THE HOLY SACRAMENT OF MARRIAGE
From the beginning, I have to admit that this sacrament of the Eastern Church is its closest effort to teaching the truth. Although, as we have already found out, Orthodoxy has a very poor understanding of other biblical truths, the Eastern Church “only” teaches several inconsistencies on the issue of marriage relative to the teaching of the Holy Scriptures. Namely, the Orthodox Church represents the sanctity of marriage
community between men and women (albeit only theoretically) and allows divorce only for adultery made by one spouse. Also, Orthodoxy believes that the relationship of husband and wife parallels the image of Christ and His Church.
“In The New Testament Church, marriage becomes the sacrament of the Kingdom of God, which leads man to eternal joy and spiritual love and makes it not only for this temporal life, but for all eternity. In marriage, the grace of God is poured on them as infinite love, will make them grow into a wonderful and holy spiritual building as a unified mind consisting of one will, one in feeling, and inextricable conjugal unity, which is the goal of the extension of human family and the celebration of God. Thus, in the sanctity of marriage, the husband and wife are one and the above relationship, while the sons and daughters of the parents are first degree relatives, grandchildren in the second degree, and so on.
The truth is, therefore, living: marriage is the most sacred and oldest institution of mankind. It points to the heavenly love between Christ and the Church. It is the cornerstone of humanity. Hence: as goes marriage, so goes family, as goes family, so goes the states, as goes the state, so goes humanity.
Therefore, our Holy Church does not cease to call her children to a consecrated wedding of marriage in the church where the spouses become one in spiritual unity and teaches them to keep marriage sacred as the apple of his eye. Divorce is allowed only in the case of proven betrayal – because of adultery.”
However, there are several things to notice on the basis of what we just read from Orthodoxy. Namely, the same source just quoted also claims that Christ established and consecrated the holy sacrament of marriage during his attendance at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. Of course, although marriage is truly a divine institution, nowhere in the Bible is it called a sacrament. In the apologetic work of Lazar Milin, he attempts to justify marriage as a sacrament by quoting verses from the Epistle to the Ephesians, the fifth chapter, which is considered to support the Orthodox position:
“But when we read ahead those places mentioned in the Bible, when we remember how God created the first man and woman and blessed them, saying they were to multiply and replenish the earth, when he read the words of the Savior on marriage where he is actually repeating the words of God from the book of Genesis that man and woman become one body, and when Paul teaches that a marriage relationship between husband and wife is called by the great and blessed mystery such as the relationship between Christ and the Church, and when, with all that take into account the presence of Christ at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (John 2:1-11), then we can clearly see that the marriage sacrament which God blesses and through which they receive the grace of God is to help one’s marriage relationship. We realize what God requires of every Christian. However, the church has always, from the apostolic age, marriage regarded as a holy sacrament. We can see from these words by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians, where he compares the relationship between husband and wife as a mystery of the spiritual connection to Christ and the Church.”
However, this time Milin errs in understanding the New Testament text. Here is how to correctly read the text cited by Milin:
“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church- for we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.”
As I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, for us earthly men hampered by many limitations, many decisions are God’s mystery. One great mystery is the complete depth of the relationship of husband and wife before God. From the moment of marriage, the relationship is not viewed anymore as two separate personalities – but as one. In this is reflected all the glory of marriage – the spouses are in complete spiritual, mental and physical unity. The Apostle Paul’s text just makes it clear that the faithful with Christ and his Church (all people who are born again) are connected in the same way. Before God the Father, Jesus Christ and his Church are in complete unity – which is another guarantee of eternal salvation of every believing person. What also appears clear from the above text, in verses 30-32, is that Paul is describing his thoughts on the “great mystery” on Christ and the Church, not the spouse. Here are the New Testament verses translated by Dr. Dimitrije Stefanović and the archbishop’s synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church:
“Because we are the members of his body. Therefore shall a man leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and shall be one flesh. This is a great secret: I speak for Christ and the church.”
“Because we are members of his body, of his flesh and his bones. Then a man will leave his father and mother and cling unto his wife, and the two will be one body. The secret is great, but I am talking about Christ and His Church.” (Author’s emphasis)
I think the translation from the committee of the Synod of Bishops in this case is clearest. Christ’s faithful, who are limbs of His body (1 Cor. 12:12, 18, 27), are, spiritually speaking, of his flesh and his bones. The communion and unity of husband and wife, of which Paul speaks in this chapter, is visible and noticeable to everyone. Husband and wife live together in the same house, sleep in the same bed, and have a kind of intimacy not shared with anyone else. However, the truly “great mystery” is the proper and integral connection of the risen Savior Jesus who is in heaven – with believers who are on the earth. The Lord, while he was still on the earth, thus prayed:
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world. Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
In accordance with the Lord’s prayer just cited, in which he expressed his desire for the perfect spiritual unity among believers, as well as their absolute unity with the Father and the Son, the members of the New Testament Church of Christ are the limbs of the body, with which he is associated in the same way as the head with the rest of human organism. Comparing the relationship between believers and Christ, that once were “two” (i.e., separated from one another – before the conversion of every sinner through repentance and faith in the Savior that unites him to the Church) have now become “one flesh” (like the marriage of two compound person of the opposite sex), the apostle Paul says: “This is a big secret,” in thinking about the connection and unity of Christ and the Church.
So, Milin’s claim that Paul in Ephesians 5:22-33 calls marriage a “holy sacrament” does not stand. In fact, as we mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, not even the famous theologian of the Eastern Church in the eighth century, St. John of Damascus, in his time called marriage a holy sacrament. The secret relationship of husband and wife is great, but the Bible never calls it a “sacrament” which Christ established and “consecrated”.
I would also like to clarify his claim from the beginning of this chapter, which states that the Orthodox Church only “theoretically” represents the inability to sever marriage, as ordained by the Word of God: “So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate.” (Mt. 19:6)
In the chapters titled “Orthodox Monasticism” and “Holy Lives” later in the book, I cite a number of examples of many married men in the Eastern Orthodox Church are revered as saints, yet they abandoned their wives and children forever and went to monasteries, forests, and wastelands. Of course, many of these saints never returned to their families. Such examples are obviously worthy of praise by the Orthodox Church – as well as our examination – since the “Lives” consider such saints to be “blessed” and “venerable”.
On the other hand, the chapter on monasticism will show what commands the holy fathers and canons taught “the Church” regarding a former monk who left the monastery and married. The “Church”, with the help of state coercion, could force them to divorce their wives at any cost, return to the monastery, and threaten the penalty, under anathema, of imprisoning him in a cell for life.
All these numerous examples will give us the opportunity to learn about the Orthodox Church’s commitment to the “sanctity” of marriage. The Orthodox Church follows God’s Word, in this case, until the moment it does not contradict the teachings of the holy fathers (i.e., Holy Tradition).
To support the claim just presented is more than true, let the following excerpts from Patristic tradition make the case.
Namely, Scripture and church history make it well known that the first church officers (i.e., presbyters and bishops) were married men. Only with the rise of monastic life in later centuries were bishops selected from among the monks rather than those who were married. This occurred completely contrary to the teaching of Christ’s apostles in Scripture, which commands that bishops must be married (1 Tim. 3:2, Titus 1:6-7). Only in later centuries, they believed that the bishop after his appointment to the ministry could no longer continue to live with his lawful wife, and thus, he had to divorce her. Here is the 12th Canon of the Synod of Trullo:
“Moreover this also has come to our knowledge, that in Africa and Libya and in other places the most God-beloved bishops in those parts do not refuse to live with their wives, even after consecration, thereby giving scandal and offense to the people. Since, therefore, it is our particular care that all things tend to the good of the flock placed in our hands and committed to us—it has seemed good that henceforth nothing of the kind shall in any way occur.”
Of course, the “holy fathers” present at this Council knew full well that the Word of the Lord taught that marriage is not a transgression by a bishop, but rather ministry that pleases God. They tried to concoct support for their “law” by justifying it with other biblical verses, thus trying to make the Word contradict itself and expressing their utter misunderstanding of the sacred texts. Here is a continuation of the previously mentioned section:
“And we say this, not to abolish and overthrow what things were established of old by Apostolic authority, but as caring for the health of the people and their advance to better things, and lest the ecclesiastical state should suffer any reproach. For the divine Apostle says: Do all to the glory of God, give none offense, neither to the Jews, nor to the Greeks, nor to the Church of God, even as I please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit but the profit of many, that they may be saved. Be imitators of me even as I also am of Christ. (1 Cor. 10:31-2; 11:1) But if any shall have been observed to do such a thing, let him be deposed.”
Judging by the previous statements, if an individual or group of people are still unstable in their faith and knowledge of God’s will and “dislike” the wife of the bishop, thus this command was issued for the bishop after his ordination to divorce his wife, because she was a “stumbling block” to the “faithful”?!? The Apostle Paul in these texts certainly never intended to say that the Lord through His healthy, Inspiring Spirit should adapt immature doctrine to the reasoning of a spiritual ignoramus! In contrast, the apostle is teaching on not showing offense to anyone in terms of enforcing some minor actions prescribed in the Law of Moses, such as circumcision, separating clean and unclean foods, observing certain holidays, and the like. We learn from the book of Acts, as well as the teaching of some New Testament epistles, that Paul lived “as required by the Law” while he lived in a purely Jewish society (1 Cor. 9:19-20), but he lived “as without the Law” among the Christians who were originally Gentiles (21). His adaptation to the environment is by no means related to abolition and changing the meaning of God’s eternal commandments, such as the inability to sever marriage, amongst other things. After all, the Apostle invited us to emulate him, and Christ, who issued a serious warning: “What therefore God has prepared, let not man put asunder.”
Here is how Dositej Obradovic, who knew church history very well, commented on the refusal of a wise man named Sinesius to leave his wife for accepting ordination as a bishop in the 5th century:
“At the same time lived in Egypt, in the city of Cyrene, a learned man with a life full of good deeds named Sinesius, known to all our church teachers… Sinesius was wise. He prayed for a long time whether to accept the bishopric of Cyrene, but since he was married (at that time, the custom of celibacy for bishops was introduced), he stated very clearly to everyone that he would refuse the episcopate for two reasons: first, that he would not abandon his wife for the diocese and for all the mitres and patriarchies in the world, and second, being a learned man, he could not believe or simply trust everything, nor could he lie by saying what he did not recognize as true he would believe. This man did not lose a single hair. He would be allowed to keep his beliefs as he sees fit along with his wife. But if God were to grant him children, then he could no longer be a bishop. In that way, they accepted his ministry.”
However, although Sinesius succeeded to become a bishop and at the same time remain married, more than two centuries later in 680 A.D., the Council amended that “law” and banned the option of marriage and threatened to depose the one who remains disobedient. At the same time, the Council passed another “law” that further regulated the life of the ex-wife of the bishop. Here is how it read:
“The wife of him who is advanced to the Episcopal dignity, shall be separated from her husband by their mutual consent, and after his ordination and consecration to the episcopate she shall enter a monastery situated at a distance from the abode of the bishop, and there let her enjoy the bishop’s provision. And if she is deemed worthy she may be advanced to the dignity of a deaconess.”
It is obvious that such Patristic commandments concerning the life of the church elders and their legal spouses are neither inspired by God nor in accordance with God’s Word. And since the Orthodox Church believes that sacred tradition (which includes the first Ecumenical Council decisions) is as equally inspired by the Holy Spirit as the Holy Scriptures, believing that this doctrine is a supplement to the Bible, it is clear that there is truth in my earlier statement that the Eastern Church only “theoretically” supports the inability to dissolve marriage. We have seen from history that the Eastern Church permits divorce in marriage, and a logical confrontation of human traditions with God’s eternal decree and commands. Recall the words of the Lord Jesus Christ that He spoken to his contemporaries – traditionalists. Then we will also realize whose “laws” go against the teachings of Christ and the apostles:
“’These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to the traditions of men… You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!”
In addition to all this, it is necessary to mention the fact that the implications of the holy fathers’ teaching means that God can bless and validate only marriages approved by the bishop or presbyter with the apostolic succession. All other marriages (contracted between atheists, non-Orthodox, etc.) actually represent sinful, extramarital, and invalid relationships. It is clear what the opinion is of many decent and honorable Serbian gentlemen and their wives, who during the fifty years of Communist rule were wed not in a church but only by the state authorities (the Municipality), though the fathers of the Orthodox Church would not recognize their validity.
Contrary to the traditional views of the Eastern Church and the practice carried out through history, the fellowship of evangelical Protestants command maximum respect for marriage vows amongst its members. Because their teachings are based solely on the Bible, evangelical believers preach and practice what God commands concerning marriage. They respect every marriage conducted by the state, social, or religious rules between persons of the opposite sex of which are not close of kin. Such a marriage is considered to be an inextricable bond before God, regardless of whether the spouses are Christians, members of other religions, or atheists. Also, evangelical Christians subscribe to the belief that every person born of God (male or female) should choose a spouse of faith, not one who does not share the same religious beliefs. They believe that conjugal union includes same spiritual interests (unity of spirit) and not only the physical love based on sensuality. The Apostle Paul teaches the first century Christians who are planning to get married to take as spouses believers (Christians) and not those from Paganism:
“A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.”
In the same way that the Lord in the Old Testament forbade the Israelites to intermarry with members of the surrounding pagan peoples, because of the great possibility that such marriages would lead to apostasy for the Jewish nation , he makes the same prohibition for the New Testament Church. Citing Old Testament texts, Paul says this:
“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: ‘I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.’ ‘Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.’ ‘I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.”
Of course, the teaching of the apostles implied that if a wife who entered marriage while she was in a state of unbelief later accepted Christ as Savior, she ought to continue to live with her husband, even though he has not yet become a Christian. (1 Cor. 7:12-15; 1st Pet. 3:1-6)
Unlike many divorce cases that occur in Serbia, for various reasons, where the parties are mostly members of the Serbian Orthodox Church, divorce among born-again evangelical believers is very rare and occurs mainly in cases where one spouse is not a Christian, is full of prejudice, and wishes to leave married life with a person who, during the marriage, became an evangelical believer (see 1 Cor. 7:15).
Evangelical Protestant marriages are, therefore, unions of men and women who live in harmony, forming healthy and strong families. This fact is recognized even by Lazar Milin in his book:
“Sectarians do not have a holy sacrament of marriage, but they have certain rituals during the wedding. What is more important and praiseworthy, they consider marriage to be an extremely serious institution. So much so, that some of them do not allow for divorce. Thus, they consider marriage as a sacred area, even if it is not formally called a sacrament, since the first reformers deleted marriage from the list of sacraments.”
Since evangelical believers have already received praise from Orthodox writers, in terms of their understanding of serious marital vows, it is time to draw the final conclusion. I am completely convinced that it is much better to belong to a religious community that appreciates and respects marriage above all, even if you do not call them sacraments, rather than to belong to a church that considers marriage a sacrament, yet whose baptized, anointed and faithful adherents destroy their lives with divorce as a result of adultery and many other forms of mutual contempt between spouses.