My church’s college ministry used to rotate who led the small group and on one of my turns, the group decided that they wanted to do a study on Biblical dating. I remember spending weeks hunting through Christian book stores and perusing the internet trying to find a study guide or book that we could use. Alas, I came to realize that dating was not even a concept in Biblical times (we won’t get into arranged marriages here).
ASKING THE RIGHT QUESTION
So, to be able to get a meaningful answer, I had to rephrase the question. First, I asked “What is the intention of dating?” Many would say that it is spending time with someone with whom you have a romantic interest. Well, the Bible has a lot to say about romance, let me tell you! Specifically, the Bible touches on romance always in the context of a marriage relationship between a man and a woman. So, a better way to ask the question becomes “What does the Bible have to say about being married to a non-believer?”
Two passages that are brought up specifically when asking about marriage to a non-believer are 1 Corinthians 7:39 and 2 Corinthians 6:14. As we’ve stated in class, we can’t just take a verse at face value; we need to look at least at the chapter it is in as well as try to understand the context it was written in.
1 Corinthians 7 is talking about how Christians should act in regards to sex. In verses 1-24, Paul is telling the church that sex needs to be restricted within the boundaries of marriage: If you want to have sex, get married. Be faithful to each other and fulfill each other’s desires so that you won’t be tempted into infidelity. Specifically, in verses 12-24, he gives his advice regarding the “unequally yoked” (note that at the beginning of verse 12 he says that he is personally speaking and these are not God’s words).
To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
Paul is giving his opinion that, as a believer, you do the right thing. he then goes on (verses 25-40) to say that, in his own opinion, marriage brings a lot of strife and burden. When you are married, you have responsibilities to your spouse that take away from your ability to fully devote yourself to God. Keep in mind that he is talking to people that are already married.
As for 2 Corinthians 6:14, the context shows that Paul is not talking about sexual/marriage relationships when he says “do not be yoked with unbelievers”. There is actually nothing in the entire letter of 2 Corinthians about that kind of relationship. So, this passage appears to be used out of context and it will not be considered useful for this discussion.
WHAT ABOUT MISSIONARY DATING?
The concept of “missionary dating”, or what today is being called “flirt to convert”, is , like dating, not really covered in the Scriptures. However, taking cues from the 1 Corinthians passage, we can infer that it does not appear to be a wise endeavor. We are called to be devoted to Christ regardless of the relationships we are in. In Paul’s view, anything that detracts from our devotion to God is less than ideal, but not necessarily a sin.
Looking at it from a common sense point of view, being connected to someone with a different worldview than yours is difficult and more often than not, stressful. If you marry someone that holds a different worldview, you will be conflicting with each other on a regular basis, causing much unnecessary stress.
Kathy Keller, wife of pastor Tim Keller, wrote about this topic a few years ago based on her years of experience counseling married couples. When working with mixed-faith couples, she has seen the following outcomes:
There are only three ways an unequal marriage can turn out, (and by unequal I am willing to stretch a point and include genuine, warm Christians who want to marry an in-name-only Christian, or someone very, very far behind them in Christian experience and growth):
- In order to be more in sync with your spouse, the Christian will have to push Christ to the margins of his or her life. This may not involve actually repudiating the faith, but in matters such as devotional life, hospitality to believers (small group meetings, emergency hosting of people in need), missionary support, tithing, raising children in the faith, fellowship with other believers—those things will have to be minimized or avoided in order to preserve peace in the home.
- Alternatively, if the believer in the marriage holds on to a robust Christian life and practice, the non-believing PARTNER will have to be marginalized. If he or she can’t understand the point of Bible study and prayer, or missions trips, or hospitality, then he or she can’t or won’t participate alongside the believing spouse in those activities. The deep unity and oneness of a marriage cannot flourish when one partner cannot fully participate in the other person’s most important commitments.
- So either the marriage experiences stress and breaks up; or it experiences stress and stays together, achieving some kind of truce that involves one spouse or the other capitulating in some areas, but which leaves both parties feeling lonely and unhappy.
There is always the possibility that the Christian worldview will win out and the non-believer will convert, but it would still take time, allowing stress to take its toll on the relationship.
Pastor/author/speaker Nancy Ortberg, wife of pastor/author John Ortberg, says this about marrying a non-believer:
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.
So, even though there seems to be no Scriptural command against it, dating a non-believer appears to be a gamble at best. The Bible doesn’t call it a sin, but Paul still gives the best advice: don’t add unnecessary stress to your life.