Marriage and the Christian Family

Transient

Children are brought up in a Christian home in the context of marriage. It may seem a digression to speak about marriage when we are here to speak about children, but it is more a question of setting right the foundations before going ahead with the building. If parents' understanding of marriage is distorted, or if their inspiration is not directed towards their home life, their children suffer directly. Secondly, children must see in their parents an example for their own marriages later on.

In church circles, one can very often hear discussions comparing monasticism with marriage, and one has the impression from what some people say that they despise either monasticism or marriage. Children suffer when their parents are not wholehearted about marriage and family life. So I would like to emphasize that marriage is a way of salvation. Discussions comparing marriage and monasticism are rarely profitable. Each person must find his own path of salvation by asking God to show him which path is best for him– and "work out his salvation" (Phil 2:12) in the circumstances God has given him. We compromise our salvation not by choosing one way of life or another, but by falling away from the will of God concerning ourselves personally. No one is permitted to become a monk because he despises marriage; no one should marry and scorn monasticism.

Christ's words about monasticism show that He considers it a way of life not accessible to everyone (Matt 19:11). Why it is so, is a mystery for us- the mystery of God's freedom and our freedom. We have His word as authority, divine authority and blessing, to support married life: "But from the beginning of creation, God 'made them male and female.' For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one.' So they are no longer two but one" (Mark 10:6-8).

Christ's first miracle was the changing of the water into wine at the wedding in Cana; from the marriage service of our Church we see that this is considered a sign of God's blessing upon marriage. God Himself has given mankind marriage as a sacrament and as a way of life; this means that it is a way of salvation, a way leading to eternal life. Christ did not command monasticism as a general rule- His commandment is that we love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, and one another as our ourselves. The question for Christians who are already married and raising children is not: "How can I reduce to a bare minimum my family obligations so as to be 'free' to lead a 'more spiritual' life'?" It is rather: "How should I nurture within my family life my love for God and my neighbor?"

A spiritual father was asked by a married man: "How can I, living in the world, dwell in the presence of God?" The Elder answered: "Do everything as one cooperating in God's work." To be a fellow worker with God in the task of marriage and bringing up Christian children is a grandiose and holy role.

Christian life is life in the image of God in three Persons- life together with others. It is very rare that someone is cast into complete solitude, or called by God into the desert; then he is obliged to live in isolation. For most of us Christian life means life in a community of one kind or another- and hermits themselves usually have to pass even decades in a community before living alone. As St. Silouan put it: "My brother is my life." A married person can say- and it is the only theologically correct way to live -"My wife (or husband) and children are my life. They are the content of my life; it is living with them that I must learn Christ-like love." The criterion of my spiritual health is this: what is the state of the relations between me and those with whom I live? No other criterion is higher. Family life is the measuring stick of Christian progress for those who live in the world.

All you learn about marriage, all your work for your marriage, is work for the salvation of your children, and this is not something small, but something which is of eternal value.

We cannot have a better guide than Holy Scripture for family life. I warmly recommend you to reread often the words of the holy Apostles, for instance, about family life, and to take them seriously, as the word of God, relevant in every epoch. When we read Scripture we should pray to God, and to the author of a particular book, to help us understand and apply to our own life what we read. There is much to guide and inspire married Christians, especially in the first epistle of St. Peter, and St. Paul's letters to the Corinthians and Ephesians.

"Marriage is honorable in all things, and the marriage-bed undefiled" (Heb 13:4). Many people today consider sexual relations far too lightly. At worst, all kinds of perversion and lust are encouraged by contemporary ethical standards. Or there are people who do try to promote a Christian attitude to marriage even in its most intimate aspects, yet at the same time are ready to denigrate virginity. Then there are married Christians who deny their spouses full conjugal relations because of an illusory vocation to live in purity, whereas St. Paul says that married couples should abstain by mutual consent and in order to give themselves with more concentration to prayer for a season (1 Cor 7:5), Sometimes this latter I problem- for it does create a host of problems for everyone involved- occurs because someone is converted, or comes closer to Christ, after marriage. St. Paul's teaching is that the marriage should continue if the non-believer is willing to accept the Christian partner. In such a case the Christian partner has a great responsibility before God for his conduct towards his spouse and family. A genuine conversion or spiritual progress leads a married Christian to live family life with a more selfless love, with more desire to make the partner's life comfortable. (We cannot take exceptional cases such as St. Alexios, "the man of God," as a general example.) Unfortunately, what often happens is that the Christian starts to preach, or stops showing interest in anything "worldly." St. Peter says that "without a word" (1 Pet 3:1) the behavior of a Christian wife may bring a non-believing husband to the Lord. When we receive a revelation from God, we must remember the Mother of God who "kept all these sayings in her heart" (Luke 2:51). 

Transient

And as the Mother of God sought confirmation from her cousin Elizabeth after the wondrous event of the Annunciation, so we do not guide ourselves, but we seek confirmation from our spiritual father.

One can advise those who would like to be married to ask God to find for them a husband or wife with whom they could live a Christian life and bring up their children as Christians.

Source: Sr. Magdalen, 1999, Children in the Church Today: an Orthodox Perspective, SVS Press, New York, pp. 11-16.