Marriage To An Unbeliever!


In this little study, we are going to try and answer two questions.

1. ‘A believer marrying an unbeliever’ and

2. ‘A church member marrying a non-member’.

We must first appreciate the fact that, whilst we have clear teaching concerning a ‘believer’s relationship with an unbeliever’, no such clear teaching can be quoted with respect to a ‘church member’ marrying a ‘non-member’.

Situation number 1 appears to involve someone who holds ‘the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ’, as James 2:1 describes it, and someone who is without faith. In other words, one who doesn’t believe, that is, an ‘un-religious’ person.

Situation number 2, relates to church membership. It concerns the marriage of one who is a member of the Lord’s church, to one who is a member of a religious body which isn’t named in the Scriptures, but which is popularly regarded as ‘Christian’, in other words, a member of a ‘religious denomination’.

With the first situation, involving the believer and the non-believer, we can deal confidently, because we have Scripture to guide us. In the second situation, this is not so. There exists no Biblical reference to marriage between a member of the New Testament church and a member of a denominational body, for the simple reason that the situation itself didn’t arise in New Testament times.

‘Christian denominations’, so-called, such as we know today, didn’t then exist, and in a sense, the issue was much simpler and clearer.

Reading the New Testament Scriptures, we find ourselves in a Roman world in which there were Christians, that is, members of the Lord’s church’, Jews, and Pagans. Today we must add to these, in our ‘multi-cultural society’ as it is called, not only an estimated 500 ‘Christian’ denominations, sects and parties, but a variety of faiths which include the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh religions.

And whilst these latter religions can be dismissed immediately from our consideration as ‘non-Christian’, and perhaps even ‘anti-Christian’, we may not be so readily dismissive of others, who claim to believe in the Bible, the God of the Bible and the Lord Jesus. Certainly, they may be ‘non-members’, but who is prepared to say they are ‘non-believers’?

Yes! I am well aware of the fact that what they believe about God and Christ isn’t sufficient to make them ‘Christians’ in the New Testament sense, and that what they believe about the Gospel falls short of obedience to the Gospel. Nevertheless, they aren’t ‘unbelievers’ in the sense in which that word is used in the New Testament. Of this, there can be no question.

So how are we to deal with the two situations?

1. ‘A believer marries an unbeliever.’

Where one who ‘holds the faith’ contemplates marriage to one who is ’without faith’, 2 Corinthians 6:14 supplies the answer. In the A.V., writing to the church at Corinth, Paul states, ‘Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers’.

Later versions will say, ‘Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.’

I still feel that the older version presents the picture more vividly since it depicts pairs of oxen working side by side, under the same yoke. For them to work effectively they must be of similar or equal strength. There must be no imbalance to cause strain.

This is why in New Testament times no farmer would dream of attempting to plough his field with unmatched animals. Of course, it has often been pointed out, quite correctly, that this verse applies to other relationships, such as business associations, besides to the relationship of marriage. But it undeniably applies to marriage.

The kind of problems which inevitably arise when a believer marries an unbeliever are too numerous to deal with in this study, but it must be obvious that the believer cannot make a real commitment to the Lord when the marriage partner isn’t fully supportive. In such a relationship, the believer is faced with the need to make unhappy compromises, out of consideration for the unbelieving partner.

2. ‘A member of the Lord’s church marries a denominational member.’

When a member of the Lord’s church marries a member of a denomination, the problems may not be quite so acute, but there will still be difficulties to be faced and compromises to be considered.

Although such a partnership may be compatible in other respects, socially, intellectually, emotionally and physically, it lacks the most important element which is the source of strength and stability, the element of spiritual harmony is absent.

The reason why, these days, so many marriages fail, is that this dimension is missing. In marriage at its highest and best, husband and wife should be able to present themselves together before the Lord in worship, and it’s sad when one o partner goes to worship with brothers and sisters in Christ, whilst the other either goes elsewhere or even remains at home.

Understanding Needed!

Leaders in local congregations will, I feel sure, recognise the difficulties which face young, unmarried members of the church today as they seek life partners. These days, there do not appear to be very many Christian prospects around, as any eligible young Christian will readily tell you! And, therefore, church leaders will, I hope, show sympathy and understanding.

Writing as one who was been happily married for several years, and who has seen the difficulties which have beset the lives of many Christians who have become ‘unequally yoked.’

I’m very well aware of the seriousness of the problem. But the situation isn’t helped by excommunicating those brothers and sisters who are involved in it. I have yet to see anything positive result from that course of action. Such brethren need help so that they may remain faithful.

Personally, I believe it’s better to keep them in the fold than to cast them out, they shouldn’t be abandoned and forgotten. Our younger brothers and sisters want to do what is right and what pleases the Lord, of this, we may be sure. But they need to be told what is right and if church leaders fail in their duty in this respect, it’s quite reprehensible to criticise when things go wrong.

Let’s look at the following passage.

‘I (not the Lord) say to the rest of you: If a brother has a wife who is an unbeliever and she is willing to live with him, he must not abandon her. And if a woman has a husband who is an unbeliever and he is willing to live with her, she must not abandon him. For the unbelieving husband, has been sanctified because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified because of her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner leaves, let him go. In such cases the brother or sister is not under obligation. God has called you to live in peace. Wife, you might be able to save your husband. Husband, you might be able to save your wife.’ 1 Corinthians 7:12-16

Here’s the context and the situation, some were saying something like this against the backdrop of this marriage discussion. You have to get rid of your unsaved partner because if you are married to a non-believer, you have the devil in your house. You have sin in your life and have to get rid of your unbelieving mate.

Then others were saying, well, we are both Christians now, we have both come to believe in Jesus, but when we first got married, no one told us it was a permanent deal. No one told us we couldn’t just slip in and out of it whenever we wanted to.

We didn’t understand God’s laws, so could we get a divorce now and hunt around until we find somebody that we are really sure that we want to spend the rest of our life with. So, Paul addresses these questions in this section.

He says, ‘to the rest,’ that is, here is a situation where it is a little different. He says, ‘To the rest, I say this (I, not the Lord).’ Now the Lord never addressed a mixed marriage and He never addressed the issue where one was a member of the church and the other wasn’t, or where one was in the covenant and the other wasn’t because Jesus only spoke with the Jews.

He worked among the Jews and with the Jews and everybody was under God’s covenant. Now the Gospel has gone outside of Palestine and gone into a Gentile world and some people have heard the Gospel and they have responded and their mate has not.

What are we to do in a situation like that?

Well, ‘to the rest’, if a brother has a wife who isn’t a believer and she is willing to live with him, he mustn’t divorce her. And, if a woman has a husband who isn’t a believer and he is willing to live with her, she mustn’t divorce him.

Think about the society of that day and the way they are thinking, ‘man, we have come out of this crummy society with all kinds of sexual perversion. Sex must be a sin, I’ve got to get rid of this unbelieving mate.’

Paul says, No, if you are married to an unbeliever, then live with them. God recognises that marriage, it’s not an invalid marriage because your mate didn’t become a Christian.

For the unbelieving husband, has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified by her believing husband. That doesn’t mean they are saved, that isn’t what the word ‘sanctified’ means here. He means that the relationship is acceptable to God. The marriage is a sanctified marriage, it’s endorsed, and it’s accepted by God.

Otherwise, he said, your children would be unclean. What does he mean by that? Illegitimate. He says, think through it, if you’re saying, I’m married to an unbeliever, God mustn’t recognise this marriage.

He says, if that’s true, then your kids are illegitimate but as it is, they are holy. He says, if you are married to an unbeliever and you became a Christian, God still accepts your marriage. You accept them, you go on in that marriage, don’t try to get out of it.

A final thought, when Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7:39, writes about Christian widows on the subject of re-marriage, he says that they are free to marry, ‘but only in the Lord’.

Let’s think seriously about these words as some people say this means ‘Christians should marry Christians.’ And let me say they could be right, however there is another thought behind this verse.

Now, there is no doubt that this is an interesting and difficult phrase, ‘she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord.’

That’s an interpretive translation, in other words, that isn’t a literal word for word translation. This is an attempt to translate what they believe the idea means and you have to do that at times. If the Bible was given a literal word for word translation all the way through, it wouldn’t make sense.

Anyone who has studied a second language knows you can’t give a literal translation all the time. So, translators are trying to capture what they feel the idea is here.

In the Greek text, it says, ‘that a woman is free anyone she wishes to marry only in the Lord’.

Now, what does ‘only in the Lord’ mean?

Does it mean that the person she marries must be a Christian?

That is certainly one alternative, but I think the way to figure this out in part is to look at this phrase ‘only in the Lord’ and every time it occurs in the Bible, that won’t take long because it only occurs three times.

It occurs in Ephesians 6:1 ‘Children, obey your parents in the Lord.’

Now, does that mean that if you have Christian parents, you have to obey them and if you don’t have Christian parents, you don’t have to obey them? No. I think it means that children are to obey their parents in the sphere of the Lord’s authority. You have to obey your parents, the way the Lord says to obey your parents.

‘In the Lord’, means in the way that the Lord guides you, in the way the Lord teaches you, in a way that shows you are in submission to the Lord.

‘Wives submit to your husbands in the Lord’. Colossians 3:18

Does that mean that if he is a Christian, you have to submit to him, but if he isn’t a Christian, you don’t have to submit to him? No. Paul’s counsel is to the wives, wives, you are to submit to your husbands. How?

‘In the Lord’, in the way, the Lord would have you do it. Submit to him in the way the Lord leads you to submit to Him, not in the world’s concept, but in Jesus’ concept. Wives, submit to your husbands in a way that is pleasing, and acceptable to the Lord. the phrase, ‘in the Lord’ signifies a realm of authority.

Now, widows may marry anyone they wish ‘only in the Lord’. What does that mean? If it means that she is free to marry, but he has to be a Christian, then I wonder why Paul doesn’t lay down that same stipulation for the divorced person.

Why doesn’t he lay down the same stipulation for a virgin? Why is it that only for a widow would he say that you have to marry a Christian?

I can’t find any reason to hold on to that point of view, I’m not saying that is not the best thing to do, I’m just simply saying that I don’t believe the text mandates that. In that society where a woman had no rights, one of the worst things that could happen would be to be an old woman who had no husband.

And notice that Paul states clearly that he is expressing the mind of the Lord on this matter. Remember also, that 1 Corinthians 7 is the chapter which deals comprehensively with this subject. In it, Paul reveals both what the Lord Himself taught during His earthly ministry and what he, Paul, was authorised to state in his capacity as an inspired apostle of Christ.

When you read the chapter, also bear in mind the fact that Paul had been required to pronounce on relationships which didn’t exist during the Lord’s ministry, but which developed after the church was established.



"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."