Orthodoxy Today
Smart Parenting XVII. Love and Worship in the Domestic Church – Of God or Idols?

I am the Lord your God … You shall have no other gods before me (Exdus 20:2–3).

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house … (Dueteronomy 6:4–7).

Jeremiah the prophet (4 Kings 19:19) reminds us: “…Thou, O Lord, art God alone.” How many who call themselves Christians, let alone Orthodox-Catholic Christians, live their lives according to Jeremiah’s insight that the Lord God is God alone, and according to the commandment that we are not to have any other gods before the Lord God?

The Domestic Church or “Little Church” in the Home

The existence of home churches dates from apostolic times. In his instruction to the Romans (16:3:5) St. Paul says: “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus … greet also the church in their house.” To the Corinthians (16:19) he says: “The churches of Asia send greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord.” It is just such a similar domestic church, or little church in the home, that couples in blessed marriages are ‘ordained’ to establish (Morelli, 2008b). The building of a home church can only take place if each spouse loves God, loves Him alone, and has no other gods before Him, making the aim of the blessed, Godly marriage to form a Christian way of life and teach that way of life diligently to children.

Actions Speak Louder than Words

I have no doubt that many of those who call themselves Christians will affirm that the Lord is God, and we are to worship and love Him alone, as quoted in the opening of this essay. At the same time I do not doubt that, for many, words alone mean nothing. These words merely echo what St. Paul said of those without love: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1).

Now why do I say this? Is it mean-spirited on my part to claim that some Christians agree with the affirmation without putting it into practice? If my conclusion comes from a judgmental spirit, then yes, I have failed to live up to Our Lord’s own command: "Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Mt 7:1) But the statement is not a judgment, rather an observation, based on what modern scientists might call empirical evidence.

Jesus as Scientist

St. Luke (12: 34) records these words of Jesus: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Similarly, earlier in the Gospel (Lk 6:45): “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” How do we know what a person’s treasure is? According to behavioral research (Premack, 1965, 1971), the activities we observe people most involved or engaged in tell us what they value. A formal theory has been developed to describe this, called the Premack Principle, named after the researcher, David Premack. This theory states that an activity that a person is seen to be frequently engaged in, that is to say, what a person likes to do — comparing to the words of Jesus, a treasured activity — can be used as a reward to increase an activity less frequently engaged in or less desirable — a less treasured activity.

God or Idols?

What we treasure comes from our hearts and directs what we do. What we do reflects what we value. Speaking about false prophets, Our Lord said: “Thus you will know them by their fruits. Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 7: 21). When conducting field investigations, behavioral scientists — anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists — live among those whom they are studying and make detailed observations and records of their activities. What activities would these behavioral scientists observe and record if they visited our homes? Referring to the word of Jesus, what fruits would they see? If they studied us objectively, what would behavioral scientists infer to be the value system at work in our families?

Consider St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “But if one loves God, one is known by him … we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ — yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through being hitherto accustomed to idols, eat food as really offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (1 Cor 8:3–7). Again, the words of Jesus as recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel (7:16): “You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?”

The Grapes of the Domestic Church

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control …” (Gal 5:22–23). If this fruit guided the values of the domestic church, allow me to suggest what a behavioral scientist might see and record in the Godly home:

  • Attending liturgy as a family on Sundays and feast days; dressing in clean, modest clothing; being reverent during the services and praying the Liturgy; avoiding chit-chatting in church.
  • Observing Saturday evenings and evenings before reception of the Holy Eucharist as a time of prayer and spiritual recollection, not for partying or entertaining.
  • Maintaining an icon corner in the family home, with icons of Our Lord, the Theotokos and the family patron saints; teaching the reverence of sacred icons by holding family prayer at the icon corner; reading the daily troparia and kontakia, epistle and Gospel readings; using candles and incense.
  • Praying with children before bedtime and after awakening in the morning; teaching children to make the sign of the cross and how to memorize basic prayers, such as the Trisagion, Our Father, Creed, and Psalm 51(50); praying before and after meals (inside the home and when eating out).
  • Referencing the ‘Presence of God’ around us at all times
  • Following the church fasts
    • Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year
    • Christmas (Advent) Fast
    • Lenten Fast and Holy Week
    • Apostles’ Fast
    • Dormition Fast
  • Teaching children that the purpose of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving as building spiritual strength and giving back to God love through love of one another in need.
  • Keeping a program of spiritual reading and learning
    • Holy Scripture
    • Church Fathers
    • Lives of the saints
    • Adult catechism materials (see, for example, www.stgeorgesd.org/stgeorge/adult_education.html)
    • Church school lessons (reinforced by parents reviewing each week with children)
    • For families with young children, movies and videos of Bible stories and other wholesome topics
  • Teaching the reverence of the sacred icons
  • Teaching the structure & layout of the church temple
  • Refusing to participate in activities that conflict with worship or are scheduled during the Divine Liturgy on Sundays and feast-days; protesting to the proper community authorities and teaching children that God comes first.
  • Acknowledging everyday blessings by asking Our Lord’s blessing before each activity; rather than saying ‘Good luck,’ saying ‘Thank you Lord’ or ‘What a blessing’; asking the priest to bless home, cars, and other special objects.
  • Participating in special church blessings:
    • Water [Jan 6 — Theophany]
    • Candles [Feb 2 — Presentation]
    • Flowers [Holy Cross Sunday & Great Friday]
    • Oil [Wednesday of Holy Week]
    • Palms [Palm Sunday]
    • Eggs [Pascha]
    • Basil [Sept 14 — Holy Cross]
  • Bringing children into the spiritual family of the Church
    • Talking with the priest before the birth of the child and reflecting on the mystery of co-creation
    • Having the priest bless the newborn in the hospital
    • Saying the prayers of naming a child on the eighth day after birth
    • Offering or “churching” (presenting) the baby to God on or about the 40th day after birth
    • Conferring with the priest on the meaning of baptism and preparing for it
    • Choosing sponsors who are committed to Christ and His teaching and who will educate the child in the faith and fear of God
  • Parents and older children practicing confessing sins privately on a daily basis and sacramentally on a frequent basis; thanking God for His grace and gift of life; each person examining his or her conscience as to how he or she acted toward God and others and attributing to God any good done and any evil to himself or herself; quickly resolving any conflicts with others, forgiving all who have offended and asking pardon of those have been offended.
  • Availing of Holy Unction during illness or when it is offered at the parish (on Wednesday of Holy Week and special unction services).
  • Ministering at the local parish church and in the community by participating in the parish council, ladies’ society, youth organization, church school, choir, adult ministry, and other special ministries; parents encouraging and accompanying their children in parish activities such as church school, teen events, altar boys’ camp, and choir.
  • Dealing with non-Christian values in news and media
    • Allowing only appropriate TV programs and music.
    • Keeping the children’s computers in an open space with a ‘net nanny’ or parental controls installed; engaging in what children are doing.
    • When a program or ad appears in media or music which contradicts Our Lord’s teaching, immediately addressing it in a Godly manner (see the Smart Parenting series of articles: www.orthodoxytoday.org/indexes/morellix.php).
    • Engaging children in discussing television programs and movies in terms of understanding God’s love for us and the love we must have for each other; when a newscast is viewed, parents engaging the family in a discussion about the content in terms of Our Lord’s teachings regarding issues such as:
      • Abortion
      • Capital punishment
      • Casual sex
      • Criminal activity
      • Drugs and alcohol
      • Environment
      • Euthanasia
      • Homelessness
      • Immodesty in dress, song, and speech
      • Natural disasters
      • Pre-emptive war

According to the Premack Principle, the family that engages in the activities outlines above treasures Christ. The members in such a family love God, having no other gods before Him, and teach each other Godly behavior with diligence.

Disclaimer on Narrowly Interpreting Christian Activities

While the activities described above are exhibited by all Godly families, we must remember that adhering to external forms does not guarantee a relationship with God. Through synergy with God, we can engage in activities that build up the presence of God and avoid those activities that divide us from His presence (such as those discussed below). We can benefit from being objective observers and asking for God’s mercy and healing, while God alone is Judge.

The Thorns and Thistles of the Family that Worships Idols

For the family that fails to worship the true God, weekends do not include sacred activities. For such a family, weekends are taken up by parties, entertainment, and travel. Saturday evenings especially can be a special time for hard partying, and either sports or sleeping in is the norm on Sunday.

Parents and children in an ungodly family may not know what an icon corner is. No one is seen praying at any time. No one in the household references the presence of God or anything Godly. No fasting, spiritual reading or study takes place. The positive spirit of fasting and the fasting rules are foreign concepts.

All the goods of life are taken for granted or attributed to good luck. The only time for going to church is for a special event, or because it is expected. Church is for baptism (viewed as becoming a member of a social club), weddings and funerals. If an occasional Church service is attended, it is for a hollow reason, for example, to show off the childrens' clothes on Palm Sunday, or listen to Christmas Carols at Christmas.

Community service is pursed as long as it furthers personal goals, for example, if it looks good on a college or scholarship application. Self-concern is the only concern; the plight of others is not a consideration.

Viewing R- and X-rated media is the norm. The same words heard on television, in movies or over Internet streaming video — t he F-word, the S-word — are the same words used in the home by parents and children alike. Chat rooms and Internet websites are unmonitored (cf. Morelli, 2006d, 2006e).

The motto for the ungodly family is this: If it feels good, it is good; anything goes (Morelli, 2008c). Freedom to choose abortion, casual drug use, same sex marriage, sex before marriage, and killing those in pain are either openly promoted or tolerated as non-issues. If pregnancy is discussed at all, it is in the context of ‘don’t mess your life up you’re still young.’ The Godly love and care of one’s spouse and children is completely absent.

As Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev (2004) tells us: “To proclaim man as the measure of all things, to exclude God from the public domain, to expel religion from society and relegate it exclusively to the private sphere — this is the … secularist’s program.” Even worse than relegating Christ to the private sphere, He and all things sacred are simply ignored (Morelli, 2008a). The idols of modern, technological, hedonistic and self-centered society are worshiped by these families. The spirit is secular and sterile of life; it is not of Christ. Christianity is absent. These objects then are the ‘golden idols,’ of contemporary society. These new thorns and thistles are the objects of a new paganism.

Smart Education Provides Direction and Meaning

The word of God should be taught diligently to our children. And of course, teaching the word of God presupposes that the educators themselves know the word of God. And knowing the word of God also means living it daily to fulfill the marital prayer by which the couple is ordained or commissioned by their blessed marriage. As I state in a previous article (Morelli, 2008a): “In a blessed marriage in the Orthodox Church, the couple is ordained as the leaders of their domestic church, crowned to be the king and queen of their domicile and granted grace for the ‘fair education of children.’”

Basically and simply, we were created to know, love and serve God and be happy with Him in eternal life. Meaningful education, then, must be directed towards this end. As Jesus Himself told us: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). St. Peter has told us that Jesus came that we may attain salvation and be granted theosis, that is to say, that we may have eternal life by becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4). Jesus told us: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (Jn 14:14). This leads to the conclusion that there is no true education which is not education in Christ. Those who are to be educators must base their teaching on the true meaning of the existence of man, that is to say, they must know why we were created.

The art — and science, I might add — of Christian education was perhaps best articulated by an early and esteemed Church Father, St. John Chrysostom, who said: “And yet than this art there is not another greater. For what is equal to training the soul, and forming the mind of one that is young? For he that has this art, ought to be more exactly observant than any painter and any sculptor” (Homily 59 on the Gospel of St. Matthew at www.newadvent.org/fathers/200159.htm).

A Few Practical, Psycho-Spiritual Precepts

  • Kindliness is next to Godliness (Morelli, 2005).
  • “He who is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (Prv 14:29) (Morelli, 2006b, 2006c).
  • Be prepared, know God’s teachings oneself (Alfeyev, 2004a; Morelli 2006b, 2006e).
  • Live Christ, model Christ in all things (Morelli, 2006b, 2006c).
  • Focus on motivation as the energy that fuels learning and then points to its goal (Christ, and why God made us).
  • Keep it simple and short
  • Teach by asking. This is often called the Socratic Method, named after the classical Greek philosopher Socrates (470–399 BC). Simply put, it is asking a question to elicit an answer and then asking further questions regarding the implications of the answers already given.i
  • Explain a specific topic — after finding out what the child understands and using words and concepts the child can understand. Confirm any explanations by asking the child to repeat back what they have understood.
  • Demonstrate a concept by use of visual aids.ii
  • Collaborate by letting students help students. With teacher guidance, students can work on a project as a team. It is learning by teaching.
  • Use role play (experiential learning). Students can play different roles in Scripture, the life of Jesus or His parables, making use of age appropriate scripts.
  • Apply Christ’s teaching to specific situations by stimulating discussion of how they should be handled; for each situation, discuss what should be said or done.
  • Catch the good answers. Use social reinforcement to reward good, appropriate and correct responses (Morelli, 2006a).iii
  • Teach according to the child’s learning style. Both children and adults learn best when they can solve problems according to their distinctive thinking style. (Hunt, 1984, 1995)iv For example, some individuals represent problems in a verbal-propositional manner, with others (such as me) think visually.
  • Teach children to think about their own thinking (metacognition). Every encounter with the world is a choice, leading to the worship of God and following His Will or the worship of idols and “pop” values and culture.
  • Have children repeat back in their own words what they have learned and how it can be applied in their lives.

Fulfilling the Commission of a Blessed Marriage

Teaching Christ is not merely important for the domestic church, the little church in the home, but extends to each individual, in fact to all of society, and to all mankind. God is Beauty, Goodness and Truth. Although, as divinely manifested, these characteristics of God are incomprehensible, we can nevertheless, with His grace, appreciate, emulate and teach these same divine qualities as far as is humanly possible.

The domestic church builds up the kingdom of God within. In the words of St. Isaac of Syria (Brock 1989): “The sun which shines within [the family] is the light of the Holy Trinity. The air which the inhabitants of that realm breathe is the strengthening and all Holy Spirit…Christ, the light of the Father’s light, is their life, joy and happiness.” This is the fruit of diligent Christian teaching. This fulfills the commission given by God to every male and female joined in one flesh to produce flesh of their flesh by the mystery of Holy Marriage.


Ageloglou, Priestmonk Christodoulos (1998), Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain. Mt. Athos, Greece: Holy Mountain.

Alfeyev, Bishop Hilarion (2004a), The Mystery of Faith: An Introduction to the Teaching and Spirituality of the Orthodox Church. London: Darton Longman & Todd.

Alfeyev, Bishop Hilarion (2004b, July), Christianity and the Challenge of Militant Secularism (paper presented at the International Conference of the Australian and New Zealand Association of Theological Schools in Melbourne, Australia.)

Brock, S. (1989), Daily Readings With St. Isaac of Syria. Springfield, IL: Templegate Publishers.

Hunt, E. (1984), “Intelligence and Mental Competence,” Navel Research Review 36, 37–42.

Hunt, E. (1995), “http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/feature/the-role-of-intelligence-in-modern-society,” American Scientist 83, 356–358.

Morelli, G (2005, October 14), The Beast of Anger, www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliAnger.php.

Morelli, G. (2006a, February 4), Smart Parenting Part II, Behavioral Management Techniques, www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting2.php.

Morelli, G. (2006b, March 25), Smart Parenting III: Developing Emotional Control, www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting3.php.

Morelli, G (2006c, May 8), Orthodoxy and the Science of Psychology, www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliOrthodoxPsychology.php.

Morelli, G. (2006d, July 2), Assertiveness and Christian Charity, www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliAssertiveness.php.

Morelli, G. (2006e, September 24), Smart Parenting IV: Cuss Control, www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting4.php.

Morelli, G. (2006f, December 21), The Ethos of Orthodox Christian Healing, www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliHealing.php.

Morelli, G. (2008a, February 12), Smart Parenting X. Combating Secularism’s Most Serious Sin: Indifference, www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles8/Morelli-Smart-PartentingX.php.

Morelli, G. (2008b, July 6), Smart Marriage XIII: The Theology of Marriage and Sexuality, www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles8/Morelli-Smart%20Marriage-XIII-The-Theology-of-Marriage-and-Sexuality.php.

Morelli, G. (2008c, September 19), Smart Marriage XIV: Talking to Your Children About Same Sex “Marriage”, www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles8/Morelli-Smart-Parenting-XIV-Talking-To-Children-About-Same-Sex-Marriage.php.

Premack, D. (1965), “Reinforcement Theory,” in D. Levine (ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 123–180. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Premack, D. (1971), “Catching Up with Common Sense, or Two Sides of a Generalization: Reinforcement and Punishment,” in R. Glaser (ed.), The Nature of Reinforcement, 121–150. NY: Academic Press.


[i] The following is a self-help example from the life of a contemporary elder of Mt. Athos. The Elder Paisius relates an event from his earlier life. As a young man he resolved a spiritual crisis by replying to his own question, Who is the kindest man on earth that I have ever know or heard of? Answered himself: "Based on the fact that He [Christ] is the kindest man on earth and I haven't known anyone better, I will try to become like Him and absolutely obey everything the Gospel says." (Ageloglou, 1998)

[ii] In explaining that only a male and female can have a blessed marriage (Morelli, 2008c), younger children may find it difficult to conceive of the meaning of one flesh. St. Paul himself said: “This mystery is a profound one …” (Eph 5:32) I have found it useful to use concrete objects that a child is familiar with to illustrate more abstract concepts. Most children play with blocks and have experience with various geometric forms in games such as pegboard. The following can be used as illustrations.

First the union of husband and wife, male and female in a blessed marriage:

Male and female in blessed marriage

The following objects show the impossibility of making a single figure (one flesh) out of the geometric forms as arranged below:

Male — Male
Female — Female

[iii] A short Primer on Scientific Use of Behavioral Management Techniques

Behavior is shaped (made stronger or weaker) by its consequences. Consequences that make behavior stronger or more likely to occur again:

  • Positive reinforcement: After behavior occurs it is followed by a pleasant event.
  • Negative reinforcement: After behavior occurs an unpleasant event is taken away.

Consequences that make behavior weaker or less likely to occur again:

  • Positive punishment: After behavior occurs it is followed by an unpleasant event.
  • Negative punishment: After behavior occurs a pleasant event is taken away.

The above conforms to the counsel of St. Paul to St. Timothy: “And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to every one, an apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim 2:24–25).

Natural activities that a child likes or dislikes make the best consequences to strengthen or weaken behavior. Physical consequences such as corporal punishment, besides modeling inappropriate behavior (foe example, hitting or slapping), have been shown to be ineffective. In extreme cases, such as in hospital settings following an ethics committee review, physical consequences can be employed, but surely not in the home setting.

For a more detailed explanation, see: www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles8/Morelli-Smart-Parenting-XII-The-Time-Out-Tool.php and www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles8/Morelli-Smart-Parenting-XIII-Tools-for-Smart-Punishing.php.

[iv] An example, from everyday life may help in understanding individual differences in learning or thinking styles. If you need driving directions, do you prefer written directions (verbal-propositional thinking-learning style) or a map (visual thinking-learning style)?

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: July 15, 2009

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