Written by Vladimir Moss



     Marriageexisted before the coming of Christ, among both Jews and Gentiles. But in the Church of Christ it is raised to a higher level, not only than marriage in the Fall, but even than marriage in Paradise. Why? First, because marriage in the Church is explicitly an imitation of the marriage between Christ and the Church (which it obviously could not be so intentionally before the Incarnation), and partakes of the grace of that higher and mystical marriage to the extent that this imitation is a true likeness. And secondly, because the Christian husband and wife, before becoming one flesh with each other, are each already one flesh with Christ in the Eucharist, so that the likeness of the lower mystery to the higher mystery is not a likeness between an archetype and type of different natures (as in icons of Christ and the saints), but is of the same nature.

     The body of a Christian is holy because it is united to the Body of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Therefore it cannot be united with a body that is not also united to Christ. This fact increases the depth of the union of the Christian husband and wife and makes a betrayal of that union a greater sin; for in committing adultery, a husband not only unites his and his wife’s body with the body of another[1], but unites the Body of Christ with the body of another.

     This point was made (in relation to fornication as well as adultery) with particular force by the Apostle Paul: “Ye know that your bodies are members of Christ, do ye not? Having taken up then the members of Christ, shall I make them members of a harlot? May it not be! Or know ye not that he that is joined to the harlot is one body? For ‘the two,’ saith He, ‘shall be into one flesh’. But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit. Flee fornication. Every sin whatsoever a man might do is outside the body, but he who committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. Or know ye not that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit Who is in you, Whom ye have from God, and yet are not your own? For ye were bought with a price; glorify then God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s” (I Corinthians 6.15-20). For, as St. Theophan the Recluse writes: “He who should be one with Christ is torn away from Christ and becomes one with a harlot, and this is in accordance with the law of the original institution of marriage. Marriage is a Divine institution blessed by God, and those who cleave to each other in it become one body in Christ. But the harlot serves Satan, and therefore he who cleaves to her becomes one body with her in Satan. That fornication is the service of Satan is evident also from the fact that it darkens not only the body, but also the soul of the fornicator, drives away from his Angel Guardian and tears him away from the Lord, for it is impossible for a darkened and evil-smelling one to be united with the Lord.”[2]

     It follows that Christians can only marry other Christians, and not schismatics or heretics who do not belong to the Body of Christ and do not possess the Holy Spirit. As the Sixth Ecumenical Council (Canon 72) declares: “Let no Orthodox man be allowed to contract a marriage with a heretical woman, nor moreover let any Orthodox woman be married to a heretical man. But if it should be discovered that any such thing is done by any one of the Christians, no matter who, let the marriage be deemed void, and let the lawless marriage be dissolved.”[3] And if this seems excessively harsh (especially by comparison with today’s excessively lenient practice), let us recall that even in the Old Testament the lawgiver Ezra, with the consent of the leaders of Israel, dissolved all marriages of Israelites with pagans (Ezra 10).

     Similar reasoning underlies the prohibition on the faithful receiving communion in heretical churches. Since the Eucharist is a marital mystery, it is forbidden to the faithful to commune anywhere else than in the Church of Christ. Thus the Apostle Paul says: “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table and of the table of demons. Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy?” (I Corinthians 10.21-22).

     Jealousy is the natural response of a lover to his beloved’s adultery, and St. John the Almsgiver defined communing from heretics precisely as adultery: “Another thing the blessed man taught and insisted upon with all was never on any occasion whatsoever to associate with heretics and, above all, never to take the Holy Communion with them, ‘even if’, the blessed man said, ‘you remain without communicating all your life, if through stress of circumstances you cannot find a community of the Catholic Church. For if, having legally married a wife in this world of the flesh, we are forbidden by God and by the laws to desert her and be united to another woman, even though we have to spend a long time separated from her in a distant country, and shall incur punishment if we violate our vows, how then shall we, who have been joined to God through the Orthodox Faith and the Catholic Church – as the apostle says: ‘I espoused you to one husband that I might present you as a pure virgin to Christ’ (II Corinthians 11.2) – how shall we escape from sharing in that punishment which in the world to come awaits heretics, if we defile the Orthodox and holy Faith by adulterous communion with heretics?’”[4]

      There are other weighty reasons for forbidding mixed marriages. In the first place, a couple who do not share the same faith are not united in that which is most important in life. They may be united in body and soul, but not in spirit. This will lead to quarrels and possibly the tearing away of the believing spouse from the true faith for the sake of peace with his unbelieving spouse. As St. Ambrose of Milan says: “There is hardly anything more deadly than being married to one who is a stranger to the faith, where the passions of lust and dissension and the evils of sacrilege are inflamed. Since the marriage ceremony ought to be sanctified by the priestly veiling and blessing, how can that be called a marriage ceremony where there is no agreement in faith?”[5]

     Again, St. Ambrose compares mixed marriages to the disastrous marriage of Samson and Delilah. For “how can love be suited if faith be different? Therefore, beware, Christian, to give your daughter to a Gentile [i.e. a pagan] or to a Jew. Because, I say, the Gentile woman, the Jewess, the foreigner, viz. do not take a wife who is a heretic, or any stranger to your Faith. The grace of purity is the first faith of marriage. If she worships idols whose adulteries are proclaimed, if she denies Christ, Who is the Teacher and Rewarder of chastity, how can she love chastity? Even if she is a Christian, this does not suffice unless ye are both consecrated by the Sacrament of Baptism. Ye must rise together for worship, and God is to be entreated by joint prayers. Another sign of purity is added if ye believe that the marriage which has fallen to your lot was given to you by your God. Hence, Solomon, too, says, ‘A wife is suited to a man by God’ (Proverbs 19.14).”[6]

     Tertullian lists all the disadvantages of being married to an unbelieving husband, especially the difficulty of avoiding taking part in pagan festivals.[7] And then he lists the joys of a marriage between believers: “Where can we find sufficient words to tell the happiness of that marriage which the Church cements, and the offering confirms, and the blessing signs and seal, news of which the angels carry back [to heaven], which the Father takes as ratified? For even on earth children do not rightly and lawfully wed without their fathers’ consent. What kind of yoke is that of two believers, partakers of one hope, one desire, one discipline, one and the same service? Both are brethren, both fellow-servants, there is no difference of spirit or flesh between them; they are truly ‘two in one flesh’. Where the flesh is one, there is the spirit too. Together they pray, together prostrated, together fast; mutually teaching, mutually exhorting, mutually sustaining. They are equally to be found in the Church of God, equally at the banquet of God, equally in straits, in persecutions, in refreshments. Neither hides anything from the other; neither shuns the other; neither is troublesome to the other. They freely visit the sick and relieve the needy. They give alms without fearing reprisals; they offer sacrifices without scruples; the sign of the cross is not made stealthily, greetings without trembling, blessings without muteness. They sing psalms and hymns together, and challenge each other who will chant better to the Lord. Such things Christ sees and hears with joy. To these He sends His own peace. Where two are, there is He Himself in their midst. Where He is, there the evil one is not.”[8]

     As we have seen, mixed marriages were forbidden even in the Old Testament. The downfalls of Samson and Solomon were attributed to their foreign wives. And Nehemiah said: “I saw the Jews who had married women of Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab; and half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but the language of each people. And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin on account of such women? Among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was beloved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless foreign women made even him to sin. Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?” (Nehemiah 13.23-37).

     The Apostle Paul allows an exception to this rule for couples who were married before becoming Christian. In such a case, when one of the spouses becomes Christian while the other remains outside the Church, the marriage is not dissolved. “For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner desires to separate, let it be so; in such a case the brother or sister is not bound. For God has called us to peace. For do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or you, husband, do you know whether you will save your wife?” (I Corinthians 7.14-16).

     As St. Theophan comments, “in this union according to love and agreement, the purity of the Christian side is not destroyed; on the contrary, by its influence it can assist the conversion to Christianity of the pagan husband or pagan wife, and still more the children born in this marriage.”[9]

     As St. John Chrysostom writes: “If ‘he that is joined to an harlot is one body,’ it is quite clear that the woman also who is joined to an idolater is one body. True: it is one body. However, she does not become unclean, but the cleanness of the wife overcomes the uncleanness of the husband; and again, the cleanness of the believing husband overcomes the uncleanness of the unbelieving wife.”


MAY 24 / JUNE 6, 2018.

[1]St. John Chrysostom says: “When you see a harlot tempting you, say, ‘My body is not mine, but my wife’s’” (Homily 19 on I Corinthians, P.G. 124:160A (col. 648)).

[2]St. Theophan, Tolkovanie Poslanij sv. Apostola Pavla, St. Petersburg, 1912, p. 150.

[3]Cf. Fourth Ecumenical Council, Canon 14; Council of Laodicea, Canons 10 and 31; 58th rule of the Nomocanon. According to the Manual of Confession of St. Nicodemus the Hagiorite, St. Symeon of Thessalonica said that an Orthodox who marries a heretic cannot commune until he repents and is chrismated (Responsa ad Gabriele Pentapolitum, Question 47, P.G. 155, 893A-893C). Although Peter the Great pressured the Russian Church into allowing marriages with Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Presbyterians (but not Molokans, Baptists and Stundists), the Church in her ukazes of August 18, 1821 and February 28, 1858 reminded the faithful that such unions could not be allowed until the sectarians accepted Orthodoxy. See Bishop Nathaniel of Vienna, “On Marriage with the Heterodox”, Orthodox Life, vol. 44, 3, May-June, 1994, pp. 42-45.

[4]Life of St. John the Almsgiver, in Elizabeth Dawes and Norman H. Baynes, Three Byzantine Saints, London: Mowbrays, 1977, p. 251.

[5]St. Ambrose, To Vigilius, Letter 19:7.

[6]St. Ambrose, On Abraham, 84.

[7]Tertullian, To His Wife, 5,6.

[8]Tertullian, To His Wife, 8.

[9]St. Theophan, op. cit., p. 154.

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