Can I marry an unbeliever?

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When we address Love, Sex and Relationship issues in conferences and events, many professing believers ask us, “Is it okay for me to date or marry an unbeliever?” The answer may seem obvious to many mature followers of Jesus, but for many growing believers, this question ought to be answered well for them to understand why the answer is “No.” Often there is a justification to counter the answer that goes like this: “What if I am dating them to convert them to be a born-again Christian?” Another one goes like this: “My mother is born-again but my dad is not born again and their marriage worked out okay.” A third one goes like this: “But I have seen people in Church divorce and people in the world stay together.” Many of these rejoinders come from believers who are already dating unbelievers or already married to them. In light of this, we recognize the delicate nature of the scenario. However, it doesn’t cause us to water-down the wisdom of the scriptures.

The scriptures are clear concerning this issue.

Firstly, Paul the apostle warned the Corinthian church (and every believer by extension) against intimate relationships with unbelievers. He starts off in 1st Corinthians 7:39 where he is replying to a question of remarrying. He gives the requirements for remarrying but qualifies it with an important caveat: the person must be in the LORD. The scriptures here blatantly state that believers should marry believers.

Secondly, in the second letter to the Corinthians, Paul becomes more explicit about the matter. 2 Corinthians 6:14-16 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 ? 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.” 

 

A yoke was a wooden beam tied around the neck of two beasts of burden when ploughing land. The yoke needed two animals of similar build and strength to pull the plough. The animals also had to be of similar kind e.g. two oxen. It was bad for agriculture to use two different animals e.g. an ox and a donkey. If that happened, the yoke would break, the land would not be ploughed and one of the animals would be hurt. In Deuteronomy 22:10, the LORD gives this specific command of not yoking an ox and a donkey. It is not agriculture that the LORD is desperately concerned about. It is a message to us as far as relationships are concerned and Paul the Apostle makes it clear for us.

The ploughing journey is the life journey here on earth and the LORD requires that you do it with one who is headed in the same destination- the kingdom of heaven. A stubborn donkey will often delay an ox. And an irritated ox will most likely hurt a misunderstood donkey.

Thirdly, the Bible says in Amos 3:3Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?” The walk here is not a literal walk with our physical feet, but an agreement to engage through life together. And the most vivid illustration of this for any culture is the marriage institution.

So the theology is clear and without doubt. Often those who fight this basic teaching are: nominal Christians (belong to Christian circles but are not redeemed and saved), unbelievers who find the truth of the Bible offensive to them, and newly growing believers who are still finding their footing in the faith.

Someone once said to me that their auntie married an unbeliever and their marriage turned out okay. However, that is not uncommon. Unbelievers who put the basic life principles of scripture into practice may benefit from them but they are still not safe from God’s wrath. God does not save us to have good marriages; good marriages are a fringe benefit of working out your salvation. God primarily saves us to be in his kingdom and kept from the wrath due to us. He then secondarily saves us to reflect his Kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. And one of those areas to reflect is marriage. A marriage between two Christians has a superior purpose; to reflect the love of Christ and the church. It is a mirror of the Gospel and those roles cannot be taken by any Tom, Dick and Harry. They must be taken by sinners who have received forgiveness and have chosen to follow Jesus. The decision of whom to marry is a fragile one While the auntie’s marriage was okay, we must realise, Beloved, that okay is not God’s will. Secondly, the auntie is an exception and not the rule. Many believers who choose to marry unbelievers hurt from that decision. A marriage that stands in such an instance is by the mercy and common grace of God.

But what if the person I want to marry is not an unbeliever but they are a good person? They don’t do any of the nasty things that could break a marriage. They are a really good person despite not being born again. What about that? Well, Jesus’ words in John 3 can respond to this. Jesus in John 3 is speaking to Nicodemus, an old, rich and respected Pharisee of the Jewish high council- the Sanhedrin. Jesus tells him that he cannot see the Kingdom of God (he is not saved from his sins) unless he is born again. Jesus shocks the readers who go through that passage! You study Nicodemus and realize that he is a typical nice guy. He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke and he doesn’t sleep around. He is what many would call a good person. He even comes to see Jesus and praises him genuinely unlike those high-nosed Pharisees. Nicodemus doesn’t want Jesus dead. In fact in John 3:2 Nicodemus affirms that Jesus is a true messenger from God. But what does Jesus tell us? Jesus tells us that a man with all the moral, character and religious qualifications of Nicodemus is not going to heaven. Jesus unequivocally states that Nicodemus the moral, upright, respected and religious leader MUST be born-again! But does Jesus know Nicodemus has been studying the scriptures since Nicodemus was a kid? Yes, Jesus knows! Does Jesus recognize that Nicodemus has helped settle disputes between people with his authority? Yes, Jesus knows! Does Jesus realize Nicodemus has been giving to the poor and helping the less-fortunate? Yes, Jesus knows! Does Jesus realize that Nicodemus is willing to learn from Jesus unlike the other Pharisees? Yes, Jesus knows! But despite all this, Jesus is telling Nicodemus that it isn’t enough to enter heaven with all those medals and golden-boy awards. Good is just not necessarily God. Nicodemus must be born-again. Jesus is basically telling Nicodemus, “All that you have achieved and done up to now amounts to nothing. You need to start from day one afresh.” Jesus is telling us that the idea of being born again is BIGGER than moral conformity! It’s radically richer than waiting for sex until marriage or not going clubbing and drinking. It’s not a call to morality; it’s a call to submit to God’s will (that is greater than human morality). Jesus then explains to Nicodemus that the born-again experience is not a return into one’s mother’s womb but rather it is a spiritual rebirth! It’s the work of the Holy Spirit. The analogy of new birth affirms a profound truth; that good is not necessarily God. That God’s concern is not just for moral uprightness, but for spiritual readiness. If Jesus, the Lamb of God, insists that his bride must be born again, we too must take upon that insistence that our partners are not just good, but also full of God.

Well, what if I convert them to Christianity? While this may sound righteous, we must look at it keenly. When a believer wants to convert an unbeliever for the purposes of dating them, their primary concern often is not in the salvation of the unbeliever. Their primary concern is for them to date who they want. The idea of “missionary dating” sanitizes a rather selfish ambition. It’s the same front Christians use when gossiping about other believers in the name of prayer. It has a form of godliness on the surface but it lacks the power because it is self-seeking. 1st Corinthians 13:5b says, “Love is not self-seeking.” Also, a believer who says they will date an unbeliever to convert them shows little respect and worth for the unbeliever. In saying they will convert them, they almost quietly state, “I will bring them to my level for I consider myself superior to them.” Such a believer makes an unbeliever a “Salvation Project.” The unbeliever is not stupid. He/she can see that the believer is trying to change them. The unbeliever is surprised that someone who claims to be heaven-bound and filled with the Spirit can miss the basic fact of life that everybody knows: “You cannot change people.” Believers who take it upon themselves to convert unbelievers for the purpose of dating them not only think too highly of themselves but also act in selfishness. Their ultimate concern is not for the salvation of the unbeliever but for their own justification of actions.

We must judge our motives at all times. I once tried this on an unbeliever. I took them to all Christian events trying to get them to get born again so that I could date them. They realised I was using them as a project and they disdained me for it. I later realised that my motives were very selfish, and I regret it to this day. I have also met many believers who went down this path. The unbeliever started conforming just to please them. They went to church. They listened to gospel music. They basically played along. However it got to a point where the pretence was too much and they could not keep up. In some unfortunate instances they were already married. And in instances where they already got married and by the grace of God the unbeliever came to receive salvation, the light bulb begins to flicker. They read their Bible, get closer to God and realise that their partner was being a hypocrite. And even worse, the new believer will see for certain that the person who dated and married them does not value their faith. They knew they should not have dated and unbeliever but they did anyway. But the matter of conversion needs more understanding. Let’s dissect it further.

Growing up I actually believed that I alone ultimately made the choice to be saved. However the more I studied the scriptures and listened to sound teachers, I came to see that this was not true. The scriptures describe me before salvation as a man who is dead in my sins and transgressions (Ephesians 2:1). A dead man cannot contribute life to himself. Colossians 1:13 says I was in the domain of darkness before Jesus (not me) transferred me into the Kingdom of Light. Imagine with me, Beloved, the list of efforts you made to come into this world. Can you name at least five efforts? Can you genuinely say that “I am on this planet earth because I introduced my mother to my father!” Did you cause their meeting? No. Did you cause their night of passionate love? No. Did you cause the fertility of your mother’s womb? No. Did you cause your healthy development as a foetus? No. If we contributed nothing to our physical birth, what makes us think we contributed a sliver to our spiritual birth? Mankind’s only contribution to the salvation process is his sins! If you are born again, it is purely out of the mercy and grace that God had for you. You were dead in your sins and transgressions and he made you alive spiritually. If you want to see the dead raised to life, consider this: that your own salvation is a miracle.

But you may argue, I agree that we are saved by grace through faith as stated in Ephesians 2:8-9, but isn’t that grace through my faith? Didn’t I make the decision to follow Christ?” Well yes, but you were only able to inevitably and irresistibly “choose” Christ after you were raised from spiritual death. The word of God was preached to you and you heard it. Jesus said in John 15:6 that we did not choose him but rather, he chose us so that we may bear fruit. When the word of God stirred you to respond to Christ, God was choosing you. And since faith comes by hearing the word of God, you responded to salvation. But do you see that the faith in your salvation was prompted by the Spirit of the word of God? Without the prompting would you respond? It is as if a patient on their death-bed received resuscitation shocks and when he comes alive boasts that he is alive because his heart made effort to respond to the electric shocks. It’s absurd. The resuscitation shocks prompted the beating of the heart that led to the revival! Similarly the word of God prompted saving faith that led to salvation. Do you see that if it wasn’t for Gods generosity of His word and his spirit, you would be unable to be revived to faith which wouldn’t lead you to salvation? I cannot boast about my salvation as if it is something I achieved because I am saved by the grace of God through faith in Christ (and that faith comes from Christ). What was the point of all that? Are we not talking about dating an unbeliever? Yes, we are, Beloved. However, none of that is a non-sequitur. I said all that to let you know this: “If you cannot bring about your own salvation, what makes you think you will bring about the salvation of a fellow unregenerate?” That is the work and liberty of the Holy Spirit. Last I checked, you and I did not qualify for that job description.

If you know your salvation theology well, you will understand that claiming to convert an unbeliever is a futile plan. You do not need a bible verse to know what even unbelievers know: that you cannot change people. The command by God to be yoked with fellow believers is not because we are better than unbelievers. It is simply because we are redeemed. The beauty of marriage is often realised when we are in God’s will. And God’s will is good, pleasing and perfect. We must trust God’s word in this area. And no matter how many times we hear it, we may only truly experience it when we walk down the aisle.

Comments

Ernest Wamboye is a disciple of Jesus Christ, a husband, a father, an author and a speaker. He has been married to the lovely Waturi since September 2012. They have a passion for youth ministry. Together they minister to young adults on the gospel and pre-marital relationships. Ernest has authored two books, The Human Temple, a novel, and Lust and the City- a guide on sexual purity.

Discussion12 Comments

  1. This is great. We should not be yoked to unbelievers. Marrying a non believer, undermines the ministry in you. Its thus advisable to marry someone who will help you grow your passion for Christ.

  2. Thanks Ernest for the sharing….that is indeed true…you cannot change a non believer…the believer is actually more at risk of backsliding. mostly if the guy is the non believer……..i am a victim and that affected me to date.

  3. Thanks Ernest for the sharing….that is indeed true…you cannot change a non believer…the believer is actually more at risk of backsliding. mostly if the guy is the non believer……..i am a victim and that affected me to date.

  4. Thanks Ernest for the sharing….that is indeed true…you cannot change a non believer…the believer is actually more at risk of backsliding. mostly if the guy is the non believer……..i am a victim and that affected me to date.

  5. This is very helpful especially for those of us who are leaders in follow up and discipleship ministries. God bless you Ernest.

  6. Thanks so much I didn’t have this great and deep insight about dating unbeliever but now know… may God bless you and let His knowledge and wisdom flow always like a waterfall in your life… you are a blessing to this perishing general

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