Is it okay for Christians to be romantically involved with those “outside the faith?”
Frequently, Paul’s words in his second letter to the Corinthians are quoted as a reason that Christians should not marry those outside the Christian faith:
Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said,
“I will dwell in them and walk among them;Paul (2 Corinthians 6:14-18)
And I will be their God, and they shall be My people.
“Therefore, come out from their midst and be separate,” says the Lord.
“And do not touch what is unclean;
And I will welcome you.
“And I will be a father to you,
And you shall be sons and daughters to Me,”
Says the Lord Almighty.
I grew up learning that 1) this passage absolutely applies to Christian relationships, 2) all of Paul’s words should be esteemed as the words of God, and 3) only those who identify as “Christian” are eligible for relationships with other Christians.
As with most things I learned growing up, I began questioning and examining them for myself over time. Let’s start with #1.
#1: Does 2 Cor 6:14-18 Apply to Christian Relationships?
Some Christians would argue that this verse is more referencing business partnerships. And I’d have to agree that I see a warning against business partnerships without spiritual unity as a wise and perhaps more clear application. However, I do think that a broader warning can be taken from this verse regarding Christian relationships.
I think the key is in the phrase “what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness…?”
We know that those who walk by the Spirit are not under the law, so the word “lawlessness” here is a little confusing. But Jesus simplified and summarized what is important to God in one concept: love. So arguably, Christians live by the “law” of love (not out of a fear of retribution, but out of freedom and the life of the Spirit within). Given this premise, it would follow that those without love (or who prioritize most other things over it) would be “lawless.”
So what’s important about the phrase contrasting righteousness and lawlessness?
I believe the distinction is that those who are not tuned into the “frequency” or channel of the Spirit of Love are walking in darkness, and will have different priorities than those who seek to prioritize their lives according to the higher motive and calling of Love.
Which brings me to my conclusion on #1. There are many professing Christians who don’t prioritize the Spirit of love in their lives, but rather wealth, status, and/or religious appearance and attendance (even at the expense of compassion and patience for their families).
At the same time, there are many people who don’t profess to be “Christians” (don’t pretend to be a part of the system), but live very compellingly as if they serve the God of love. Maybe they don’t know they’re children of God yet, or maybe they worship him by a name other than “Christ.” (Christ is known everywhere, by different names but the same spiritual essence. “Christ” comes from the Greek word Christos, which is the Greek version of the word “Krishna.“)
I would sooner marry someone who honors the God of Love (however unconsciously) than someone who claims to know and honor him but prioritizes things very, very differently than Jesus would. And at this point in my life, I think I would much sooner marry an atheist who lives to bind up the brokenhearted as Jesus did – and walks in a radical freedom to recklessly love – than a “Bible-believing Christian” who lives in fear of punishment and is crippled and withered spiritually by his view of God’s heart and belief in an oppressive path to righteousness and heaven.
That said, I strongly desire spiritual unity in a relationship, and would prefer for that unity to exist on a conscious level.
At the end of the day, I think that if this passage is applicable to Christian relationships (and I do believe there is wisdom in this passage that we would benefit to heed regarding relationship choices), it makes more sense here to heed the spirit of the writing – to seek a partner who honors God with their deeds – rather than to become narrowly focused on choosing someone who says all the “right” things and identifies all the “right” ways (someone with the “correct” Christian label and set of beliefs/theologies).
This calls to mind the parable of two sons, in which one said that he would do a task, but didn’t, and the other said he wouldn’t do a task, but did. Which one was the responsible, trustworthy, and mature son? Which kind of person would you prefer to have as a spouse, if you had to pick? Relationship choices, like this parable, are about externals versus heart, outward conformity versus inward conviction, weighty promises versus weighty delivery, and nominal (in-name-only) truth versus reality.
This passage holds similarities to that of the good Samaritan, in which a man with the “wrong” religion (and “wrong” ethnicity in the Jews’ eyes) did the right thing before God. I believe Jesus was making a point that those who walk in love are children of God, even if they don’t have all the “right” externals and labels – even the “right” religion.
All of that said, I do believe there is a real danger for those who were raised (or fellowship presently) in more fundamentalist, conservative, and evangelical Christian environments: the danger of being so hungry for some dang freedom after growing up or fellowshipping in a restrictive, oppressive culture, that we are driven to use our “scriptural license” or the “textbook legality” of an option to override or ignore our own intuition – the voice of the Spirit within.
I’ll come back to this in #2.
#2: Are Paul’s Words the Words of God?
I’ve written about my view on Paul’s teachings in another post, so I’m not going to get into it deeply here. Suffice it to say that I do not believe that all (if any) of Paul’s teachings are “God-breathed” in the way many Christians claim. I do believe that they are often useful in guiding us today, when illuminated and breathed through by the Spirit in His intimate and constant conversation with us, but that they were originally written for specific cultures, churches, purposes, and times, with different customs, backgrounds, and cultural understandings than we have today. If we’re going to interpret Paul’s writings, say, on braided hair and jewelry, for application today, we first need to really study and understand the cultural context and purpose for which Paul was writing about braided hair and jewelry. And in the end, we find that many of these writings boil down to one thing: love (in this example, probably love as expressed by not flaunting your wealth (with the modern-day status symbol equivalents of braided hair and fine jewelry) in the fellowship among those of “lower” economic status, but rather pursuing and fostering a spirit of unity and equality in the fellowship). If we walk in love, we don’t have to worry if we’re following all the “rules” humans have drawn from the Bible; the Spirit of love covers and properly guides all things.
All that said, it is very tempting for a person in – or coming from – a self-proclaimed “literal, Bible-based” culture to start to look for loopholes in the Bible while still trying to “follow it,” and to attempt to “legalize” whatever it is they want to pursue simply because “the Bible doesn’t say ‘no,'” to the dangerous point of emphasizing the technical scriptural “legality” of a choice over what their “gut” (or the Spirit within) is telling them. Our “knowledge” of the text becomes a higher authority than the wisdom of the Spirit.
A man worshiping Christ (the God of Love) may be interested in a non-professing woman. He may further conclude that there is no scriptural objection necessarily to him pursuing an “unbeliever.” However, he may be tempted to stop at this point and assume that it’s fine to pursue the woman because the “Bible doesn’t forbid it,” because Christianity has very unfortunately become about following “the list of what the Bible is for or against.”
Stopping at this point without consulting the Spirit would be a mistake.
Is this woman prioritizing love the way the man (in this case, a conscious Christ follower or God-of-Love worshiper) prioritizes love? Does she put the same things first that he does? Does she have financial, personal, or relational goals or propensities which may eventually tempt him to compromise his own priorities, integrity, or conscience – his ability to prioritize the love of God and others in the ways he otherwise would?
More broadly, these questions of compatibility are the types of questions anyone (professing or not) should ask anyway, but many don’t.
#3: Are Only Professing Christians “Of the Faith?”
Jesus said that His family was comprised of those who hear the word of God and do it. (Luke 8:21) I believe that there are many who have heard, and although they have not consciously accepted Christ, they have on an unconscious level. At least they’ve “heard” the word of God. They’ve heard the good news. They’ve seen his sacrificial love. And, on top of that, they do His will, even if they don’t realize why or that they’re doing it. Maybe they believe without knowing it (because faith isn’t ultimately about what we think or feel or express, but what or who we actually trust when the “rubber meets the road.” At the end of the day, faith is about the chair we actually choose to sit on, not what we say about the chair or what theologies or philosophies we technically subscribe to about it.) Kind of like how non-professing people will call on God in a dire circumstance. When things get tight, where do we look?
I believe a lot of people have faith without knowing or trying. How can a child entering heaven ever have a complex knowledge of things? How can a baby have “faith?” A baby’s faith can’t be the lofty or heavily conscious thought, feeling, or expression for which so many Christians strive.
So perhaps many have the unconscious faith of a baby.
Also, a lot of people walk in the love of God without knowing or saying they believe in him. I know and have observed many such atheists.
All of this to say, I do believe it is possible to marry “in the Lord” without marrying a professing Christian. That said, we have to be very vigilant about observing the priorities, actions, words, and desires of those in whom we have interest, regardless of the ways they do or don’t identify.