Morality Ch. 13: Marrying Nonbelievers

Many in the Old Testament married non-Jews, but Paul clearly forbade marrying nonbelievers – perhaps because all Romans had to share the religion of their spouse. Does this rule still hold today?

I took a lot of girls out when I was at university. I had to. Matchmaking was a common hobby in the Christian Union, so as soon as a couple went out more than twice, their friends started planning the wedding. It was embarrassing for everyone, and I was determined it wouldn’t happen to me. I devised a cunning plan: I decided that every time I went out, I would take a different girl. It seemed to work well … until I met that special person. She was not interested in me because I was obviously far too shallow! Happy ending: she married me eventually.

The Christian dating process is abnormal in many respects. Even if you enjoy clubs and pubs, you’re not likely to meet many Christians there, and you don’t meet many new people at church or work. This means that the Christian social scene at a university or college can become a frantic hunt for a partner. Otherwise, you are left trawling through internet descriptions trying to discern the real Christians from those who prey on such sites. A significant number of Christians remain single against their wishes because they have not met a suitable Christian partner. For them, the command that Christians should only marry Christians can be one of the hardest in the Bible. Others marry non-Christians and can face criticism from fellow believers because of this.

6-minute summary

Causing a scandal

If a New Testament believer married a nonbeliever, this would have caused a scandal both inside the church and outside, because in the Roman world, a husband and wife had to share the same religion(s). If a Roman woman married into a family that honored different gods, she had to worship them too. If she didn’t, their children could not be Roman citizens.1 In some ways, all Romans followed the same religion – the emperor cult – and they could also venerate whatever other gods they wanted. In Plutarch’s advice to newlyweds, he tells the wife to worship her husband’s gods,2 but this merely means that she added his gods to the ones she already venerated.

This wasn’t a big issue in Roman society, where it was a virtue to honor all gods, but it was a huge problem for Jews. To make sure they weren’t pressured to worship other gods, Jews were only allowed to marry other Jews. Their divorce certificates reflected this by saying: “You may now marry anyone you wish, but only a Jew.” The additional phrase “but only a Jew” was actively discussed in the early centuries, so presumably this had been recently adopted because of this Roman cultural attitude.3

Being of the same religion was especially important when children came along. How could both parents go to the temple, make an offering, and get the priest’s blessing for their child if they worshiped different gods? This is probably why the Corinthians worried that children of mixed marriages hadn’t been “sanctified.” Paul assured them they didn’t need to worry – God himself sanctified their children (1 Cor 7:14).

All this means that we shouldn’t be surprised when Paul clearly says that believers should not be “yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Cor 6:14). Although this phrase could possibly perhaps refer to a business relationship in this context, it is unlikely. Greeks and Jews normally referred to marriage as a “yoke” and called a divorce “unyoking,” even in legal documents. Elsewhere, Paul is unambiguous when he says “she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord” (1 Cor 7:39) – using the Christian equivalent of the Jewish phrase we saw above: “but only a Jew.” He is addressing widows in this passage, but there’s no indication that other believers are different in this respect.

Christian teaching on mixed marriages, therefore, reflected Jewish teaching in its effort to fit in with Roman culture. However, it was different in one important aspect: Christians weren’t allowed to divorce a partner simply because they had a different religion. Paul said that Jesus’ teaching on lifelong marriage applied just as much to mixed marriages as to marriages between believers. Like most early churches, there were couples in the Corinthian church where only one partner had become a Christian, and some of these believers felt that they should divorce their nonbelieving partners. But Paul taught that marriage vows were lifelong in God’s eyes, and divorce should not be sought without biblical grounds. He told one woman who’d already left her husband to return to him if he was willing to have her back (1 Cor 7:10-11). However, some believers had been divorced against their will by their nonbelieving partners, probably because they refused to worship in pagan temples. Paul told those believers that they could regard this Roman divorce as a valid release from their marriage (1 Cor 7:15).

Does this teaching about marrying only Christians apply today? A timeless command is one that doesn’t change through the Bible and doesn’t tend to reflect the culture of its time. So is this command in agreement with the Old Testament?

Jesus’ family tree

We might at first think that the ancient Jews were taught to marry only fellow believers, because kings are told not to marry multiple wives or foreign princesses who might entice them to another religion (Deut 17:17). Individual Jews, however, married foreigners without any hint that this was wrong, though they were not allowed to marry women from the enemy nations of Palestine (Josh 23:12). For example, Moses married two foreigners, a Midianite and a Cushite (Exod 18:1-2; Num 12:1); and two of the three women named in Jesus’ genealogy were foreign – Ruth and Rahab were Moabite and Canaanite, respectively (Matt 1:5; Ruth 1:22; Josh 2:1; 6:24). It wasn’t until Ezra’s time that there was a campaign to prevent intermarriage with all foreigners (Ezra 10:2, 10-14), and legal formulas forbidding such marriages are not found on any documents before Jesus’ day.

In fact, the restrictions imposed on marriage in the Old Testament appear to be tribal, not religious. A woman who owned land could only marry within her own tribe, so that her land was not lost to other tribes (Num 36:8-9). And when Abraham decided his son Isaac should not marry one of the surrounding Canaanites, he didn’t send his servant to find fellow worshipers of Yahweh, but to find someone from his family tribe (Gen 24:3-4). Although Rebekah’s family refers to “Yahweh,” this is only after they’ve heard Abraham’s servant use the name of his God (24:26-27, 31). Her family actually worshiped local family gods, like the people they lived among (31:19).4 So her religion was of secondary importance to Abraham, because he could assume she would adopt Isaac’s religion. His chief concern was that Isaac married someone from among his tribal group.

Our second test is whether this command was simply reflecting the culture of the time. Endogenous marriage (that is, marriage within tribal groups) was very common in the ancient world, and it is this that created and maintained the distinctiveness of different tribes and nations. Marrying within the same religion was also important, and even more so in New Testament times. So the rules about intermarriage were certainly influenced by the cultures of the time.

All this suggests that the command to marry only a fellow believer is not timeless. However, we should also ask what the purpose of those original commands was. The warnings in the Old Testament imply a danger that intermarriage will result in pressure to change religion (Exod 34:16; Deut 7:3-4; 1 Kgs 11:3-4), and this was also the case in New Testament times. Does that apply today? Yes, though not in such a formal sense. It is no longer an expected requirement that couples should share the same religion, though their lives can certainly be easier and closer if they do. Now, as in New Testament times, there is likely to be friction between partners who do not share a love for Jesus. However, now as then, they may be won over by the genuine gentle witness of a Christian lifestyle (1 Pet 3:1).

One thing we can be certain of: God recognizes the validity of marriages between a believer and nonbeliever and loves both the children and the nonbelieving partner just as much as their believing parent and partner loves them.

1^ Susan Treggiari, Iusti Coniuges from the Time of Cicero to the Time of Ulpian (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 44-50.
2^ Plutarch, Moralia: Conjugalia Praecepta 19 (
3^ The text is “not a heathen” in Mishnah Gittin 9:2 (; it is “Jewish man” in the divorce certificate found at Masada (see my Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002], 120 []).
4^ Laban was Rebekah’s brother (see Gen 24:29).

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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