Most Christian girls know the Sunday School answer to the question: “What are you looking for in a guy?” The correct answer is, “A strong spiritual leader.” Too bad most of them don’t seem to be looking for that, as all sorts of considerations become far more relevant: Hotness, money, success, charisma, athleticism, height, etc. To be fair, Christian guys also know that they are supposed to look for a Christian girl who loves God and wants to grow, but their problem is simpler: Throw a hot girl in their face and all bets are off.
With this in mind, it’s no wonder pastors frequently get questions about whether or not it is wrong to marry an unbeliever. Biblically speaking, this should be a blindingly obvious answer: Yes, it is wrong. If you are a Christian and if you have some measure of choice, you should not marry an unbeliever. There is absolutely no way an unbeliever can even attempt to reach the marriage ideal set out in Ephesians 5, nor can they help the other side with their spiritual walk with God. It is dumping yourself in an “unequally yoked” relationship for sure (2 Cor. 6:14). The Bible does address situations where there is a Christian married with a non-Christian (1 Peter 3, 1 Corinthians 7), but by no means does that justify knowingly and willingly getting into such a union in the first place. The very reason such situations are addressed is because they are problematic, though sometimes it cannot be helped (someone converts after marriage, an arranged marriage where one has no choice, etc.). But again, if you can help it, don’t do it. To even consider otherwise says a lot about the poor state of one’s own spiritual walk, because if one truly loved God and Christ was the center of one’s life, he or she would look for someone else who shares what is most important to him/her.
So that should be pretty clear. What is often less clear is whether or not it is wrong to date an unbeliever. How should Christians answer that?
First, we should be straightforward about this fact: Nowhere does the Bible directly address dating because, well, modern dating didn’t exist back then. Timothy Keller made a joke that he saw a topic at a youth conference labeled, “What the Bible Has to Say About Dating,” and he thought, “Well, that is going to be the shortest seminar ever.” That said, while the Bible does not directly address it, this does not mean that the Bible doesn’t have anything to say. The Bible does not directly address a whole host of issues, but it does give principles to live by that we can apply to all areas of life.
Dating: What is it and how should Christians view it?
A central question would be: What is dating? What is its purpose? This will greatly inform how we approach the topic, especially for Christian adults and young adults. I think for our culture, the general concept of dating is that it is our kind of “courting” that is geared towards marriage. I’m not saying everyone approaches it that way; I am well aware that many people date around just for fun and have flings with zero intention of getting married. I’m merely saying that that is our culture’s primary means of people getting married, since arranged marriages are rare here and we don’t exactly go buy spouses either (minus the mail-order brides from China, but anyway…). At the very least, it is our culture’s way for a guy and girl to get involved romantically.
The next question is: Should Christians approach it that way? Sure, maybe that’s the generic purpose of the whole social construct, but that does not mean that individuals are obligated to follow that. What’s wrong with flings and merely dating for fun? The answer is that if Christians view marriage with the same seriousness that Scripture views it, we would not approach romantic relationships lightly because they are our culture’s normal path to marriage and reflect what we think of marriage. Dating isn’t marriage, but if it’s preparation for marriage and if we truly care about being pure and holy, then it’s still something that Christians should put a lot spiritual thought into.
Applications from marriage passages to dating
There are several passages we could look at that tell us about Christian marriage, but looking at a few will suffice. Again, while dating is not explicitly addressed, what the Bible tells us about marriage and relationships will go a long way in informing us about the topic.
First, if you have a choice on who to marry, you should be looking for someone who shares the same faith:
A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. – 1 Cor. 7:39
Here, Paul is talking to widows; while he says that he thinks it is beneficial for them to stay single, if they really want to marry, they’re free to do so with one stipulation: He must “belong to the Lord,” obviously meaning that he must be saved, which of course also implies that he has faith in Jesus. While this is specifically addressed to widows, this is a principle that would obviously apply to anyone else looking to marry; Paul isn’t saying “Only you widows should marry other believers,” he’s saying, “If you’re a widow, staying single is fine, but if you really want to remarry, you are free to do so, provided that the dude is saved.” In other words, the principle is that for anyone who is free to marry, they should only marry someone who belongs to God.
Another text is the aforementioned 2 Cor. 6:
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? – 2 Cor. 6:14-15
Paul gives a string of rhetorical questions with an obvious answer, “Nothing.” His basic point is this: If there is a believer who is truly following God in righteousness and that is the central aim of his life, there is nothing of importance that he has in common with an unbeliever. Zilch. Maybe the unbeliever likes basketball like he does, likes video games like he does, likes fine dining like he does, likes running at the gym like he does, likes the same movies as he does, etc., but those are nothing compared to his relationship with God. Or at least, they should be nothing compared to his relationship with God; if they are not, then that, frankly, says volumes about his relationship with God.
Does this text specifically aim at marriages? No; I will wholeheartedly agree that the passage is talking about more than marriage. But let me ask this: In what relationship are we more intimately linked to another person than in marriage and other romantic relationships? Exactly. This text may apply to more than marriages and romantic/sexual relationships, but it certainly does not apply to less.
Last, I will briefly look at one text that talks about how a marriage should ideally look like, and that’s Ephesians 5:25-33:
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing[b] her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
First of all, I’ll reiterate that this much should be clear: There is absolutely no way that an unbeliever, however loving or nice he or she is, can come anywhere near fulfilling such a thing because that person does not have Christ. Obviously, an unbelieving wife cannot submit to her husband as she submits to Jesus because she doesn’t submit to Jesus, nor can a husband lay his life down for his wife like Christ did for the Church because he doesn’t believe Christ laid down his life for the Church and resurrected.
Secondly, while there is unfortunately not the space here to go into detail into this text, the general idea is that husband and wife commit self-sacrificially to one another in order to reflect the love that Christ has for the Church and bring glory to God. How on earth can a union between a believer or unbeliever aim for this ideal when one side does not even consider it a goal to strive for?
Thus, we can readily see how it makes absolutely no sense to marry an unbeliever, and I think it also follows that we should even avoid marrying a self-proclaimed Christian if that person isn’t walking with God and has little to no interest in walking with God. If so, then we should conclude that getting romantically involved with an unbeliever in any way is, at the very least, a very bad idea that is not only an indication that God isn’t big enough in one’s life, it is also something that can have very damaging consequences. If it isn’t outright sin to date an unbeliever, it sure is an indication that there is idolatry in one’s life, for if one’s focus is primarily on God, one would naturally look for another who has that same passion.
Some may object that this sounds like legalism, but it is simply a logical progression from Scripture’s viewpoint of marriage and what dating is in our culture. Scripture ALWAYS takes marriage and sexual/romantic relationships seriously; we should likewise in whatever cultural expression there is of such relationships. How, may I ask, is dating an unbeliever or non-walking Christian anything but an unequally yoked relationship? This a person who you spend a lot of time with, have more physical touch with (hopefully not too much…), become emotionally attached to, etc. And since it is unequally yoked, the relationship will become a burden on your relationship with God because that person is not going to encourage you on your walk; in fact, he or she will most likely drag you down, knowingly or not.
Thomas Aquinas stated that to truly love another, you would want the highest good for them. Obviously, in his view (and it should be any Christian’s view), that means you want your beloved to know God because he is the highest good. This is not to say that unbelievers are incapable of love; there are some Christians, often in the Reformed camp, who state that unbelievers can’t really love their own kids or spouses. I disagree; we are all made in God’s image and we have some capacity ot love, even if it may be distorted. That said, an unbeliever’s love will always lack something because he or she will not understand that the highest good is Jesus himself and will not desire that for the person he or she is with. If so, why get romantically involved with an unbeliever? It makes no sense because that person will be incapable of directing you to God and will probably point you another direction.
If we truly love God, we would want our relationship to reflect our relationship with him. That just isn’t possible with an unbeliever. Scripture gives instructions to people who are married to unbelievers, like in 1 Peter 3, but it’s with the hope that one day that person will be saved because the situation is clearly not ideal.
Basically, it’s very immature to want to date an unbeliever or even a nominal Christian
Look, I’m not saying that you have to find super-Christians and be a super-Christian yourself in order to date and get married; if that was the case, nobody would date and get married because there is no such thing as a super-Christian. Everyone has issues, which is why we needed Christ in the first place. That said, an unbeliever hasn’t even started on his walk with God because he can’t without Christ, and there is a big difference between a believer who is maybe immature in a lot of respects but is committed to learning and growing and a believer who treats his or her faith with apathy, however much that person might remember from Sunday School. The idea is this: What is most important in that person’s life? If it ain’t Jesus, then if you’re still really interested, then frankly, it means that Jesus isn’t that most important thing/person in your life too. Honestly, I would consider a new believer who is excited to learn more about his/her faith and grow more suitable to date than someone who has attended church all of his/her life but barely gives a thought to spiritual matters outside of Sunday morning.
I know that sounds harsh, and it is not my intent to judge; I know it’s difficult when you meet someone whom you are really attracted to but isn’t a believer or isn’t a serious Christian. Especially if that person shows mutual interest, it is very hard to say no. Everyone wants to feel desired. I get that. However, even that is an indication that we are deriving our sense of security and self-worth from sources we should not. Those things should come from God, and we should be lifting such issues up to him in prayer. It may temporarily make you feel better to get involved romantically with someone you shouldn’t, but in the end, only God can satisfy, and only a relationship with another person who understands that will allow you to have a relationship that reflects God’s love and is aimed towards giving God glory
In nutshell, if you want to argue that Scripture does not explicitly prohibit dating a nonbeliever, then I agree: It doesn’t. But you sure missed a whole bunch of other principles in Scripture that should tell us that it is extremely unwise and indicative of serious sin in our own lives.