Note: This piece was originally published on the Public Orthodoxy blog of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.
The title of the working document “The Sacrament of Marriage and Its Impediments” appears to promise a meaningful teaching on the spousal relationship. Instead, much of the document is devoted to a particular, modern vision of family. Beginning with the central claim of §I.1 regarding the dangers posed by secularization and moral relativism to the institution of the family, over half the paragraphs of Section I address relationships deemed incongruous with the purported Orthodox model of family, mixed with claims about the welfare of civil society. While much can be said, the following essay offers a cursory examination of the scripture passages supporting this view, along with an exploration of biblical passages that belie this facile model.
Paragraph I.2 uses Genesis 2:23 as a proof text for the institution of marriage, founded simultaneously with the creation of Adam and Eve. Here “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” is interpreted as referring to the conjugal bond between a husband and wife. However, a brief examination of scripture shows that the Hebrew idiom is more flexible than this.
Limiting ourselves to the J sources of Genesis (for consistency of usage within a particular time and context), two other passages should be considered. First, in Genesis 29:14 Laban declares to his son-in-law Jacob, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh.” Then in Genesis 37:27, Judah suggests that he and his brothers sell Joseph into slavery rather than kill him “for he is our brother, our own flesh.”
The Hebrew bashar (בשר), translated in the LXX as sarx (σάρξ), has a denotative meaning of “flesh,” but the Hebrew idiom can also connote kinship more broadly, including a variety of relationships both consanguineous and nonconsanguineous. As such, the emphasis that the document lays on Genesis 2:23 as the foundation of marriage is too narrow.
On the whole, references to the family in the document tend to support a new understanding of marriage and family worked out within the church when the imminent return of the Lord did not materialize as quickly as expected, a vision that often conflates spiritual goods with the welfare of civil society. The emphasis placed on marriage as the guarantor of “the safety and formation of children” (§I.5) focuses too exclusively on one particular configuration of the family without regard to many others, including foster parenting, adoption, and multigenerational homes where grandparents and extended family members provide primary care. Further, §I.8 ties the good of marriage exclusively to family: “[marriage] is the center of the family, and the family justifies marriage.” Such singularity of vision and purpose does not adequately reflect the multiple meanings of marriage and family found in scripture.
Jesus himself tells us that his message will bring enmity to biological families and between in-laws (Matthew 10:34-39; Luke 12:49-53). In response to the demands of biological kinship, he provocatively redefines family as those who hear the word of God (Mark 3:31-35, Matthew 12:46-50) and do it (Luke 8:19-21). Luke’s gospel depicts the most radically anti-family Jesus of all: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Taking Jesus’ words to the extreme leads to encratism. However, the other extreme, one-sided emphasis on biological family, runs the risk of becoming idolatrous.
Further exploration reveals changing attitudes toward marriage even within the Church’s own history. For example, Genesis 2:24—surprisingly absent from the document—explains that the newly married couple forsakes the prior bonds of their families of origin to forge a new bond characterized as becoming “one flesh.” Jesus (Mark 10:7-8a, Matthew 19:5), the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 6:16), and the author of Ephesians (5:31) all allude to this passage in their objections to divorce and, in the epistles, as an allusion to the indissoluble bond between Christ and his Church. Canon law has also mitigated the prohibition against divorce in particular circumstances, including episcopal election (Trullo 48).
In addition to the metaphor of marriage between Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5:29-32), Paul recommends marriage as a remedy to those who would otherwise burn (1 Corinthians 7:9), while the Yahwist creation narrative excerpted above sees the creation of a suitable helper as a safeguard against loneliness (Genesis 2:18). A multiplicity of meanings for marriage is consonant with both scripture and the broader Orthodox interpretive tradition.
A related issue is encountered in the document’s treatment of mixed marriages in which Orthodox Christians enter into civil marriage with either non-Orthodox Christians or non-believing spouses. In §II.5, sacramental marriage is limited to Orthodox couples. A blessing may be extended to a mixed-Christian couple for the sake of their children (who must, by agreement, be raised in the Orthodox faith). Marriage to non-Christians is strictly forbidden. While the document stops short of the Old Testament injunction that the Jews divorce from their gentile spouses (Ezra 10), it fails to explore Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15 (cited but left unexamined in §I.6) as pastoral oikonomia that hopes for the sanctification of the unbelieving spouse within the marital relationship.
Perhaps most sorely missing from the document is the Orthodox teaching on marriage as a vehicle for theosis. Marriage offers both the chance to lay down one’s life for another (John 15:13) and the opportunity for practices described in Ephesians 5:15-20, so often overlooked while focusing on the subsequent verses. An exploration of the ascesis of mutual edification and self-giving would be welcome in a document addressing the sacramental understanding of marriage, a teaching rooted in scripture and coming into greater clarity over time.
This all too short survey shows the biblical witness regarding marriage is quite complicated. From the flesh idiom of Genesis, to Jesus’ stern words for those who prioritize family over discipleship, to the redeployed vision of marriage as an icon of Christ and the Church, scripture preserves a variety of teachings. Orthodox tradition adds further nuance. A nuanced teaching on marriage and family will take into account the fullness of this tradition.
This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Great and Holy Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.
Bryce E. Rich is a doctoral candidate in theology at the University of Chicago.
Fr. Robert M. Arida is rector and dean of Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral in Boston.
Susan Ashbrook Harvey is Professor of Religious Studies at Brown University.
David Dunn is an independent scholar who writes on Orthodoxy and religion and politics.
Teva Regule is a doctoral candidate in the theology department at Boston College.
Maria McDowell, an independent scholar of Christian ethics and Orthodox theology, belonged for many years to the Orthodox Church and is now a communicant in the Episcopal Church U.S.A.