Friday, November 17, 2006

weighing the positives and negatives

A good suggestion I received yesterday was to spend some time thinking and praying about the positive and negative effects that entering the catechumenate at this point will have on my relationship with Julie, particularly in light of my responsibilities as husband and father. Here's a first crack at putting down some thoughts on the issue.


I make no claim to perfect certainty about what it means in our context for a husband to love his wife. I have spent a great deal of time considering this issue over the past couple of years, specifically asking myself if it could mean that I should lay aside my desire to become Orthodox for Julie's sake. I remain unconvinced that this is the best understanding, although I am not sure I have a convincing alternative either.

Obviously, the most involved NT passage with regard to the husband's responsibility is Eph 5:22-33. In my view, however, it is important to look at the charge to the wife side-by-side with that to the husband, so that a balanced perspective is obtained. Further, there are some significant differences to be found in other passages that address the husband's obligation, which might affect the final picture.

I think it's safe to say that there is a fundamental assumption in the NT about the husband's role as spiritual leader in the home, particularly when both partners are believers. 1 Cor 14:35, for instance, instructs wives to ask their questions about the content of the church service after they get home. Now, I'm not going to get into the issue here, of how the rule about silence in the church should be applied today. I bring up this passage only to exemplify the assumed relationship.

It goes even further, when passages like the one in Ephesians and 1 Pet 3:1-7 treat submission on the part of the wife as a social norm, like children submitting to parents or slaves to masters. On the other hand, this submission does have to be qualified to some degree. Despite Paul's apparently unqualified language in Ephesians 5 ("in everything"), it does not seem like she is being asked to violate her own convictions. For instance, if her husband is an unbeliever or idolater, and wants her to be the same, Luke 14:26 sets a comprehensive standard of resistance. Also, Paul's instructions in 1 Cor 7:12-16 and Peter's instructions to wives assume that the believing partner's faith is non-negotiable. Let the unbelieving spouse stay if they will, but live your faith in the relationship to sanctify the home. Now, where does one draw the line of conscience? What if her husband wants to switch to a heretical sect? What about another denomination in our setting today? What about political convictions? Drawing the line may not be easy, but admitting that there must be a line somewhere is important.

There are two basic standards in Ephesians for how a husband should love his wife--that of Christ's love for the Church, and that of the husband's love for his own body. The standard of Christ's love relates to his sacrifice for the Church, but it continues into the purpose of that sacrifice--to sanctify and cleanse her, so she may be holy and blameless. He gives everything that is necessary, even to his own death, so that she can be made holy. The standard of the husband's love for his own body has to do with his natural care for the body--feeding it, clothing it, etc. So the husband is to provide his wife with what she needs for life and salvation, even if it means dying to make that happen.

Other passages explicate the husband's love somewhat differently. Col 3:18-19 sets up an opposition between love and bitterness. It seems strange as a general principle, but perhaps the focus is specifically on situations where the wife does not follow or submit. Rather than reacting bitterly, the husband should just continue to love. In 1 Peter, love is described in terms of honor, respect, and consideration--recognizing that the wife is an equal in Christ but dealing gently with her as though she's weak. I'm not sure the intent here is to say that she actually is weaker than the husband in any particular way, but simply to guide how he should deal with her.

So, to sum up, the husband should lead and the wife should submit. But in leading, he should love by sacrificing for her life and salvation, providing for her needs, treating her with honor, respect, and gentleness, and without bitterness. And there does not seem to be any expectation that she should follow him in direct opposition to her convictions about Christ. It is mostly about conduct within the marriage. In that light, it seems likely that the husband is also expected to reserve his core convictions--that sacrificing himself for his wife's sake will not normally mean violating his walk with Christ. In fact, if the goal of self-sacrifice is her sanctification, and if he is supposed to be the spiritual leader, it could be argued that laying aside his convictions is the last thing he should do.


How will proceeding with the catechumenate alone and at this point affect our relationship and my biblical role as husband?

On the positive side, it will certainly help to prevent bitterness on my part. I respect Julie's right to make her own choice about Orthodoxy, and I can be patient with whatever personal issues she needs to work through so that analysis can happen. I trust God to work in the long term, to bring unity and oneness of mind in our relationship. What is more challenging, however, is to resist blaming her for my own exclusion. If she showed any sign of moving toward Orthodoxy, I would be more encouraged about waiting for her to catch up and doing what I could to help along the process. As it is, we're both pretty firm in our convictions at this point, and if anything we've moved further apart in our thinking over the couple of years that this has been going on. With no reasonable prospect in sight of coming to agreement, waiting for that to happen looks like an increasingly bleak option.

Julie feels the tension on this point as well and has already expressed her sense of relief at discovering that it was possible for me to move on without her. However much I have tried not to blame or pressure her, it was still an easy connection to make, that I obviously wanted to head in the direction of Orthodoxy, and her opposition was preventing my progress. She no longer needs to feel like she has to choose between my spiritual growth and hers.

Taking this step also establishes consistency in my spiritual example to my family and to others. As much as I talk about a sacramental outlook and matching external form with internal reality, I've spent the past two years working on my own through a process of spiritual growth, formally outside the Church, and excluded from the sacraments. I won't be able to participate in the sacraments until I actually convert, which could be quite a while longer yet, but now I will be on the Church's prescribed path toward that end. I will be in some sense formally part of the Church and a part of its prayer life, as catechumens are regularly prayed for in the public services. Moving forward thus clarifies the message I'm sending in my spiritual growth. More tangibly, it will also further my growth, as I progress under the guidance of a spiritual father and eventually come into the sacramental life of the Church, where the grace of the Spirit is experienced more fully.

In a related vein, the further I progress into Orthodoxy and the stronger my attachment becomes, the more comfortable I can be with my interaction outside the Church. Right now, all I have is what I do personally. I'm still very much on my own in this process, and that tends to focus my attention on the stuff I do to make myself more Orthodox. As I become more integrated into the Orthodox Church and more established in my organic connection to the Church, the emphasis can shift from doing to being. None of this is to say that right now it should be so much about doing, or that later the doing will go away. My point is simply that it gets easier to rest in my identity as Orthodox, once I'm really in. Perhaps it's the difference between holding onto a rope in the water alongside the boat and actually being in the boat. You keep up, and you get to your destination, whichever way you do it. But when you're in the boat, it's much easier to focus outward on other things. In that sense, I will be in a better position to minister to my family as I progress in my own walk.

On the negative side, the actual service in which I become a catechumen will probably be a difficult experience for Julie. She wants to be there, and I'm grateful for that, but it will be hard. I don't know how lasting the pain of the moment will be. I'm glad in this respect that she'll have a friend coming along for extra support.

Taking this tangible step also constitutes a rather concrete acknowledgement of things we have already accepted, at least mentally--that I want to be Orthodox, while she does not, and that we're not likely to reach any kind of unity on this issue anytime soon. It's not exactly a point of no return, but it does make the whole thing seem a bit more real, and that will probably cause some pain.

It could be argued that becoming a catechumen will also mean more time in Orthodox services, classes, and other activities, which will generally translate into more time apart and particularly more occasions when we go to church separately. On the other hand, my attendance has been increasing gradually over the past couple of years anyway, and it's unlikely that I would attend less if I didn't become a catechumen. (On the contrary, as I discussed above, I would probably feel more internal pressure to attend regularly to make up for my tentative position.) Even though the discussion about starting the catechumenate specifically precipitated a renewed effort to attend more regularly, it was about time for another transition anyway. It's been roughly a year since I adopted a strategy of attending special services, so I would have a chance to experience the different liturgical events on the Orthodox calendar. Now that I've been through the cycle, I would be looking for something with greater consistency anyway.

Even so, the fact of becoming a catechumen and its coinciding with increased attendance could generate a real or perceived distancing from my family, or more particularly from Julie. (Because Ian often attends services with me, I actually end up spending more time alone with him than I would otherwise.) I do need to guard against any real distancing that might result. I need to be more sensitive to ways that I can be there for Julie and that we can interact more closely in what we do share. I should also look for ways to focus my spiritual growth particularly on how Orthodoxy teaches me to be a better father, husband, spiritual leader in the home, etc.


Clearly, there are real positive and negative effects involved in this decision, but on the whole I see the positives as more substantial, particularly if I am cautious about how I handle the negatives.

No comments: