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#19 Marrying a Non-Christian

August 26, 2007

Dr. Craig,

In your article on failure, which I otherwise find excellent, you state that marrying a non Christian is a sin:

"By failure in the Christian life, I mean a failure in a believer's relationship and walk with God. For example, a Christian might experience disappointment and failure due to a refusal to heed God's calling, or by succumbing to temptation, or through marrying a non-Christian. Failure of this type is due to sin. It is essentially a spiritual problem, a matter of moral and spiritual failure."

I would like to know how you can be so certain that marriage to non believers is sinful.

Certainly I can think of no instance of Christ saying any such thing. Paul's command to "be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers" obviously refers to "infidels" (idol worshippers, for example) rather than an agnostic struggling for faith.

I personally believe that the telling word here is "unequally" -- certainly a Christian should never submit his or her belief to that of the non believer. And if Paul were speaking strictly of marriage in 2nd Corinthians then he has clearly contradicted the statement in 1st Corinthians:

"But to the rest speak I, not the Lord: If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband."



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Dr. craig’s response


As you rightly surmised, Judith, I’m thinking of Paul’s directives in II Cor. 6.14ff. I think we’d agree that to consciously do something contrary to a scriptural command is sinful. As James says, “Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin” (Jas. 4.17). So the only question is whether Paul does command Christians not to marry non-believers.

Look, then, at what Paul says: “Do not be mismated with unbelievers” (v. 14). What could be clearer? The word here for unbeliever is apistos, someone who is without faith. To be sure, most unbelievers would at that time also have been involved in the worship of pagan deities (I Cor. 10.27). But apistos doesn’t mean “idolater.” The word for idolater is eidololatres (I Cor. 6.9). An unbeliever is anyone who lacks saving faith, including but not limited to idol worshippers.

Take a look at how Paul uses the word “unbeliever” elsewhere in his letters. Notice how in I Cor. 14.22-25 he uses “unbeliever” as synonymous with “outsider,” someone who stands outside the Christian community. In I Cor. 6.6, in prohibiting lawsuits between Christians, Paul is scandalized that disputes should be taken before unbelievers rather than before Christian brethren. In I Cor. 7.12-13 he addresses the situation of someone who has a spouse who is, as you note, an “unbeliever,” that is, who is not saved (v.16). I think it’s evident that an unbeliever is someone who lacks saving faith and so is not part of the body of Christ.

Is there, then, a contradiction with Paul’s commands in I Cor. 7.12-16? Not at all! Paul is speaking there to couples who were both unbelievers but one of whom has since become a Christian and so finds himself or herself with an unbelieving spouse. That this is the situation is evident in Paul’s overriding principle, also applied to slaves and uncircumcised, “Let everyone lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him and in which God has called him (v. 17). “Everyone should remain in the state in which he was called” (v. 20). So if you were married when you were called, Paul tells you not to leave your non-believing partner. Stay married, just as you were when called to follow Christ, unless the unbelieving partner desires to separate.

But Paul prohibits Christian believers to marry unbelievers. Why? In II Cor. 6.15 he says: “ Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?” One might be tempted to answer Paul’s question, “Well, we’re both really into sports and the outdoors” or “We both love finance and business.” But Paul would have regarded such an answer as betraying an utter lack of understanding of the marriage union. For Paul common faith in Christ was central to the marriage relationship. Take that away and you’ve taken the heart out of the marriage. That so few of our marriages between Christians today exhibit the centrality of Christ is shameful testimony to the extent to which we have become assimilated to the world’s view of marriage. It's little wonder, then, that divorce rates among Christian couples is as high as among non-Christians?

It’s been my privilege to be married for over thirty years to a woman whose first and foremost love is to know and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. Our common desire to know and serve him has bound us tightly together. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be married to someone who didn’t share that common first love. It has seen us through the ups and downs of life.

I don’t know your personal situation, Judith, but if you’re contemplating marrying a non-believer, I’d urge you not to do so, no matter how much you love him. Obey God, give Him time to work in your boyfriend’s heart, and in the meantime strive to become the woman that Christ wants you to be, as his character is formed in you.

On the other hand, if you’ve already married a non-believer, then you should confess your sin, claim the Lord’s forgiveness, and then obey scriptural commands on how a believing wife married to a non-Christian should deport herself (I Peter 3. 1-6).

- William Lane Craig