Journey to Orthodoxy:
The Communion Question

by Thomas Katsampes

October 3, 2007

I may have hit a bump on the road in my journey back to the Orthodox Church. Father Thomas informed me that, unless I have a special pastoral decision from our Bishop, I cannot receive Communion because my wife is not baptized into the Orthodox Church. That raises some thorny theological questions. Communion (also known as the Eucharist) is the the most central Christian sacrament (with Baptism a close second). Communion is practiced in most denominations of Christianity. It's hard to be a full member of the any Christian church if one cannot partake of the Communion. Now granted the thief crucified with Jesus did not partake of the Communion and yet Christ said "Today thou shalt be with me in paradise." Communion doesn't appear necessary to salvation, but it is important nonetheless.

I talked with my uncle who's a Catholic and he says there is no such provision in the Catholic Church. My grandmother, who has been Orthodox for probably 60 years, says that she's never seen or heard of banning a baptized Orthodox from receiving Communion solely because of the church standing - or lack thereof - of one's spouse.

The restriction does not make sense Scripturally either. Yes, there are prohibitions against "being unequally yoked together" with unbelievers (however being "unequally yoked" doesn't apply only to marriage - it could apply to a business relationship, for example). The LORD also says in Genesis that "the two shall become one flesh," referring to the consummation of the marital relationship (not the spiritual standing of either before God - for example, Lot and Lot's wife; Job and Job's wife).

The Church seems to be viewing my wife and I as one "person" before God. Because "half" of this person does not believe (i.e. is not baptized into the Church) therefore the "half" of this person which is the believer and is baptized is not eligible to participate in the Sacraments of the Church.

I believe God views each person uniquely regarding his or her individual standing with Christ. It's clear that one's decision to accept Jesus Christ (i.e. become a Christian and participate in the Church) is an individual one. John 3:16 concludes with "whosoever [singular] believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life." Saint Paul writes to the Romans, "if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved." (Romas 10:9) Note that the "thou" and "thine" are singular, not plural.

I don't see anywhere in Scripture where a believer is "de-sanctified" or loses his salvation because of an unbeliever, or a believer of a different church, or someone who simply believes in God and belongs to no denomination (such as my wife). The decision to believe in and accept Jesus Christ (as He is presented in Orthodoxy) is a personal one. Two may mysteriously become one, but regarding their accountability to God for their acceptance or rejection of Jesus, they are individuals. I cannot accept Christ for my wife, neither can she accept Christ for me. We each must come to our own decision. Oddly enough, Scripture appears to argue on behalf (in other words, to the benefit) of the unbeliever married to the believing spouse, rather than against the believer because of the unbelieving spouse. Scripture notes that the unbelievers are blessed by believers (Acts 2:39, 1 Cor 7:14). Passages in Acts indicate that once a head of a household believes in Christ, his household is blessed by that fact. Also, St. Paul writes that God extends sanctification to the unbeliever who is married to the believer (1 Cor 7:12-14). For the reason noted in verse 14, children of a spiritually mixed union are considered holy.

From a practical standpoint, Fr. Thomas' position - which I greatly respect but find difficult to believe would be the position of the entire Orthodox Church - makes it more difficult to bring new converts to Orthodox Church. The Church has commented on the fact that there aren't enough people in Orthodoxy (4 million or so in the US compared to 68 million Roman Catholics, for example), but if Fr. Thomas is correct, the Church makes it harder to be in good standing with her. That could eventually lead people like myself to go to Byzantine Catholicism or even a liturgical branch of Protestantism (such as Lutheranism). Most people however, will simply go to another church instead of appealing to the church hierarchy.

Perhaps I'm making a mountain out of a molehill and the Bishop will approve a pastoral decision for the asking. Clearly this issue isn't going to be solved for me overnight. However, I would really like to take Communion in the Orthodox Church and I pray that this doesn't become an insurmountable obstacle to doing so.

UPDATE: Here is what is noted in Matthew Henry's commentary concerning 1 Cor 7:14: "But the apostle tells them that, though they were yoked with unbelievers, yet, if they themselves were holy, marriage was to them a holy state, and marriage comforts, even with an unbelieving relative, were sanctified enjoyments. It was no more displeasing to God for them to continue to live as they did before, with their unbelieving or heathen relation, than if they had become converts together. If one of the relatives had become holy, nothing of the duties or lawful comforts of the married state could defile them, and render them displeasing to God, though the other were a heathen. He is sanctified for the wife's sake. She is sanctified for the husband's sake. Both are one flesh. He is to be reputed clean who is one flesh with her that is holy, and vice versâ: Else were your children unclean, but now are they holy (v. 14), that is, they would be heathen, out of the pale of the church and covenant of God. They would not be of the holy seed (as the Jews are called, Isa. vi. 13), but common and unclean, in the same sense as heathens in general were styled in the apostle's vision, Acts x. 28. This way of speaking is according to the dialect of the Jews, among whom a child begotten by parents yet heathens, was said to be begotten out of holiness; and a child begotten by parents made proselytes was said to be begotten intra sanctitatem—within the holy enclosure. Thus Christians are called commonly saints; such they are by profession, separated to be a peculiar people of God, and as such distinguished from the world; and therefore the children born to Christians, though married to unbelievers, are not to be reckoned as part of the world, but of the church, a holy, not a common and unclean seed. "Continue therefore to live even with unbelieving relatives; for, if you are holy, the relation is so, the state is so, you may make a holy use even of an unbelieving relative, in conjugal duties, and your seed will be holy too." What a comfort is this, where both relatives are believers!"

So, once again, the sense is clear that Scripture argues on behalf of the unbeliever married to the believing spouse, rather than against the believer because of the unbelieving spouse.
Journey to Orthodoxy
God Became Man and other thoughts
Thoughts on Mary
Visiting the Church
Returning to the Church
The Communion Question
Losing the Sense of the Sacred
Conversation with Fr. Tom
Icons and Worship
Differing Viewpoints
Can we truly know?
Faith and Works
Child Baptism