Of all the Christians who start dating a nonbeliever, how many of them planned to do so?
I suspect few Christians set out to intentionally date (much less marry) a nonbeliever. The question really isn’t all that controversial in theory. Would anyone who genuinely loves Jesus sincerely prefer to marry someone who doesn’t? No, but when the question comes, it’s not theoretical anymore. By the time he or she is asking about dating “a nonbeliever,” the nonbeliever already has a name, a story, often an attractive face and a good sense of humor.
When we set out to marry, of course we want to marry another believer. We want to read the Bible together, pray together, go to church together, serve together. But for a variety of reasons, believers often struggle to find the right man or woman. For one, people are getting married later, which means many are having to look harder or wait longer. Combine that with apps and websites that multiply the competition hundreds of times over, and people are pickier and slower to settle down. Also, some Christians have already had bad experiences dating Christians.
Considering this, it really shouldn’t surprise us that some believers entertain the idea of dating outside the church. There’s more to choose from, and you can still have some things in common. In fact, it may seem at first like you have more in common with the non-Christians online or in your class than you do with the single people you see each Sunday.
But this isn’t what you wanted, is it? This wasn’t Plan A, or B, or even C. You’re here because you’ve run out of good plans. I’m writing to encourage you to press on and not settle for a bad one.
Only in the Lord
When it comes to dating nonbelievers, the verse that often immediately comes to mind is 2 Corinthians 6:14: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” It’s certainly relevant to our question (and we’ll come back to it in a moment), but the verse isn’t narrowly about marriage. No, probably the clearest one-verse answer is more often over-looked, 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.
The verse might seem obscure at first, but it wasn’t for the apostle Paul. After addressing various circumstances in which followers of Jesus might marry (or not), he lands with a smaller, but precious group in the church: women who have lost a husband. It would be careless to assume, however, that what he says in verse 39 only applies to widows (as if the not-yet-married were free to marry outside the Lord). No, if a Christian decides to marry, he or she is free to marry whom he or she wishes, but only in the Lord.
That phrase tucked into the end of Paul’s counsel to single believers is written in large capital letters across his letters. To begin this letter, he writes, “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus. . . .” (1 Corinthians 1:2). And he ends the letter on the same all-important note: “My love be with you all in Christ Jesus. Amen” (1 Corinthians 16:24). In his second letter to the same church, he writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
More than 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 tag onto his counsel about marrying wisely; it was his whole world. In his mind, we do everything we do — especially our major commitments and callings — in the Lord. For a Christian, there’s simply no other place to be, much less marry.
What Should a Marriage Say?
The phrase “in the Lord” was filled with meaning in another way, though. First, a Christian does everything he or she does in Christ — how much more so marriage? But then second, marriage is uniquely designed to unveil what it means to live in Christ. This love, of all human loves, was patterned after the love between him and the church.
“A man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:31–32)
Most marriages in the world lie about Christ and the church. Husbands don’t sacrifice for their wives (Ephesians 5:25). They don’t read the words of God themselves, much less wash their marriages in them (verse 26). They don’t pursue holiness or encourage it in her (verse 27). They don’t delight in her like Jesus delights in us (verse 33). And many wives will not submit to the husbands God has given them (verse 22). They don’t respect their groom or support his callings (verse 33). And so their marriages slander the story they’re meant to tell. Their love warps and mangles God’s masterpiece.
When Paul says, “Marry in the Lord,” he’s saying, “Tell the truth about Christ and the church.” Say with your marriage what marriage was meant to say. Marry in a way that sheds light on God and his glory, sin and grace, the cross and tomb, heaven and hell — rather than clouding them like so many do.
Are We Unequally Yoked?
Now let’s look at the (somewhat strange) text that often immediately comes to mind first when we talk about dating or marrying nonbelievers:
Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God 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 over two animals pulling the same cart. If the animals were mismatched (say an ox and a donkey, Deuteronomy 22:10), the one will be led astray by the other. So it is with a soul, Paul says. He’s warning the church about dangerous relationships and alliances. In this case, those dangerous alliances were forming within the church against his message and ministry. It’s still a good verse for discouraging someone from marrying a nonbeliever, but perhaps not in the way we expect.
So why do we come here to talk about marriage? Because no yoke is weightier or more influential — for better or worse — than marriage.
Marriage Could Cost Everything
Who you marry will likely shape who you become more than any other human relationship. If your husband runs from Jesus, you won’t be able to avoid the undertow of his lovelessness. If your wife runs from Jesus, you will live in the crossfire of her unrepentant sin. You may survive an unbelieving spouse, but only as through fire. Marriage under God would become a long and devastating war.
And, God warns us, you might lose your soul while fighting that war. That’s the clear warning in 2 Corinthians 6: Being yoked with the wrong kind of heart could cost you yours. We should be careful who we align ourselves with in the church, Paul says. How much more so in the bedroom, in the budget and schedule, in parenting and suffering, in the demanding trenches of everyday life? The wrong marriage really might ruin you. Therefore, Paul says a few verses later, “Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).
When you read a verse like this (in context), you realize we might be asking the wrong questions in dating. Instead of asking whether we can date a nonbeliever, we might start asking, how might I bring holiness to completion 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 degree, people date and marry nonbelievers because of a lack of imagination. It’s not really all that hard to imagine dating a nonbeliever (coffee shops, bike rides, nice meals out, movies together), being engaged to a nonbeliever (finding a menu, planning a big meal, looking at homes, lots of presents), putting on a wedding with a nonbeliever (dressing up, seeing friends and family, eating well, maybe dancing), even enjoying a honeymoon with a nonbeliever (coffee shops, bike rides, nice meals out, but you get to have sex too).
Imagine, for a moment, though, life after all that. Real married life, the ups and downs, starts and stops, joys and agonies, is unusually hard for a single person to conceive, but I want you to try.
Imagine that seven years in, you suddenly get very sick and end up in the hospital. The worst-case scenarios are now real scenarios. Your spouse walks into your hospital room, grabs a chair, pulls it close, holds your hand — and you can’t pray together. You just sit and stare and worry. Eventually he says, “Everything’s going to be alright.”
Imagine meeting with God in his word one morning, being overwhelmed by his majesty and mercy — you’re brought to tears — and then going to share that with your spouse and their face is blank. They’re kind and happy to listen, but they can’t see or feel what you see and feel. They never share that kind of moment with you.
Imagine getting in a big fight with your wife. Not a “I didn’t like how you said that” fight, but a “I don’t want to stay with you anymore” fight — and you don’t have the gospel between you. She doesn’t believe God joined you together. She doesn’t believe she made promises before God. She doesn’t believe there are consequences beyond this life.
Imagine trying to teach your children about Jesus — reading the Bible with them, praying with them, singing with them — and he always sits in the other room. He only goes to church for Christmas and maybe Easter. Imagine your kids seeing, day in and day out, 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, or a loan, or your child’s education, or a crisis in the extended family — and you don’t have a single shared verse to lean on. You can’t hear from God together, because she doesn’t believe God speaks. The Bible’s just another good book on a shelf with lots of other good books.
Those are a few of a hundred scenarios where faith in God changes everything for a marriage — where “in the Lord” suddenly really matters. I suspect sincere Christians entertain the idea of marrying a nonbeliever because they cannot yet imagine what marriage will really be like. For the believer, a marriage without God would be a lifetime without sunshine, a sail without wind, a love without true love.