Marriage is an important occasion in the life of every individual. It is a blessing of the Lord. We Christians believe that marriage is a life-long promise. “Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.” (St Matthew 19:6). Choosing a life partner hence is one of the most important decisions, if not the decision of one’s life. Years back this decision was squarely upon the parents and elders in the family. The only duty of the bride or groom would be to oblige. But as years passed by now it is up to the bride and groom to decide whom they marry. They find their own life partner from their educational institutions, workplace, or neighborhood. What are the things (criteria would be a big word under the circumstance) that a guy or a girl look for when they are into such a relationship. Most of the cases they don’t think ahead (as the saying goes Love is blind). In most of the cases at beginning of a relationship it is very unlikely that the boy or girl thinks about the culture, background or religion (or denomination). With that being the case we are often witnesses to situations where the groom would be from one denomination/religion and the bride would be from another. From now on further writing would be from the perspective of the Orthodox Church, when faced with such a scenario.
Even though the Church expects its members to marry from within, it never prohibits its members marrying from/to outside. There are Christian denominations which strictly prohibit its members from marrying from/to another denomination and if someone does so, their family will be shunned from the church, sometimes for lifetime or for a fixed period of time. The Orthodox Church does not do it. Yes, we do believe that the Orthodox Church is the One True Church which was established by the Lord, and all other denominations have, sometime during the elaborate history of Christianity, swayed away from the True Church. But that doesn’t mean that we condemn them and not respect them. Also we have to respect the decision of two mature individuals who have decided to be partners for life. Having said that there are certain things the Church expects from individual who marry from another denomination. We can sum it up to three things:-
1)The non-Orthodox partner should profess her allegiance to the Orthodox faith. If the non Orthodox partner is a Catholic then the Priests may ask him/her to attend Holy Qurbana and take communion in an Orthodox Church, before the marriage ceremony. If the non Orthodox partner is a Protestant, then she or he will require the Holy Chrismation before the above. The important thing to note here is, the non Orthodox partner doesn’t require Holy Baptism, as we say in our creed “in one baptism in repentance”. Holy Baptism would be administered only once in a lifetime.
2)The wedding needs to take place in the Orthodox way, administered by an Orthodox cleric. There are occasions when non Orthodox clerics would be a part of the marriage ceremony. He will be given a respectable position in the ceremony. Most likely he will be standing along with our clerics only. But he will not be allowed to lead or co-lead the sacrament. At the most the non Orthodox cleric may bless the couples at the end or give exhortation during the ceremony, that too with the permission of the Orthodox cleric.
3) The couples need to raise their children in the Orthodox Church. The decision of marriage would also have a bearing on their future generations. The Church expects the couples to raise their kids in the Orthodox Church i.e. is they are to be baptized in Orthodox Church, bring them for the Holy Qurbana, send them to an Orthodox Sunday School and take all sacraments from Orthodox Church only. The parents cannot just think that since one of them belonged to another denomination they can bring up their children in that Church.
Now, the above happens in a perfect “Orthodox” world. In India, the general custom is for the bride to follow the groom. Now, I am not a male chauvinist by any means but that is the reality in India. She might have to quit her job, if he doesn’t like, she might have to get herself transferred to where he is and all such things big and small. The same happens relating to which denomination to follow. If an Orthodox girl is married to a non Orthodox boy, then most likely the marriage would be held in the boy’s denomination’s way, administered by their cleric and the girl would be expected to follow the denomination to which the boy belongs, unless they have an agreement prior to that to go vice versa. In such a case, the girl after the marriage ceases to be a member of the Orthodox Church. This is not any kind of suspension or anything. If it was then the same would have applied to the girl’s family who arranged the marriage in the first place. Only the girl no longer is the member of the Orthodox Church. The family still remains part of the Orthodox Church. In such a case, after the marriage, the girl is not expected to partake in Holy Communion in an Orthodox Qurbana or take confession from an Orthodox Priest. In the Orthodox Church to receive Holy Communion, or any other Sacrament, is taken to be a declaration of total commitment to the Orthodox Faith. While we don’t prohibit an outsider to visit/attend an Orthodox Service, it is understood that only those communicant members of the Orthodox Church will approach the Holy Mysteries. In Protestant churches they see communion as only a symbol of grace. They reject the sacrificial nature of the Eucharist.
The question asked by many is why should not the girl be allowed continue in her denomination after her marriage. Why can’t a girl married to a non Orthodox Christian still continue as a part of the Orthodox Church? Why can’t a Catholic/Protestant girl who is married to an Orthodox boy, still be in that faith after marriage? Doesn’t everyone worship Jesus? Isn’t He the focal point of everyone denomination and aren’t all these Churches man made? Answering all these may take many more articles, but I will say this much. The Church was established by Lord Jesus Christ himself on the day of Pentecost. On the Pentecost, disciples gathered together were baptized by the Holy Spirit and hence forming the Church. Now from 4 AD to 2012 AD, this Church unfortunately didn’t remain as a single unit. Many people swayed away at different times forming what we call denominations. The Roman Catholic Church swayed away when they said that Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (Filioque). But see what the Lord said “the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name” St John 14:26. The Truth is the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father alone. They also said the since St Peter was the first bishop of Rome, and he was the head of the Apostles, the Pope has supremacy over all Christians, when Jesus clearly said “you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28) and “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35). The Protestant (which include Marthomites) swayed away when they taught that there is no need to seek the intercession of St Mary and the Saints and no need to pray for the departed, when Jesus says “he that receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward.” Matthew 10:41, and when Jesus himself talked to Mosses and Elijah, people who were dead thousands of years before him, during His transfiguration. But there is still a Church that hasn’t swayed from the Truth. That Church is the Orthodox Church. For the time being staying true to the title of this article I won’t elaborate more on why is the Orthodox Church, the One True Church (I will try to do that sometime later with other articles). However similar they looks they are not the same. There is only one Truth. There can’t be many Truths. Hence the Church can’t merely allow anyone to follow a different faith, once an individual is married to The Orthodox Church.
Inter Religious Marriages
Similar to inter denominational marriages, inter religious marriages are also increasing. The Church doesn’t necessarily encourage inter religious marriages due to various reasons. Firstly, it has been often found that differences keep cropping up between such couples or their families after such marriages. Secondly, if not properly handled such marriages may even lead to communal issues between religions in the region. But if somehow the partners overcome these roadblocks and get ready to marry, the Orthodox Church and an Orthodox Cleric will administer the marriage after the non Christian partner becomes the member of the Church, through the sacrament of Holy Baptism.
People may argue that marriages are private affairs and the Church doesn’t have anything to do about this. But the Church is responsible for the spiritual development of her children. Every mother wishes that her children be with her and doesn’t leave her. The Church is our mother, and we are her children, through the Holy Baptism. Hence the Church has every right to be concerned about. I leave the judgment to the readers.
Author’s Note: This was one of the most challenging article that I had to write, in the sense that many people reading this might have a difference of opinion. I have tried to stay true to what the Orthodox Church teaches in this matter. If you feel you cannot take any of ideas that I have written please feel free to put your comments.