Should a Believer Marry an Unbeliever?

Reformation Church Blog

Some doctrines need to be learned before you actually need to know them. For example, it is much better to learn to trust the goodness and sovereignty of God before the dark night of suffering hits. It is better to have figured out where you stand on infant baptism before having a child. And it is definitely better to know what the Bible says about believers marrying unbelievers before you find yourself infatuated with one.

Once feelings become involved, objectivity becomes nearly impossible. After all, the mind has a funny way of justifying that which the heart desires, even if that desire is sinful.

And make no mistake, it is sinful for a believer to marry an unbeliever.

Now, there is no explicit command that says “thou shalt not marry an unbeliever,” but such is certainly implied in Scripture. How so? Below are a handful of texts that help demonstrate the prohibition against believers marrying unbelievers.

  1. In the Old Testament, intermarriage with pagans was expressly forbidden.

We see this throughout the Old Testament. For example, in Genesis 24, Abraham ensures that his son Isaac marries someone from his own family line. Likewise, in Genesis 27 and 28, Jacob is sent away so that he would not marry a pagan as Esau had done. These objections to marrying people of the land of Canaan were not racial, but religious. They were not given to promote the ethnic superiority of Israel, but rather to prevent against one being led astray from faith in the true God. As the LORD God explicitly commands in Deuteronomy 7:

You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. (Deuteronomy 7:3–4)

There were certainly occasions where foreigners married into Israel (Ruth, Rahab, etc.), but only if and when they were incorporated into Israel’s worship of YHWH. To marry someone who was not a follower of the LORD was expressly forbidden throughout the Old Testament.

This passage also demonstrates that God’s prohibition is an example of His mercy toward His people to keep their hearts from being misled to idolatry. Far from trying to steal or restrict your joy, God’s commands (and prohibitions) are motivated by a desire for the ultimate flourishing of your pleasure.

  1. The warning against being unequally yoked.

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? (2 Corinthians 6:14–15)

Though this passage is not primarily dealing with marriage, it is impossible to escape the relevance and application to that context. If other “partnerships” are forbidden, how much more a partnership of such profound unity as marriage signifies? Marriage is certainly a type of yoke[1] and Paul specifies that an unequal yoke is one defined as being between a believer and an unbeliever. He does not say that believers should have no relationships of any sort with unbelievers (1 Corinthians 5:10 clarifies this), but he does prohibit being yoked together. This passage has applications beyond marriage,[2] but certainly includes that relationship as well.

  1. The requirement that widows be remarried only to believers.

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 7:39)

Here we see that a widow is free to remarry, but Paul specifies that remarriage must be “in the Lord.” It would certainly be strange to assume that this is an extra requirement for subsequent marriages (in the case of widows), but not to original marriages. It seems likely that Paul is simply making explicit in this context what is implicit in every context – namely that believers should only marry those who share the same faith. His point is that the freedom to be married to “whom she wishes” is limited by the requirement that the prospect be of the same faith. In other words, the “wish” or desire is not ultimate; God’s command is ultimate.

  1. The instructions concerning believers who are already married to unbelievers.

To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Corinthians 7:12–16)

Why would Paul explicitly point out that a believer should not divorce his or her unbelieving spouse? If Paul had to command the believer to stay married to the unbeliever, it is clear some must have thought the two should never have been married in the first place. Paul’s conclusion for the context of an existing marriage between believer and unbeliever is that the marriage should remain intact and that good can come from such. But the fact that good may result doesn’t mean that we should therefore jettison the divine command. Let us do wrong that good might come is not a biblical ethic.

What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1–2)

Practical Concerns

In addition to these four textual proofs for the idea that marriage between believers and unbelievers is forbidden, there are also a handful of practical considerations that should be taken into account.

For instance, I would question the motivations of a believer who was considering marriage to an unbeliever. Why would a believer even want to marry an unbeliever? What do they have in common that is of much ultimate significance? Their hopes are different, their beliefs are different, their loves are different, their joys are different, their convictions are different, their sources of ultimate authority are different, their worldviews are different; “what fellowship does light have with darkness?” as Paul writes in the 2 Corinthians passage. At the center of the affections of the believer is Jesus Christ and everything that he or she truly desires is found in getting more of Him. If marriage is meant not only for our happiness, but also our holiness, then we should not marry someone who merely fulfills the longings of the flesh, but rather one who will complement our spiritual thirst for Christ.

In the end, at least one of two things will occur if a believer marries an unbeliever.

First, the believer will begin to marginalize his or her faith in Christ. Rather than being central, Christ and His bride will be pushed to the margins. The believer might not actually repudiate their faith, but it is naïve to think that being joined to a believer will not to some degree affect his or her ability to faithfully pursue Christ. Areas such as the discipleship and discipline of children, hospitality to believers, giving to the church, spiritual priorities, stewardship of time, talents, and treasures, church attendance, fellowship with other believers, and so forth, will have to be minimized or avoided altogether in order to preserve unity in the home.

Or, if the above doesn’t happen, then the unbelieving spouse will have to be marginalized. If he or she can’t understand why you attend worship services and prayer meetings, why you read the Bible, why you want to disciple your kids, why you want to host others, why you want to support a church and missionaries and ministries, and so forth, then he or she will also not be able to fully participate in those activities. In this way, the deep unity that marriage is intended to exemplify, will be compromised. In a very real sense, you will be going in entirely different directions in regard to priorities and passions.

In other words, when a believer marries an unbeliever, he or she will marginalize God and/or his or her spouse. There really is no other alternative. While neither option is ideal, it is all too common for the decentralization of God to result. This is why the LORD God was so passionate that Israel not intermarry with pagan nations. The essence of sin is to devalue the centrality and glory of God and to exalt the desires of self. To knowingly enter into a union with the likelihood of hindering your worship of God is the height of folly.

What if I’m already married to an unbeliever?

Perhaps you were an unbeliever when you got married, but later came to faith and your spouse has not. How then should you respond? The Lord makes it clear in 1 Corinthians 7 that divorce is not an option (barring biblical grounds). Rather, the divine expectation and command is for you to remain married and be an example of love and fidelity to your spouse in hopes that He will draw them unto Himself.

But what if you married an unbeliever while you were already a believer? Again, divorce is not an option. We shouldn’t compound one sin (marrying an unbeliever) with another (divorce). That said, we should repent. Repentance in such a case wouldn’t mean forsaking your spouse, but it would mean confessing that you sinned, that you prioritized your feelings over the authority of God’s word, and praying that God strengthens your convictions with future grace.

The fact that God meets His people with grace in their sin is no excuse to pursue sin. While God may accomplish much good out of a marriage between a believer and unbeliever, that doesn’t justify the believer’s choices. God has a way of bringing light out of darkness. David’s adultery resulted in Solomon. Joseph’s brothers’ betrayal resulted in the salvation of the family. But the fact that good results from the sin doesn’t make the sin good. Likewise with marriage, God may indeed bring good out of a mixed marriage of believer and unbeliever, but that doesn’t justify pursuing such.

What about dating?

All that is said above would apply to some extent to dating (or “courting” as some say). God’s provision for humanity’s loneliness is fulfilled through a variety of means including: the indwelling presence of the Spirit in the believer, the gift of marriage, and the community of believers called ‘the church.’ He did not intend for our deepest desires to be met through casual romantic relationships with no intention of pursuing marriage. If dating is for the purpose of at least considering marriage, and if marriage to an unbeliever is prohibited, then it is certainly foolish for a believer to consider a romantic relationship with someone who does not trust Christ. Why burden the heart with forbidden desires and remain in a context where temptation is inevitable? It is foolish at best if not actually sinful.

Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned? Or can one walk on hot coals and his feet not be scorched? (Proverbs 6:27–28)

What if I’m thinking about dating or marrying an unbeliever?

If you are asking this question, it is most likely not purely hypothetical. This is, again, why it is best to resolve your convictions before the heart is involved. Once someone has already allowed his or her heart to become attached to an unbeliever, there has already been a subtle devaluing of the word and glory of God. That ancient question “did God really say” begins to take root as the idea begins to form that surely this is an exception to the general rule. Even if it is generally sinful and unwise to marry unbelievers, perhaps it is okay in my case because of how much we love each other, or how supportive my boy/girlfriend is, or how he or she gets me. Though it feels right, such feelings are merely expressions of our temptations to twist and distort and ignore the Word of God. When we are tempted to call right what God has called wrong, we are in trouble. Rather than rely on our feelings, we should repent and ask for help to resist the siren call of sin.

As with any sin, the more it takes root in our hearts, the harder it is to uproot. If you’ve never tried an illicit drug, that drug probably holds very little sway over you. But once you’ve experienced the euphoria, quitting becomes much more difficult. The same applies to the question of dating an unbeliever. The longer the relationship and the more the heart is involved, the harder it is to break free.

But break free we must! As difficult as it might be, the biblical response is to repent. Unlike in the case of those who are already married to an unbeliever, repentance in the case of dating an unbeliever demands that the relationship be ended. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you can’t be friends (although some will find the temptation too difficult to resist), but it does mean that the relationship at the very least needs to transition to a purely platonic category.

There are three primary questions that need to be answered by anyone who is currently or considering dating an unbeliever. Perhaps even before answering the question “what does the Bible say about marrying an unbeliever,” one needs to answer these foundational questions. How one answers will say quite a bit about their own spiritual health and maturity.

  1. Do I believe that Scripture is true and authoritative?
  2. Do I believe that God’s word is more valuable and authoritative than my own feelings?
  3. Do I believe that God’s commands and prohibitions are motivated for my own eternal good and joy?

In the end, God’s word is true and much more reliable and authoritative than your feelings. Though it might be painful to break off a relationship with someone who doesn’t share your faith, the benefits will surely outweigh the costs. Those who choose otherwise, evidence that they love God far too little and love their own desires and wishes far too much, which is the essence of all sin.

[1] When Matthew and Mark write about man and woman “joined” together by God in marriage (Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9), they use a Greek word with “yoke” as its root. This root is the same as the one used in the 2 Corinthians 6 passage. In other words, the verbs in Matthew 19, Mark 10, and 2 Corinthians 6 are all etymologically related. God has “yoked” man and woman together into a one flesh relationship.

[2] For instance, this has application within sphere of the business world.  The important point to be remembered is not that the Scripture forbids relating to unbelievers, but rather being yoked with them.