Since ancient times, marriage was the principle way of expanding and strengthening the family circle in Orthodox countries. Special relationships were established through the Godfather-Godchild relationship [in Serbian, Kumstvo]. The Godfather-Godchild relationship was, and is even today, cultivated, cherished, and revered above every other bond throughout the Orthodox world. This spiritual kinship is considered to be stronger than a blood-relationship. In Orthodox countries, the Godfather-Godchild relationship is considered to be the holiest and most elevated relationship that can exist between people, and a request to be Godfather cannot be refused. There is an old Serbian proverb that says: "Everything can be refused except Kumstvo."
The respect and reverence afforded to the Godfather is traditionally revealed by the fact that the Godfather is always the most welcome of visitors. He is the first to be greeted on feast days and other celebrations. When the family rejoices or mourns, the Godfather is always the first to be informed, even before blood relatives. The wedding Godfather is automatically the baptismal Godfather for the couple's first child. His blessing is also asked before another Godfather can be sought for the second, third, fourth, and other children. In Orthodoxy, the respect afforded to the Godfather, and indeed the Godfather-Godchild relationship itself, is honorifically extended to the families of the couple, even sometimes to distant cousins.
There is a special warmhearted relationship between the Godfather and his Godchildren. The relationship rests on great respect, especially on the part of the Godchildren. There is an old Montenegrin proverb that says: "God in heaven and the Godfather on the earth." The Godfather's place is always at the head of the table. He is always greeted first. An irritated word is never spoken to the Godfather.
Another Serbian proverb, that draws attention to the Godfather's position in the divine economy, exhorts: "When you go by your Godfather's house, call upon God, even if there is no one at home." Prayers should be offered and candles should also be lit in the church for the Godfather's health and later upon his repose, for his eternal salvation.
Another old saying, that stresses the care to be taken to protect and preserve the Godfather-Godchild relationship, and not to offend or hurt the Godfather, even unintentionally or in the smallest of ways, urges Godchildren with the words: "When you cross your Godfather's field, be careful that even your Godfather's land does not stick to your sandals."
Traditionally, at marriage and baptisms, the Godfather's gifts to his Godchildren were always the most excellent, and often given in gold coins, gold jewelry or money. Reciprocal gifts to him were also equally excellent. This custom reinforced the preeminence of the Godfather-Godchild relationship.
So, why is this all so important? Why does the Orthodox Church prescribe Godparents even for adult baptisms and weddings? It's certainly not only about a child's ability to consent or the need for a witness. It is about the rejection of the earthly order for the heavenly. It's about establishing the principle of spiritual kinship or relationship. It's about the presidency of spiritual kinship or relationship over natural relationships. It is about the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven.
The Evangelist Mark relates: His mother and his brothers arrived, and, standing outside, sent word to him, and called him. And the multi-ude seated around him, said: “Behold, your mother and your brothers are outside asking for you.” And he answered them, saying, “Who is my mother, or my brothers?” And he looked around at those who sat about Him, and said: “Behold, here is my mother and here are my brothers.” The Holy Apostle Luke records the words of our Lord, Who said: My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and carry it out. There is a new order of relationships in God's Kingdom on earth, which is the Orthodox Church.
It is the Godfather's duty to love, direct and guide his Godchildren, and to correct them if necessary. He has the first responsibility for his Godchildren's spiritual growth and development. The Godfather must bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a spiritual home, a hearth or place of spiritual refuge for his Godchildren, where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. This will require on the part of his Godchildren, an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery, which are the preconditions of all true freedom. Through apprenticeship, his Godchildren will learn to subordinate their material and instinctual inclinations to interior and spiritual ones, and thereby become coheirs to the Kingdom of God. It is then that the Godchildren will understand the old saying: "God [first], but then the Godfather!"
Orthodox Life vol. 59, no. 6, Nov-Dec 2008, pp. 40-41