Main Menu  

Open menu

Interchurch Families as Domestic Church : More real than imperfect?

Ray Temmerman

Theological terms are often more familiar within one tradition than another.  ‘Domestic church’ is no different, being a term more familiar within the Roman Catholic tradition since it was brought into present day usage during Vatican II, in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church thanks to the work of Bishop Pietro Fiordelli.  [1]

It is the purpose of this paper to explore how the term, now coming more generally into popular usage, might apply not just to marriage, but specifically within the context of interchurch families.

I will begin with an overview of baptism and marriage, the two sacraments which create and enhance the unity of the married couple, drawing on original documents from various Christian traditions.  I will then explore the term ‘domestic church’.  While it is generally accepted that such a couple and their children together form an ‘ecclesia domestica’, a church in miniature, the term is only beginning to be fully explored.  I will attempt to further the exploration by drawing on the ‘marks’ of the Church.

Finally, I will attempt to determine whether these marks, and the term ‘domestic church’, might apply not only where the spouses are of the same Christian tradition, but equally where the spouses are of two Christian traditions.  While recognizing that the disunity between Christian traditions can impact adversely on such couples, I will propose that the question in the title of this paper should accurately be answered in the affirmative.


Whether we look at Scripture, at various documents of the Catholic or Orthodox churches, or at documents of the member churches of the World Council of Churches, it becomes clear that, while there is some difference of opinion as to just how and when baptism should take place, there is broad agreement as to the impact of baptism.

Even a perfunctory reading of Scripture shows us that we have one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who is father of all (Eph 4:5-6).  We have been baptized into Christ Jesus in his death and resurrection (Rom 6:3-5).  We are children of God because of our faith in Christ Jesus and, having been baptized into Christ, there exists among us neither Jew nor Greek, slave or freeman, male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.  (Gal 3:26-28)  It was in one Spirit that all of us, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, were baptized into one body.  (1 Cor12:13 ) [2]

Our churches, too, take up this reality, expanding on it.  From the Roman Catholic Church:

By the sacrament of baptism… man becomes truly incorporated into the crucified and glorified Christ and is reborn to a sharing of the divine life…. Baptism is thus ordained… toward a complete integration into Eucharistic communion. [3]

Baptism incorporates us into the Church, orients us to worship God, and gives us rebirth as sons and daughters. [4]

Baptism, therefore, constitutes the sacramental bond of unity existing among all who through it are reborn. [5]

The Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry document of the World Council of Churches says:

Through baptism, Christians are brought into union with Christ, with each other and with the Church in every time and place.  Our common baptism, which unites us to Christ in faith, is thus a basic bond of unity.  We are one people and are called to confess and serve one Lord in each place and in all the world. [6]

A 1997 paper from the Faith and Order commission of the World Council of Churches declares:

Through our common baptism we are all baptized into Christ and this forms the basis of our ecumenical engagement with each other: because Christ has claimed us, we have no right to reject one another … Since we as Christians are all incorporated into the crucified and glorified Christ, nothing – not even the churches with their centuries of division – can separate us from one another. [7]

This is not to say that all is right and perfect in the Christian world.  There is still not a full recognition of common baptism throughout the churches and ecclesial communities of the world. For example, Baptists question whether one can speak of a “common baptism” at the present stage in the history of the Christian church, given that infants being baptised are unable to make their own personal statement of faith.  Even in such cases, however, there appears general consensus that we can speak of a ‘shared baptismal faith’. [8] [9]

There are many other statements by various church bodies which make similar declarations, or affirm and support those made above, but there is no need to go beyond these authoritative statements in order to demonstrate the point:  as a minimum, when we are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and with water, we are indeed united to Christ in faith, brothers and sisters each of the other, initiated into the Body of Christ, and joint heirs to the kingdom.  Even when we cannot yet come to agreement on whether this or that practice of baptism can truly be recognised by all as constituting baptism into Christ, we can at the very least speak of a shared baptismal faith, wholly directed toward acquiring a fullness of faith in Christ.


Marriage was not instituted by Christ, for in fact marriage predates the life of Jesus of Nazareth, appearing in the very earliest of our sacred myths.  That said, we are aware that as believers in Christ, guided and nurtured by the Holy Spirit, we discover God at work in our lives, bringing us together.  “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” (Gen 2:24)  Together we can say “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” (Gen 2:23 ) 

Paul referred to marriage as a mysterion or great mystery. “This is a great foreshadowing:  I mean that it refers to Christ and the church.” (Eph 5:32) 

Marriage is seen in different ways in different Christian traditions.  In some, it is seen as a sacrament.  Within the Roman Catholic Church, for example, the institution of marriage was finally officially recognized as one of the sacraments of the Church at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. [10]   Over time, the theological development shifted, with more of a juridical or canonical focus developing.  It was at Vatican II that a renewal of theological study yielded the statement on marriage found in Gaudium et Spes[11] This continued in the 1980 Synod of Bishops, devoted to the study of marriage and the family in the contemporary world, out of which came the Papal Exhortation Familiaris Consortio. [12]

In other churches, it is described as an ordinance, mystery, or means of grace. [13]

In all churches, it is agreed that God joins the two people together in marriage, and that the free consent of each for the other is necessary.  As well, the churches agree that the purposes of marriage consist in mutual love, support, and care of the spouses. [14]

In the mystery of marriage, we no longer have two individuals (though they each retain their individual personalities, gifts, and weaknesses) walking side by side, but rather ‘this one’ who journeys through life.  While it can take a lifetime to make that reality fully visible, the unity is nonetheless real at its most fundamental and essential level.

Its unity is so real, and so indissoluble, that in some churches (e.g. Roman Catholic) it is seen as being dissolved only through the death of one of the spouses, while in the Orthodox church it is seen as lasting for eternity. [15]

In any event, marriage is seen as a great act of God, in conjunction with the two people involved, and in the context of their church(es), which builds on and enhances the unity already present between both spouses through the sacrament of baptism.

Interchurch marriages

There are two distinct terms used when referring to marriages across denominational lines.  The term ‘mixed marriage’ refers to the marriage of any two people from two different Christian traditions.   The term ‘interchurch marriage’ is a subset of that, including a husband and a wife who come from two different church traditions (often a Roman Catholic married to a Christian of another communion), with both retaining their original church membership and, so far as they are able, committed to love, worship, and participate in their spouse’s church also. [16]

While our understanding of marriage has changed over the centuries, for interchurch families the development in understanding has taken place at a far more rapid pace.  Severely restricted as recently as in the 1917 Roman Catholic ‘Code of Canon Law’, mixed marriages nevertheless began to increase greatly in number through the impact of increased communication and migration resulting from industrialization, urbanization, and rural depopulation.  The Roman Catholic Church began to recognize a certain value (albeit stated almost grudgingly and in a negative fashion), such that in 1970 it said:

The Church is indeed aware that mixed marriages, precisely because they admit differences of religion and are a consequence of the division among Christians, do not, except in some cases, help in re-establishing unity among Christians. [17]

In 1983, a new Code of Canon Law [18] was issued which, while still very much concerned with ensuring that marriages not experience the difficulties inherent in dealing with two different Christian traditions within one family, nevertheless began reducing the restrictions earlier placed on such marriages.

In 1992, concerned with what it perceived as a loss of faith in mixed marriage couples, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, then under the Presidency of Cardinal Edward Cassidy, issued the Directory on the Application of Principles and Norms of Ecumenism (DAPNE).  In applying the Code of Canon Law, it pointed to a far more open and generous understanding of mixed marriages, offering ways in which their relationship and faith might be recognized and enhanced.

As Cardinal Cassidy indicated in August 2005 at the 11th international conference of interchurch families held in Newcastle, Australia , they had no idea at that time of the great gift to the churches interchurch families would become for the healing of the divisions in the Church. [19]   This understanding is reflected in the title of a book published by the Catholic / Reformed Dialogue in the United States , “Interchurch Families: Resources for Ecumenical Hope”. [20]

Such a change, from virtually outright ban to recognition of gift (by a prelate of significant stature, albeit now retired), within the space of less than a century, must surely be seen as a phenomenal shift in thinking within the Church!

Domestic church

For discussion of the term ‘domestic church’, I am greatly indebted to the work of Florence Caffrey Bourg, whose work Where Two or Three are Gathered: Christian Families as Domestic Churches, published by UND Press, Notre Dame, in 2004 has provided so much material and inspiration.

As indicated earlier, the term saw a re-entry into Catholic thought in the 2nd Vatican Council.  It had, however, earlier been used across a wider Christian spectrum.  As cited in Bourg’s work [21] , it has been used in various fashion, from the Pauline ‘house church’ texts (cf 1 Cor. 16:19 ) through John Chrysostom, Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, and Gregory ofNazianzus to more contemporary writers such as American Congregationalist Horace Bushnell.  John Calvin, for example, stated “What a wonderful thing to put on record, that the name ‘church’ is applied to a single family, and yet it is fitting that all the families of believers should be organized in such a way as to be so many little churches”.  Similar comments by Thomas Taylor, a seventeenth-century English Puritan, and by Thomas Martin describing the life of the Old Order Amish, show clearly that, while the term was not understood in the way magisterial statements do today, yet the term clearly held an ecclesial understanding.

Within Roman Catholic understanding, the term has slowly but steadily taken root, even if not yet adequately explored and developed.  Pope Paul VI uses the term in EvangeliieNuntiandi#71 [22] as does Pope John Paul II in Catechesi Tradendae #68 in 1979.  These references are followed more fully with encyclicals [23] and other official church documents such as those by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, [24] as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church [25] .

The term is used to indicate that the Christian family is not just to look like or act like church, but to be church.

It is in that context, seeking a reference point for recognition as church, that we turn now to the ‘marks’ of the Church.

The ‘marks’ of the Church

We turn finally to the four ‘marks’ of the Church, namely that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.  These terms come to us as part of an early church document, the Nicene Creed, springing from the Council of Nicea (325) and finalized at the Council of Constantinople (381).  While these ‘marks’ are a post-biblical definition, a response to their own historical context, the length of time this Creed has been used, and its recognition by all areas of Christendom, give it a very important place within Christianity.  We will take each ‘mark’ in turn.

The Church is one.

"There is one body and one spirit," Paul wrote, "just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all" (Eph. 4:4-5). This is reflected in Paul’s statement about Eucharistic unity: "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of one bread" (1 Cor. 10:17 ). Jesus had promised at the outset that "there would be one flock, one shepherd" (John 10:16 ).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

The Church is one: she acknowledges one Lord, confesses one faith, is born of one Baptism, forms only one Body, is given life by one Spirit, for the sake of one hope, at whose fulfilment all divisions will be overcome. [26]

As we have seen, the words of Scripture, the teachings of our churches, as well as our own experience, all tell us that in our marriages, we are made one.  Like any sacrament, the ‘how’ of that unity remains a mystery, yet through centuries we have come to know, beyond a doubt, that unity of which Scripture speaks.  That experience is not limited to those who are of the same Christian tradition.  It encompasses all who are of the same faith in Christ. 

As interchurch couples, too, we confess one faith, though that faith may be expressed in many different forms, with perhaps at times one form of expression being of greater depth and breadth than other forms.  We also confess one Lord, one baptism, one God who is father of us all. (cf Eph 4:5) 

As through the Spirit we together draw nearer to Christ, living the hopes and difficulties of the path to Christian unity, [27] we find our divisions being overcome.  Our traditions remain distinct, their richness recognized and celebrated by both, to be sure.  But our faith, and we as a married couple, remain one, reflecting and building the oneness of the Church.

Indeed, as Pope Benedict XVI stated on his pastoral visit to Poland , using the words first coined by French interchurch families, the interchurch family can form ‘a practical laboratory of unity’. [28]


The Church is holy.

Christ loved the church.  He gave himself up for her, to make her holy, purifying her in the bath of water by the power of the word, to present to himself a glorious church, holy and immaculate, without stain or wrinkle or anything of that sort. (Eph: 5:25 -27)

Lumen Gentium states:

The Church ... is held, as a matter of faith, to be unfailingly holy. This is because Christ, the Son of God, who with the Father and the Spirit is hailed as ‘alone holy’, loved the Church as his Bride, giving himself up for her so as to sanctify her; he joined her to himself as his body and endowed her with the gift of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God. [29]

The Catechism goes on to say:

The Church is holy: the Most Holy God is her author; Christ, her bridegroom, gave himself up to make her holy; the Spirit of holiness gives her life. Since she still includes sinners, she is ‘the sinless one made up of sinners.’ Her holiness shines in the saints; in Mary she is already all-holy. [30]

Pope Benedict XVI has stated, clearly and unequivocally in his first encyclical:

Corresponding to the image of a monotheistic God is monogamous marriage. Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God's way of loving becomes the measure of human love. [31]

This is a great mystery, one we experience within ourselves even before we see it externally.  We find that the initial joyous, erotic love of the early days of our courtship and marriage is not replaced, but becomes completed, fulfilled, by an agapeic, self-giving love which rejoices in the well-being of the other, regardless of the cost to self.

As with Christ and the Church, the mutual self-giving love of one spouse for the other engenders and nurtures holiness in the other.  Though the spouses remain subject to temptation, their mutual love causes them to grow ever more in holiness, both individually and in the unity of their marriage, and to be an ever more accurate icon of the God who created them.

As children of God, entering into the mystery of marriage, recognizing our weakness, trusting in God, opening our doors to and feeding the stranger, we become and reveal the holy. [32]

The Church is catholic.

Then he told them “Go into the whole world and proclaim the Good News to all creation.” (Mk 16:15)

Pope Paul VI in his encyclical, Evangelii Nuntiandi, states:

Let us be very careful not to conceive of the universal Church as the simple sum, or ... the more or less anomalous federation of essentially different particular churches. In the mind of the Lord the Church is universal by vocation and mission, but when she puts down her roots in a variety of cultural, social, and human terrains, she takes on different external expressions and appearances in each part of the world. [33]

The Catechism of the Catholic Church goes on to say:

The Church is catholic: she proclaims the fullness of the faith. She bears in herself and administers the totality of the means of salvation. She is sent out to all peoples. She speaks to all men. She encompasses all times. She is ‘missionary of her very nature’. [34]

This reflects in a beautiful way the interchurch family reality. We are not the simple sum of different particular churches, nor an anomalous federation of them.  Rather, in our marriage we enter into a vocation and mission rooted in two different traditions of the same faith. 

There is no blueprint for interchurch couples to follow in living as domestic church.  While the spouses remains faithful to Christ and each other within the tradition in which each has been rooted, and supports the other in that same fidelity within the other’s tradition, celebrating together in both traditions to whatever extent is possible, each family takes on an external expression and appearance appropriate to its cultural, social, and human terrain.

The spouses learn to open their doors to each other’s families, to welcome them to the same table, to share bread and wine together within the context of that family.  Even when each family may have its own way of living, the spouses learn to hear, understand, and speak each other’s language, discover and celebrate each other’s traditions, and in the process bring their respective families together.

Together the couple and their family proclaim the fullness of faith in Christ.  Having been saved by Christ, they in turn share with and minister to all that same gift of salvation.  They welcome all to their door, nourishing and nurturing all, regardless of tradition.  Their call to unity is not one spoken occasionally as the inclination arises or energy allows.  Rather, the unity of their self-giving being speaks eloquently to all of the salvific love of God in Christ, who gave himself once for all.  This constant witness and call to unity in love makes them missionary of their very nature.

The Church is apostolic

Jesus said “Did I not choose the twelve of you myself?” (Jn 6:70)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

The Church is apostolic. She is built on a lasting foundation: ‘the twelve apostles of the Lamb’ ( Rev 21:14 ). She is indestructible (cf. Mt 16:18 ). She is upheld infallibly in the truth: Christ governs her through Peter and the other apostles, who are present in their successors, the Pope and the college of bishops. [35]

While it’s difficult to find direct correlation between marriage and the words above, there are similarities which are worth noting, as well as additional aspects very much in keeping with marriage being apostolic.

As we have seen in our earlier exploration, marriage between two Christians is also built on a lasting foundation.  The wedding feast at Cana (Jn 2:1-11) serves as a sign of God’s blessing, on all love yes, but specifically on married love, a blessing of overflowing richness.  What has been joined by God is considered to be permanent, never to be put asunder by anyone. (Mt 19:6) 

Clearly there is no sense among married couples of being upheld infallibly in the truth (most would love to have that sense of certainty as they face issues on a daily basis), yet their love and fidelity for each other goes a long way to ensuring they always uphold each other, speak truth to each other and to their children. 

In addition, as Bourg points out, there is patristic precedent for an understanding of episcopal oversight within the household.  For example, in a homily on Ephesians, John Chrysostom states “If we regulate our households [properly]… we will also be fit to oversee the Church, for indeed the household is a little Church”. [36] Augustine, as a bishop, says “Take my place in your families.  Everyone who is head of a house must exercise the Episcopal office and see to the faith of his people… Take care with all watchfulness for the salvation of the members of the household entrusted to you.” [37]

Both parents, not just of one tradition or the other, are called on to hand on the apostolic faith to their children. It is natural that each parent experience his/her own tradition of that one faith as being a ‘pearl of great price’ (cf Mt 13:44 -46), to be shared with, handed on, willed to each of the children.  Pope Paul VI says:

One cannot fail to stress the evangelizing action of the family in the evangelizing apostolate of the laity.

At different moments in the Church's history and also in the Second Vatican Council, the family has well deserved the beautiful name of ‘domestic Church’. This means that there should be found in every Christian family the various aspects of the entire Church. Furthermore, the family, like the Church, ought to be a place where the Gospel is transmitted and from which the Gospel radiates.

In a family which is conscious of this mission, all the members evangelize and are evangelized. The parents not only communicate the Gospel to their children, but from their children they can themselves receive the same Gospel as deeply lived by them.

And such a family becomes the evangelizer of many other families, and of the neighborhood of which it forms part. Families resulting from a mixed marriage also have the duty of proclaiming Christ to the children in the fullness of the consequences of a common Baptism; they have moreover the difficult task of becoming builders of unity. [38]

This, I suggest, is the stuff of true apostolicity:  that a couple, their lives coming to an end, have handed on to their children, and perhaps their children’s children, the capacity to believe in, and continue manifesting to the world, God’s total and irrevocable love for all as made visible in Christ Jesus.

Interchurch couples, like Christian couples everywhere, do that to the best of their ability.  In so doing, however, they not only manifest God’s love (as do all other faithfully married couples), they also help to heal the divisions between their churches, and bring about the resulting unity, for which Christ prayed.

Finally, there are the words of Pope John Paul II:

“…it is absolutely clear that ecumenism, the movement promoting Christian unity, is not just some sort of "appendix" which is added to the Church's traditional activity. Rather, ecumenism is an organic part of her life and work, and consequently must pervade all that she is and does; it must be like the fruit borne by a healthy and flourishing tree which grows to its full stature.” [39]

He then echoes and expands on the words of Pope John XXIII:

This is what Pope John XIII believed about the unity of the Church and how he saw full Christian unity. With regard to other Christians, to the great Christian family, he observed: "What unites us is much greater than what divides us".

Ecumenism, part and parcel of the life and work of the Church, is also part and parcel of the life of an interchurch family.  Of several web sites devoted to interchurch family issues, the largest [40] carries numerous examples in which families experience clearly that what they hold in common is much greater than what divides them, and that ecumenism is part and parcel of the very fabric of their existence.  Once again, we see a clear reflection within interchurch families of the reality of being domestic church.


We have reviewed a small portion of the teachings of Scripture and our churches regarding baptism and marriage.  We have seen that we are truly made one in Christ in baptism, then that fundamental unity enhanced in marriage.  We have seen that marriages between spouses of two different Christian traditions can be seen to express and reflect the ‘marks’ of the Church, and so legitimately be seen as ‘domestic church’.

There is more to be done.  The ‘marks’ of the Church are a post-biblical self-definition by the Church.  I suggest there is need to develop and explore a comparison between the narratives of interchurch families, and the foundational narrative of the Church, namely the Old and New Testaments.  That must wait for another day.

Meanwhile, I respectfully invite the reader to join in my conclusion that the reality of the ‘domestic church’ of interchurch families is more real than imperfect, and that the question indicated in the title should be answered in the affirmative.


Revealing the Holy

Revealing the Holy - Revealing the Holy

In love we want to come, revealing the holy one.

Enter the shadow - enter though you

May be walking blind.

Enter the night - enter the sign.

Revealing the holy…

In weakness our God is revealed.

The wound must be opened

Before it will heal - let's open our hearts

And open the meal.

Revealing the holy…

At table we"ll break and share bread.

Jesus says "When strangers are welcomed I'm fed."

The humble will lead and the proud shall be led.

Revealing the holy…



Articles View Hits