Should Believers Marry Non-believers?

This difficult question comes up repeatedly, particularly from Christian women who are feeling pressure – internal or external – to marry a non-believer. The mere existence of the question shows that for a believer to marry a non-believer is questionable; that is, everyone senses that such a choice represents a difficult problem. Often, the answer these women hear is “Yes, you may do so.” Several reasons are usually given:

  1. You may win this person to Christ by patient, Christ-like conduct, taking him to church with you, and prayer. Examples of such conversions after marriage are then given, to show that marrying a non-Christian can lead to that person’s salvation.
  2. Even marrying a Christian does not guarantee happiness in marriage. Many Christian married couples experience great conflict and difficulty in getting along with each other. Besides, many non-Christian marriages are happy. Why insist on marrying only a Christian?
  3. Non-Christians, especially parents, are puzzled and often angry when Christians insist upon marrying only fellow believers. This can become a hindrance to their coming to faith in Christ. The same is true for the non-Christian boyfriend or girlfriend. “What is wrong with me, that you can’t bear to live with me?” they ask. Christians seem to be proud and arrogant, as if they were better than others.
  4. The Chinese government does not approve of this sort of clear distinction between Christians and non-Christians; they say it stands in the way of achieving a harmonious society.
  5. The Bible does not clearly say, “A Christian may not marry a non-Christian.” This is just a matter of Christian tradition.
  6. Especially in Chinese churches, there are far more women than men; that makes the possibility of marrying a Christian man very low.

When you add these arguments to the natural desire of people to marry, especially if a woman is getting past the bloom of youth and feels lonely, with no certainty that she will ever find a Christian husband, much less a suitable one, you can see why many give in and accept proposals from non-believing men. While we can understand these pressures and the great temptation they pose for Christian women, and some men, we must also try to understand why many people still say that Christians should only marry fellow believers. We must begin at the beginning, which is: What is our purpose in life? Is it to be happy in this world, having a spouse and children and home and family, as well as the approval of those around us? Of course, we all want these things, and when God gives them we can give thanks. On the other hand, we know that we are created to live for God’s glory, not our own pleasure. Christians are also redeemed by the blood of Christ to live for his greater glory (1 Corinthians 10:31; Ephesians 1:6, 12, 14). Rather than promising us an easy, comfortable, or pleasant life, Jesus promises “trouble” for all his disciples (John 16:33). To follow Jesus is to take up our cross and imitate his life of suffering and rejection (Matthew 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; 14:27; Philippians 1:29; 1 Peter 2:21). If we seek to gain our life in this world – that is, to avoid pain and suffering, to be accepted by non-believers, and to gain worldly pleasure – we shall lose it (Matthew 10:39). If we do not take our cross and follow Jesus, he says that we are not worthy of him (Matthew 10:38). Specifically, if we love others, including family, more than we love him, we are not worthy to be called his disciples (Matthew 10:37). That does not mean that we should hate our family, but that we should love Jesus more, so much more that if we have to choose between following him and having family harmony, we must follow our Lord. If we deny ourselves to follow Jesus, however, we shall not really lose anything of value. On the contrary, we shall gain real life, both now and after death. By seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness, we are assured that he will give us all that we really need (Matthew 6:33). The worst thing is life is not to be single, as the examples of Jesus, Paul, and many others throughout Christian history demonstrate. The worst thing that can happen to us is to be without Christ, without God, and without hoe in this world (Ephesians 2:12). The pain of rejection by men is far less than the pain of having Jesus say, “Depart from Me, you evildoers! I never knew you!” (Matthew 7:23). Those who trust in Christ and follow him will enjoy his presence all their lives, no matter where they are (Matthew 28:20). He will never leave them nor forsake them (Hebrews 13:5). Indeed, only he really knows our heart, our joys and our sorrows, and the pain of our temptations (Hebrews 4:15). Many single people imagine that if they get married they shall never feel lonely again, but most married people will say that not even their spouse truly understands or accepts them. Marriage is a great blessing, and a happy marriage is a wonderful gift from God. But those who marry will definitely have “trouble,” as Paul said (1 Corinthians 7:32). As we know from observing our own parents and even many Christian couples, all too many married people are disappointed, for they have discovered the fact that if two sinners live under the same roof, there is going to be conflict! Christians often fail to apply the truths of the Bible to their married life, and thus the love, joy and peace that can be part of marriage elude them. That is why we see so many Christians whose marriages are unhappy. They are not loving God with their heart, soul, mind, and strength, and they are not loving their neighbor as themselves (Matthew 22:37, 39). They forget Jesus’ teaching that we should love those who don’t love us; pray for our enemies and those who abuse us; and do good to those who are mean to us (Matthew 5:44-45). Nor do they remember Paul’s words to be humble, to consider others more important than ourselves, and to seek the good of others, not of ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4). All too many so-called Christians do not set their hope fully on the grace to be brought to us at the return of Christ (1 Peter 1:13); instead, they place all their hopes for happiness in this world, including their marriage. They fail to trust God for all that they need. They forget that they are sinners, forgiven by God, so they do not forgive those who hurt them (Ephesians 4:32). No wonder they have so much trouble in marriage! Furthermore, many people who call themselves Christians, even those who have been baptized, have not been born again. They have not truly repented of their sins; placed their entire trust in God; set their hearts on God alone; and been born again by the Spirit. They may have said a prayer to receive Christ and have been baptized, but that does not mean that they have received new life from God. When the Gospel is preached these days, people are often told that if they believe in Jesus, they will gain some earthly benefit, such as a marriage partner, or a child, or a better job. But the real gospel calls us to repent of our sins, turn from them, and trust completely in Jesus to save us from the power of sin and the wrath of God. The Lord promises his people his presence with them now, along with all the other things they really need, including a sense of being loved. The main hope we have is that we shall enjoy God and his people forever in a new heaven and a new earth. By not emphasizing these truths, the church has failed to communicate the real message of the Bible, and has let many people declare that they are Christians when in fact they are not born again. Furthermore, for every story you can tell about non-believers who trusted in Christ after marrying a Christian, I can tell ten or twenty tragic tales of Christians – mostly women – who married non-believers hoping that the non-believer would change later. In fact, women often marry men with the expectation that the man would change under the woman’s influence. That sometimes happens, but it usually takes many years, even decades, and the change usually isn’t half as much as the woman had hoped. In my forty-one years of ministry, I have listened to dozens of very sad stories, and heard about many more like them, of Christian women who were stuck with a man who didn’t love the Lord. How disappointed they are! How they wish that their husband would put God first in his life! How sad they are that their children do not have a God-honoring father! I have heard similar stories from Christian men who followed their passions and married a non-Christian woman, only to live miserably with her for many years. Part of their mistake was in thinking they could “lead someone to Christ.” No, only God can give new life! Only he can give new birth and true conversion. Only if God draws someone by the Spirit can he come to Jesus (John 6:37). More importantly, we are to base our decisions, and our advice to others, not on our experience or the experience of others, but upon God’s Word. There are also countless examples of believers who married people who seemed to have interest in the Lord, or who had even been baptized, but who were really not zealous followers of Christ. They might have held some “Christian” beliefs, and even gone to church, or served in the church. But they didn’t read the Bible, didn’t really pray much, and didn’t know the love, joy, and peace that come to those who really trust in Christ. In other words, these people were not true Christians, in the way the Bible uses the term. Their lives had not radically changed direction; they did not seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness; they did not love the Word of God, or the people of God; they did not hate sin and hunger for righteousness. Of course, all true believers fall short in these ways also; no one of us is perfect. But there is a difference between a true believer in Jesus who longs to know, love, and serve Christ, and someone who merely goes to church or serves in the church, but who really loves the world and not God. One way you can tell is by whether a person sincerely repents of his sin whenever he becomes aware that he has done something to offend God, and whether he then asks God’s forgiveness and believes that the blood of Jesus cleanses him from guilt. But does the Bible really say Christians should not marry non-Christians? I am using “Christian” in the sense I have described above, as someone whose life has been transformed by the Holy Spirit, so that he trusts God, seeks God, and wants to obey God as he is revealed in Jesus Christ and in the Bible. Though we do not have a clear command in the Bible for a Christian not to marry a non-Christian, we have plenty of evidence in the Scriptures to show that God does not want his people to marry those who are not true followers of Christ. For example: Abraham would not take a wife for Isaac among the people of the land, but only from his relatives. He knew that God had set him apart from the pagans who lived in Canaan, and that he must not have close relationships with them (Genesis 15:18-21; 24:3-4). Likewise, Isaac told Jacob to marry one of his relatives, and not one of the daughters of the land (Genesis 28:1-2). When God led his people out of Egypt into the land of Canaan, he explicitly commanded them not to allow their children to marry the children of the pagan inhabitants of Canaan (Exodus 3:;11-16). The main reason for this was to protect them from being turned away from God by a spouse that did not worship Yahweh. When Israel disobeyed God by having intimate relations with the women of Moab, the Lord punished them severely with death (Numbers 25:1-18). Solomon was a great king, but he acted foolishly by taking the daughter of Pharaoh as his wife (1 Kings 3:1). Though this had not been forbidden by God, it was not wise. What if he had married a God-fearing Israelite woman instead? She would have helped him to worship and serve God with all his heart. Instead, he made a treaty with Pharaoh. Was that one reason why, after building the Temple, he lavished so much expense on his own house, with all its luxurious furnishings? He seemed to have become obsessed with wealth and power and glory. After that, he “loved many foreign women… from the nations of whom the LORD had said to the children of Israel, ‘You shall not intermarry with them, nor they with you. Surely they will turn away your hearts after their gods.’ Solomon clung to these in love.” (1 Kings 11:1-2). He had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. And “his wives turned away his heart.” The results, as we know, were disastrous, for his kingdom was later divided and constantly at war. He did not live according to the word which God spoke in Proverbs, “My son, give me your heart, and let your eyes observe my ways. For a harlot is a deep pit, and a seductress is a narrow well” (Proverbs 23:26). In the New Testament, we have Paul’s clear teaching in 1 Corinthians that a Christian widow is free to re-marry, but “only in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39). Commentators agree that “in the Lord” means “a person who is ‘in the Lord,’” that is, a believer. In Paul’s letters, “in the Lord” or “in Christ” refers to people who have an intimate relationship with Christ through faith and the regeneration of the Holy Spirit. Clearly, Paul intended for Christians to marry only Christians. Later, he rebuked the Corinthian church for having close relationships with pagan idolaters. “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” He explained that there can be no true fellowship between righteousness and lawlessness, light and darkness, Christ and Belial, or a believer with an unbeliever (2 Corinthians 6:14-15). It is true that he is primarily trying to prevent them from participating in pagan worship ceremonies, but the principle he gives is a fundamental one: We are not to enter into intimate relationships with non-believers. Why? First of all, we can’t really have deep communion with them, for we belong to God, and they do not. Believers have the Holy Spirit in them, and non-believers (and “nominal” Christians) do not. So, a marriage between a believer and a non-believer cannot have the kind of intimate sharing that a union between Christians can have (if the Christians truly seek the Lord through the Word, prayer, fellowship, and service). We all want intimacy in marriage. It is hard enough to attain, even for Christians, but impossible between a believer and a non-believer (or nominal Christian). Think of the trouble that mixed marriages have: How can you agree on how to manage your money or spend your time, if you do not have the Bible as your common authority and guide? How can you pray together, both giving thanks to God and calling upon him to help you when difficulties arise? How can someone who has not known the forgiveness of Christ forgive a spouse who has offended or hurt him? (Ephesians 4:32) How can someone without the Spirit of God really love someone else when the other is not lovable? (Ephesians 5:1-2) How can a non-Christian man sacrifice for his wife or lead her into greater holiness, or a non-Christian wife submit to her husband as to Christ? (Ephesians 5:22-33) How can someone without God’s Spirit produce the fruit of the Spirit, which is necessary for happiness in marriage? (Galatians 5:22-23) How can parents in a mixed marriage bring up their children in the discipline and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4) More than that, how can a person who has lacked the faith, hope, and love to obey God in this matter really attract a non-believer to repent and trust in Christ? It sometimes happens, but usually the reverse takes place, for the believer is distracted from loving and serving God by the unbeliever. For all these reasons – and more, which I don’t have time to share – believers should not marry non-believers. Since that is the case, believers should not enter into close relations with non-believers of the other sex, lest their heart be divided and they be tempted to enter into a marriage that does not honor God. Now we have returned to the main point: We are meant to glorify God in all that we do. For a believer to turn from God and give his or her heart to a non-believer is to deprive God of the glory which belongs to him. It discourages those who are willing to sacrifice in order to follow Christ wholly. It does not convince non-Christians that we really put God before all else. These are hard words, I know. But if you had heard the sad stories that I have heard, you would see why I am speaking this way. More importantly, if we all loved God with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, we would find our happiness in him alone. To hear Jesus say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” will be worth anything we have given up in order to follow him (Matthew 25:21, 23). May God give us all grace to follow in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus Christ. G. Wright Doyle