Is it okay to be romantically involved with an unbeliever? Ask a passionate, believing adolescent who has fallen victim to Cupid's religiously indiscriminate arrow, and you will get a different answer than if you ask an ascetic pastor of thirty years.
Or ask the believing wife of an unbelieving husband, and you will receive a different response than if you ask someone whose wife converted to Christ before marriage. Even our own reply to this question may change over the years.
There was a time when I thought it would be a cruel and unusual punishment if we could not exercise our free will to date anyone we chose. But over the years, I began to see that our true misfortune would be to have an unbelieving partner and have to live with such fundamental differences with our loved one.
Despite the variety of our responses, the Bible is quite clear about this issue. Throughout the Old Testament, the Lord commanded His chosen people not to intermarry with foreigners "because they will surely turn your hearts to their gods" (1 Kg 11:2). After Jesus Christ opened the door of salvation to all people, the Scriptures continued to instruct believers to keep holy and be separate from unbelievers:
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? (2 Cor 6: 14-16)
God commands against intermarriage with unbelievers out of love for His chosen people. He wants His children to marry within the same faith so that a husband and wife will provide spiritual companionship, not hindrance, to each other on the lifelong journey toward the heavenly kingdom. Yet even though God's stance against the union of a believer and an unbeliever is definite, we often struggle with this command. What challenges do we face and how can we deal with them?
The Singles: "Not Enough Fish in the Water"
Many single believers claim with despair that "there is no suitable match for me in church," and use this complaint as a rationale to look for someone outside of church. If we inquire further, however, we quickly learn that while such believers will usually agree that there are available brothers and sisters in Christ, they feel that the available ones seem to fall short of their individual "ideal." It may be that they are not good-looking enough, their education is not high enough, or they are not wealthy enough. Perhaps their personality is not compatible enough, or they are not eloquent, fashionable, or humorous enough. The list goes on.
Is it true that among believers there are not enough fish in the water? Certainly, if we aim to build our relationship mainly on what man sees on the outside, then even an ocean-full of fish would not be enough.
In the story of the prophet Samuel anointing David as King of Israel, God instructed Samuel to go to the house of Jesse and anoint the one whom God had chosen. God did not tell Samuel ahead of time who that chosen one would be, and when Samuel arrived, even he, a prophet, initially mistook David's brother Eliab as the chosen one because of his height and appearance. What was God's response? "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Sam 16:7). In our search for our other half some of us make the same mistake that Samuel did: we base our choice on appearance and secular qualities, failing to recognize the match God has chosen for us.
The story continues: "Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, 'the Lord has not chosen these'" (1 Sam 16:10). Imagine the growing disappointment that Samuel felt as each son passed by and he did not see the right one. After the seventh one, there were no others in sight. Yet Samuel believed in God's words, so he asked Jesse if he had any other sons, and then waited for the least likely one to arrive, whom even his own father had overlooked. Samuel did not wait in vain because the one that came to him last was indeed God's chosen one, David.
This story shows us that we need to have enough patience and faith to wait for God's plan for our marriage to be realized. Sometimes we may begin to lose hope and faith in God after a couple of disappointments with potential matches. If only we could be like Samuel, who despite at first making the mistake of looking only at the appearance of Jesse's sons, was then able to sustain his faith and wait for God's will to come to fruition. Samuel did not face just one or two disappointments; he was disappointed seven times, yet he kept his faith because he knew that God does not lie. There are plenty of fish in the water, if only we recognize their true qualities and can wait patiently for the right one in God's time.
The Romantically Attached: "I Could Convert My Unbelieving Partner"
Those who are romantically involved with a nonbeliever have their own struggles. Many church members feel that there is nothing wrong with dating or marrying a nonbeliever because they may eventually "convert" their partner. They may even think that it is God's will for them to date an unbeliever as a way to bring one more person to the Lord. To support this view, these believers often cite successful examples of unbelieving partners converting to Christ before marrying a believer. As encouraging and heartwarming as these testimonies are, many people fail to recognize the special qualities of these examples.
For one thing, the believers in these testimonies hold fast to seeking God's will first. They do not pursue a relationship based on chemistry or personal preferences alone. First and foremost, they uphold God's commandment not to intermarry, and they resolve not to begin a relationship with anyone who does not show an interest or a potential to believe. When they sense that God is leading them to get to know a nonbeliever who is interested in seeking after the truth, they proceed with caution. They guard their hearts so that they will not fall in love first and then need to beg God to convert their significant other in order to prevent heartbreak. With each step they take, these believers always seek God's will and guidance before acting on their own desires.
Also underlying their actions is a tremendous amount of humility. These believers understand that they cannot convert their partners with charm or persuasive eloquence alone. They know that only God can move or change a person's heart. Consider King Solomon, who despite his immense wisdom, wealth, and power, could not convert his foreign wives to worship his one true God. Instead, these wives turned the heart of a great king to become unfaithful to the Lord (1 Kg 11:1-13). If a king could not convert his unbelieving spouses to the Lord and, worse yet, failed to maintain his faith because of intermarriage with them, how much more likely are we to falter spiritually if we are yoked with an unbeliever!
Certainly, there are times when God may work through our love relationship to bring our partner to Christ. But God's choice--not ours--is the key in determining who the unbeliever is. Following the footsteps of those in the "successful examples," we need to make it our goal always to seek God's will first and to let God show us the person we should date and marry. That means that if someone we are interested in or are dating is not taking positive steps to seek God, then we should not progress further with the relationship. Even if the person does show an interest in knowing God, we still need to follow God's will before our own. That may mean resolving to wait until our partner is baptized and has established his or her own faith before we get married.
The Intermarried: "A Different Breed"
Believers who are married to nonbelievers have some of the toughest struggles. Some may feel guilt-ridden and regret the choice they have made. Many suffer great agony from standing at odds with their loved ones regarding fundamental beliefs. Often, a spiritual battleground replaces the warmth and intimacy that we all desire at home. Explosive disagreements may rage over beliefs and values, or a pervasive sense of difference may bring a chilling estrangement among family members. Day in and day out, these believers are weighed down by a kind of cross that most brothers and sisters do not share. Consequently, many of these believers see themselves as "different," perhaps even as "second-class believers" in the church. What hope is there in this despairing state?
Apostle Paul encouraged those believers who intermarried with nonbelievers to stay with their spouses, "for the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy" (1 Cor. 7:14).
Paul's teaching is both uplifting and important. He did not instruct the believers to coerce their unbelieving spouse to seek God, nor did he encourage them to wallow in self-pity over their situation. Instead, he enlightened the believers about the sanctification of their spouses through them. In other words, he exhorted the believers to take heart and strive forward in their Christian walk and, through their Christ-like behavior, to inspire their unbelieving spouses to seek and come to know God, and therefore to become sanctified.
This is by no means an easy process. Years ago, it took my mother three consecutive years of morning fasting and prayer everyday, as well as several major events that bore witness to God's abidance, to bring my unbelieving father into the Christian fold. True to the words of the apostle Paul, through my mother's faith and resolve to put God's teachings into action, my father was able to see and experience God, and began the process of sanctification through baptism into Christ.
Believers who have intermarried with unbelievers often face another problem--without realizing it, many of us in church regard these believers as somehow different from us. At best we see them as weak in faith, while at worst we imprint a scarlet letter on their foreheads and consider them as fallen believers to the grave sin of intermarriage. With such attitudes, we often behave in ways that alienate these believers and their spouses from us. Out of prejudice or discomfort, we may fail to interact with them with genuine warmth and respect, or we may keep an uncaring distance from them. Rarely do we take the time to get to know them truly, to learn about the journeys they have taken, or to listen to their struggles. Not surprisingly, we often end up treating these believers and their loved ones as outsiders in the "family of Christ."
When a stirred-up crowd sought to condemn an adulterous woman, Jesus told them that whoever is without sin may cast the first stone. One by one the people left, until only Jesus and the woman remained (Jn 8:3-11). Often we behave just like the people in this crowd, ever so ready to see other people's faults. Yes, intermarriage is against God's teachings, but do we not all have sins and shortcomings, great and small? We lie, anger easily, and are unrighteous in countless ways before God. None of us is without sin, so who among us has the right to condemn those who are in an interfaith relationship? To those who would judge others, Jesus gave a stern warning: "Do not judge or you too will be judged . . . 'why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brothers' eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?'" (Mt 7:1-3).
Besides, judging our fellow brethren will only drive them away from church at a time when they most need the support and love of brothers and sisters to strengthen their beliefs. We should rejoice that God has kept them within the fold, giving us the opportunity to support them in their struggle and to pour out our love to them through prayers of intercession. As much as the believing spouses need to take up the cross to pray for their own faith and for their unbelieving partner, the church also needs to take up the cross of prayer for these brethren. It is this kind of loving act that will strengthen and sustain the faith of the believing partners and move God to extend His mercy and grace upon those who struggle with interfaith relationships.
Whether we are single, romantically involved with someone outside of church, or intermarried with a nonbeliever--or even if we are not actively struggling with this matter--the issue of interfaith relationships touches us all. Although we all know that interfaith relationships are against God's will, each of us must struggle with this command in our own way. Some battle against their misconceptions related to this teaching, while others live in despair from a choice they made years ago. Even those who appear not to have direct involvement with this issue may stumble by passing judgment on those who have intermarried. We may not have the same struggles, but weaknesses and imperfections are our common lot. With compassion, love, and prayers of intercession, we should strive to help each other overcome the various temptations and misconceptions that ensnarl us regarding the delicate matters of the heart.
"Love & Marriage" seeks to address and provide biblical advice on a wide range of questions and issues related to dating, singlehood, and marriage. If you have any comments or suggestions for this column, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.