I’m a pastor wondering what should be the course of action when a Christian knowingly marries an unbeliever. The believer was forewarned and went ahead with the union anyway. Now the marriage has been formalized. So how should we, the church, now respond?”
To answer this, let’s clarify how many layers of sinfulness there are when a professing believer rejects the counsel of the church elders and marries an unbeliever. I’ll just mention three layers. There are others, but this will help us feel the seriousness of it.
First, the professing believer is defying and rebelling against an explicit command of the New Testament of God. Paul says in 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 be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.” “Only in the Lord” means only to a person who is in the Lord — a believer, a follower of Jesus. So, if this teaching is made clear to the believer, and the believer rejects obedience to this command, she or he is acting in open defiance of the teaching of the apostles and of God.
Second, probably even more important, because it gets to the heart of the matter: a believer who chooses to marry an unbeliever shows how deeply compromised the believer’s love for Christ is. Jesus said, in essence, “Unless you love me more than you love your closest human loved one, you’re not worthy of me” (see Matthew 10:37). That’s an amazing claim that Jesus lays on our hearts. But if the believer enjoys the presence and the friendship and the intimacy of a Christ-rejecting person (boyfriend or girlfriend) more than the presence and the fellowship of Christ, their very faith and love for Jesus is in question by Jesus — not by me, but by Jesus. That’s the deepest issue.
How can the heart of a believer embrace Jesus as its supreme treasure and satisfaction, and reject the words of Jesus in order to be in the arms of one who has no faith and no true affection for the believer’s most treasured possession? It’s inconceivable to me. I’ve always found that incomprehensible. Something is deeply, deeply wrong with the heart’s affection for Christ. That’s the second layer of sinfulness.
And third, if faithful leaders in the church have lovingly explained God’s will based on God’s word to the believer, and have told the believer not to move forward with this illicit marriage out of obedience to Christ, then the marriage is not only rebellion against the explicit biblical command and not only a revelation of an idolatrous heart that puts a human above Christ in the affections, but also a spurning of the authority of the elders, which God gave to protect the sheep from sin.
Now that’s the situation, and I start there so that the rest of what I have to say will sound appropriately serious.
My answer is that the elders plead, they pray, they teach, and then, if all of that is rejected, you remove the believer from membership in the church, for moving ahead with the marriage. The aim of this removal is to sober the disobedient believer, wake them up, and win them to a repentant and obedient heart and restoration.
Many people do not take the Bible seriously. They are baffled and angry by churches who take the Bible as seriously as I’m saying. Many professing Christians today would regard such excommunication as more hurtful than helpful. They call it intolerant; they even call it hateful. But that’s because they elevate their own wisdom above God’s wisdom. They use the same reasoning for why we should not remove a person from membership that the disobedient person used to marry the unbeliever in the first place: Maybe the unbeliever will be won to Christ in this marriage. Maybe if you keep them as members, or keep one of them as members, the other will be one.
And the parents — oh my — of the excommunicated person, or friends, if they’re not seriously biblical, will argue that you won’t be able to win them to Christ by putting them out of the church. They’re going to get angry. The unbeliever will call you intolerant and hateful, claiming it won’t be redemptive but will be alienating. That’s what they are going to say. That’s what elders have to be prepared to hear.
That’s emphatically not what the Bible teaches. In 2 Thessalonians 3:14–15 and in 1 Corinthians 5:4–5, Paul holds out the possibility and the desire that by means of such holy ostracism, people will, in fact, be saved and restored. In fact, I have seen church discipline have that very effect in my ministry. Church leaders have to be prepared to be vilified by people who think they know better than the apostles how to love people.