Orthodox Marriage & Its Misunderstanding- By: Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev


The love that exists between a man and a woman is an important theme in many books of Scripture. The Book of Genesis, in particular, tells us of holy and pious couples, such as Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel. A special blessing, bestowed on these couples by the Lord, was made manifest in the multiplication of their descendants. Love is praised in the Song of Songs, a book which, in spite of all allegorical and mystical interpretations in patristic tradition, does not lose its literal meaning.

The very attitude of God to the people of Israel is compared in the Old Testament with that of a husband to his wife. This imagery is developed to such an extent that unfaithfulness to God and idolatry are paralleled with adultery and prostitution. When St Paul speaks about marital love as the reflection of the love which exists between Christ and the Church (cf. Eph.5:20-33), he develops the same imagery.

The mystery of marriage was established by God in Paradise. Having created Adam and Eve, God said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ (Gen.1:28). This multiplication of the human race was to be achieved through marriage: ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (Gen.2:24). Marital union is therefore not a consequence of the Fall but something inherent to the primordial nature of human beings. The mystery of marriage was further blessed by the Incarnate Lord when He changed water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. ‘We state’, St Cyril of Alexandria writes, ‘that He (Christ) blessed marriage in accordance with the economy (oikonomia) by which He became man and went… to the wedding in Cana of Galilee’.

There are two misunderstandings about marriage which should be rejected in Orthodox dogmatic theology. One is that marriage exists for the sole purpose of procreation. What, then, is the meaning of marriage for those couples who have no children? Are they advised to divorce and remarry? Even in the case of those who have children: are they actually supposed to have relations once a year for the sole purpose of ‘procreation’? This has never been a teaching of the Church. On the contrary, according to St John Chrysostom, among the two reasons for which marriage was instituted, namely ‘to bring man to be content with one woman and to have children’, it is the first reason which is the most important: ‘as for procreation, it is not required absolutely by marriage…’ In fact, in Orthodox understanding, the goal of marriage is that man and woman should become one, in the image of the Holy Trinity, Whose three Persons are essentially united in love. To quote St John Chrysostom again, ‘when husband and wife are united in marriage, they are no longer seen as something earthly, but as the image of God Himself’. The mutual love of the two partners in marriage becomes life-giving and creative when a child is born as its fruit. Every human being is therefore to be a fruit of love, and everyone’s birth is a result of love between his parents.

Another misunderstanding about marriage is that it should be regarded as a ‘concession’ to human ‘infirmity’: it is better to be married than to commit adultery (this understanding is based on a wrong interpretation of 1 Cor.7:2-9). Some early Christian sectarian movements (such as Montanism and Manicheanism) held the view that sexuality in general is something that is unclean and evil, while virginity is the only proper state for Christians. The Orthodox tradition opposed this distortion of Christian asceticism and morality very strongly.

In the Orthodox Church, there is no understanding of sexual union as something unclean or unholy. This becomes clear when one reads the following prayers from the Orthodox rite of Marriage: ‘Bless their marriage, and vouchsafe unto these Thy servants… chastity, mutual love in the bond of peace… Preserve their bed unassailed… Cause their marriage to be honorable. Preserve their bed blameless. Mercifully grant that they may live together in purity…’ Sexual life is therefore considered compatible with ‘purity’ and ‘chastity’, the latter being, of course, not an abstinence from intercourse but rather a sexual life that is liberated from what became its characteristic after the fall of Adam. As Paul Evdokimov says, ‘in harmonious unions… sexuality undergoes a progressive spiritualization in order to reach conjugal chastity’. The mutual love of man and woman in marriage becomes less and less dependent on sexual life and develops into a deep unity and union which integrates the whole of the human person: the two must become not only ‘one flesh’, but also one soul and one spirit. In Christian marriage, it is not selfish ‘pleasure’ or search for ‘fun’ which is the main driving force: it is rather a quest for mutual sacrifice, for readiness to take the partner’s cross as one’s own, to share one’s whole life with one’s partner. The ultimate goal of marriage is the same as that of every other sacrament, deification of the human nature and union with Christ. This becomes possible only when marriage itself is transfigured and deified.

In marriage, the human person is transfigured; he overcomes his loneliness and egocentricism; his personality is completed and perfected. In this light Fr Alexander Elchaninov, a notable contemporary Orthodox priest and theologian, describes marriage in terms of ‘initiation’ and ‘mystery’, in which ‘a full transformation of the human person’ takes place, ‘the enlargement of his personality, new eyes, new perception of life, birth into the world, by means of it, in new fullness’. In the marital union of two individuals there is both the completion of their personalities and the appearance of the fruit of their love, a child, who makes their dyad into a triad: ‘…An integral knowledge of another person is possible in marriage, a miracle of sensation, intimacy, of the vision of another person… Before marriage, the human person glides above life, seeing it from outside. Only in marriage is he fully immersed into it, and enters it through another person. This enjoyment of true knowledge and true life gives us that feeling of complete fulness and satisfaction which renders us richer and wiser. And this fulness is even deepened when out of the two of us, united and reconciled, a third appears, our child’.

Christ is the One Who is present at every Christian marriage and Who conducts the marriage ceremony in the Church: the priest’s role is not even to represent, but rather to present Christ and to reveal His presence, as it is also in other sacraments. The story of the wedding in Cana of Galilee is read at the Christian wedding ceremony in order to show that marriage is the miracle of the transformation of water into wine, that is, of daily routine into an unceasing and everyday feast, a perpetual celebration of the love of one person for the other.



16 Responses to “Orthodox Marriage & Its Misunderstanding- By: Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev”

  1. 1 Moses November 24, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    I guess marriage isn’t just a joke after all… 😛

  2. 2 Mary November 24, 2008 at 9:57 pm

    I’m glad this article has helped you realize that, Moses. 🙂

    P.S. You’re way too happy in your wordpress profile pic, hilarious!

  3. 3 Moses November 24, 2008 at 11:48 pm

    More like… creepy!

  4. 5 Fr. Andreas Blom February 23, 2013 at 11:08 pm

    Hello, Moses and Fr. Ian! 😀

  5. 6 Maria February 24, 2013 at 12:07 am

    ^ Ou la la, the St. Tikhon’s crew is all gathering here, haha.
    Hello Fr’s, your blessings!
    Moses my hat tips to you, sir.

  6. 7 oldbelieving February 25, 2013 at 10:27 pm

    Hi Frs. Andreas and Ian, and Moses!

    i think Met. Hilarion makes some very good points, but he is also wrong when he says that marriage and sex existed before the Fall. Eve is of course given to Adam for their mutual salvation, but their relationship was not what we know as marriage, as St. John Chrysostom and so many others say. i think his mistaken view on this point is probably what leads him to, at least seemingly, equate the idea that marriage is a concession to human infirmity (St. John Chrysostom says this explicitly) with the idea that marriage is evil or unclean. those two ideas are not synonymous. Otherwise, i think he says some great stuff.

  7. 8 Jason February 26, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    “Marital union is therefore not a consequence of the Fall but something inherent to the primordial nature of human beings.”

    “There are two misunderstandings about marriage which should be rejected in Orthodox dogmatic theology. One is that marriage exists for the sole purpose of procreation… This has never been a teaching of the Church.”

    “Another misunderstanding about marriage is that it should be regarded as a ‘concession’ to human ‘infirmity’: it is better to be married than to commit adultery (this understanding is based on a wrong interpretation of 1 Cor.7:2-9).”

    All of the above statements are very problematic when one looks at the consensus of the Fathers rather than seeking out isolated quotes from individual Fathers.

    For instance, that marital union (sexual union) was a consequence of the Fall is widely attested to among the Fathers. St. Gregory of Nyssa is well known for his comments on this subject, and St. John of Damascus comments on this in his chapter “Concerning Virginity” in his Exact Exposition of the Orthodox

    Faith (Book IV, Chapter XXIV):

    St. John of Damascus says:
    “But they will perhaps ask, what then is the meaning of “male and female,” and “Be fruitful and multiply?” In answer we shall say that “Be fruitful and multiply” does not altogether refer to the multiplying by the marriage connection. For God had power to multiply the race also in different ways, if they kept the precept unbroken to the end. But God, Who knoweth all things before they have existence, knowing in His foreknowledge that they would fall into transgression in the future and be condemned to death, anticipated this and made “male and female,” and bade them “be fruitful and multiply.” Let us, then, proceed on our way and see the glories of virginity: and this also includes chastity.

    Regarding Met Hilarion’s comments regarding marriage for procreation and on account of infirmity, St. John of Damascus states in the same chapter:

    “Good indeed is the procreation of children enjoined by the law, and good is marriage on account of fornications, for it does away with these and by lawful intercourse does not permit the madness of desire to be enflamed into unlawful acts. Good is marriage for those who have no continence: but that virginity is better which increases the fruitfulness of the soul and offers to God the seasonable fruit of prayer.”

    Since Met Hilarion uses a quote from St. John Chrysostom to support his statements, perhaps it should be pointed out that St. John Chrysostom also stated:

    “For the virtue of each thing then discovers itself when it is brought to its own fitting work, but when to one that is alien, it doth no longer so. For instance, wine is given for cheerfulness, not drunkenness, bread for nourishment, sexual intercourse for the procreation of children.” (Homily XII, Colossians IV:12=13). http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf113.iv.iv.xii.html

    “For she was espoused to her husband to be his partner in life, and for the procreation of children, not for the purposes of indecency and laughter; that she might keep the house, and instruct him also to be grave, not that she might supply to him the fuel of fornication.” (Homily V, 1 Thess IV:1-3). http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf113.iv.v.v.html

    “The very benefit God has given thee by nature, do not thou mar the help it was meant to be. So that it is not for her wealth that we ought to seek a wife: it is that we may receive a partner of our life, for the appointed order of the procreation of children. It was not that she should bring money, that God gave the woman; it was that she might be an helpmate.” (Homily XLIX, Axts XXII:6-8). http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf111.vi.xlix.html

    “Therefore this passion indeed He did not cut off altogether, but added the words, “without a cause.” (Matt. v. 22.) Nor again did He abolish all desire, but only that which is unlawful, for he saith, “Nevertheless, because of desires, let every man have his own wife.” (1 Cor. vii. 2.) … For those passions were implanted in our nature for a necessary end; desire, for the procreation of children, and anger, for the succor of the injured…” (Homily XXII, 2 Cor XI:1). http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf112.v.xxiii.html

    In the Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, it is stated:

    “And fornication is the destruction of one’s own flesh, not being made use of for the procreation of children, but entirely for the sake of pleasure, which is a mark of incontinency, and not a sign of virtue.”


    St. Leo the Great said in his “Book of Pastoral Rule” (Chapter XXVII):

    “Husbands and wives are to be admonished to remember that they are joined together for the sake of producing offspring; and, when, giving themselves to immoderate intercourse, they transfer the occasion of procreation to the service of pleasure, to consider that, though they go not outside wedlock yet in wedlock itself they exceed the just dues of wedlock. Whence it is needful that by frequent supplications they do away their having fouled with the admixture of pleasure the fair form of conjugal union. For hence it is that the Apostle, skilled in heavenly medicine, did not so much lay down a course of life for the whole as point out remedies to the weak when he said, It is good for a man not to touch a woman: but on account of fornication let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband (1 Cor. vii. 1, 2). For in that he premised the fear of fornication, he surely did not give a precept to such as were standing, but pointed out the bed to such as were falling, lest haply they should tumble to the ground. Whence to such as were still weak he added,Let the husband render unto the wife her due; and likewise also the wife unto the husband (v. 3). And, while in the most honourable estate of matrimony allowing to them something of pleasure, he added, But this I say by way of indulgence, not by way of command (v. 6). Now where indulgence is spoken of, a fault is implied; but one that is the more readily remitted in that it consists, not in doing what is unlawful, but in not keeping what is lawful under control. “


    In other words, the sexual union is intended by God for procreation within marriage and to use it in another manner, for pleasure, is against the will of God. The Fathers repeatedly affirm the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7:2-9 that marriage is on account of infirmity and that virginity is higher (though marriage is certainly blessed!). The Fathers also pointed out that sexual intercourse did not take place in Paradise prior to the Fall, and as such it was a product of fallen humanity but nevertheless still blessed by God for procreation and the succession of the human race. Met Hilarion seems to be at odds with the Fathers on these subjects.

  8. 9 Bobbo February 27, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    What a wonderful article. I was wondering if you could further explain this statement?

    “…the two must become not only ‘one flesh’, but also one soul and one spirit.”

    Are saying that the two actually become one soul or that metaphorically they become one soul? Becoming “one soul” in reality would be tough theologically, correct?

    Love the blog.

  9. 12 kerry August 14, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Would you please tell me from where you accessed this article by Met. Hilarion? I tried the link below the article and it did not get me anywhere. Excellent article, which challenges some of what some of the fathers had to say about marriage. We need more people in the life of the church to challenge misconceptions and black/white sweeping interpretations of the church fathers. Various theological opinions about marriage and a host of other matters of faith exist in the life of the church.

  10. 13 Maria August 26, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    The link provided is not working now but when it was, that’s where I got the article from. I’m sorry 😦

  1. 1 More Thoughts on the Role of Marriage Trackback on July 1, 2009 at 7:41 pm
  2. 2 BrettStroud.com» More Thoughts on the Role of Marriage Trackback on August 20, 2009 at 11:03 pm
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