Should Christians date/marry non-Christians?
On correctly interpreting scripture incorrectly
By Jeffrey A. Schooley
If you came to age in a conservative or Evangelical Christian setting, then undoubtedly you once sat in youth group while the leader read to you 2 Corinthians 6:14: “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers” (NRSV). Other translations refer to this as being “yoked” or “unequally yoked” with unbelievers. This scripture was probably read to you as the first of many dating (or “courting”) rules.
The problem is that Paul is making little commentary on dating or marriage in this passage, but is instead exhorting the Corinthian church to not – in the words of biblical commentator, Paul Barnett – “be joined with Corinthians unbelievers in the cultic life of the city” (New International Commentary on the New Testament). What your youth group leader took as good dating guidance, Paul meant as a prohibition of participating in idolatrous, cultic practices of a pagan city. Of course, it may yet be true that contemporary dating is a type of cultic practice, but I never heard a youth leader present that form of sophisticated analysis.
Yet here’s the rub: Your youth leader was probably still right. He or she was correct incorrectly, but correct nonetheless.
I suspect that the claim that Christians shouldn’t date or marry non-Christians will immediately result in a flood of anecdotal stories from countless Christians who find themselves in such marriages and who tell me they are healthy, happy, faithful marriages. I fear that this column – and maybe me with it – will be dumped into the trash heap of repressive, conservative Christian dogma – right beneath a Jerry Falwell book – that rejects Jesus’ liberating effect on our lives. If you’re reading this and feeling that way, give me 747 more words before burning up the comments section below.
Marriages are about witnessing to what Jesus Christ has done in the world and about pointing toward the Kingdom come (see last month’s column). So understood, marriage is a form of doing missions. It is about using our lives to demonstrate the Good News of the Gospel. We are to, as St. Francis (may or may not have) said, “proclaim] the gospel and usewords, if necessary.”
Now it may very well be that the Christian partner in this unequally yoked marriage is fine with their marriage being used to such an end and for such a purpose, but marriage is not about any one individual. And it would be either a really remarkable unbeliever or a really dishonest one who would claim that his/her marriage was meant to witness to a Lord and a Kingdom that he/she doesn’t acknowledge and worship as such.
The real concern in such relationships is that the truly unequally yoked part of the marriage is not in the status or identity of the two individuals, but rather the guiding principles that undergird each’s understanding of marriage.
So, the Christian may see their marriage as a means of witnessing to and worshipping Jesus, while the non-Christian sees the marriage as an arena for personal security, intimacy, and happiness. And these two principles may not come into conflict until the marriage encounters “the Cross.”
“The Cross” names that aspect of Christianity that requires the dying of self for the sake of being raised to new life in Christ. This dying to self takes many forms, but some things are always true about it: It is rarely pleasant and it is only undertaken out of faith.
My concern is that every marriage that contains at least one Christian will come to the Cross eventually. It will come to the moment when the Christian partner walks willingly – if not with trepidation – into a sacrifice that scares him/her, but does so out of faith. In the process, security and happiness may feel very, very distant. It is at this moment that the non-Christian partner, who is in this marriage precisely for security and happiness, will become (rightly so from his/her perspective) quite dismayed. He/She will either cajole and coerce the partner to not come to the Cross or will regard such actions as an abandonment of the non-Christian partner for another man, Jesus.
I’m intentionally using this category of “the Cross” in all its broadness and vagueness because I don’t want to be trapped into anything too specific that would be refuted by someone’s anecdote. “The Cross” may take the form of finances, when the Christian partner wants to make a bold and faithful sustained commitment to the church. “The Cross” may take the form in evenings away from the warmth of the home to go serve the poor on cold city streets. “The Cross” may take the form of baptizing and pledging to raise children from the marriage in the faith, preparing each child for the day when they, too, will encounter “the Cross” and walk in faith.
The true beauty of Christian marriages is that each partner in such a marriage knows that “the Cross” is always out there. They know there is always one more way that they will die to self and be raised to new life in Christ. The beauty of Christian marriages is – at least in part – that each partner is committed to such a life and committed to encouraging such a life in one another, especially in those moments when knees quake, souls faint, and all resolve seems to be lost.
This vision is just, simply, too beautiful to sacrifice for merely 40-50 years of general contentment and security
Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD in Theology candidate at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at ThinkLikeChristians@gmail.com.