The Costly Obedience of Not Marrying a Non-Christian
WHEN AGREEMENT IS TEMPERED BY DISAPPOINTMENT
The 2012 article 'Don’t Take It from Me: Reasons You Should Not Marry an Unbeliever' by Kathy Keller recently made a (much delayed!) appearance in my newsfeed. In essence, the article suggests that because single Christians who are considering marriage to a non-Christian so rarely allow themselves to be convinced that relevant scriptural passages clearly speak against such a prospect, the one thing which might persuade them against making such a decision is hearing numerous first-hand accounts of those who have made that choice and lived to regret it.
Perhaps, Keller wonders:
some creative filmmaker would be willing to run around the country, filming individuals who are living with the pain of being married to an unbeliever, and create a montage of 40 or 50 short (< 5 minutes) first-hand accounts. The collective weight of their stories would be powerful in a way that no second-hand lecture ever would be.
There is much within Keller’s article to agree with. Yes, hearing the stories of other Christians can be encouraging, challenging, corrective and rebuking of us. Yes, we ought to learn from both the wisdom and the regret of other brothers and sisters. Yes, Scripture does speak of a Christian’s choice to marry a non-Christian as being both foolish and disobedient (1 Cor 7:39 is more specifically relevant than the oft mentioned though still helpful 2 Cor 6:14). Yes, marriage to a non-Christian poses very real, very serious, very sad spiritual dangers. Yes, there is every possibility that such a marriage may result in either falling away, divorce, or a lifetime of loneliness and unhappiness. Yes, yes, yes.
But even as I—a single Christian woman of a “certain age”—wholeheartedly agree with Keller’s theological insights and conclusions (and teach them myself), I can’t help but feel disappointed, disheartened and even disillusioned by the way she seeks to convince her readers of them.
Let me be clear – my disappointment does not lie in the fact that she writes about singleness as a married woman. We do not need to be in a particular situation to be able to speak carefully and graciously into it for the sake of others. Indeed, often it is those who stand outside our particular context who are uniquely able to provide objective insight and nuanced reflection on it. This means that married Christians have invaluable wisdom, encouragement and rebuke to offer to their single counterparts... and vice versa.
No. My disappointment with the article lies in what seems to be a certain lack of empathy in understanding the plight of the very people the author is seeking to reach and persuade.
THE IMPORTANCE OF EMPATHY
It is quite obvious that this topic is one that Keller finds pastorally frustrating and tiresome:
Having grown weary and impatient, I want to snap and say, “It won’t work, not in the long run. Marriage is hard enough when you have two believers who are completely in harmony spiritually. Just spare yourself the heartache and get over it.” Yet such harshness is neither in line with the gentleness of Christ, nor convincing.
Certainly, her frustration is born out of a genuine concern and love for the particular individuals she is speaking of and too. But she’s right – such an impulse is not at all gentle, nor convincing. But more than that, it is also condescending, hurtful and discouraging.
Does the author not see the very real impact that those few short sentences are likely to have on many of the single Christians she has in mind? Does she not perceive what it communicates to the brother or sister who is wrestling with this issue in good faith, and who is trying to find the courage to raise it with their pastor or Christian friend? Does she not realise what she has left some, even many, of those people thinking to themselves? “They must be sick of having this same conversation with people over and over again.. They'll probably have to stop themselves from just rolling their eyes and sighing impatiently. They are going to think I’m ridiculous for even struggling with this. They are going to want to tell me to just get over it, but how do I do that? I need help, but maybe I shouldn’t speak to them about it…”.
Single brothers and sisters, if you do find yourself in the situation of having your heart engaged with a person outside the faith, please don’t feel like you need to deal with this alone. Please don’t feel like your pastor or your friends are going to be impatient with you. Please don’t think the only way forward is to just suck it up “and get over it”... or not. Please talk to someone you trust, someone you know has a mature faith. Open up to someone you know will help you think about this from a biblical perspective and who will walk alongside you on this difficult path of godly obedience in response to the grace God has shown you in Jesus.
Elsewhere in the article Keller suggests that just one very minimal, very succinct exhortation ought to be enough to change the mind of the Christian person who is considering entering into marriage with a non-Christian.
In the words of one woman who was married to a perfectly nice man who did not share her faith: “If you think you are lonely before you get married, it’s nothing compared to how lonely you can be AFTER you are married!”
I’ve recently found myself pondering the Christian propensity to do exactly this—to compare different experiences of sorrow or grief or struggle and then rank them as if there are some which are so obviously more acute that others. I mean, isn’t that exactly what is on view here? “Oh single person! You think you are lonely now? You think you know the meaning of loneliness now? Ha! Foolish one, don’t you know that your loneliness is nothing compared to what it could be? To what mine actually is?”.
Why is it that we so readily trivialise someone else’s grief by insisting that ours is clearly so much worse? How are we so sure that the shoes we walk in are so much more painful than those of another? And even if our shoes do cause blisters which are recognisably more painful than the other’s, why does that so readily excuse us of our responsibility to treat their blisters with the compassion and kindness they deserve, even as our own ache?
Sadly this lack of empathy concerning the very real struggles that many single Christians feel is on view throughout Keller’s article. The unmarried Christian brothers and sisters she has in mind (and who I am absolutely convinced she deeply loves) are reduced to little more than silly people who are ‘desperately trying to find a loophole’; who have eagerly and readily ‘devalued’ the authority of Scripture in pursuit of their own ends; who are [cue eye roll here] somehow just so much ‘in love’ with the non-Christian; and who are ‘blithely optimistic’ as, like a child, they ‘toy with relationships that grow deeper than they expect’.
Admittedly, I’ve never had any sort of deep romantic feelings for, let alone an actual relationship with a non-Christian man. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate that the feelings of many of my Christian siblings who have are likely to have been truly heartfelt. Are we to judge those feelings as only possibly being authentic if they are directed towards a Christian? Is the love a Christian man might feel for a non-Christian woman to be considered a mere pale imitation of what they could feel were she a believer? Is it really so silly to think that a truly loving relationship could possibly develop between a Christian woman and a non-Christian man?
Please hear me – Scripture teaches that it is God’s will for Christian persons to only enter into the covenant of marriage with another Christian person. I agree with Keller that to do otherwise is not only unwise but an act of ungodly disobedience. And so, of course this also means that I think it patently foolish and ultimately reckless for a Christian person to intentionally promote or pursue a heart-entanglement with a non-Christian.
However, I’m also aware of God’s kindness in creating us with the capacity to love other people and desire relational intimacy, I know how easy it is to long after someone whose company I so enjoy. I am familiar with how compelling it is to appreciate the kind, generous, wonderful character of another person. I have experience with how wonderfully captivating beauty (of both the body and the spirit) can be. And so being aware of all these things means I aim to be empathetic towards (rather than dismissive of) the unmarried Christian person who—wilfully or not—has found themselves wrestling with these very real feelings for an unmarried non-Christian person... a person who has also been fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.
Single brothers and sisters, if you do find yourself in the situation of having your heart engaged with an unmarried person outside the faith, please don’t feel like you deserve to be an object of derision. Please don’t feel like your Christian brothers and sisters are rolling their eyes at you as if you were nothing more than a silly child. Please don’t feel that they will dismiss your very genuine feelings for another person created in God’s image as being inferior or substandard to their own. But please do ask them to open God’s word with you so that you might be comforted and challenged by his good and perfect will for you. Ask them to help you better understand why it is God’s will that you do not commit yourself to the covenant of marriage with someone who does not call Jesus their Lord and Saviour. Ask them to help you wisely disentangle your heart from that relationship and to walk alongside you on this difficult path of godly obedience in response to the grace God has shown you in Jesus.
A BETTER WAY AND A GRANDER VISION
Perhaps you feel I’ve been a bit too harsh on Keller, especially given there is so much theological truth in her article (and in her ministry more broadly) that I agree with. This is, after all, just one short article, and one which was written quite a few years ago at that.
And yet each short article, each brief sermon application, each short book paragraph, each passing pastoral conversation about marriage and singleness in the Christian life is part of a much more expansive discourse.
A discourse which so often elevates marriage as the ideal form of Christian life..
A discourse which so often treats singleness as a deficient form of Christian life.
A discourse which so often idealises the romantic and sexual love of marriage as a necessary part of the authentic human experience, but then rolls its eyes at those silly single Christians who—having failed to secure themselves a Christian spouse—are now ‘desperately trying to find a loophole’ which would allow them to claim this much exalted personal fulfilment and validation for themselves.
A discourse which so often deeply confuses, hurts, and alienates single Christians.
A discourse which has so often become deeply problematic, hypocritical and, yes even, unbiblical.
Like Keller, I long to persuade single Christians who are considering marriage to a non-Christian to pursue godly wisdom and costly Christ-shaped obedience instead. But I’m convinced that the most powerful way to do that is not by lecturing them with a handful of prohibitive verses or by sitting them down in front of a video of one miserable marriage experience after another (as compelling and helpful as both of those things may be in the right circumstances).
Surely the most powerful persuasion comes via the Spirit, as we lovingly, generously, patiently and empathetically open the Bible and help them to see that it offers far more than mere commands of who they ought not marry, what they should not claim as their own, and the despair that will be theirs if they do.
What single Christians in this situation need to be shown is that, in Christ, there is a sure and certain marriage which awaits them. That there is a wonderful, beautiful, incredible, ultimate marriage to come. A marriage whose intimacy will far exceed any earthly human marriage. A marriage which will never fail or falter or disappoint or end. A marriage in which the bride and the groom will truly be “equally yoked”, because the blood of Jesus has made it so. A marriage which will see us standing side by side as siblings as we, the beloved bride, gaze rapturously upon our husband.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people and God himself will be with them as their God. Revelation 21:1-3
Such a vision helps us put the deep longings of our hearts here and now into perspective. It helps us to develop patience as we wait for the better thing to come. It provides the hope that sustains us through the aching grief of missing out on something wonderfully good in this life. It reminds us that a life lived in response to the cross of Christ will itself be cruciform in shape, that godly obedience will at times be deeply costly. And it comforts us that we have a Saviour who not only knows this, but who lived it... perfectly.
Single Christian friend, it may be very, very hard and very very costly for you to do this, but please don’t marry a person who does not delight in this same vision , who does not long for this ultimate marriage, who does not yearn for the day when they too will gaze rapturously upon Christ, our bridegroom.
Marriage in this life is good. Marriage in the next will be infinitely better. Ask others to help you pin your hopes and dreams on that one instead. And then help them to do the same.
Rev. Dr Dani Treweek is Single Minded's director.. She's passionate about equipping Christian individuals and church communities with a biblically faithful understanding of singleness. You can read more about Dani and her work at www.danielletreweek.com