities and is only applicable for a particular case.” This is allowed for exceptional and severe reasons, but creates no precedent. The Church, which continues to extend Christ’s redeeming work in the world, has on the basis of the Lord’s commandments, and of the apostles, determined a number of canons. Through these the Church helps the believers to come to salvation. But it should be noticed that these rules are not applied on a juridical basis, for the Church always holds in mind what the Lord Himself has said: “The Sabbath is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2, 27).

A canon is a “rule” or “guide” for the service of worship, the sacraments, and the governing of the Church. There are canons determined by the apostles, the Church Fathers, the local, regional and the general or ecumenical councils. Only the bishop, as head of the local Church, enforces them. He can enforce them rigidly (“akrivia”), or flexibly (“economia”), but “precision” is the norm. Once the particular circumstance has past - that demanded a conceding and accommodating judgement – “akrivia” assumes once again her full force. It cannot be that the “economia”, which was necessary in a specific situation, should become an example and should be later be retained as the rule. The “economia” is for the Orthodox Church a notion that cannot be compared to “dispensation” in the Roman Catholic Church. Dispensation is an anticipated exception, which provides a juridical norm parallel to the official regulation.

Economia is based on Christ’s command to his apostles: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven” (John 20, 22-23). This is the case when the human marriage experience becomes impossible, due to the spiritual death of love. It is then that the Church – as the Body of Christ – with understanding and compassion and out of personal concern, can apply the “economia” “by accepting the divorce and not rejecting the sinful humanly weak believers, or depriving them from God’s mercy and further grace.” It is the precise goal of economia that the weak person not be irrevocably banned from the church communion, according to Christ’s example, who came, after all, to save the lost.


Before the church authorities acknowledge the divorce in the context of economia, pastoral counselling should be given in each and every case, through which attempt is made to reconcile the married partners. Only when this is no longer possible should permission for remarriage be referred to, provided a form of penance can be imposed, in light of each individual case. In this way the Orthodox Church should take a clear point of view regarding this problem, and priests should be more motivated to take a greater role regarding explanation, counselling and psychological healing.

a. Preparation for marriage

In his book “Marriage: an orthodox perspective” Father John Meyendorff points out the danger of enforced marriages, where the couple themselves have no desire for a positive commitment. It may have been desired as a social happening or whatever. This, and many others, are problems that the priest needs to discuss when he meets the couple to help them prepare for their marriage. He has the responsibility of helping them to understand the meaning and significance of Christian marriage. This meeting may by no means be, or seem to be, an exclusively administrative matter, in which many documents are collected together with the intention of ascertaining the approval of the bishop for the marriage celebration. He also must be on the alert to ensure that no marriages are consecrated where the married couple does not accept its true significance. This is a problem that one frequently encounters with mixed marriages. Strictly speaking, the responsibility for the preparation of marriage lies not only with the priest, but also with the teachers, the parents, and certainly, first and foremost, with the young engaged couple themselves.

For marriage to live, and possibly also to survive, there is need of spiritual life. This spirituality is experienced firstly in the school of the Church itself, where we can participate par excellence in the gifts of grace of the Holy Spirit in the celebration of the sacraments. It is by the way in one of these sacraments, that man and wife become one, or “house-Church”, through the grace of the Holy Spirit. “In the ecclesiological and spiritual perspective which we just referred to, marriage enters into a dynamic action”. The path taken is determined in particular by the married couple themselves, any yet they find themselves in a world “of surprises and miracles”. The path becomes narrower and narrower as it is walked side-by-side, with 2 or 3 children following behind. The path of orthodox spiritual life is “a path of liturgy, mystique, asceticism, and eschatology”. It is the life of and in the Church and this life gives to the married couple and the whole family, another dimension, and another approach to life and to the problems one has to face.

It is very important that the Church provides the correct reflection of everything related to marriage and the family, and their value from the perspective of faith, especially to the youth and future bridal couples and their parents. There are for example, in many diocese of the Orthodox Church in Greece, “schools for parents”, where attention is given specifically to the preparation of their children for marriage. This is also possible through a lecture on this subject.

b. What is the best way to respond to those who are living together and are not yet married?

This problem was cited in a discussion that Metropolitan Stephanos of Tallinn and all Estonia had with Olivier Clément concerning this subject, which has been published in the book “Office and charismas in the Orthodox Church”: “it is true that many young people no longer have this Christian identity to be able to say: “We love each other, therefore we will marry”. They have not as yet committed themselves completely enough to say: “We are going to get married because we as a couple, as a future family, will be a core-group of the Church, and will give an example of evangelical commitment. (…) It happens that young people in this sense experience something worthwhile, something that prepares them for lasting love. For a true love demands that one does not compromise. Each needs to be able to retain his own identity, have his own structure, to be able to truly meet the other. Whatever is at hand, it happens that young people who find themselves in a similar situation, convert and in the end seek a closer relationship with the Church”, so speaks Olivier Clément. And the renown French orthodox theologian continues, saying that the role of the priest is of infinite importance here, immensely in explaining the meaning of love and marriage, immensely in explaining that love is possible, immensely in explaining that the sacrament of marriage can give them great strength, “this will be a strength in receiving the other, in forgiving the other, and therefore of permanence with the other.” What is certain is that one should not be moralising or too severe in these situations with regard to the youth, otherwise one will certainly not be heard.

c. Pastoral approach to the problem of divorce

The church community needs to be vigilant and give sufficient attention to married couples and families that have been affected and disabled by divorce. The married partner who has been abandoned by the other partner finds themself subsequently in a situation of discouragement and loneliness. The fate of the children is often much worse. From pastoral experience we know that the social and psychological assistance is insufficient. They especially need strengthening through a “spiritual and pastoral” approach, which will hopefully again give meaning and significance to their lives.

The Church, as community, can continue to involve them in the liturgical gatherings. It is clear that a discrete commission of love is reserved for every Christian towards those who are divorced. This too is consistent with what the Holy John Chrysostom has called “the sacrament of the brother”. One must certainly avoid judging or condemning one’s brother or sister.


From what has been said, we bear in mind that marriage is a sacrament or mystery, because it is a living experience of the Kingdom of God. It is an entry into a new life, a communal growth in the Holy Spirit. This new life enters as a gift, not as an obligation. Man is free to enter into this new life through this door or not. But this new life only has meaning if it actually leads to entry into the sacramental life of the Church. Marriage gains perfection when the married couple regularly share in the Eucharist, in the Body of Christ. In this way marriage gains a sanctifying character. This holiness of marriage should however be protected by certain canons, not because this is the spirit of the Church, but in order to demonstrate the ideal for Christians. The Christian doctrine of marriage is a “joyful responsibility”. It demonstrates what it means to be truly human, through which one receives the joy of giving life, in the image of the Creator.

Concerning on the other hand the orthodox perspective on the subtle problem area of divorce and possible remarriage, one needs to say that this is steeped in wisdom. It confirms the primary value of the steadfast and unique Christian marriage, which does not mean that this steadfastness should be seen, in all of life’s circumstances, as the downright irrevocable preservation of a juridical affirmation. The Orthodox Church does not want to shut the door of mercy inexorably, but holds still, to the teaching of the New Testament.

If you missed the first part of the article you can read it here: