As a single Christian guy hanging around other single (and no-longer single) Christian guys, topics relating to (no pun intended) dating and relationships inevitably come up: How does one prepare for marriage? Is there a proper way to approach dating and if so, what is it? What qualities does one or should one look for? And so on. This is very different from the way popular culture approaches dating, where “culture” comprises non-Christians, immature Christians, Christians who’ve assimilated many of the cultural values, and Asian parents. (I am only half-joking about the last group.) One of the areas of conflict—and I don’t mean that as a physical or verbal altercation but as a contradiction in principles—that comes up is the question of exclusivity in Christian relationships: why must Christians marry (or date/court/pursue) other Christians?
Culture would have you believe that marriage is all about love, and that true love is independent of race, religion, and so on. This is a somewhat simplistic view. For one, attraction for many people depends on race, religion, or other qualities that are purportedly “different yet equal,” which opens up a whole can of worms regarding discrimination. I won’t expound on the topic here, because it is tangentially relevant, but it suffices to say that personal preference is a form of discrimination. In any case, if a “true love” (or soulmate, that is, someone destined for a particular person) exists, there is no reason to believe that destiny must be random: that is, that fate is blind to these qualities. The Christian’s viewpoint is that God who ordains all things would not go against His own principles (which will be discussed below) by providing a “true love” to a Christian who is not a Christian.
One of the most common counterarguments in the Christian arsenal is 2 Corinthians 6:14a: “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers.” In not-so-agricultural terms, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers.” The context is more general than marriage, for Paul reasons, “For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? […] What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?” (2 Corinthians 6:15). These were rhetorical questions to which the answers were obvious: Nothing. And because there is nothing in common between light and darkness, therefore, Christians should not be bound to unbelievers in any relationship in which the Christian may be forced to sin or tolerate the sin of the person to whom he is yoked. Some take this to be a strong argument against business partnerships with non-believers, but regardless, Paul had some relationship in mind when he said this. Using the lesser to greater argument, if it applies to some kind of relationship, how much more does it apply to the most intimate human relationship of all: that between a husband and a wife?
Elsewhere, in his prior letter to the Corinthians, Paul commands widows to marry within the community of believers should she choose to marry: “A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:39). It makes no sense that he would command this only to women whose husbands have died and not to women who have not yet married.1
In the history of Israel, one of the most prevalent and high-profile sins of the nation was the worship of idols: “‘Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols’” (Jeremiah 2:11).
What’s interesting is that this idolatry was tied to and a result of sexual immorality:
1While Israel was staying in Shittim, the men began to indulge in sexual immorality with Moabite women, 2who invited them to the sacrifices to their gods. The people ate and bowed down before these gods. 3So Israel joined in worshiping the Baal of Peor. And the LORD’s anger burned against them. (Numbers 25:1-3)
Sexual immorality aside, God had warned the Israelites even with regard to marriage:
3Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. (Deuteronomy 7:3-4)
Why was God so concerned about the Israelites? Because “you [Israelites] are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession” (Deuteronomy 7:6). Intermarriage outside God’s chosen people (who in the Old Testament times were ethnic Israelites, with a few exceptions) meant risking one’s worship of God. In the New Testament, God’s chosen people are all Christians—believers in and followers of Jesus Christ. The parallel then is clear, and so is the lesson: do not marry outside the family of believers because what’s at risk here is one’s devotion to God.
Marriage is significant. We see this because God uses the metaphor of marriage to describe His relationship with His people all throughout the Bible. I won’t quote them all, but take a look at Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 2 to get a picture of this imagery. God describes Himself as the husband and his people as his (adulterous) wife. Apostle Paul makes the connection between human marriage and the marriage between God and his Church in Ephesians 5:32. In the Gospels, Jesus referred to a wedding banquet in several of his parables. In Revelation 19, John describes the wedding of the Lamb (Jesus). It is clear that marriage is an important concept in the Bible.
Why does God use this analogy? For one, marriage is the most intimate human relationship we have, so it allows us on this side of death to get a foretaste of what perfect communion with God in heaven is like. It gives us an idea of the intimate knowledge and care that God has of His people by giving us a lifelong opportunity to learn about, love, and serve our spouses.
Because of its prominence in Scripture, how much more should we be very mindful when approaching a dating relationship that is (hopefully) directed toward marriage? And how much more should we be respectful of the sanctity of marriage itself? If we are to eat and drink and do all things for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31), how much more should our marriages be lived out for the glory of God?
Now we get to the question of the purpose of marriage. Yes, it is for reproduction: “Be fruitful and increase in number…” (Genesis 1:28), but that does not mean that it’s not for pleasure (Song of Solomon). As with eating and drinking, this pleasure is a gift from God, and therefore it ought to elicit gratitude and praise, which is glorifying to God (Psalm 69:30).
But glorifying God doesn’t come only in the form of thanksgiving from us. Living lives that are set apart for God also brings Him glory (or praise):
11Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. 12Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:11-12)
In other words, our lives should point to God and His infinite worth. Christians are not just nice people. In fact, some might not seem nice at all. But Christians are called to behave in such a manner that emphasizes the worthiness of worship of God. That’s what holy living is for.2
Sanctification (“Being set apart”)
If we know that we are called to live lives set apart from the world, does it then make sense to look for a lifelong partner that is of the world? Will there not be conflicts in all aspects of life? Let me give some examples of these points of contention.
Money. A Christian is called to give generously (Psalm 37, Psalm 112:5, Proverbs 11:25, Proverbs 22:9, 2 Corinthians 9:6, 1 Timothy 6:8), and this includes giving to the church to support its operations and staff (1 Timothy 5:17-18), to the needy (Acts 2:45). What would a non-believer think or how would she react if her partner donated say a large portion of her income to the church? A Christian is called to store up treasures in heaven and not where moth and rust can destroy (Matthew 6:19-20). But a non-Christian is bound to desire comfort and enjoyment if not luxury in this life. To the non-believer, this life is all there is, so it is only logical to make the most of it: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32).
Time. A Christian is called to worship God, to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17), to meditate on the Word day and night (Psalm 1:2), to serve and love the body (John 13:14), to do mercy ministry (Galatians 6:10), and to do good works for the world to see (Matthew 5:16). A Christian is called to trust in God and not work for one day (Exodus 20:8-11). All these things require much time; time that could be spent studying, working, advancing one’s career, or just having fun. What is the non-believer’s perspective on Christian works but that it’s a waste of time?3
Relationship with Spouse. The world loves the idea of self: self-improvement, self-esteem, self-love. But this makes it hard to love others, because when one loves oneself, one’s always competing and comparing; one’s always focused on one’s own needs, one’s own wants. When situations get tough, the self-lover naturally seeks to watch out for himself. And when a relationship gets tough, divorce seems such a simple a solution to protect the self. Some even think that divorce is beneficial because it is a “learning experience.”
But divorce, aside from being the coward’s way out, was also not part of God’s will since the beginning (Matthew 19:8). The Christian is called to endure suffering, to forgive not seven but seventy-seven times (Matthew 18:22), to take the initiative on reconciliation (Matthew, 5:23-24). The husband is called to give up his life for his wife, and the wife is to submit herself to her husband’s authority (Ephesians 5:24-26). These principles are totally counter to the practice of the culture (even if culture sometimes express admiration at their “nobleness”). How would a non-believing spouse comprehend any of this? This is why two strong believers are far less likely to be divorced, as they are more more willing to sacrifice for one another and reconcile their differences and submit to the Word of God, which commands against divorce.4
In a marriage between a Christian and a non-Christian, even without divorce, their two different worldviews will certainly clash. One place in which this is evident is death. The Christian view of death is one of hope and joy. Heaven is our home, and death is the attainment of that glorious destination. If a believer dies, his soul goes back to the Lord, and so we can be comforted by the fact that we will one day see him again. But if my (hypothetical) wife’s mother died, and if she were a believer, we could share that moment in joy, even as we grieve about missing her on earth. And if her mother were not a believer but my wife were, we would still have a mutual understanding that God is just after all, for He is the perfectly righteous judge (Psalm 9:8, Romans 2:2). But if my wife were not a believer and her mother also were not a believer, there would be no words of comfort. What could I say? I would be lying. Hell is a harsh place. And what would I say if my wife were to get cancer? Or what would she say if I were to get cancer?5
Children. A Christian is called to raise his children in the fear of the Lord (Deuteronomy 4:9, 11:19). A believer ought to take his children to worship with him, to teach him the truths of the Bible, and to instruct him to walk in the commandments of the Lord. But a non-Christian? “Work hard, get into a good school, get a good job, and become rich.” Is that not the American Dream? Is that not what every immigrant in the U. S. wants? Is that not what secular society seeks? But to a Christian, the school is not so important as pursuing righteousness, the job is not so important as moral character, and money is not so important as faith.
Moral choices. If you don’t think differences in belief regarding abortion, paying taxes, under-the-table transactions, or hospitality, just to name a few, are going to strain a relationship, you better think again. The Christian’s moral compass is Scripture. The non-Christian’s moral compass (if it exists) points to a different North. Consequently, their responses will be different in different moral situations. But if there is only one truth and one God, then there is only one response that is right. The gate to heaven is indeed narrow. And two people unequally yoked but having become one flesh will constantly be pulling one another in different directions.
In all these areas of life, I made generalizations about unbelievers, but these generalizations are the unbelievers’ logical responses to Christianity. It would be very difficult for an unbeliever to disagree with these points of view and remain logical. One either spends resources on eternal things or on earthly things. For someone who doesn’t believe in eternity, it is only logical to spend them on earthly things, which is in general not what a Christian is called to do. So here you can see the different yoke in action.
There is another problem I want to tackle in this piece, and that is “missionary dating,” the idea that perhaps in some way, by being in a relationship with a non-Christian, the Christian can lead him to Christ.
This is not what God has called us to even as we live out our roles as missionaries. Regeneration of the heart is through the Holy Spirit (John 3:8). The Christian has no guarantee that he will succeed in converting his partner (1 Corinthians 7:16). What happens if the unbeliever continues to reject the gospel? The believer is then stuck in a relationship with someone who hinders the work of God, unless the believer is willing break it off. Would you be willing? You’ve invested years in this guy or girl! And if you do decide to break off the relationship, you may feel that you’ve wasted valuable time. You could have been seeking a God-honoring relationship, and still had the chance to evangelize to this unbeliever!
And the more pernicious threat comes when you don’t even know if the unbeliever will be honest enough to draw a line. He could just be leading you on, to take advantage of you… so as long as he leaves the possibility of Christianity open, or so as long as he makes you believe that. And you will think, there’s always that chance, right? That one day, he or she will see the light, and turn to God…
But the Bible never uses romantic relationships as a vehicle for evangelism. If one is not willing to break off the relationship, then one has truly become yoked with the unbeliever, against which Paul issues a strong command.
Moreover, if you examine your motives for the relationship, was it not to obtain physical and emotional comfort? Or perhaps to “have fun” in the same way the world has fun? Was not evangelism just a rationalization? But we are called to seek refuge in the Lord (all over the Psalms) and not in worldly relationships.
Joshua Harris gives a very insightful response:
“Because of the topics that I’ve taught on in the past and the books that I’ve written, there have been so many occasions when I have encountered young men and women who are in a relationship with a person that is not a believer in Jesus Christ. And this seems to be in particular young women who will come, and they’ll talk about their desire to live for Jesus and to give their life to Him. But there’s this guy in the picture. And there is a relationship that has been formed, and there are affections, and there is a growing love for this person. But this person is going in the opposite direction from their Savior. And they’re often confused, and they’re often distraught and they often don’t know what to do. And when you quote the passage about not being ‘unequally yoked’—this kind of picture from agriculture and cows and stuff, just really isn’t doing anything for them. ‘Yoke. Cows. What? He’s so cute—what does that have to do with a cow, you know?’ And they’ll often have a desire to try to care for this guy. They don’t want to hurt his feelings. They think they can reach him with the gospel, and they’ll just stay in this relationship.”
“And what I say each and every time is: ‘You’re facing a choice. If you are truly a follower of Jesus Christ, then you must choose Jesus and you must turn your back on that guy. In fact, if you have a desire for him to see the reality of Jesus Christ, the most loving thing that you can do is show him that you are more committed to Jesus than you are to him. If you want to show that guy that God is real, then obey the God who is real and choose Him over this relationship —with a person that doesn’t know Him, doesn’t follow Him, doesn’t obey Him. Those are hard words, but those are the words of Jesus.’”
(Quoted from girltalk.)
To clarify, the words of Jesus being referred to in this excerpt are most likely, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Was Jesus saying we have to now literally hate our parents? Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:8 that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” No. What Joshua Harris was getting at in his sermon What it Costs to Follow Christ is that when we have to make a hard choice between Jesus and those we love on this earth, we have to choose Jesus, and that choice will offend people, even those you love, and they will perceive it as hate. So your choice for Jesus is like hating them in their eyes. And they might reject you, and hate you back for it. Such is the cost for following Christ.
There is one more aspect of relationships that I want to write about before I conclude. Throughout this piece, I’ve presented the case for being equally yoked almost in a disciplinary fashion: don’t be unequally yoked because God commands against it; don’t intermarry because of all the bad things it could lead to; marry a believer because if you don’t, you’ll have conflicts over lifestyle choices; respect God’s order and bring Him glory. I’ve presented arguments for responsibility.
But God is gracious. His commands are good, not only in the objective sense, but also in the sense that it’s good for us. God is not the Pharaoh described in Exodus 5:10-11, who tries to make the lives of His children miserable (Matthew 7:9-11). God does not delight in the suffering of His chosen people, though sometimes suffering is an act of discipline and a means of forging character. God makes promises to His people for their well-being (Ephesians 6:2-3).
And so, when we think about the topic of marriage, let us not neglect to consider God’s blessing in our patient pursuit of a godly mate. I emphasize patience, because so many Christians jump the gun and get into less-than-wise relationships, either with non-believers or with immature believers. But I think it’s worth the wait. Oh, to be able to talk deeply about things that matter, to be able to share in the ups and downs of ministry, to be able to pursue the knowledge of God together, to be of one heart and one mind as life presents its trials, to be deeply trusting of one another and of God together, to be able to pray for and with one another, to commune with God with the rest of the body of believers, to challenge one another with loving rebuke, to show faithfulness, to care, to gladly sacrifice for one another—this is my vision of what it’s like to be equally yoked, to be in a God-centered and God-exalting relationship. And I assert it is worth the wait: “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies” (Proverbs 31:10).
What do we say then? Okay, I’ll just stick to dating Christians. Is that it? Is that the lesson to be drawn? Let us not forget that marriage is an illustration of our relationship with God. The principles outlined here apply far more broadly than just to marriage. Not only is marriage a very weighty matter, but so is life. Marriage is just one facet, albeit a very important facet, of a life that must be brought into submission to Christ. For the reasons that it is nigh impossible for a believer to glorify God by pursuing an unbeliever, it is impossible to glorify God by valuing what the world values. We can only serve God or Money (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13). James 4:4 warns, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God.”6
When you’re like me, a guy in his mid-twenties who has never had a girlfriend in his life, and whose parents are Asian, the topic of conversation nearly always turns to one about relationships. One can only listen to “[Insert name here] is a nice girl. Why don’t you give her a chance?” so many times before one’s ears grow calluses and one becomes frustrated at their lack of understanding. If there is any requirement for my future wife, it would be that she be a mature Christian. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control are all outflowings from this faith—“fruit of the Spirit,” as the Bible calls them (Galatians 5:22-23). Does that mean I’ll be attracted to every sister in Christ? No, it simply means that if a girl were not a believer, I would not assume any possibility of marriage (being Christian is an issue of necessity and not necessarily sufficiency).
I’ve had my share of mistakes, if not played out in practice, at least in the form of desire. But I’ve come to see the wisdom that permeates the Bible, and wish to say with Job, though I am utterly unworthy to utter these words, “I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread” (Job 23:12).
1 Based on the command in verse 39, 1 Corinthians 7:12-14 would seem contradictory if we did not take into account the historical context. The early church was rapidly growing, and it is inevitable that married partners came to faith separately. Thus, there were many in the church who were married before either partner was converted, so when a man actually accepted Christ, he had a wife who did not, and vice versa. Paul’s response then is that if the unbeliever wanted to leave the relationship because the other partner was a believer, the believer is not bound. This principle is along the lines of a widow being free to remarry if her husband dies. Those who are unbelievers are spiritually dead and need the grace of God to be reborn.
2 We do not try to earn merit with our works and our holy living. No, our lives can in no way be called “holy” by our actions because of sin. Our hearts, unless they have been reborn by the Spirit, cannot even turn to God or want to do good. Holy living is not an effort to try to please God or to earn merit towards salvation. Our salvation comes directly and solely from Jesus’ blood.
3(Former footnote retracted. Updated April 19, 2013) It is, of course, a purely logical conclusion that without a Christian God, there is no point to a Christian work. A believer and a non-believer may still decide to participate in the same activities but without the same foundational reasons, and that could be a potential point of conflict down the line, depending on where each person’s threshold of tolerance is for sacrificial love.
4 There is the misconception that Christians’ divorce rates are higher than secular society’s. This is a misconception because the sample pool of divorce surveys includes those who call themselves Christians but who are not. There is a large population of “born-again” Christians who answered the altar-call but never truly committed their life to following Christ. There is undoubtedly some correlation between those who say they want to but do not really commit to Christ and those who make vows in marriage and do not really commit. Add to the sample pool the Christians who attend church as a social activity or out of legalism or just for show, and you have a pretty large skew in the statistics.
5 Christians who have different theologies also struggle with this, which is why it is wise to marry a believer with the same theology. As the doctrine of God’s sovereignty is one of the pillars of the Biblical worldview, it is highly favorable to marry someone who shares the same conviction of God’s control over good and evil.
6 This is not to say that a believer cannot wait for an immature believer to grow in the faith to relative maturity before pursuit, but very few people are capable of waiting in a God-glorifying manner. Wisdom informs us that such relationships should be approached with much caution and discernment, and as a general rule, should be avoided so as to flee temptation altogether.