Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
– Exodus 20:12
If any [man] come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.
– Luke 14:26
Having non-Orthodox family members, especially if one is the only Orthodox member due to personal conversion, can be a real trial and test of one’s faith, but it is also a truly God-given opportunity to witness to Christ and the Church, and to win over new converts, provided one understands how to use the opportunity. Orthodoxy does not require us to abandon our relationship with our non-Orthodox relatives, and certainly does not absolve us of our natural obligations towards them, but it does require us to put God and the Church first whenever there is a conflict between the demands of family and the demands of our faith.
The ease or difficulty of dealing with non-Orthodox relatives depends on several factors: whether or not you still live at home, the degree to which you are financially dependent on your family, and their religious background and social status. If your family is Evangelical Protestant, you probably will not have any differences over moral issues, but primarily dogmatic ones. If they are agnostics, on the other hand, they may care less about the Orthodox doctrine of holy images than about our strict stance on abortion. If you are living independently, issues may only turn up on the occasional family visit, or on family holidays like Thanksgiving; if you are young and still living at home, the pressure to conform to their non-Orthodox way of life will be considerably stronger and require more personal determination and support from your spiritual father and the Church.
If you are living with non-Orthodox family, the most significant challenges may include carrying out your prayer rule diligently, keeping the prescribed fasts, defending the faith in conversation, and conducting yourself in a manner befitting Orthodox Christians during family quarrels and disputes. Other potential trials that can arise, even if you do not live with non-Orthodox relatives, include situations where they request or demand that you participate in heterodox worship, or that you participate in family events when you are obliged to be in church for Divine Liturgy. In all these things, you must learn how to balance the two commandments of God stated above.
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
– Matthew 6:6
As your spiritual father probably told you, keeping the daily prayer rule is probably the single most important duty of the Orthodox Christian. Daily prayer, as well as spiritual reading, is where we derive the God-given strength to behave as true Orthodox Christians in the rest of our endeavors. When living on your own, or, if married in the Church, in the company of your own Orthodox family, there is generally little reason, apart from laxity, to abandon the prayer rule. But if, for whatever reason, you find yourself living in the home of non-Orthodox relatives, at times you may experience subtle, or not so subtle, pressure to leave off observance of the rule. It is important to resist this pressure to abandon regular prayer, and instead focus on defusing whatever tension appears to arise from it by other means, if possible.
For example, if you must share a room with a relative such as a sibling, or perhaps a non-Orthodox spouse, it can be particularly hard to treat the room as your special place of prayer and intimacy with God, as our faith encourages and indeed requires. How, under those circumstances, do you observe this commandment of our Lord Christ given above?
Firstly, there is no harm in asking your roommate if it’s all right to use the room at certain times for prayer, and even to keep an icon corner and vigil lamp (if it’s your permanent home). It is not a sin to let your family know that you pray regularly; what’s a sin is to be deliberately showy about your prayer in order to earn admiration or attention. If your roommate refuses, you can find somewhere else to pray, but ask God to turn your roommate’s heart, and know that this may be a sign for you to make plans to move out into your own place.
If members of your family are ever rude about your prayer habits, even if you have been as discreet as you could be, do your best to ignore such comments. Provocations of this sort are from the Devil and should be met with silence. Again, this is perhaps a sign for you to move out in order to avoid the temptation to abandon your prayer and even your faith. Such friction could also rise over saying prayers before and after meals, and making the sign of the Cross. You must be clear that this is an obligation for you, and that if they are offended at the sign of the Cross, you will have to take your meals separately. Under these circumstances, it is good to remember that persecution, even in such mild forms, is a blessing, provided you accept it without complaint.
In all these matters, be sure to consult with your spiritual father. It is vital that you never be bashful about explaining your particular problems to your confessor, not only because the kind of general advice offered here cannot cover all situations, but also because the authoritative instructions of your own priest or bishop can give you the strength to withstand trials in a way that a layman’s essay such as this can never do.
Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
– Matthew 6:16
This has greater potential for friction, since disputes over fasting can occur whether you are living with non-Orthodox family or simply visiting during a fast, e.g. at Western Christmas. In this matter consultation with your spiritual father is especially encouraged, since some circumstances may well call for a partial or complete relaxation of the dietary rules, but only the spiritual father can authorize a relaxation. If no such authorization has been given, you are obliged to keep the rules in all their strictness whatever situation you find yourself in.
As with prayer, you have a duty to fast, but at the same time not to advertise your fasting unnecessarily. This does not mean that you must always keep it a total secret: for instance, refusing a dish including meat or dairy is far more likely to offend the family cook if no explanation is given for the refusal, than if you explain beforehand that the Church has forbidden such foods at that time. It does mean that you must not make any extra show of it, and certainly you must not judge your family for not keeping the rules. Fasting is an obligation for Orthodox Christians only.
Family members may insist that you relax your fasting for various reasons, some of which may seem quite reasonable, such as appreciating your mother’s cooking, or not making other family diners uncomfortable. Generally, it is indeed unfair to expect your family cook to prepare fasting food in addition to non-fasting food for your sake: at least make an offer to prepare your own fasting food. If your cook is willing to prepare fasting food for you, however, make sure he or she knows the rules. If, despite this, you end up being served food that doesn’t quite obey all the conditions, e.g. a dish containing dairy but no meat, probably only then is it better to eat what one is served, rather than make a fuss, because one has already done all one could to have a proper fasting meal prepared (although one should discreetly let the cook know about the error afterwards, and mention what happened in confession).
The uncomfortable feelings of other family members are another matter. On the whole, these are not adequate reasons for abandoning the fasts, just as the discomfort of your family over your prayer rule is no cause for abandoning prayer. If your fasting bothers them, let them know you are willing to take meals separately, but not to break the fast. If they say you have to please your mother or father who made a special meal, tell them you have to please God more. In dealing with your non-Orthodox family, you must be prepared to be firm at times, and let relatives know that although you place them higher than yourself, you place Christ and His Church the highest of all.
But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and [be] ready always to [give] an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear.
– 1 Peter 3:15
Conversation about Orthodoxy is one of the best opportunities to inform your non-Orthodox relatives and even persuade them of the truth of our faith, but it is also a potential pit of destruction. While some relatives may be sympathetic to your choice, or at least tolerant, others may be cold towards you and even aggressively hostile. The Devil will try his best to use this hostility in order to get you to lose your temper and fall into the sin of judging your neighbor—in this case, our own family—in which case your witness for the Truth will have failed. At all times, you must balance a zeal for the truth with an undying love for those of your family who have not yet come to accept it.
Discretion is the best principle. Do not bring up the topic of Orthodoxy without need, since often the Devil prompts us to do so in order to provoke an argument. Instead, proclaim your faith by your actions more than by words. Offer to help out with household chores whenever the opportunity arises, ask how each of your family members is doing, and show that you care about them. Do favors whenever you get the chance. Of course, this is thoroughly natural behavior for a family member, whether or not one is an Orthodox Christian, but then you are that much more obliged to practice this sort of charity. You have a duty to proclaim and practice the teaching of our Church that you put your neighbor above yourself, even if you put God first.
Sometimes such charity can lead you down difficult roads, for instance if a relative requests financial help in order to carry out some immoral action or maintain an immoral lifestyle. Here your obligations with respect to the spiritual welfare of your neighbor, especially your family, come into play. Generally speaking, you have a duty to ask about the purpose for which your help is sought, and if you find out that the aid is intended for something forbidden by God’s law, then you must be clear that help is conditional upon abandoning the immoral enterprise. Note that generally it does not matter whether or not your relative agrees that his or her behavior is immoral, e.g. if it concerns some petty theft that your relative thinks nothing of. In cases like that, it is irrelevant that he or she does not think it is immoral; what matters is that you know it is immoral and you cannot in good conscience support it. These are times when material welfare must be subordinated to spiritual welfare, and this goes not only for ourselves but also for those who are dependent on us, and for whom we must take responsibility before God.
Looking after the spiritual welfare of our relatives, of course, will also sometimes involve explaining or defending the teachings of Orthodoxy. As noted above, try to avoid bringing up dogmatic topics unless you are asked specifically about them, or if you find that your faith is being attacked, in which case you then have a duty to rise to defend it: there are reasons that the Church has traditionally assigned dogmatic instruction to an organized catechumenate. If your relative asks about the faith, of course, that is the time to explain it to the best of your ability. If not, save the urge to discuss doctrine for conversation with fellow Orthodox Christians, i.e. your spiritual family.
If a family member starts attacking the Church, then this is a real test of both your zeal and your love. If you can, explain calmly why your relative is wrong about the Church’s teaching. If you find that you cannot immediately answer his objections, do not concede the argument, but say that you will try to find the answer later in your own time. Even if we don’t always know the reasoned justifications for Church dogma, we are still obliged to hold to them, come what may. Of course, we must also ensure that we are constantly learning about the faith, not only to answer our own questions, but also those of the non-Orthodox.
Whatever you do, however, resist the urge to respond with any personal attacks. If you find that you are getting heated, this is probably the time to drop the subject, saying that you will be happy to discuss it further at some later point after you’ve thought it through. Although some saints have displayed truly righteous anger in the face of heresy (e.g. when St Nicholas slapped Arius across the cheek at the First Ecumenical Council), we have to acknowledge that most of us have not reached that level of sanctity, and any beginning of anger in our hearts is almost certainly a diabolical temptation. Our zeal to defend the faith is proper; our anger against our family is not. And remember that God does not need us to defend Him; we are only the vehicles for His plan.
Finally, exercise temperance in all things, whether in food, drink, or speech. Avoid immoral conversation, and do not take part in immoral family activities or entertainment. If your relatives like to get drunk at a holiday celebration, it is best not to take part at all, if you know this is the usual course of events. Be honest about your reluctance to participate, and do not let them cajole you into un-Christian behavior. If despite your efforts you find yourself in bad company, continue to exercise moderation, and explain later why you cannot participate in their activities in the future.
He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.
– Proverbs 13:24
The attitude to take in family quarrels and disputes depends on a great deal on our position in that family. With respect to our natural parents, we still have obligations of obedience towards them, wherever such obligations do not conflict with our duties towards Christ and the Church. With respect to our children, we continue to have obligations of responsibility, and in other relationships, e.g. between siblings, or between an Orthodox and a non-Orthodox spouse, conversion to the Truth does not negate the duties towards our relatives in the flesh.
As we discussed earlier, family loyalty is thoroughly natural, which only makes it that much more important that we honor such loyalty as Orthodox Christians. Family loyalty, however, does not mean supporting your relatives in whatever they do, regardless of moral consequences. While there are some duties restricted to members of the Church, e.g. observance of a daily prayer rule, or keeping the prescribed fasts, other moral obligations fall on all human beings, such as justice, honesty, chastity, and so forth. If a relative is taking part in some such moral offense, do not support it, either by material support or verbal approval. This includes offenses that your non-Orthodox relative may not recognize as immoral, such as cohabiting with an unmarried partner, or gambling. Do not support your family in any illegal behavior, bearing in mind, however, that not everything that is legal is moral, nor everything that is moral legal.
If you are personally involved in a quarrel, do the Christian thing and yield your rights, however hard that may be. Situations like this can often arise, e.g. in disputes over whose job it was to clean the toilet, or the proper allocation of an inheritance. If a dispute arises, on the other hand, over principle, e.g. a demand that you support a relative in some immoral endeavor, then you must take your stand and suffer the consequences. It goes without saying, of course, that if you find yourself in the middle of a dispute, avoid personal attacks or unnecessarily harsh language. If necessary, leave a heated conversation whenever anger rears its head in your soul.
Probably a special word should be said about relating to divorced non-Orthodox relatives. The Church has particularly strict rules about divorce: it is forbidden, except in the case of fornication and abandonment. In the world, however, divorce is extremely common, and so many people coming into the Church will have divorced relatives and need some guidance on how to treat them. This author believes, however, that such strictness is intended for Orthodox Christians only, and that an Orthodox Christian should support any non-Orthodox relative who is legally married, regardless of whether that relative is divorced, how many times, or whatever the reasons for the divorce, since at least during the marriage, the spouses have made solemn promises to be with each other till death, as God commands. With the encroaching legalization of “same-sex” marriage, however, a line should probably be drawn, since such legalization does not negate the essential immorality of homosexual relationships.
If any clergymen, or laymen, enter a synagogue of Jews, or of heretics, to pray, let him be both deposed and excommunicated.
– Apostolic Canon LXV
Many converts come from families practicing some other form of Christianity, or possibly even a non-Christian religion, and they may be pressed to participate in some heterodox service “for family’s sake”, particularly at holidays, marriages, and funerals. Generally, such pressure must be firmly resisted, although in each case it is also best to seek the guidance of one’s spiritual father. It is impossible at the same time to profess Orthodoxy’s exclusive claim to the Truth and then to negate that doctrine by praying with non-believers and heretics.
Relatives may well grow hostile in the face of such a refusal, however politely you make it, and will often ask provocative questions like, “So, do you believe I am a heretic and am going to hell?” The correct response is, “Yes, you are a heretic, but I do not know whether you are going to hell.” At the same time, if asked why heresy is an issue, you must tell the truth, which is that the Church is the only Ark of Salvation. Bear in mind that the fact that the Church is the only path to salvation does not mean we know what will ultimately happen to those who die outside the Church. At the last day, God will judge each according to conscience. Such answers are sufficient for such inquiries.
When it comes to important events like marriages and funerals, non-attendance can be viewed in a particularly dim light. If your spiritual father permits, you may attend the ceremonies, although you should try to avoid taking part in any active worship or prayer. If you do not have your spiritual father’s blessing, explain to your family politely why the Church forbids you to take part in the religious elements of the ceremonies. Attendance at the wedding reception or the funeral wake only may be a possible compromise.
Closely related to this issue is that of missing Divine Liturgy for the sake of some family event. As with missing Liturgy for work or other events, seek permission from your spiritual father. If this is not granted, you must again explain your prior obligations to the Church in a loving but firm manner. Any personal animosity directed at you for this reason must be dealt with as with all personal attacks: with silence and forbearance.
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
– Matthew 5:16
Being Orthodox amidst non-Orthodox relatives can appear to be truly a terrifying responsibility. Your family will look at you and form general judgments about Orthodoxy based on your behavior. If you don’t behave in a manner befitting an Orthodox Christian, they may well come away with the impression that your faith is a sham, meaning not only that you personally are a hypocrite, but that Orthodoxy itself is futile. On the other hand, if you are generally successful at keeping the commandments, you may find yourself falling into pride, which your family will notice and cause them to think of Orthodox as self-righteous.
Of course, none of us are perfect, so that it may seem an impossible task to do as Christ commands above, to “shine before men.” However, we deal with this as we deal with our faults generally: we acknowledge them, we confess them, and we struggle to do better. If you offend one of your relatives, he or she may think you no better for your Orthodoxy. But if you seek forgiveness at the first opportunity, and do so every time you offend, then your relative will see something extraordinary about our faith and what it teaches. With non-Orthodox relatives above all, the tradition of “not letting the sun set on your anger” should be taken especially seriously.
Yet while you should be particularly eager to forgive personal offences, you should be especially zealous to defend your faith. Do not compromise over even little things, like crossing yourself before meals, keeping the fasts, saying your daily prayer rule, or attending Divine Liturgy every Sunday and holiday. As we saw above, your behavior will be the best catechesis for your family. Rude comments should get the answer they deserve, which is silence.
All of this requires great spiritual strength, which can only come from a life of prayer and fasting, meaning constant awareness of God’s presence and our own weaknesses. Say your prayers, go to church, and maintain a regular schedule of spiritual reading. At the same time, work diligently, engage in your hobbies, and do not neglect your social life, provided everything is subjected to Christian moderation. A Christian is above all a normal person, and really the task is to show to your non-Orthodox relatives that true normality is only achievable in the Church.
Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Tucson, AZ, is a beautiful mission parish near downtown Tucson, a city in southern Arizona. It was started in 1997 by Father John Bockman, who was a missionary priest formerly serving missions in Tennessee and Massachusetts since 1990. Read more...