This article has been shared with you to read free of charge. If you like what you read, please consider supporting us by subscribing to en-online or to the printed newspaper (which will also give you access to en-online).

- The en team

<< Previous | 1 of 6 | Next >>


Can Christians marry non-Christians?

Mike Gilbart-Smith unpacks a thorny pastoral question

Mike Gilbart-Smith

Figure Image
photo: iStock

‘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.’

The temptation to get romantically involved with a non-Christian tends to be something that is not hidden, but instead, justified – first to themselves and then to other Christians. If it feels right, then they go back to look at the Bible to try to prove that it is right.

In this article, I shall not be trying to give a method for counselling people who are facing such a temptation. 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.

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 idols.

Practically speaking, how do you decide as a married couple 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 one trumps numbers two and three. For the non-Christian, there is only two and three.

Marriage is a partnership in doing God’s work

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 (symbolised 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.

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 their 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.

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.

Abraham goes to great lengths to ensure that his son Isaac marries believing Rebekah. Rebekah is disgusted at the marriage of her son to Canaanite/Hittite women. Hamor invites the sons of Jacob to compromise and so intermarry with the daughters of Shechem. In the conquest of Canaan, the Lord gives strict prohibitions against intermarriage (Deut. 7:3-4). This prohibition is repeated in Joshua 23:12. Intermarriage is also the downfall of King Solomon and King Ahab. A sign of repentance for God’s people was their repentance of intermarriage in Ezra 9–10.

The 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.’

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.

The New Testament texts imply that 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 Cor. 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 Cor. 6:14)

Though this second verse isn’t explicitly about marriage, 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: ‘Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord 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.

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, honour, 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.

Mike Gilbart-Smith is pastor of Twynholm Baptist Church, Fulham, south-west London. This article was first published on the 9Marks website and is used with permission.