Unequally Yoked and Married. Is That Christian?

I already wrote a post about Christians marrying unbelievers. I’ve been asked, however, to provide further evidence from the Bible and from the writings of biblical scholars, since I seem to state that it’s always ok for believers to court and marry unbelievers.

In a sense, this is understandable; Christians have been hammered for so long with the idea of not “being unequally yoked” that, in their mind, the idea of wanting to marry an “unbeliever” is automatically a sin worthy of the discipline outlined in Matthew 18:15-17. When a fellow Christian comes along and says, “marrying an unbeliever is not automatically a sin; the Bible leaves it to our spiritual wisdom, when counseling such a believer, to discern the best course of action,” he or she is met with reactions that range from a raised eyebrow to accusations of downright heresy.

So, what does the Bible say on the issue?

Old Testament

The Old Testament clearly prohibits marriage to unbelievers that will lead God’s people into spiritual apostasy (Deut. 7, Joshua 23, Ezra 9-10, et al.) On the other hand, in Deut. 21 God makes a provision for marriage with foreign captive women:

When you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord your God gives them into your hand and you take them captive, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman, and you desire to take her to be your wife, and you bring her home to your house, she shall shave her head and pare her nails. And she shall take off the clothes in which she was captured and shall remain in your house and lament her father and her mother a full month. After that you may go in to her and be her husband, and she shall be your wife ((The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (Dt 21:10–13). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.))

Such women were to undergo rituals of mourning and cleansing for a period of 30 days before the wedding. According to some scholars and rabbis, such rituals would indicate a departure from the women’s former life and religious practice, at least outwardly, since the passage does not speak of inner conversion:

An Israelite was permitted to marry a beautiful woman from the captives of a particular battle. This assumes the battle in question was against one of “the cities that are at a distance” (20:15), not a city within the borders of Palestine. Therefore the prospective wife would not have been a Canaanite woman (cf. the prohibition against marrying a Canaanite man or woman, 7:1, 3–4). 21:12–14. A soldier’s marriage to a foreign captive could not take place immediately. The prospective wife was first prepared psychologically for her new life as an Israelite. This was accomplished by her shaving her head, trimming her nails, having a change of clothes, and mourning for her parents for one month. The mourning may indicate either that her father and mother had been killed in battle or that she was now separated from them by her new marriage. The other rituals mentioned may also have symbolized her mourning for cutting herself off from her former life. ((Deere, J. S. (1985). Deuteronomy. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Vol. 1, p. 300). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.))

Also:

This law must apply for conquests of cities far away (20:10–15), otherwise the women would have been destroyed (20:17). It both ends the discussion of topics under the heading “you shall not murder” and introduces the section on “you shall not commit adultery” (5:18; see note on 21:15–23:14). 21:12–13 shave her head and pare her nails … take off the clothes. These actions indicate a departure from her former life, no doubt including its religious practices. ((Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 361). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.))

The rituals by these captive women also indicated shame or grief:

The removal of hair with a razor or other sharp implement. Both male and female Israelites allowed their hair to grow long. Barbers trimmed, but did not crop, men’s hair, so giving special significance to the shaving of the head or whole body. These actions indicated shame or grief. Shaved head a sign of grief: Job 1:20 See also Dt 21:10-14; Isa 15:2; Jer 47:5; 48:36-37; Eze 27:31; Am 8:10; Mic 1:16; Jer 7:29; 41:5 ((Manser, M. H. (2009). Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies. London: Martin Manser.))

Also, such women were not just concubines, but wives:

Wives might also be taken from among captives after a war, provided that they were not Palestinians (Dt. 20:14–18). Some writers regard these captives as concubines, but the regulations of Dt. 21:10–14 regard them as normal wives. ((Thomson, J. G. S. S. (1996). Marks. In (D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman, Eds.) New Bible dictionary. Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.))

Some have argued that such provision in Deut. 21:10-14 was made for two reasons:

  1. Israel was an ethnic group, not a church. Not everybody in Israel was saved, whereas every member of the church is saved. (Some O.T. laws presumably account for such difference, even though I can’t think of any scriptural evidence for such dual standard in the O.T.)
  2. The action of taking a captive woman as wife was not ideal, but it reflected the first point above. In other words, God knew it was going to happen and made a provision for it. (In other words, “This is not good, but it’s going to happen, so this is how you do it.”). This seems to be the argument by some rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud.

Now, The first point is puzzling; both O.T. Israel and N.T. Gentile church worship the same God, in the same way (Hebrews 11), not because of ethnic pride or because of merits on men’s part (Matt. 3:9), but because God made a covenant with Abraham to bless his seed (Gen. 12:1-3); both Israel and the church are to be holy (Lev. 19:2 and 1 Peter 1:15); they are both a congregation: the Hebrew word (“qahal”) for “congregation” or “assembly” is translated as “ekklesia” (“church” or “assembly”) in the Septuagint; finally the Gentile church was grafted in because of Israel’s unbelief, but God is by no means done with Israel (Romans 11).

Even in the Old Testament, marriage was not about racial purity, but spiritual faithfulness:

When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, the city leaders confronted him with the problem of intermarriage. Echoing the days of Moses, the sins of the people were likened to those of the Gentiles who had ensnared Israel in the past (9:1–2; Exod 34:11–12; Deut 7:1–6). The purpose of this segregation was not to create a pure race but to avoid marriages that would lead to spiritual unfaithfulness (compare Judg 3:5–6). ((Dockery, D. S., Butler, T. C., Church, C. L., Scott, L. L., Ellis Smith, M. A., White, J. E., & Holman Bible Publishers (Nashville, T. . (1992). Holman Bible Handbook (p. 292). Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers.))

The second point is even more puzzling. Even assuming that there is indeed a difference between Old Testament Israel and the New Testament church, the question remains: was marriage to a foreign captive woman a sin? Does God make provisions for sins? Does God say, “Well, I know that adultery is bad, but I know that you are going to commit it, so let me make a provision for it. This is how you do it.”? Or, “Well, idolatry is bad, but I know that you are going to do it, so let me make a provision for it. This is how you do it.”?

God forbid. We know fully well the treatment God reserved to sinners in the Old Testament. We can then safely conclude that the provision made in Deut. 21:10-14 was for acceptable behavior; not ideal, but provisioned for, and therefore not a sin.

What are we, therefore, to conclude from the Old Testament laws about marriage? The most straightforward understanding is that interreligious marriage was strictly forbidden when the spouse (woman) was from a wicked country that committed abominable things:

For the peoples of the lands, see note on 3:3. They are further identified as idolatrous nations, for the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, … and the Amorites are among the seven nations that Israel was commanded by Moses to drive out of the land (see Deut. 7:1–5). The Ammonites and Moabites were nations east of the river Jordan, outside the Promised Land, who were regarded as especially hostile to Israel (Deut. 23:3–4). And in Lev. 18:3, Egypt is regarded as morally equal to Canaan. The peoples of the land who keep themselves distinct from the returned temple-community are thus portrayed as the same in principle and in character as these ancient enemies. These are specifically wives (Ezra 9:2) of foreign nations who had not abandoned their worship of other gods, for 6:21 makes it clear that such people could join the people of Israel if they were willing to follow the Lord God alone (see note on 6:21). Their abominations (9:1) refers to these peoples’ worship of other gods and the associated practices that Yahweh, God of Israel, regarded as particularly wicked (Deut. 12:31). It is implied that the foreigners’ religions in Ezra’s day were just as idolatrous as in ancient times, and thus it is clear that the issue is not ethnic purity (cf. Ezra 6:21). Intermarriage with the indigenous population carried the danger of religious apostasy, and therefore was expressly forbidden by the law (Deut. 7:3). The holy race (Ezra 9:2) is literally “holy seed/offspring” and alludes to the “offspring” of Abraham, who bore the ancient promise of covenant and land (Gen. 12:1–3; 15:5; 17:7–8). The “holy seed” was also seen in prophecy as the surviving remnant that would be brought to life again after the terrible judgment of the exile (Isa. 6:13). The involvement of all classes of the community—the priests, the Levites, and the people of Israel (Ezra 9:1), as well as the officials and chief men (v. 2)—shows that the problem included all the people. The term faithlessness (Hb. ma‘al, v. 2) is an extremely strong expression for abandonment of the faith, especially by leaders (see 1 Chron. 10:13, where it is translated “breach of faith”). ((Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (pp. 817–818). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.))

And also Williams:

The situation had nothing whatever to do with racial prejudice, since there is nothing in Scripture which prevented God’s people from marrying those of another race or nation, provided they were prepared to worship the true and living God. ((Williams, P. (2006). Opening up Ezra (p. 98). Leominster: Day One Publications.))

Marriage with a foreign woman was, however, permitted when the woman was not from such countries (whatever they were) and underwent a ritual of mourning and purification, such as the one described in Deut. 21:10-14. Next, let’s consider what the New Testament has to say on the subject.

New Testament

The New Testament has several passages that talk about marriage; among them Matt. 19:4-6, 1 Cor. 7, Eph. 5:22-23, Col. 3:18-19, Heb. 13:4-7. Especially relevant for the couple, before the wedding, is 1 Cor. 7:39 and, after the wedding 1 Cor. 7:12-14.

According to 1 Cor. 7:39, the believer is free to marry whomever he wishes, only in (obedience to) the Lord. Some read “in the Lord” as to mean “A Christian,” but adverbs like “only” cannot modify nouns, so it’s meant to modify the whole phrase before, that “marry in the Lord.” This construction is similar to the one in Eph. 6:1, where we would not say that children are to obey their parents only if the latter are Christians.

According to 1 Cor. 7:12-14, the Christian spouse should stay married with the unbelieving one if the latter is happy to stay in the relationship.

One passage that does not specifically talk about marriage, but that is often brought up in conversations about marriage between believers and unbelievers is 2 Cor. 6:14-16:

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God. ((The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2001). (2 Co 6:14–16). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.))

Is 2 Cor. 6:14 a warning from Paul to the Corinthians not to get involved in partnerships with unbelievers? This common interpretation — especially when applied to marriage as the highest form of partnership between individuals — presents two problems.

First, has this verse superseded Deut. 21:10-14? If it is now a sin to marry an unbeliever, was it also a sin in the O.T. passage above? That would mean that God made in Deut. 21 a provision for sin.

Second, do we have firmer laws against interreligious marriage in the New Testament than we did in the Old Testament? That seems strange, as even John Calvin admitted:

Calvin recognized that the Old Testament prohibitions against interreligious marriage were firmer than the laws that governed modern-day Christians. He addressed this squarely in his late-life Lectures on Malachi (Doc. 10-5). In the Old Testament, God had sought to erect an absolute “wall of separation” between Jews and Gentiles so that the Jews could remain a pure and holy people of God. The prohibition against interreligious marriage was part and product of that broader mandate.’ In the New Testament, however, Christ broke down the “wall of separation” (Eph. 2:14) between “Jew and Greek,” encouraging all to be united in Christ (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:10-11). ((John Witte Jr.;Robert M. Kingdon. Sex, Marriage, and Family Life in John Calvin’s Geneva: Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage (Religion, Marriage and Family Series): 1 – Kindle Edition. (Chapter 10: Do Not Be Unequally Yoked with Unbelievers) ))

Perhaps an even bigger problem for this interpretation of 2 Cor. 6:14 is that the passage, in context and grammar, is most likely not even a warning against potential sinful partnerships with unbelievers, but a injunction to stop a partnership already in progress:

Paul next issues a command: Do not be yoked together with unbelievers (v. 14). Actually the command is even more pointed: “Stop yoking yourselves to unbelievers.” Use of the present imperative shows that Paul is not merely warning the Corinthians about a potential danger (“do not start”) but instructing them to stop an action already in progress. The command appears to come out of the clear blue. Has Paul not been lobbying strenuously for the Corinthians’ affection? Has he not just asked them, as his children, to open wide their hearts to him? Moreover, he resumes his lobbying efforts at 7:2: “Make room for us in your hearts,” he repeats. ((Linda L. Belleville. (1996). 2 Corinthians. InterVarsity Press.))

That this is the case seems to be shown by Paul’s conclusion of his command in 2 Cor. 7:1: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” (ESV)

If 2 Cor. 6:14 were a mere warning against a potential, future danger of illicit partnerships, there would be no need for Paul to request that the Corinthians cleanse from any current defilement. So, the partnership is one in progress.

But if the partnership in 2 Cor. 6:14 to 7:1 is in progress, and it is to be forsaken, how do we square that off with Paul’s own approval of the marriage partnership between believers and unbelievers in 1 Cor. 7:12-14? That partnership was also in progress, and Paul gave it his blessings. Is Paul contradicting himself?

No, he’s not. Whereas the unbelieving spouse in 1 Cor. 7:12-14 is happy to live with the believer and is not leading the believer into sin (as in Deut. 21:10-14), the unbelieving partners in 2 Cor. 6:14-16 are exercising a sinful, controlling influence on the believers and are leading them into sin (as in Deut. 7, Ezra 9 and 10):

Its main topic is the problem of associations with idolatry which, we propose, was one of the roots of the dissension in Corinth and the focus of the previous severe letter. We have contended that 2:14-7:3 is a defense of Paul’s frank criticism of the Corinthians in this letter and now argue that Paul recapitulates his exhortation in that letter in 6:14-7:1 to reinforce the seriousness of the problem […] After boldly reiterating the same ultimatum he issued in his severe letter, he will next move on to praise them for their godly sorrow and repentance (7:4-16) […] If this proposal is correct, then this passage is not “a piece of ‘common’ parenesis meant for Christians who live in the midst of manifold dangers in a Gentile world.” The Corinthians did live in a world filled with various trade guilds and associations in a city dotted with pagan temples and pervasive idolatry. But I would argue that 6:14-7:1 is specifically composed for the Corinthian situation to address the problem of forming appropriate boundaries for the Christian community to ward off the deleterious effects of idolatry. Goulder is on target in pointing out the strong overlap of language between 6:14-7:1 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, making it likely “that the particular question Paul has in mind is that of idol meat.” ((Garland, David E. (1999). Second Corinthians: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, Vol. 29 (p. 323). The New American Commentary. Holman Reference.))

Also:

It could be that Paul is responding to news just received from Titus about a continuing problem with pagan associations. Another possibility is that having asked the Corinthians to “open wide” Paul is now cautioning them about what not to be open to (compare the LXX of Deut 11:16, “Do not open wide your heart [me platynthe he kardia] and turn away to serve and worship other gods”). Judging from 1 Corinthians 10:1-22, they would clearly have been in need of such guidance. It could also be that Paul is engaging in a little structural diplomacy. By starting and ending with statements of affection, he attempts to cushion the force of his command. The likeliest explanation is that Paul is specifying the cause for the Corinthians’ constraint toward him: their ongoing partnerships with unbelievers. But there need not be just one explanation. A number of things could have led Paul to tackle the problem at this point and in this fashion. […] Paul concludes this block of verses with an exhortation to be pure and holy: Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God (7:1). The language and phraseology are not typically Pauline. It may well be that he is quoting a familiar homily or a well-known ethical injunction. In the sphere of agriculture, katharizo (“purify”) means to “prune away” or “clear” the ground of weeds–which may not be far off the mark here. The more usual way to construe the verb is to “wash” or “cleanse” of dirt or other filth. Paul’s use of the reflexive heautous would support this sense (“to cleanse yourselves”). The aorist tense suggests a decisive action of cleansing (katharisomen). Cleanliness as next to godliness fits well the religious mentality of Paul’s day. Both Greek religion and Judaism placed an emphasis on physical and ritual purity. Within Judaism this mentality was grounded on the presupposition that uncleanness and Yahweh were irreconcilable opposites. The Essenes, in particular, were well known for their rites of purification and daily immersion practices (Link and Schattenmann 1978:104-5). From what, though, are the Corinthians to cleanse themselves? According to Paul, it is from everything that contaminates body and spirit. Contaminates is actually a noun denoting that which stains, defiles or soils (molysmos). The noun is found only here in the New Testament, although the verb is used twice in Revelation (3:4; 14:4) and once in 1 Corinthians (8:7) of defiling the conscience through the indiscriminate eating of meat sacrificed to idols (compare 1 Esdras 8:83; Jer 23:15). This brings us back full circle to Paul’s opening injunction to stop entering into unequal partnerships with unbelievers (6:14). The close association of molysmos with idolatry suggests that Paul is thinking especially of defilement that comes from dining in the local temples, membership in the pagan cults, ritual prostitution, active engagement in pagan worship and the like. ((Linda L. Belleville. (1996). 2 Corinthians. InterVarsity Press.))
Conclusion

Scriptural evidence makes it clear that Christians cannot automatically oppose the marriage of a believer with an unbeliever on the sole basis of their relationship. We need to use spiritual wisdom to discern the situation case by case; especially if the unbeliever is a girl that already believes in the existence of God and is willing to explore the faith and submit in the Lord to her husband, we don’t have the Biblical authority to condemn such union.

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