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Should a Christian Marry an Unbeliever?

This week's question comes from Andreas in Germany. He asks whether or not it's okay for a Christian to marry a non-Christian. Specifically he writes, "It is difficult to find a partner in church [here], at least of a certain age."

In scripture there are few passages restricting marriage. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy the Israelites are prohibited from marrying certain members of their own families, though priests have greater restrictions (Lev. 21.7). In Deuteronomy 7.1-3 Israelites are forbidden from taking spouses from the seven nations in Palestine, a law that precipitated a mass divorce in the book of Ezra (10.19, 44).

However, in the New Testament, one passage has traditionally been used to prohibit marriages between Christians and non-Christians. This passage is found in Paul's second letter to the Corinthians and reads: "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). The term "mismatched" has also been translated "mismated", but the term in Greek literally means "unequally yoked." This term is not used to refer to marriage anywhere else in the Bible. Further, in this letter Paul is writing to discourage the Corinthians from heeding the teachings of his opponents, opponents who insisted that Christians must also be faithful to Israelite law. So, in this passage Paul is cautioning the Corinthians from embracing, or being yoked to, his opponent's teachings.

Which leaves us but one passage that deals with Andreas' question. In 1st Corinthians 7 Paul address with this very issue -- what to do about getting married and about marrying an unbeliever.

To begin with, Paul recommends that every Christian should take a vow of chastity and celibacy because, "those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that" (1 Corinthians 7.28b). However, Paul recognized he was expressing his own personal preference, since he writes "I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion" (7.25b). Later he adds, "Let them marry as they wish, it is no sin" (7.36b).

But what about a Christian marrying a non-Christian? I'll be the first to admit this poses a serious problem for any marriage, particularly if the Christian is a committed disciple of Jesus. Christians claim an allegiance to their Lord; however, when a Christian marries a non-Christian they are put into a compromising situation, a situation where there is little room for compromise. A Christian makes a commitment to God with their time, their talents, and their treasures -- and have made a commitment to a local fellowship or church as well. Not every unbeliever is willing to share their spouse with God and God's work and so this often causes difficulties in the relationship. Unfortunately, more often than not, the Christian is the one who compromises and soon their commitment to their Lord and to their fellowship or church has waned.

But what does the Bible say about a believer marrying an unbeliever? Again, only in 1st Corinthians 7 do we read anything in this regard. There we read "If any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. And if any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband. Wife, for all you know, you might bring salvation to your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might bring salvation to your wife. However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches" (1 Corinthians 7.12-14a, 16-17). In other words, if the believer and the unbeliever can work out the logistics of the marriage, and if the Christian is enabled to remain true to the life "to which God called" them, then if they choose to get married, they have Paul's blessing.

It is a difficult decision to marry outside of one's faith. It can cause many disagreements and place a strain on the relationship. However, if good communication is practiced from the beginning, if both are willing to respect the other's faith, or lack of faith, then with a good deal of work the marriage relationship can be successful. And who knows, "for all you know, you may bring salvation to your spouse."

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