Can Christians Marry Non-Christians?: A Biblical Theology
«It feels so right, so right. How can it be wrong?»
These words were written by Ben Weisman to be sung by Elvis Presley, but I’ve often heard a variation of them by unmarried Christians beginning to get romantically involved with a non-Christian.
This is then often backed up by a flurry of other comments:
“I used to think the Bible said that I shouldn’t be unequally yoked with unbelievers, but I went and looked at 2 Corinthians 6 in context and it doesn’t seem to be talking about marriage at all, but rather about how Christians are to be separate from non-Christians within the church. I then tried to find one verse that says that a Christian shouldn’t marry a non-Christian and I couldn’t find one. I spoke to Christians I trust and they couldn’t find one either—not one verse! So, I guess I was wrong, and I’m free to pursue this relationship.
Anyway, he/she is really interested in the gospel and told me that my faith is something he/she finds really attractive and wouldn’t want to change at all. In fact, I think he/she will be more encouraging of my faith than lots of Christians would be.”
Some temptations common to many singles—like struggling with porn—are shaped in such a way that the Christian knows they’re wrong, and so the problem will often be that, in their guilt, they’ll stay hidden. Once confessed, the problem isn’t recognition that they’ve sinned; the problem is the slow, painful process of repentance.
But the temptation to get romantically involved with a non-Christian tends to be framed differently. People tend not to hide it, but instead attempt to justify it—first to themselves and then to other Christians who are trying to warn them of the path they’re taking. If it feels right, then they go back to look at the Bible to try to prove that it’s right.
In this article, I shall not be trying to give a method for counseling people who are facing such a temptation. Such an article would include a clearer picture of what marriage looks like: making decisions about career, where to live, how to spend money, how to raise children, etc. All of this is compounded when you and your spouse are living for different things. To explore some of those things better, consider this article. Above all, such counsel will involve a careful examination of motivation and a re-examination of the trustworthiness and goodness of God who doesn’t call us to compromise in our devotion to him, but to trust him.
Rather, I shall offer a brief biblical theology of dating unbelievers. I want to make the point that it is a matter of obedience to God not to pursue a relationship with a non-believer. I’m going to try and make it as clear as I can that however it feels, those feelings are temptations to call right that which God calls wrong; those feelings are not accompanied by any affirmation from God.
If someone’s rationale for not getting romantically involved with a non-believer hangs on a couple of proof-texts taken out of context, then I’m pretty sure it can be removed by a couple of moments staring into a pair of eyes, some attention, and the excitement of a potentially fulfilling lifelong relationship.
It’s also my painful experience that when the weak foundation of such a conviction is removed at the beginning of a potential relationship, it will not be a time when someone is in a good position to examine more carefully the Bible’s teaching and build a stronger biblical foundation.
A BRIEF BIBLICAL THEOLOGY
My hope is that this article will be of some use to people in such a situation, but of more use to the Christian who, long before the temptation arises, needs to make a stronger resolve not to get romantically involved with a non-Christian.
And just to be clear: getting romantically involved is likely to happen if you spend a great deal of time with someone of the opposite sex one-on-one. I recently had a painful conversation with a dear friend who said he’d never planned to get romantically involved with someone. But he’d spent hours and hours with her one-on-one after midnight over several weeks.
If you don’t want to get romantically involved with someone, don’t spend hours one-on-one. If you’re having good gospel opportunities with someone of the opposite sex, introduce them to some godly Christians of their sex. If they’re really interested in the gospel, they’ll be just as delighted to hear about it from them as from you. If the Lord wants you to be married, he’ll make it clear that it would be possible for you to pursue such a relationship by them coming to faith!
Furthermore, a proof-text for not dating a non-Christian is a strange thing to expect for a few reasons.
First, dating as we understand didn’t really happen in biblical times. Secondly, “whom should I marry?” is something that would flow out of a whole biblical theology of what marriage is, rather than merely a verse or two of rules.
It’s my contention that if it’s forbidden for a Christian to marry a non-Christian, then it is at the very least a deliberate walking into temptation to date a non-Christian. If you can’t marry them without a supernatural conversion wrought by the Holy Spirit in their heart, over which you have no control, then it would be both extremely foolish and very unkind to consider such a marriage in the first place.
Now, I hope to demonstrate how clearly the Bible says it is sinful for a believer to marry a non-believer.
1) Genesis 1: Marriage is to display God’s image by obeying God’s commands for fruitfulness and dominion.
In Genesis 1:26–28, God designs marriage to be a partnership in ruling creation under his rule. If we don’t acknowledge that we’re ruling under God’s rule, then we’re ruling under the rule of an idol, or a combination of a whole series of idols.
Practically speaking, this impinges on every single decision you have to make as a married couple. For example, how do you decide what you should do at any point in your life? Should you:
1) do what pleases the Lord?
2) do what pleases yourself?
3) do what pleases others?
For the Christian, number 1 trumps number 2 and 3. For the non-Christian, there is only 2 and 3.
2) Genesis 2: Marriage is a partnership in doing God’s work.
Genesis 2 fleshes this out more. Genesis 2:15–17 shows how Adam is prophet/priest/king in the garden kingdom where God has put him to rule within the constraints of God’s ultimate kingship (symbolized by the two trees: blessing and life for living under his rule; curse and death for refusing his rule). The rest of the chapter details how Adam is incapable of fulfilling his calling to be prophet/priest/king alone. He needs a suitable helper in order to do that, so Eve is provided so that together they will fulfill God’s calling to bring glory to his name under his rule.
Therefore, marriage is a partnership. “It is not good for man to be alone” isn’t true primarily because man is lonely: it’s true because he’s incompetent, even before the Fall.
God did not create man alone to be competent to fulfill his calling to image God. He created man and woman in relationship to do that. Single men and women can do that also, particularly in relationship to the church under the love of Christ, the fulfillment of marriage.
So, in a Christian marriage, marriage is a partnership in the gospel. Conversely, marrying a non-Christian necessarily makes marriage a partnership in something else.
Why would a Christian choose to enter such a partnership?
3) Genesis 3: Marriage is harmed by sin.
Genesis 3 shows how us how marriage gets messed up by sin. Adam and Eve go from naked and unashamed to hiding from one another.
In the curse, God pronounces how marriage post-Fall is a battle of one sinful will against another:
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you. (Gen. 3:16)
This means all marriages are hard. But in a Christian marriage, spouses have the opportunity to call one another to submit one’s sinful wills to God’s perfect will. When marrying a non-Christian, you lose out on the blessing of having a spouse who calls you to submit your will to Christ, and instead have a spouse who has no interest in being called to submit their own will to Christ.
4) The Old Testament warns against marrying unbelievers.
In the rest of Genesis, we see a huge effort made to ensure the people of God would only marry those who trust the Lord.
In Genesis 24, we see the great lengths Abraham goes to—combined with God’s amazing answer to prayer—to ensure that his son Isaac marries believing Rebekah.
In Genesis 27:46–28:9, we see Rebekah and Isaac’s disgust at the marriage of her son to Canaanite/Hittite women. This isn’t racism: it’s religious.
In Genesis 34:8–9, Hamor invites the sons of Jacob to intermarry with the daughters of Shechem (a town that has just proved its character in the mistreatment of Dinah). To intermarry with this town rather than distance themselves from such defilement would have been the ultimate compromise; it would have destroyed the people of God in the first generation.
In the conquest of Canaan, the Lord gives strict prohibitions against intermarriage:
Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. (Deut. 7:3–4)
This prohibition is repeated in Joshua 23:12, and the trajectory of intermarriage never assumes or expects the Canaanites would end up being converted.
Intermarriage is also the downfall of kings: even the super-wise Solomon (1 Kings 11) and most obviously Ahab (1 Kings 16–19). More positively, a sign of repentance for God’s people was their repentance of intermarriage in Ezra 9–10. On the other hand, if a foreigner was already converted, then there was absolutely no prohibition against marrying them. In fact, this is seen as a positive (Zipporah, Rahab, Ruth).
All this biblical evidence makes me think that «I’ll keep following Jesus even with an unbelieving spouse» is a very proud statement that underestimates our own weakness, and presumes upon God’s grace.
5. Old Testament positively pictures believing marriages.
Positively, Proverbs 31 calls the young man to look out for a woman of noble character. The climax of the poem, and the source of everything noble about her, is reached in verse 30:
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
What is it that would most attract you to a potential spouse: charm, beauty, or fear of the Lord? With a non-Christian, there can only be there first two: deceptive charm or fleeting beauty.
Ruth and Boaz is among the most beautiful pictures of believers marrying. He provides and protects; she trusts and takes godly initiative. It’s a wonderful love story of how a woman who has come under the wings of the Lord comes within the love of a godly man.
6. New Testament texts imply the prohibition to marry unbelievers remains.
In the New Testament, there are a number of asides that make it clear this Old Testament prohibition still stands.
A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39)
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14)
Though this second verse isn’t explicitly about marriage and offers a more general principle that the church should keep itself disentangled from fellowship with pagans, what closer fellowship would one desire than the fellowship with one’s spouse? Does one want a marriage that’s not a fellowship? In reality, it will end up being a «fellowship» or «partnership» in something but it will not be a partnership in the gospel, and therefore it will tend to entangle the believer in precisely the way 2 Corinthians 6:14 warns against.
1 Corinthians 9:5 – Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?
This suggests that having an unbelieving wife would at least disqualify from ministry. If you ever aspired to be an elder in a church, then this would disqualify you.
Those who demand New Testament evidence for the prohibition of intermarriage with unbelievers will find these texts. Simultaneously, they will not find a single verse even suggesting that the Old Testament prohibition of such intermarriage is lifted for the New Testament believer.
7. A clearer positive vision for marriage revealed in the New Testament.
The New Testament then gives a clearer revelation of marriage: it’s a partnership that pictures the redeeming love of Christ for his church. The whole point of marriage is to picture the gospel (Eph. 5:21–33; Rev. 21:9–27). Beyond that, it pictures the very relationship between the Father and the Son (1 Cor. 11:3).
To marry a non-believer is like two artists trying to paint two different pictures on the same canvas. You’re trying to paint a picture of Jesus and the church, but your spouse is trying to paint something entirely different.
Or, to take a musical analogy, it would be a partnership where one person is trying to sing one song, and the other is trying to sing an entirely different one. You sing: “I want this song to be about Jesus,” while your spouse sings, “It’s just you and me.” There can be no ultimate harmony.
When a believer is married to a non-Christian—either through former disobedience, their own conversion, or their spouse’s apostasy after marriage—that’s the painful, discordant, but ultimately God-glorifying song that must be sung. But it isn’t the song marriage was designed for, and not one a Christian should deliberately seek to write.
What’s the purpose of the life of a believer? Jesus tells us in John 17: “Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.”
The believer lives to know—and in knowing, to love, honor, worship, and follow—God through his Son Jesus Christ.
It’s far better to live without a spouse and within the company of the church, than with someone who is living for a life that’s not eternal.