I have just finished reading a very interesting book entitled Mixed Marriages by the Reverend Anthony Roeber, an Antiochian priest and Professor Emeritus of Early Modern History and Religious Studies at Penn State University. As one might expect from someone with a PhD (mentioned on the back cover), it was a very scholarly work, with many footnotes. It was a bit difficult in spots to figure out exactly what he was trying to say, since like many scholars his original point tended to get lost in long multi-syllabic sentences and in numerous interactions with other scholars. But it repaid the work of re-reading.
I noted in the book much use of verbal “code” (i.e. the use of words to denote a point not actually made)—in this case the repeated use of the words “mercy and justice” to mean “giving Communion to non-Orthodox in defiance of the canons because they want it”. Such a practice may or may not be legitimate or wise, but the issue should be debated on its own merits, and not pre-judged by the use of such code. I further noted a kind of ad hominem approach to those rejecting the possibility of giving Communion to non-Orthodox partners in a marriage, where the author derided such a rejection as “an overly juridical approach”, and as held by “a tribal, sectarian-minded body bent on guarding the borders of an enclave populated by a frightened, endangered species”. Such rhetoric is not helpful.
What then can be said about the practice of mixed marriage—i.e. the marriage of an Orthodox Christian to a non-Orthodox Christian? Let us note several things.
The canons concerning this possibility are clear: such a marriage is not permitted. Thus canon 10 of the Council of Laodicea in the fourth century: “The members of the Church shall not indiscriminately marry their children to heretics”, and canon 31 of the same Council: “It is not lawful to make marriages with all [sorts of] heretics, nor to give our sons and daughters to them, but rather to take of them, if they promise to become Christians”. Thus canon 21 of the Council of Carthage, held in 419: “It seemed good that the sons of clergymen should not be joined in matrimony with Gentiles [i.e. unbelievers] and heretics”. Thus canon 14 of the Council of Chalcedon, held in 451: “It shall not be lawful for [readers and singers] to take a wife that is heterodox…[They may not] give [their children] in marriage to a heretic unless the person shall promise to come over to the Orthodox Faith”. Thus canon 72 of the Trullan Council, held in 692: “An Orthodox man is not permitted to marry a heretical woman, nor an Orthodox woman to be joined to a heretical man”.
It is true that the canons of the Church are not timeless laws, like the Ten Commandments. They were pastoral responses given within the culture and situations of their time to meet a need and correct an abuse. It is worth asking, therefore, if the “heretics” referred to in the canons can be uniformly applied to modern non-Orthodox in the same way as they were to be applied to the non-Orthodox of their day.
I believe that they cannot be simply applied in the same way, and that a devout Presbyterian today need not be treated in the same way as the fervent Arian of yesteryear. The possibilities for mixed marriage between Orthodox and Roman Catholics later in the Church’s history seems to confirm this. Roman Catholics were sometimes treated as heretics, and sometimes merely as schismatics. We note that even the doughty St. Mark of Ephesus did not require Roman Catholics returning to the Orthodox Church to be re-baptized. He received them back through Chrismation alone, acknowledging that the dimensions of the Great Schism are complex. The history of the Orthodox Church therefore contained instances of mixed marriages.
But this admission does not mean that we can simply throw those canons into the dumpster, as if the change in situation has emptied them of all meaning and force. We still need to ask the question, “What were these canons trying to preserve?” We need to apply them with careful discernment, not chuck them because we find them ecumenically embarrassing. I believe that those canons preserve the notion that heresy is bad and will kill spiritual life if allowed into the Church.
It is no good trying to obviate this with talk about the heartlessness of “turning a frontier into a border”. Borders are precisely what canons are all about, for the framers of the canons knew that (in the words of St. Paul), “a little yeast leavens the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6). We need borders—guarded by bishops—to keep the Church’s life and teaching pure. Deriding such concern for borders as narrow and cold legalism and chucking the canons with talk of mercy and justice comes at a price. If you doubt this, just look around at denominations that have completely opened their borders to all other churches and all influences. The sight is not a pretty one.
I would therefore suggest the following, in an attempt to apply the canons in a pastoral way in our modern setting. First of all we must examine:
The Ecumenical Reality
Fundamental to any discussion of mixed marriage today, an alert Orthodox Christian will acknowledge that outside the borders of Orthodoxy it is getting increasingly and dramatically weird. Theological liberalism (with its commitment to homosexual lifestyle and transgenderism) is running rampant through the mainline churches like an unchecked and spreading forest fire. Evangelical churches with their praise bands have all but severed their connection with historical dogma and confessionalism. Even the Roman Catholic Church seems to have lost its way, and seems to be in the throes of a de facto schism between liberals and conservatives, with Pope Francis making statements that drive conservative Catholics to apoplexy and unleashing a cadre of Vatican spin doctors who explain that the Holy Father didn’t really mean what he appears to have said. There are exceptions to all this ecclesiastical weirdness (you know who you are), but these exceptions simply prove the rule, for these exceptions also loudly declare that it is indeed getting weird out there.
This dangerous weirdness seems not to be noticed by those pushing for closer ecumenical relations between the Orthodox and other confessions. It is hard for me not to notice the weirdness, since those converting to Orthodoxy at St. Herman’s where I pastor bring me horror stories from the places where they came from. When some modern ecumenists object to the ancient terms of “heretic” being applied to modern Christians, I sometimes wonder which modern Christians they have been talking to. As said above, some devout Presbyterians should not be lumped together Arius and the gang—but some should. I suspect that by “modern Christians” the ecumenists mean the other nice people with whom they rub shoulders at ecumenical and academic gatherings. Those gatherings, I suggest, represent a rarefied atmosphere—too rarefied, in fact, to govern our basic approach to the other confessions.
Secondly we examine:
Allowing Mixed Marriage by Economia
Because modern Roman Catholics and Protestants are not the exact equivalent of the ancient heretics, mixed marriage should be allowed. But it should be allowed with the full recognition that it is the joining together of two very different ecclesial animals, who therefore remain unequally yoked. The differences between Orthodoxy and other forms of Christianity should not be minimized, which they would be if the Eucharist was offered to the non-Orthodox partner. The mixed marriage is allowed by economia (however defined), and it is an abuse of economia to pretend that allowing the mixed marriage somehow makes the differences between Orthodoxy and heterodoxy disappear so that Communion can be given to the heterodox partner.
Some would suggest that it is inconsistent to give the non-Orthodox one sacrament (i.e. Matrimony) but not two (the Eucharist as well). If such consistency is insisted upon, the answer therefore would be to disallow mixed marriage altogether. It is wrong to use the Church’s generous allowance of mixed marriage as a weapon to overthrow its Eucharistic praxis as well. Mixed marriage allowed under traditional Eucharistic conditions is not an example of inconsistency, but generosity. But that generosity should not be presumed upon and made into an accusation of inconsistency from which to demand further concessions.
A mixed marriage can be allowed by economia between an Orthodox Christian and a non-Orthodox Christian because the essence of the sacramental reality in matrimony involves the spouses making Christ the center of their married life together, and this can still be done as long as both spouses are Christian. Mixed marriage therefore cannot be allowed in cases where a Christian marries a non-Christian, because then both partners cannot make Christ the center of their married life which is the essence of Christian marriage.
Whether or not sacramental economia can be used therefore depends upon whether those receiving the sacrament can fulfill the requirements demanded by the nature of the sacrament itself. Economia can be applied in some mixed marriages, because Christian spouses can fulfil the requirement of making Christ the center of their married life. It cannot be applied to allow inter-communion, because (as said in a previous post) the non-Orthodox person cannot fulfill the conditions required for membership in the Orthodox body, and incorporation into this body is the purpose of receiving Holy Communion.
Thirdly, we examine:
The Problematical Nature of Mixed Marriage
Because the non-Orthodox partner comes from a tradition increasingly at odds with Orthodoxy, we should be open and candid in our declaration that such marriages will be religiously problematic. Multiplying flowery phraseology about “having more or less the same soul, which is perceived in two hypostases” obscures the problematic nature of the union. For a mixed marriage means that the two partners do not share the same view about things that will be central to their marriage. The truth of Orthodoxy is not unimportant and peripheral, but supremely important and central, and it is just this truth about which they disagree. The refusal of the Eucharist to the non-Orthodox is simply the result of recognizing the importance of the things which the non-Orthodox spouse rejects. One can agree to disagree about a number of things in marriage, such as one’s taste in music, in sports, and even politics. But the truth about Christ and His Church is central to life of a Christian, and disagreement about this cannot but have far-reaching consequences.
It is possible, of course, for the couple to minimize these things, and agree to disagree, treating faith in Christ and life in His Church as something no more significant than one’s taste in music. But the issue cannot be dodged forever. In particular, it will come to the fore as soon as the couple begins to pray together. Can they both gather together in their icon corner to pray before the icons? Can they both offer prayer to the Theotokos, to the angels, and to the saints? Can they unite in praying for the departed? Will they go their separate ways on Sunday morning and meet afterward for lunch? Such joint prayer (both private and corporate) is not of minor and peripheral significance, but is central. Spiritual unity in prayer and sacrament forms the foundation for any real Christian marriage, and disagreement over such a fundamental impedes the growth of the couple in Christ. This is the main problem with such mixed marriages.
Moreover, in some cases where the married couple is young, children may come along, and the parents will have to decide how they are raised. This is not simply a matter of deciding in which church the child will be baptized, but of what kind of life the child will have thereafter. Once again the questions arise that confronted the couple when they first began their spiritual life together. Will the parents teach the Orthodox child that the Pope is certainly not the Vicar of Christ in defiance of one of the Catholic parent’s belief that he is? Will they teach the child that the Eucharist is the true Body and Blood of Christ received at the Eucharistic Sacrifice despite the fact that the Baptist parent emphatically denies it? Will they teach the child that prayers for the dead should be offered even though the Lutheran or Presbyterian believes this is useless and vain? The issue cannot be put off forever. If, for example, the Orthodox child is taught that the Pope is not the Vicar of Christ, the child will soon ask why then does mommy (or daddy) say that he is? The dilemma facing the children in being forced to choose between two different religions reveals the division that the parents built into the union from the first day—as well as revealing in stark and poignant terms why mixed marriages are problematic.
The children will pay the price for such doctrinal relativism, and often in the form of rejecting the religions of both parents altogether. The child may well conclude that religion can’t be that important, or mommy and daddy would have insisted upon sharing the same faith. For things that are really important—such as rejection of racism for example—are not left thus unresolved or up in the air. Talk about the spouses “growing together” in their joint journey, or “‘becoming’ in the journey of marriage”, or “a willingness and ability to partner toward the possibility of mutual coexistence” simply obscures this problematic dimension.
Lastly, we examine:
The Significance of the Increase of Mixed Marriages
It is true that in North America and elsewhere mixed marriages are very common and are increasing in frequency. This should not be applauded as an exercise in ecumenism or pluralism, but seen for what it is—viz. evidence that for many people their faith in Christ is superficial. They would never dream, for example, of marrying someone whose views on racism were different than theirs. But they are not at all disturbed by the thought of marrying someone whose views about Christ and the Christian life are different than theirs.
The prevalence of mixed marriage is not the real problem, but a symptom of a greater and underlying problem. The scary and unwelcome truth is that for many Orthodox in North America their faith is more or less identified with their ethnic identity. That is why the decision of the non-Orthodox partner not to convert to Orthodoxy creates so little angst for the Orthodox partner. It is and should not be a problem if one of the partners does not share the ethnic heritage of the other, for ethnic heritage, though precious, is not crucial. When Orthodoxy is identified with this ethnic heritage, mixed marriage will present no real problem for them. We note, of course, that the problem of superficiality of faith is not confined to Orthodox of certain ethnic identities. Sadly, such a problem afflicts people coming from all ethnic groups.
But the problem with this superficiality of faith is greater than the problem of mixed marriage. It has been said of certain forms of Protestantism that it is a thousand miles wide and a quarter of an inch deep. That description unfortunately fits many Orthodox today. The prevalence of mixed marriage merely reveals it.
There are exceptions, of course—marriages in which both partners are fervent in their faith and devout. But the problematic remains and becomes apparent when they first begin to build a life of prayer together in the Church.
I suggest that couples contemplating marriage in the Orthodox Church think deeply about the challenges of living a divided Christian life. The question for the non-Orthodox partner is this: is my commitment to my denomination more important than the Christian life I will share with my spouse and our children after the wedding? If so, should I be marrying this person at all if he or she will continue in the Orthodox Church? It is not a matter of what is allowed, but of what is wise.
(Note: this piece was revised somewhat after receiving helpful input from a parishioner who was single.)