Few life decisions are more important than marriage. Even in our age of easy divorce, the truth is that there is no easy divorce, especially if children are involved.
Marriage shapes our life, cuts through the core of who we really are and shows us raw to our spouse and children.
Marriage is such a defining decision that, throughout history, most parents have had their say in their children’s marital choice.
This might be less so in today’s relaxed culture, but it’s still true in the Christian subculture, where parents want their children to live a holy life and to raise godly children of their own; these parents see the choice of the wrong spouse by their children as potentially soul-damning.
So what do you do as a Christian parent when your child comes home and introduces you to his or her non-Christian soulmate, asking for your blessing on their marriage? Do you have a duty to do something about it?
In some Christian circles, this might not be a big deal. In some others, usually the conservative ones, it’s seen as a violation of 2 Corinthians 6:14-15. It’s a sin that calls for some tough church discipline, as outlined in Matthew 18:15-17; the relationship must end.
Parents and family members taking this hard stance are not acting out of pride, or of holier-than-thou convictions of moral superiority, but rather out of obedience to what they read in Scriptures about marriage and relationships. This last part is hard to understand for the family of the rejected unbeliever because it’s naturally hard for parents to overcome the thought of their daughter or son “not being good enough” for someone else.
The concern of the believer’s family, however, is not with real or perceived moral superiority; it’s obedience to the Word of God in what It says about relationships and marriage — especially about marriage because it’s a type of the relationship between the church (the bride) and the Lord (the groom), a covenant of the utmost importance in the eyes of our Lord.
This then leads to crucial decisions in such situations; how are we to approach a, say, Christian man interested in a woman that might not be a believer? Does the Bible say anything about it?
A passage that is often quoted on the subject, as mentioned above, is 2 Corinthians 6:14: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?”
This passage, however, is far from straightforward. We know, of course, that it does not mean avoiding all associations with unbelievers because, as Paul himself mentions in 1 Cor. 5:9-10, we would then have to leave this world. But what about close relationships? What about marriage? Does the Lord recognize such unions? What does it mean, then, to be unequally yoked? What constitutes an unequal union? What types of union is this verse referring to? Sexual? Marital? Professional? Educational? Does it especially apply to marriage because the intimacy between the spouses can lead to spiritual corruption?
When we read this passage in context, however, we realize that Paul is not specifically referring to the marriage relationship. Nowhere in the whole letter to the Corinthians does he talk about marriage or family. The context of the letter is, in fact, theological; the believers of Corinth were going after false teachers, and were doubting Paul’s authority as an apostle.
Also, nowhere in the Bible will we find the command, “Thou shalt not marry an unbeliever.” On the contrary, the New Testament mentions such unions; in 1 Cor. 7:12-16, Paul speaks to those who are married to unbelievers, encouraging them to stay together, loving and praying for their spouse. The apostle Peter also encourages wives of unbelievers to work to win their husbands to the Lord (1 Peter 3:1-2).
It is true that the Old Testament mentions the commandment of Moses not to marry foreigners (Deut. 7) and the charge in Ezra’s time to put away foreign wives (Ezra 10). But again, this situation was unique to ancient Israel and has no bearing on New Testament Christians (1 Cor. 7:13-14; 1 Peter 3:1-2), and seems related to the fact that pagans in those days were extremely corrupt, thus at risk of weakening the faithfulness of Isreal to the Lord. Even Moses gave an exception when he talked about how to treat a foreign captive whom one desired to take as a wife, and he himself married a non-Isrealite woman (Numbers 12:1).
Very few people will argue with the premise, however, that the ideal is for believers to marry other believers. This may very well be the intent of the apostle Paul in his instruction to widows, if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39). This is about as close to an injunction against marriage to unbelievers we can find; but even this passage is open to various possible interpretations, thus one should not be dogmatic about it.
Since Paul does not specifically relate his charges to marital relationships, I would hesitate to declare dogmatically that it is sinful for Christians to marry non-Christians. If it’s not sinful per se, then all the verses about church discipline we talked about apply only if such a relationship leads to unrepented sinful behavior on the part of the believer.
Does that mean that I would encourage such a union? God forbid. On the contrary, I would prima facie strongly counsel against it. Such marriages present formidable challenges; I’ve seen it in Italy and in America. People that do not harmonize in purpose, walk, and life should not be bound together. We don’t even need the Scriptures to arrive at such wisdom, as even unbelievers understand as much; in Italy we have the saying “mogli e buoi dei paesi tuoi,” known in the Yorkshire as “Better wed over the mixen than over the moor,” and in the United States as “Stick to your own kind.”
But if we agree that once a believer is married to an unbeliever, the family of the believer should heed the advice in 1 Corinthians 7:13-14 and do all in their power to help sanctify that union, what about our behavior before the wedding? Should they do whatever in their power to discourage the relationship, even to the point of shunning him, as per 1 Cor. 5:9-13? Again, if the Bible does not specifically command believers not to marry an unbeliever, then the church discipline mentioned in 1 Cor. 5:9-13 does not apply, unless the believer is engaging in sinful and unrepentant behavior, and even then discipline should be administered to restore the believer to holiness and obedience, not take overly punitive qualities that go beyond that objective.
When, in fact, such Christians practice shunning, without the moral authority of the Bible behind them, they find themselves in the very awkward position of pedaling against the relationship till the day of the wedding, only to do a 180, and start pedaling for the relationship from then on. By that time, they will be perceived as a schizophrenic lot by the alienated spouse and her family. Considering that, when we marry, we marry into one’s family, such well-intentioned Christians will then have caused a very deep scar between the two families that will put a huge strain on the new marriage, thus putting in jeopardy the very marriage they are now supposed to sanctify.
What should they then do? What is the wisest course of action in a situation like this? The wise course of action is to analyze such situations case by case. This has the benefit of showing Christian fairness and wisdom to both the believer and the unbeliever and her family, without making the latter feel unworthy and excluded.
Is the new relationship causing the Christian to sin, sexually or otherwise? If so, this is the behavior that should bring on the discipline, not the relationship per se.
Would Would I Do?
Would would I do if this were my son? I want nothing more for my son to walk in truth and wisdom. This is what I would do: I would first enquire of the girl and her family. Are her parents respected members of the community? Is she? Is my son ready to court her? What is her spiritual standing? Is my son really interested in her, or is it just a fling? Having done my research, I would then say to my son, “Son, I raised you to be a just and responsible citizen, a man God can use for His purposes. I’ve always known that, one day, you would walk through the door of our house with the woman you would want to marry. I’ve always hoped that woman would be known for her love and dedication to the Lord. Although the woman you have chosen to be your life companion is certainly nice and interested in our faith, she is not known in the community as a Christian. Thus, I would proceed cautiously with her. As the Bible says, husband and wife are heirs to the grace of life, so it is very important that you both understand the importance of marriage, the necessity to work together in humility and according to the wisdom of God through the difficult times that will surely come in your married life. Many a marriage starts with happiness and smiles, but half of them, even among Christian couples, end in divorce. Unless you are sure that she’s willing to submit to the wisdom of the Word of God through the storms of marriage, I would not commit to the relationship. For this purpose, I strongly suggest that she spend a lot of time with our family, that we do Bible studies together on marriage. She might find that she loves our family and the Christian life, or that she doesn’t. Better for her to find out before the wedding than after it, when it’s too late. That’s all I ask. I’ll leave the decision to your wisdom. Is that fair?”
We all know that the ideal scenario for a marriage is when two committed, young Christians come together after having independently made a confession of faith. That is always the ideal. But real life is not always ideal; it’s messy and full of curveballs. We can’t always get things to align perfectly according to our well-developed plans, but we can always respond with fairness and wisdom that are uniquely Christian. Not through exclusion and shunning, but through inclusion. And we should do so before the wedding. After, it will be too late.
Perhaps the most beautiful example of what I mean by inclusion is seen in the book of Ruth, in which we read the story of Naomi, a Hebrew woman who moves with her husband and two sons to the land of Moab, where her two sons marry Orpah and Ruth. After Naomi’s husband and sons die, we can expect the worst for the three widows, left alone in the world, without any man to help them. What follows, instead, is a most endearing story of sacrificial love and extraordinary loving-kindness, shown by all the major characters of the story. First by Naomi, a widow, now determined to move back to Israel, who urges her daughters-in-law to find new husbands and start new lives, even though that would leave her utterly alone. Then by Ruth who, while Orpah leaves, insists on staying with Naomi, even though that means leaving her homeland and become a stranger in Israel, where she might never find a husband and have children of her own. Finally by Boaz, a kinsman of Naomi, who marries Ruth, in whom he sees a woman of virtue. In marrying her, he fulfills the practice of levirate marriage, according to which his children with Ruth would be treated as the children of her first husband Mahlon, not his own. It’s a most beautiful story that makes several statements, not the least of which on interfaith marriage. Orpah and Ruth are, in fact, not Hebrew. They are Moabite women whom, after the death of their husbands, Naomi urges to go back unto their people and unto their gods (Ruth 1:15). Yet Ruth, perhaps struck by the extraordinary loving-kindness of Naomi and her family, shows utmost loyalty to God and the Hebrew people in return, and becomes the great-grandmother of king David. The whole book of Ruth shows the ideal spiritual community, where the love of God emanates like an irresistible force that is felt even by the non-Hebrews; you can’t help but want to be part of such an extraordinary community of love and kindness.
That’s what we should strive for with the unbelievers that come near us.
In the end, we follow God’s advice because His ways are ways that lead to happiness; having a marriage that pleases the Lord ultimately brings wisdom, holiness, joy, patience, temperance, long-suffering, growth and all the other spiritual gifts to the couple as well. Marriage is not the hedonistic capstone on a life of pleasure, as is portrayed by modern culture; it’s a covenant that makes us grow and understand God’s love. The reason why we counsel couples to get married in the Lord is because we want them to understand how to go through the storms of marriage, plowing in the same direction, willing to accept their roles as husband and wife, to submit to one another in the wisdom of the Lord.