I think you're asking the wrong question here. The real question should be, "Why would you want to marry a non-Christian?"
God's vision for marriage is that of a place where a "culture of two" is created. Marriage is about sharing our lives, and about the "oneness" that emerges from that shared culture. Marriage becomes the central situation in which we grow to become what God intends us to be, the context in which we also lovingly raise our children to know him.
A great marriage becomes a place of shelter, hope, and strength during difficult times, and a place of deep joy and thankfulness to God for all the goodness we experience. In my marriage, our shared belief in God provides a bedrock for the shared values that define our relationship and our family.
In light of God's vision for marriage, the question, "Is it a sin to marry a non-Christian?" reflects a willingness to settle. Marrying a non-Christian may, in the short run, bring satisfaction. But over time it's most likely to become a source of pain, given that your marriage can't be centered on Christ.
I know many women who now deeply regret their decision to marry a non-Christian. Most still love their husband, but they miss so much of what God intended their marriage to be. And if children are involved, the complications and heartaches in these marriages are even greater. One girlfriend's husband has asked her not to read Bible stories to their kids, or to pray with them. Any time she mentions God, he counters that God is a fantasy. Such comments from a father have a powerful impact on his children.
In his terrific book, Finding the Love of Your Life, Neil Clark Warren writes that each thing we have in common with our spouse adds tremendous value to our marriage. A shared faith in God through Jesus Christ should be at the top of our short "non-negotiable" list of what we're looking for in a potential spouse. That's not a guarantee of a great marriage, but it's a smart place to start.
In answer to your question, yes, I do think it's a sin to marry a non-Christian. In 2 Corinthians 6:14, the apostle Paul says, "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers." Eugene Peterson, author of a paraphrase of the Bible titled The Message, puts that same verse this way, "Don't become partners with those who reject God." Marriage is certainly a partnership, and when God says "don't" and we do, that's a sin.
But I also think the sin of marrying a non-Christian differs from a sin such as anger, which is something I might engage in daily. My guilt with that sin is ongoing. Once you've married someone who isn't a believer, I don't think God tallies that sin for every day of your marriage.
Knowing this, some women might be tempted to say, "OK, I get that this is a sin, but I really love this guy … and I'm not getting any younger … so maybe I'll just marry him, and then by the next day, it won't be a sin anymore." But remember, God's command not to be "unequally yoked" is there for your own good. God will certainly forgive you, and he can certainly redeem even the most broken of marriages, but you'll still have to live with the consequences of your decision.
Ultimately, choosing to wait is really a matter of faith. Of not settling. Of trusting God to sustain you, husband or no husband. And of sharing God's vision for marriage.
Nancy Ortberg is a church leadership consultant and popular speaker. Formerly a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL, she now lives in California with her husband, John. The couple has three children, Laura, Mallory, and John.
Copyright © 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.