Family Peace Begins with Hierarchy - Russian Priest Explains Why Christian Husbands Lead Their Wives

Originally appeared at: Global Orthodox

Archpriest Maxim Kozlov, rector of the Church of St. Martyr Tatiana at Moscow State University and a professor at the Moscow Theological Academy, is author of numerous books and articles on Orthodox Christianity, biblical studies, family issues, and many other topics. In the following interview, originally published in Russian, Fr. Maxim discusses important aspects of Christian marriage and family life.

Marriage is often spoken of as a way of the cross, a trial, and wedding crowns are compared almost to martyrdom. Do you think this is a distorted view of marriage, or does it have a reasonable basis?

— At the last moment of the Orthodox Christian wedding, before giving the newlyweds the cross and turning them to face the people, the priest usually says these words: "Look at one another. Not I, but the Church testifies to you that you are king and queen, Adam and Eve. Not I, but the Church testifies to you that your present love and purity of relationship can be preserved until the end of the earthly journey. Do not believe those who, disappointed by their own experience, will 'sober you up' by talking about the fragility of feelings, about the inevitable weariness of each other, about the impossibility of family happiness. Know this: what is impossible for man is possible for God. And it is possible to look at each other in 25 or 40 years, just as you do today."

If the task of preserving love in marriage is not one of habit, patience, or crusading, understood as agony and a heavy commitment to the grave, but of preserving love and openness toward one another, then the family can turn into hell. Preserving and multiplying love in marriage is not an easy task. But it sets the bar high for the relationship and sets a high note of matrimony at the same time. The crowns that are placed on the heads of the bride and groom are not only and not so much a martyr's crown, but also a royal crown - that royal dignity and priesthood, of which the Apostle Paul speaks and which the Church recalls at the time of the wedding.

In every sacrament we are given a pledge of that which can be replenished and nurtured. In baptism we can grow into the measure of a perfect man, the measure of that new creature in Christ to which we are all called. Alas, it turns out differently, but opportunities - not just empty promises - are given to everyone. The sacrament is reality, not words. It is in the sacrament of marriage that real opportunities are given to carry marital unity through life in such a way that it can be carried on into eternity. If we do not believe in the reality of this possibility, we are not Christians. So we do not treat the sacrament as the Church teaches us. There are not many religious rites that are placed in the category of sacraments. Marriage is one of them. This must not be forgotten.

Unfortunately, it often happens that the initial love is replaced by mutual weariness and irritation, and the spouses are united only by the habit of being around each other and the established order of common life. At the same time it seems to them that the meaning and goal of marriage - the preservation of family - has been achieved, while the spiritual unity of the two people has long been lost. How can we keep from missing the moment when there is the first crack in the relationship between husband and wife? What are the symptoms that indicate the beginning of a cooling of feelings?

— The apostle Paul says words that apply equally to both husband and wife: "Bear one another's burdens" (Galatians 6:2). In addition, we must not forget the words that are also heard during the wedding - that husbands should love their wives and cherish them as a weaker vessel, and wives should have awe for their husbands: "Husbands, treat wives wisely as a weaker vessel, giving them honor as co-heirs with the life of grace..." (1 Peter 3:7); "Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church" (Ephesians 5:25); "Wives, obey your husbands as the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife, just as Christ is the head of the church" (Ephesians 5:22-23); "Each of you love his wife as himself; but the wife should fear her husband" (Ephesians 5:33). 

This is not just rhetoric; it is the very principle of the relationship. A husband should have a loving, compassionate relationship with someone who is inherently weaker, not only physically, but also emotionally, in the degree of inner stability, impressionability, and dependence on the influences of the outside world. The husband should cover these emotional manifestations with love and compassion, not with the despotism of an oriental master or a corporal giving orders in the barracks.

But the wife must also remember that the proper hierarchical arrangement in the family implies that the husband is in charge. She can give advice, express her judgments, and share her observations. I will say more: a wise wife will subtly and delicately push her husband to make the right decision; her wisdom will lie in the ability to tactfully give her thoughts for his — thus she will save the family from conflicts. But it is wrong for the wife to put herself first and for the husband to shirk his responsibility.

If these hierarchical relationships in the family are maintained, the family will avoid many of the cataclysms that now occur more and more often between spouses who perceive the family as a democratic institution. Today there is an increasing emphasis on a family structure in which the spouses are absolutely equal and each has the right to their own sovereignty and autonomy. Just as modern society prioritizes the proverbial human rights, so in the family today each spouse seeks to assert his or her individual rights. At the moment when such aspirations arise in the family, the spouses need to reflect: this is where the origins of mutual rivalry and many conflicts lie. For in the traditional family there are no rights, but duties — the obligation to bear the burden of responsibility and the duty of obedience. 

I remember a very wise observation of an experienced priest. He spoke of a situation where a wife sees the obvious wrongdoing of her husband who makes a knowingly wrong decision. If, however, the wife will treat this weak decision as obedience and as God's will, the Lord will surely turn it for good. I have been repeatedly convinced by the examples of various families that this is the case. If, for the sake of Christ, you humble yourself before your husband's decision that is wrong in everyday life (I am not talking about situations where there is a violation of moral principles), the Lord will certainly turn things around for the better.

As for the husband's responsibilities, it is, I repeat, first and foremost a sense of responsibility. These days, as women become more and more active and professionally demanding, there is a distortion of these principles. "As you decide, so it will be," "do as you want, just leave me alone," the wife often hears from her tired husband. There is something unmanly and improper in this desire to avoid responsibility, to put the decision on the shoulders of the other, which also gives a bias to the family relationship.

It is clear that the idea of a strict hierarchy was peculiar to the traditional family, where perhaps no thought was given to a different arrangement. But today the roles of women and men in society and, accordingly, in the family have shifted significantly. As you said, a woman has become professionally in demand, she has additional spheres of activity apart from her household chores, and in some families she is the main breadwinner and provider. What about the hierarchy in such a family?

— Such changes in roles have happened before: such marriages were called a "mésalliance". Only they were associated not so much with employment, as with social status: say, a poor husband for a rich wife, or a husband-merchant for a noblewoman wife. Such initial inequality, of course, is not very conducive to the development of harmonious family relationships.

Naturally, it can also be overcome by a conscious effort of two people, when, say, the wife, despite her superior social status, does not seek to put herself in charge, and the husband does not have an inferiority complex because of his small earnings, turning into the figure of an offended man sitting on the couch. In this connection we can remember the movie "Moscow does not believe in tears," which is built on the conflict around this situation. It really is not easy, though it is surmountable.

But on the part of a woman consciously belittling her husband to the role of the housewife and taking on the exclusive leadership role not only in terms of making money and acquiring social status, but also in general the role of absolute leader - a clearly painful manifestation. And it is painful for both sides at the same time. No matter how hard a woman convincing herself that her life is easier and that her husband is not capable of anything other than carrying out her instructions and commands, deep down it can not help but hurt the lack of male leadership and protection. Such role reversals undermine both the relationship between spouses and the process of raising children, who borrow the models of their parents, projecting them for the rest of their lives. Therefore, regardless of the specifics of today's social status of the spouses, it is better to strive to preserve the God-given nature of the family at all costs. 

Going back to the question of female obedience and humility: What about a situation where the husband makes an obvious mistake? Should the wife, mindful of the hierarchy, stand aside and watch silently as the man she loves makes a knowingly wrong move?

— When such situations arise, it is best to turn to a priest: it is good if both husband and wife have a confessor who is devoted to their family life and to whom they can turn as an arbiter in decisive disagreements. This does not mean that husband and wife must have the same confessor. But in such situations, both should turn to the same priest whom they trust as a moral and life authority and by whose word they are willing to act. This will help resolve many conflicts and disagreements.

If for one reason or another there is no possibility of contacting a priest (say, one of the spouses does not want to consult with anyone), the situation becomes much more complicated. And here it is necessary to distinguish the types of family conflicts. If the disagreement between the spouses involves a third party - and this is usually a disagreement between parents about parenting issues - then we need to prioritize the good of the children's souls. If the husband demands something clearly wrong (for example, by encouraging uncontrolled TV watching, Internet use, and other activities harmful to the soul), the wife, of course, should proceed not from the idea of unconditional obedience to the husband, but from moral principles: in this case, from considerations of the benefit of the children's soul. If it is a matter of personal offense, then we must be guided by the Gospel rule that the highest moral victory for the Christian is not reciprocal harshness and insult, but humble love and patience. It is very hard to believe, but humble love does win!

What if each spouse has separate interests? Is it acceptable for a husband or wife to have his or her own personal space, a territory that the other does not enter? And how natural is the husband or wife's desire for privacy, for a break from each other?  

— The key word to be said here is the word "measure." Say, if by "taking a break from each other" we mean going for a walk, being alone with our thoughts, having free evening hours for work, for prayer, or simply for concentrated rest, that is one thing. It is quite another thing if by "rest" we mean going on vacation with friends. Needless to say, such urges are painful. This is why I talk about the extent of these desires.

Another important factor is purpose. If the inner attitude is to gather strength in order to live as a family, then it is not terrible. If, on the other hand, such a rest becomes the focus of life itself, the limit of dreams, and the family is perceived as a painful sacrifice, heroism, where love is out of the question, then it is quite obvious that such a marriage is on the way to ruin. 

Another thing is that you cannot extort unanimity from the other person. It is the kind of thing that, like love, cannot be demanded. "Be with me," "open your soul to me," "what are you thinking about right now?" . . . The sphere of one's inner life is such a subtle thing that any shadow of coercion only produces the opposite effect. 

You talked about the duties of spouses. Do these duties depend on the specifics of each family, their characters, and the degree to which the spouses are employed? Or despite all the social and other changes in the modern family structure, are there once-and-for-all established responsibilities assigned to each of them?

— I think it would be unnatural for a Christian wife to reject anything related to motherhood. It is rather strange when a wife requires her husband to bottle-feed a baby and to take maternity leave, while she goes to work herself. Understandably, there are times in a young person's life when they are so close to their mother that to separate them at that moment would be unnatural and wrong, to say the least. I am not talking about the context that is practically taking shape, but rather about the original setting of the spouses to change these traditional roles. The mother of a newborn baby behaves unnaturally if she is absorbed in her work, and the husband behaves unnaturally if he chooses the household as his main sphere of labor and shifts the material support of the family onto the shoulders of his wife.

Among other responsibilities, it is important to remember the functions of the father in relation to his sons and the mother in relation to her daughters: these functions are rather strange to shift to one other. Otherwise there is no rigidity; each family divides up responsibilities in its own way. It is insightful that there is no statute of marital functions in Scripture. It speaks of the principle of the marriage union as an image of the union of Christ and the Church, of love, of trembling and willingness to accept the will of the other, but not of a list of duties. Therefore, keeping in mind the main task and meaning of matrimony, each family organizes its life in its own way.

What about the situation - alas, a common and recognizable one - when people who have been married for many years suddenly realize that they are complete strangers to each other: they have no common interests, no mutual understanding, let alone love?

— And secular people are already summing up their marriage, saying that nothing else binds them, that there is still an opportunity to find someone better, younger, to create another family, to reanimate the fire of feelings, that delightful state of love in which they were once married . . . What can I say? Every family goes through periods of crisis and trials. And such moments confirm that the way of the cross is the inalienable destiny of our earthly life — every life, not only in the family, whether it is the bitterness of loneliness or the trials of monasticism, which by no means protects against temptations, crises, or disappointments.

But the Christian has a stronghold. The Christian knows that God does not make false promises. Even though it seems that there is no end to the darkness, that there is no more strength to resist, that our heart has dried up and the world is not fair, we know that God never tests us above measure! If we do not give up, if — in the words of St. Ambrose of Optina — without the spirit of love, we try to do works of love for others, then the Lord will, in due time, give us back the spirit of love.

Father Alexander Schmemann in his book For the Life of the World has a very precise image of conjugal love. Recalling that all fairy tales and movies tend to end with a wedding and a sweet kiss from the lovers, he cites his image of love that arose when looking at one elderly couple in Paris. Not too pretty, not too young, they sat in the autumn Luxembourg Garden, holding hands in silence. Everything was behind them, the storms had receded, the temptations had passed, and they had come through it together. And that silence, peace, and the opportunity to sit side by side holding each other's hands 25-30-40 years later is the miracle of marriage that can be continued into eternity.

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