Marrying or romancing those who aren't Christians

I am aware that those who read this paper come to it from a variety of life situations. I guess, many will themselves be married, going out with, or considering going out with non-Christians. You may never before have even considered whether the bible has anything to say on such matters. Well, I am so pleased that you are reading, and want to encourage you to read right through to the end. Some of what God has to say on this issue is pretty frank, but as you read on, you will come to see that if you are a Christian, this frankness only proves God's great love for you because it stems from his concern for your wellbeing.

What does the bible have to say on this?
It is clear within scripture that God views the marriage of one of his people with one who is not, as sin. It is perhaps demonstrated initially by Abraham's concern to seek only one of his own people as a wife for Isaac, just as Isaac later sought one of his own for Jacob (Gen 24:1-4). The first clear prohibition however comes in Deuteronomy 7:1-4, where God says about the nations that Israel would disposes as they are established in Canaan:
"3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you."
Again, in Joshua 23:12-13, the LORD says:
"12 But if you turn away and ally yourselves with the survivors of these nations that remain among you and if you intermarry with them and associate with them, 13 then you may be sure that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations before you. Instead, they will become snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land, which the LORD your God has given you."
In short, the LORD forbid Israelites from marrying non-Israelites on the grounds that such relationships would lead them into sin and away from God - whether this be to follow another religion, or as is so often the case today, simply to ignore him and live instead for their own desires. The consequences of such marriages are most famously exemplified in the life of Solomon who was led astray by his foreign wives (1 Kgs 11:1-6). The seriousness of such marriages is emphasised by Nehemiah who described them as unfaithfulness to God and tore the hair out of the Israelite men when he found that they had married foreign women (Neh 13:23-27). Indeed, as with the passages quoted above, Ezra also sees mixed marriages as a matter warranting God's judgement (Ezra 9:13-15).

In the NT, 1 Corinthians 7:39 is the passage which deals specifically with the issue.
"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 only in the Lord."
Here, Paul is talking specifically about a widow, and one might ask why in talking of first marriages earlier in the passage he didn't make this specification. The answer is probably (a) that it was assumed - the weight of the above OT stress on not intermarrying would strongly suggest this, and/or (b) because many of the widows were first married to unbelievers (having been converted when already married) and therefore greatly in need of this prohibition the second time round. 2 Cor 6:14-18 is also often cited. However, although it probably applies in principle, it doesn't in specifics. The context seems to suggest involvement in unbelieving sinful practices in general (cf. 2 Cor 7:1).

The requirement that believers marry only believers, is therefore one that runs right through scripture. Yet there are differences between the OT and the NT, the most important being that Paul doesn't advocate separation from unbelieving spouses as Ezra did.

Why does God prohibit marrying non-Christians?
Various reasons could be given. The primary one is that God is concerned that we glorify him by living lives of wholehearted devotion and godliness – something those married to non-Christians find incredibly difficult. For our purposes however, it is worth considering that one reason that God prohibits our marrying non-Christians is out of a concern for our happiness! This may seem to be at odds with him not allowing you to marry someone you may well love, but it is true nevertheless. You see, God's concern for your happiness refers to your ultimate happiness, which often comes only through hardship and which is intrinsically linked to your relationship with him, not the more short-term happiness we tend to fix our eyes on.

First, God is concerned for your eternal happiness, ie. your salvation. The primary reason that the OT warns against mixed marriages is because they lead people away from the Lord. As seem, this was particularly exemplified in the life of Solomon. And if he - a man far wiser than most of us - was led astray, are we not all the more likely to be? Time and again I have seen people marry or start to go out with non-Christians convinced that actually they will win them for the Lord. Yet time and again it has been the Christian who has begun going to church less and less, before ceasing to go at all and then even hardening their heart against Christ. God knows far better than us how unable we are in coping with such relationships, and forbids them for this reason. Indeed, we need to treat them with the same seriousness. Just as unfaithfulness in this area led to judgement in the OT, so, where it may eventually bring someone to turn their back on Christ today, it can only lead to the horrors of final judgement and hell. Surely no-one in their right mind would dabble with something that could have such consequences. As to the argument that the partner might be converted - Paul explicitly writes; "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 7:16). Of course, there are some instances when by God's grace the non-Christian spouse or partner of a believer does become a Christian. But this is certainly not the norm, and might have come about far sooner if the believer had shown their non-Christian friend the nature of total commitment to Christ by refusing to go out with them in the first place.

Second, God is concerned for your temporal happiness, ie. your happiness in the here and now. Again, you may well argue that you will only be truly happy if you are married to the non-Christian you love. But again, God knows better:

Marriage is the most intimate of all relationships, and this kind of intimacy is based on being able to share everything with one-another. What kind of marriage will it be then if you cannot share what is most important to you - your relationship with Jesus - with your spouse? Imagine a marriage where your spouse never met any of your family, and you were therefore not able to talk together about them. Well how much worse would your marriage be if your spouse had never met your God and so you were not able to talk in a mutual way about him, let alone pray together to him.

You may well think that your non-Christian partner will be very supportive of your faith, but it is a lot to ask of him/her to not mind your being absent once or twice on Sundays and once or twice mid-week. It is even more to ask them to run with how you think your children should be brought up - ie. as Christians. Paul writes: "An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs - how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world - how he can please his wife - and his interests are divided (1 Cor 7:32-33)." Now if Paul writes this about Christian marriage, how much more of an impact will mixed marriages have on your concerns and so your faith? At the very least, marrying a non-Christian will keep you from ever fully devoting yourself to the Lord, so always hindering your Christian growth - a price not worth paying. It may also mean a constant battle over being able to attend church that will cause your spouse to resent Christianity rather than consider becoming a Christian. Such a marriage is therefore not particularly fair on the non-Christian spouse either.

Marriage is at times extremely difficult, and the best marriages rely on recognising the roles God has given the man and woman in marriage together with a constant expressing of selflessness and forgiveness by both parties. Now the Christian is moved to act in this way because they are seeking to submit to the bible and are filled with the Holy Spirit who enables them to overcome sin and live in godliness. However, the non-Christian neither wants to submit to the bible, nor even has the ability by the Holy Spirit to do so (Rom 8:6-7). A mixed marriage can only therefore fall short of marriage as God intends it. 

If you make a bad decision on who you marry, there is no way out. Contrary to the contemporary acceptance of easy divorce, the bible only allows divorce where sexual unfaithfulness ie. adultery has occurred (Matt 19:1-9), or possibly where - where mixed marriages have occurred - an unbelieving spouse deserts a believing one (1 Cor 7:15). If as a Christian, you find yourself in an unhappy marriage, you are therefore bound to remain in it, fulfilling your duties to your partner faithfully, regardless of whether they appreciate it or not, and even if they treat you appallingly in return (1 Pet 3:1-7). It is of course difficult for you to see any potential problems as you look at the possibility of marriage, but don't be naive, problems will come. They come in Christian marriages, and for the reasons given above are even more likely in mixed marriages; and in these in particular there is likely to be a reluctance on the part of the non-Christian to visit you vicar/pastor to seek help.

God knows how hard marriage is, and you need to trust what he requires of you in choosing a partner. Indeed, if you have failed to recognise the need of being married to a committed Christian having read this far, then you are failing to grasp how pervasive and destructive sin is and the real difference the Holy Spirit makes to Christian marriage. God's intention is that any marriage you enter is to be a source of joy and blessing to you and your children (Gen 2:19-25, Mal 2:15). So, I urge you in Christ Jesus, don't bind yourself to a life that may possibly be filled with this kind of tension and grief and that has the potential even for destroying your relationship with God.

Third, God is concerned for the eternal and temporal happiness of others:
Here children come immediately to mind. Christian marriage is a means God often uses for extending his kingdom as children are raised in the faith (Mal 2:15). Yet properly raising children is almost impossible in a mixed marriage, especially where one parent may be antagonistic. Moreover, a marriage that is more likely to suffer conflict is one more likely to bring incredible heartache to any kids.

Your marriage will also have an impact on those of your own age. Imagine that you could be sure that marrying a non-Christian would in no way be detrimental to your happiness, or that of your children. Even then it would be detrimental to that of others. Wouldn't it make your Christian friends think that marrying a non-Christian would be as problem-free for them? They would then be more likely to sin in the same way, and suffer any number of the problems listed above. There will always be some who can testify to having had a very happy marriage to a non-Christian, that hasn't hindered their faith at all, and that eventually saw their spouse converted. But this doesn't alter the fact that this does not generally occur and so is unlikely to happen for you, nor does it alter the fact that entering even such a marriage is still sin, because God forbids it. And one reason he does so, is because even the best mixed marriages encourage others to act likewise to their own harm. God's laws are for the good of the many as well as the few.

What if I am already married to a non-Christian?
Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 are worth quoting here in full:
"If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbeliever leaves, let him do so. A believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?"
Whatever the rights or wrongs of how you have found yourself in a mixed marriage, you need to recognise that once it has been entered it is a legitimate marriage, and it is God's will that you remain in it, committing yourself fully as a husband to serving your wife, or as a wife to submitting to your husband (1 Pet 3:1-7). Being "sanctified" here doesn't mean that the non-Christian spouse is saved, but that they are in some way set-apart by God from others, probably with respect to his purposes for your children. Of course, if you are in a mixed marriage because you married a non-Christian when you were yourself a Christian, then you will also need to confess your sin in doing so to God, asking his forgiveness for your mistake and his help for you to make the best of the marriage you now find yourself in.

What if I am going out with a non-Christian?
Hopefully, by now you will know what you need to do, and want to do it. 'Going-out' is not a biblical concept, but the nature of going out should mean that it would only be appropriate to go out with someone that you might possibly marry. As a non-Christian is not a possibility for marriage, then it would be wrong to go out with them. Furthermore, for the same reasons listed above for marriage, it would be detrimental to your faith, and unfair to the non-Christian to go out with them (not least because their expectations of what might be sexually permissible when you are going out should be very different from yours). Indeed, the more serious the relationship gets, the more detrimental and unfair. You may reason that if your boyfriend/girlfriend is not converted by the time you consider marriage then you will finish it, but by that time you will be deeply in love with them. To finish with them will then be near impossible. At the very least, it will cause great pain to the one who has been led on in the hope of marriage and then dumped. Most importantly however, this argument is invalid because the reasons that God prohibits marrying non-Christians stand for going out with non-Christians too, the going out itself is therefore unfaithfulness to God, not just any eventual marriage.

Hard as it probably is to hear, you will therefore need to finish with your partner if they are not a Christian, asking God's forgiveness for not considering his will on this matter before, and for his help to be strong as you seek to be faithful to him. Acting in this way is obviously very difficult, especially if you have been going out for a while and are in love. Your friends, and perhaps your family (especially if your partner is seen as a good catch), may well not understand. However, faithfulness to God is often extremely tough, just as it was for Jesus himself, and it is he who requires us to "deny ourselves and take up our cross daily…for whoever want to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it (Mark 8:34-35)." Of course, your witness to you partner in displaying your commitment to Christ by splitting up with them may be a means by which the Lord brings them to consider and accept Christ for themselves. However, you cannot know this, but must be faithful to God nevertheless, trusting him for the future, and trusting that he knows best for your life. If you are in this situation, do make sure you speak to your vicar/pastor or youth-leader so that they can offer you the support you need.

What if I am engaged to a non-Christian?
This is a more uncertain category to my mind. In NT times the commitment of a betrothal was seen as so equivalent to the anticipated commitment of marriage (although without the actual leaving, cleaving, and sexual union) that to break it off because of sexual unfaithfulness was described as divorce (Matt 1:19). In such a culture, it would therefore seem that the commitment of an engagement should be kept, even if it was entered into wrongly between a Christian and non-Christian. However, in our culture, the breaking off of engagements isn't viewed so seriously in their early days, but is more so as the wedding draws closer. It would therefore seem sensible to say that you should break the engagement off if at all possible, but if it has progressed to the point that the key preparations for the wedding have been made, because this suggests the seriousness of the engagement, the point of no return has perhaps been reached and the marriage may be carried out. In such circumstances however, you should speak to your vicar/pastor and your family if they are Christians, as there may be a way out of the engagement nevertheless. Whatever the case, the Christian should seek God's forgiveness for committing themselves to such a marriage in the first place, and his help for them if they do enter it.

Much of the above arguments have played somewhat on our own often self-centred concerns for happiness, in order to show the loving wisdom of God's requirements on the matter. However, it is worth adding that our faithfulness to God here, does not depend on whether we agree with God's wisdom, nor whether it feels like the happiest option. Rather, it depends on the fact that God makes clear in scripture that to marry an unbeliever is a sin. Furthermore, we must remind ourselves again that although God is concerned for our happiness, as Christians our greatest motivations should be God's glory (ie. that he is honoured) and the good of others. As Jesus said, quoting the OT: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbour as yourself (Matt 22:37-39).'" We should therefore obey God on this matter first because we love him, and so prioritise his will and pleasure above even our own desires, and second, because we love others, and know that faithfulness will be for the good of any children we may one day have, our Christian friends, and possibly even the non-Christian we may be considering a relationship with!

Now, as in all areas of obedience, faithfulness in choosing who we marry requires faith, and faith entails enduring hardship (read Hebrews 11). Depending on your own situation, the hardship you might face in obeying God on this particular matter could be that of heartbreak, embarrassment, the possibility of singleness, anger from your partner, or ridicule from family and friends - some of whom may even be Christians. As you face these, it is worth remembering that Christ also suffered them all in some way, and he did so because he first trusted God, come what may. It is this trust in the face of difficulty that he now calls you to exercise too, if you claim to follow him. Paul writes: "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it (1 Cor 10:13)." God has made clear that as a Christian you do have the resources and the means to be faithful on this matter, and so my prayer is that you would do just that - for the sake of God's glory, for the sake of the good of others, yet also for the sake of your own good.