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Alexander Μ. Stavropoulos
Professor of the University οf Athens

Marriage and the family: Models and comparisons within the orthodox tradition

Paper presented at the IVth Hellenic-Iranian Symposium, which took place in Athens in the Old Amphitheatre of Athens Medical School, University of Athens, 12-13 November 1997 with the title: “Family and Family Values in the Islamic and the Christian (Orthodox) World” (english translation: Marina Robb). For the needs of the symposium I transcribed composed thoughts that Ι have set down from time to time developing the Orthodox teaching about marriage and the family.

Models and Comparisons
Man moves through life always having need of examples, models, standards, ideals, and comparisons. He has to find support somewhere in order to see or understand something else. From the familiar he proceeds to the dissimilar and gradually draws near to and perceives that which is distant. He uses this way of his own accord. Man attempts to perceive the unknown through the known that which is distant through that which is near. Τhe phrases: as, as if, such as, like, in the manner of, are the order of the day. He uses the same methοd when he wants to make the same things understandable to others. The meaning of the model or of comparisons does not only serve the understanding of another thing but it is laid down as a target to be aimed at and accomplished. In addition, in the latter case, we are obliged to find the suitable means to achieve it.

That is to say, when we, in the Orthodox tradition, want to determine what marriage and the family is we may speak of and use the expression where, marriage and the family is defined as a little church or as a mystery of love. St. John Chrysostom says «and the home is a little church» or «also a mystery of love». Confirmations simply do nοt remain. 1t is either one thing or the other. At the same time an order, a command, an intention is raised. «Make your home a church». «The home is a Church made up of men and women». The way the matter is dealt with does not allow for objections: «Do not think that for you the man to be alone or for her the woman to be alone is an obstacle». “Wherever there are two gathered together in my name,” He says, “I am there in the midst of them”. If some one becomes hesitant or surprised by the height of the thing put before him, despite this the surprise is turned into a demand, to a disposition of will to find the means, the way. He heard that marriage is a «mystery of love» and that St. John Chrysostom locates the mysterious character of marriage within love. He is not satisfied with this he is perplexed and asks: «We have heard that we should love; we seek to learn how to accomplish this» (St. Basil the Great). Τhe comparison proves him to the likeness and he asks himself how he will manage it.

I am obliged at this point to point out that the models may alternate and one may indicate the other and vice versa. 1n all that we have said thus far it seems that the type, model of marriage and the family is the Church and therefore worthy of imitation. At the same time marriage is a «mystery and type of a great thing». « 1t is a type of the Church and of Christ» stresses St. John Chrysostom. He even reaches the point where he argues that when a man and a woman come together, «when they congress they are not an image without a soul, neither an image of something on the earth, but that made by God», they depict God himself. This alternation of models is wonderfu1. The above can also be found in the Old Testament. Marriage in the Old Testament symbolises God's relationship with his people, « ... the comparison of the relations between God and people, with marriage» are commonplace. (Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah and others).

It is characteristic that while in the Old Testament marriage symbolises the love and relationship of God towards Israel, in the New Testament the love of Christ towards the Church constitutes the model (image) of the love of a husband towards his wife. It is this that is characterised as alternation. Besides, the procedure of the coming and going of models is well-known. Α two-way communication functions so that one model can be transferred and applied in another area, on another level. Thus, we move from the material to the spiritual, from the soul to the body and so on. The same thing occurs with the concept «father». We are usually flattered to think that the concept of God the father was founded on natural paternity. Whereas St. Paul the Apostle is categorical. Α genuine paternal model is the manifold form of God-the Father «from whom the whole family (Gk. patria) on heaven and earth is named» (Eph. 3:15). The examples could be greatly added to from other areas of life apart from marriage.

The two unions
Let us return to the two unions that we mentioned: man-woman, Christ-Church. One unity surrounds the other. The mystery of the union of a man and a woman anticipates the great mystery, at the same time both a secret and enigma, which, as we saw, in the Orthodox tradition is called a «mystery of love».

Living within marriage that is a mystery of love, the man and the woman are called to open up to the dimensions of the Church and to build their own little church together. This opening is an interesting proposition that can mark out many paths in the area of the family. In this area of life, the Church realises the characteristics of herself in a particular way. In the Creed they are defined is a distinct way. «I believe» we say, «in one, holy, apostolic and catholic Church, since we have declared the same faith in God in Trinity. This is not a chance bond, but it depicts deep states, such as unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity, which do not only define the Church, but marriage and the family too, since marriage is a «little church». In this way the couple is called to be marked out in a many dimensional being.

The dimensions of the Church, i.e. unity, holiness, apostolicity and catholicity, become openings of the little church, with targets the deep unity of man and wife, the close bond between the couple and God (holiness), which does not have just a moral meaning here. We should understand holiness at this point by its biblical meaning, where holy is that which is set apart to be dedicated somewhere. That is to say that it has an ontological import and not a moral one. Besides, that is why the people of God were set apart. Thus the couple is holy, since they are set apart. This special twosome is bound to another union, as happens with the Holy Trinity. With the concept of catholicity we define the couple's connection with all the other couples, when they create another type of relationship within the framework of deep unity. Finally, with the concept of apostolicity we denote the couple going out into the world, when the produce children and other works of love, thus utilising, and not hiding, the talent of love which they hold. I would like us to hold on to the concept of a marriage as a «little church».

Marriage has, then, four basic targets, unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity, which are a whole life program. Α program that is not theoretical, but rather has much engagement in the personal life of the couple, as well as with others. This opening- attainment is not something that is achieved in just one single moment, «once and for all» that is automatically accomplished by the reading of a church service, neither does it depend on the disposition of the two participants. It is a life program, as I said, a long-term one, which never ends at any time or in any place and its beginning, should be found well before the point that looks like the starting point. That is to say, it is a struggle as the ancient sophist Antiphon said: «marriage is a great struggle (Gk.agon) for man». That is to say it concerns a mobilisation to exertion, where we must achieve certain things struggle that does not only have rights and demands, but obligations too.

Married saints and monastic ideals
This theological truth is not an empty letter, without a response on the part of the faithful. This theology becomes a truth incorporated and lived out first and foremost with the existence of married saints. The whole history of the Church and especially our Orthodox hagiography makes us see that their marriages in one way or another became «a place of theology» and theophany.

Throughout all the centuries of the pastoral practice of the Church occupied itself with showing the couple that path, accompanying them in the manifold relations in that they should open themselves to. The truth in the Church is always proposed in order to be lived out. That is why marriage and the family is a pre-eminent object of ecclesial pastoral care. «Flesh from her f1esh,» the little Church is incorporated within the Church like a living cell. Thus it is rediscovered by its natural surrounding of increase and propulsion. Placed within the great mystery of the Church by means of the sacrament (mystery) of marriage, the little church is developed and grows within the life of the Church, which is given life by the Holy Spirit. Thus the couple has the ability to advance day by day in their spiritual life that is not a life immaterialised but is lived out right before the Holy Spirit. And surely preserves all the characteristics of traditional Orthodox spirituality. They participate in the life of the Eucharist and of worship, exercising the virtues within the whole breadth of human dynamism having a feeling for the presence of God. They have an intense consciousness of the relative and non-absolute character of their bond and foretaste the Kingdom. They leave no aspect uncultivated. Neither the liturgical, mystical aspect, nor the ascetic, nor even the eschatological aspect.

They may even adopt the principles of the so-called monastic virtues: of obedience, as obedience to everydayness, of virginity, as moderation and of poverty as being poor in Spirit. It is easily understood that within such a spiritual climate ah aspects of married life: social, biological, sexual etc. are sanctified in their fullness. Certainly we should ask ourselves here if this «manifold opening» of the couple constitutes a real propulsion or burden?

The undertaking is difficult; the targets have no end. How can you put unity, holiness, catholicity and apostolicity of your marriage and your family into practice? You are bound to a task whose aims are unlimited.

However, this task is familiar; it is not alien to us. Now is the time to remember that by proposing the Church as a model for the little church we touch upon the fundamental ecclesiality of marriage, which is considered to be a symbolic image of the Church. Tradition does not propose that spouses attain an objective goal outside of themselves. They are invited to build their little domestic Church. It is more important to keep the dynamic view of the model, a view that presents the Church as an unfinished building, i.e. as something still happening, extending itself into time and space. The acquisition of the characteristics of the Church by the little church is obviously a long and continuous process. On their journey the spouses will always achieve temporary goals. Here the image that is put before us by the etymology of the word «telos» (τέλος, i.e. end, goal, fulfilment, completion, perfection) in the ancient Greek language could give us some idea about these ends within give us some idea about these ends without ends, the unending end. The word «telos» comes from the root word that defines the point in the field where the farmer makes a half turn in order to open a new furrow. The image speaks for itself. It allows us to see a wealth of terminals, which are at the same time new starting points.

Such a dynamic view of the model may certainly make as more realistic when confronting various difficulties and more optimistic in our tendency for the better on our journey. Whereas, contrarily, a static view of the ideal could even discourage us from taking the first step.

Certainly is not the time right now •to talk about the difficulties in the realisation of the model. Difficulties on the one part that are a consequence of the spreading of the Orthodox message about marriage; and on the other part difficulties obstacles that the couple must jump over to receive that message and to transcribe it to everyday life. They are hindered by pressures of a personal order and by ties to the social surroundings that they belong to.

It is true that couples undergo some difficulty in recognising the dimensions of the Church and their indicators within their own marriage. From one point of view the situation within society has become annoying for all those who want to work towards the little church; the state sometimes burdens this hazard by promoting various law proposals, whose seriousness is questionable.

Familial-ecclesial model of pastoral care.
Here the Church can play a primary and leading role, which, when it calls the family a little church keeps the role of the great family for itself. Whether we want it or not the ecclesial model is, if you will allow me the expression, «familial- familiocratic».

God is Father, the Logos of God is Son and the Church is called «Mother Church». The Virgin Mary is not only the Mother of God but also the mother of us all. The priest is called father, the abbess as mother and the presbytera (priest's wife) is known in Russia as «little mother» (matushka). We do really find ourselves before a «family constellation» when we want to describe the relationships between Christians within the Church. Besides, it is not by chance that we are called brothers and sisters in Christ, with Christ himself as the first-born brother, who is the Way leading us to the Father. Our Lord Himself said «Whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother» (Math. 12:50).


This, of course, entails various obligations but also rights. The bishop, the priest and the members of the parish must take on, even supplementary, the role of the family. This great big family takes it upon itself to cure the weak and sick and to supplement that which is missing from the little family. This does not mean that it replaces or substitutes the natural family. It will try to add to, but also to remind, the little family, that its place is with the great family of the Church. From this viewpoint whatever offer of help and pastoral support is established ecclesiologically and opens itself to the dimensions of the Church.

Certainly, at the end of this paper, and having analysed in succession, as much as the timescale of our symposium allowed for our subject, we should ask ourselves how much we can explain a world that becomes more and more complicated, remaining with the old models. It is a difficult question. The answer is indubitably eased when the necessary attention is given to the f1exibility and the dynamism of the model put forward by tradition. Something that is demonstrative as shown by its history of after types and comparisons.

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