by Mike Wingert
Two uncles* were debating recently about the kind of men they wanted their daughters to marry. One was clear that he wanted his daughter to only marry a Syriac Orthodox Christian. The other gentleman said that any Christian is okay, so long as such a person has a good-paying job and is an American citizen (or H1 Visa holder). Here we find a dilemma in priorities. Which uncle is wiser? At the time St. Paul authored his epistle, there were no major splits of the One Church into the various denominations that we see today. As such, the problem these gentlemen were discussing was not existent during that time. Over time, a culture developed in the Christian East whereby a woman would convert to her husband’s religion. Though such a practice evolved, it is unwarranted to tell young women of the Church to abandon their faith and go to their husband’s church (or convert to his religion)—especially if that assembly does not share the same belief as maintained by the Orthodox Church.
In ancient times, Christians were instructed to only marry within their community, and the community was one united Church. While the Orthodox Christian Church was growing throughout the world, the Jews who did not accept Jesus as the Messiah maintained their own traditions. One of them stated that to be (born) Jewish, one must be born of a Jewish mother (Mishnah 3:12). It is argued by Jews, that this situation goes back to the ancient times of Moses, often citing Deuteronomy 7:4 to explain their position. In essence, the situation was the opposite of what we see today; religion was passed on to the children through the mother, not the father.
Though there were many disagreements and controversies in the early days, it took several hundred years for Christianity to actually fracture into different organizational denominations. During these early times, the beliefs of these denominations (anti-Chalcedonian, Chalcedonian, Nestorian) were, for all intents and purposes, the same, carrying only subtle differences in Christological definitions. 1000 years into Christianity, the Eastern and Western Roman church split--resulting in the Byzantine (Eastern/Greek) Orthodox on one side, and the Roman Catholics on the other. Around 500 years later, the Roman Catholics would end up fracturing again due to the Protestant Reformation, leading to the thousands of different denominations we see today.
Since these denominations emerged later, where did this idea of women converting to their husband’s religion/church enter into the Christian East? Did a canon develop at some point in history commanding such? From where did this thinking arise? We do know that within Islamic law, Muslim men were permitted to marry non-Muslims if the women would convert, and/or Christian (and Jewish) women; under such circumstances, the children must be raised as Muslims. Though the wives could practice their own religion in private, they were to raise Muslim families, creating de facto conversions. It wasn’t long before Islamic culture dominated the once Christian East, so it is not unreasonable to assume that inheriting religion via the father is a practice indeed tied to the onset of Islam.
Comparing the views of the two gentlemen mentioned earlier, we can see an apparent difference in focus. One father’s primary concern is spiritual, whereas the other father’s concern is worldly. Without a doubt, the father with worldly concerns has such views because he wants comfort for his daughter via the groom’s wealth (or his potential for attaining wealth). The worldly father compliments his position by saying “any Christian is okay.” What does that mean—any Christian? Clearly, it means the father does not understand the differences between maintaining the unity of the One Holy Universal and Apostolic Church and the various denominations that have split from this One Church over time. Though it is popular today for many to carry the Christian epithet, the reality is simple: different denominations (even if they claim to be non-denominational) teach differently about the One faith that Christ molded into His One Church.
If we are to take examples from history, we will see how life as we know it would be radically different today if believing women would have converted to their husband’s religions. Would Esther been compelled to save her people had she abandoned her faith and followed that of her husband Ahasueros? What about St. Helena, the believing queen? She was brought up an Orthodox Christian, and ended up marrying (though some suggest she was a consort of) Constantius Chlorus, and bore a son named Constantine, who would later become the Emperor of Rome. The young Constantine was deeply attached to his mother, from who he was exposed to the Christian faith. So much so, that he eventually embraced Christianity and legalized the religion in the Roman Empire. What if St. Helena had left her faith for the paganism of Chlorus? What would the history of the world be like today if Constantine had not legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire during his edict of Milan in 313AD?
Some may suggest that these examples are a bit extreme, since the women’s counterparts represented faiths other than Christianity. Perhaps. But let us observe the holy Empress Theodora. Her father a priest, St. Theodora was born to a Syriac Orthodox Christian family in Asia Minor at a time after the synod at Chalcedon, which factionalized Roman Christendom and the Church of the Orient. The soon-to-be Emperor Justinian became enamored with her beauty and had to marry her. For her to be a willing participant in this marriage, it was agreed that she keep her Syriac Orthodox Christian faith (in other words, anti-Chalcedonian), even though Justinian was himself a Chalcedonian. Today, the differences between the two sides of the Chalcedonian issue are deeply lamented as a difference of mere semantics. Yet, in Theodora’s time, these differences meant life and death for many Greek, Syriac, and Coptic Orthodox anti-Chalcedonians.
It was St. Theodora herself who helped organize the non-Chalcedonians while her husband was ordering their persecution. St. John of Ephesus records her coordination with St. Jacob Baradeus (Mor Yakob Burdo’no) and St. Thedosius of Alexandria, to encourage, support, and maintain the existence of the Orthodox Church on the rim of the Roman Empire and beyond—even coordinating missionary efforts into Nubia and Persia.
What would history be like today had St. Theodora converted to her husband’s faith? Let’s remember, it is a faith closer than any other denominational issue that exists in Christianity today. If she had done so, would the Orthodox Christians of the Orient survived as they have today? Would they all be Chalcedonians and backed by the Roman government? I would argue that the Syriac Orthodox Church (and possible the Coptic Orthodox Church) would not exist today as we know them.
St. Theodora is remembered as the believing queen, who taught that it is better to be persecuted and survive righteously, than it is to have governmental sponsorship and live a hypocritical life, confessing Christ by the mouth, and persecuting one’s neighbor by action. Her legacy lives on in all the Christians of the East.
Today, it is politically correct to refer to any person who claims to be a Christian as a “Christian.” Whether one is a Christian in his or her heart, only God knows. With that said, it is vital to maintain the teaching of Christ, to His apostles and their disciples, who exist today in the One Holy Universal and Apostolic Church. If a woman finds herself in a situation to marry someone outside of the Church, no matter how similar his beliefs are, she should really evaluate the situation spiritually. Just as St. Paul admonishes widows who wish to remarry to do so “in the Lord,” it is so with everyone today. Is this man, someone with whom you can share and grow in your faith? This is a vital question for any healthy marriage.
Some women today are in situations where they have married outside the Syriac Orthodox Christian faith. As such, they should heed the words of St. Paul who wrote: “Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife.” (1 Corinthians 7:16) This is the way to holiness. Each of us, men and women, are to keep our faith and use it selflessly to heal our spouses, bringing the other closer to God. Loving God first is indeed the only thing that maintains a truly healthy and happy marriage.