The theology of Christian marriage
A couple of years ago, when our Constitutional Court was considering the question of homosexual marriage, I was asked by my bishop, His Eminence Metropolitan Seraphim, Archbishop of Johannesburg and Pretoria, to prepare a short paper on Christian marriage. In view of the confusion and conflicting opinions and controversies among other Christian groups on the topic, I thought it might be useful to post something on the Orthodox understanding of marriage.
This doesn’t deal directly with the question considered by the Constitutional Court, but rather focuses on the theology of Christian mariage from an Orthodox point of view. I did blog about the Constitutional Court question and homosexual marriage here: Notes from underground: The State should get out of the marriage business.
Marriage: an Orthodox view
The Orthodox Church understands marriage as a holy mystery (sacrament); the union of two human persons, one male and the other female, as a sign of the love of Christ for the Church, fulfilled in the Kingdom of God. There can be no such thing as a homosexual marriage.
Christian theologians do not seem to have paid very much attention to marriage in the past. There have not been such clearly worked out dogmatic definitions for marriages as there have been, for example, in Christology.
In Christology, however, until the First Ecumenical Council (Nicaea, 325) there were also not such clearly articulated dogmas concerning the nature of Christ. It was only when the divinity of Christ was questioned by Arius that the need was felt for a clearer statement, and it was one of our own African bishops, St Athanasius the Great, who helped to formulate the Nicene Creed that was produced by the council. And it took several more councils before we had the doctrinal statement, the Symbol of Faith we have today.
As in the time of Arius and Athanasius, the nature of marriage is being questioned today, and so there needs to be a more carefully-worded and clearly worked out statement of the theology of marriage. This paper is not such a statement. This paper is merely an attempt to draw together some strands of what the Orthodox Church has taught about marriage up till now.
2 The theology of marriage
The Orthodox Church’s understanding of marriage is primarily ontological and sacramental, not juridical.
The Orthodox sacrament of holy matrimony does not carry the meaning of a legal contract. By considering the institution of marriage as a legal contract, one begins the process of transforming the whole sacrament into a juridical issue, and transforming the Church into a mundane legislator.
Consequently, it eliminates the principles of love and grace which make love grow immeasurably. It also emphasizes the concept of ownership, which is encompassed in the concept of contract.
Though marriage often has a legal and juridical aspect, that is not the starting point for a discussion of what marriage is.
2.1 The anthropology of marriage
The starting point for understanding marriage can be seen in Mark 10:27, when the Pharisees came to our Lord Jesus Christ and asked him about the lawfulness of divorce. In other words, it was a juridical and legal question. But Jesus does not answer the question in a juridical and legal manner, but rather in an ontological one: “But from the beginning God made them male and female. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife.”
Our Lord Jesus Christ was referring to two passages from the beginning of Genesis. “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them” (Gen 1:27) and “And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh” (Gen 2:23-24).
According to the Scriptures, therefore, God did not start by making an individual, but a community, a marriage. “It is not good for man to be alone” so God made man male and female. There is a Zulu proverb that illustrates this: Umuntu ungumuntu ngabantu — a person is a person because of people).
In making man male and female, God deliberately creates sexuality. The author of Genesis knew the difference between a cow and a bull, but did not see fit to mention this sexual difference when describing the creation of cattle. This is because man can debase sexuality in a way that cattle cannot. Man can treat sexuality as something alien and hostile, as an invention of demons, as many gnostics did. It is also noteworthy that having made the sexual distinction in man at creation, God makes no other distinction. There is no distinction between Greek man and Jewish man, black man and white man. There is only man, male and female.
Male and female are not interchangeable. There is a unity and a difference; male man is incomplete without female man; female man is incomplete without male man. Western culture tends to deride and devalue this complementarity and the need for community. There was a saying that was common a few years back that illustrates this: “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”. This rejects the idea of “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh”. Denying the complementarity, however, is like saying that having two left feet is the same as having a left foot and a right foot.
In all this we are considering marriage from an ontological and anthropological point of view. This is what human beings are. This is what God made man to be; not alone, but longing for the other, different yet the same.
In human history, marriage has taken many forms. In some societies there have been polygamous marriages, and polygamy has been seen as normal. This has very often been caused by the mode of production. When economic circumstances change, the pattern of marriage changes. But in discussing creation the authors of Genesis, even though they themselves lived in polygamous societies, described the ideal of marriage, the God-intended form of marriage, as the marriage of one male person with one female person.
2.2 Marriage as a sacrament
The anthropological and ontological view of marriage looks at what marriage is, as a human institution. There have been various laws and customs in different societies that have applied to marriage. But the legal and social dimensions of marriage do not determine what marriage is.
What of Christian marriage? Or a specifically Christian understanding of marriage?
We do not even remember today that marriage is, as everything else in “this world,” a fallen and distorted marriage, and that it needs not to be blessed and “solemnized” – after a rehearsal and with the help of the photographer – but restored. This restoration, furthermore, is in Christ and this means His life, death resurrection and ascension to heaven, in the pentecostal inauguration of the “new eon,” in the Church as the sacrament of all this. Needless to say, this restoration infinitely transcends the idea of the “Christian family,” and gives marriage cosmic and universal dimensions (Schmemann 1982:82).
The Christian understanding of marriage, therefore, is primarily in relation to the Eucharist, which is the sacrament of all these things. In the early Church there was no separate marriage ceremony. Married couples brought their life together into the Church by participating together in the Eucharist. The development of a separate marriage service is basically an extension of this.
2.2.1 The marriage service
The Orthodox marriage service is in two parts: the Betrothal and the Crowning.
The Betrothal, in which the main feature is the exchange of rings, normally takes place in the narthex of the temple. It represents the natural marriage, marriage as a human institution, Even in Western Christian marriage rites, in the past the custom was for marriage to take place at the church door or porch.
The prayers mention the betrothal of Isaac and Rebecca, and the priest, after blessing the rings, makes the sign of the cross over each of the parties three times, saying that “The servant of God N is betrothed to the servant of God M, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
The priest then puts the bride’s ring on the bridegroom’s right hand, and the bridegroom’s ring on the bride’s right hand.
This concludes the betrothal. Unlike Western marriage services, there is no exchange of vows, no legal contact that is ended by death “till death us do part”.
The priest then leads the couple into the nave of the church, to the singing of a psalm, and the crowning service takes place in front of the royal doors, with more prayers. The crowns are placed on the heads of the bridegroom and bride, and, in some traditions, exchanged between them either by the priest or by the best man.
The crowning expresses the distinctively Christian and sacramental aspect of marriage. The priest says “Crown them with glory and honour”, which recalls Psalm 8, and also Hebrews 2, in which the Psalm is quoted. This refers to fallen man restored to fellowship with God in Christ, and restored to rightful dominion over the earth. The couple are to be king and queen to each other, and their life together is to be a witness (martyria) to the kingdom of God, a little kingdom, and a little church, a cell of the Body of Christ. And so the crowns are also martyrs crowns, and this is referred to in the song that is sung as they circle the analogion three times anticlockwise:
Rejoice O Isaiah, a virgin is with child
And shall bear a Son Emmanuel
He is both God and man
And Orient is his name.
Magnifying him, we call the virgin blessed.
O holy martyrs
Who fought the good fight
and have received your crowns
entreat the Lord God
that he will have mercy upon our souls.
Glory to Thee, O Christ God
The apostles’ boast, the martyrs’ joy
Whose preaching was the consubstantial Trinity.
Christian marriage, therefore, is to be a sign and a witness of the restoration of marriage, and of mankind and all creation from their fallen state, and to be restored to fellowship and communion with God. The love of the married couple for each other must overflow as a witness of the love of God. So Christian marriage, as expressed in the crowning, is to transform the fallen human institution of marriage itself, and also to participate in the transformation of the fallen world.
The marriage is not simply between the couple themselves, but there is a third person present, Christ Himself. If their life together is to be a “little church”, then it cannot be without Christ who said “without me you can do nothing”. So everything in the service is done in threes: the rings and crowns are blessed three times, and the Dance of Isaiah is a triple circling of the analogion. And their marriage is a preaching without words, a preaching whose content, like that of the apostles and martyrs, is the consubstantial Trinity.
One of the primary features of their witness (martyria) will be that if God blesses them with children, they will bring up their children in the knowledge and fear of the Lord.
Holy Matrimony is a sacrament indeed, because through marriage the Kingdom of God becomes a living experience, in the midst of the Eucharistic community. In the Body of Christ the husband and wife can become the flesh of each other in a way unique to the measure of the unity of Christ and His Church. Sacramental marriage is like other marriages, but it does not belong to this world in its content and experience. Holy matrimony is a testimony to God and a way toward theosis, a way toward eternity (Fr. Michel Najim).
Fr Alexander Schmemann (1982:88) also points out what marriage is not:
We can now understand that its true meaning is not that it merely gives a religious “sanction” to marriage and family life, reinforces with supernatural grace the natural family virtues. Its meaning is that by taking the “natural” marriage into “the great mystery of Christ and the Church,” the sacrament of matrimony gives marriage a new meaning; it transforms, in fact, not only marriage as such, but all human love…
For the Christian, natural does not mean either self-sufficient – a “nice little family” – or merely insufficient, and to be, therefore, strengthened and completed by the addition of the “supernatural.” The natural man thirsts and hungers for fulfillment and redemption. This thirst and hunger is the vestibule of the Kingdom: both beginning and exile.
2.3 Marriage, virginity and celibacy
We have seen that the sexual distinction in man is one made by God in creation. God made man male and female, and sexuality is therefore not something intrinsically evil. But, like many other things, it has been debased, abused, and distorted since the Fall.
One of the ways in which sexuality has been abused is by idolising it, by turning it into a little god, and then claiming that anything and everything that impedes or hinders the acting on any sexual urge is bad. For Christians, such a belief is an error, as is the opposite error (propounded by many Gnostics) that sexuality and sexual urges are bad in themselves.
For this reason Orthodox Christians practise fasting on certain days and seasons, restraining not just sexual urges, but restraining other bodily appetites as well. Fasting is, of course, primarily the abstention from food, or certain kinds of food. According to Genesis 3, it was failure to abstain from certain kinds of food that led to the Fall in the first place.
In addition to saying that a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife, our Lord Jesus Christ also said that “in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like the angels in heaven” (Matt 22:30). And so there are those whom God calls to forgo the blessings of marriage, and to live the angelic life on earth. And this too is a witness; a witness that we do not need to be slaves to our bodily desires, that sex or food are not the last word in human fulfilment.
Thus for Orthodox Christians marriage and monasticism go together. Marriage and monasticism are two different ways of manifesting the mystery of our communion with Christ.
As one monk put it, the monasteries are the lungs of the church. The world is enemy-occupied territory, enveloped in a mantle of pollution. But Christ did not come into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved. But in order to participate in that work of salvation the Church needs to be able to breathe the pure air of heaven, and so we need monasteries as the lungs. But we also need to descend into the muck and pollution in order to be able to participate in Christ’s saving work.
In both of these ways, however, we cannot expect unbroken success in this world. Some marriages fail, and end in divorce. Some that do not end in divorce are nonetheless marred by the adultery of one or both partners, or by violence or cruelty. As Schmemann (1982:89) puts it,
This is what the marriage crowns express: that here is the beginning of a small kingdom which can be something like the true Kingdom. The chance will be lost, perhaps even in one night; but at this moment it is still an open possibility. Yet even when it has been lost, and lost again a thousand times, still if two people stay together, they are in a real sense king and queen to each other. And after forty odd years, Adam can still turn and see Eve standing beside him, in a unity with himself that in some small way at least proclaims the love of God’s Kingdom.
And so too with monasteries. One monk said that monastic life was not for the faint-hearted, because more people went to hell from monasteries than from anywhere else. It was so easy for a monk to lose his nipsis (watchfulness) and to fall into sin.
3 Legal and social dimensions of marriage
It should be clear by now that in the Orthodox view marriage is not primarily a legal contract, and the ontological and sacramental meaning is far more significant. Nevertheless, marriage does have legal and social dimensions, and these may or may not be compatible with the Church’s understanding of marriage.
3.1 The social dimension of marriage
The sacramental dimension of marriage is not something that the Orthodox Church would wish those who are not members of the Church to follow, though there have at times been problems with this. In the past, for example, the Greek government would not recognise the marriage of Greek citizens unless it was performed by an Orthodox priest, even if both were atheists.
But natural marriage is something given by God to the whole human race. It may be fallen, but even in its damaged form it can, through human love, reflect something of God’s love.
In South Africa, however, this natural marriage suffered almost irreparable damage from the ideology of apartheid and its implementation. Migratory labour and influx control meant that in many areas 90 percent of first babies were born to unmarried mothers. And the effects are felt even today, years after the end of apartheid. A large proportion of those coming to baptism from non-Orthodox families do not know who their fathers were. Even from the point of view of African traditional religion, they cannot venerate their ancestors, because they have no idea who those ancestors were. Thus the very concept of marriage is alien to many people in our country.
3.2 The legal dimension of marriage
The Constitutional Court of South Africa found in Minister of Home Affairs vs Fourie & Bonthuys (CCT 60/04) that by restricting marriage to couples of different sexes, the Marriage Act and the common law definition of marriage infringed the constitutional rights of those who wished to marry someone of the same sex.
In its judgement the Court referred to Discussion Paper 104 of the South African Law Reform Commission (SALRC), which had suggested three possible alternatives:
- Amending the Common Law definition of marriage and the Marriage Act to include same-sex couples.
- Separating the civil and religious elements of marriage so that the Marriage Act will only regulate the civil aspects of marriage.
- Providing a “marriage-like” alternative of civil unions with the same legal consequences of marriage.
Before being heard in the Constitutional Court the matter was heard in the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA), where Farlam JA pointed out, in a minority judgement, that in the Roman Empire marriage was not a concern of the State at all and even after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire this did not change.
One way of avoiding the difficulties arising from conflicting understandings of marriage might be to combine proposals 2 and 3 of the South African Law Reform commission in the light of the observations of Farlam JA and repeal the Marriage Act altogether, and for marriage to cease to be a concern of the State.
As the State registers commercial partnerships, it could replace the Marriage Act with legislation for the registration of social and domestic partnerships, which could include, but not be limited to marriage, regardless of what form such partnerships might take. Such partnerships could have similar legal consequences to those of marriage today, and clarify the legal rights and responsibilities of partners (I have said more about this here: Notes from underground: The State should get out of the marriage business).
The Orthodox Church believes that marriage is intrinsically and ontologically based on the union of two human beings, one male and the other female. Though this has become distorted in human society as a result of the fall, the aim of Christian sacramental marriage is to express and make present the promise of its restoration. Natural marriage has the potential of being restored in this way, as shown in the dual rite of Betrothal and Crowning.
There is, however, no way that a “marriage” between two persons of the same sex can be seen in this way. In the view of the Church such a union is not a marriage at all.
Schmemann, Alexander. 1982. For the life of the world: sacraments and Orthodoxy. Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press.
Deacon Stephen Hayes
8 June 2006
This post has been linked to the Synchroblog for October 2010: Same-sex marriage synchroblog | Khanya. Click on the link to see the other posts in the synchroblog.
 In this paper I refer to “homosexual marriage”, and not “gay marriage”. While “homosexual” can refer to sexual orientation, in the phrase “homosexual marriage” it refers to the sex of the parties, whereas “gay” in this context refers to sexual orientation. While in Orthodox theology there can be no such thing as homosexual marriage, there is no legal or theological obstacle to gay marriage, and I know of no country where there has been. A gay person can marry someone of the opposite sex, who may or may not themselves be gay, and that has often happened.
 English-speaking Orthodox Christians are also uneasy about the current trend to use the word “man” to refer exclusively to male persons. There is no other word in English that expresses the notion of the human person in community. Most other languages have two words where English has only one. Greek has anthropos and aner, Zulu has umuntu and indoda, Russian has chelovek and muzhchina; but English has to make do with man and man for both meanings. The worldview of Western individualism means that Western people feel no loss in this, but it goes against Orthodox anthropology, which makes a distinction between the individual and the person. The individual is isolated, a person is in community and relationship with others and with God. Some recent translations have fallen into this error. One translation of the Symbol of Faith has changed “for us men and our salvation” to “for us and for our salvation”. The omission of tous anthropous is at least as great an error as the addition of the Filioque and opens the way to interpreting it as “for us Greeks and our salvation” (or Serbs, or Russians, or any other ethnic group one happens to belong to).