Whatever Happened to “Unequally Yoked”?

Whatever Happened to “Unequally Yoked”? November 7, 2011

My research team and I are waist-deep in interviews of twenty-somethings for my next book project. Among the 90-some interviews we’ve conducted are about 15 (so far) with evangelicals. Between what they’re telling us and my own listening and reading, I’m detecting a subtle—yet significant—shift in how evangelicals talk about ideal mating scenarios. When I was a younger man, Christians of all stripes were counseled pretty straightforwardly to avoid marrying an unbeliever—that is, someone who didn’t share the basics of Christian doctrine. The logic, of course, is that the unbelieving spouse would foster the same in you and your (future) children, and that that would be a bad outcome. The advice arose, I presume, as an extension of 2 Corinthians 6:14, which itself need not be interpreted as applying primarily to marriage, but it often has been.

But that’s not what I’m hearing today from evangelical quarters. At some point this advice seems to have morphed into a much higher bar for an optimal mate, which seems (to me, at least) a problem, since fewer Americans are marrying today than ever before. When demand (for marriage) drops, I’m not sure restricting supply is the smart thing to do.

The narrative we heard from several respondents—and I myself heard it back when I briefly dabbled with the Baptists before swimming the Tiber—goes something like this: fix your eyes on Jesus, live the life of discipleship, and then as you’re doing that look around once in awhile and see who’s running that race along with you and perhaps they might make an ideal spouse. (No practical advice about it, just conceptual).

My job as an interpreter of religion and other aspects of social life is not so much to personally contest any particular bit of advice that is circulating out there, but to discern its sources and its likelihood of success. I’m less confident that I understand the sources of this advice—and I would like help in figuring that out—but I’m pretty darn sure it’s a recipe for massive failure to launch.

Why? Well, there’s long been a man shortage in American congregations. (Indeed, not just in America, and not just within Christianity.) But there’s an even more profound “devout” man shortage in American congregations. At least one out of three evangelical women cannot—meaning it’s empirically impossible to—marry a man who’s their spiritual equal. (That figure came from my own data analysis of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, which revealed only two serious, churchgoing evangelical men for every three comparable women.) They can pray till their blue in the face, and it won’t happen apart from some “man revival,” one which grows the faithful XYs but not the XXs.

So basically the advice to women now translates to: “Find that rare man who is your spiritual equal or leader—not to mention kind, virtuous, employed, and, if possible, handsome—and then figure out how to make him want to marry you.” It can be a tall order.

In fact, it’s impossible for a significant minority, at least by the numbers. So evangelicals feel sorry for the one-third of devout women, and try to say nice things about the benefits of singleness (which do exist), but nothing can force them to move their boundary stones for marriage. Except that they have moved. Marriage is slowly becoming something that only an elite will attain on the timetable they prefer.

So, readers, help me understand how and why the bar for a prospective spouse got raised into the spiritual stratosphere. Isn’t the old, simple “unequally yoked” standard good enough?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • j smith

    Having grown up in evangelical circles, here’s my thought that’s based on personal observations: Evangelical campus ministers and pastors are under subtle pressure to constantly innovate, be “fresh”, and come up with ever more spiritual insights to use in their preaching or informal advice giving. So, the introduction of an even more super spiritual response to plight of throngs of devout evangelical single women in their ministries seems like a natural development to a chronic issue to which they must respond. Pushing the super spiritual envelope gives the minister something “fresh” to preach on and consciously or unconsciously is a way he feels approval and praise from his peers and those in his ministry. And he can justify this super spiritual advice to himself because when is it ever a bad thing to say “seek ye first the kingdom of God … and all these things shall be added unto you” ? And this super spiritual advice is accepted by young devout women because the responsibility for finding a mate is in a sense shifted to God…they don’t have to worry about it. No longer does a young evangelical woman need to bury her troubles on the mission field … she can now bury her troubles (lack of mate) on a heroic spiritual path right where she is.

    Mark, in terms of the ministries that are influenced (whether they know it or not) by the new Calvinism, one source for the advice you describe might be in the influential teachings of John Piper and colleagues. This little booklet is an example:

    “For single men and women: And the rest of us” (Council on Biblical manhood and womanhood)” by John Piper (1998)


    Individuals may not have been reading this themselves, but many pastors/campus ministers may have been.

  • If the attitude out there truly is “fix your eyes on Jesus, … etc” then I’m actually encouraged. “Equally yoked” as a benchmark is a pretty low standard, since it’s easy to say your a Christian without actually living like one. If a guy someday wanted to date my daughter and said he was a Christian but wasn’t involved in a local church, wasn’t going hard after God, and wasn’t really broken by the lostness around him, I’d try to disciple him myself but no way is he a suitable option for my daughter. In the same vein, one of my emphases with my sons will be instruction and guidance on what a man of God truly looks like – both tough and tender, devoted and resolute. If men aren’t actually called to something more, similar to how the Bible calls men to lead their households (spiritually and otherwise), then we will continue with this generation of ambition-less “bans” (boy-men) who are sinfully shirking their call to lead and love.

    If you want to investigate this more, check out Mars Hill Church in Seattle, WA. There are few churches in America that have a more specific focus on equipping and calling men to love God and lead their families well. That focus is one of the reasons they have experienced such high numbers of adult conversions.

  • Chris, you do realize that “equally yoked” is the biblical standard, right? 🙂 I think your list of criteria is laudable, but it also speaks to the author’s concerns. While I’m sure that most Christian parents and single Christians would like to find someone possessing all of those traits, the fact is that that person is very rare, and there’s the assumption that each person should be at the same place in his or her spiritual journey. Life isn’t that clear cut.

    I don’t advocate “unequally yoked” marriages, but I think that the standard Regnerus writes of–a shared belief in the basics of Christian doctrine–plus actual participation in church should be sufficient. Shouldn’t it?

    To me it seems that all this expectation of and demand for finding the ideal spiritual mate reveals more of a fear of marriage (or, more likely, of divorce) than anything else. It’s this idea that, if both parties are sufficiently spiritually mature, then a marriage won’t fail. If a relationship begins in the most perfect way possible, then everything should work out. But, doesn’t that assume a lack of change, and, more sadly, doesn’t it overlook the grace given through the sacrament of marriage?

  • Cheryl

    As a newcomer to this blog, I can’t help but weigh in and point out the obvious. (I apologize if this has been discussed to death in the past.) I’m a bit confused, and perhaps even offended, that the unquestioned assumption seems to be that marriage is best. Why? Why would I, as a “pious,” Christian, unmarried woman, be better off married? To anyone, equally or “unequally yoked”? It makes perfect sense that this emphasis on higher spiritual criteria for a mate would lead to fewer marriages. But why that should be seen as a “problem” (in the original blog post), or even worse, a “plight” (in the first response) concerns me. Given the state of marriages in our society today, unless I have a really good reason to enter one (i.e., a potential mate who’s WAY beyond the minimal criteria), I’d rather pass.

    • Wesley

      Cheryl, your reply saddens me to no end.

    • John Burford

      Hi Cheryl,

      I realize that you posted a long time ago, but I think your question is worth a good answer. I don’t think Wesley properly understood you. I think Wesley thought you were questioning the merits of marriage vs. a cohabiting sexual relationship, and responded negatively.

      I, on the other hand, took it to be a question about why a devout Christian is automatically expected to get married as opposed to remaining a celibate single. The short answer is that they aren’t, at least in the Catholic Church. There are plenty of devout Catholics who remain celibate their entire lives and become priests/monks/nuns/etc. There are also devout Catholics who don’t feel called to marriage who join organizations like Opus Dei as celibate numeraries, working regular jobs but living in community with other numeraries of the same gender.

      You may have an honorable vocation to celibacy. I hope you don’t feel pressured into getting married just because that’s the “Christian” thing to do.

  • Mark Regnerus

    Thanks to j, Chris, sara, and Cheryl. Good stuff–is very enlightening. Keep it coming.

  • j smith

    Thankfully, its not a problem for every last single person that they’re not married. The M/F ratio isn’t a problem for everyone. Mark will have to step in with the actual numbers, but I believe the problem is that most single devout Christian women strongly desire to be married. I’d imagine it’s the vast majority.

    • Cheryl

      To j smith: Yes, you’re probably right that there are some – many – single women who desire marriage. But there are lots of things that we desire that aren’t best for us, are there not?

      • Scott


        Not everyone has the gift of singleness as you may have. For those weaker in the faith, like myself, please have grace on us.

  • Honestly… maybe this is a good thing. There are far too many people who get married to people who are not marriage material. If a man is a slob, irresponsible, or can’t hold down a job… maybe they shouldn’t be a father and pass those traits on to the next generation. Rather than expect those women to lower their standards and settle for someone who is subpar… why not expect and demand (maybe not as harshly as Mark Driscoll does… but along that line of thought) that the boys who are playing church, grow up and become men.

  • jane

    This seems to follow with the trend that I and my geographically scattered thirty-something friends have noticed: young people, not just Evangelicals or Christians, are looking for complete perfection in marriage. On the one hand, this is a good thing, because it shows people are taking marriage seriously. (As someone else mentioned, fear of divorce is a major motivator.) On the other hand, it is leaving a lot of people single well into their 30’s or 40’s. Especially men seem convinced that in order to get married, they need to have completed their education (including grad or professional school), established a career, and had ample time to enjoy life and somehow mature and get ready for marriage. They do not seem to understand that maturity comes with the taking on of responsibility, but are instead waiting to feel mature in order to get married. Then they need to meet the perfect woman who is beautiful, charming, has her own impressive career, and meets their list of expectations. While I think a devout Christian marrying a non-Christian is a path fraught with danger, there also need to be realistic expectations that a future spouse will not be perfect in every way, and that – no matter how much you have in common – a major part of marriage is learning to get along with a very different person.

  • Billy

    This is explainable if you consider the widespread desire to enter into a marriage that is emotionally fulfilling. Indeed, it would seem our society believes emotional fulfillment is the purpose of marriage, over and above anything else, even rearing children. It’s hard to say who will fulfill you for the rest of your life, and you only have one chance to get it right, so standards should naturally ratchet up, inevitably leaving people feeling very unfulfilled while looking for the perfect mate.

  • Mark Regnerus

    Thanks for weighing in, all. Another thing I was struck by in the interviews is that the evangelical kids (anybody under 40 is a kid to me) definitely understood that marriage was serious business, not to be entered lightly, etc. They got the message. But it also makes dating a very loaded, weighty thing. And in the age of Facebook, I suspect too many people make judgments about too many aspects of prospective dates’ lives, such that many people don’t even get a first chance. My research assistant noted that less-religious young adults seemed more at ease in the dating world, for what it’s worth. In part because less is at stake, to be sure.

  • Mark Regnerus

    Oh, and the RA also noted how megachurches encourage small-group formation in order to meet people, but that a variety of the evangelical respondents who were in small groups said they liked their groups so much that they didn’t want to date within them, lest it fail and someone feel the need to leave the beloved small group. Talk about undermining one of the “mixing” purposes of the smaller group setting… If anyone has experienced that, I’d love to hear more about that.

  • Brit

    Take this tongue-in-cheek, but as a single mid twenty-something woman, I do not see the need for marriage, either (though I get a lot of pressure to say that I do want it). It does not seem to always be in the best interest of women, and since people say that Christ is all you need…I would agree. However, I continue to fall into sexual sin, soooo I think what would work perfectly is revising the rules to allow sex for people who aren’t married. I have a great job, great apartment, can travel (I am actually abroad as I write this, in an amazing five-star hotel in Europe at the end of a two-week vacation), great friends, great family, strong faith (other than the small problem mentioned earlier)….so I’d say that my life is good. I don’t think I need a spouse, per se, in the popular romantic sense…I would just like to have sex when I want to, because otherwise I become frustrated and mean.

  • Greg Smith


    Great article, and I’m fairly confident the “fix your eyes on Jesus, live the life of discipleship, and then as you’re doing that look around once in awhile and see who’s running that race along with you and perhaps they might make an ideal spouse” is nearly a direct quote from Matt Carter at Austin Stone once (it was a great sermon as I recall).

    And on the point about not dating within a close knit small group that is semi-involved with the church, I know that is a very real phenomenon, both from my experience and that of friends. Folks don’t want to date within that group for a number of reasons: 1) If the relationship fails, they don’t want to lose that close group of friends and confidants because of awkwardness that could exist in the aftermath. 2) Often spiritual intimacy in such a group is heightened to the point that they see each other more as close brothers and sisters and the possibility of dating within that brother and sister-hood is out of mind.

    However, I would dispute the point that church’s invite people to form such groups for a mixed purpose, at least overtly and intentionally. Rather the spiritual purpose is at the forefront and Christian dating is more peripheral.

    On the larger point of the article, I think you rightly point out that the bar of who is a suitable mate is much higher than in the past within some churches. But I’m not sure that is such a bad thing. It most certainly has the advantage of heightening the importance of marriage in an age where everything is increasingly disposable, especially relationships. It of course doesn’t make sense from a purely economic point of view on the supply and demand of mates, but the marriage economy is simply not the concern of the church in general.

  • Iraq, Combat zone, 5 1/2 years. Fell in love when I returned home to the States. Dated for a year, went back to Iraq for a final 6 months. Came home and dated for another year. IM 55 years old. IM a christian by pentecostal standards. She said we’re not equality yoked. I think we are. But her standards are though the roof. IM putting the pedal to the medal, south bound.