Can Christians marry non-Christians? They could, under civil laws. What people usually mean when they ask, is, what does the Bible say? Does the Bible permit marriage between Christians and non-Christians? And the usual answer is “no” and the passage normally cited is 2 Corinthians 6:14-18:
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:”I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Therefore, “Come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you.” And, “I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (TNIV)
There are two problems with using this passage to prohibit Christians from marrying non-Christians. First, the passage is speaking to the church as a whole and not to individual believers. What Paul probably had in mind is that the church should rid herself of any defiling association that came with “…dining in the local temples, membership in the pagan cults, ritual prostitution, active engagement in pagan worship and the like” (Linda L. Belleville, 2 Corinthians, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996, 185).
Second, the passage is a command is to stop doing something that is already happening, not a prohibition from doing something that has yet to occur. In other words, if this passage was addressing marriage between Christians and non-Christians, it would be a command that Christians should divorce non-Christian spouses, something that Paul has previously stated that he does not require (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).
Is there clear biblical teaching prohibiting marriage between Christians and non-Christians? I believe there is. It comes from Paul’s advice to widows in 1 Corinthians 7:39:
A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. (TNIV)
Commenting on this verse, Gordon Fee writes:
This is not so much a command that she may not marry outside the Lord as it is good sense. To be “in the Lord’ is to have one’s life come under the eschatological view of existence outlined in vv. 29-31. Such a woman lives from such a radically different perspective and value system from that of a pagan husband that a “mixed” marriage, where the “two become one,” is simply unthinkable. If she becomes a believer after marriage, then she should maintain the marriage with the hope of winning him to the Lord (vv. 12-16); but it makes no sense from Paul’s perspective for one to engage such a marriage once one is a believer. (Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987, 356.)
If there is no direct prohibition against marrying nonbelievers, perhaps it is because none are necessary. Before we even ask “Are Christians permitted to marry non-Christians,” we should first ask “what does it mean to be a Christian?” and “what is marriage?”
Jesus makes it clear as to what is involved in choosing to follow Him.
Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves a son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:37-39 TNIV
Our love for Christ must supersede all earthly loves. To follow Christ, we need to take up our cross, that is, we need to die to all that is not of the Lord. I do not see how it is possible to follow Christ and also become “one flesh” with those who do not live under His authority.
Similarly, if we take seriously the biblical account of the first “marriage,” we see that Adam and Eve lived under the authority of God and were created to serve the Lord together (Genesis 1 and 2). Christian marriage then is marriage lived “in the fear of the Lord (Ephesians 5:21)” where the couple are partners in His service.
Therefore if we take seriously the bible’s own account of what it means to be a follower of Jesus, and if we are to take seriously the bible’s understanding of marriage, we have to agree with Fee that a “mixed” marriage between someone who is a follower of Jesus and someone who is not, is simply unthinkable.
The fact that Christian marriages also break down tells us that a marriage between two Christians is no guarantee that the marriage will succeed. There are many factors involved in the making of a successful marriage. That the partners should both be followers of Jesus is only the first criterion.
And if Christians can only marry Christians, this drastically reduces the pool of potential marriage partners. And there are many nice folks out there who are not followers of Jesus, some of whom are even more mature and caring then their Christian counterparts. It seems terribly unfair that Christians are not allowed to marry non-Christians.
I have no easy answers. All I know is that none of us get all we “deserve” this side of heaven. Perhaps we need to do more to present singleness as an equally valid station in God’s eyes (1 Corinthians 7:38), and ensure that all of us, married or single, experience authentic community in the body of Christ.
And then there is the matter of church discipline. What discipline if any should the church impose on members who choose to go ahead and marry non-Christians in direct disobedience to church teaching? The answers lie beyond the scope of this essay. But at the very least let us agree that those who have given their lives to Christ can only be “one flesh” with people who are also followers of Christ.