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.
Don't Ask for Trouble
Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former editor at The Wall Street Journal, is author of 'Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America.
David Slagle, the pastor of a small evangelical church in Atlanta, told me the story of a woman in her late 20s. The woman had befriended a man living in her apartment complex.
Slagle and his wife inquired whether the two were dating. "No. We're just hanging out," they were told. The man was an ardent atheist, so the young woman announced, "I'm not going to date him. He's just a good friend. I could never date someone who didn't value what I value ultimately." A few months later, she announced that they were dating, but she would not get engaged to him "unless he becomes a Christian." A few months after that, Slagle says, she "did an about-face on that one too."
The story is hardly uncommon. According to a survey I commissioned in 2010 of 2,500 married Americans, about 42 percent of marriages today are between people from two different faith traditions. This is an all-time high. While this has resulted in unprecedented tolerance and assimilation in American society, it has also created problems for religious communities and for marriages. Partners in interfaith marriages are generally less satisfied with their relationships than those in same-faith marriages.
When I looked at the religious tradition of respondents, I found that the biggest gap in marital satisfaction was for evangelicals married to nonevangelicals. About 30 percent of evangelical Christians are married to someone of another faith. Roughly one third of all evangelicals' marriages end in divorce, and that climbs to nearly half for marriages between evangelicals and nonevangelicals.
What is it about being "unequally yoked" that produces these consequences? It is not that interfaith couples spend some significant part of their lives arguing about doctrine.
In my survey, interfaith couples did not report disagreeing about religion very often. Rather, the practices and rituals are more likely to affect our day-to-day lives and therefore our marriages. Religion informs how we spend our time, how we spend our money, where we decide to live, and how we raise our children. Disagreements over such issues can lead to unhappiness and divorce. But like Slagle's acquaintance, many of us are less and less "intentional" about marriage.
As the average age of marriage rises, we spend more and more time in a kind of religious netherworld, away from our families, away from our churches and synagogues. We meet our mates at a point in our lives when we are most secular. Faith is a tricky thing, though, and it sneaks up on people. The death of a loved one, the birth of a child, the loss of a job, a move to a new city—all of these things can give people a desire to return to the faith of their childhood. Some people will pursue that desire, occasionally to the detriment of their marriage. Others will suppress that desire for the sake of their marriage and thwart their own spiritual journey.
Yes—For the Unwed
Russell Moore is president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
I recently read an interview with a Christian woman who had lived many years in a lesbian relationship before her conversion.
Accepting a Christian sexual ethic, she left her partner. She mentioned that, quite often, she would find herself asking the homeschooling mothers in her new church home, "I gave up my girlfriend for this. What have you given up?" Her question is a good one.
There were probably many in that congregation who gave up certain long-term relationships because they believed that believers should marry only other believers. If you asked a randomly chosen Christian why a believer should marry only another believer, he or she would most likely repeat Scripture: "Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers" (2 Cor. 6:14, esv). But the unique application of this passage to marriage is what is helpful, because of the unique ways that marriage binds two people together.
The intimacy in a marriage is more than a contract. In a mysterious sense, the two become one—not only physically but spiritually as well. The apostles also affirm the marriage bond when they maintain a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever is still a marriage. That's why Paul and Peter command believers to stay with their unbelieving spouses. This hardly commends initiating such marriages in the first place. Indeed, the word of the church, through the apostles, to these situations is itself a demonstration of why a Christian-unbeliever marriage is an "unequal yoke." In the New Testament, the marriages of God's people are the business of the new covenant assembly.
Marriage is not a merely social or biological construct, but an icon of the union between Christ and the church. Both husband and wife are held accountable to the community for the marriage itself.
But in a marriage of a believer to an unbeliever, the church has authority and discipling capacity over only one party. Without the indwelling Holy Spirit and the reign of Christ through his Word, only one party is able to live out explicitly the picture of the gospel embedded in the marriage.
A marriage of a follower of Christ to an unbeliever impedes the intimacy of a union that, from the beginning, was intended to be about a common mission under the rule of a common King (Gen. 1:27–28).
We live in the world as it is, and we love our unbelieving neighbors. Christians are going to be drawn toward some of those unbelievers and wish to join themselves to them in marriage. That's where the church should graciously speak the hard word that marriage isn't just about romance, but about gospel and mission. Some will hear this and go away angry or saddened. But some will hear in these hard words the voice they heard at the very beginning of their call to Christ: "Take up your cross and follow me."