FAMILIES AND LIFE
by Fr. Anthony G. Yazge
In last month's column, the topic was life: how it is a gift of God. How we are created in God's image and likeness. How God should decide when it begins and ends. How great a gift life is! But now to more details. How are we called to live our life?
Orthodox Christians believe the Bible's account of our being created in God's image and likeness. In our understanding God is Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The Trinity is three persons living in total love, total harmony, total unity. That means we are created to live in community. The human, created expression of that is the family. St. Paul put it most succinctly in his letter to the Ephesians (3:15), "For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named."
The most basic unit in our lives is the family, the sacramental union of a man and woman that is blessed and sanctified by God through His Church and legally recognized by the State. God wants a man and woman united in Christ by Him in a blessed relationship. This relationship becomes a "trinity": husband, wife and Christ. In this relationship in the context of marriage, and only then, would a God-loving couple fulfill their blessing by creating new life. Those who say marriage is merely a human-made thing, a social formality, to make and break as we choose, are greatly mistaken from an Orthodox Christian understanding. I would guess that if God told a man today to lie down, fall asleep, give up a rib and awake to his perfect mate, this man would consider himself married to that woman! God gave Eve to Adam in what we would understand as marriage. Christ "declared marriage an honorable estate by His presence at the marriage feast in Cana," where He performed His first miracle (John 2:1-11), as a prayer of the Orthodox wedding service reminds us.. The epistles also speak of marriage.
The most misinterpreted reference to marriage is Ephesians 5:20-33, which is the epsitle reading in the Orthodox sacrament of marriage. St. Paul begins in Ephesians 5:21, "Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ." That sets the whole tone for what follows. The union of man and woman in marriage is a relationship of equality and mutual submission. It is a selfless relationship when properly lived. Although this passage by St. Paul intended to shed light on Jesus Christ's relationship to the Church, it offers much to us regarding the relationship between a husband and wife. Some people incorrectly judge St. Paul as a male chauvinist based on this passage where he expects the wife to submit to her husband. St. Paul never meant to imply that the man is superior to the woman, but instead demonstrates that any body can only have one head. Our model is Christ, who is the head of the Church. We as the body follow Him.
With this position as the head of the body comes great responsibility. Jesus bore the sins of the world in order to offer us a chance at salvation. He willingly suffered in the flesh, even to the point of death on the Cross, so that we may be saved. The husband in like manner must be willing to accept responsibility for leading his family to salvation. His responsibility for his family goes beyond providing physical necessities. He must be a strong spiritual head, a worshipping Christian full of prayer and love towards God. He must love his bride as much as Christ loved His Bride, the Church, and be willing to die for her. He must be filled with compassion towards his wife and children. St. Paul emphasizes that "husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies … For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it" (Eph. 5:28-29). St. Paul makes it clear that the husband should have the special regard and love for only his own wife, and not to any other woman.
The role of the husband is never equated with power in the way we have so humanly distorted it! Being subject does not imply being a doormat to anyone! It is not a question of the husband as a dictator, who calls all the shots, while the wife is his doormat. Being different, having different roles, does not mean "superior husband/inferior wife." Using the Trinity as our reference makes this most clear. I doubt any Christian would say that Christ the Son or the Holy Spirit are inferior to the Father! The Father, Son and Holy Spirit each have their own role in the Trinity and in their relationship with this world . The Father is the one who created the world. The Son redeems us. The Holy Spirit sanctifies all things. But all actions taken by the Father, in the Son and through the Spirit are in perfect unity and love. There is never a power struggle! How many marriages reflect that type of relationship? Looking at divorce statistics, far too few!
St. Paul's message for the wife is to submit to her husband as an equal. This submission lasts only as long as the husband behaves in a Christ-like manner. The wife ends up traditionally being the nurturer in the relationship, especially as it relates to children. But the husband is called to nurture as well, in his own way. Purity and holiness are ideal Christian virtues that both the wife and husband should possess.
This also points to another important issue: unblessed relationships outside marriage. Sexual relationships outside marriage are clearly against Orthodox teaching, no matter how much a man and woman claim to love one another. That most intimate expression of love is blessed in the context of the entire relationship of married life. Anything else is lustful self-centered, self-gratification. If you love someone enough to "become one flesh" (as the scriptures refer to it), you should love that person enough to commit yourself to him/her 24 hours a day, 365 days a year! Then you become one flesh, one heart and one mind united in Christ's love. The Orthodox Church also rejects homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle. While space here does not allow more than a mention on this topic, please know that this is not to say that we reject the person, only his or her lifestyle choice.
Why is all this so important, and so difficult, to accept and live? Because it means accepting the responsibility that God has given us to live a holy life. It means placing the good of another person above your own desires for the sake of a relationship that is greater than the two people involved. It means establishing a firm foundation in Christ on which to build a marriage, a family and a home. And maybe above all, it means experiencing the depth of a love that (I Cor. 13) knows no beginning and no end, that rejoices in what is right, will bear all things, believe all things, hope in all things, and endure all things. In short, from the Orthodox perspective, this is what we are called to be in a family.
Originally submitted to the Tribune Star for publication in the Fall of 1995