By Timothy Sparks
Some believe that while it is not a perfect situation for a believer to pursue marriage to an unbeliever, God nevertheless favorably accepts such a union. Some also acknowledge that a believer’s pursuit of marriage to an unbeliever is unwise or foolish, but nevertheless not sinful. Passages such as 1 Cor. 7:12-13 and 1 Pet. 3:1-6 are given as evidence. Also, it is pointed out that there is a chance that the unbeliever could obey the gospel: “For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Cor. 7:16, NASB).
In many of the situations Paul and Peter were addressing, couples had married while both were unbelievers. What is to be done when one spouse becomes a Christian? Both Paul and Peter make it clear that the believer is not to abandon the unbelieving spouse but is to try to save the unbeliever with the message of the gospel.
However, what does God reveal concerning marriage for a believer who is not yet married? We should recognize a couple of Paul’s statements within 1 Corinthians where it is clear he is addressing consideration of marriage for the believer:
(1) “A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39, NKJV). The phrase “in the Lord” is important and can easily be shown to be synonymous with “in Christ” (see “In the Lord”).
(2) “Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?” (1 Cor. 9:5, NKJV). The word rendered “right” is the word exousia (“authority”). The word translated “believing” is adelphē (“sister”). What is the meaning of “a sister, a wife”? Clearly, the meaning is a sister in Christ as wife, a believing wife; one who is “in the Lord.” Paul only envisions that God is authorizing marriage between a brother in Christ and a sister in Christ.
In the second letter to the Corinthians Paul says, “Do not become unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14). [Inquiry has been made about the translation “do not become.” For two translations of “do not become” see Young’s Literal Translation: “Become not yoked with others — unbelievers” and Bible Hub’s interlinear: http://biblehub.com/interlinear/2_corinthians/6-14.htm.] Μὴ (mē, “not”) with an imperative (“do become”) becomes a prohibition = “Do not become.” Here the prohibition is generic: in whatever way God’s people may become unequally yoked with unbelievers, do not do that. “Unequally yoked” is translated from ἑτεροζυγέω (heterozygeō).
Rengstorf says, “The word is a further construction from ἑτεροζυγος, ‘unequally yoked’ (so Lv. 19:19; Phil Spec. Leg. IV, 203 in the prohibition of mating animals under a different yoke, i.e., of a different species like the ass and the ox), and is not found prior to 2 C. 6:14. ἑτεροζυγος gives us the meaning of the verb, namely, ‘to go under one and the same yoke with someone else even though one does not have the requisite presuppositions.’ In 2 C. 6:14 the word describes figur. the abnormal situation which results when Christians in their conduct follow the rules of the world, which knows nothing of what is given to the community: μὴ γίνεσθε ἑτεροζυγοῦντες ἀπίστοις . . . Paul leaves us in no doubt that when this happens the community ceases to exist as such, even though it continues to do so in outward form (cf. v. 15ff.).”1
Paul first gives a generic, nonspecific prohibition: “Do not become unequally yoked with unbelievers” and then a generic statement, “what partnership is there between righteousness and lawlessness or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14). He continues with general questioning, “what harmony has Christ with Beliar [the personalization of evil] or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” (2 Cor. 6:15). Paul continues with another question, “what agreement has a sanctuary of God with idols?” (2 Cor. 6:16). Some believe that Paul only has actual idols in mind in verses 16 and 17. However, Paul started with “unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14) and his question prior to verse 16 was concerning what a believer has in common with an unbeliever (2 Cor. 6:15). Paul makes a generic appeal when he states, “Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1, NASB).
Considering the context before and after verses 16 and 17, Paul addresses believers’ unequal yoking with unbelievers in a general way in 2 Cor. 6:16-17. God lives in the believers and the believers must withdraw from everything that is incompatible with God’s holiness. In other words, as previously stated, in whatever way believers may become unequally yoked with unbelievers, they are commanded not to do so. Some have pointed out that marriage is the closest yoking possible, but others deny any application of 2 Cor. 6:14 to the pursuit of marriage to an unbeliever. However, the generic prohibition “do not become unequally yoked with unbelievers” has a wide range of applications for the believer.
Addressing the view above (as stated in the opening paragraph), God will “accept such a union” in that God will join a believer to an unbeliever (Mt. 19:6). It is possible for a believer to become unequally yoked with an unbeliever, but it is a violation of God’s will (2 Cor. 6:14). Just as Israel rejected God in choosing a king (1 Sam. 8:7) but could not undo their decision once it was granted (yet needed to seek God’s forgiveness for their sin, which they eventually did, 1 Sam. 12:19-20), so a believer who chooses an unbelieving spouse rejects God’s will concerning the matter. Once joined by God, no attempt is to be made to undo it (Mt. 19:6). The believer should seek God’s forgiveness for violation of God’s will and is to try to save the unbelieving spouse with the gospel.
If people acknowledge that it is an unwise or foolish choice for believers to pursue marriage to unbelievers, then notice Paul’s prohibition: “Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of your time, because the days are evil. So then do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is” (Eph. 5:15-17, NASB). Paul uses two imperatives (commands): “do not be foolish” and “understand what the will of the Lord is.” It is a violation of God’s will for believers to be foolish, but God is willing to forgive such a violation. We avoid becoming foolish by understanding the Lord’s will.
Another verse that gives guidance is Mt. 6:33–“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” How can one seek first God’s kingdom when he/she is seeking to marry a person not even in God’s kingdom? If a person is seeking to marry a child of the devil, how is that person drawing closer to God? “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (Jas. 4:8).
Genuine truth seekers who care deeply about spiritual matters will consider seriously, “What does God want me to do?” and “What is right with it?” rather than “Is it a sin?” or “What’s wrong with it?” When we approach the study of God’s Word with the right attitude, we are more receptive to God’s will and to what God authorizes.
1Karl Heinrich Rengstorf, “ἑτεροζυγέω,” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, trans. and ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1964), 901.
See also Wayne Jackson’s article (which I became aware of after publishing this article). He has additional research worth investigating: Should a Christian Marry Outside the Faith?.