Of all the Christians who start dating an unbeliever, how many of them had planned to do so?
I suspect that few Christians have decided to intentionally date (let alone marry) a non-believer. The question is really not controversial in theory. Would someone who really loves Jesus sincerely prefer to marry someone who doesn’t love him? No, but when the question comes, it is no longer theoretical. By the time he or she asks out “a non-believer,” the non-believer already has a name, a story, often an attractive face, and a good sense of humor.
When we decided to get married, sure we want to marry another believer. We want to read the Bible together, pray together, go to church together, serve together. But for various reasons, believers often struggle to find the right man or woman. For one thing, people are getting married later, which means many have to search harder or wait longer. Combine that with apps and websites that multiply the competition hundreds of times, and people are harder and slower to settle. Moreover, some Christians have already had bad experiences with Christians.
Given this, it really shouldn’t surprise us that some believers have the idea of dating outside of church. There are more choices, and you can still have things in common. In fact, it may seem at first glance that you have more in common with non-Christians online or in your class than with the singles you see every Sunday.
“Would someone who really loves Jesus sincerely prefer to marry someone who doesn’t love him?”
But that’s not what you wanted, is it? It wasn’t plan A, or B, or even C. You’re here because you’re out of good plans. I am writing to encourage you to persevere and not settle for a bad one.
Only in the Lord
When it comes to dating unbelievers, the verse that often immediately comes to mind is 2 Corinthians 6:14: “Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers.” It’s certainly relevant to our question (and we’ll get to that in a moment), but the verse isn’t strictly about marriage. No, probably the clearest one-verse answer is more often overlooked, 1 Corinthians 7:39:
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry whoever she wants, only in the Lord.
The verse may seem obscure at first glance, but it was not for the apostle Paul. After touching on various circumstances under which followers of Jesus might or might not marry, he lands with a smaller but valuable group in the church: women who have lost husbands. It would be remiss to assume, however, that what he says in verse 39 applies only to widows (as if the unmarried were free to marry out of the Lord). No, if a Christian decides to marry, he is free to marry whoever he wants, but only in the Lord.
This slipped phrase at the end of Paul’s advice to single believers is written in large capital letters in his letters. To begin this letter, he writes: “To the Church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in jesus christ. . . .” (1 Corinthians 1:2). And he ends the letter on the same very important note: “My love be with you all in jesus christ. Amen” (1 Corinthians 16:24). In his second letter to the same church, he wrote: “If anyone is in christ, it is a new creation. The elder passed away; behold, the new is come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Over twenty times in 1 Corinthians alone he uses the phrase “in the Lord” or “in Christ.” This phrase, for the apostle, was not merely a spiritual etiquette on his advice to marry wisely; it was his whole world. In his spirit, we do everything we do – especially our main commitments and calls – in the Lord. For a Christian, there is simply nowhere else to go, let alone get married.
What should a marriage say?
The phrase “in the Lord” was meaningful in another way, however. First, a Christian does whatever he does in christ — how much more marriage? But then, secondly, wedding is specially designed to unveil what it means to live in Christ. This love, of all human loves, was modeled on the love between him and the church.
“A man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This mystery is deep, and I say that it relates to Christ and the Church. (Ephesians 5:31-32)
Most marriages in the world are based on Christ and the church. Husbands do not sacrifice for their wives (Ephesians 5:25). They do not themselves read the words of God, much less wash their marriages in them (verse 26). They do not seek holiness or encourage it in it (verse 27). They do not delight in her as Jesus delights in us (verse 33). And many wives will not submit to the husbands God has given them (verse 22). They do not respect their fiancé or support his appeals (verse 33). And so their marriages slander the story they’re supposed to tell. Their love distorts and mutilates God’s masterpiece.
When Paul says, “Marry in the Lord,” he is saying, “Speak the truth about Christ and the Church.” Say with your marriage what marriage was meant to say. Marry in a way that illuminates God and his glory, sin and grace, the cross and the tomb, heaven and hell – rather than obscuring them as many do.
Are we unequally harnessed?
Now let’s look at the (somewhat odd) text that often immediately comes to mind first when we talk about dating or marrying non-believers:
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what association is there between righteousness and iniquity? Or what communion is there between light and darkness? What agreement does Christ have with Belial? Or what part does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement does the temple of God have with idols? For we are the temple of the living God. (2 Corinthians 6:14-16)
I say “strange” because these verses don’t say anything explicit about romance or marriage. A yoke was a harness placed on two animals pulling the same cart. If the animals were not matched (say an ox and a donkey, Deuteronomy 22:10), one will be led astray by the other. So it is with a soul, says Paul. It warns the church against dangerous relationships and alliances. In this case, these dangerous alliances were formed in the church against its message and ministry. This is still a good verse to discourage someone from marrying an unbeliever, but maybe not in the way we expect.
So why do we come here to talk about wedding? Because no yoke is heavier or more influential – for better or for worse – than marriage.
Marriage could cost everything
Who you marry will likely determine who you become more than any other human relationship. If your husband runs away from Jesus, you will not be able to avoid the backlash of his lack of love. If your wife runs away from Jesus, you will live in the crossfire of her unrepentant sin. You can survive an unbelieving spouse, but only by fire. Marriage under God would become a long and devastating war.
And, God forbid, you could lose your soul fighting this war. This is the clear warning in 2 Corinthians 6: Getting hitched with the wrong kind of heart could cost you yours. We have to be careful who we align ourselves with In the church, said Paul. How much more in the bedroom, in budget and schedule, in parenthood and suffering, in the demanding trenches of everyday life? The wrong marriage could really ruin you. Therefore, Paul says a few verses later: “Let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of body and spirit, working out sanctification in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).
When you read a verse like this (in context), you realize that we may be asking the wrong questions about dating. Instead of asking ourselves if we can date an unbeliever, we might start asking ourselves how can I achieve holiness in the pursuit of marriage? What will help me run my race well? Who would the fear of God lead me to love? Could holiness thrive in a relationship like this?
Marriage Without God
To some extent, people date and marry non-believers because of a lack of imagination. It’s not really that hard to imagine go out together a non-believer (coffees, bike rides, good restaurant meals, movies together), being engaged to an unbeliever (finding a menu, planning a big meal, looking at houses, lots of gifts), putting a marriage with an unbeliever (dressing up, seeing friends and family, eating well, maybe dancing), even enjoy a honeymoon with a non-believer (coffee shops, bike rides, good restaurant meals, but you can also have sex).
“To some degree, Christians date non-believers and marry them for lack of imagination.”
Imagine, for a moment, however, life after all that. Real married life, the ups and downs, the starts and the stops, the joys and the anxieties, is exceptionally difficult for a single person to conceive of, but I want you to try.
Imagine that seven years later, you suddenly become very ill and end up in the hospital. Worst-case scenarios are now real-life scenarios. Your spouse walks into your hospital room, grabs a chair, pulls it closer, holds your hand – and you can’t pray together. You just sit and watch and worry. Finally, he said, “It will be fine.
Imagine meeting God in his word one morning, being overwhelmed by his majesty and mercy – you are moved to tears – and then sharing that with your spouse and their face is blank. They are nice and happy to listen, but they cannot see or feel what you see and feel. They never share that kind of moment with you.
Imagine that you are arguing with your wife. Not an “I didn’t like the way you said that” fight, but an “I don’t want to stay with you anymore” fight – and you don’t have the gospel between you. She doesn’t believe that God brought you together. She doesn’t believe she made any promises before God. She doesn’t believe there are consequences beyond this lifetime.
Imagine trying to teach your children about Jesus – read the Bible with them, pray with them, sing with them – and he’s still sitting in the other room. He only goes to church at Christmas and maybe Easter. Imagine your children seeing, day after day, that dad doesn’t believe what mom keeps telling us. Imagine how disorienting that would be.
Imagine having to make another impossible decision about a home, a loan, your child’s education, or an extended family crisis — and you don’t have a single shared verse to lean on. You can’t hear God together, because she doesn’t believe God is speaking. The Bible is just another good book on a shelf with many other good books.
These are just a few of the hundred scenarios where faith in God changes everything for a marriage – where “in the Lord” suddenly really matters. I suspect sincere Christians get the idea of marrying an unbeliever because they can’t yet imagine what marriage will really be like. For the believer, a marriage without God would be a life without sun, a sail without wind, a love without true love.