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.
The Husband’s Responsibilities
The husband is the head of the wife…
We know that every organization, every institution – whether it be the Church, a parish, a monastery, or, in the world, a bank, a corporation, a school – must have a head, a leader. The same is true of a successful marriage, for the family is also a unit, a spiritual and physical organization. According to Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition, the leader in a marriage is the husband. Again, the words of Saint Paul: The husband is the head of the wife… He is the leader. He represents the principle of authority in the family. Just as the priest is the spiritual leader of the parish, and responsible to God for the parishioners, and thus the spiritual authority in the parish, so too the husband is the priest in his family, responsible for setting the tone of family life.
This does not means that he is superior to his wife. In Christ’s sight, all are equal; there is neither male nor female. In fact, marriage is a partnership of equals. Let there be no mistake: there is no room for chauvinism of any kind in Orthodoxy. Nor does being the head give a husband any kind of dictatorial, tyrannical, arbitrary, or absolute authority over his wife and children. But, as with every position of importance, certain responsibilities go with this one, and they are very heavy, very difficult, but also very challenging and potentially creative responsibilities. Scripture tells us that the husband must love his wife even as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for it (Eph. 5:25). Most Christian husbands have little idea of what this kind of love means. In the world, “love” usually refers to physical love or sentimental, romantic love. This has nothing to do with the Christian concept of love. Just recall Christ’s words to His followers: Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his friend. Love, then, from the Christian standpoint, means sacrifice, and self-denial. A husband must take as much care, concern, thoughtfulness, attention, regard and precautions for his wife as Christ takes for the Church. The husband’s attentiveness might even have to extend to death itself. For just as Christ was put to death for His love of the Church, so too the Orthodox Christian husband must yield all things – even his life, if necessary – for his wife. Again, Saint Paul says, The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church… We know what kind of head Christ was: He washed the feet of His disciples. According to our Saviour, to be head, to be first, means to serve – to be the first in giving love, in giving understanding, in giving patience, in providing his family with protection. This is the kind of leader, or head, that the husband is called to be. And when he is this kind of leader, he is a real man, a true man, faithful to his divinely ordained nature.
A wise wife will encourage her husband to be this kind of man; she will not try to take on the position of authority herself. Psychologists tell us that the anger a woman feels towards a man who has allowed her to take over the leadership of the family is the deepest anger of all. And we are now discovering that many cases of delinquency and even mental illness come from homes where the father has ceased to be the leader, the source of compassion, love, and protection.
A husband’s duty to give love to his wife and family does not allow him to intimidate his wife. He must not treat his wife as a hired servant – which many men do. Here is what Saint John Chrysostom has to say about this:
“A servant, indeed, one will be able perhaps to bind down by fear; nay, not even for him, for he will soon leave you. But the partner of one’s life, the mother of one’s children, the foundation of one’s every joy, one ought never to chain down by fear and threats, but with love and good temper. For what sort of union is that, where the wife trembles at her husband? And what sort of pleasure will the husband have if he dwells with his wife as with a slave? Yea, even though you suffer everything on her account, do not scold her; for neither did Christ do this to the Church.”
Men, husbands, true love for us begins when we give of ourselves to others. We first really begin to love – in a Christian sense – when we first give. A husband once complained to Saint John Chrysostom that his wife did not love him. The Saint replied; “Go home, and love her.” “But you don’t understand,” said the husband. “How can I love her when she doesn’t love me?” “Go home and love her,” the Saint repeated. And he was right. Where there is no love, we must put some love, and we will find it.
Often husbands complain to a priest that their wife doesn’t love them. Then the priest discovers that the husband isn’t going out of his way at all to give love; he’s merely sitting back and waiting to be loved, like some kind of idol, waiting to be served and worshiped. Such a husband needs to discover that the only way to receive lasting love in a marriage is to give it, for in life we usually receive what we give: if we give hatred, we receive hatred; but if we give love, we receive it back in return.
The Fathers of the Church tell us that Christian husbands must love their wives more than their secular jobs, for there is no success greater than a happy home, and no other success that we men achieve in life will have meaning if we fail at home. Our families deserve the best. There are altogether too many of us men today who are at our best out in the world, and at our worst at home. For this reason, the Church Fathers tell us to set the highest possible value on the company of our wives, and be more desirous of being at home with them than being in the market place. Husbands, and future husbands, let us take to heart these words by the twentieth-century Frenchman, Andrй Maurois: “I bind myself for life; I have chosen; from now on my aim will be not to search for someone who will please me, but to please the one I have chosen…”
The Responsibilities of the Wife
Saint Paul says, Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord … As the Church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be subject to their own husbands in everything. (Eph. 5:22, 24)
Today’s society, especially here in America, and particularly in public media – movies, television, magazines, books – despises the spirit of obedience. We are instead exhorted at every turn to “do our own thing,” to look after “number one,” to satisfy our every whim and desire. But an Orthodox Christian marriage, as we have said, is not part of secular or worldly society. Its goals and the goals of society are not merely at variance; they are diametrically opposed. The aim of Christian marriage is eternal life in Heaven with Jesus Christ; the aim of worldly society is pleasure, enjoyment of the here and now, and, especially, self-indulgence and self-will.
But it has been revealed through Scripture and Tradition, that obedience is actually a catalyst for Christian perfection – that is, obedience, submission, actually helps to speed the process of the struggle to acquire virtue in our lives. On the other hand, self-will greatly increases the passion of pride and eventually alienates an individual from a Christian way of thinking and living. Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky writes:
“If you wish to be a good, intelligent person and not a stupid sheep, just another member of the herd, then do not agree with your contemporaries who are perishing spiritually and physically; do not go by the path of self-will, but by the path of obedience. Only then will you be a person. Then, perhaps … you alone … will preserve your faith and your heart uncoarsened, an honorable soul, you will not be battered and storm-beaten like a weathercock, as are the majority of our contemporaries.”
Christ Himself is the most perfect example of obedience, for it was through His obedience to the will of His Father that He went unto suffering and death for our sakes, and led us from sin to freedom and salvation.
We have all, at one time or another, seen examples of families where the wife “wears the pants.” And what do we usually mean by that crude expression? We mean that the wife has taken over the position of leadership in the family and has tried to become the head of the husband. This may happen because the husband is very weak – or perhaps too selfish and preoccupied to assume his proper responsibilities; or it may be because the wife herself has a spiritual or emotional problem that causes her to desire authority and power. In such cases the woman often has a pushy and aggressive personality that manifests itself in her relationships outside the family as well. Such a wife lacks the most basic qualities of womanhood – gentleness, modesty of mind, and kindness. In such a situation there are only feelings of despair, frustration, discontent and even anger among family members. One of the first things a priest must do when he is counselling a husband and wife who are in such a situation is to try and persuade the husband to begin assuming a true leadership role in his family, and he must also somehow persuade the wife to relinquish some of the authority that is not hers by right.
It should be said that these roles are not exclusive: there are times when it is appropriate for a wife to show strength, or for a husband to be obedient to his wife. In the most mature, highly developed and spiritual marriages, the relationship of a man and woman evolve into one of mutual obedience.
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.”
In the concluding part: “The Orthodox Christian Home,” and “Sex, Birth Control, Children, Divorce.”