This question is one of the more-frequently discussed questions among young-adult Christians. Some Christians say that you shouldn't even date a non-Christian because it may lead to love and wanting to get married without being spiritually compatible. Others say that this is a minor issue, and should be determined based on the individuals involved. There are not many verses in the Bible which apply to this issue, so it is perhaps not as clear as Christians would like. First let's examine what the Bible does say, and then discuss more practical things to consider before entering a relationship with a non-Christian.
Do not be unequally yoked
The main verse which is quoted most often on this topic is 2 Corinthians 6:14: "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?"(NIV). The word "yoked" here in the original Greek text is heterozugeo, which is more accurately translated as "unequally yoked". So does this imply that "equal yoking" is okay? There are other passages in the Old Testament which discuss "unequal yoking", such as in Deuteronomy 22:10, which says "Do not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together.". This is believed to be because the stronger one would control the weaker one, and the field would not be plowed properly . In The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 359, it suggests that this phrase is perhaps better translated as "Do not form any relationship, whether temporary or permanent, with unbelievers that would lead to a compromise of Christian standards or jeopardize consistency of Christian witness".
I feel that this is a very good interpretation of this verse. Otherwise, if we were to apply this verse to all non-Christian contact, it would not make sense. We are told to spread God's word to all nations (Matthew 28:19), and Jesus often had contact with prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners. Jesus also specifically prayed for the disciples to be safe during contact with non-believers when he said "Father, I don't ask you to take my followers out of the world, but keep them safe from the evil one.". Paul also admits that we need to have contact with non-Christians when he says "I told you not to have anything to do with immoral people. But I wasn't talking about the people of this world. You would have to leave this world to get away from everyone who is immoral or greedy or who cheats or worships idols. I was talking about your own people who are immoral or greedy or worship idols or curse others or get drunk or cheat. Don't even eat with them!" (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). He specifies here that we can't possibly get away from dealing with all the people in the world who may be immoral, and was specifying to stay away from disobedient Christians.
So there is still the question of what an "unequal yoking" means. If we take the interpretation above where it is any relationship which may lead to the Christian being forced to compromise their standards, then it could definitely apply to anything - friendships, marriage, or even business dealings. However, if the Christian is "equally yoked" with the unbeliever, where they have mutual respect and one is not forced to compromise, then there seems to be no warning against this. So perhaps this can be taken to mean that if you decide to marry an unbeliever, as long as there is mutual respect and the unbeliever does not overpower the Christian, it could work. However, there are also verses which say that a wife is to obey her husband (Ephesians 5:22, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, 1 Peter 3:1). In this case, a conflict of interest is set up between whether to obey the husband or God (but obviously God has priority - see Matthew 10:35-37). But this same conflict could also occur between two Christians who have different opinions on topics such as how much to tithe, how to raise their kids, etc. So while it is perhaps a warning that there may be more issues to deal with and more potential conflicts when marrying a non-Christian, it doesn't guarantee that marrying a Christian means there will never be tough decisions to make or conflicts of opinion.
There is a warning though which needs to be considered. The Christian who is marrying the non-Christian should be very certain that they will not be led away from their faith by the non-Christian. Even if there is mutual respect, if the Christian is a new Christian or for whatever reason is weak in their faith or resolve, there could be problems. It may increase temptation to sin or to become involved with activities which may not be beneficial to the Christian. Also, if the Christian is going through a hard time spiritually and they do not have support from their spouse it could make these times much more difficult. This is repeated by Adam Clarke, in Clarke's Commentary , vol. 6, p. 343: "A man who is truly pious, marrying with an unconverted woman, will either draw back to perdition, or have a cross during life.' The same may be said of a pious woman marrying an unconverted man". Where if two Christians are married, they can support and encourage each other in hard times. This is described in Ecclesiastes 4:10 "If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!" and also in verse 12: "Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.". The "cord of three strands" often is interpreted as two Christians and God. But if there are only two strands (one Christian and God), it is significantly easier to break. A Christian who marries a non-Christian must make sure their footing in Jesus is secure and strong, and that they have all the support structure they will need (from the church, family, or other Christian friends) to be able to get through hard times without the spiritual support of their spouse. So ideally, it is recommended that Christians should marry other Christians, but it is not a sin to marry a non-Christian. The only thing that would be a sin is if the non-Christian convinces the Christian to give up or compromise on their faith. It is not worth the risk of losing your salvation just for a human's love, which is finite and possibly temporary, compared to losing God's love for eternity. If you feel this may happen, or you may be tempted to live in ways that Jesus would not want, then get out of the relationship.
Other points to consider
There are several other issues which may occur when married to a non-Christian. Ideally, these should be discussed early on in the relationship, and definitely discussed during pre-marital counselling. However, I suggest that they should be discussed before a very permanent attachment is made to each other, or it may be easier to say "Oh, we'll deal with that later when it comes up." just to avoid the heartbreak of splitting up if you feel there are too many issues that cannot be resolved. Some of these issues which may be important to discuss are listed below:
- Tithing - would your spouse be willing to tithe to the Church? If you both work, would only the Christian tithe from their salary? If the non-Christian does not work, would you still tithe with the non-Christian's salary? What about other donations to charities or missionary organizations?
- What religion would you teach to any potential kids? Would your spouse object if you wanted to take them to church? What if you are marrying not just someone with no religion, but a person of a different religion who wishes to teach the kids about that one also? I have heard that kids who are raised with multiple religions have a higher chance of choosing nothing than being forced to pick between their parents' religions. Also, would a kid whose father stays home and mother goes to church might eventually say "Mom, I want to stay home like Dad does.". Would you let them? Or would you try to convince your spouse to come to church to present a "unified front" whether the spouse believes or not? And would this in fact just confuse the child if the spouse pretends to believe but actually doesn't? Would your spouse try to convince the child to not be religious or to follow a different faith? There are many issues to consider around this topic.
- Would you feel awkward going to church events alone if your spouse does not want to come? Would you be able to host Bible studies or other Christian events at your home and your spouse would be okay with it? Would they feel abandoned if you want to go to bible studies or special church nights instead of staying home with them?
- What do you feel God is calling you to do with your life? Would your spouse be supportive if you felt you were called to work full time at the church? Or what if God calls you to be a missionary - would your spouse be willing to move to a different country for you to follow what God has told you? What if your calling changes sometime in the future - would your spouse be flexible enough and supportive enough for you to do what God wants from you?
These are just some of the important questions to discuss before getting seriously committed to a non-Christian in a romantic relationship. It is better to find out if you are not compatible before getting overly attached to one another, or it will just cause heartbreak if you feel God is telling you to call off the relationship. Marriage is meant to be until death do you part, and so be as sure as possible that you won't regret your decision later on. If you do decide that you are compatible on all these points, and you have mutual respect for each others' religion (or lack thereof), what about other Christians who may suggest that you should not get married? There are some Christians who strongly protest Christians marrying non-Christians, and they may try to "intervene for your own good" and try to get you to call off the marriage. There are also some pastors who will refuse to marry interfaith couples, and you may have a harder time finding a church that will allow an interfaith wedding to take place there.
What about dating/marrying someone so you can tell them about Jesus?
Although it might seem the best of intent to date a non-Christian hoping you can convert them to Christianity, this may not be the best way to go about it. If you are just friends and want to talk about Jesus, then go right ahead. But when adding romance into the mix, it can lead to messy problems. First - if you are dating with the intent of marriage, it is not a good idea to try to find things to "change" about your future spouse. This is one of the main points given during premarital counselling. You should love someone for who they are right now, not who you think they could potentially be if you could only convert them. There is no guarantee that the significant other will change, whether you are dating or if you are married. It is true that you can try to set a good example for them, as stated in 1 Peter 3:1-2 "Even if he opposes our message, you will win him over by what you do. No one else will have to say anything to him, because he will see how you honour God and live a pure life.", but that is not a guarantee that the spouse will ever change their mind. In 1 Corinthians 7:16 Paul says "After all, God chose you and wants you to live at peace. And besides, how do you know if you will be able to save your husband or wife who isn't a follower?". So I believe these passages are meant more for Christians who accepted Jesus after they were married - they can try to live a good life and show Jesus to their spouse, but it's not guaranteed to convince them. Also, if you purposely try to convert someone, eventually they may grow tired of your constant nagging and want to leave you anyways. It might lead to more stress in the relationship.
On the other hand, I have heard stories of couples where one is a Christian, and the other is not, and the other eventually does come to know Christ. My parents know a couple where the wife became a Christian a few years after the couple was married, but the husband took nearly 30 years to have faith in Christ! All the time the wife was patient and prayed for her husband, and she said that the most progress was made when she didn't lecture her husband but just let God work on him through the Holy Spirit. However, I'm sure there are just as many stories where the other spouse does not convert. So in the end, it's better to marry someone because you love them as they are, not because you want to change them. And saying things like "If you really love me, you'll come to church." will most likely not help the situation. So if you are considering marrying a non-Christian, be warned that there is probably at least a 50% chance (or greater) that they will not convert, and you need to be willing to live with them anyways.
What about a Christian marrying a person from another religion?
While many people may think that the term "non-Christian" may just mean atheists, I have used this term to refer to all people who do not accept Jesus was God. This is the basis of Christianity, and makes it unique from all other religions. Therefore, even if a Christian marries an orthodox Jew, while they do have the same God (YHWH), and they share the first 5 books of the Bible, there will still be disagreement over the nature of Jesus. I believe the disagreements over who Jesus was/is may be just as serious if not more so as disagreements over if any God exists at all. Similarly, there will be even greater conflict between religions who do not share the same God (i.e Christianity and Islam, or Christianity and Buddhism, etc.). I personally believe it is easier to "live and let live" between a person who thinks there is enough reason to believe in God and one who doesn't, than between two people who belong to different religions that claim to be the only way to heaven. For example, contrast someone who thinks you must pray 3 times a day, fast during Ramadan, not eat certain foods, and do various pilgrimages, etc. to get to heaven with the Christian belief that you must only believe in Jesus to get to heaven. These two beliefs cannot be reconciled, and one will always feel the other is wrong. I believe this will lead to more marital strife than between a Christian and an agnostic or atheist. Additionally, even if there is mutual respect between the people of different religions who wish to be married, there will be difficult lifestyle issues to discuss. For example, would the Christian allow future children to be taken to a mosque as well as to church, and what effect this may have on the future child's beliefs.
Should a Christian divorce a non-Christian?
There is also another verse which applies to Christian/Non-Christian marriages. In 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 it says: "If your wife isn't a follower of the Lord, but is willing to stay with you, don't divorce her. If your husband isn't a follower, but is willing to stay with you, don't divorce him. Your husband or wife who isn't a follower is made holy by having you as a mate. This also makes your children holy and keeps them from being unclean in God's sight. If your husband or wife isn't a follower of the Lord and decides to divorce you, then you should agree to it. You are no longer bound to that person.". So if you become a Christian after you are married, or if you decided to go ahead and marry a non-Christian while you were a Christian, or even if you were both Christians and one falls away - as long as you get along and still have love and respect, don't divorce each other. It also shows that if you are married to a non-Christian, your family and children will still be blessed by God because you are a Christian.
What can I do if my spouse is not a Christian?
There are still some ways you can try to help your spouse if they are not a Christian. Be faithful and pray that God will reveal Himself to them. Pray that the Holy Spirit will convict them of their sins, and move them to be open to Jesus. Be willing to talk about Jesus and the Bible anytime, and if they have questions try to learn as much as you can to answer them. Perhaps find some interesting Christian apologetics books and see if they are open to reading them with you. See if they are open to coming to church, or even to special church services on Easter or Christmas. Maybe they would come to a Bible study with you, or go with you to an Alpha course at your church. Maybe just introducing them to a few of your Christian friends would let them get to know other Christians and have more good influences in their life. Find some good sermons online if they won't come to church. Be patient and listen, and don't condemn them for not understanding or not having faith. Saying "Well, you just have to have faith." will most likely not work for atheists or agnostics who want proof - in this case try to find good references that prove (as much as possible) that Christianity is the most truthful religion, that it matches with science, that the Bible is historically reliable and non-contradictory, etc. There are all sorts of ways to talk to someone about Jesus. I have found that even just talking about the spiritual things you are currently thinking about can lead to good discussions on aspects of Christianity, and lets your spouse see what you are going through. Although your spouse may not show any interest right away, keep praying and maybe little by little the things you say and how you act will plant the "seeds" which the Holy Spirit can keep working on over time to show them what God is like.
So in conclusion, deciding to date or marry a non-Christian is a very important thing to consider carefully from all aspects. It also depends a lot on the individuals involved, their personalities, their beliefs, and the level of respect between them. There are specific practical questions which should be discussed early on to determine if you will agree on lifestyle choices and how to raise children. It highly depends on the strength, maturity, and support system of the Christian - a weak or new Christian should most likely avoid marrying a person of another faith because they could be easily discouraged or led to give up their faith. You need to judge your own faith and abilities, as well as the attitudes of your potential spouse, and determine what is right. Ask for what the people who know you best as a couple say (sometimes they can see things you cannot), and ask that God will show you what is right for you. However, be warned that just because you marry a Christian does not mean you will never have problems or issues. The rate of divorce between Christian couples and non-Christian couples in North America is nearly equal, so while it is ideal that both people be Christians it does not prove that your relationship is going to be perfect . What does make a marriage good, whether the spouses are Christian or not is caring, respect, understanding, encouragement, and being willing to talk openly about issues. If you feel you can have this between yourself and your spouse, as well as address the issues brought up in this article that you may need to face, and you feel sure that God is okay with it, then it's most likely okay to go ahead and marry them. Stay motivated to work the best you can on keeping your relationship strong, and you have a good chance of succeeding in your marriage.