A Brief Description of the Interfaith Marriage Challenge

By Rev. Fr. Charles Joanides, Ph.D., LMFT

Source: Greek Orthodox Archdiocese

According to Archdiocesan statistics, the number of interfaith marriages conducted in our churches has increased nine fold over the past half century (Counelis, 1989). What this means is that approximately two of every three (66%) marriages conducted in our churches over the past several decades have been inter-Christian (Counelis, 1989; Archdiocese Yearbook, 1999). In addition, if we were to consider the number of young adults who are choosing to marry outside of our churches, some estimates suggest that as many as 80% of our adults are intermarrying (Harakas, 1997).

Obviously, these trends have been of some concern to the Archdiocese’s leadership for some time (Harakas, 1997), and some initial steps have previously been made to address the interfaith marriage challenge (Wingenbach, 1996). Under the direction of His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, the Archdiocese has recently taken a quantum leap in this direction, and decided to systematically undertake an examination of interfaith marriages across the Archdiocese as a first step effort in developing a meaningful ministry to this growing population. Moreover, while very few people would quibble with this decision, implementing a meaningful interfaith ministry may be easier said then don, since such a ministry must seek to strike a balance between what pastoral adjustments are possible, and what changes the Church’s faithful are prepared to embrace.

This article will attempt to describe some of these challenges. In an effort to accomplish this objective, this article will succinctly discuss (a) what Holy Tradition has stated about interfaith marriages from a scriptural, canonical and historical perspective, (b) consider the theological concept of economia, and (c) list some of the challenges/caveats that the Interfaith Research Project (IRP) has begun to identify. By following this basic outline it is anticipated that the reader will begin to gain a deeper understanding of the complex nature of this challenge. It is also hoped that the reader will acquire a keener perception of what adjustments the Church must consider making in its efforts to enhance its out-reach to this growing segment of its membership.

Scripture, the Canons, and Church History

The Orthodox Church has essentially held to the position that intra-Orthodox marriages are strongly preferred to inter-Christian and inter-religious marriages (Constantelos, 1997; Harakas, 1997). It has also determined that intra-Orthodox marriages have a more favorable impact on the well being of its marriages’ religious and spiritual development as compared to inter-Christian and inter-religious marriages (Constantelos, 1997; Patsavos, 1997). By supporting intra-Orthodox marriages the church has maintained that such a position will ensure its continued survival at both a micro level (or the local church level) and the macro level (or the Diocesan & Archdiocesean level) (Stylianopolos, 1997).

These basic pastoral assumptions and presuppositions have not materialized out of thin air, however, but are grounded upon Scripture, Church history, and canon law (Patsavos, 1997). For example, a careful examination of Holy Scripture indicates that the concept of intrafaith marriage (single faith marriage) is supported, while interfaith and inter-religious marriage are generally rejected (Stylianoloulos, 1997). In addition, when the few canons that concern themselves with intermarriage are reviewed, these canons generally either discourage interfaith, inter-religious marriages or condemn them outright (Constantelos, 1997; Patsavos, 1997). And finally, while it is true that church history does clearly reveals that inter-Christian, inter-religious marriages (henceforth termed interfaith marriages in this article) occurred throughout its history. It is equally true that the church’s history also indicates that these types of marriages were always few in number, were essentially confined to the upper classes, and carried with them some degree of social and/or religious stigma (Constantelos, 1997).

The Theological Concept of Economia

With the steady increase in the number of interfaith marriages occurring between Orthodox Christians and non-Orthodox around the world, the Orthodox Church in recent years has tended to rethink and modify its position regarding interfaith marriages through the use of economia i.e., a type of theological tolerance which is sometimes utilized for pastoral reasons. Briefly, the concept of economia is sometimes utilized to meet the pastoral needs of the Church’s faithful. In these instances it is deemed that the continued application of certain canons/rules may be functioning to do its faithful more harm then good in their efforts to “take hold of the eternal life” (I Tim 6:12) to which God’s Church calls them. As such, the Church tends to relax and/or modify its pastoral guidelines in an effort to facilitate the process of sanctification for its faithful (Constantelos, 1997; Patsovos, 1997).

Depending on the perceived pastoral needs of a given autocephelous Orthodox Church, more leniency has thus been shown toward interfaith marriages throughout the Orthodox world. For example, “the Russian and other Orthodox churches in Europe and the Near East do not refuse the Sacraments to an Orthodox spouse married to a non-Orthodox, [or] even to a non-Christian” (Constantelos, 1997, p. 69). And finally, since the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese falls under the direct jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, it should be noted here that Constantinople has decidedly impacted the position of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America with regards to interfaith marriages (Stephanopoulos, 1997).

Some Challenges that the IRP has begun to Identify

In light of the recent flexibility that some segments of the Church have exhibited toward interfaith marriages, some theologians and scholars have strongly urged the Orthodox Church in America to rethink its present pastoral approaches toward interfaith marriages (Constantelos, 1997; Gratsias, 1997; Harakas, 1997; Krommydas, 1997; Patsavos, 1997; Scourby, 1997).

Together with this body of work, as previously indicated above, an Interfaith Research Project (IRP) has recently been commissioned by the Archdiocese. This project’s initial and primary objective has been to document the lived experiences and challenges of interfaith couples who worship in our churches. By documenting interfaith couple’s lived experiences and challenges it is anticipated that this information will positively impact the Church’s efforts to rethink and retool some of its pastoral approaches to the interfaith marriages/families that attend our Churches.

According to those who have participated in the IRP to date, the following points are indicative of the challenges that interfaith couples perceive the Church (at all levels) should be considering. They are offered below as a way to compliment the previous work and discussions that have occurred regarding this challenge. By offering this additional information, it is also anticipated that the Church’s ministry to its interfaith couples and their families will be richly enhanced by a key voice that has up until now been conspicuously absent.

  • Increased Respect and Tolerance for Diversity. When the Church (at either the local, regional or national level) ignores the diverse social and religious milieu in which it is embedded, and espouses and promotes exclusivistic, ethnocentric and nationalistic policies, such an approach can potentially give interfaith couples the impression that the Church is irrelevant, insensitive, and out-of-step. As such, results from the IRP indicate that if the Church hopes to effectively reach-out to its interfaith couples/families, then it must begin rethinking its position regarding ethnicity and culture.
  • Religious Education and Interfaith Couples. Just as single faith and single cultural couples want the church to assist them in their efforts to inculcate their children with a moral and religious foundation, interfaith couples desire the church to help them with this parental responsibility. Sunday School programs, retreats, and Christ-centered youth groups that are designed to help their children develop a Christian moral and religious perspective tend to be valued (and expected) by this group of faithful. Furthermore, results from the IRP indicate that when the local church fails to provide a strong youth program, interfaith couples who have baptized their children in the Greek Orthodox church may consider meeting some of these needs in the non-Orthodox spouses’ faith community. Results also suggest that the Church (at all levels) must expend more money and resources in its efforts to improve its youth programs, otherwise many of these types of parents many consider other avenues in their efforts to meet their children’s religious needs.
  • Integrating Interfaith Concepts into Religious Educational Materials and Youth Programs. Church group activities and educational materials have generally failed to broach the subject of interfaith marriage with our children, and/or communicated subtle messages that non-Greek and non-Orthodox backgrounds are less important. In the Church’s efforts to reach out to interfaith/intercultural couples, the Church must find ways of infusing future Sunday School materials with a balanced respect for Hellenism and other ethnic/cultural traditions. In addition, youth groups such as JOY and GOYA should be making more conscious efforts to (a) respectfully acknowledge our faithfuls’ religious and cultural diversity, (b) foster tolerance, acceptance, and respect for all those who worship in our churches, and (c) begin respectfully introducing adolescents to the complex topic of interfaith marriage.
  • Interfaith Couple’s Children. Most interfaith couples desire that their children be exposed to both parents’ ethnic backgrounds. As such, many of these types of parents desire and would likely support church programs/activities that afford interfaith couples the opportunity to expose their children to Greek culture. What will be challenging for the Church, however, is finding ways of accomplishing this latter task without appearing too ethnocentric, since interfaith parents tend to be leery of programs/activities that are too ethnocentric.
  • The Non-Orthodox Spouse. The Church will also be challenged to find fresh, new, creative ways to include non-Orthodox into its religious and social life without necessarily violating the church’s canons and/or being disrespectful to its Hellenic background. One of the main reasons why the Church will want to consider doing this is correlated with family commitment and support. To be more specific, results from the IRP suggest that when the Church makes it easier for non-Orthodox to meet their religious and social needs, it increases the likelihood that interfaith couples will attend/support our churches together and with more frequency.
  • Non-Orthodox and Conversion. The Church will be challenged to find respectful ways to assist non-Orthodox spouses in their efforts to consider conversion to the Orthodox Church. While it is true that many non-Orthodox spouses are non-Orthodox by choice, and the Church should respect this decision. Respondents observations from the IRP suggest that a sizable minority of non-Greek Orthodox spouses that come to our churches might consider conversion if they were respectfully approached with the idea.
  • Theological Symposiums. By virtue of an interfaith marriage’s religious and cultural differences, these types of marriages often have different needs and challenges than single faith marriages. In an effort to address these needs, theological symposiums should be convened that are designed to examine interfaith marriage and family issues. These conferences/discussions should gather our best and brightest stakeholders (such as theologians, physicians, social scientists, and others) in an effort to help the Church develop a more profound understanding of if/how its present pastoral approaches can be modified. For example, it may be that the Church’s present rules pertaining to interfaith marriages are creating marital conflict and division in interfaith marriages. Discerning how this may be systemically occurring, and trying to make some systemic modifications may serve to positively impact these types of couples/families relationship with our Churches.
  • Myths regarding Interfaith Marriage. The Archdiocese must continue to proactively address pejorative ideas and remarks about interfaith couples and their families, and clearly label them as inappropriate and unchristian. Myths that are not empirically supported such as “interfaith marriages end in divorce” and “children from interfaith marriages will end up with no religious and cultural identity,” compel some interfaith couples to reconsider if there is a place for them our churches.
  • Premarital Counseling for Interfaith Couples. Local churches will be challenged to provide premarital counseling that is uniquely tailored toward meeting the needs of interfaith couples. This process can respectfully help couples understand what interfaith & intercultural challenges they may encounter as (a) individuals, (b) spouses, and (c) families if they choose to remain in an interfaith marriage as compared to an intrafaith couple.
  • Continued Follow-up after Marriage. Continued contact with interfaith marriages after marriage is also a key challenge to local Church’s efforts in their attempt to keep these types of marriages meaningfully connected. Information from the IRP suggests that these types of couples are more vulnerable to being marginalized and/or dropping out. Finding better ways of staying connected with these couples after marriage until they bond with our communities is a vital challenge that must be addressed and resolved.
  • Utilizing More English. Wherever possible more English in and outside of the services should be encouraged. In short, according to interfaith couples responses who participated in the IRP, the use of English sends messages to interfaith couples that they are “accepted” and the use of “too much Greek” makes non-Orthodox feel like “outsiders.”
  • Improving Adult Catectetical Program. As a result of the increasingly secular society in which interfaith couples are embedded, the church must continually strive to increase and improve its adult catechetical program/classes. Generally speaking, results from the IRP suggest that cradle Greek Orthodox Christians do not know their Orthodox faith. The Church must find new and creative ways of sharing Orthodox faith and worship with this population of faithful. Continued ignorance of Orthodoxy will simply result in attenuating interfaith spouses’/couples’/children’s connections to our Churches.
  • Extended Family Problems. Interfaith couples’ decision to enter into interfaith marriages can sometimes create extended family problems: especially within Greek Orthodox family systems. Pastors and lay leaders should be sensitive to this and wherever possible seek to help extended Greek Orthodox family/parents understand and be more accepting of an interfaith couple’s decision to intermarry.

Conclusion

As this article has succinctly indicated, while no one would argue that something must be done to address the interfaith marriage challenge, the question remains if certain needed changes will be adopted and implemented. Previous thinkers have advocated change in the Church’s current pastoral guidelines. Furthermore, results from the IRP compliment what has previously been written and challenge us all to consider change. And finally, results from the IRP also suggest that the manner in which the church chooses to respond to these couples in the near future will, not only determine their level of support and commitment to our churches, but will impact their children and children’s children support and commitment. By embracing this challenge and viewing it as an opportunity for growth, this ministry will assist the Church in its efforts to segue into the 21st century as a growing, healthy, holy witness: to God’s glory. Amen.