Marriage, as with any kind of partnership, can be difficult. Two different people are united in a household and forced to work together for a common goal, with business dealings, shared finances, and often children added in. They must learn to respect each other, bend wills, and compromise, not to mention to weather all of life’s ups and downs, too.
If the husband and wife share the same values, especially faith values, this is far easier, for they are working toward the same overarching purpose and with the same morals and beliefs guiding them. In a Christian marriage, they do this with God as their head, and the hope is that Christ’s hand upon them helps guide them even when they are weak or struggling.
But what about an interfaith marriage? Are interfaith marriages truly harder than marriages between those of the same faith? And why?
What Is an Interfaith Marriage?
An interfaith marriage is a marriage between people of two different religions. Two Christians of different denominations uniting in marriage are not considered interfaith, because both have the same faith — that Christ is Lord and Savior — in common.
But when a professing Christian marries a professing Muslim, Buddhist, Jew, or a member of another religion, or marries an atheist or agnostic, this is considered an interfaith marriage.
What Does the Bible Say about Interfaith Marriages?
While interfaith marriages are often common today, the Old Testament had some harsh words about them. God was very clear that He did not want His people, the Israelites, marrying people of other faiths.
Don’t intermarry with people of other nations, God said in Deuteronomy 7:3-4, adding, “Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you” (NIV).
And when the Israelites entered the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua, conquered the nations, and eventually settled down, Joshua in his old age urged the people to remember God’s commands and avoid associating with the nations that remained among them. Instead, they should cling to God and stay true to Him. Don’t bow to these other nations’ gods or use their gods’ names.
Particularly, Joshua warned, don’t intermarry with them, for if they do, “You may be sure that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you. Instead, they will become snares and traps for you, whips on your backs and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from this good land, which the Lord your God has given you” (Joshua 23:1-13).
The New Testament doesn’t contain the same sort of directives, but it discourages followers of Christ from allowing themselves to be unequally yoked with an unbeliever.
As the Apostle Paul wrote to the early church in Corinth, “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 Corinthians 6:14-15).
The concept of being unequally yoked is clear — two oxen pulling a plow cannot pull together properly if there is an imbalance. Likewise, he’s saying, a Christian “yoked” with a non-Christian also cannot pull together in harmony.
Are Interfaith Marriages Forbidden?
Scripture does not indicate that it is forbidden for a Christian believer to marry an unbeliever, but many of the early leaders in the church indicate it is not desirable.
For one thing, marriage is a partnership, and just as God didn’t want the Israelites intermarrying with foreigners (and their foreign gods) in the Old Testament for fear they would be influenced by them, one could make the argument that a Christian might be similarly influenced by a non-Christian’s faith.
Paul indicates a widow may remarry only if her new husband belongs to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:39). He also said he and the other apostles “have the right to take a believing wife along with us” (1 Corinthians 9:5), but he doesn’t make any concessions for an unbelieving wife.
However, interfaith marriages are still marriages, and they can and do bring about good. Those Christians who find themselves in a marriage with a non-Christian aren’t to divorce or separate from the non-Christian. Paul writes,
To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy (1 Corinthians 7:12-14).
The Apostle Peter urges Christian wives if they are married to an unbelieving husband, “submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (1 Peter 3:1-2).
Why Are Interfaith Marriages Harder?
In a marriage between Christians, God is their head, guiding and strengthening them to love each other well even when they fall short. Paul has plenty of advice for Christian men and women, equating their partnership to Jesus and the church as a way of helping them defer to each other and care for each other in the manner of Christ even when times are extraordinarily difficult.
But in an interfaith marriage, it’s different. One person might have God as their leader, while the other’s heart belongs to a different deity, or perhaps none at all. This imbalance — or unequal yoke, to borrow Paul’s term — can create conflict and disagreement. And when they encounter other struggles as most do over the course of a lifetime, the imbalance can lead to disaster.
Additionally, consider the many decisions couples must make throughout the years: when and if to buy a house or car, whether or not to have children, how to care for aging parents, career changes, even establishing holiday traditions.
If the couple is not united in faith, these decisions can be even harder. Instead of praying together about these things, they pray or meditate separately, or simply talk them out together without consulting the Lord as one.
Instead of a common house of worship, they attend as a family, they might attend separately — or not at all.
Then there is the family dynamic — perhaps in-laws don’t approve of this spouse because they do not share the same faith. Perhaps religious traditions are not understood or respected.
What if I’m Considering a Marriage to a Person of a Different Faith?
If you are in this position, examine your faith and talk to God. Faith is the single most important aspect of marriage, and it cannot be tiptoed around or brushed aside as unimportant. Truly consider whether this is God’s will for your life. Consider your motives and your goals as a couple. Pray, and consider couples counseling with a pastor or Christian counselor.
What if I’m Married to a Non-Christian?
If you are married to a non-Christian, remember that you can help bring your spouse to Christ, whether by modeling Christianity, sharing the gospel with them, or praying fervently for their salvation. James 5:16 tells us, “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”
Interfaith marriages are indeed harder, but they are not doomed. Keep your eyes on the Lord and ask Him to guide you.
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.