In the 21st century, societal perspectives and practices around marriage have been rapidly evolving. Even among the expanded definitions of marriage and people who chose not to marry at all, many Christians still hope—and prepare—to enter into a lifelong God-honoring marriage.
But what if the person that you want to marry isn’t even a Christian? Can Christians Marry Non-Christians? Can such a marriage work, and does the Bible allow it?
Christians should avoid seeking romantic relationships with non-Christians that would lead to marriage. However, a Christian who is already married (or engaged) to a non-Christian ought to remain faithful and committed to the marriage.
The Purpose of Marriage
To understand why marriage is such a big deal, let’s start at the beginning. Upon creating Adam and Eve, God united them in marriage so that they could be in partnership together as they cared for God’s creation.
It is important to note that marriage was established before sin entered the world. So marriage was founded in perfection. Another unique facet of marriage is that it is established by a covenant which is consummated by sexual union.
Conversely, all other family relationships result from natural processes. We don’t choose our parents, cousins, or siblings.
Marriage and Duty
The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. – 1 Corinthians 7:3
Because marriage is established with a promise, both the husband and wife are bound to uphold that promise to one another. Paul underscores this point in his first letter to the Corinthian church. Everything that he says about marriage and ministry rests on this foundational truth.
Elsewhere he says that a man should love his wife ‘as he loves his own body’ (Ephesians 5:28). Why? Because from the start, the marriage union has brought together ‘two to become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24).
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. – 2 Corinthians 6:14a
This admonition from Paul’s follow-up letter to the Corinthian church is often cited by parents and church leaders warning young people to not become romantically involved with non-Christians. Paul is echoing the prohibition against plowing with an ox and a donkey on the same yoke (Deuteronomy 22:10). And the illustration is masterful:
Clean and unclean animals: Under Old Testament law, an ox was considered a ceremonially clean animal, while a donkey was not. But Paul’s warning addresses more than just our spiritual standing.
Relative strength: A donkey and an ox, because of their disparate size and strength, would have a hard time plowing together. Either the donkey will impede the ox, or the ox will injure the donkey by dragging it by the neck. In either scenario, the pair are likely to veer to the side instead of plowing the row intended by the farmer.
In this pairing, we see the difficulty of being in a marriage partnership with an unbeliever. Even if a Christian succeeds in dragging a non-Christian spouse along to church, Bible study, prayer meetings, and more, doing so is tantamount to an ox dragging a donkey by its neck.
We are not called to compel others to faith by force, but to invite them to willingly surrender to God because He willingly surrendered Himself for us.
An unbeliever dragged to church is sure to feel injured, and will only grow to resent his or her Christin spouse, and may even grow bitter toward God himself.
Marriages that lead Christians Astray
But the more likely scenario in Paul’s mind is that a non-Christian spouse may easily turn a believer away from God, if not in belief at least in practice. In the same verse, he continues ‘For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?’ (2 Corinthians 6:14b).
Two partners with objectives will come into conflict because they cannot pull the same yoke in two directions at once. When this tension arises, it is much easier to pull someone down into sin (even the sin of complacency) than to pull someone up from sin.
And a Christian who understands the sacred purpose of marriage is likely to go along with an unbelieving spouse’s agenda for the sake of preserving the marriage.
Illustrations from Israel’s History
Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land… And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same. Exodus 34:15-16
When the law was established in ancient Israel, God decreed that they should be a holy people, set apart as His special possession. And so He forbid them from intermarrying with foreign nations. His purpose in doing so was plainly stated in the law.
God did not want His people to turn away from Him and worship the false gods of other nations. Additionally, in ancient times, marriages between prominent families of different nations were also used to seal pacts and treaties. So God similarly forbid Israel from entering into treaties concurrent with His prohibition against intermarrying.
In one famous case, improper marriages had devastating consequences both for the individual and for the nation.
Despite his famed wisdom, his reign of peace, and his construction of God’s temple, Solomon suffered a terrible weakness: he could not stop chasing women. His seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines included women of royal birth from multiple foreign nations (1 Kings 11:1,3).
Eventually, Solomon turned away from God and built shrines and altars to the foreign gods of his wives (vs 4-8). The Lord responded by tearing the kingdom from Solomon, dividing it, and leaving only a portion for Solomon’s heirs to govern (vs 11-13).
The rest of Solomon’s days were marked with turmoil as he suffered rebellion from his former allies and even from his own officials.
Conversion Prior to Intermarriage
Sometimes, God has used marriages across national lines, even in Israel’s history, to achieve His purposes. Both Rahab (Joshua 2 and 6), and Ruth (Ruth 1-4) are held up as examples of foreign women who became celebrated wives to faithful Israelites. However, in both of their stories, we read that they had chosen to turn to God before their marriages, and not as a result of their marriages.
The order of events matters. Trying to build a solid marriage while simultaneously trying to lead your partner to salvation is a difficult endeavor. But what does this mean for the new Christian who is already engaged or married when they come to Christ?
Do Not Separate What God Has Joined
To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. – 1 Corinthians 7:17
In his larger discourse on marriage, Paul instructs believers who come to Christ to not abandon their spouses. By bringing Christ into their household, a believing spouse opens the door of salvation to the unbelieving spouse (and their children).
For this reason, if a non-Christian is willing to remain in the marriage, then a Christian spouse may not dissolve the marriage. This acknowledges the truth that marriage was established with the first couple not as a gift to Christians, but as a gift to humanity. Further, honoring the bonds of marriage is itself the first step in providing an effective Christian witness to an unbelieving spouse.
And though our modern practice of engagement is not addressed in scripture, in most cases a new Christian who is already pledged to marry should remain committed to that pledge. This is particularly true if financial commitments and other plans have already been laid out.
Of course, there may be exceptions that make each situation unique. So whether you are a new believer looking for guidance in your current relationship or a longtime Christian in search of boundaries, we encourage you to prayerfully seek the wise counsel of Godly leaders as you discern His path for you.