Pastoral Guidelines on Holy Matrimony


A. Pre-Marital Guidance

1. Each couple must seek the blessing, guidance and advice of’ their pastor in planning and preparing for their marriage.

Pre-marital counseling is an essential pastoral responsibility. Couples are obliged to contact their parish priest before setting their own final plans and pastors, in turn, must be available to care for the members of the flocks entrusted to them. Initial counseling must include the very simple matter of establishing whether or not, in the case at hand, a marriage in the Church is possible at all. With this in mind, the pastor should begin by reviewing the following requirements with the couple:

a. They must freely consent to the marriage.

b. At least one of them must be a member of the Orthodox Church, and the other be a baptized Christian.

c. Circumstances surrounding previous marriages must be examined, and documents substantiating divorce must be presented.

d. Any legal or canonical obstacles to marriage, such as blood relationship, must be resolved.

e. The marriage date must be set for those days and seasons approved by the Church for marriage.

f. Specific local requirements of blood test, marriage license and rings and membership in the local parish should be reviewed.

In addition, pastors should make available literature that conveys the Orthodox Christian vision of marriage, such as:

St. John Chrysostom; Homily 20: Ephesians
Elchaninov, Fr. Alexander; Diary of a Russian Priest
Hopko, Fr. Thomas; The Orthodox Faith: Worship
Schmemann, Fr. Alexander; For the Life of the World
Meyendorff, Fr. John; Marriage: An Orthodox Perspective

Books can be obtained at:

St. Vladimir’s Bookstore
575 Scarsdale Road
Crestwood, New York 10707


St. Tikhon’s Religious Center
South Canaan

Pennsylvania 18459.

2. Parents should be involved in the marriage preparations of their children.

Traditionally, the first thing that children of Orthodox families do when they plan to be married is to ask the blessing of their parents. It is unnatural to exclude parents from marriage planning. Yet certain difficult cases do arise in which parents are opposed to the marriage of their children. If the children are of age, then the pastor must decide whether or not they can be married without the parents’ approval. In all cases, however, the parents should be informed of the marriage in advance and counseled appropriately, in keeping with the general principle that no sacrament of the Church is to be performed “in secret.”

3. Pastors must counsel not only those preparing for marriage, but also those having difficulty within marriage as well.

The priest’s efforts in this area can take both public and private form. He can conduct retreats and gatherings for married couples as well as provide individual counseling. In this way he can alleviate many marriage problems before they become acute and aid couples in their mutual growth in love and unity in the Lord.

B. The Ecclesial Context of Marriage

1. Pastors must make concrete efforts through preaching and teaching to make members of the Church aware of the corporate character of the sacraments.

All sacraments – marriage among them – are performed in, by and for the whole Church.

Marriage is not simply an individualistic concern, to be performed privately or in the presence of a select, invited group of people, nor is the Church merely a building or the priest simply a legally-empowered official, both to be hired or rented at an appropriate fee. St. Paul exalts our high calling as Christians with the following words: “You are the body of Christ, and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Christians realize their true fulfillment in community with one another, under the headship of Christ. Each Christian finds this fulfillment in discovering the manner in which his gifts edify and bring glory to Christ’s whole body. Conversely, it is the fullness of the body of Christ which manifests and gives concrete purpose to the gifts of the individual members, revealing them truly as gifts of the Holy Spirit. In this Spirit-filled community, the joys and sufferings of each individual member inevitably effect all other members. Couples must be made aware of this corporate nature of the Church so that they will not prepare for their marriages as though the parish community and the Church universal did not exist.

2. Couples should plan their weddings for seasons, times and days which are permitted by the Church for marriage.

Marriages are not to be performed during the four fasting seasons, on the eves of Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, or on the eves of major holy days. (The Yearbook should be consulted for the specific days on which marriages are not to be performed.) At these times, the Church community is in fasting and preparation for the Eucharist. But marriage is an occasion of great joy and celebration and therefore should be performed only at those times when the entire Church can indeed celebrate. The most appropriate time for marriage is Sunday, following the Divine Liturgy, when the whole Church is joyfully celebrating the new life given to all in and by the risen Christ.

“3. Orthodox couples must participate together in the sacraments of Confession and Communion prior to their marriage.

In addition, when possible, the rubric of the Service Book stating that marriages are to be performed after the Divine Liturgy should be followed. The abnormality of a mixed marriage is made obvious by the fact that in such a case the couple cannot partake together of the Cup of Salvation. Even in mixed marriages, however, the Orthodox party must always come to Confession and Communion as the center of his preparation for marriage and the resealing of his membership in the Church toward which he now brings his partner.

4. Concerning the order and style of performing the Marriage Service itself, pastors must follow the admonition of St. Paul: “Let all thing be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40).

a. The priest should publicly announce the date of each wedding and the names of the persons being married.

b. He may assist the couple in their preparation and understanding of marriage by conducting an explanatory wedding rehearsal.

c. He should be sure that singers are present and properly prepared to sing all weddings.

d. He should give a sermon proclaiming the true nature of Christian marriage at each wedding, drawing upon the main liturgical actions of the Marriage Service for the obvious themes.

All of the above guidelines are especially important in view of the large numbers of persons who are not members of the Orthodox Church who attend our weddings.

C. Marriage Outside the Church

1. Orthodox Christians must be married by an Orthodox priest in the Orthodox Church.

An Orthodox Christian who marries outside the Orthodox Church, i.e., in some other church or civil ceremony, forfeits his membership in the Church and may no longer receive Holy Communion.

The guiding principle for the Orthodox pastor is the call to integrate the whole life of the Church. Relative to matrimonial matters, the main question is not what is “valid” or “invalid” but what has been offered and sanctified in the life of the Church; not what is lawful and convenient in this world but what has been consecrated for perfection in the world to come. “As many as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:28). An Orthodox Christian who excludes his marriage from this gracious union with Christ in the Church certainly excludes himself from the communion of the Church.

2. The pastor should consult his diocesan bishop before taking any final action in cases involving Orthodox couples married outside the Orthodox Church.

A pastor sometimes discovers that communicant members of his parish have not been married in the Orthodox Church. Often such persons have been the victims of misinformation and/or peculiar circumstances (wartime, anti-religious civil authorities, absence of an Orthodox Church, etc.). Obviously in these cases pastors must exercise great wisdom, understanding and compassion. But pastoral concern must not be equated with human affection. Rather, the pastor must objectively assess each case and, in consultation with his bishop, determine the appropriate course of action.

Pastors at the same time are reminded that converts to Orthodoxy are not to be remarried when they enter the Orthodox Church.

D. Mixed Marriages

1. The goal of Christian marriage is the complete and perfect unity of husband and wife in God in His holy Church.

“For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall be one flesh” (Eph. 5:31), and “what God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Matt. 19:6).

This view of marriage, opposed to all religious indifference, is the basis for the canons of the Church which forbid mixed marriages. The Church does tolerate mixed marriages, i.e., marriages between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians, because of her pastoral concern and love for her faithful, and in our day such marriages are at least as numerous as marriages between two Orthodox. Yet, mixed marriages should not be considered perfectly “normal.” They are allowed, but in the hope that the heterodox husband or wife will be sanctified by the Orthodox partner in the marriage and eventually come fully to embrace the Orthodox Faith and to seek entrance into the Church.

2. Couples joined together in the Orthodox Marriage Service must be counseled to abandon all religious indifference.

Since unity in God is the ultimate basis and goal of marriage, persons involved in mixed marriages must be willing, in the spirit of love, trust and freedom, to learn about their partner’s faith. The Orthodox Church, being the final home of all who seek the fullness of grace and truth in Christ, welcomes such honest searching on the part of all men. The Orthodox partner in the mixed marriage must strive to bean exemplary Orthodox Christian in every way and must both know and be able to state why he or she does not accept the religious views of the non-Orthodox partner. In this manner the Orthodox partner can truly consecrate, as St. Paul says, his spouse into the Faith and Church. Both persons involved in a mixed marriage should pray for their unity in “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. . .” (Eph. 4:5-6). Both should agree to pray, study, discuss and seek such unity until their dying day, making no final arrangements and accommodations to the contrary.

3. The Church’s toleration of mixed marriages does not extend to those between Orthodox and non-Christians: Included in the category of “non-Christian” are:

a. Those who belong to sects not practicing baptism in the name of the Holy Trinity, such as Quakers, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Unitarians.

b. Those who now reject Christ, even though they may once have been baptized in the name of the Trinity (e.g., a convert from Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, etc., to one of the sects named above).

The Marriage Service repeatedly invokes the blessing of the Holy Trinity, and the marriage itself has the Trinity as its archetype: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons living in a perfect unity of love. The Marriage Service also repeatedly asks Christ to be present now and to bless the marriage taking place, just as at the marriage in Cana of Galilee. These expressions of the Church’s Faith cannot be reduced to empty formalities. Those who do not accept Jesus as Lord and Savior, who do not confess the Holy Trinity which His coming revealed to the world, who have not sealed this acceptance and confession in Trinitarian baptism, cannot freely and without hypocrisy accept the blessing which the Church bestows on marriage. They may not be married in the Orthodox Church.

Pastors must meet with and counsel couples in such circumstances, urging them in every way, with gentleness and love, yet with firmness and conviction, to a true and perfect union in Christ in the Church, “which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:23).

4. Active participation of non-Orthodox clergy in the services and sacraments of the Orthodox Church is forbidden; and, conversely, active participation of Orthodox clergy in non-Orthodox services and rites is forbidden.

“Active participation” includes the wearing of vestments, the reading of prayers or Scripture, the giving of blessings and the preaching of a sermon.

Even very limited participation of non-Orthodox clergy within the context of Orthodox Church services (and, conversely, Orthodox participation in non-Orthodox services) is easily misunderstood as implying that a “joint ceremony” has been performed, that a “joint service” has been celebrated.

Since mixed marriages frequently give rise to requests for such participation, pastors should be particularly vigilant in word and deed to make the Orthodox position clear on this point. In addition, Orthodox Church members should be reminded that participation in Holy Communion in any other Christian body excludes them from the communion of the Orthodox Church.

E. Second and Third Marriages

1.The Orthodox Church considers one marriage as the norm.

For this reason, men who after baptism have been married twice or are married to a widow are not accepted as candidates for the priesthood (Apostolic Canons 17 and 18). Marriage is a mystery, a permanent spiritual union which transcends the physical and which even death cannot destroy.

Therefore the canons of the Church, e.g., canon 2 of St. Basil the Great, impose a penance on widows or widowers who remarry. St. Paul, however, recommends that widows and widowers remarry if their loneliness undermines their spiritual welfare: “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should remarry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion” (1 Cor. 7:8-9).

On this basis the Church permits remarriage and bestows on it an appropriate blessing.

2. The “Order of Second Marriage” as contained in the Service Book is to be used when both partners are entering a second marriage.

3. While tolerating a second marriage and in certain cases a third, the Church completely forbids a fourth marital union.

Orthodox practice on this point is governed by the “Tome of Union” of the Council of Constantinople in 920 A. D., which altogether rejects fourth marriage and permits third marriage, with a heavy penance, only to those under 40 years of age, unless they have no children from their preceding marriages.

F. Divorce and Remarriage

1. The Lord Himself specifically condemned divorce:

“Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9).

The Church and her pastors must do all that is possible to counsel her members against divorce. The Church does not allow divorce any more than she allows sin; she does not permit something which the Lord Himself has specifically condemned.

The Church can and does practice mercy and forgiveness, and sympathizes with couples who must consider the grave alternative of divorce in order to salvage their lives from the tragic circumstances of a broken marriage. In such painful situations the Church offers the opportunity for repentance and forgiveness and the possibility for a new beginning, with final judgment resting in the hands of the Lord. In such cases local pastors must try to limit the damage done to the spiritual lives of both the couple and their children.

2. The permission to remarry according to the “Order of Second Marriage” may eventually be granted divorced persons.

When persons who have obtained a civil divorce seek clarification of their status in the Church, the priest must write a report of the entire matter to the local diocesan bishop. He must state clearly his analysis of the situation and make concrete suggestions for action by the bishop. In his analysis he must consider not only the formal status, but also the total spiritual condition of the persons involved. The final hierarchical decision, which may accept, reject, or modify the local pastor’s suggestions, will also give the reasons behind the decision. A period of penance may be imposed on one or both partners of a marriage that has ended in divorce.

G. Marriage and Family Life

1. The Orthodox Church rejects views of marriage which are based on self-gratification.

Marriages based on self-gratification exclude Christ, His Cross and Resurrection. They deny that marriage must be the living image of the relationship between Christ and His Church: all-encompassing, unique and eternal.

“Open marriages” and “contract marriages,” for example, both presuppose that marriage is merely a partial and limited human arrangement belonging to this world. In such alliances each spouse picks and chooses from the other certain self-gratifying aspects of life – sex, economic security, clearly defined companionship and/or mutual assistance – and bases the marital relationship on them. The “open marriage” in particular gives full vent to the fallen search for self-gratification and propels couples on an endless quest for new sexual partners, thereby depriving marriage of its fundamental uniqueness.

2. No form of sexual relationship fulfills human life as created and sanctified by God except the relationship between one man and one woman in the community of marriage.

In our present moral confusion, sex in particular has been isolated from the responsibilities of a total marital union of heart and mind, body, soul, and spirit. Sex has become an end in itself and is proclaimed as such in the philosophy of individualism and self-indulgence which daily bombards us.

This philosophy reduces marriage to an alleged hypocrisy: the obtaining of a “piece of paper” in order to make sex legal. The result is a multitude of sexual attitudes and life-styles which include couples openly living together and/or engaging in sexual relations outside the community of marriage and supposedly finding complete satisfaction and fulfillment in this arrangement.

Such a view of sex and love is degrading and inadequate to the human being as created in the image and likeness of God. God created man and woman not to use each other, but to love and live for each other freely and completely in the community of marriage, reflecting the divine image and likeness in the complementarity manifested in their union. However great its importance and however central it might be in gauging the depths of the fall of man and the subsequent distortion of God’s image within him, sex is still but one of the aspects of human life. In God, by virtue of the saving work of Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, we as human beings are bound and determined by nothing, sex included. All biological determinism has been shattered. Death is overcome. The power of sin has been defeated. God has become man that man might again live and dwell in God. In Him we enjoy the gracious freedom of the Spirit, the Spirit of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22). This is the very opposite of the works of the flesh, which St. Paul identifies as: “immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like” (Gal. 5:19-20). In Christ and by the Holy Spirit the human being is again restored to his original wholeness of body, soul, heart, mind and spirit.

In Holy Matrimony husband and wife are brought to realize true unity in all its fullness, a unity which takes into account all aspects of human life, and not just sex. The prayers of the Marriage Service ask that the marriage bed be kept honorable and undefiled: again, that it be the very image of the unique relationship between the Bridegroom, Christ, and His beloved and holy Bride, the Church. The prayers likewise ask that the couple be blessed to live together in purity, to walk according to the commandments of God, to share a perfect and peaceful love, to grow in oneness of mind and steadfastness of faith, and that they be given every needful heavenly and earthly blessing, so that they in turn might give to those in need. By taking into consideration the entire human being, the Church affirms that the giving of a man and a woman to each other in sexual relations finds its perfect and most fulfilling setting in the total, divinely sanctified love which is the center of Christian marriage.

Love which is partial, unsacrificial, non-committal and rooted in lust is really not love, for “God is love” (I John 5:8), and God has revealed Himself in the irrevocable, self-abandoning condescension of His Son, even to the humiliating death on the Cross, and the gracious and all-pervading outpouring of His Holy Spirit, who is “everywhere and filling all things.” The holy apostle Paul obviously has this divine manifestation of true love in mind when he writes: “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in the wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. . .” (1 Cor. 13:4-8), Such is the love on which Christian marriage is based: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her . . .” (Eph. 5:25)

H. Birth Control

1. The greatest miracle and blessing of the divinely sanctified love of marriage is the procreation of children, and to avoid this by the practice of birth control (or, more accurately, the prevention of conception) is against God’s will for marriage.

The love of God has been manifested in His loving creation of the world, and the divinely sanctified love of marriage -a love filled with the life-creating Spirit-brings forth the fruit of children, to be cared for by parents as the greatest of God’s gifts – the gift of life.

The Marriage Service establishes an inseparable link between marriage and the begetting of children. In the litanies, petitions asking for the procreation of fair children immediately follow those invoking a blessing upon the couple being joined in the community of marriage. The same relationship is expressed in all three of the great prayers of the Service. Thus we pray: Give them offspring in number like unto full ears of grain, so that having enough of all things, they may abound in every work that is good and acceptable unto Thee. Let them see their children’s children, like olive shoots around their table, so that finding favor in Thy sight, they may shine like stars of heaven, in Thee our God.

Orthodox Christians must not allow themselves to be manipulated by the abstract calculations of statisticians regarding such matters as the population explosion and the need for birth control and family planning. The Church is aware of the complexities which can arise in life due to social, medical and economic problems, but she still affirms that statistics do not reflect God’s loving and providential care and inconceivable manner of bringing about the salvation of the world. Preoccupation with statistics can depersonalize us and our co-creativity with God in the begetting of children. The goal of the Christian life is the accomplishment of God’s will, which may involve the begetting of children.

2. In all the difficult decisions involving the practice of birth control, Orthodox families must live under the guidance of the pastors of the Church and ask daily for the mercy and forgiveness of God.

Orthodox husbands and wives must discuss the prevention of conception in the light of the circumstances of their own personal lives, having in mind always the normal relationship between the divinely sanctified love of marriage and the begetting of children. Conception control of any sort motivated by selfishness or lack of trust in God’s providential care certainly cannot be condoned.

I. Abortion

1. Abortion is condemned as a form of murder.

The teaching of the Orthodox Church is well expressed by canon 91 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council. Those who give drugs for procuring abortion, and those who receive poisons to kill the fetus, are subjected to the penalty for murder.

The willful aborting of unborn children, as an act of murder, is contrary to the will of God. The unborn child is human life with potential, and not potential human life. The Church recognizes the existence of certain extreme cases in which difficult moral decisions must be made in view of saving human life, and fully sympathizes with those who must make such decisions. Such an extreme circumstance is the definitely diagnosed danger to the life of the mother at childbirth. The mother must decide whether to lay down her own life for that of her unborn child. Whatever the decisions of human legislatures and courts, the Church cannot accept the willful destruction of an unborn child at any stage of its development as anything other than the destruction of life.


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