Q&A: Unequally Yoked

Unequally Yoked

Question

I am an atheist. I have met a Christian girl for whom I feel very deeply, and I know that she feels the same about me. However, we cannot have a relationship together because she is not allowed to have a relationship with a non-believer. What does the Bible have to say about this kind of relationship? Is there anyway that it could be accepted by the church?

Answer

The Bible teaches in various ways that believers are not to marry unbelievers. In the Old Testament, Israelites were prohibited from marrying non-Israelites who did not convert to the religion of Israel (e.g. Ezra 10:10ff.). In the New Testament, Paul taught that believers were not to be "unequally yoked" to unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14ff.). This passage in 2 Corinthians has generally been understood by conservative Christians to prohibit marriage between believers and unbelievers.

In both the Old and the New Testament, the reason for prohibiting such unions is largely to protect and preserve the faith of the believer. The commands are meant to keep an unbelieving spouse from influencing a believing spouse to compromise his or her relationship with God (as, for example, Solomon did in 1 Kings 11).

The Bible also speaks to situations in which a believer is married to an unbeliever (e.g. 1 Cor. 7:12-17; 1 Pet. 3:1-2). In these situations it seems to assume that this results not from a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever, but from the conversion of one spouse and not of the other when they are already married.

Any church should and almost certainly would "accept" a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever if such a marriage already existed. For instance, if you and your girlfriend were to marry, I can't imagine any church that would not recognize that marriage as legitimate and binding, or that would refuse to admit your new wife into their fellowship. Nevertheless, such a church would also be biblically bound to call your new wife to repentance for her disobedience (repentance would not include any obligation to leave you, I would not think).

But you will have a very hard time finding any conservative minister to marry you in the first place. Since the Bible prohibits a believer to marry an unbeliever, conservative ministers will not be party to marrying believers to unbelievers. On the other hand, many liberal Christian ministers do not believe that they must submit to the Bible's dictates, and might be willing to marry you. Then too, marriages may be performed by justices of the peace, etc.

Now, I understand that from an atheistic perspective you may be tempted to persuade your girlfriend to pursue a relationship with you anyway, perhaps to find someone who will be willing to marry you, and then to rely on the church's mercy to receive your new wife into their fellowship. I suppose that's what I might try to do in your situation.

But even from an atheistic perspective this really isn't advisable. I myself am the child of a "mixed" marriage between a believer and an unbeliever, and I know many others of whom this is true as well. Because religious viewpoints are so fundamental to a person's worldview, they have a great deal of influence on just about everything a person thinks and does. They impact many areas of behavior, of morality, of political perspective, of social interaction, and even of science. They also will cause significant friction between spouses who can't agree over how to raise their children. For example, in my own situation, even though my parents did not outwardly express conflict over religion, I was raised with the impression that my father was a God-rejecting fool, and that my mother was a weak-minded simpleton. Neither my mother nor my father would have said this about the other, but these were necessary inferences from their worldviews. The viewpoints of each one undermined my trust in the other's intelligence, judgment and morality. It just isn't a good mix by any measure.

And from your girlfriend's perspective, it would be a sin for her to marry you (even though that would not invalidate the marriage). Given the situation as you have described it, and assuming your girlfriend to be a believer (and not just "Christian" by tradition), I would say that you have only two viable options: 1) you should not pursue a relationship with her; or 2) you must believe the gospel and become a Christian yourself. I know you didn't write to me so that I would try to convert you, so I won't beat you over the head with that one, but I would be remiss were I to give you the false hope that your girlfriend could marry you with the Lord's blessing, or that any such marriage would not be fraught with very significant difficulties.

If you are interested, we have an article on the site that addresses this issue specifically: Mixed Marriages by John Frame.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.