Can Christians Marry Non-Christians

Can Christians Marry Non-Christians July 16, 2022

  I got a question from a reader asking, “can Christians can marry non-Christians?” You might shrug and say, “well why not?”  Clearly, the person asking the question saw that it was not that simple. Now, you are saying, “Well, why is it not so simple?” This is great, you are feeding right into my article. Of course, I am controlling the narrative here, so it is a bit scripted on my part. Nonetheless, let’s have a look at our favorite answer-book, the Bible.

A New Testament Answer

Paul, not me but the Apostle, wrote a letter to the Corinthians that appears to address this question almost directly. Undoubtedly it was asked by one of the people in the Corinthian church.

12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Cor 7:12-16 ESV)

Now hold on a second, let’s not rush in saying, “There you go, it is okay.” Let’s walk through this so we really understand all that Paul is saying. First, Paul makes a very important notation in verse 12, “I, not the Lord”.  This means that Paul in his understanding of scripture, which includes the Old and the New Testament, and his own relationship with Christ is performing an interpretation of the laws and behaviors that are expected of Christian believers. In other words, there is no edict within Christianity which specifically governs this, so Paul is making a judgement call. This does not mean that it is not ‘scriptural’.  It only means that it is not specifically addressed. Paul, in his apostolical authority, makes his educated interpretation. Paul is interpreting all that he knows to apply it to a new situation.  We do this every day. We take the information, ethics, morals, and context to develop responses to situations which we have not been previously confronted with.  Paul, as an Apostle, is perhaps in a better position than us here, so let’s focus on his position.

Consenting to Living with her/him

In the v12-13, he says that if you have an unbelieving spouse but adds that they ‘consent to live with him/her’.  Why the condition?  The issue that Paul is addressing is that the Corinthians were married and then one of them was converted to Christianity.  This is a little different than marrying a non-believer, but I still think it applies. In this case, one thought he may have in mind is Matthew 10:34-36, where Jesus indicates, “I did not come to bring peace but a sword…your enemies will be the members of your own household.” Sounds harsh, but Jesus is saying that a Christian should be prepared to meet opposition anywhere, including within their own household. Thus, Paul is acknowledging in one aspect, that the spouse may be directly opposed to Christianity and refuse to remain in the household or the marriage because of it. Second and very importantly, Paul is treating the marriage very much as a partnership. This may sound surprising to some based on other passages (e.g. the oft misinterpreted Eph 5:22-32 but contrast with Gal 3:28). However, reading Paul properly brings his stance of marriage as a partnership in a consistent way. He is indicating here that the spouse should not compel the other spouse to convert. Roy Ciampa in his commentary on 1 Corinthians (p296) echoes this same point noting that the Greco-Roman Patriarchal setting would have allowed such a compulsion of the husband on the wife to convert to whatever religion he was. Paul urges not to do this.

One Making Both Holy

Paul then launches into how one spouse can make the other, and the children holy (v14). Paul is clear that the woman’s faith as much as the man’s can save the family. Sometimes it is the prince who needs saving by the princess. Further, Paul indicates that the children are holy as well. One must keep in mind that it is understood that the believing person in the relationship is a Christian in spirit and in action (James 1:22). The whole letter is about Christian behavior and character which the believing spouse is expected to display.

Separation

Here Paul indicates that the unbelieving spouse may leave (v15-16).  The two verses combine to explain one another. The unbelieving spouse may leave if they simply cannot live with the situation and the remaining spouse should be okay with his, although certainly a level a sadness is expected. The verse 16, however, modifies the understanding.  I would agree with Mark Taylor in his commentary on 1 Corinthians that v16 is one that is optimistic in two ways. First, that the believing spouse has no way of knowing if his/her behavior may impact the other sufficiently to encourage them to conversion. No one can know this but God. Even if you doubt the spouse will convert, God may nonetheless surprise you. Second, that the sanctity of marriage, signified in “God has called you to peace”, should be upheld due to this optimism. Note that this optimism in marriage and spousal conversion is also seen in 1 Peter 3:1-6.

Now the Issue with non-Christian Marriage According to the OT

It is not all good news I am afraid. The Old Testament, and yes it absolutely is important to consider it as even Jesus commented that “not one iota not one dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.” The OT is an important part of God’s revelation to humankind and none of it should be ignored.

In the Old Testament there are many passages about inter-marriage with people of other religious persuasion (Deut 7:3; Neh 13:25) and even the idea that the Israelites should divorce people not of Israel (Ezra 10:3;19).  Context is very important when interpreting biblical passages. It certainly is not the only consideration, but it is an important one.  Thus, we consider why such rules were in place and what it meant to the people of Israel, later the Christians, and us today.

Apostasy is the Threat

In the cases of the Old Testament, the passages are all very concerned about Israel losing its identity (Ezra 10:3;19 certainly has this in view).  The people of Israel had married into pagan households resulting in them practicing as pagans, walking away from God. This is a serious concern in the Old Testament and a situation that is often played out with horrible consequences.  Consider Solomon, the wisest man in the OT and son of David. He married many women.  Polygamy is mentioned in the Bible, but any analysis of the consequences demonstrates that it always results in disaster of various levels.  Solomon’s wives were not all Jewish.  Many practiced pagan religions and religious rights.  This resulted in Solomon defiling the land of Israel by erecting temples and statues to other gods at the bidding of his wives. He chooses to please his spouse as opposed to God. This is the fear that Paul expresses in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 when he speaks of “not being yoked together with unbelievers…”  We, as humans and Christians, must live in the world but should not be of the world.  When we are in relationships with non-Christians, we must be cautious about whom we are putting first.

The Sin of Adam?

Yes, this is how we get to Adam’s sin. Sure, Eve took the fruit from the snaky devil, but Adam was right there. It can be noted that it was Adam, before Eve was created, that was given the instructions about the tree and the fruit (Gen 2:15-17). In one interpretation you could consider it Adam’s role to convey the word of the Lord and it was Eve’s role to protect Adam, that is to ensure that he did his role. Funny isn’t it that Eve would be considered the protector. I have discussed this in other contexts and hope to get around to explaining this further in another post someday. Eve ate the fruit first then she turned to her husband and gave the fruit to Adam….and he ate (Gen 3:6).  Adam knew better. The scripture does not say he was deceived by the snake, he was given the fruit by Eve.  He was not ‘deceived’ by Eve. He was faced with a choice, please his wife or please God. This was the issue with Abraham and Sarah, Israel during the time of Ezra, Solomon during his reign, what Paul was warning about to the Corinthians, and the danger we face when married to a non-believer. We will be faced with choosing whom to please.

Application in the Modern World

So, can we marry non-Christian persons?  Yes. There is a saving grace that may be conveyed to the spouse if you do. However, you will need to understand the challenge that this marriage will face and you as a believer will face. There are some items that make any marriage a challenge. Please do not consider this a listing of why NOT to marry the person you are considering. Instead, understand that you should know that the challenges are there, what they are, and to face them head-on.  The primary challenges from various books and sources appear to be level of education, cultural differences, language differences, and religious differences.  The only one I have reviewed here is the religious difference. Certainly, none of these are insurmountable in a marriage, but all of them represent potential challenges for the longevity of the marriage. Each couple is unique. Some may be able to embrace the cultural differences without issues, others may struggle. Some may engage in the religious culture others may avoid it.

For the religious one, you will face issues of holidays, religious practices, potential derision from in-laws, how the wedding is done, and importantly how the children are raised. These are serious questions that should be discussed openly and frankly.  Working together as a team you can even see this as an opportunity to come closer together. As the Christian, you will need to understand the choice as noted above.  Where do you place God in your life and family? Pray for guidance and peace. Marriage is a special and sacred bond, despite self-centered-satisfaction common in the Western world. God created marriage with Adam and Eve and I have faith that he will it.

For an excellent resource consider Timothy Keller’s “The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God.” I walked through this book with my college aged children and their cousins.  It was a wonderful and enlightening journey which I would recommend to anyone before, considering, or in a marriage.

 

 

 

 

 


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