The Orthodox Church discourages Orthodox Christians from marrying non-Christians, primarily because it maintains that such unions seriously impair its adherents’ efforts to live a Christ-centered existence. As a result, the Orthodox Church will not conduct the Sacrament of Marriage for an Orthodox with a non-Christian partner. In these instances, couples have the following choices:
- The non-Orthodox partner can choose to convert and enter the Orthodox Church.
- The couple can marry outside the Orthodox Church. If this choice is made, the Orthodox partner loses his or her good standing and is not permitted to participate in the sacramental life of the Church.
Based on my own research and experiences, Orthodox Christians often learn of these guidelines after they have been dating for a period of time and are either contemplating engagement or are already engaged to a non-Christian. In such cases, many Orthodox Christians choose to marry outside the Church.
The implications of this decision are varied, impacting couples and their extended families in different ways. Parents may be particularly affected during the engagement process and wedding, especially if they have a strong connection to their religious and/or ethnic backgrounds.
Hey Mom, I’m Getting Married
Parents struggle to raise their children with the hope that they will make good choices in their lives. They sacrifice in endless ways, while monitoring their children’s progress and laboring to help them make healthy, holy decisions. Then one day, their young adult child makes the following announcement: “Hey Mom and Dad, I’m getting married.”
For parents who have a strong connection to their religious and/or ethnic background, this message can be bitter-sweet—primarily if their child is intending to marry a non-Christian. A part of them dreads the news, while another part wants to be happy for their son or daughter.
To complicate matters further, this news is often disclosed after the couple has been dating for some time and the relationship has become serious. Parents often hear about the relationship after it has become serious because their child does not recognize the relationship as problematic but may intuit that his or her parents might not share the same attitude. So, the relationship is often, but not always, kept from parents until the Orthodox person has already decided to marry.
When the news is finally disclosed and the parents begin expressing reservations, they must walk a fine line. On the one hand, they don’t want to alienate their son or daughter, while on the other hand they may be harboring a number of concerns that may include: (1) their son or daughter’s future well-being, (2) their future grandchildren’s religious and spiritual well-being, (3) the general well-being and stability of the family. Add to these concerns the Church’s disapproval of Orthodox/non-Christian unions together with the negative reactions some parents may get from their local faith community, and circumstances can sometimes become rather complicated and potentially explosive. These circumstances sometimes lead to cut-offs and long-standing, unresolved ill feelings that fester and compromise family life for years.
In negotiating their way through these many challenges, many parents describe numerous frustrating conversations with their son or daughter, which sometimes lead to either temporary or permanent cut-offs. They also repeatedly state that, in their heart of hearts they hope the relationship will end before marriage. In a large percentage of cases, these relationships do end before marriage, but not because these couples cannot reconcile their religious differences. More often than not, these couples break up because of personality differences, money differences, friends, in-laws, and communication styles.
To summarize, parents with a strong connection to their religious and/or ethnic backgrounds walk a very tenuous, stressful path, while prayerfully trying to work through feelings of helplessness, shame, fear, anger, and resentment, feelings which often come to the surface, creating heated and potentially damaging exchanges with their child. While most Greek Orthodox parents manage to gather themselves enough to put on a happy face at their children’s weddings, a part of them remains sad and empty.
What Parents Can Do
If you are a parent whose son or daughter is seriously dating or engaged to a non-Christian, some of the following suggestions and observations might prove helpful to you. They come from my work with parents who have already grappled with the challenges outlined in this article—some more successfully than others.
- Pray that God will bless you with patience and wisdom to help you negotiate your way through the many toxic, potentially destructive thoughts and feelings you will encounter. The truth is, disappointment, regrets, resentment, anger, and feelings and thoughts of betrayal are all part of the territory, and they can create emotional distance, and even family cut-offs that can last for years—unfortunate consequences that in my opinion are generally not God’s will.
- Don’t beat yourself up! In all likelihood, you will initially focus on what you didn’t do when raising your son or daughter and forget all the hard work you did and the sacrifices you made. Rather, focus on what you did do, and try not to internalize the pain and confusion. Release the pain and confusion, and share it with a few trusted friends whom you choose wisely.
- Understand that your son or daughter’s decision isn’t necessarily a betrayal or a rejection of you and the values you have worked so hard to instill in him or her. Your son or daughter’s decision is more likely the result of certain intergenerational differences that exist between you.
- When you speak to your son or daughter, express your concerns by alluding to some of the pitfalls and challenges that Orthodox encounter when they marry non-Christians. In general, research indicates that the divorce rate among these couples is higher because of a host of unique challenges they face across the life cycle. Further, as you offer this information, be careful not to lecture. If you find yourself losing patience, take a time out and resume the conversation at another time. The objective behind this strategy is not to change minds as much as it is to generate respectful conversation that will allow for a healthy discussion of concerns and feelings that might otherwise create distance between you and your son or daughter.
- Remember that even though you may not necessarily agree with your son or daughter’s decision, it is best to hold to your perspectives without condemning him or her and not use manipulation, control and threats. Such tactics have the potential of creating further unwanted complications that may linger and create more distance resentment now and into the future. These tactics can even push some couples toward marriage by creating an “us against the world” mentality.
- Remember that most young adult Orthodox who fall in love, become engaged, and plan to marry a non-Christian quickly become confused and disillusioned when they encounter their Church’s position on marriage between Orthodox Christians and non-Christians. Further, when the confusion lifts, many express resentment and feelings of abandonment, stating that their Church turned them away at a time when they most needed it. These negative reactions can also profoundly impact the non-Christian partner, often reinforcing stereotypical ideas he or she might espouse about organized religion and/or Christian. When these thoughts and feelings are verbalized, Orthodox Christian parents might react in ways they may later regret. These reactions are often directed toward one or more of the following persons: (a) their son or daughter, (b) his/her fiancйe, (c) the local priest or hierarch, and (d) even God. As potentially destructive as these reactions and the circumstances surrounding them might be, they can also become opportunities for growth.
- Rather than succumbing to feelings of anger, resentment, hurt and disappointment, work through these feelings with God’s help. For as Scripture teaches, “God is faithful and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape” (1Cor. 10:13). The truth is, the way you respond could have a marked positive or negative impact on your son or daughter’s spiritual well-being and on your future son- or daughter-in-law’s perspective of Christ and the Orthodox Church.
Over 30% of our country’s population is non-Christian. Thus, the probability that Greek Orthodox Christians will meet, fall in love with, and marry non-Christians is reasonably high. In fact, my work with intermarried couples and their families over the past ten years seems to suggest that these marriages are increasing in number and frequency.
Further, I have also come to see that when Orthodox Christians marry non-Christians, these marriages encounter a variety of unique challenges that impact families at many different levels, particularly the parents, especially during the engagement and wedding planning stages.
It is my hope that those Orthodox Christian parents who face the challenge of a child who is considering or has already decided to marry a non-Christian will profit from the information offered in this article as they struggle to embrace and respond to their son or daughter.