I’m sure it’s not deliberate but if you split intermarriage into two words ‘inter’ and ‘marriage’ and put it into a thesaurus you get ‘lay to rest’ and ‘nuptials’. There’s something in that. A marriage between a believer and an unbeliever is a ‘Dead Wedding’. Tom Seidler, writing in Evangelicals Now once wrote a piece entitled, ‘Don’t Date a Corpse’. Graphic but accurate. A Christian is alive in Christ; a non-Christian is dead in sin. The idea of snogging a corpse is repulsive. I’ll stop there. But you can see where I’d be heading. We’d never dream of entering into a relationship with a decaying body so why would we think about marrying an unbeliever. This is an issue on which fine Christian women are unbelievably lame. They let their hearts rule their heads to disastrous effect. The wreckage often happens some way down the track and so they don’t think what lies ahead, often round the bend marked ‘children’.
If there’s an easy way to tell a couple that they’re about to enter into a marriage that God opposes, I haven’t found it yet. I’ve had to have that conversation more often than I’d choose. No one enjoys it. Least of all the non-Christian guy who can’t work out what he’s done wrong. He just assumes that the pastor thinks that he’s the devil incarnate because he’s stealing our fine Christian women. But my issue is never with the non-Christian bloke. Of course he’s attracted to a lovely Christian woman. My issue is with her. She’s the one doing what she shouldn’t be doing. It’s not his fault. It’s hers. But why do the girls keep on doing it?
‘Intermarriage’, or a believer marrying an unbeliever, has always been viewed prohibitively by the Bible. Deuteronomy 7:1-5 makes it clear that the reason for that prohibition is that unless we share the same ideology as our marriage partners there’s every likelihood that we’ll be led astray to idolatry. It’s not a racist thing, it’s a faith thing. God wasn’t saying non-Israelites were wicked; He was saying non-Israelites weren’t His. So they wouldn’t live His way and they’d influence others to follow suit. Faith in the God of the Bible and faith in anything else just doesn’t mix, never has and never will. And so when Ruth and Rahab marry into Israelite families no one bats an eyelid. And it’s not because the people of God had become compromising liberals. They realised that those two women had joined the faith. Solomon, on the other hand, failed to live his life by the Bible. 1 Kings 11:1-6 makes it unmistakably clear that the single biggest contributory factor in his desertion from the Lord was his love of foreign women. It wasn’t just his love of foreign women that proved his undoing, but their love of other gods. And so his heart was led astray to idols.
The New Testament takes a similarly negative view on intermarriage. Although not directly addressing the issue of marriage, 2 Corinthians 6:14&15 has massive implications for any couple contemplating a lifelong partnership. In these verses Paul depicts two oxen yoked together as they would be when ploughing a field or pulling a cart. He uses this illustration to show the incompatibility of a believer and an unbeliever entering into a binding relationship. His point is that it just doesn’t work if you’ve got two people wanting to go in two different directions. As my ESV Reformation Study Bible notes says, ‘The prohibition against being yoked together with unbelievers must be considered in situations where significant control over one’s actions would be willingly yielded to an unbeliever through a voluntary partnership of association’. Marriage, for example.
In 1 Corinthians 7:12-16 Paul discusses what happens when one of the marriage partners becomes a Christian. Whilst it’s not immediately applicable to the situation of a believer and an unbeliever contemplating marriage, it does highlight the sometimes insurmountable problems that one partner’s conversion can introduce. Ideally both the converted partner and the unbelieving partner stay. The believer isn’t defiled in any way by their ongoing sexual contact with the unbeliever. In fact it works the other way round. The unbeliever is made holy through their association with their believing spouse. That doesn’t mean that they’re converted. It just means that they’re ‘sanctified’ in the sense that they’re ‘set apart’ so that they get to see the gospel lived out in front of them. And so the unbeliever is better off than if they had no contact with a Christian whatsoever.
But in (39) of 1 Corinthians 7, Paul summarises his instruction to widows. And it’s here that his instruction about whom to marry is made most explicit. He’d prefer them to remain single but he permits them to remarry. The only limitation on thier choice of marriage partner is that they must be ‘in the Lord’. In other words, a Christian. But why does he repeat the Old Testament’s limitations? A moment’s thought reveals why. There’s a fundamental irreconcilable difference at the heart of a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever; namely faith in Christ. Since faith has implications we won’t be able to keep those differences suppressed for very long.
As I understand it, there are three major issues to face
1. The believer and the unbeliever serve different masters. The Christian lives for Jesus Christ. In our better moments, we’re all about him. What he thinks about things governs what we think about things, because he’s our Lord. The unbeliever, by definition, chooses not to submit to the lordship of Jesus Christ. It’s one thing to have a difference of opinion about a friend but it’s another to disagree about Jesus. With a common friend we usually ‘agree to disagree’ and choose not to see them together. But when a friend makes a daily pervasive intrusion into your marriage it becomes more problematic. Jesus is Lord of all, there is no part of our lives over which he does not declare ‘mine’. And that includes our marriages. When he’s pitching up every minute of every day then, to the unbelieving partner, he can feel like an unwelcome intruder. What tends to happen is that the Christian does one of three things. They either grow in their discipleship and mature as a Christian believer. But then a gap opens up in the marriage relationship as they take their faith more and more seriously and shape their lives under Chrst’s lordship. Or the Christian compartmentalises their faith so that Jesus is not allowed to intrude on the marriage. They become a private Christian and Jesus is relegated to the secre domain. Or the Christian cannot cope with the emotional angst that belonging to Christ causes their partner so they allow their faith to whither and die. Wonderfully I’ve known situations where the unbelieving partner has been converted. But it’s rare.
2. The believer and the unbeliever live in different ways. The believer will live a certain way because Jesus Christ is Lord and Saviour. And so what they choose to do, how they choose to do it and why they choose to do it will all be shaped by faith in Christ. Of course, if a marriage partner shares those convictions there’ll be no problems. But if they share those convictions across the board then they’ll be a Christian. The issues of how we spend our money, our time and our energy reveal what motivates us. And we’re hopelessly naive if we think that these differerences can be worked out without introducing an insurmountable degree of stress into a marriage. Take the issue of financial giving in the current economic climate. A Christian will cut back on expenditure on so called ‘luxury items’ in order to maintain a generous and sacrificial level of giving to their local church. It’s likely that an unbeliever may not take too high a view of the idea that his foreign holiday will be funding the Sunday School parties for the next year. Usually what we think about how we ought to live gets played out in our ambitions for our children. But far to few are thinking that far ahead. When Jonny is old enough to recognise that Dad doesn’t go to church because he thinks it’s a pile of tosh what do you reckon Jonny will do? It’s not rocket science. We need to think what will happen to the kids and how we raise them if we decide to marry a non-Christian.
3. The believer and the unbeliever are going to different destinations. This has to be one of the hardest things for the believer to live with each day. The Bible’s clear that where we spend our existence beyond the grave rests on the decision we make about Jesus Christ. The believer and the unbeliever have made different decisions. That disagreement couldn’t be more serious. The believer, if they take God’s word with any degree of seriousness, will know that their marriage partner is going to hell. And it’ll break their heart. As it should. Both partners have to live with that thought every day of their marriage. The believer wants, not only to pray for their partner each day, but to pray with their partner each day. And so whilst there may be much that unites a couple, whilst they may share many similarities and whilst many may regard them as eminently suitable for one another, if they don’t share the faith it’s what divides them that’ll be their undoing.
And so we’ve got to ask, why would anyone willingly and disobediently go into this situation? Why do we think that we know better than God on this? Why do we value our salvation so lightly that we’re prepared to flirt with spiritual danger? And what are we going to do when the people we love find themselves engulfed by this idolatry. For that’s what it is. When anything other than Jesus Christ has captured our hearts and occupies our aspirations we’re serving an idol. And that’s tragic. Not only is it wrong; it’s foolish. Our idols cannot save us and serve us the way that Christ can. It doesn’t matter who the unbelieving partner is and how wonderful they are; they can’t fulfil us the way that obediently serving Christ can. And so ditch the idol and turn to Christ. Entrust him with your happiness. He loves us no less than he did that on that first Good Friday when he died for our sins so that we could know fullness of life in him. We need to take him at his word. We really will be better off if we repent and believe.