Are Christians Forbidden To Marry Non-Christians?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, July 28, 2011 at 2:05pm
QUESTION: Does 2 Corinthians 6:14 mean that Christians are not allowed to marry non-Christians?
ANSWER: The answer to this question must begin with a look at the nature of marriage. One of the crucial aspects of marriage as described in the Bible is that it is a covenantal relationship. We conclude this from the way the Bible often compares the husband-wife relationship with the relationship between God and his people. In fact, the relation of God to his people is often described in terms of a marriage covenant. See the following passages: Isa. 54:4-10; Jer. 2:23-25, 31-33; 3:1ff.; 31:31-33; Ezek. 16:8; Hosea 2:19-20; Eph. 5:25ff.; 2 Cor. 11:2; Rev. 19:7; 21:2, 9.
The husband-wife relationship must follow this pattern (see Jer. 31:32; Ezek. 16:8-59-62; Mal. 2:14).
This covenant is a mutual vow or mutual commitment to eternal faithfulness. ATo keep a vow . . . means not to keep from breaking it, but rather to devote the rest of one=s life to discovering what the vow means, and to be willing to change and to grow accordingly.@ AThe meaning of the marriage vows finds its deepest resonance . . . in the biblical concept of covenant, in which two parties so bind themselves to one another that the simple maintenance of their relationship becomes the most important and central thing in all life, the basis from which everything else flows@ (Mike Mason, The Mystery of Marriage, 94, 105).
Can such a covenant work? Yes, if made in accordance with the specific form of Christian love called agape. Marriage is a covenant of love (agape), the caring and self-giving love that seeks not just one’s own happiness but especially and primarily the happiness of the spouse (Eph. 5:25ff.). This is the single most important thing about marriage, and the key to faithfulness. This is true since agape includes not wanting to HURT, and what would hurt a spouse worse that unfaithfulness?
This covenantal aspect of marriage is the essence of the union that exists on the level of spirit. A covenant is a spiritual union. Can two unbelievers enter into such a covenant union? I believe so. Making a commitment, a covenant, is something human beings can do as creatures made in God’s image. Even agape is humanly possible as a result of this image of God within us. So, at least theoretically, two unbelievers can make a mutual commitment or covenant with one another, in the spirit of agape. We should remember, though, that sin has corrupted the image of God within us, thus distorting those spiritual aspects within us are crucial for this kind of relationship.
It should go without saying that two believers can enter into the covenant union known as marriage, and they can do so with natural, image-of-God abilities that are in the process of being restored to what they were in the beginning (Eph. 4:22-24; Col. 3:9-10), thanks to the Holy Spirit’s work of regeneration and continuing sanctification within us.
But what about the possibility of marriage between a believer and an unbeliever? In my judgment this is something God’s Word prohibits, because of the very nature of marriage and also because of the very nature of the Christian life as contrasted with the life of the unbeliever. I believe this is one of the main applications of Paul’s teaching in 2 Cor. 6:14ff., where he emphasizes the fact that Christians who live within God’s kingdom and God’s covenant have nothing in common with unbelievers.
This is a point that was emphasized throughout the Old Testament. Great emphasis was put upon the principle of separation between God’s people and Satan’s people (and ultimately, there are only two groups). See Exod. 34:12-16; Lev. 20:24-26; Deut. 12:30-31; Josh. 24:14-15; Ps. 1:1; Isa. 52:11ff.; Ezra 6:21. Within this context special attention was given to the prohibition of intermarriage between Israelites and pagans. See Exod. 34:16; Deut. 7:2ff.; Josh. 23:12-13; Judges 3:5-8; 1 Kings 11:1-11; Ezra 9:1-2, 10-12; 10:2-12; Neh. 13:23-27; Mal. 2:10ff. (What about Esther? She violated this plain instruction, but was not acting under orders from God. What about Ruth? Naomi’s son violated this instruction by marrying a Moabitess, also within God’s providence but not according to his instruction.)
The key texts for our purposes are 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1 and 1 Cor. 7:39. In the former text Paul says, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Beliel, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?” Their worldviews are different, even opposite; their spiritual perspectives are different, even opposite; the foundations upon which their covenant promises would be made are different, even opposite. This is why Paul says that a widow “is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” Marriage “in the Lord” is the norm for all Christians.
When two unbelievers are married, and one is converted and the other is not, then 1 Cor. 7:12-16 applies. (On this text see John Murray’s book, Divorce, pp. 63-67.)
One of the most difficult questions in this connection is this: Who counts as an unbeliever? Sometimes the answer to this question is easy. Many years ago I had a former student write to me for advice, since one of his church members wanted to marry a Muslim and wanted him to perform the ceremony. I was surprised that he would even entertain the possibility, and proceeded to discourage him from doing so.
Given the divided state of Christendom, however, and given the widespread failure to teach and practice the Biblical “plan of salvation” as it applies to baptism, this question is not always easy to answer. Certainly someone who was sprinkled as an infant and grew up in that kind of denomination is very different from a Muslim or atheist. What shall we do in such a case? I remember hearing long ago, and it has been my policy since, to consider a person to be a Christian (in terms of 2 Cor. 6:14ff. and 1 Cor. 7:39) for the purpose of marriage, only if that person can be accepted as is as a member of your local congregation. This makes me a lot more strict than most, but I try to be consistent in all things.
This leads me to say that if it is wrong for a Christian to marry a non-Christian, then it is just as wrong for a minister to perform the ceremony in such a wedding. I advise all ministers to develop a Biblical policy on this issue, and to make it clear to a prospective congregation before being hired that you will not be a part of this kind of wedding. You may not get hired by some churches, but that is better than being hired and getting fired later under ugly circumstances.