No Wedding Vows

weddingcrownsFew things differ more clearly between Eastern and Western Christianity than the service of Holy Matrimony. There are things found in Western Christian Marriage ceremonies that cannot be found in the East just as there are things in the East that cannot be found in the West. In many languages of the Eastern Churches, the service for a marriage is referred to as the “Crowning” – named for the central act within the ceremony – the crowning of the bride and groom. However nothing separates the marriage ceremonies of East and West like the place of marriage vows: there are no wedding vows in an Orthodox wedding.

Those unfamiliar with Orthodox weddings are often taken aback by this fact – how can there be a wedding without vows? How can a couple actually be married if they make no promises? I have heard it observed wryly that in Orthodoxy, we do not require the bride and groom to perjure themselves on their wedding day! But the absence of vows points to more than ceremonial differences – the theology of marriage differs greatly – and it is a difference worth pondering.

In the Orthodox wedding the couple is first “bethrothed” with the exchange of rings. Led into the center of the Church, the priest offers prayers. In the course of those prayers, in something of an “epiclesis” (the calling down of the Holy Spirit to accomplish a particular purpose – present in all the sacraments of the Church), the priest asks God to be present; to bless the marriage; to preserve their bed unassailed; to give them the dew of heaven; to fill their houses with every good thing; to send down heavenly grace to bless, preserve and remember the bride and groom; and just prior to the crowning:

stretch out now also Thy hand from Thy holy dwelling‑place, and unite this Thy servant, N. and this Thy handmaiden, N.; for by Thee is the husband joined unto the wife. Unite them in one mind; wed them into one flesh, granting to them the fruit of the body and the procreation of fair children.

And then the priest crowns the couple (three times), saying each time: “Crown them with glory and honor!” (see Psalm 8:5)

In contrast, the marriage in the West finds its focus within the exchange of vows. “Do you…take this woman…to have and to hold, to love and to cherish…etc. as long as you both shall live?” I was taught, when I was an Anglican, that the “ministers” of the sacrament of marriage are the couple themselves. The priest witnesses, and prays for God’s blessing.

This centerpiece of marriage in the West has been a subject of great creativity in the last number of decades. “Writing your own vows,” has been an essential undertaking for many couples (and probably the source of more than a little angst). I have seen examples of beauty and examples of triteness beyond description.

The role of vows in Western marriage is also bearing some very strange fruit.

Our culture, following the logic of vows, views marriage as a contract between two people. Specific promises concerning performance (and non-performance) are offered. These details of the contract are “witnessed” (for that is the language of the license itself). A Church offers a blessing, but the essential nature of a civil ceremony and a religious ceremony are found only in music and the trappings, not in the ceremony itself. I have often wondered whether the state would declare Orthodox marriages to be null and void if it were to learn that there are no promises made or accepted.

This contract view of marriage has become problematic in the current civil discussions of same-sex marriages. If marriage is a contract, how can anything be an essential problem to any two people entering such a contract? If they are both willing to acknowledge the requests and requirements expected of them, how can anyone say they have no right to have such an arrangement? Marriage as contract is wide-open.

However, there is no contract in an Orthodox marriage. A couple present themselves to God within the Church and it is there that the sacrament occurs. The power of God comes upon the lives of a man and a woman and unites them in one mind and weds them in one flesh. The sacrament is a union, not a contract.

Not all people can be united. St. Paul warns of false or corrupted unions:

Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.  (1Co 6:15-20 NKJ)

Paul moves seamlessly in this short exhortation between sexual union with a harlot and spiritual union with Christ. Clearly, for St. Paul, union is union. But in neither case is union a contract.

It would seem obvious that if marriage is a contract, then almost any contract is theoretically possible (perhaps much less than advisable, but not impossible). However, in the Orthodox understanding, the union of a marriage is fulfilled most commonly in procreation. It is fulfilled mystically in the “one flesh” (of which procreation is but one example). Not every marriage union is blessed with children, but such a fulfillment is considered normative. Couples beyond the age of conception have certainly conceived children within Orthodox tradition (Abraham and Sarah, Joachim and Anna, etc.). But attempts to create a union out of what cannot be a union, nor  bears even the most remote possibility of union, are outside the bounds of matrimony. There is no denying that relationships, even contracts might be created, but a union is something entirely different. St. Paul does not use the argument of union to oppose same sex relationships – for union there is not possible. His objections (and those of the Church) rest on other grounds.

In some ways, it would make sense for Orthodoxy to object to all marriage in the Western model because of its contractual basis. However, such objections have never been made. As civil societies continue to experiment with new definitions, however, such objections might be worth considering. The objection would not be an effort to declare marriage as a contract to be null and void, but simply woefully misunderstood.

The obligations of marriage are not enjoined by the terms of a contract – they are rather the obligations enjoined by our own “flesh and bones.” I do not need a contract with the atmosphere in order to breathe – I need to breathe in order to live. The analogy is not perfect, but is not inapt.

Pondering all of this, I once wondered if we should stop using the word “sex” to describe what a man and woman have with one another. Instead, I wondered how it would be if we called that activity “marriage”? “Have you had marriage with that girl?” Perhaps such a shift in language would better help people understand the nature of sexual activity.

Words and ceremonies matter, particularly when their nature and the context changes. The language and concept of contract served the West for many centuries. I believe that it created an overly legal understanding of a relationship that would have been better described in organic terms. Today, contract has triumphed over organic objections and the language (and ceremony) seem to be coming up short.

The language of the understanding of marriage within the Eastern model might suggest possible ways for other Christians to think as well. It certainly behooves Orthodox Christians to ponder deeply the substance of the Tradition that is theirs. It would make good sense if Orthodox Christians were to rid themselves of the confusion of contractual imagery that might have been inadvertently absorbed.

Crown them, O Lord, with glory and honor!




About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.


165 responses to “No Wedding Vows”

  1. Isaac Avatar

    Thanks for this post Father.

    I have been thinking a lot lately about the whole push for gay rights and what I think is the inevitability of universal gay marriage in the USA fairly soon. There are Orthodox writers that are pretty bent out of shape about this and think that Orthodox bishops should rail publicly about this dissolution of values. Most of them will admit that marriage in the USA has been declining for quite some time, but they see this as the greatest of crises concerning cultural morals in the public square. Now I do agree that this represents a decline in morals, but I totally disagree that it is the job of Orthodox clergy to tell the whole culture, much of which is not Orthodox and arguably not even Christian, that they should be held to Orthodox standards.

    Just as referring to the people in charge of things as rulers rather than leaders tends to add more verity to the nature of what they actually do, I think referring to copulation as “marrying” would be greeted with both laughs and a profound sense of a paradigm shift about what people are actually doing. There is a scene in the novel Lonesome Dove where a couple of buffalo hunters are escorting a woman across the prairie to find her long lost love in Ogalala. The smaller and smarter of the two suggests that they split up to hunt, but he makes his way back to the wagon to try to have his way with the woman while his large and simple minded partner is away. When his partner comes back to find the smaller hunter struggling with the woman he asks “did he try to marry you?” to the woman before giving him the beating of a lifetime. The implication of the scene is that the simple minded giant has things confused, but I would argue it is all the other way around. When college students go out in groups and “hook up” with each other they are really all trying to marry each other.

  2. William Gautsch Avatar

    Wow! Steve, as you must understand to a western mind that is profound thinking. Thank you for this provacative insight.

  3. Subdeacon Stephen King Avatar
    Subdeacon Stephen King

    Thanks for this very thoughtful article!

  4. Noël Joy Plourde Avatar
    Noël Joy Plourde

    Interesting, but I must confess that I’ve always seen vows not as contracts but as promises, not just to one another, but to God. A vow is a sacred oath, and I think that is a wonderful thing. I love Orthodox weddings, but I don’t see them as different in this way.

  5. Corey Avatar

    I quite agree that this issue has relevance for the current gay marriage debate. Much of the debate, however, isn’t so much an actual debate -but rather a messy shouting match- because everyone is speaking past each other. They do this because they haven’t agreed on terms. If one side claims that marriage is x and the other claims that it is y, then having a discussion about “marriage” becomes impossible.

  6. Scott Gunn Avatar

    Thanks, as others have said, for a thoughtful and thought-provoking article. I hadn’t realized the Orthodox service didn’t have vows, and that’s somewhat appealing to me. As an aside, I would have said the highlight of an Anglican marriage service is the nuptial blessing, not the vows. Your mileage may vary.

    Anyway, I’m curious about one point. If an older couple (say, in their 60s) or an infertile couple wanted to be married in church, would that be permitted? In other words, must the possibility of procreation obtain as a necessary condition for Orthodox marriage?

  7. Kate Avatar


    I don’t think that the possibility of procreation is a necessary condition for Orthodox marriage. No one can know for sure if they will be able to have children no matter what their age, although most 60 year olds would be quite surprised to learn they were expecting. Some people are told they cannot conceive, yet they do. Others have no reason to think they are unable but find that they cannot have children. And, if they couple has been celibate before marriage, how could they know they are infertile (excepting some circumstances of course)?

  8. Wendy Avatar

    Amen!! I love that: “The sacrament is a union, not a contract.” I remember when my husband and I (converts) got engaged and found out that the Orthodox wedding service “left out” (didn’t contain) the vow exchange. At first it seemed so foreign, but any concerns we may have had disappeared when we read through this beautiful service – there is so much confidence in the wisdom and ancient truths of our faith – thank God!

  9. Sabrina Avatar

    Very good explanation of an Orthodox wedding. Now I must admit, I was taken aback when I first heard of the “no vows”…I thought to myself what is this, a free pass? but as I read more about the Orthodox view of marriage, I realize that when entered into with ones whole heart, soul and mind, the actual committment goes deeper than spoken vows and “till death us do part.” It’s all part of that mystery between Christ and His Church. Just like walking down the aisle and rattling off some “salvation” prayer doesn’t make you once saved, always saved…neither does the parroting of words. It’s gotta be in the heart before it ever comes out of the mouth!

  10. Kate Avatar

    In the Antiochian church, “fair children” has been replaced with some other phrase. I had my priest say it that way anyway, it’s beautiful. I am so glad I was able to be married in the Orthodox church, it was more beautiful than anything I could have come up with on my own or within my previous tradition(s).

  11. davidp Avatar

    Thank you for writing and posting this very interesting article. Blessings.

  12. Bob Chapman Avatar

    No vows? Not even an implicit one to God? It would seem to me that, with civil marriage available in any country, the fact that both are presenting themselves for the blessing from the priest is a vow in and of itself.

    Besides, I think you are taking the US norm and applying it universally–a bad thing to do. In many (most) countries, you need to have a civil service of some sort (could be the signing of legal papers before a register) before the service in a church. Since that is the case, there is no need for vows because you have already made them. The church is only blessing what you have already contracted in the civil realm.

  13. John - Romania Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen!

    Glory to God for all things.

  14. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    “The church is only blessing…”

    Marriage in the Orthodox Church is a sacrament: the priest does not just bless, he requests the presence of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies and unites in the Spirit. The marriage is fulfilled as the couple becomes one flesh. Children are the fruit, but even with out children there is procreative energy that is released from a real marriage.

    “Just bless” to me seems to say that the sacrament of marriage is irrelevant window dressing when, in fact, it is what makes real and gives it a substance it would lack.

  15. Abe Avatar

    Father Stephen, it seems pretty clear from reading the Scriptures that God utilizes contractual agreements (covenants) quite frequently. With Abraham, covenants of blessings and cursings, with David and so forth. Is’nt God a covenant making and covenant keeping God? Could you please explain God’s use of covenants in His dealings with mankind in light of His desire for oneness with us.

  16. Isaac Avatar

    While this is a pretty radical view I know, I have felt for a long time that American Christians should stop getting legally married, should get out of the military (we haven’t had a war that could even meet the Just War standard in a long time let alone the recent changes that basically hobble chaplains), and should pull our children out of government schools. If Christians had this kind of solidarity it would not only set them apart from the larger culture, but it might make the radical minorities that are pushing so hard for these extreme changes in the culture to lose a lot of their support. After all, it isn’t radical left wing types that are volunteering for the military as a general rule. The government school system would be dismantled if every Christian family opted for private education or home schooling. Getting out of the government marriage game altogether might allow for something different to show (especially if Christian marriages resulted in fewer divorces, domestic violence, and going on the dole).

    As an aside, most members of Congress don’t send their children to public schools or participate in the military in any way. Funny that they are separatist for reasons of privilege and we can’t do it for reasons of being the salt in the culture and demonstrating our citizenship not as Americans first, but as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

  17. Reader John Avatar

    Noël: “I’ve always seen vows not as contracts but as promises, not just to one another, but to God.”
    As recently as 32 years ago, in a State law school, our Family Law class was trying to wrap our heads around the legal character of marriage. One realization was that it’s not just a contract, and it’s three-sided: the state is there, too, with a keen interest in the institution of marriage related to the children likely to result.
    Then we further realized that it’s *less* than a contract (to my utter dismay) since the institution of No Fault Divorce, because no other contract can be broken just because one of the parties wills it so (and gets that third party, the state, to accede).
    I’m leaning pretty strongly toward the prediction (for reasons too lengthy to adduce here) that churches serious about marriage, whether viewed from the Eastern or Western Christian traditions, will soon find themselves opting out of the dual civil/religious role clergy now serve in wedding ceremonies, and that we may decided that civil marriage is optional for our members. Civil marriage has become a debased thing, serving largely as a ticket to certain government benefits (which sometimes, as in the “marriage penalty” of income taxes, can be a short-term detriment). Indeed, I’ve had a two-income Christian couple ask, tentatively, if civil divorce while remaining religiously married, would be an option.

  18. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The covenent is the Cruicifixtion and Resurrection. All sacrament partakes of that covenant by taking people who are subject to death and decay, dissolution and giving life in its place. That is what sets marriage in the Church apart from essentially natural marriage.

    God also allows for such grace to operate in a less structured way by the love of the two people for each other and God.

    Those are the three parties. State marriages, at least in my state, are property contracts under which even the children are treated as property. The state does not make the marriage. Here no license is required, no official is required, no registration required. The two parties have to be male-female, of legal age and competent, able and willing. Then they have to hold themselves out as being married and share property. Once they do this, the state gets to decide how to divy up the property at time of dissolution.

    Sounds like a contract to me.

    ‘Courts the marriage canons of the Church are mostly concerned with who inherits.

  19. Charles Avatar

    Father, thank you for your essay. As a convert to Orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism, I married my Orthodox spouse in her home country of Moldova. In their system the official marriage takes place in a state licensing office to ensure the contractual obligation. For many it ends there. For others, they also choose to have a separate sacramental ceremony in the Church. I much prefer this system as it keeps things clean. I do not seek to impose my sacremental obligations on the non-Christian or unchurched, in the same way I would not want them to push their contractual ideology on me. Where the two systems are separate the challenge of an Orthodox Priest being asked to marry or bless a non-sacremental union are not likely to occur. If that is what you want go to the state. Although we believe the Laws of God apply to all and are universal, God has never forced anyone to adhere to them, and indeed free will is an essential part of God’s creation. As we say in the Liturgy, “Holy Things are for the Holy.” Although I would never encourage anyone from entering into a sinful state and might even actively discourage them, I also have to be mindful to respect their free will and choice in the matter. Their free will and choice was given to them by God. I may not agree with their choices, or condone them and I will continue to pray for them, but I also realize that in some cases it is these greatest of sinners who become the greatest of saints (e.g. St. Mary of Egypt, St. Moses the Black, etc.). May the Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on all of us sinners. Amen.

  20. James Avatar

    I would agree, Bob. After all, the word sacramentum itself means vow.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    But the proper word in the Orthodox Church is Mysterium or mystery. No vows in any of them (way more than 7) just the mystery of God’s sanctification of the natural. “Behold I make all things new”

    Why insist on the limited contractual form? Why not open to the ever presence of the Life transforming and making new?

    We should eschew all state function.

    That won’t deter the secular state from coming after us, but it would make it a little more difficult.

  22. Rhonda Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Well said about the differences in marriage between East & West as well as the effects upon our society. I tried to search “definitions” to see the difference between “contract” & “covenant”. From the aspect of pure “dictionary definition” there were no readily discernible differences between the two; i.e., agreement = contract = covenant. But when I searched “contract vs. covenant” radically different links came up. Contract was partnered with legal-government while covenant was partnered with union-God. The separation of God from all secular life (& even most religious life) I believe has led to the loss of discernment between contract & covenant…or perhaps it is the other way around…

  23. Mary Lanser Avatar

    In the Catholic west vows are not contractual but the mark of a covenant. Also I will append the following from the general Catholic Catechism [CCC] because it highlights the covenental aspect of the sacrament of matrimony in the Catholic Church. As always I do not do this for any other reason than to offer clarity. Father Stephen knows what I think of comparisons…in general:

    Marriage in the Lord

    1612 The nuptial covenant between God and his people Israel had prepared the way for the new and everlasting covenant in which the Son of God, by becoming incarnate and giving his life, has united to himself in a certain way all mankind saved by him, thus preparing for “the wedding-feast of the Lamb.”104

    1615 This unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realize. However, Jesus has not placed on spouses a burden impossible to bear, or too heavy – heavier than the Law of Moses.108 By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, he himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to “receive” the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ.109 This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life.

    1616 This is what the Apostle Paul makes clear when he says: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her,” adding at once: “‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one. This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church.”110

    1617 The entire Christian life bears the mark of the spousal love of Christ and the Church. Already Baptism, the entry into the People of God, is a nuptial mystery; it is so to speak the nuptial bath.111 which precedes the wedding feast, the Eucharist. Christian marriage in its turn becomes an efficacious sign, the sacrament of the covenant of Christ and the Church. Since it signifies and communicates grace, marriage between baptized persons is a true sacrament of the New Covenant..112

    1613 On the threshold of his public life Jesus performs his first sign – at his mother’s request – during a wedding feast.105 The Church attaches great importance to Jesus’ presence at the wedding at Cana. She sees in it the confirmation of the goodness of marriage and the proclamation that thenceforth marriage will be an efficacious sign of Christ’s presence.

    1614 In his preaching Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning permission given by Moses to divorce one’s wife was a concession to the hardness of hearts.106 The matrimonial union of man and woman is indissoluble: God himself has determined it “what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”107

  24. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Well…that will teach me to read to the end of the thread before I comment.



  25. easton Avatar

    father stephen, thank you for sharing this difference. it sounds like a beautiful ceremony. vows, it seems to me, are only as meaningful as the people who take them. in our society today, many say them but aren’t ready to live them. i wonder, do the orthodox have a lower divorce rate? if so, that would speak for the truth of the union…

  26. Mary Lanser Avatar

    I am in absolute agreement with those who say that all sacramental Churches must remove themselves as agents for the state with respect to the legal contractual and secular aspects of marriage….M.

  27. Diakrisis Logismōn Avatar

    Evlogison! *** ‘You Call My Words Immodest’ By Dr. George Gabriel deals wonderfully with the “western” understanding of Marriage. cf

  28. Rhonda Avatar

    “No vows? Not even an implicit one to God?”

    No, not “to God”…in God. In marriage God is also part of the union.

    “…presenting themselves for the blessing from the priest…”

    The priest is not doing the “marrying” nor is he merely “blessing”…God does both through the priest.

    “Besides, I think you are taking the US norm and applying it universally…”

    Fr. Stephen is usually writing from & about the American culture & mindset, but in this case his use of “the West” is not inappropriate.

    “In many (most) countries, you need to have a civil service of some sort (could be the signing of legal papers before a register) before the service in a church. Since that is the case, there is no need for vows because you have already made them. The church is only blessing what you have already contracted in the civil realm.”

    America is decades behind the rest of the Western World in marriage as well as church-state issues. I believe the US will ultimately adopt the same resolution mentioned because most are of the opinion that “the church is only blessing…” when it comes to marriage.

    Theologically though this is not what the Orthodox Church views as its purpose which is our salvation, our life in Christ. In all of the Church’s sacraments, God’s grace is bestowed through the Holy Spirit. In marriage it is the grace of the Holy Spirit that gives reality to the union. At no time is it the “vows” proclaimed by the couple, which is the point of Fr. Stephen’s article. At no time is the Church merely slapping a holy label on a secular contract, be that contract “implicit” between 2 individuals in the form of vows or promises, or explicit by the government in the form of marriage license or civil ceremony.

    Governments & individuals can only form contracts…deals…agreements. These contracts, deals agreements are not the same thing as relationships. Relationship implies union in some fashion. Union or relationship is formed between persons & for us “individuals” to become “persons”, we must first become united to Christ. Marriage is not merely a contract; it too is a relationship, a union which can only be formed when God is an integral part from the beginning. This is why neither the priest nor the Church “is only blessing” something external &/or independent from the Church.

  29. Bob Chapman Avatar

    “…only blessing…”

    Of course I did not mean it as one person took it. I meant it as “…limited to blessing…” the couple, as they have already made the contract. There is no further need to extract further vows.

    Whether a Christian makes a vow to an official of the state or the church, the Christian should intent on keeping that vow. Otherwise it is bearing false witness against our neighbor. Marriage in the church is asking for God’s help to keep that vow.

    The discussion on whether or not the church should be an agent for the state is another discussion.

  30. Denise Avatar

    Excellent essay. One early commenter (was it Scott?) wondered about whether infertile or older couples could marry in the Orthodox church, and the answer is yes, because the main purpose of Orthodox marriage is not procreation, though children are the norm, but theosis – your marriage (and your marriage partner) are (or should be) an aid to your path towards holiness and salvation. The married couple creates a little church, just as sacramental as the big edifice down the street, and it is the little sacrifices of every day life together that polish our sinful natures to a mirror like shine to better reflect Christ himself. And that is the different between Eastern and Western understanding of marriage.

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m glad you brought up the points regarding covenants. Are covenants contracts?

    In the mind of many, covenants are indeed contracts – often, contracts between a human being and God (or a whole nation and God). However, this reading of covenant may be one of the most egregious cases of “eisegesis” in modern Christianity. Eisegesis is the practice of “reading into” the text something that is not there, rather than reading and drawing forth what is (exegesis). Covenants are real – and we can compare them to contracts – but they have some real differences.

    It is interesting, first off, that in Hebrew, a person “cuts” a covenant with someone else (not to be confused with “cutting a deal”). It apparently refers to the cutting of the sacrifice that is part of the covenant ceremony. One of my favorite covenant passages is in Genesis 15. God makes the covenant with Abraham. Abraham cuts an animal in two pieces and laid them opposite one another. At night, a deep sleep came on Abraham and “behold, a horror and great darkness fell upon him.” He has a dream of God, who passes between the cut pieces in the form of a “smoking cauldron” and a burning torch. The “cutting” of the covenant, and passing between the two halves of the animal, is an extremely ancient ceremony (quite bloody). I was once told that its meaning was “may the same be done to me if I break covenant with you.” But even this is “weak.” Covenant is a ritual of union – in the death – sacrifice and ritual treatment of the animal – two individuals, nations, etc. – are united. It is a Covenant of union. “You will be my people…I will be your God.” It is not simply that someone has agreed to certain performance clauses – but that something new has come into existence – the union of the covenanters – sealed in flesh and blood – has taken place.

    Christ Himself describes the Eucharistic sacrifice as His flesh and blood. And He is quite clear about the matter and the nature of the union. “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in Him.” There really is no need to create abstract theories of contractual obligations “covenant theology.” Union has always been a better and more obvious way to understand the nature of covenants.

    But the development of “Covenantal Theology” as a theme in Calvinism, raised this misreading of covenants into a very dominant place in the minds of many Christians in our culture. Union with God (or with another human being) clearly creates obligations and responsibilities. But the development of that aspect of covenant in a “forensic” or “legal” direction, has the (perhaps unintended) effect of eliminating union as the primary mechanism and meaning of covenant relationships.

    What “binds” me to God, is not a legal oath, per se, but by the fact that God and I have become one flesh. I am now bone of His bones and flesh of His flesh – not just legally – but really, truly, organically.

    Notes for James, et al. Sacramentum does indeed mean “oath,” and it’s usage is quite old in the Western Church. It’s first use outside of Scripture is found in a letter of Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan when Pliny was Governor in Bithynia. He described the Christians, under torture, declaring that they met on Sunday mornings, and “bound themselves with an oath” (sacramentum obstringere), not to kill, not to commit adultery, etc. It’s not clear what he’s referring to – and he might have been making erroneous guesses based on the normal meaning of “sacramentum.”

    But the word “mysterium” (mystery) is the common word in Orthodoxy, with no associations of “oath” in its meaning. Oaths, promises, etc., have become very important in Western culture and Western versions of Christianity. It is little wonder that we are a litigious society, suing each other at the drop of a hat.

    That half of the Christian world has never had vows in its marriage ceremony (I do not think they were traditionally part of Judaism either), however, demonstrates that the idea of “vows” is local and not essential. Marriage is not a contract, an agreement. Obviously two people are in some form of agreement in a marriage – but the relationship is organic and not forensic.

    As an aside, our salvation is organic and not forensic. This forensic business (penal substitutionary atonement) is also a local invention, a failure to comprehend the depth of our salvation.

    I happen to like the vows I made at my wedding (1928 Book of Common Prayer) and continue to seek to conform myself to them. But the reality of my marriage is rooted in the fact that I am one flesh with a woman (with 4 children and 2 grandchildren to show for it). The mystery of that union isn’t found in the vows, but in the common life that unites us. I come to know myself as I find myself in the beloved.

  32. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Fr. Stephen,

    This is a beautiful essay and understanding of marriage as sacrament. Thank you.

    I am interested in where this leaves homosexuals. I am NOT trying to start up a debate on the topic but am asking you as teacher on this blog.

    I am asking because (as a psychologist), I hurt for people who come to me who: did not choose to be homosexual, have found someone they love and want to spend their life with AND want to live their lives in communion with God. Is their situation greatly different from the couple who is older or known to be infertile going into marriage? None of these relationships can produce children but can be “procreative” in other ways.

    Some, I’m sure, will be quick to point out the anatomical differences in same- vs. opposite sex relationships. I read respectfully of your use of the term “union”. Is union dependent on anatomy or certain types of sexual acts? (forgive me for the graphic reference.) Or is it more a spiritual gift of self expressed through the acts of physical intimacy?

    What does it mean to become “one flesh” in this sense? We use this term in the RC church as well, but it cannot be said in literal fashion for the husband and the wife continue to have separate physical bodies.

    I am asking these questions sincerely and in good faith; not trying to provoke others who are not bothered by these questions.

  33. Fox R Avatar
    Fox R

    “Our culture, following the logic of vows, views marriage as a contract between two people. Specific promises concerning performance (and non-performance) are offered.”

    I’ve been following this blog for quite a while and while I always find it challenging and rarely find anything to disagree with, I find this post puzzling. The quote above seems to imply that a contract consists of exchanging vows / promises concerning performance or non-performance of certain actions.

    Yet in scripture we find at least two instances where specific promises were made concerning performance / non-performance — Adam and Moses — and in both cases we call these “covenants,” not contracts. I can think of other cases where vows were made — the people standing before Joshua after he challenged them to chose whom they will serve, for example. Was this a contract? Or a covenant? Or renewal of a covenant?

    Other instances of covenant are unconditional — the Davidic Covenant, the New Covenant.

    I think the distinction between contract and covenant is that a contract is entered into to preserve the interests of the parties involved. The relationship between the parties is not important beyond performance / non-performance of clearly specified actions. A covenant, whether conditional or unconditional, is not about preserving the interests of the parties but about defining and maintaining a personal relationship.

    I used to interpret the language concerning marital union as Father Stephen does:

    “Pondering all of this, I once wondered if we should stop using the word “sex” to describe what a man and woman have with one another. Instead, I wondered how it would be if we called that activity “marriage”? “Have you had marriage with that girl?” Perhaps such a shift in language would better help people understand the nature of sexual activity.”

    But I’ve come to believe this is problematic. I wasn’t chaste before marriage; I had other sexual partners before I met my wife-to-be. Am I still “married” to those other girls? Since I married another, as did they, are we all living in a state of perpetual, irremediable adultery?

    And what of divorce? Since Jesus clearly allowed divorce in the event of porneia (Mt 19:9) — a non-performance, in other words — did He teach that marriage is therefore a contract … a conditional covenant … or a “union”?

    I’m not buying “vows = contract = inferior view of marriage.” In my opinion, that is an inaccurate and unbiblical view. Nor do I buy “sex = marriage.” I doubt that’s what either Jesus and Paul meant. What, for example, does one do with David and Solomon and all their concubines? Tamar and Judah? Where in all of scripture is their “adultery” mentioned?

    I don’t have the clarity on this issue that Father Stephen seems to have. Perhaps I’m the one in the wrong.

  34. Amanda Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Thank you for this post. My husband and I have struggled for many years with the nature of marriage, or should I say the sacramental marriage. My question for you is very personal in nature, and I hope I do not offend anyone present in this discussion.

    What do you have to say about a married Orthodox couple who for reasons of health of the mother decide to do something permanent to prevent the conception of another child? Your reference to procreation as one of the evidences of union is convicting to me.

  35. Charlie Avatar

    Can the Western liturgical churches vows be regarded as Oaths?
    I’m thinking of a similarity to the form spoken in a court-of-law “I solemnly swear to tell the truth …. so help me God” – witnessed by the clerk of the court and the judge (and others, of course) and subject to a penalty of perjury ( in the middle ages a religious crime as well as civil) if broken.Do the weddings vows have the form of oaths – does anyone know?
    If so, it is shocking to think how many perjurers live in North America!

  36. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mary Benton, there is something about our fallen ness that deeply twists our sexuality. There is not one of us who does not feel the effects of that distortion.

    We sexualize relationships that should not be sexualized. Our sexual passions are continually inflamed and given a prominence that is not healthy.

    Ontologically there cannot be a marriage union between two people of the same sex. We are simply not made that way. The natural ontological synergy between men and women is critical to fulfilling the commandments of God to dress and keep the earth and make it fruitful.

    The companionship and love between two people of the same sex should not be sexual and can never be sanctified as marriage as they cannot become one flesh.

    Sexual activity can only be blessed and sanctified in marriage not outside it and not in any erstatz form.

    The standard for all is celibacy and chastity before and outside marriage, faithfulness and chastity after and in marriage.

    Marriage is not a “civil right” or a natural “right” it is a vocation that must be prepared for and embraced as a kenotic activity reflecting Jesus’ love for the Church.

  37. Josh Gray Avatar
    Josh Gray

    Love this Father. I would have to say that not only marriage in the west has become contractual/legal but salvation as well.

  38. Publius Avatar

    mary benton said: “I am asking because (as a psychologist), I hurt for people who come to me who: did not choose to be homosexual, have found someone they love and want to spend their life with AND want to live their lives in communion with God.”

    I am an Orthodox Christian who struggles with the homosexual passion, which I did not choose and was not caused by any of the common canards that are often bandied about (abuse, absent father, overbearing mother, etc.)

    I do not identify myself with my passions, because those passions are not “me”. Thus it is easy for me to reject these desires that apparently cause great pain and suffering for other homosexuals to reject.

    You cannot live in communion with God AND reject his commandments. You have to choose obedience. And speaking from my own experience, as soon as you let go the feeling of entitlement—that I am entitled to be married to someone of the same sex, because “emotions”, “love”, etc.—it is shockingly easy to move on.

    In other worse, when people give up what they want in favor of what God wants, they will be surprised at how fulfilling God can be. But of course, most would rather be fulfilled by anything but God.

  39. James Avatar

    Father, thank you for your response. I agree with your statement that, “Union with God (or with another human being) clearly creates obligations and responsibilities. But the development of that aspect of covenant in a “forensic” or “legal” direction, has the (perhaps unintended) effect of eliminating union as the primary mechanism and meaning of covenant relationships.” From my perspective, and forgive me if I am mistaken, the vow we make through each Sacrament is a result of that Union with God – as you said, that Union does create obligation, though it is important and necessary to remember it is an obligation of love; it is the light yoke of Christ. The obligation of fidelity to my wife, for example, though morally binding upon me, did not weigh me down, it freed me to love in many ways. Are you perhaps saying that a vow does exist, but it is a result of our partaking of the Mysteries and not the cause of them?

  40. Publius Avatar

    Isaac said: “I totally disagree that it is the job of Orthodox clergy to tell the whole culture, much of which is not Orthodox and arguably not even Christian, that they should be held to Orthodox standards.”

    But Isaac, if something is true, it is universally true. We cannot divide religious life from secular life—to do so is textbook secularism, which Orthodoxy rejects.

    True, people may not be as accepting of certain Christian prohibitions if they don’t agree with the Christian faith, but things are not prohibited because they are bad for Christians. They are prohibited because they are bad for human beings. Like children, they don’t need to understand the reasons for everything in order to be helped by certain rules.

    I believe Christendom in general, and the Orthodox Church in particular, are obliged use their influence as far as they are able.

    In our own American context, the people who devised our free system still expected people to be morally governed—in particular by the church. I believe it was Washington who said freedom could only exist among a “moral and religious people”. If people cease to be governed by morals and religion, the government must step in, and that’s where we are today.

    So if the government is legislating morality, better to have the Church involved than not.

  41. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Publius God bless you my brother and thank you.

  42. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Mr. Chapman, although I am Orthodox and have been married twice (my first wife died) I’ve never known the grace of an Orthodox marriage. While the Church has blessed my marriages it did not unite us in marriage.

    Lacking that mystery of union, my wife and I can still strive for that but we are presented with certain difficulties we would not have had otherwise. Those who come to marriage in a chaste state are given a transformative gift in marriage that is wonderful to see. They are integrated into the community in a way that a simple blessing does not achieve; the list goes on.

    There is no contract in my marriage. If there were, neither my wife or I would have entered into it.

    Personally, I am of the opinion that merely contractual marriages should not be accepted by the Church, but the couple should have a full marriage much as we baptise those who were not baptised in the Holy Trinity.

    Our status as legal agents of the state makes that more difficult.

  43. Gene B Avatar
    Gene B

    There is amazing history concerning marriages that is fascinating to me. Wedding vows are historically new – they were born in Henry VIII’s England. The Catholic Churches adopted these later than the Church of England did. The concept of a civil marriage is relatively new in history too. It is actually a product of Protestantism – Martin Luther wanted the state to be involved in recording marriages to get free of (Catholic) church rule. Before the Reformation, all marriages and records thereof were kept in local churches. The civil authorities were not involved because there were no complicated tax systems like today, and no massive bureaucracy tracking all of the people closely like there is today. Even newer in world history is the concept of civil marriage, which started in France after the French Revolution and in Germany only in the mid 1850s. Today the only point to a civil marriage is to get tax benefits. Historically marriages were only performed by the church – people implicitly understood the authority to marry could only come from God.

    Two points come out of this – one, that the (Godless) state has gradually usurped all authority, including moral authority, from the churches and has replaced it with a pseudo moral code. The separation of Church and State in my opinion, was a trick to simply take over. Second, the concept of a civil marriage is really meaningless – it really does not matter who the State wants to marry, except that it provides the worst example for the everyday person, who is easily influenced by our media and current events. However it is clear that churches will soon be required to perform these marriages. I think anyone with a spiritual understanding understands what is happening. The State is turning to serve the other side in earnest after a long preparation and Christians need to get ready for what is to come.

  44. Joel Watson Avatar
    Joel Watson

    I do not believe ANYWHERE in The Book of Common Prayer will you find “Do you…take this woman…to have and to hold, to love and to cherish…etc. as long as you both shall live?” as you say. The word is “will,” or “wish you”, translated from the Greek thelo (sorry, my Greek font is on the blink): to will, have in mind, intend, to be resolved or determined, to purpose, to desire, to wish, to love, to like to do a thing, be fond of doing, to take delight in, have pleasure,

    as in the Lord’s Prayer, “to thelema sou”. It is not translated “do.”

    Hence, man is asked if he wishes to take this woman and vice-versa.

    Secondly, the man gives himself away to the woman and the woman to the man, so there is no “contract” or covenant. God gives the man to the woman and the woman to the man. Then the Blessing is given.

    I am quite conscious of the dislike of most, especially American, Orthodox for Anglicans, but IN MY LIFETIME, I knew of MANY, yes many, Orthodox when received the sacraments of the Episcopal Church by the instruction of and with the Blessing of the Orthodox Bishop because there were no Orthodox Churches in the area. What gives?

  45. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Because the Anglicans aposticized the very real opportunity for closer ties disappeared.

  46. Isaac Avatar


    I don’t disagree with your main point that what is good for Christians is good for all since truth is truth. It is a matter of how that truth is given to people who don’t have it and are not ready to hear it. You can use the force of the law which has such things as death, poverty and imprisonment behind it if it is not obeyed,or you can use persuasion both by demonstrating the difference the truth makes in how you live your life and in what you say is true publicly but without trying to force others to adhere to it.

    There is the other complication too, which is that Christians can be pretty good at telling the whole culture how it ought to live and pretty bad at actually living by those standards. Hence the fact that abortion rates, divorce rates, and pornography usage among Christians is more or less the same as the larger culture given a few variations here and there. What if it was just a given that Christians almost never divorce, almost never get abortions, and almost never use pornography? I think that would be a stronger witness and much more helpful than passing laws that force people who hate all things Christian to live as if they are Christians.

    As an aside, thanks for sharing your own situation. What gets lost over and over in the conversation is the idea that a person is not his passions. It is dehumanizing to think so.

  47. andrew Avatar

    When couples get married in the West,What we call contract or more correctly, a covenant, It is between the Couple and God. As Abe correctly pointed out.

  48. andrew Avatar

    Can someone clarify this statement?

    “St. Paul does not use the argument of union to oppose same sex relationships.”

  49. Charlie Avatar

    Joel:in fact, in the BCP – as opposed to the BAS (in the Canadian Church) there are two parts in the ‘Solemnization of Matrimony’ — but not generally recognized as such. It seems as if the second is just a repetition of the first, but on closer inspection it is not.
    The key point is that the first is the ‘betrothal’ and the second is the ‘marriage’. The distinction between the two is marked by the verbs used. For the betrothal the question is “A, — will — you take B to be your lawful wedded wife (i.e.
    “is it your ‘will/intention/desire to do so)
    and for the marriage the — same question is “A, — do–you take B…&c” (i.e. do you undertake the the act…”)
    This of course is from the Canadian BCP, 1962; but I suspect it is quite similar to the 1928? Episcopal BCP?
    Charlie Mdiv.
    Fortunately for both the Church and myself, my Bishop and I
    mutually agreed that it were better that I not be ordained!
    35 years ago.

  50. Charlie Avatar

    by the way, the “Solemnization” is in no way based on Greek – it is a construct from Cranmer’s 1549 Prayer Book – as amended many times.

  51. Charlie Avatar

    Andrew: “St.Paul does not use…&c…” your question of 8:42 p.m. above.
    If you consider Romans 1:26-27 “…lust for one another,males with males,committing what is shameful…”
    and I Cor 6:9-10, ” shall not inherit the kingdom of God,…
    (various categories) , nor those who participate in homosexuality;
    and I Tim 1:9-10 “…for the that defile themselves with mankind …”
    I think you’ll see that St. Paul would be aghast at the thought of same-sex unions. He would not been naïve enough to be unaware of the one-off affairs between Greek men and boys, generally following athletic events which were typically performed naked, but by non-Christians. His epistles, however were addressed the the Churches in the various cities.
    Unions; whether one-off or permanent would have infuriated him!

  52. Charlie Avatar

    Andrew: I submitted a long-ish response to your question of 8:42 which seems to have got lost in electron land.
    So to sum up let me say thay I think St. Paul would have been aghast at the very idea.
    Check out Rom.1:26-17
    and ITim 1:9-10
    and you’ll find that he has a very dim view of the behaviour itself; much less any conjunction (no pun intended) on it.

  53. Melissa Avatar

    I think this a great interpretation and very critically thought out essay on the subject. Your thought process and interpretation are easy to understand and well put. However…big however…I feel that unless one is trying to be orthodox Christian it shouldn’t matter to you. Keep strong values in your family and in your church and speak on the subject if you want but each individual needs to make peace with God in their own way and in their own time and we may learn in the future that they didn’t choose the body’s brains and impulses they were born with. If an individual isn’t hurting someone else then they have the right to be happy and have sexual marriage in anyway with who ever as long as its consensual. I think its also impossible to presume what god defines as “sex” and as “Marriage”. when we look to nature and learn from our environment its incredibly diverse with many different ways for two being to come together coming together in sex is considered nirvana by some and I’m sure that’s also what GLTB feel when they come together…. I don’t think he expects us to know what he considers perfect. Can a perfect soul inhabit the body of a gay man? Can a perfect soul in gods eyes be one that has seen so much hardship that its scared of the opposite sex so seeks comfort and “Marriage” in the best way for that individual? hmmmmm I don’t know. I’ll keep my spirituality and my knowledge that we are in God as a fish is in Water and that we are all graced by him even in unions that may be different than the norm. How can they not be.. A shark swims in water just like the fish. It would be like our body hating one of our cells, as long as its a healthy cell living its purpose and not murdering other cells with cancer our body needs all its cells even though they are born to look and act different for different functions in the body. Sometimes the body is brilliant and cells meant to perform one function take over another function – odd and different- if needed. Harlot… that term can be interpreted so many ways I think it means… how can I even assume…I don’t know what god intended for each person… guess I better stop before this turns into an essay itself…

    Well you got me thinking… good essay. I’m Rambling…I’m bored.. may as well think on this..

    here’s a though what if god/Christ consciousness is inside light. Maybe all matter is technically frozen light?…Maybe we all have is entirely wrong and all god wants is for us to live a good, peaceful, accepting non-judgmental non murderous non trespassing life… oh wait.. maybe he did say that…

  54. Rebecca Avatar

    Andrew (and Charlie),
    I believe what Fr. Stephen meant by that was that St. Paul opposes same-sex relationships on other grounds, that the argument of union doesn’t enter into his discussion of the matter, not that St. Paul doesn’t oppose same-sex relationships.

  55. Rebecca Avatar

    And as I reread the article, I see that I basically quoted the rest of that paragraph, so that probably didn’t address your concerns, Andrew. But I hope Charlie reread the rest of that paragraph as well.

  56. Charlie Avatar

    Rebecca: yes, well St.Paul had fairly strong views on other things as well. A couple of — purely — rhetorical questions, which I pose simply to illustrate the point would be “Are you submissive to your husband”? and “Do you keep your head covered – ‘in church’”?
    Please note that I do not expect an answer – these are simply illustrative questions.

  57. Rebecca Avatar

    Ah, Charlie, if only your longer comment were not stuck in Moderation-ville, I would have known from which perspective you were referencing those passages– I did not know you consider St. Paul outdated. But, for the record, I do not, I do do my best to submit to my husband as the Church does to Christ, and I do cover my head in worship– if it’s good enough for the Mother of God, it’s good enough for me. 🙂

  58. fatherstephen Avatar

    You are correct – the phrasing is “will you.” I’m not sure that there is actually any theological distinction to be made from what I’ve written.

    Concerning the direction of Orthodox towards the Anglicans – this is not actually correct. There was a short period of time when St. Tikhon, Bishop for America around 1905, was, frankly mislead by High Church Anglicans about the nature of Anglicanism. He extended some provisions which he personally revoked. As an Episcopal priest, those provisions were often quote (by myself as well) as though they were facts, well-established (Anglican orders as “valid,” etc.). But I have seen the actual documents since then, and he “recanted” his own provisions.

    It was certainly the case that many Orthodox went to the Anglicans when no Orthodox Church could be found. I accepted such people myself as an Anglican priest. My information was incorrect, however.

    The “dislike” of Anglicans is not actually true. There is a great deal to like, and much to honor. What St. Tikhon saw was not without merit, but it was not actually representative of all, or even the majority within Anglicanism. Today, many of the Anglicans don’t like most of the Anglicans (especially American Episcopalians). That has an obvious history.

  59. fatherstephen Avatar

    re: “St. Paul does not use the argument of union to oppose same sex relationships.” Of course, I am stating an “argument from silence.” Paul condemns same-sex behaviors under various moral sanctions, and not under the heading of a false attempt at union. To be fair to the issue, the way present discussions of same sex relationships is taking place is a very different context and cultural setting than in St. Paul’s situation. It does not, for me, change how I understand same-sex issues, but the questions are certainly different.
    If someone were to ask, “Can same-sex couples not have a form of union?” I would answer “only in some form of psychological manner,” and that a genital expression of that relationship would be problematic, and difficult to understand in any meaningful manner as “union.”

  60. fatherstephen Avatar

    I am an Orthodox Christian. Revising St. Paul is not an option. It also helps to understand him first.

  61. Charlie Avatar

    I’m so sorry; I thought I’ made it quite clear the questions were completely rhetorical in nature; and I truly apologize if you took offence at them.
    I am a recent catechumen – at age 70 – (just before Pascha) – and I do not consider St. Paul ‘dated’ in any way. I’m not quite sure how the Theotokos fits in? – or perhaps at the wedding in Cana – she says to the servants – do whatever He tells you… (her implied obedience to her Son?)
    In any case, one reason I move from Canterbury to Constantinople bypassing Rome was because in Orthodoxy I found, among other things, a faith which ‘stands for’ Scripture (and vice versa) and Tradition; which even Rome and Canterbury downplay as “well, that was those days, of course…”, or to use the word that really lights my fuse, ‘not relevant’ any more. I measure ‘relevance’ to God, not to the world; so it is in terms of that that I judge whether St. Paul is outdated. He is not!
    You can perhaps see that my fuse is alight!
    Peace, and again my apologies.

  62. fatherstephen Avatar

    To all,
    I know the marriage question (and the lack of vows) stirs up lots of thoughts – especially in our current cultural milieu. However, what I am “clear” about, is the understanding of union. I have written elsewhere, and frequently, that the whole of our Christian life is about union with God in Christ – all of it. All of it. This is an excellent place (marriage) to make that point, and the Orthodox wedding makes it about as clearly as any example I could find. But – from my perspective – the article is about union – of which the absence of vows in an Orthodox wedding is an illustration.

    Every “deviation” from that central, Christian teaching (such as misunderstandings of covenant, etc. as contractual, etc.) becomes, I think, a deviation from the Orthodox Christian faith. Covenants are about union, when rightly understood.

    So I have written, and so I will keep writing. If someone were to read through the better than 1500 articles on the blog and said, “Fr. Stephen, you think everything is about union!” I would feel that my work was actually being rightly understood.

    If I have a goal as a theologian, it is to help people see the place of union (participation, communion, sharing, coinherence, etc.) in the Christian life (it is the Christian life), and to begin to read the Scriptures correctly in this matter and to begin to eliminate the vast layers of stuff that seem to hide this rather simple obvious truth.

  63. Rebecca Avatar

    Forgive me, I misread you. In my experience, when those questions are asked rhetorically, they tend to be part of the argument “What St. Paul had to say about women is obviously outdated, therefore what he had to say about homosexuality is also obviously outdated; if you, Christian woman, don’t feel the need to take what he says about women seriously, why should you impose what he says about homosexuals on them?” I was not offended, but I was amused that you seemed to assume a negative response to those questions.
    As to the Theotokos, one of the reasons Orthodox women traditionally (though less often in the US) cover their heads is to imitate the Theotokos, who is never seen in iconography without her head covered. That’s what my comment was referring to.
    May God bless your catechumenate and guard you safely home! 🙂

  64. Charlie Avatar

    to Fox R. “wasn’t chaste before marriage” I’m not sure that you have a problem there. see: –“the woman taken in adultery”
    Our Lord said’ where are they who condemned you?’ — ‘neither do I condemn you…’
    well, anyway I,m sure you get my point — or more importantly, His point!

  65. […] I now offer, in the “marriage generally” genre, Fr. Stephen Freeman’s blog “No Wedding Vows.” […]

  66. Jennifer Mary Fox Avatar
    Jennifer Mary Fox

    Father Bless!

    Thank you for such an excellent meditation on Orthodox Crowning! Normally I would remain silent (and perhaps I still should), but you have produced such an engaging, thoughtful, and productive discussion, that I hope it is “safe” for me, an unworthy married Orthodox lay woman, to contribute.

    [BTW, I’m sorry if this thread seems to reflect earlier replies, since I started writing and editing my response late yesterday.]

    The Sacrament of Crowning is very meaningful to me personally. As we know sacraments touch on the eternal and divine and are mysteries – impossible to understand legalistically – so I apologize at the outset if my following description of crowning is not precise or perfect. On the rare occasion that I have attempted to describe my experience of crowning, the only way I can describe it is that I felt transported to heaven (my husband also experienced this). I interpreted our crowning to be as close to the equivalence of an ordination into a shared lay priesthood – a kingly priesthood in which we became the king and queen of our small tiny little kingdom, our home. I viewed the hymn to the “Holy Martyrs” (at the “Dance of Isaiah”) to be reflective of the fact that when those crowns were on our heads, we were, in that moment, facing the Final Judgment Seat of God together. That is how I hope it will be when we die. These impressions came from my experience of Crowning but are also couched in language directly taken from private discussions we had with our priest prior to our Crowning and then our priest’s sermon at our Crowning. I am not certain if I have ever read such an interpretation in any written material on the Sacrament of Crowning.

    The Sacrament of Betrothal is the “first” of the two sacraments. The rings are exchanged and the word “covenant” occurs in the final blessing prayer. I understand that like with the Baptism-Chrismation duo, it can be done as a separate service from – or a joint service with – the Sacrament of Crowning. I have seen it separated on rare occasions, usually for pastoral reasons.

    I would therefore like to humbly offer to this fruitful discussion the radical concept that we are having a difficulty discussing “the sacrament” of marriage, since our church offers two sacraments associated with marriage. Betrothal may be the closest thing we have to the Catholic understanding of a “covenant” sacrament. Crowning, however, is an entirely unique sacrament only found in the Orthodox Church. It is unparalleled and unequaled. We have should have bragging rights on that, for sure! In a world hungering for the sacraments – we have two!

  67. Lx Crow Avatar
    Lx Crow

    My 50 c on the matter from the perspective of a married person.. There were many things about our (mine and my better half’s) orthodox wedding ceremony that I couldn’t focus on during the ceremony itself, since the whole moment and place was loaded with a lot of emotion that made me somewhat dense to what was really happening around me and with me.

    It really dawned on me maybe a year after that on a Saturday evening when I was among the few that had been present for the Vesper. Then most people left but I lingered a bit more — and realized that the Priest was beginning a Wedding Ceremony for an old couple (both were over 60 years old). Only a small gathering of their children and grandchildren were attending and I, at the back, most likely unnoticed. Then I could actually focus on the ceremony and words themselves but what impressed me the most and I try to remember that when things go bad on the inside for me, is that the Priest crowned the pair. I have read among others, that the Crowning should be reserved for those who are virgins but actually seeing what I saw, it dawned on me that God really does respect us, picks us from dirt at any age, cleanses us, restores us and crowns us kings and queens (in a way). It was an amazing experience to see those two old people being crowned and becoming one at such an age and made me realize that as long as we still breath, it is never too late and if we ask Him, He will pick us up and clothe us.
    As for the fact that my better half and I will stand together before God at the Judgement, as Jennifer said in the comment above, it has often been mentioned during (or rather, at the end of) arguments that threaten to escalate 🙂 Realizing that it is *he* and no other, the one with whom I shall attend that moment, grants a sort of crystal lucidity in a wide range of emotional / sentimental situations and it is the main thing that probably definitively changed my view on romantic love. It is an awareness that dispels many a sweet Hollywood illusions of what love is supposed to be like.
    I don’t know whether it is fortunate or not but all this didn’t dawn upon me at our own wedding. The fruits of the Sacrament, their flavor and their restorative power, showed only later, over the course of the (until now) 4 years, after some crisis.

  68. PJ Avatar

    I object most strongly with any attempt to conflate the Biblical concept of covenant and the modern American concept of contract. The reason why marriages dissolve at the drop of a hat is that we have traded the former for the latter. In Scripture, the purpose of covenant is to make two become one. This is obviously the case with the New Covenant, but it becomes increasingly obvious throughout the course of the Old Testament. Hosea is a perfect example of the OT understanding of covenant as union — God as husband, Israel as (cheating) wife. The Israelite understanding of covenant, although it evolved over time, was never like that of the pagans, who viewed the human-divine relationship as essentially quid-pro-quo. That is contractual. A covenant is infinitely more sacrosanct and inviolable and intimate.

  69. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Melissa, I implore you, don’t float in present time and thought as if it had any roots. As an Orthodox priest, Fr. Stephen speaks from 6000 years of unbroken understanding and practice of truth about God and man that has born an indescribably deep storehouse of holiness.

    That is what gives him the authority to speak and speack truly. It is God Himself who judges but He also gives us the gift of discernment so that we may see what is true and what is not. That does not give us the authority to condemn anyone but it does give us the reponsibility to use the gift we have been given so that we may move closer to him. There is truth and there is untruth regardless of what we think about it.

    The very first declarations of faith that a person coming into the Orthodox Church are rejcting Satan and all of his works then accepting union with Christ.

  70. Delwyn X. Campbell Avatar
    Delwyn X. Campbell

    Interesting article, and, from your perspective, well written. Nevertheless, I have something against you, Father Stephen. When you say that, according to the Western Tradition, marriage is a contractual arrangement, you are using a word that is loaded with negative connotations, and, in addition, one that is less than the actual Western understanding of what marriage is.

    Others before me have pointed out to you the difference, from a Western perspective, between a “contract” and a “covenant.” If you are speaking to western ears, you need to speak to us in our language, whereas if you are only speaking ABOUT western perspectives to an Eastern audience, you should at least do us the courtesy of getting us right.

    The seeming point of this article is, “West does marriage vows, another sign of western inferiority.” Given that the EO has a limited footprint in the U.S., it would be difficult to do a sociological comparison of the impact the difference in rites and rituals has on the success of marriage, and how would you be able to tell that any negative data in the EO camp is due to EO doctrine versus Western culture? You would be likely to claim that any failures among EO couples is due to culture, while any successes are due to doctrine. Is that fair, much less valid?

    Your belief that marriage, like every other aspect of Christian life, is a reflection of the union that we have with and in Christ, is a view that is shared in the West. One of the reasons for opposing same sex marriage is simply that it does not reflect that which God established in the beginning – that the union of the man and the woman, not the union of any two or more people, constitutes a marriage before God. The push for same-sex marriage comes, not from any western evangelical tradition, but from Enlightenment views about individual equality and the pursuit of happiness being a fundamental value. The attempt to exercise liberty, without the acceptance of responsibility, inevitably leads to licentiousness.

    “You ran well; what hindered you from [speaking] the truth?” You don’t need to paint a false western evangelical understanding of marriage in order to “let your [eastern] light so shine.” If anything, you have created a stumbling block that keeps me from gleaning all that might be of value, and I’m sure that was not your purpose, right?

  71. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Delwyn I understand your point but I don’t think Fr. Stephen is doing exactly what you think. I think he is addressing the western secular mind which as you say is conditioned by the Enlightenment humanism.

    He is addressing though too the tendency to flow that direction in many Western Christian traditions, most notably is own former one.

    Certainly we Orthodox have not done all that we should to practice our tradition or communicate it properly even to our own people.

    I know growing up in Kansas the western Christianity which I experience never seemed to give a thought to union. Obviously its there. Glory to God.

  72. Delwyn X. Campbell Avatar
    Delwyn X. Campbell

    If he is addressing western secularism, than why post the western church as the target? That is what he DID, so I can only surmise that is what he MEANT. “By their fruits shall you know them.”

  73. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    ….Also it seems to me that the understanding of union is somewhat different in the Orthodox than in most western traditions. It is easy to make too much of it (which I don’t think Fr. Stephen is doing) but neither can it be ignored.

  74. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The legalistic model dominates in the western Christian understanding.The Orthodox understanding of marriage is different than anything I ever encountered anywhere else. Neither do I believe Fr. Stephen is attacking. He is talking about a general difference in an attempt to bring clarity. He is certainly not attacking anyone’s personal faith.

    Value the truth where ever it appears don’t bother to defend untruth.

  75. Delwyn Campbell Avatar
    Delwyn Campbell

    I’m sure there are differences; that appears to be true of about everything. I also notice that, in any discussion, the Greeks assume that their perspective is the right one. While I understand why this belief is held, since few people support a belief that they simultaneously doubt, I see no reason why I should stipulate the superiority of the Greeks, any more than I would concede such a position to the Romans. I confess the unadulterated Book of Concord. By that Confession, there are two sacraments, Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These each contain the Promise of the forgiveness of sins. The marriage rite does not contain this promise.

    Marriage is seen, in the Evangelical tradition, as a type of our relationship with God in Christ. It is covenantal, it is exclusive, and it is of grace. It is not merely a contractual agreement.

    The presence of vows is part of this rite, as it is a part of our baptismal ceremony. They are supported by God’s Word, but we judge no one who does not use those words.

  76. Isaac Avatar

    Looking back on my comments I see that I wasn’t as clear about why I wrote about the public square side of marriage and the role that a government marriage plays compared to an Orthodox marriage. For a lot of young Orthodox people (and sadly even a few older ones) in America the Church marriage is the less important and less real part compared to the government one. It isn’t unheard of for a young couple to get a civil marriage at the courthouse only to tell the priest a few weeks later that they would like to get a church marriage and have already consummated the marriage. I think along with most Americans we have been hoodwinked into thinking that the government marriage is the real thing and the union that the Church establishes is “spiritual” and less important than the practical concerns. So that was why I brought up the thought of young Orthodox couples simply opting out of government marriages and returning to the reality of a church marriage as the only thing that matters.

  77. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Delwyn marriage is certainly all that you say it is. We have no disagreement there. Where we certainly do have a distinct difference is concerning what we call mysteries (sacrament in the west).

    We Orthodox don’t really number the mysteries and look on the sanctifying work of Jesus Christ rather more broadly than your statement implies to me. The core of each official mystery is repentance and the innvocation of the Holy Spirit who reveals the truth of God’s saving grace. In general, we look upon life (or we should) as a constant process of repentance, calling on the mercy and life of Christ in the Holy Spirit so that are continuing sanctification by His grace may lead us more deeply into loving union with Him who is our Lord and Master.

    In that sense, all of our Christian life is sacramental in nature and Eucharistic (as in giving glory to God for all things).

    I assume by “the Greeks” you mean all of Eastern Orthodoxy which also has strong Syrian and Russian expressions as well as Greek. In terms of our Holy Tradtion, it is the Apostolic teaching which we received from their hands and have, by God’s grace, done so without substantial change for 2000 years. We are heir to the much older revelation of God in the Nation of Israel which , as Christ himself pointed out, was all about Him.

    We are sinful as everyone is. We are not always obedient. We don’t always preach the Gospel as we should, but we are the pillar and ground of the truth .

    The Holy Spirit inspires who and where He is received, but the fullness of His Life and Truth is here. The fruits are here also for those who wish to see. What we know and have been given, we also share with all who wish to feast at His Holy Table.

    Guard the truth you have been given but always look for more and greater life out of love for Jesus Christ which we have in common.

  78. Delwyn Campbell Avatar
    Delwyn Campbell

    That is an “in house” question, although a good one. Given the increasing rate of change we are seeing in American jurisprudence pertaining to the subject, we may have to take a confessional position in response.

  79. Mary Lanser Avatar

    Father: I have enjoyed your comment on covenant and union almost as much…no…actually more, even, than the original posting! Thank you for your emphases!! …


  80. james Avatar


    “If someone were to read through the better than 1500 articles on the blog and said, “Fr. Stephen, you think everything is about union!” I would feel that my work was actually being rightly understood.”

  81. fatherstephen Avatar

    Delwyn (and others of the “West”)
    I have written with a heavy hand regarding our brothers and sisters in the West (forgive me). The theme of “union” is not absent in Western Christian traditions. The Episcopal 1979 BCP describes marriage as “the union of husband and wife.” Calvin did not ignore the theme of union with Christ in his Institutes. Canon A.M. Allchin, perhaps more than any other modern, Western writer, championed the emphasis placed on “participation” and “union” in Orthodox thought.

    Having stated these important facts, it is true, on the cultural level, that the notion of union has been on the wane for ever so long, with the language becoming ever more “antique” sounding to modern ears. There is a cultural Christianity that is the dominant form in the Western world – neither Reform, Lutheran, Anglican, Anabaptist, etc., it is of its own construction, drawing support from first one place then another. It is inherently secular in nature (even its “politics” are secular in nature – on the right and on the left). By secular, I mean a view of the world in which creation is virtually self-existent (having been created by God). It believes that there is something of a “neutral” zone in the world. It views human beings as radically individual, with “relationships” being a constellation of choices, decisions and mutually accepted responsibilities. It does not see anything inherently organic, participatory, shared, communal, etc. about life (other than the growing politics of the environment). This cultural Christianity is close to “Churchless” having little or no ecclesiology. I is without sacrament, acknowledging and practicing things like communion or baptism with no sense of their necessity or essential nature to the Christian gospel.

    Against this growing phenomenon, all Christians in the modern world have to think and work, write and teach. It surrounds us and permeates everything Christian. It is part creature of modern, consumer economies and consumer democracies. It is not a true Christianity, but is something like the cultural detritus that remains in the wake of now-fallen Christendom. It is the Christianity-lite of the Post-Christian world.

    When we discuss these things as though our Orthodox, Anglican, Roman, Reform, etc. sources and traditions are in any way part of popular conversation, we are sadly mistaken. We are forgotten antiques, oddities in a consumerist world. We are exotic flavors, perhaps an acquired taste for some, but not seriously on the menu.

    I personally believe that the time of the West has passed. In its place is the new Consumer Man with consumer everything. Marriage, covenant, etc., is a “contract” for consumer man, because that’s just about as close to having a relationship as he can get. You say, “Covenant,” he hears “contract” (at best).

    For myself (and this is a historical/social judgment) I think that the only form of Christianity that has not yet been seriously compromised by Consumer Man, is Eastern Orthodoxy. Part of this is on account of its peculiar history (it has been shielded and protected from the last 500 years of conversation in the West). Part of this is on account of its present ascendancy in its own cultures (for how long, God only knows). I think that Orthodoxy is the only form of Christianity that speaks with a voice clear and foreign enough to Consumer Man and Consumer Democracies, that it might actually be perceived as saying anything significant or distinct. A gospel without significance or distinction is but a clanging cymbal.

    I also think that the theme of union (participation, sharing, coinherence, etc.) within Orthodoxy is precisely the point where the gospel must be preached. It addresses the nature of modern sin (of sin at all time, but especially in the anti-union of Consumer Man’s life) where it must be addressed. Christian traditions, expressions, that do not center themselves at the point of union with God in Christ, are, I believe, irrelevant in the most serious manner – they are not saying anything that Consumer Man needs to hear – or worse – may be continuing to reinforce his delusion that he understands Christianity.

    In that sense, it doesn’t matter what we think “Covenant” means. Consumer Christians only hear it mean “contract.” And the proof is in the pudding. Our cultures perceive marriage to be a contract of convenience, and among the weakest of all contracts (pretty much the only “no fault” contract in the modern world).

    We do well to have conversations about these things. And I would better serve my readers if I were a lot less triumphalist when I speak about Orthodoxy, and less dismissive when I speak of Western Christianity. But in the slogan of my now aging generation – “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

    Glory to God!

  82. […] Read more… […]

  83. Isaac Avatar

    I think the myth of religious neutrality is one of the most pernicious paradigms in western culture. And many Christians go along with it. This is not a biblical view. All humans are religious and all humans are actively following and worshiping either the true God or a false god. They are either citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven or citizens of the Prince of this World.

    Western marriage is highly conditioned by Mammon which goes a long way to explain why weddings are more and more extravagant and why divorces are usually instigated by the sex that stands to gain the most financially (most divorces are instigated by women who almost always win the money and custody battles in divorce courts). This is also one of the reasons the poor in the west are getting married less and less. Even a lot of gay people argue that the whole gay marriage movement is largely a concession to bourgeoisie values and is largely a movement of wealthy homosexuals. There is a joke that the wedding announcements in elite newspapers is called the “mergers and acquisitions” page. It is pretty clear that the money god is the one primarily in control of western marriage so it shouldn’t surprise us if the contract paradigm trumps the union one.

  84. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Isaac, I know quite a few women whose ex-husbands not only were notfaithful but managed to use the legal system to iimpoverish the women, refuse to pay child support and in general make the women’s life misarable. I think you’d better check your sterotypes.

    Divorce is common because of a lot of things including greed but they are all related to the decline in faith, culture and community.

  85. fatherstephen Avatar

    Michael and Isaac,
    Michael is right on this one. Divorce is a many-headed hydra. But the emptiness that the false world of Consumer Man creates in all of us makes good relationships hard to sustain. The breakdown of the extended family is also a structural weakness, particularly in America.

    I’m very cynical about present culture and the possibility of any improvement. But my cynicism has roots in much deeper woundings in my life, so that I don’t really trust my cynical judgments. They may inadvertently be true – but not because I’m wise in such a way.

    But there always remains the possibility of living a “good” life, meaning a life of greater and greater union with God. It is all that matters – all that matters. May God grant the grace for such a life – if the aggregate should become something wonderful – then may God be thanked for that as well. But managing the world and its culture is not the work of human beings.

  86. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    Though there certainly is reason for cynicism regarding the current culture, there always has been. In other words, people in every generation have pointed out the degenerative evils afoot in their culture.

    One thing that is different now is that we have mass communications that keep us informed (constantly, if we permit it) of evils in every part of our states, countries and world.

    There really are quite a few people genuinely trying to live holy lives, even if they mess it up or have been taught poor theology. They don’t make the news often.

    I truly love this blog but, I must admit, sometimes I tire of the East-West thing, as though I live on the wrong side of the tracks because I am of the West. (No one has treated me that way on a personal level – it is more the language that continually refers to “the West” as though this were a well-defined entity.)

    Hence, I appreciate your words here, Fr. Stephen, and thank you for honestly trying to sort out what may be personal cynicism from the beautiful truths you teach.

  87. Isaac Avatar


    I am citing statistics not stereotypes. We know that more women than men initiate divorces. We know that women more often than not get custody of the children. We know that divorced men are four times more likely to commit suicide than divorced women. These are simply facts and not stereotypes. Actually you are repeating the stereotype of the “deadbeat dad” that helps to drive a debtor’s prison system in the USA. I have spoken extensively with a law enforcement officer who has seen the system destroy the lives of hundreds of honest men and have watched a few men I personally knew get ruined financially and lose custody of their children because their wife was cheating on them and wanted to move on to greener pastures. Of course we all have stories of men and women being cruel to each other, but the laws of the land also have a huge impact on the people who live under them. You seem to be in denial that feminism has been institutionalized at all levels of American law.

    Another stereotype you appear to be repeating as well is the “woman on a pedestal” one found in some versions of chivalry. As Tolkien pointed out in a letter to his son, chivalry is not a Christian view of things since men and women are equally fallen and equally prone to sin. If you have laws that provide incentives for certain behaviors we shouldn’t be surprised when the people who benefit take advantage of it on top of all the other factors at play. Among educated couples 90% of divorces are initiated by women. Do you really think 90% of educated men are cheating on their spouses?

  88. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Isaac, just reporting my direct experience. People I actually know. The real point is that the dedication to marriage and to each other is vanishing. Whomever initiates the divorce, there is usually plenty of garbage on both sides and some fathers feel justified in withholding child support because the children are being used as pawns.

    Alcolism, infidelity, abuse, greed, ,,,,,,, selfishness lack of extended family……

    By the way forming conclusions of human behavior from statistics is stereotyping just as generalizing from only person experience is.

  89. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Divorce destroys lives

  90. Sophia Avatar

    Thank you for this wonderful post, Father.

    I have a question…does the Orthodox understanding of the
    process of union between husband and wife see it as
    a process that precedes the marriage (I.e the two are drawn together
    by Christ) and the marriage sacrament is the ‘completion’
    of this initial drawing together and now launches them out
    as ‘one’? Or does the marriage sacrament start
    the deep process?

    I don’t mean to be overly mechanistic. I’m thinking more about
    pre-marital discernment…what the presence of Christ might look
    like between two who are discerning…

    Thank you.

  91. Mark Avatar

    Christ is in our midst!

    Dear Fr. Stephen;
    Asking your prayers. This comment is lengthy. Please bear with me.
    I’m a Canadian. I worked in the school system in the demographical locus of Vancouver’s gay community for four years. All that I struggled with in that context was exhausting.
    Working with and befriending gay persons in all manner of relationship-status and spiritual/religious conviction/afiliation; as well as struggling to journey alongside very dear Orthodox Christian friends who suffer tremendously with same-sex attraction (and all that this implies for the relational/familial life/non-life); as well as witnessing first-hand the shocking apostacy of one erstwhile extremely faithful, devout, pious Orthodox man over his challenges with same-sex attraction (and now articulately self-declared healing outside the church); as well as- predictably- more intelligent, cogent Orthodox Christian “apologies” for full eucharistic inclusion of practicing homosexuals… In all of this I have to say that I am at a loss. A heart-broken loss.
    On the one hand I cannot imagine how we could, today, commune practicing homosexuals without staggering reverberating implications for what exactly Holy Tradition means (and doens’t mean). I have to say that- along with nearly every fellow conservative Orthodox I hear speaking on this matter- the “elephant in the room” is really this ‘pious fear’. It is analogous to me in its internal fear-logic to the literalist clinging to our Creation myth. It is a fear for what all will unravel, what else will slip down the slope, if we come to see/believe/teach/allow that there is room for homosexual love exist in eucharistic life.
    Certainly there may be a deep and true theology/anthropology that undergirds the prohibition of homosexual love. However it is not from this place that I see most of the (Orthodox as well as other conservative) Christian ‘reaction/response’ coming from. It is the fear; the sort of pious fear, that it “cannot” be possible because of the dangerous implications.
    Add to this so many passions evidenced in cultural rejection of homosexual persons (I cannot possibly express the depths of the pain and wounding that homosexual friends have experienced at the calous hands and flippant tongues of my CHristian brethren), and I see it so hard to know how to “weight this one out”.

    You speak of union- but does this not beg the question?
    How do we know that no such “blessable” union can exist between two persons of the same gender? I have certainly witnessed homosexual marriages with as much love, stability, fidelity, etc. as the top 10% of heterosexual marriages (i.e. they pass the “social” test, and the “love” test).
    I struggle with the ontological argument of Michael Bauman- again it seems question-begging (in the technical sense: assuming what is trying to be proved).
    THere are so many ways in which men and women are different and alike. THese bell-curves clearly overlap the ways in which men-and-men are disssimilar, and women-and-women are dissimilar (as well as obviously similar).
    What is “maleness” and “femaleness” that makes, somehow, homosexual love not a participation in the union between otherness?
    And related to this of course is for me, the great difficulty I have with Orthodox economia extending to a *third* marriage (come on!), but under no circumstances to a homosexual “union”. I find it hard to swallow- with all I have witnessed directly on this thorny issue- that someone entering his *third* marriage (after two divorces) is in a better place to experience union than the most pious homosexual wanting to enter his first union-in-love.

    All of this said is, simply, to try to paint in some small measure my utter opacity in this matter anymore. I wonder if there is no room within the mercy and acomodations of the Orthodox pastoral approach to saving souls, for an ostensibly non-ideal marriage of penitential sorts (alike to second marriages) for some, carefully and pastorally discerned, gay couples.
    Admittedly, as I have discussed at great length with one of my closest homosexually-inclined Orthodox friends, we cannot envision how this would practically pan out. Neither, my friend admits in anguish, would this satisfy his deepest yearnings (which is for procreative sexual companionship- i.e. a lover with whom to share in creating a family.) It is the ongoing suffering- without any clear signs of relief (and in fact a contrary-case evidenced in our mutual friend who apostasized)- that makes this such a hard teaching for me to accept in peace. The cross my dear friend is asked to bear is many times greater than anything I can imagine enduring (as a man who gives thanks continually for his new marriage and who cannot now imagine my salvation outside this matrimonial mystery).

    AT least what is needed from the Church is far more mature and far deeper theological and anthropological unpacking of the- here assumed- ontological differences that preclude homosexual union. (Here, Fr Tom’s book falls woefully short. It is a wonderful “exercise manual” for those who simply nod in agreement that homosexuality is wrong. It does nothing whatever to explain this or shed light on it, thus utterly unsatisfying those who feel to their very core that they are gay and experientially fall in love with same-sex persons). In my small sliver of the world, we are losing otherwise exemplary faithful over this issue. There is no question- as you have briefly noted in the comments- that nothing like the current manifestation of homosexual relationship (i.e. between christians who want to devote themselves fiathfully to each other while worshing in church- such marriages are part of the demographic in my parents Mennoite church for example). Where is the deep and mature reflecting on this? I have not seen it (except perhaps by a few extremely thoughtful Orthodox thinkers I know who gently argue for blessing same-sex unions).
    Additionally we need a great deal more co-suffering love. Heeps and heeps of love- in the form of listenning to stories. Silently listening, secretly and discretely praying and repenting on behalf of our Christian culture for its abuses and cruelty, biogtry, etc.
    While in the end I am inclinded to believe it is not God’s will that we bless homosexual marriage (at least this is not the fullness of the Way- it is even at its best still an obstacle to theosis), I do believe that the suffering homosexuals have endured/do endure is far deeper than the “history” we (Orthodox) Christians are willing to take on, repent of, and co-suffer with.

    I would be so grateful, Father, if you would carefully unpack the precise way in which homosexual union is “ontologically” not possible- within the concious bounds of a Church pastorally allowing for some sort of (far off the mark!) union between two twice-divorced heterosexuals.

    For now, I have to dwell with my heart’s word on this matter, as painful as it is: I do not believe it is part of the fullness of the divine life that God intends for those assailed by this passion to act on it in attempted same-sex marriage. I do believe that- as unimaginably “unfair” as it is- this cross must be borne by those who have been given it with the loving support of the praying community. And we must resist the false imagery of cross-bearing meaning just sweat, blood, and toil, and rightly see this cross only as the Ressurected Life that is promised for all those who would take the narrow way. A broader culture of genuine Orthodox ascesis might make the plight of gay persons seem more plausible and understandable, less unfair and profoundly unequal to their comfortable married friends.
    Perhaps like the mystery of the inequities of wealth and poverty, it is not given for us mortals to know why some must bear a cross vastly greater than others. Yet the promise of abundant and eternal life is always there for those who patiently endure to the end.
    God grant his strength to all those so devastatingly honoured to bear this cross of same-sex attraction. My heart goes out to you! I could not hope to carry one tenth its weight; God grant the strength he promise to all those who must endure martyrdom- a crown of vitory awaits.

  92. easton Avatar

    michael, divorce does destroy lives, especially the innocent children who are caught in the middle, but growing up in a dysfunctional, stressful home physically changes the brain in children for the rest of their lives. i was fortunate to grow up in a home where my parents NEVER argued in front of us…we asked about this later and they said it was a decision they made to settle disagreements away from us children. in our fallen society, we rarely see this !

  93. Isaac Avatar


    I don’t disagree that a lot of it comes from the people involved and of course if both people saw their marriages as a cross and a path to salvation that exists in parallel to monasticism then I think we would see the divorce rate drop through the floor. My only point was that as a Christian view of marriage (western or eastern) goes away other “gods” replace the true God of Israel so we see the prominence of Mammon as a factor both in weddings (people on average spend so much more on weddings these days) and in divorce. You could say when love grows cold and people turn against each other the old gods of Mammon and even Moloch (anti-children types are legion these days)start to take their place rather than people merely existing in some kind of religious-neutral secular island.

    I think by nature feminism is an ideology of female selfishness. While it in theory only strives for equality between the genders, it in reality focuses solely on the rights of women while ignoring the responsibilities of women. This ideology has made its way into American law and only trebled the problems of marriage and family.

  94. Lina Avatar

    Michael B. I read your statement that divorce destroys lives. Yes, but God can rebuild those lives. I know, because I am divorced and God has rebuilt my life and the lives of my children who are now adults. Given the opportunity God can rebuild whatever we sinful critters manage to destroy.

    For years though I struggled through the Church seeming to proclaim that divorce seemed to be the one unforgivable sin and I felt relegated to the trash heap. What a weight that was to carry! But God in his mercy and wisdom changed all that. All lives are redeemable even divorced ones.

  95. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Lina, I well know God rebuilds lives. The incredible, beautiful woman that God has given me was divorced twice by men who cheated on her and worse. She is such a kind and giving person, a lover of God. It is quite difficult for to understand the utter blindness her ex-husbands had not to see how blessed they were.

    But God has and still is rebuilding her. It is my honor to help a little bit.

  96. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Isaac, God gave men and women equality from the beginning. In Christianity they are considered fully human.

    Feminism in its raw form is worse than just female selfishness. It aims at the degradation of women and the neutering of men.

    It breaths hatred. I still remember going to see Gloria Steinem back in the 60’s. Such graceless, pointless vulgarity I’d never before experience in my life. All she really had to recommend was that women should strive to emulate the grossest of men and that men should just **** off.. Power to the skanks.

    That such a vision should become popular with so many boggles my mind.

  97. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Sophia, I would say all three of your suggestions occur and it dies not stop progressing as long as the man and woman allow it to go on.

    Before my wife and I were married, she looked me in the eyes and said in her most loving voice: “I want you to be the spiritual head of our family”. That was about a month and a half after we met and a month before we married. It scared me silly. Still does sometimes.

    We had a deep trust and openness to one another from the git go. Our focus was as much on God as it was on each other and ourselves.

    She makes my job so easy. Given her history, for her to be so open and so trusting is amazing.

    It just keeps getting better four years in and God knows how many more we have left at age 65. I pray God every day not to violate her trust in any way in the midst of being continually thankful for bringing her into my life.

  98. mary benton Avatar
    mary benton

    I do not think of myself as a feminist but – my – I am feeling some male hostility here. (e.g. “Feminism in its raw form is worse than just female selfishness. It aims at the degradation of women and the neutering of men. It breaths hatred.”)

    While most certainly all people are equal in the eyes of God, they are not treated as such by each other. Whenever one group experiences oppression at the hands of another, there are some who will stand out as extremists in the effort to bring about change.

    Unfortunately the extremists are what some people most remember, not what they helped accomplish in terms of setting right some major wrongs. I am not defending the extremists as much as noting that there was a real problem that needed to be addressed.

  99. Sophia Avatar

    Thank you, Michael, for sharing that. God bless you and your wife, and God grant you many years!

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