Should a Christian Marry Outside the Faith?

By Wayne Jackson

Is it wrong for a Christian to marry outside the faith? If so, how does he or she repent?

This is a multifaceted question and it would not do it justice to answer it hastily. A preliminary foundation must be laid. We would offer the following thoughts for careful study.

First of all, we must observe that marriage is a sacred relationship which was initiated by the Creator for the benefit of humanity as a whole (Genesis 2:18ff). Any two eligible people (male and female, unfettered by a previous marital tie) may enter into this divine relationship with the assurance that the union is recognized by God. This is a universal circumstance, and has been since the beginning of time (though a lower marriage standard was tolerated in the pre-Christian ages [cf. Matthew 19:8]).

Paul acknowledged that some of the Corinthian saints had been guilty of the sin of adultery prior to the time of their conversion (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Since adultery is the violation of a marriage covenant, this clearly implies that these folks were married—even during their pagan days. The New Testament nowhere suggests, even remotely, that marriage pertains to Christians only (cf. Hebrews 13:4). The marriage relationship, therefore, is not a “church sacrament,” as alleged in Roman Catholic theology.

In view of this, it is clear that a marriage between a Christian and a non-Christian is a union that is not to be severed strictly on that basis. To the contrary, if one finds himself in a relationship of that nature, he or she should work very hard to convert that unbelieving companion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:12ff; 1 Peter 3:1ff).

Having noted the above, however, there are additional factors that must be taken into consideration. Let us preview some of these:

Every knowledgeable Bible student is aware that the general tone of Scripture, from the beginning of its composition till completion, has been to discourage believers from entering into marriage bonds with those who do not share the true faith—though biblical history provides us with many examples of those who did not respect this sacred ideal (cf. Genesis 6:2; 24:3; 26:34-35; 28:1; Exodus 34:11-16; Deuteronomy 7:1-5; Judges 14:1-3; 1 Kings 11, etc.). The purpose behind such divine instruction clearly had a spiritual thrust—rather than that of maintaining a pure blood line, as is contended occasionally.

In the post-Babylonian captivity period, 113 Hebrew men were required to put away the pagan women they had married while in that heathen land (Ezra 10:10-11). This is a relatively small number when one considers the fact that the whole population contained approximately forty thousand adult males. This procedure, which clearly was more restrictive than the New Testament instruction for today (as mentioned above [1 Corinthians 7:12ff; 1 Peter 3:1ff]), was possibly an emergency measure required in a time of great danger—a danger during a critical period of history when the Messianic plan was ever closer to reaching fruition (Galatians 4:4).

There was, under the Mosaic law, a provision for how a foreign, captive woman could be taken by a Hebrew for a wife (Deuteronomy 21:10-14), though this procedure did not represent the highest spiritual plateau in the divine plan.

Every divinely designed institution of human history was intended, ultimately, for the implementation of Heaven’s plan for human salvation. This certainly was true with reference to the home. If such was the case regarding marriage as an institution, is the principle any less valid for the spiritual welfare of the individual Christian?

There are several New Testament passages which lend their support to the proposition that Christians ought to marry only those of like precious faith:

(1) In the sermon on the mount, Jesus admonished his disciples to put the kingdom of Christ “first” (proton) in their lives. The adverb suggests that the interests of the Lord should be “above all” else (Bromiley 1985, 966). Can anyone honestly contend that the child of God who unites himself with the unbeliever in the most intimate of all human relationships is granting the reign of Christ the most exalted place in his or her life?

Numerous Christians can testify to the fact that their spiritual lives have been made infinitely more difficult since yoking themselves with those who do not share a commitment to God, to say nothing of bringing children into an environment where there are divergent spiritual influences. The fact that some Christians have converted their unbelieving mates eventually is wonderful indeed; that circumstance, however, hardly stacks up against the many more instances of disciples who have weakened under such a strain, ultimately abandoning their devotion to the Savior.

(2) In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul says that the Christian widow should marry “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39). Some have suggested that the language, grammatically speaking, is adverbial, thus modifying the verb “marry,” rather than being adjectival, i.e., identifying the status of the marriage partner. The meaning of the phrase, then, is supposed to be that she is to marry in harmony with the Lord’s will, i.e., in such a way as to not surrender her faith.

Such a grammatical distinction hardly dissolves the difficulty. Is it the Lord’s will that his people form intimate unions with those who have little, if any, sympathy for his redemptive purpose? Is the Savior pleased when his follower subordinates the highest of spiritual interests to those that primarily are physical and emotional?

I have never encountered the gospel preacher who will encourage the Christian to marry an unbeliever. Why is that? Such entanglements generally are characterized as unwise, foolish, dangerous, etc.; yet apologists for these mismatches sometimes contend that there is no spiritual deficiency at all in making such foolish choices. Such a view, in my judgment, has a focus that is much too narrow, i.e., it looks only at the validity of the union itself and does not consider a broader range of issues (e.g., motive and eternal aspiration).

Most scholars, it would appear to me, are either unaware of or unpersuaded by the adverbial argument. The phrase monon en kurio (“only in [the] Lord”) is generally viewed as signifying that she is to seek a Christian companion.

  • Arndt and Gingrich suggested that “marry in the Lord = marry a Christian” (1967, 259).
  • Harold Mare asserts that the phrase means “the woman should marry only a Christian” (1976, 237).
  • Marion Soards writes that these women “are to marry Christian men” (1999, 165).
  • Ellicott notes that Paul’s phrase “distinctly implies that it is to be a marriage with a Christian” (1887, 139).
  • Fitzmyer contends that “only in the Lord” means “marry a Christian” (Horst Balz & Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 1991, 2:442).

This clearly is the prevailing view among Greek authorities and Bible expositors. (For further study Woods 1976, 91.)

A study of Paul’s use of “in the Lord” (or an equivalent expression) elsewhere is very illuminating. For instance, “in the Lord” is parallel to being a “saint” in Romans 16:2.

We might add this thought: if such was Paul’s instruction with reference to the experienced widow, would a more relaxed view have been entertained regarding the marriage of the even more vulnerable young virgin?

(6) Later in 1 Corinthians, Paul argues the case for supporting gospel preachers and their families. In connection therewith, he asks:

Do we [Paul and Barnabas] not have a right to lead about a wife who is a sister, as do also the other apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? (9:5).

The apostle could have made his point about family support without the inclusion of the word adelphen (“sister”); there obviously is a subtle suggestion in the employment of that term.

(7) In his second Corinthian letter, the inspired apostle charged: “Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers” (6:14). Some have attempted to exclude marriage from this warning. They argue that since the Greek construction “be not” carries the force of “stop,” and since Paul had forbade the believer to leave an unbelieving companion simply on that basis (1 Corinthians 7:12ff), the context cannot be applied to marriage (Thompson 1970, 94).

But the use of the negative particle here does not demand the interpretation so ascribed. If the apostle had heard the report that some of the Corinthian saints were entering into unions with pagans, he might well have written a caution, “Stop this practice,” without suggesting that once the union is formed it must be dissolved. A. T. Robertson renders the phrase “Stop becoming . . . unequally yoked.” He says: “Marriage is certainly included, but other unions may be in mind” (Word Pictures, 1931, IV:236). Many expositors suggest that this context involves a warning against spiritually mixed marriages. In fact, this is the most common view of this passage.

Finally, then, there is this question: what should one do when he realizes that, in marrying out of Christ, the primary interests of the Lord’s kingdom were not pursued?

The answer is simple: repent of the disposition that led to that decision, and then set your mind toward the goal of making seek-the-kingdom-first choices henceforth in your life. There are many circumstances in our lives which are irreversible. Is it not possible that one could realize that he did not approach some of his earlier decisions with the highest of ideals?

There is nothing wrong with asking God’s forgiveness for such superficial choices, resolving to make more spiritually responsible determinations in the future and working then to make the very best of one’s present situation.

This, we believe, is a balanced view of this subject, which takes into consideration a broader variety of factors than some may have considered previously.

Sources/Footnotes
  • Arndt, William F. and F. Wilbur Gingrich. 1967. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.
  • Bromiley, G. W., ed. 1985. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
  • Ellicott, C. J. 1887. 1st Corinthians.
  • Fitzmyer, J. A. 1991. Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament. Vol. 2. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, eds. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Mare, Harold. 1976. Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Vol. 10. Frank Gaebelein, ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
  • Robertson, A. T. 1931. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. 4. Nashville, TN: Broadman.
  • Soards, Marion. 1999. New International Biblical Commentary. Vol. 7. W. Ward Gasque, ed. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson.
  • Thompson, James. 1970. The Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians. Austin, TX: R. B. Sweet Co.
  • Woods, Guy N. 1976. Questions and Answers – Open Forum. Vol. 1. Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.