Is Interfaith Marriage Always Wrong, Given that the Bible Teaches Us Not to Be 'Unequally Yoked'?
Not Always Wrong
Mark Regnerus is a sociologist at the University of Texas–Austin and coauthor of Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying.
No, interfaith marriage is not always wrong. But yes, avoiding being "unequally yoked" is an excellent biblical principle. The question itself requires more excavation.
Paul advised the Christians at Corinth to avoid entering significant relationships, such as marriage, with unbelievers. There you have it: Don't marry an unbeliever—that is, someone who doesn't share the basics of Christian doctrine and practice. As those who have been there can attest, raising the next generation of Christians is simply tougher when one parent is dragging his heels or openly balking. It can be done. I've seen praiseworthy spouses watch their mates come around to faith. But that's a rare outcome.
Genuine interfaith marriage is a challenge I don't recommend. But as marriage has shifted in purpose over time, many Christians have added layers of meaning onto Paul's wise command. "Unequally yoked" has evolved into a graded criterion for an optimal mate rather than a simple test for an acceptable one. This is a problem.
Why? Spiritual maturity is not equally distributed among men and women in the peak marrying years. Quality survey data reveal only two serious, churchgoing evangelical men for every three comparable women. Thus, one out of every three evangelical women is not in a position to marry a man who's her "spiritual equal," let alone "head."
This elevated standard now translates—for women, at least—to something like this: "Find that uncommon man who is your spiritual equal or leader, not to mention kind, virtuous, industrious, employed, and, if possible, handsome, and then figure out how to make him want to marry you." A tall order it is. As a result of the increasing "failure to launch," evangelicals find themselves saying lots of nice things about the benefits of singleness (which certainly do exist), but seem unwilling to move their boundary stones for marriage. Except that they have moved them, away from acceptability and toward ideals. It's not a surprising move, since marriage is far more voluntary and economically unnecessary for women (and men) today than it was as recently as 50 years ago.
The pressure we put on marriage to be fabulously great is at an all-time high. Marriage is slowly becoming something that only an elite will attain on a natural timetable connected to their height of fertility. Thus, this is not the time to further restrict supply by adding layers of spiritual qualifications. Marriage is a good thing—a school for sinners and a source of grace—and I don't wish for Christians to miss out on it except by their own active choice or vocational call.
Finally, what exactly is meant by interfaith? My family and I swam the Tiber a couple years ago, and we're no less Christian than we were before. I will, of course, prefer that my children marry fellow Catholics, but the distance between some traditions is further than between others.
What I don't recommend is a marriage to an unbelieving spouse, to one who professes an altogether different religion, or to an obstructionist who systematically places barriers in the way of your Christian development.
The Pauline "unequally yoked" standard is a good and biblical one for Christians. Adding layers of meaning to it? Not so much.