Mixed Religious Marriages

This lesson will deal with the difficult task of balancing one's faith while maintaining a positive relationship with a non-believing spouse.
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In a perfect world men and women would all be Christian, they would all be virgins and they would marry and be faithful all of their lives. And we would not be needing this book on dealing with divorce.

In our present world, however, Christians marry non-Christians, or non-Christians marry each other and then one of them becomes a Christian, or one partner in a Christian couple abandons the faith leaving the other one to carry on alone, or two people who profess faith in Christ but were raised with different church backgrounds marry one another. In all of these examples there exists a mixed religious marriage and along with it certain problems unique to this situation.

The primary goal in a religiously mixed union is to create a good marriage, not convert the spouse. Christians, for example, cannot hope to convert their partners unless they are able to establish a happy and satisfying marriage relationship first.

Bible Background

The Bible recognizes and accepts that such marriages exist.

14Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? 16Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, "I will dwell in them and walk among them; And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
- II Corinthians 6:14-16

This was a warning to Christians not to be yoked (in a relationship with) the pagans of that time. Christians had no business dealing with any of the disgusting pagan practices going on in that society (sex orgies, idol worship, etc.). This could include marriage to one who was involved in a pagan lifestyle. Paul's urging here was that the Corinthians were to avoid the activities of paganism.

Some, however, have used this passage to teach that today, a member of the Church of Christ, for example, cannot marry a member of the Nazarene Church or any other denomination for that matter. This would be stretching the point that Paul is making. It is true that mixed religious marriages are different, and the general principle that we should not yoke ourselves unequally is wise advice in general (the same is true for temperament, education, finance, race, etc.). But II Corinthians deals with a believer and pagan things or people, not two believers with different backgrounds or even a believer with an atheist (an atheist is not a pagan).

In the first century, religiously mixed marriages of the extreme kind (pagan and Christian) were present in the assembly and Paul addresses the church's concern about these type of arrangements.

Do Not Divorce

But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her.
- I Corinthians 7:12

Being married to a non-believer is not an excuse to divorce that person. Just because a partner becomes unfaithful to Christ, is not grounds for leaving them.

And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away.
- I Corinthians 7:13

Note the common thread here is that the unbeliever wants to live in peace. The acid test for staying together is not the conversion of the unbeliever, it is their unwillingness to live with the believer in peace despite the differences in faith. Of course, Paul assumes that the believer will not abandon the relationship so he places the decision to leave at the feet of the non-believer.

For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy.
- I Corinthians 7:14

Some think that God does not recognize marriages where one partner is an unbeliever. If this were true, every non-Christian couple would be living in adultery. Paul teaches that God recognizes the marriage and blesses it because of the believer; blesses it in the sense that through the believing partner the unbeliever and the children have access to the gospel, access to prayer, access to the influence of the Holy Spirit, and in this way are sanctified (he does not mean they are automatically saved).

Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.
- I Corinthians 7:15

The believer is bound to the marriage and it is not discussed whether they would leave or not. However, if the unbeliever leaves, two things happen: the believer needs to let them go (not push them), but allow them to leave, and the believer is no longer bound to the marriage. Some say that this means that the believer is no longer bound to obey the husband but is still married. However, Paul is not talking about duty to the partner, he is talking about marriage and divorce. He says, if the unbeliever leaves you let him go, you are no longer bound in that marriage. Not to do so may cause trouble. If you are not bound in marriage, you are therefore free to re-marry. I will go more deeply into this in future chapters.

For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?
- I Corinthians 7:16

It is the hope that the unbeliever will convert but there are no guarantees. So long as they are with you there is hope but when they let go, you need to let go also. Keeping them against their will or causing trouble will not save them. If they go let them, you are not guilty of divorce or guilty of losing their soul. Your main responsibility is to do your best for the marriage and give a good witness, their soul is their responsibility.

There are other passages that deal with divorce and remarriage and we will discuss these in other chapters, but these two passages give us some guidance in the area of religiously mixed marriages.

Personal Experience

In I and II Corinthians, Paul deals with the problems of mixed marriages and lays out general principles: avoid unequal relationships, but if you are in one try living in peace. If, on the other hand, you partner leaves, let them.

Of course, if the unbeliever stays then what do you do? How do you manage to live in peace in a religiously mixed marriage as Paul commands?

1. Realize that God has Not Abandoned You

Some feel guilty because they marry someone who is not a Christian or someone who has been raised in another religious environment. Others feel separated from church friends because of their situation with a new spouse or one who has left the church. The first step is to understand that God has not forsaken or abandoned you, you are not alone.

37But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
- Romans 8:37-39

If these things cannot separate you, a mixed religious marriage will not either. God is the God of the perfect as well as the imperfect, and He will support and love you as you work on a relationship with an unbelieving spouse.

2. Communicate Positively About Religion

Since religious differences can be an acute sore spot in a relationship, both partners have to learn to communicate positively about the subject when it is discussed. This means:

  • It is ok not to agree on fundamentals but be willing to express your point to view.
  • Avoid the temptation to label the other person in negative terms because they are different religiously (dumb, emotional, fanatic).
  • Make sure that you do not use religion as the battle ground for problems that have nothing to do with religion.
  • Allow the love of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, the influence of the Word and the witness of your actions be the tools by which you will convince the unbelieving spouse that believing is better than not believing. This is true communication.
  • Respect the things you do not agree with in religion.
  • Do not judge religious motives, do not condemn your spouse's lack of faith or wrong faith. God will do the judging in good time.

If both partners understand that religion is a delicate thing, that it needs extra effort and patience, then there will be less fighting or hurt even if there is continued disagreement.

3. Act Like a Christian

The believer is always bound to act like a believer regardless of his or her spouse. For men this means the kind of leadership Paul talks about in Ephesians 5-6:

  • Love of wife, ready to sacrifice for her.
  • Spiritual leadership of family.
  • Tenderness with children.
  • Honesty and sincerity in work.
  • Good citizenship.

For women this means submission:

  • Women submitting to their husbands whether they are believers or not, it is a biblical command.
  • This may be difficult because the man is not under the headship of Christ, but possible.
  • The rule of thumb is, submit unless doing so would lead you to a personal sin.

Acting like a Christian in this context is difficult because the unbelieving partner may not understand all of your struggles and personal issues, but the best view of Christ they will get is watching how you act, not listening to what you say.

In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives.
- I Peter 3:1

4. Identify and Keep Your Priorities

Misguided Priorities:What priorities should be;
  1. God
  2. Church
  3. Children
  4. Spouse
  5. World
  1. God
  2. Spouse
  3. Children
  4. Church
  5. World (career, hobbies, friends)

Most problems in any marriage occur when priorities are skewed or the couple has not shared what their personal priorities are. When both partners know what the Christian partner's priorities ought to be, it will help make sense of the actions taken by the believer and reassure the non-believer that aside from God Himself, they are nevertheless a top priority for their Christian mate.

5. Understand the Unbeliever

Most effort is usually directed at getting the unbeliever to understand Christianity, certain salvation doctrines or church life. The effort needs to be the other way around. The Christian spouse needs to make an extra effort to understand what the non-believer feels. They are not like you in faith or practice. They need to be understood, not for the purpose of changing them, but in order to know, empathize and love them better. Greater understanding will minimize criticism and open up new avenues in the relationship.

Here are some common complaints or concerns of non-believing spouses:

  • Lack of comfort: They are not comfortable with religious services or Christian social activities (they do not want to do the wrong thing). They feel uncomfortable because they think that church members "spot" them or judge them as second class citizens.
  • They feel betrayed: Some feel betrayed because their mate has a stronger attachment to the church and Christian friends than themselves. This is especially true when one spouse becomes a Christian after marriage. Habits, activities and friends change all of a sudden. This can cause a lot of stress.
  • Self-persecution: Non-Christian spouses still have to deal with sin, fear, guilt, shame and disappointment in themselves, but without the comfort of the cross. There is no final solution to the spiritual issues that they feel but may not be able to articulate yet. They do not accept Christ as the solution to their problems, but they still suffer the consequences.
  • Panic: Some feel that their partner is moving ahead of them or is committing themselves to someone or something that they are not a part of. This spouse will usually default to one of three positions: I will get some extra hobbies; I will cause trouble; I will follow my partner.
  • Resentment: Religion is stupid and is wasting my partner's life and my family's time and money. It causes nothing but arguments and is making me depressed.
  • Prejudice: My wife's church are fanatics. I married one, but I do not want to become one.
  • Struggle for control: It is one thing for my spouse to believe in this but what about the children? Debates over how many times a week you go to church; his church, her church; refusal to have children "indoctrinated."

All of these and other feelings are legitimate concerns for the unbeliever and they need to be addressed whether they are converted or not. For solutions we go back to Paul's original principles:

  1. Avoid unequal relationships because these are the problems you will deal with.
  2. If you are in a mixed religious marriage, strive for peace and unity in the marriage first, and conversion second (you cannot have one without the other). We become frustrated and discouraged because we focus all of our energy on converting our partner, thinking this will solve the problems. If we first concentrate on maintaining marital peace, submission, good leadership, positive communication, sincere understanding of our unbelieving spouse's concerns and feelings, we will be building a good marriage and then perhaps the stage will be set for sharing our faith in a positive light. Note that Paul holds the believer responsible for building a marriage in peace, not for the faithfulness of the partner or their conversion.

Believer in a Mixed Marriage's Role in the Church

The Christian in a mixed marriage feels alone, finds it hard to relate to other couples and cannot participate freely in many activities because of their situation. How can they grow as Christians, and how can they minister to others? In answer to these questions I offer the following practical advice:

  1. Find your gift and use it. Don't simply focus on your problem.
  2. Minister to people of like situations. Share what has worked for you and provide encouragement and Christian friendship to those who struggle with the similar issues.
  3. Teach your own children to the degree that you are able. Timothy, the evangelist in the Bible, came from a religiously mixed marriage and it was his mother and grandmother that taught him the faith (II Timothy 1:5).
  4. Begin a prayer ministry for the sick and those who ask for prayer in the church. This is a powerful ministry and does not require a believing spouse to be effective.
  5. Do not lose hope. As long as it is up to you, continue to hope and pray for your unbelieving spouse. I have witnessed the conversion of spouses some five, ten and even twenty years after they first married their Christian partner.
...with God all things are possible.
- Matthew 19:26

Beauchamp, G. & Beauchamp, D., (1980). The Religiously Mixed Marriage. US: Quality Publications.

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