This is probably one of the most challenging questions many Christians are going to face. The desire for a relationship, to be able to share your life with someone special is huge. There is both the positive desire to meet that special someone and the negative fear of loneliness if we don’t.
For me, I found this very hard going through my 20s. At times, it seemed that the only girls interested in me were non-Christians. They seemed “very interested” whilst Christian girls were just not interested at all. So, I remember having to make a painful choice on a couple of occasions to walk away from a potential relationship.
But this is not a challenge unique to young people. I’ve talked to various people at various stages in life who have been considering or actively courting someone who didn’t share their faith. Now, you will realise that I’ve given the game away from the outset. I have concluded that Biblically it is wrong for a Christian to date and/or to marry a non-believer. It’s not simply that I advise against it because it is unwise. I’m saying that it is something that you must not do.
Now that sounds quite hard-line and intolerant. It seems to encourage segregation doesn’t it. So I think it is also important to explain why God’s Word tells us not to do this.
- Dating and Marriage
We need to start by talking about marriage. You see, dating is really all about preparing for marriage. That puts us in an unusual position culturally because the whole idea of courtship where a boyfriend and girlfriend date for an extended period of time prior to engagement and marriage is pretty much unique to modern, western culture.
This also means that we may be tempted to think “It does not matter if I date a non-Christian” so long as I don’t marry him/her. My response to that would be “So what exactly is the nature of your relationship.”
It is either just a good friendship in which case call it that. And if it is just a good friendship, enjoy that friendship in the context of other good friendships. Don’t make it exclusive.
Or, it is a special relationship where you are nurturing a level of intimacy above and beyond the intimacy you share with other friends. By the way, when I talk about intimacy, this does not just mean physical intimacy. Indeed, we can be so alert to the question “where are the physical boundaries” that we can miss the importance of emotional intimacy. The relationship is becoming exclusive. So, if you have cultivated a relationship that is exclusive and intimate, yet is not serious enough for you to commit to permanently then what have you created? In effect, it is something that replicates important aspects of marriage without the vital ingredient of a commitment to faithfulness. This is unfair to the other person. Again, my advice would be to step back from this and enjoy a normal friendship in the company of others.
- Why marriage?
So, let’s get to the heart of the matter. The Bible has much to say about what marriage is. To do this we need to go right back to the beginning. Marriage is about God bringing two people, one man and one woman together. In Genesis 2:18, God says that it is not good for the man (Adam) to be alone. So he creates Eve from him. She is a helper who is like him (equal) but different to him (she complements him). It is helpful at this stage “In what ways was she meant to complement him?” Why did Adam need a companion? Partly of course, we are intended to be social beings. However, I want to suggest three other vital reasons why Adam needed Eve.
The first one is found in the immediate context of God making Eve. God has made Adam and given him responsibility for looking after His creatures. This includes naming the animals and tilling the ground. By the way, the Hebrew words used to describe “tilling the soil” are later used to describe temple worship. Our work is part of our worship.
For the second one, go back to Genesis 1:26-28. Man and woman are blessed by god and told to fill and subdue the earth. They are to be fruitful and multiply. Man needed woman because together they were to bring children into the world and raise them. Now, sometimes because of health reasons, it isn’t possible for a couple to have children. But to some extent, that intent or purpose is in mind when we marry.
Thirdly, the other immediate context in which God says “It is not good for the man to be alone” is that God has commanded Adam not to eat from the Tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. In other words, Adam needs help to stay obedient to God’s commands and to faithfully trust his promises. Again, marriage is linked to worship.
When Adam meets his wife Eve for the first time, he exclaims
“This one is bone from my bone, and flesh from my flesh! She will be called ‘woman,’ because she was taken from ‘man.’ 
Moses, the author of Genesis comments that
“This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.”
Older versions sometimes use the phrase they become “one flesh.” In my opinion, “one flesh” is not just about physical, sexual union. The word “flesh” is often Biblical shorthand for “humanity.” They become one person.
This means that there is a level of exclusive intimacy and union between a husband and wife. However, it also means that because they are joined together for the purpose of bringing up children, looking after creation and worshipping God that there is huge public aspect to this. Marriage is seen as a public good. We are married for the benefit of others as well as for ourselves. Marriage comes with responsibilities as well as privileges. This is why a wedding is a public affair with witnesses, declarations and certification.
So, when considering the possibility of marrying someone it is important to ask.
– Will we be genuinely one flesh? This does not mean that we will agree on everything but when it comes to the things that really matter and are at the core of our lives are we of one mind and one heart? Where my worship and trust is, is essential. Marrying someone who does not love and worship the true and living God is to bring idolatry into my own life. It is that serious.
At this point we realise that three reasons for marriage presented above enable us to apply this in more detail. Will my wife/husband share the same Biblical values that I have about work choices? Will we have the same concern to bring up our children to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour? When it comes to choosing between obeying or disobeying God will we be united in worship. Will they encourage or discourage my worship. When I am tempted to doubt or sin, which way will they pull me?
- What marriage does
The Bible tells us that marriage does something more than simply provide for the practicalities of human life. Ephesians 5:22-32 tells us that marriage is intended to point to something even deeper. Marriage is a picture of our relationship as the Church with Christ.
Jesus is the faithful, loving husband who has willingly given his life for his bride. In the book of Revelation, we see the image of the end of time when Christ returns as the bridegroom coming for his wife.
So, I want to suggest that marriage is not just there to help us worship. Marriage is itself worship in that it is intended to portray and glorify something of God’s character and God’s actions. You want to be able to share marriage with someone that shares that incredible vision of what marriage signifies.
- Implications – do not be unequally yoked
The Apostle Paul uses the image of two animals yoked together in order to pull a plough. If you have two different animals of different size and strength then you cannot plough straight. The plough will veer off in one or other direction. So Paul says “Do not be unequally yoked” or as the NLT puts it
“Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness?”
This verse has broader implications for the sorts of partnerships we form with others in the whole of life and for churches and the alliances they make. However, it also has something very specific to say about marriage. In the Old Testament, we see that the Israelites were forbidden from entering marriages with people from the surrounding nations. This was not to do with racial purity (in fact the Israelite nation always included people from other ethnic groups). Rather, it was about preserving faithfulness. The warning refrain is that they will be led to worship the gods of the nations around them.
So, the Bible is clear that a marriage relationship needs to be founded on a united faith in the living God. If it’s not there then the foundations are faulty.
- Some common objections
The key objections I hear are as follows.
– I know other Christians who are married to non-Christians and they seem to be doing okay
– My girlfriend/boyfriend respects my choices as a Christian and is happy for me to have my faith.
– Maybe I could lead them to the Lord. I know of examples where that has happened.
Let’s deal with each of them in turn. First of all, yes there are Christians who are married to non-Christians around, including a number in our own church fellowship. For some, this is because they made a decision to date and marry a non-believer maybe because they were naïve -perhaps having lacked teaching in this area – maybe there was even an element of rebelliousness too. For others, they thought that their partner was a Christian but over time it became clear that they weren’t. Often, the reason is that they became Christians after they got married. Now it is true to say that in those situations, God has been loving and merciful and given them amazing grace for their situation. However, in each situation if you get time to ask them honestly for their advice they will say that they have been restricted in their faith because their partner does not share their faith. Their deepest longing is for their husband or wife to know Christ and a great cause of worry and sadness is that the person they have shared their life with may die not knowing God which will add to the pain of bereavement when that time comes.
Secondly, it is one thing to respect someone’s hobby. It is another thing to share the thing that is central to your life together. Do you want to start out in married life on the basis of a compromise over something so important? This is to miss the very purpose of your marriage which is to be united and be a support to each other in these very things.
Thirdly, whilst there are occasional stories of unbelieving partners coming to faith, this does not happen in most cases. There is also the risk that they will express faith for all the wrong reasons. They will do it because they want to please you. The mistake we make here is to see how God has been gracious to others despite their mistakes and sin, how he has shown incredible mercy and to use that to make our own decisions. God is incredibly merciful to us. He uses our mistakes and turns them for our good and his glory but that does not justify our wrong doing. God blessed Abraham despite him going down to Egypt and attempting to pass off his wife Sarah as his sister to Pharoah, God brings his chosen heir and even the Messianic line through King David’s polygamous marriage. God works through the decision of Joseph’s brothers to sell him into slavery. Yet none of those things were good or justifiable and we do not take them as examples to follow. Grace abounds where sin abounds but we do not go on sinning (Romans 6).
Some practical advice
For those of you who are single and struggling. I want to encourage you to keep your hope in Christ. Find the security and love that you need in him first. I cannot promise that you will find the right person to marry. I remember one of our older ladies even into her 90s saying that she wished she had met someone. I’ve seen people who have been widowed going through the challenge of living life without the one they loved. None of them would say that it was easy but they were clear that God was present and faithful.
Learn to use your singleness for good. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 advices that a single person is free from certain cares and duties and this frees them up for Gospel work. Use your time well. Time well spent will include telling others about Jesus, supporting ministries in the life of the church, being there as a friend for others, giving yourself to studying God’s Word.
What about if there’s someone you like and they are not yet a Christian? You may well already be starting to date them. My advice would be
– Step back from dating as early as possible. The longer time goes on the harder and messier it will become.
– Be clear and upfront -explain that your commitment to Christ comes first but do not promise a relationship on the back of a conversion.
– Share your faith with your friends -invite them to Christianity Explored courses, church services etc.
– Be patient
 See Genesis 2:15.
 Genesis 2:16-17.
 Genesis 2:23.
 Genesis 2:24.
 2 Corinthians 6:14