Mismatched with Unbelievers

Chosen people enjoy certain privileges. But chosen people carry certain responsibilities also.

   I discovered this for myself, in a minor way, in 1953 when I was chosen to represent the Girl Guides of Exeter at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. In my case, the requirement was that my shoes should shine as never before, my Girl Guide badge should gleam as never before, and I should look smarter than ever before. Athletes chosen for the 1984 Olympics also discovered the truth that selection and responsibility go together. As one put it, 'We have lived for the Games and made personal sacrifices for them.'

   Christians are chosen people. 'You did not choose me, but I chose you', (John 15:16). 'You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God' (1 Peter 2:9). 'We know that he has chosen you' (1 Thessalonians 1:4). Christians therefore carry huge responsibilities: 'I chose you to go and bear fruit — fruit that will last' (John 15:16). 'You are a chosen people ... that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light' (1 Peter 2:9). We are chosen for obedience: 'Why do you call me, "Lord, Lord," and do not what I say?' (Luke 6:46). 'Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven' (Matthew 7:21). Clearly, the Christian is one of whom sacrifice and one-hundred-per-cent loyalty is expected.

   All this presents few problems and a whole galaxy of joys until our will clashes with God's will. Then there are tears

Page 110

and tantrums, rebellion and the flat refusal to believe that God not only knows what is best for us but actually has our best interests at heart.

   Anna knew this when she came to see me. Even so, as she fought back the tears, she pleaded with me to find a loophole in 2 Corinthians 6:14, which says: 'Do not be mismated with unbelievers' (RSV). 'Isn't there any way that Robin and I can get married, Joyce? I love him so much. I really don't want to give him up.' Anna knew what I would say before she came to see me. Even so, when she realized she was fighting a losing battle, she became bitter: 'It's as bad as belonging to a sect or something — not being able to make your own decisions, not being able to please yourself?'

   But is it like that? Are God's constraints unreasonable; or do they perhaps make sound sense after all? Does the embargo on mixed marriages extend to the 'going out' phase? In other words, should a Christian 'go out' with a non-Christian? If not, why not? These are the questions we must now grasp firmly by the hand and seek, not simply to answer, but to understand.

Why the embargo on 'mixed marriages'?

First, we must explore what the Bible has to say about the problem of mixed marriages, not racially, but spiritually mixed. To do this, three key passages need to be examined.

   First, there is the shrewd question asked by Amos: 'Do two walk together unless they have agreed to do so?' In other words: Do two form a close relationship unless they bring the same set of expectations to their developing friendship? This question, like the others which follow in Amos 3:3ff.: 'Does a lion roar in the thicket when he has no prey? Does he growl in his den when he has caught nothing?' (verse 4), for example, assumes the answer: 'No way'.

   Some Bible teachers suggest that this verse applies, not only to friendships and business relationships, but to the marriage relationship also. Whether it does or does not is not clear from the text. What is clear is that two people entertaining marriage will, if they are wise, ensure that their goals in life are compatible. What is also clear is that marriage

Page 111

counsellors today are underlining the imbalance which is created in a marriage relationship when two people marry from different faiths or where a person with a strong faith marries a person for whom faith in God finds no niche in their life. They describe these relationships as high-risk.

Paul's teaching

The passage most Christians turn to when they weigh whether marriage or 'going-out' with an unbeliever is permissible or not is 2 Corinthians 6:14-17 where Paul has this to say:

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? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people."

   "Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord."

Many Bible commentators are convinced that 'The subject matter here is marriage with unbelievers.... The apostle strongly exhorts Christians not to mix with unbelievers in the sense of sharing in their lives. Marriage is, of course, the supreme way of sharing in the life of another.'1

   The translators contributing to the New English Bible seem so convinced that the relationship in Paul's mind is marriage that they translate verse 14 in this stark way: 'Do not unite yourselves with unbelievers; they are not fit mates for you.' If this translation is accurate, you cannot have it spelled out more clearly than that.

Jesus' teaching

As we observed in chapter two, isolated verses must always

Page 112

be interpreted in the light of the Bible's wider teaching. For example what did Jesus have to say about mixed marriages? Jesus does not refer to such relationships specifically. What he does do is take us back to first principles: 'A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh' (Matthew 19:5; cf. Genesis 2:24). The oneness of which Jesus speaks here includes genital fusion but its meaning is much broader and deeper than the mere joining of two bodies. Jesus here refers to the emotional oneness, the creative oneness, and the spiritual oneness, such as Adam and Eve so clearly enjoyed in the Garden of Eden, where together they communed with God in the cool of the day.

   Marriage, as Jesus would have it, envisages a foundation of spiritual oneness: a spiritual harmony.

A strait-jacket?

Why? Why does God make this bold, irreversible statement: 'Do not be mismated with unbelievers'? Why does he say unbelievers are not fit mates for Christians? From the many reasons put forward, I propose to dwell on two: one negative, one positive. First, the negative.

   The young people in the Youth Group I used to lead pestered me with this question on one occasion. Like Anna, they were up in arms because God's Word did not happen to fit in with their whims. 'Why?' they would ask. 'Why is God so unreasonable, so mean? Why is Christianity so restrictive?'

   It so happened that among the members of the Young Wives Group were many who had become Christians after they married, who therefore found themselves in the mixed marriage situation Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 7:12ff. I decided, therefore, to ask them why they thought God had placed us in this seeming strait-jacket.

   Although fifteen years have flashed by since these conversations took place, I still have the notes I made in front of me, and I still recall the look of utter bewilderment which crept over each face as we talked. One woman gave voice to the perplexity they all felt: 'But why should a Christian want to marry a non-Christian? There are so many disadvantages,

Page 113

so many heartaches, so many problems.'

   They went on to pin-point some of the problems.

   'Take Sundays, for example. We're all getting ready for church — the children and me, that is. Bill makes it clear he's not coming. Well! You know how children are. They start asking these embarrassing questions! "Mum! Why isn't dad coming to church? Isn't he a Christian like us?" I really love Bill. I know these things hurt him and I hate seeing him hurt. I try to point out to the children that their father is a good man. But it's difficult.'

   Another voice added, 'Yes. And there's every meal time. We sit there with the meal on the table. When it's just me and the children we say grace. When their father's there, we all look embarrassed. "Shall we? Shan't we?" I want ours to be a Christian home especially for the children's sake, but how can it be while the head of the home is an unbeliever?'

   'My problem is that my husband feels threatened by my faith. Oh!I don't mean he stops me praying or reading the Bible, or even going to Young Wives or church once on Sunday. But he doesn't want me getting involved. He actually says that. "Don't you get involved." But I want to be involved in the Lord's work.'

   'The thing that bothers me is not being able to use my home for God. We've got a lovely home. It could easily be used for the Lord. But Tom won't think of it. It's his castle. He comes in, raises the drawbridge and won't think of sharing it — especially with the church.'

   I knew each of these husbands well. They were all pleasant, accommodating, generous people, in many ways the salt of the earth. None of them set out to make life difficult for their wives. The problem was not so much of their making as the nature of the inevitable imbalance a mixed marriage brings. The leaning-tower-of-Pisa syndrome cannot be righted unless the unbelieving partner becomes a Christian or the Christian abandons his or her faith.

   This is so obvious, but a stab of pain went right through me when a likable non-Christian husband spelled this out in my presence recently. He and his Christian wife had been sitting in my lounge bickering for well over an hour. The wife

Page 114

poured out her bitterness at the way her husband failed her constantly. I listened while she hammered him with hurtful home-truths. As we drew the counselling session to a conclusion, this bewildered man made the shrewd comment which cut me to the quick: 'What my wife needs is a Christian husband.' He could not have been more accurate. His wife had married him in a rebellious anti-God phase. Since, she had returned to her first love for God but her husband could not match her cherished expectations of what a Christian husband should be because he lacked the essential qualification: a shared faith. Their marriage ended in divorce.

Love for the Lord cements in marriages

But there is a positive reason for marrying a Christian who is going the same way with Christ as you are: love for the Lord cements the marriage in a way nothing else can. Indeed, the Lord's love is the frame in which your two loves fit together and which, in fact, hold them together. Look at it this way..... If two people walking in a botanic garden are attracted by the same rare flower, they both move towards that flower to examine it. In moving nearer to the flower, they move ever nearer to one another. Similarly, in marriage, if two people are growing ever nearer and ever more like the Lord they love, then imperceptibly they will each be drawing nearer to the other. It cannot be avoided.

   This love for the Lord which is central to them both binds them together. It is at the core of their marriage and influences everything they do and are. In such a marriage both work towards the same goal: to serve Christ, to put him first in everything, to conduct their lives within the divine framework. Thus their lives become integrated and this creates harmony in the home.

Going out with a non-Christian

'But I'm not talking about marriage. I don't want to marry Mike. I just want to go out with him. Surely there's nothing wrong with that? And perhaps he'll become a Christian through me?'

   It's quite true. The non-Christian might become a Christian

Page 115

through the witness of the believing partner. A few have done so. If the statistics are to be believed, though, this happens only very rarely. What normally happens is that the Christian grows cold and abdicates all his or her responsibilities as a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.

   I have personally seen this happen too many times to remain apathetic or unconcerned when someone like Anna, whom I mentioned earlier, comes to see me. I am deeply concerned for Christians who take such dangerous risks.

   It still hurts to reflect on the unfolding story of a young friend of mine who gave his life to Christ while studying in this country and who subsequently returned home to resume the friendship he once enjoyed with a non-Christian girl. 'I know what the Bible says about not marrying an unbeliever. I just like her, that's all.'

   But he did marry her. When I visited them in their own home, I asked him what marriage had done to his faith. A shadow seemed to pass over his face and his eyes grew sad as he admitted: 'I haven't been to church once since my wedding. I never read my Bible these days and scarcely ever pray.'

   I looked out of the window and watched his small children playing in the garden. 'And the children?'

   'They know nothing whatsoever about the Lord.'

   'How do you feel — deep down inside, I mean?'

   In reply to that question this young man admitted to the inner sadness, the yawning emptiness which no-one and nothing could fill. 'My faith really mattered to me. Jesus really mattered to me.'

Lop-sided values, beliefs, behaviour patterns

But I have not forgotten that the questioner whom I quoted at the beginning of this section insisted that she was not intending to marry Mike. Doesn't that make a difference? Doesn't the toll-gate open if this is not a one-way trip?

   I don't think so. Mismating presents huge problems often: problems of lopsided values, beliefs, expectations and behaviour patterns.

   Look at it this way. One of the wonderful things about

Page 116

friends is that they share the same values, or as C.S. Lewis puts it, they see the same truth. The typical expression of such friendship would be something like, ' "What? You too? I thought I was the only one." '2 Love in this context means that two or more people care about the same realities.

   One of the biggest problems with the Christian/non-Christian pairing-off problem is that these two people do not share the same truth: the same value systems, the same guiding principles for life or the same beliefs.

   You may retort: 'Does this really matter?' Surely a golf enthusiast can marry a squash player and their relationship need not be damaged; it can be enhanced if one learns to play or watch golf and the other to play or watch squash.

   Unfortunately, this is not a neat or accurate parallel. If being a Christian means anything, it means giving God the first place in your life; revolving your life around him. If you go out with an unbeliever, however good and close and enriching the friendship is, an essential element must be missing: the spiritual. As someone summed it up for me the other day: 'being hitched to a non-Christian as I am, I simply cannot be the kind of Christian I want to be.'

   It is not simply that a strand is missing; the heart of the relationship is missing. Two Christians can enrich one another's spiritual lives by reading the Bible together, praying together, going to church together, attending meetings together, working for God together. A man looks at spiritual truths differently from a woman. Put together the male and female viewpoints and you have a rich whole. The relationship becomes not like a flabby lettuce which has no heart, but one which is firm at the centre, healthy, satisfying, growing.

The moral dilemma

But the problem does not centre around absent ingredients. It often introduces a strain on the couple concerned because of what is present: opposite and opposing hopes of the relationship.

   Take the genital problems we discussed in chapters two, five and six for example. A Christian, as we have seen, is one who has sworn allegiance to Jesus Christ, one who has

Page 117

enlisted in Jesus' service, who has promised life-long obedience. The unbeliever has made no such choice so neither expects the benefits of becoming a Christian nor expects to pay the price of being a Christian.

   On the one hand, then, you have a Christian partner who knows that if they are to live biblically they will draw the line this side of pre-marital sex. On the other hand, you have the unbeliever who acknowledges no such restraints; like most unbelievers they might well believe the exact opposite.

   I say this, not because I believe all unbelievers are rebellious, therefore promiscuous, but because, if I read the signs of the times correctly, an increasing number of teenagers grow up today believing that pre-marital sex is the norm. I think, for example, of a programme transmitted on television in June 1984 which showed that, since the sex revolution of the 1960s, most teenagers would expect to have sexual intercourse before marriage. Or I think of a report published in May 1984 that claimed that teenage boys in Britain today take as their model James Bond and, in true 007 fashion, try to 'make it' with as many girls as possible; that many girls feel pressurized to prove their femininity by forfeiting their virginity. Girls even feel convinced that to please a man they must permit him to have sex with them; that this behaviour is natural and normal.

   This is the current climate in which the Christian co-exists with the non-Christian. We have already observed the peergroup pressure to conform. We have already observed that, for most of us, it is a struggle to abstain from pre-marital genital intercourse with someone who attracts us physically. These pressures are accentuated when someone who takes James Bond as their model mismates with a person who takes Jesus Christ as their model. An unbeliever put the situation so clearly when he apologized to his girlfriend for forcing intercourse on her: 'I didn't intend to hurt or insult you. I thought all girls wanted it. Why didn't you tell me Christians behave differently? I never knew!'3

   How can the non-Christian know? The Bible's teaching about extra-marital genital involvement is not taught today. In schools and colleges it has been replaced by more liberal

Page 118

views. In most churches it finds no place in the teaching curriculum. While the church remains silent, almost every pop song churns out the same persuasive, sensuous message: so long as you love one another there's no need to wait. While the church remains silent, films and plays and books and magazines propagate the same message: so long as you love one another, any form of genital intimacy is legitimate. While the church remains silent, students and nurses at the beginning of their training are advised by their tutors to go on the pill and contraceptive machines are installed in the toilets in many universities and colleges.

   The Christian going out with the non-Christian not only suffers a kind of vitamin deficiency in their relationship: lack of shared prayer, shared goals, shared beliefs, mutually agreed boundaries, but in the absence of this life-giving ingredient, they are expected to summon the superlative strength required to swim against today's sexual tide. This challenge defeats some Christian couples who are both wanting to serve and please Christ. Not many of us are strong enough to combat such powerful, anti-God influences on our own. That is why many Christian/non-Christian relationships result in the gradual fading of the Christian's other love-life: their love for the Lord. Unable to extricate themselves from the compromise such relationships almost always present, they slink away from God, fall to attacking the church or the pastor or other Christians and are eventually lost to the fellowship.

   God wants to protect us from this self-inflicted anguish, the kind of inner tug-of-war Anna was expressing when she asked the heart-rending question: 'Isn't there any way I can marry Robin? I love him so much.'

   And God's concern rests equally with the unbelieving partner. He wants to woo them to himself. We hinder his task when, by obedience, we say one thing with our lips and give a totally different message with our lives. As one girl lamented recently, 'How will my ex-boyfriend ever understand what God's love is now? How could I have been such a lousy witness?'

Page 119

The gulf

I have homed in on the sexual because, for many Christians, the heart of the problem seems to lie here. But the problem is deeper, more complex than that. When a person turns to Christ, he accepts a whole new value system: the topsy-turvy standards of the kingdom of God. This affects his attitudes, his time, his talents, what he watches and listens to, where he goes, his ambitions — every particle of his being because he knows that he is under new ownership: he has been bought with an unrepeatable price. He is no longer lord of his life. Jesus is.

   To the unbeliever, such a change of lordships makes not one iota of sense. It is utter foolishness. For him, there is no apparent reason why his world should not revolve around number one, seeking pleasure, the fleeting excitements of the moment. He does not live in anticipation of the Lord's return. This is not a criticism. It is a fact.

   Between the Bible-observing Christian and the unbeliever, then, lies an inevitable, and in some senses an unbridgeable, gulf; a behaviour gap. That is why Paul is adamant that the two should not try to entwine their lives. The incompatibility problem is as acute as trying to introduce darkness into a room which is floodlit.

The 'wet Christian' problem

'But all the Christians I know are so wet. I don't fancy any of them.'

  It has become fashionable in certain Christian circles for girls, in particular, to voice this complaint. These girls are almost always attractive, vivacious, marriageable, longing to be married and those with strong views about the kind of men who would make suitable partners for them.

   The complaint is born of pain, pride and very often selfishness. The pain stems from the anguish that they have not yet found that much-sought-after but elusive phenomenon, a life partner. The pride stems from the fact that their 'husband-wanted' short-list is dictated by worldly, not Christian, criteria: good looks, good job, good prospects, good income, easy disposition. Too often they look at a Christian guy and complain: 'he's not tall enough for one thing, he's not

Page 120

very good looking and he's not at all sporty. I'd be embarrassed to walk down the street with him let alone turn up at church with him.' And the selfishness? I suspect that if more of these girls concentrated on fulfilling the Lord's command to love one another as he loves us, the 'wet Christian' problem would quickly become a thing of the past. Christian people sometimes appear 'wet' because no-one has come alongside them in the crucial formative years and loved out their full potential. They therefore withdraw into themselves, panic in the presence of the opposite sex, and fail to express their creativity or to grow in maturity. Criticism, complaint and condemnation help no-one. The solution to the problem is not for Christian girls to hide behind their hands and gossip about these dreadful Christian men, at the same time looking elsewhere for close relationships across the sex barrier. That, according to Paul's teaching, is disobedience. No. The solution is more radical than that. Jesus put it this way: 'Love one another as I have loved you.' That means, within the ranks of the fellowship, recognize one another's worth, draw out one another's strengths, tease out one another's full potential so that we appear to the world and to each other, not wet but gloriously alive; a walking testimony to the creativity of God.

What to say to your friends

It will be obvious from what I have already written that, in my view, when a Christian goes out with a non-Christian his is an act of disobedience.

   To the question, 'Surely Christians should go out with non-Christians to convert them: how else will they hear about Jesus?' I would simply ask: 'Since when has effective evangelism been born from willful disobedience?' The Bible clearly says, 'Do not be mismated with unbelievers'. True evangelism is not just telling people about Jesus but leading people into a personal relationship with Jesus. A relationship with Jesus involves us in a life of obedience: ' "Why do you call me, 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I say?" ' (Luke 6:46). Clearly then these lop-sided relationships cannot be designed by God as tools for evangelism.

Page 121

   Having taken that hard line, I would now put in a plea for a generosity of spirit amongst Christians. It very often happens that if a Christian so much as smiles at a non-Christian of the opposite sex at a party, that Christian is ostracized by the entire fellowship: shunned as though they carried some deadly disease. The Christian might start going out with a non-Christian and pluck up courage to bring their friend to church or even a Bible study. But the embarrassment and unspoken disapproval exude a lack of welcome and it is not long before the couple cease to darken Christian doors. As one of our parishioners once told me, 'I know I shouldn't have gone out with Jim when he wasn't a Christian. And I know it was disobedient to marry him. But when I did come back to the Lord, people's hard attitude made it really hard for me to return to church again.'

   Chua Wee Hian, in his book, Lovers for Life, tells the story of a mixed marriage which once took place in Malaysia. Just before the wedding, an 'order' was passed around the church refusing Christians permission to attend. As a result, most of the tables at the wedding banquet were empty, food was wasted, the couple's confidence in their so-called friends was shattered.

   Chua Wee Hian concludes, and I agree with him, 'Our concern ... will be better expressed in other ways.'4

   How? The most effective way to bring about any change and to dislodge any disobedience is prayer. Instead of spending valuable time gossiping about the person's backsliding, covenant to pray for them, on your own or with another person who expresses equal concern. Let this prayer spring, not from a judgmental or critical spirit (finger-pointing and compassionate prayer cannot co-exist), but let it be an expression of the love and compassion you feel for the person.

   Don't nag. Don't condemn. Reflect on areas in your own life God is wanting to deal with. Keep the whole problem in perspective. And be interested in the friendship. It very often happens that a Christian going out with a non-Christian is so cold-shouldered by the Christian friends whose shock is communicated in one way or another that they have to turn to non-Christian friends to share the euphoria and the pain

Page 122

of the friendship. That is not just a pity but a tragedy. It is a tragedy because, even when we are being willfully disobedient, most of us want to find the steep pathway which leads us back to a joy-filled relationship with God. Most of us are not strong enough or wise enough to find the way alone. Most of us need at least one Christian friend who will stand by us, love us through our waywardness, understand our rebellion, pray and support to the bitter end, until we have said our 'No' to temptation and our 'Yes' to God. And such costly friendship is what you and I are called to give. Even if the Christian decides to choose a mixed marriage, our responsibility under God is to offer support and ongoing care, not to cast the first stone.

   I am not saying that we shouldn't ask concerned questions. 'What's so good about the relationship?' 'How do you feel about the absence of spiritual compatibility?'  I am saying, let any such questions be conceived in the womb of love, let them be prompted by the Holy Spirit. Never quiz a person from malice, the desire to make them look small, or with the aim of cornering them so that they have no option but to fight.

What do I do next?

And if you are reading this chapter because you yourself have formed a close one-to-one relationship with an unbeliever, what must you do? If you are under eighteen and the chances of this relationship resulting in marriage are slight, weigh carefully what I have said in this chapter about mismating, weigh carefully the thesis of this book: that close one-to-one relationships have as their main purpose, the growth of the whole person: emotional, spiritual, sexual. Be honest. Is this relationship helping your spiritual growth or hindering it? If it is hindering your relationship with God, meditate on Hebrews 12:1, 'So then let us rid ourselves of everything that gets in the way, and of the sin which holds on to us so tightly, and let us run with determination the race that lies before us. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Jesus... ' (GNB). Act appropriately.

   If you are over eighteen it is possible that this relationship could result in marriage. It could be that marriage is in your

Page 123

partner's mind even though you may not yet seriously entertain the idea. Is it responsible Christian loving to develop a close relationship with someone you know, under God, you cannot marry? Is it responsible to allow the friendship to deepen only to pull out at the eleventh hour, with all the hurt and turmoil that entails? Is it even responsible to dilly-dally, stringing someone along in the hope that they might become a Christian? Surely not. That is not loving another, it is loving yourself.

   My writing of this chapter was interrupted by an all-day Ladies Conference where I addressed two hundred women on the subject of Christian marriage. A question-box collected questions that were to be dealt with towards the close of the conference. The first question I found in that box asked: 'How can you make a Christian marriage if your husband is not a Christian?'

   The short answer to that is, 'You can't'. Neither can you create the radical relationship I am describing in this book unless your partner is going the same way as you are — with Christ.

   Is there any alternative at the going out stage, then, to the dreaded one: splitting up? I think not. To that painful alternative, we address ourselves in the next chapter.

Notes for chapter seven

1. W.C.G Proctor, writing in The New Bible Commentary (IVP, 1953), p. 995.

2. C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (Collins, 1963), p.62.

3. 'Whose Responsibility?', an article published in Sex Education by the National Council of Women in Great Britain and quoted in the Daily Mail in May 1984.

4. Chong Kwong Tek and Chua Wee Hian, Lovers for Life (The Way Press, 1971). p. 36.

Chapter Eight  ||  Table of Contents