“Unequally Yoked”: How Christians Get Interfaith Marriage Wrong

“Unequally Yoked”: How Christians Get Interfaith Marriage Wrong July 8, 2015

By Rev. J. Dana Trent, MDiv

While Christianity is American’s most popular religion (70% of people in the U.S. identify as such), pastors and scholars all let out a collective gasp at the latest findings from the Pew Forum Religious Landscape Study. According to Pew, 2015 might be the year of the religious “nones,” as those who do not identify or affiliate with any faith tradition are on the rise, while the number those who call themselves “Christian” is declining. With an eight percentage point drop in just eight years, we are all wondering what American Christianity will look like in two or three generations.

shutterstock_6507490The bright (or bleak, according to some) spot in the latest Pew report? Since 2010, interfaith marriages have increased, and now four-in-ten Americans marry a spouse of a different religious group. This is a 20% increase since those who were wed prior to 1960.

Trends in the decline of Christianity’s dominance and the rise of interfaith marriage might indicate shift towards a more open and progressive American spirituality. But, it doesn’t take much Googling to uncover advice against the modern paradigm of the “nones” and blended faith families. Naomi Schaefer Riley, journalist and author of ‘Til Faith Do Us Part, ignited the contemporary interfaith marriage conversation in 2013 with the publication of her research of such partnerships. Schaefer Riley is herself a willing participant in the interfaith marriage movement (she’s Jewish; her husband is a former Jehovah’s Witness), but still outlines the perils of such unions.

For decades, pastors and rabbis have contributed to the cacophony of concern: “divided” households lead to the confused religious lives of future children, and then there’s the age-old, much-debated Christian argument of being “unequally yoked,” with another, a phrase attributed to Paul the Apostle.

Do not be mismatched with unbelievers. For what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness? Or what fellowship is there between light and darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14, NRSV)

But, how does a Biblical warning allegedly issued by a 1st century theologian bode for the would-be interfaith couples of 2015?

I was raised in rural North Carolina as a Southern Baptist who took the Bible literally. It was my infallible guide for life, and a simple yet unwavering faith marked my adolescence. I assumed that everyone who lived both in and outside of my tiny tobacco town was as steeped in Baptist beliefs as I was. I didn’t awaken to the possibility that folks practiced anything besides baptism by immersion until attended a Moravian women’s college for my undergraduate studies, and Duke University for seminary.

At school, I learned that the Bible is a complex, layered manuscript written over time whose canon took centuries to develop. There was far more to this book than the poetic King James sound bites that had rolled effortlessly off my 13-year-old tongue.

Armed with my deconstructed assumptions, I joined a progressive Baptist church whose members comprised mostly of retired university faculty. There were only a handful of already-married 20 and 30-somethings in our parish, and while my new faith community was intellectually and spiritually fulfilling, I was lonely. So, I did what many female Millennials raised in South do to a find “godly, Christian man”: I went online.

I took an intense eHarmony questionnaire which forced me to decide: was I open to dating someone of another faith? I checked all the “Big 5” of the world’s religions, certain I wouldn’t end up with anyone outside the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). But, as luck—or providence—would have it, I was matched with a devout Hindu who lived as a monk and priest for five years.

Because my now-husband and I are each ordained in our respective Christian and Hindu traditions, our first dates consisted of theological talk, and we became serious students of one another’s religions. But the nay-sayers were already warning against our courtship, and so we tackled 2 Corinthians 6:14 head on, digging and wondering. The result was surprising.

An ancient scripture meant to deter us from getting involved with each other actually brought us together. Our core beliefs in God became the focus of our study and relationship, not the issues that divided us.

And, like good clergy, we consulted Biblical experts. A local scholar explained that, for the vulnerable and fledgling Christian faith of the first century, the chief concern was to spread the Gospel, not to impede it. The Greek for word “marriage” is not even used in this text, even though modern readings apply it to interfaith marriage. Rather, “yoked” signifies “work,” as one would yoke oxen together to plow or haul. Therefore a more effective way of interpreting 2 Corinthians 6:14 might be to consider the essence of what the author meant by “working” with unbeliever.

In first century, an “unbeliever” would have been anyone exposed to but was not faithful to Christ’s teachings—someone not characterized by devotion, love, peace, mercy, and forgiveness. In the context of the early Church, it’s easy to understand why Paul might caution those first generations of “believers” against being “yoked” with someone for whom Christ was not relevant. If the goal was the spread the Gospel, “working” with an unbeliever might have impaired it.

Today, my husband’s deep Hindu faith has taught me to dig deeper into what Jesus would have me do. Perhaps Paul might have even considered me an “unbeliever,” as I claimed to be a baptized Christian, but my life did not inwardly and outwardly reflect the Gospel. Since marrying Fred, I re-attuned my life to Christian spiritual practices: spending more time in contemplative prayer, practicing non-violence through a vegetarian diet, limiting my consumption, and increasing my service to others.

Much to many Christians’ dismay, it took a person of another faith—a seemingly “unequally yoked” partner, to strengthen my Christian walk.

The concerns over the tenacity it takes to be yoked to a partner of a different faith are certainly valid. But perhaps the more important question to pose is how each partner’s individual spiritual journey strengthens their collective faith and results in their passion to share God’s love.

Fred and I have found that it’s not so much about having the same faith as it is about having deep faith.

Om and alleluia.

Lead Photo: Shutterstock

IMG_6092J. Dana Trent is an author and teacher. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, she is ordained in the Southern Baptist tradition. Her awarded winning book, Saffron Cross: The Unlikely Story of How a Christian Minister Married a Hindu Monk tells the story of her eHarmony-born interfaith marriage. Dana blogs at jdanatrent.com and tweets @jdanatrent.






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23 responses to ““Unequally Yoked”: How Christians Get Interfaith Marriage Wrong”

  1. I performed a interfaith wedding last summer. He is Methodist and she is spiritual, not really Atheist but close. They have been together for quite sometime before they got married and they are still doing well. He is ordained, like his father, and was hoping that his father would join me in performing the wedding but he declined due to my being an ordained Polytheist Pagan. I feel that his opposition had more to with his wife at the time than anything. She was venomous against anyone that was not Christian. She kept staring at me the whole day, but I never got the impression that she being rude, surprisingly enough. His father is no longer married to her now. I think his son’s marriage was the last straw for him.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful and moving message. I hope that others will learn from it.

    Perhaps you will have children. What will be their spiritual and religious upbringing?

  3. Thank you for telling your story. I especially like the idea that our commitment to faith and learning can bring people together instead of tear them apart.

  4. When discussing inter-faith marriages,the Bible addresses the yoke with unbelievers.Often someone that is a Christian might marry one thinking that in time that one will convert.I have no statistics for the success of this idea.What we will never see is a Muslim/Christian marriage whereby a Muslim marries a Christian,as we all know the outcome of that.As far as a Buddhist,Hindu,or whatever,to the Christian those are all unbelievers,but I would say that if the marriage takes place,it will be a matter of continued controversy but like any marriage that is a normal situation.Christians divorce,and the Bible allows that for one reason only,and that is adultery.I myself am a three time loser,and in the Christian community some accept me others don’t address it.I guess the only thing to do is just let the Lord make the final decision one day in the future.

  5. You really don’t know any Muslim/Christian married couples? I know a few and their marriages work just fine! (I even know a Muslim/Jewish couple!)
    As far as THIS Christian is concerned , the “unbelievers” are those who profess to a faith but do not follow it.

  6. Interesting way to look at it- a lot of Christians and other religious people often ignore that there are many on the surface “equally yoked” couples in which one of them is far more religious, and the other is the one who says “whatever, honey”- either going thru the motions to keep up appearances, or not being involved at all. Kids pick up on that.

  7. Just curious was that last remark directed at me personally? I did mention my being divorced I could assume that that is the basis for you remark if so it is offensive.

  8. Having grown up on a progressive Baptist seminary campus while my dad was a student and gotten a sort of “seminary education by osmosis” by reading anything and everything he was reading and being encouraged to think and question it all, I can’t imagine being more “unequally yoked” than with a typical Christian. Having learned to “seek the mind of Christ” and follow the teachings and living example of Jesus the man, I can’t find a whole lot to identify with in “having Jesus in your heart because he died for your sins.”

  9. What part of “only in the faith”do we not understand. Man is very good at twisting and finding loop holes in gods word to justify our actions as were the scribes and Pharisees as Jesus pointed out. We either believe God and His word or we don’t ,if he is your lord then we follow His commands ,”if you love me ,keep my commandments” ,we must choose ,God does not share allegiances with any one,you can not serve two masters.

  10. “the “unbelievers” are those who profess to a faith” but that is not what the bible implies when it makes that statement ,it also says “only in the faith” when it comes to marriage meaning Christian faith

  11. Ironic that your attempt at saying interfaith marriages are ok you support that indeed they are very problematic and to be avoided.

  12. Crowtalk:

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

    Per your question, my husband and I do not yet have children. Our plan (should it happen) is that we would attempt to raise them in both faiths. Many other interfaith families have done so with great success. Susan Katz Miller, author of Being Both, is one of those such families.

    That said, children arrive with their own personalities and interests. I think parents have a duty to expose their children to their “religion of origin,” but also to cultivate understanding of others’ beliefs and support and love children through their spiritual quests. Perhaps the most important thing we can offer our our children is a safe spiritual and theological environment in which they can ask questions, wonder, and seek.

    In our case, Christianity and Hinduism harmonize well. I’m confident that my husband and I could share both teachings our faith community’s beliefs, and our hypothetical children would see the overlap–even amid challenges. Most of all, they would look to us–their parents–to see how we love and move about in the world. We would be their first examples. Therefore, If our faith informs our relationship with God and one another, they would see that as a positive influence from both east and west.

    Thanks again.

    Deep peace,

  13. Thanks so much, everyone, for reading and posting. I’ve enjoyed reading both your positive comments and the questions and debates put forth. The “unequally yoked” phrase is one that always generates conversation, and I think the most important thing we can do is keep listening and responding thoughtfully. Thanks again!

  14. Excellent article. I’m a Pagan married to a Catholic and I’m sure she and her family were not expecting to be “yoked” to anyone like me but we’re 6 days from our 10th anniversary and couldn’t be happier!

  15. As the Christian half of a Muslim/Christian married couple, I would just like to join in and say that we do exist and are very happy. 🙂

  16. Thank you for sharing this lovely (and loving) plan for your possible future children. 🙂

  17. It’s great that they can enjoy being unequally yoked. The sad part of this story is that Dana’s husband denies Jesus, and Jesus is very clear on where He stands with those who choose to deny Him.

  18. Huh, so… we could either love our fellow humans, treat each other with respect even if they don’t happen to believe the same things you do, or, we could serve some god who requires sycophantic praise, damns anyone who doesn’t believe in him, and requires that we put it above other humans?

    I think I’d rather serve empathy and basic human kindness than I would want to serve an evil deity and evil master. Your god sounds kinda like how you’d describe a devil. “Do exactly what I say, reject your fellow humans for me, or else face the consequences”.

  19. “Jesus is very clear on where He stands with those who choose to deny Him.”

    Childish petulance from a vain and malevolent arrogant monster?

    “Your husband is a good person, and I know you love him very much in spite of him not being correct, but when you die, you’re going to forget all about him because otherwise you might be sad that he’s suffering for all eternity while you aren’t, all because he thought a different god existed, and he was wrong.”

    I can’t for the life of me figure out why Christians want to worship a god they describe as so transparently and childishly evil. Zeus wasn’t as capricious as this version of Jesus. “Be wrong by denying me and suffer for all eternity!” Cthulhu ain’t got notin’ on that god.

  20. Just because the couple starts out with the same religion doesn’t mean the participants won’t change their religion along the way. My husband and I started out as Catholics. He is now atheist, and I am Jewish. Yet we are happy and still married (18 years this August).

  21. Religion is a minor factor in most lives; so it’s not surprising that it enters into fewer marriage decisions than hair color or the spouse’s fraternity in college

  22. But, how does a Biblical warning allegedly issued by a 1st century theologian bode for the would-be interfaith couples of 2015?

    If this objection is taken seriously, then why should the reader take seriously those arguments in favor of interfaith marriage that are based upon Scriptures written by this same theologian? It would seem the writer wants it both ways but deeper discussion on the issue is pointless if Paul’s theology is simply dismissed with no more reason excepting that of an ignorantly arrogant chronocentrism.

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