Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage in the Orthodox Church

MARRIAGE, DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH
Economia and Pastoral Guidance

by Bishop Athenagoras (Peckstadt) of Sinope
International Congress
Catholic University of Leuven 
(18-20 April 2005)

1. INTRODUCTION
 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.

2. THE CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE: MYSTERY — SACRAMENT
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 practise. 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 baptised — 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.

3. THE PURPOSE OF MARRIAGE
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".

4. MARRIAGE AS THE HOUSE CHURCH
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”.

5. HOLINESS AND INDISSOLUBILITY OF MARRIAGE
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.

6. DIVORCE
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:

  • the “uniqueness” of the authentic Christian marriage,
  • 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:

  • those resulting from adultery (unfaithfulness and immoral behaviour)
  • 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 an internal 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.

7. REMARRIAGE
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”.

8. ECONOMIA
The question arises here, what is this “economia"? 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. 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.

9. PASTORAL COUNSELING
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 themselves 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.

10. CONCLUSION
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.

2 comments:

  1. I won't waste a lot of time on this, except to say that A) The Catholic Church flat out does not teach what you claim it does and B) No mental or scriptural gymnastics can escape the fact that divorce and attempted remarriage is not only always wrong, but impossible.

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    1. David, the article is about the Orthodox Church's perspective. Had you read JUST the title you'd have realised that. Pity you wasted your time, clearly you didn't understand a thing :-)

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