Marrying someone who is not Orthodox threatens only the faith of the faithless.
It's summertime, the season for American Orthodox Churches to convene conferences, convocations, and conventions. Annually or biannually, well-intentioned and earnest lay-leaders and clergy sacrifice some of their vacation time to address a broad array of weighty subjects affecting the National Church, dioceses, and the local parish. May the Holy Spirit guide their deliberations!
This time of meetings means that there will be lots of opportunities to drag out and revisit one of the great canards of American Orthodoxy: "The Mixed-Marriage Problem." For literally as long as I can remember, there has not been a gathering of churchmen and women, wherein someone has not stood up to lament the "fact" that we are losing our young adults because they are entering into mixed-marriages.
For those unacquainted with contemporary Orthodox Christian terminology, a mixed-marriage is not a contract for life with you and your pet. (I'm not making this up -- check out the Internet sites that offer this service if you don't believe me.) It is neither a wedding between persons of different races (a relatively common occurrence in the Church) nor between a person who is Orthodox with a non-Christian (a bond forbidden by the Church). In modern Orthodox parlance, a mixed-marriage is the matrimonial union between an Orthodox Christian and a Christian from another tradition.
For too many American Orthodox Christians, the mixed-marriage conventional wisdom follows this line of reasoning. In our pluralistic society, we cannot avoid the fact that most of our youth will choose spouses who have had a different religious upbringing. With these unions comes an inevitable dilution and disintegration of the practices of the Orthodox Faith. The Greek Orthodox version of the typical harangue sounds something like this: "My boy Costa married a xeni (stranger, outsider, foreigner) and now he doesn't come to Church!"
I don't buy it.
My mother became Orthodox because of marriage. So did my father-in-law. So did my mother-in-law's mother-the first or one of the first converts in Jacksonville, Florida. Yia-Yia (Greek for "grandmother") could not have been more white-bread. She grew up a Methodist in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Her grandfather was a sergeant in the Confederate Army who fought under General Lee at Appomattox. All three embraced Orthodoxy at a time when the Liturgy was perfomed completely in the Greek langauge and there was no strategy for Church growth like small groups or Wednesday evening Bible studies.
My family's witness confirms what I have seen in parish ministry. Whenever the Orthodox partner in a marriage is strong in his or her beliefs, the non-Orthodox spouse develops almost immediate admiration for the Orthodox Church. Very often this esteem leads to conversion and when it doesn't there is usually at least a sense of respect for the Orthodox way.
Mixed-marriages in America expose a problem, and it's not that Vassiliki is engaged to a blonde named Bubba. Protestant and Roman Catholic fiancés are not leading our young away from the Church. We are the source of the problem. We raise young people who are lukewarm in their faith.
There's good news and bad news from the "we're-losing-our-youth" front. First, the bad news. There is no silver bullet youth ministry or Sunday school program that will turn a young person into a pious, believing, and committed Orthodox Christian. Now, the good news: there is no silver bullet youth ministry or Sunday school program that will turn a young person into a pious, believing, and committed Orthodox Christian.
Are you worried that one day you may have red-headed grandchildren who think that icons violate the Second Commandment? Here is what you need to do. Take your child to as many services of the Church as possible from the time the child is forty days old. I don't care how many dirty looks Mrs. X gives you. Her grown kid is probably at home sleeping off his hangover. Keep the fasts. Pray together often, and at least before every meal. Participate together as a family in all of the sacraments -- including confession.
Moreover, watch what you say. Every time you trash talk a priest or bishop as you sit around the Sunday table, your children become very confused. Psychologically, they see the clergy in their vestments as Jesus and you as God the Father. More often than not, the confusion you create is too difficult for young people to process and they will just drop out.
If reading this article makes you wince, I apologize. But there is even more good news. It's never too late to change.
If you are a young married Orthodox Christian not going to Church, get there next Sunday. Bring your spouse. See your priest. Get with the program. Your marriage can grow richer and stronger.
If you're a parent that regrets not forcing the issue of living the life of the Church earlier in your own children's lives, then repent yourself. The change in your heart will affect everyone around you. Believe me, even if your kids are grown, they're still watching you.
When all is said and done, marrying someone who is not Orthodox threatens only the faith of the faithless. Lived Orthodoxy is the pearl of great price that many seek but too few find. Could we please stop wringing our hands over the "mixed-marriage problem?" My wife's Yia-Yia would have said, "That dog don't hunt." She also would have said during this time between Pascha and Ascension, "Christos Anesti!" (Christ is Risen!).
Rev. Aris P. Metrakos is the pastor of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Columbia, South Carolina. He is frequent retreat leader and speaker for both teens and adults. Prior to attending seminary, Fr. Aris was an aviator for the US Navy. He travels annually to Romania to help the Romanian Orthodox Church establish ministries for Romanian youth. You can contact Fr. Aris at FrMetrakos@orthodoxytoday.org.