The Christian life is a radical thing. It is about having one all-consuming purpose, which is to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Biblical teaching on following Jesus
Jesus Himself told us:
‘If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself and pick up his cross daily and follow Me.’ (Luke 9:23).
He also said:
‘. . . none of you who does not give up all his possessions can be My disciple.’ (Luke 14:33)
And He even went so far as to say:
‘If someone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.’ (Luke 14:26).
None of these sayings is meant to be taken strictly literally. But they show clearly that following Jesus is a radical, all-encompassing thing.
Similarly, the apostle Paul set us a precedent when he stated:
‘For to me, living is Christ . . .’ (Philippians )
He also said:
‘And whatever you do in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus . . .’ (Colossians )
Like Jesus, then, Paul clearly believed that the Christian life should be about giving our all for Christ.
Nor do any of the other biblical writers lead us to think that the life of a believer is anything less radical than this. Basically, normal Christian living is about using 24 hours of every day to do the will of God to the best of our ability, and then doing the same the next day, and so on.
The decision to marry someone
When it comes to the decision of a Christian to marry someone, this decision needs to be made as part of the goal of living only for Jesus. If marrying a certain person looks as if it will enable a believer to do this better, it is to be welcomed. But if it looks as if it will make living for Jesus more difficult, it needs to be avoided.
It should therefore be obvious that the idea of a Christian marrying a non-Christian is deeply problematic. If someone’s goal in life is to live only for Christ, how can there not be massive problems when that person joins their life at the most intimate level with someone who doesn’t share this goal?
2 Corinthians 6
It comes as no surprise, then, that the Bible strongly implies that Christians shouldn’t marry non-believers. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 are especially relevant here:
‘14 Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what partnership do uprightness and lawlessness have? Or what fellowship does light have with darkness? 15 What harmony does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? 16 And what agreement does the
have with idols? For we are the temple of the living God, as God said: templeof God
“I will live in their midst and walk among them, and I will be their God and they will be my people. 17 Therefore, come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord, and do not touch what is unclean. Then I will welcome you 18 and I will be a Father to you and you will be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”’
What Paul says in this passage about not being unequally yoked with unbelievers surely applies in part to marriages between Christians and non-Christians. It would be a very unnatural interpretation that excludes marriages from what he is saying.
We should not hesitate to say, then, that Paul is strongly implying that Christians should avoid marrying non-Christians. And, given the radical nature of what it means to follow Jesus, this is exactly what we would expect the Bible to teach. (Verse 17 doesn’t mean that Christians who are already married to non-believers must leave their spouses. See 1 Corinthians 7:12-13.)
The experience of Christians
The value of this teaching can be seen time and time again in churches. Those believers who are married to non-Christians often have a terribly difficult time living out their lives as followers of Christ. Either they do try to live for Him alone, and this leads to great hostility from their husband or wife. Or, frequently, they end up compromising on their discipleship.
In fact, Christians should not only avoid marrying non-believers, but they should also avoid marrying believers who are not serious about giving their all for Jesus. Being married to a half-hearted Christian is almost certain to hinder someone’s walk with Christ.
The threat of death
Although, as a general rule, it is a grave mistake for a Christian to marry a non-believer, it makes sense to think that there are rare circumstances when this is actually God’s will.
I am thinking especially of situations where the alternative involves a real danger of being murdered. There are well-attested accounts of this from the Muslim world.
What sometimes happens is the following:
A teenage girl from a Muslim family becomes a Christian. Her father nevertheless arranges for her to marry a young Muslim man. She refuses, and the father then threatens to kill her unless she backs down. Finally, when the girl continues to refuse, the father makes good on his threat.
No one should doubt that murders of this sort do take place. These are so-called ‘honour killings’, which are well-documented both in some Muslim countries and in the Western world.
I think that in at least most situations of this kind it would be the will of God for the girl to agree to marry a non-Christian if she believes there is a genuine threat to her life. It is true that her ability to achieve things for Christ will probably be very hindered by her marriage. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that refusing to marry a non-believer is typically something that is worth being martyred for.
Perhaps God may at times want a girl in this sort of situation to become a martyr. However, I think these girls should marry the non-Christians unless they believe God is specifically telling them to do otherwise.
I should stress that I am talking here only about death threats over potential marriages. I am not saying that Christians who are threatened with martyrdom for other reasons should usually make concessions until the threat is removed. For example, Christians must never deny that they are believers in Christ (see, e.g., Matthew -33), even if it costs them their lives.
We must never compromise on the will of God. However, I am sure that in some circumstances when Christians are threatened with death, it is God’s will for them to back down. And I would suggest that death threats over potential marriages often fall into this category.
Other exceptional circumstances
Other than for the purpose of avoiding being murdered, I think there may be other, very rare situations in which it might be God’s will for a Christian to marry a non-Christian. But there would need to be a very good reason indeed for doing something that on the face of it would be so harmful to Christian discipleship.
In the vast majority of situations, marrying a non-Christian would be a terrible mistake for a Christian to make. Our goal in life is to give our all for Jesus, and our decisions need to be made with this in mind.