IS IT A SIN FOR A CHRISTIAN TO MARRY A NON-CHRISTIAN?

GARY W. SUMMERS

   

The above title is one of the few positions which I have changed over the years. In younger years, primarily on the basis of 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1, I thought it must be sinful for a Christian to marry a non-Christian. This was a doctrine I did not publicly proclaim (wisely, as it turns out), however, because of a measure of uncertainty. Eventually, the writings and teachings of brethren whom I respected convinced me that my understanding of the passage was incorrect. Marrying a non-Christian is often unwise, and many have spent years in misery and anguish which they might have spared themselves. Many have given up the faith due to an unbelieving mate. But what do the Scriptures teach?

Sin Must Be Repented Of

The most haunting question a person who holds this erroneous position can be asked is, "If it is a sin for a Christian to marry a non-Christian, then how is that individual going to repent of it?" Any sin that a person commits must, of necessity, be renounced and deserted. One cannot continue in a sin and expect to be forgiven, because such would indicate a hardness of heart; the person would be guilty of practicing a "sin unto death" (1 John 5:16). Furthermore, one could not walk in the light while living and walking in a particular sin.

For that reason we encourage those who did not have God's authority to marry each other to separate (Matt. 19:3-12). The Bible teaches that one can walk in and live in such things as "fornication" (which includes all manner of sexual immorality) (Col. 3:5-7). As long as they stay together and are intimate with each other, they are living in sin.

If a Christian woman marries a non-Christian man, and it is a sin to do so, then the pair are living in sin, and they would need to separate as part of their repentance. But upon what basis is their marriage sinful? Just to make the situation simple, let us assume that both are virgins at the time of their marriage. What obvious sin is the couple committing? How are they being immoral? Both are pure at the time of their marriage with no past marital entanglements; they cannot be committing sexual sin. "Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge" (Heb. 13:4). No one could argue that the hypothetical couple under discussion is in danger of judgment by what this verse teaches.

The Only Basis For Condemnation

There is only one way such a union could be condemned, and that is if God withheld His authority for such a marriage, as He did under the Israelite covenant. When His people were about to conquer the land, He told them: "Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son" (Deut. 7:3). In other words, Israel was not authorized to marry the inhabitants of the land--even if they were otherwise eligible for marriage. Ezra 10 and Nehemiah 13 both record that, after the captivity, those entering such marriages had to put away those who were unlawful for them to have. What do these facts mean to us? Obviously, they are important, but do they set a pattern for us to follow today? There is no binding law from this command, but it does provide some insight.

Why Such a Law Is Not Binding

We must understand that the law in Deuteronomy 7:3 was given for a reason and under a completely different system. It was part of the Law of Moses, which is not binding on us--and which was nailed to the cross (Col. 2:14). But more than that, God had set up the nation of Israel as His own people. He gave them their own territory, and it was His goal to have righteousness prevail throughout the land. Israel was to be a holy nation--one which followed God's holy laws. The marriage restriction was part of God's plan to maintain that holiness. He knew that if His people intermarried with those of the land, it would cause them to be tolerant of idolatry and be a snare for them: "For they will turn your sons away from following Me, to serve other gods; so the anger of the Lord will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly" (Deut. 7:4).

Christians today have no land; although we too are God's holy people, we are not comparable to the nation of Israel. We are scattered throughout the world, though we are not to be of the world (John 17). We have idolatry all around us--Whether in ancient forms or modern. We have the same obligation to keep ourselves pure, but we do not have the same circumstances which prompted this old covenant law.

What Does the New Testament Teach?

If God had wanted this same idea bound under the New Testament, He could have clearly said so in terms as plain as those in Deuteronomy 7. Jesus taught on marriage: did He say, "My followers shall only marry my followers"? No. He talked about eligibility for marriage solely in terms of whether or not one was unscripturally divorced (Matt. 5:31-32; 19:3-12).

Did James, Jude, or John forbid a Christian to marry a non-Christian? No. Did Peter? No, but he does provide a suggestion for how to win over an unbelieving husband (1 Peter 3:1-6). What about Paul? The brethren at Corinth had asked him some questions about marriage (1 Cor. 7:1), and he answers them without ever saying that it is a sin for a Christian to marry a non-Christian.

The only New Testament passage, which some think pertains to this issue, is 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1. Is Paul answering more questions on marriage in that text? No. The verses before and after these verses have to do with the Corinthians' acceptance of him as an apostle. By way of contrast, there are some things not to be accepted or fellowshipped. The entire passage does not discuss marriage but rather idolatry. Believers and unbelievers cannot have spiritual fellowship with one another. The temple of God has no agreement with idols. If this text relates to anything in 1 Corinthians, it would be chapters 8-10: meat offered to idols.

But consider verse 14: "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?" "Nothing is more obviously a yoke than marriage," the argument goes. Therefore, a Christian should not marry a non-Christian. First of all, such a statement is not made directly; therefore, the conclusion is an inference. Second, it is an incorrect inference. The subject of the text is not marriage; it is an assumption that the principle taught here should be applied to marriage. Why should one not make that application?

First, marriage is not the subject under discussion; idolatry is. Second, no other New Testament passage in any way corroborates such an idea. Third, the only remedy would be to separate from the non-Christian. Fourth, whatever Paul is prohibiting here (again, we think it is fellowship with idolatry), it involves filthiness of the flesh and spirit (2 Cor. 7:1), from which the Christian was to cleanse him/her self, which commandment does not fit marriage.

Problems

If marriage to a non-Christian were prohibited in this text, several problems would occur.

1. It would encourage non-Christians to be baptized just to become "eligible" for marriage. But in that case obedience to the Gospel would be a sham, which it would be, but this rationale invites just such an insincere response. Placing this condition upon the non-Christian requires very little effort from him for compliance--considerably less than asking for a hundred foreskins of the Philistines. Of course, such "obedience" is void of effect, but it may suffice until after the wedding.

2. Suppose someone does not know this "theory" at the time of the wedding. After a man has lived with his non-Christian wife for three years and has a child, they all move to a congregation which strongly believes that what he did was a sin. What now? Who wants to be the first to say they have no right to be married? Is the child illegitimate? Paul answered this question in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15. If a believer is married to an unbeliever, they are really and actually married. If they were not, a man or woman could take the kids, depart, and find some other, "more suitable" mate. Paul forbids that notion. If the unbeliever is content to be married, the couple stays together. If the unbeliever demands that one not be a Christian, then the separation must occur.

3. If a Christian is told that her marriage to a non-Christian is invalid, and she separates from him, is she now eligible for marriage? There was no fornication with the non-Christian; does she not run that risk should she choose to marry a Christian?

Marriage is not a church institution; it has existed since Adam and Eve. God recognizes the marriage of two non-Christians, two Christians, and a Christian to a non-Christian. To insist upon restrictions God has not given is to bind where God has not bound.

Questions

Even under the old covenant, it is not clear that marrying non-Israelites per se was wrong. Ruth was not a Hittite, Girgashite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, or a Jebusite, but the Moabites were idolaters. Nevertheless, Chilion and Mahlon took wives for themselves in that land. No rebuke of God was recorded for this action, and Ruth became the great-grandmother of David. Esther married a pagan king, and God used her to save His people. She was never charged to separate from Ahasuerus because he was an ungodly king. Even Timothy's mother is commended for the communication of her faith to her son; yet she had married a Greek (Acts 16:1). What better time to say that someone has sinned through marrying someone other than an Israelite than when these three people of faith are described. But the Holy Spirit chose not to write one word of condemnation.

Wisdom

Thus far, our purpose has been to show that marrying a non-Christian does not constitute sin. If it were a fundamental and vital principle of the New Testament, it would surely have found its way into some list (Rom. 1:18-32; 1 Cor. 6:9-11; Gal. 5:19-21; Col. 3:1-15; 2 Tim. 3:1-5; Rev. 21:8), but we never find it.

However, refraining from calling the practice a sin does not mean we are in favor of it, either. For two reasons we would caution someone to think seriously about making such a decision. First, even though our situation is not parallel to Israel's, the threat of being pulled away from God continues to be a real one. Even the wise Solomon allowed his wives to turn his heart after other gods (1 Kings 11:4). We would be wiser than he was (in one respect, at least), if we do not make the same mistake he did. Second, the statistics are against it. In various studies done in time past, one in four mates fell away from the faith altogether. In one-half of these marriages the Christian remained a Christian, and the non-Christian remained a non-Christian. In the remaining fourth of instances, the non-Christian is converted. The problem with even mentioning this fourth category is that everyone envisions that this ideal scenario will surely be the way it works for him/her.

Names will not be used, but this writer was in a class of young adults a few years ago when this subject was discussed. Five of the ladies were married to non-Christians. Each and every woman said (and it was unsolicited) that she had regretted marrying a non-Christian.

Many times, as marriage approaches, only the ideal vision can be seen. Young women (or men) who are contemplating marrying a non-Christian should ask a very important question of themselves: "What does my future mate think about God and the Bible?"

If there is no interest at all, or outright rejection of God or Biblical principles, wisdom would suggest finding someone else. Not many of those who exhibit openly negative feelings toward spiritual matters are likely to change. A young lady might benefit from the experience of an older sister in the congregation who was in that same position. She might speak of the hardship of being the sole positive spiritual influence in the home. She might describe the effort it requires to dress the children, transport them to Bible study and worship, and then be the one responsible for disciplining them. She could also describe the pull away from the church that the father will be when the children grow to be teenagers and how pleasurable it is to hear the inevitable words: "But, Mom, Dad doesn't go." At least one person in this writer's acquaintance has admitted that he quit because, even though his mother has always set a gracious and faithful example, he cannot bring himself to believe that his father is lost. And that is another burden the wife must bear: she will either bear continual sorrow or else give up what the Bible teaches concerning salvation.

Anyone who entertains marrying a person who is antagonistic to the church should consider the pain that usually results and determine to find another spouse. It will be difficult enough if one's intended is "neutral" or indifferent to spiritual things. One who plainly rejects them may be honest but otherwise a very poor risk.

Some are interested in the Gospel, but maybe they are not yet ready to obey it. Ideally, they will, but events do not always occur the way we would like to arrange them. A number of factors can influence marital decisions. These few that appear to be "good soil" should not be coerced into being baptized if they are not yet ready. Many take time to think things through before they give their lives over to God. Pressuring someone is not the same as encouraging him, nor is it as effective. A good-hearted person will obey when he is ready.

It is not a sin to marry one who is not a member of the Lord's church, but it may be terribly unwise, depending on the individual. One who is thinking about entering into marriage should ask, "Will this person be a help or a hindrance in getting me to heaven?" We need all the encouragement we can get--especially in the home. A second question of great importance is to ask: "Will my prospective mate be a help or a hindrance in getting our children to heaven?" Heaven should be more important to us than any earthly concern. A final question to ask is, "If I were wise, what would I do?"

*Send comments or questions concerning this article to Gary Summers. Please refer to this article as: "IS IT A SIN FOR A CHRISTIAN TO MARRY A NON-CHRISTIAN? (09/09/01)"


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