“I’ve become a Christian but my partner is still an unbeliever -should I leave them?”

Question -someone becomes a Christian. They are living with or involved in a sexual relationship with their boyfriend/girlfriend. The boyfriend or girlfriend is not a Christian and shows no interest in becoming a Christian.

How do we respond?


–          There is a relationship/friendship. Do we want to be the cause of it breaking? How does that affect witness etc?

–          It is messy because we do not have the clarity of marriage.

–          What affect will the ongoing relationship have implications of being unequally yoked.

–          Most importantly -we want to glorify God and give Biblical advice not just our own opinions.

Key Question: What is the nature of the Relationship?

1 Corinthians 7 deals with Christians who are married to unbelievers. Paul makes two stipulations

–          First, the Christian should remain as they are and stay in the marriage.  They do not need to fear that their marriage will be unholy. It is sanctified through their relationship to Christ. They do not need to worry that their children will be under any risk of curse/uncleanness because their husband/wife is not a Christian.

–          Secondly that the unbeliever may choose to leave the marriage. If that happens, then the believing wife or husband is free. There has been some dispute over the implication of this for years. Some theologians think that it is simply giving permission to separate and divorce. I take the view that if the person is free to legitimately divorce because they are the wronged party through adultery or desertion then they are free from the marriage obligations and so free to re-marry.

This is important because this is often the Bible passage we instinctively turn to with the overarching principle being “Remain as you are.”

However, this assumes that the relationship should be treated as a marriage.

It is important therefore to know what marriage is and what it isn’t.

Christopher Ash helpfully defines marriage as follows:

“Marriage is the voluntary sexual and public social union of one man and one woman from different families. The union is patterned upon the union of God with his people his bride, the Christ with his church.  Intrinsic to this union is God’s calling to lifelong exclusive sexual faithfulness.”[1]

It is public because it is a covenant relationship. A couple who give themselves to each other sexually owe lifelong faithfulness to each other.

Biblically this means that a marriage is first and foremost in the eyes of God. He is the one who joins man and woman together.

“Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.”[2]

Some people have suggested that the focus is on the fact that you become “one flesh” in marriage and that it is the sexual act that makes a couple one flesh. From this point of view, as soon as you enter into a sexual relationship you are de-facto married.  This is often based on 1 Corinthians 6.

“15 Don’t you realize that your bodies are actually parts of Christ? Should a man take his body, which is part of Christ, and join it to a prostitute? Never! 16 And don’t you realize that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one body with her? For the Scriptures say, ‘The two are united into one.’] 17 But the person who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him.”[3]

This Bible passage is pointing out that sex is serious. The person who has sex with a prostitute unites himself to her so they become one flesh. However, Paul is not saying that the person is now married to the prostitute.

“While the union of man and wife as ‘one flesh’ implies far more than physical union Paul’s concern here is strictly with the physical aspects of the Union.”[4]

The argument is not that he is now married to prostitute a and therefore cannot go and sleep with prostitute b. This is not an argument about marriage. It is an argument against sexual immorality because sexual immorality is incompatible with union with Christ.[5]

Marriage includes sex. In-fact it is important to say that sex belongs specifically in and only within marriage. However, marriage is much more than sex. That’s why the Bible has a term for sex that happens outside of marriage, it is porneia or ‘sexual-immorality’.”

It is helpful to look at what happens in the Old Testament Law when someone is found to be having non-adulterous sexual relations outside marriage. We have previously seen how Deuteronomy 22 deals with the question of marital faithfulness.

The passage includes the following scenarios

  1. A man finds evidence that his wife was unfaithful before they got married
  2. A man and woman are caught in adultery
  3. A man sleeps with a woman who is betrothed to be married to someone else
  4. A man sleeps with a woman who is not yet betrothed to someone else.

The last two scenarios are important here. First of all, if the man sleeps with a woman who is betrothed to another and the sexual relationship is consensual then they are both guilty of adultery/sexual immorality and face the penalty (Deuteronomy 22:23-24).  This is important because the crucial fact in terms of relationship here is not the sexual union but the betrothal.

In the last scenario, then man now has a responsibility to the woman and her family. He is to marry her (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Note, the sexual act has not made them into a married couple. There is still the requirement for a public commitment.  This is mirrored by Exodus 22:16-17. However, note that in that passage, the marriage is not a forgone conclusion. The girl’s father may refuse consent for his daughter to marry.  The sexual act has not created a marriage. It has however placed obligations on the people involved.

Mess and Wisdom

I have written a few times about the importance of understanding the Biblical category of wisdom. What this means is that we are not simply to grab one verse and apply it legalistically to someone. Rather, wisdom requires us to understand the whole revelation of Scripture and think carefully about how we apply it to the context in front of us.

This is important because here we have a real situation (this question has come up a few times during my pastoral ministry at Bearwood Chapel).  It is messy and difficult.

The couple are not married and we should not treat them as married or try to apply Bible passages that are for married couples to them. We want to avoid legalism and putting a heavy burden on them that God does not place.

However, they are a couple, they are in a relationship. There is a sense in which there are obligations and commitments that are starting to be made. We want to avoid license and duck the difficult and challenging conversation that Scripture requires us to have. Remember, that our attempts at human mercy will always be less loving and less grace-filled than God’s Law.

So, what would I advise in this type of situation.

  1. I would look at the whole picture. What commitments have the couple already made to each other implicitly or explicitly and what obligations do they have to wider society. For example, a couple may have been living together for many years, share ownership of a house, have children together. At the other end of the spectrum, they may simply have had one or two sexual encounters and still live very separate lives. There is likely to be everything in between.
  2. This means that I do not think that they are under a de-facto requirement to stay together but at the same time, staying together and solemnising the relationship may be the wisest decision in the context. If the unbeliever refuses to enter into marriage then I would see that as evidence of desertion. They are not willing to commit to marital obligations.
  3. I would be very clear that staying together means getting married properly.
  4. Where marriage isn’t compelled/right/wise then I think someone, somewhere along the lines has to take the role of the Old Testament father and give the “daughter” permission not to marry. In the absence of healthy family relationships, that may fall on the church family.
  5. Things cannot simply go on/remain as they are. A sensible first step is to give some space for each party. So, I would say to them to stop living together. I would encourage the unbeliever to use this time to seriously investigate the claims of the Gospel for themselves. If the couple reach the stage where they are able as two believers to commit to marriage together with Christ at the centre then there is great joy in this.

[1] Christopher Ash, Marriage: Sex in the Service of God, 211.

[2] Matthew 19:6.

[3] 1 Corinthians 6:15-17.

[4] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 259.

[5] This is important and links to the argument in 1 Corinthians 7. The believer’s relationship to Christ is not broken by being married to someone who does not believe. NB See also Ash, Marriage, 350-355.