Unequally yoked: Marrying your match!

by Nathan Bailey

Resources for people who want to invest in covenant, life-long relationships.
Last updated Sat May 2 08:31:47 EST 1998

Who should I marry? It's one of the most intensely debated, thoroughly pondered questions of all time. Obviously we need some standard by which to judge our selection criteria, and the most natural standard would seem to be the Bible.

The Bible is God's manual for living, when we abide by its truths we will experience a rich and fulfilling life. But we are warned that some have perished for lack of knowledge (Job 36:12; Proverbs 5:23), so it is important that we study out His Word for each and every area of our life, especially when it concerns a decision with such wide-spread and long-lasting consequences. This article describes some insights from the Bible on God's standards in choosing our marriage partner.

In the beginning...

It is clear that God feels strongly about this, for in exasperation, He spoke of man being led astray by his flesh, and God's decision to limit man's days to one hundred and twenty years (Genesis 6:2-3). What was the cause of this exasperation? Surely the wickedness mentioned in verse five played a part, but it is the fact that "they took wives for themselves, whomever they chose," that is mentioned in the preceeding verse (v2).

It was man's continuing to follow in this path that led to the flood! Clearly, between Genesis 1:1 and Genesis 6, man lost God's plan for relationships. This certainly gives us a smaller scope to examine than the whole Bible! :) But to provide balance, after examining these passages, we will proceed to investigate others that expand on God's vision for marriage.

Genesis 2

It is in the second chapter of Genesis that we read of the creation of Adam and Eve. What truths does this chapter reveal that mankind forgot a mere four chapters hence? Let us see:

Genesis 2:15-24 (15) Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. (16) The LORD God commanded the man, saying, "From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; (17) but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die." (18) Then the LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him." (19) Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. (20) The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. (21) So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. (22) The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. (23) The man said, "This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man." (24) For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. (NASB)

First, we see from verse 15 that God's intention was for man to cultivate(5647) and keep(8104) the garden. This is sometimes referred to as the "dominion mandate." From the definitions below we can see that Adam's responsibilities included working, serving, worshipping, guarding, protecting and saving. Sounds like a lot of work for just one guy! :)

God recognized that Adam needed a suitable helper (v18), but none of the animals had the necessary characteristics to complement Adam's skills in fulfilling his mandate. Adam needed someone who was like him, and yet different, someone who has part of him, and yet seperate. And so God created Eve, who was "taken out of" Adam. The words used to describe her "part-ness" with Adam (4480) include the meaning of musical chords, beautifully illustrating the concept of musical harmony, where two sounds combine to emphasize the other, resulting in a pleasing contrast. And so Eve's purpose was to contrast and complement Adam, to be his "suitable helper" (5828)

In verse 24 we are told that there is a reason for a man to leave his parents and join to his wife, ie. to be married. What is this reason? As described in the preceeding paragraph, that they should "cleave" (1692,259; be joined together) and complete each other. So that, in their contrasting strengths, they should provide and protect as they pursue God's destiny together. But what is that destiny? It is the initial mandate God gave, for Adam to serve in the garden!

Tying it together

So, should we all become farmers, and wives who help farmers fulfill their call? Essentially, yes! :) God has given each man a "Garden of Eden" in which he is called to work, serve, worship, guard, protect and save. And God has similarly created each woman to be a "suitable helper" for her husband, that her destiny should be in harmony with his, that their lives together should produce a pleasing melody.

It was this vision of service and harmony that mankind had lost, only four chapters further along in history. And so it is clear, even at this early point of the Bible, that God's plan for marriage included two believers who were responding to their joint calling in Him.

The pattern of Israel

Even before man fell in sin, God had a plan to redeem him back into relationship with Himself. The first phase of this plan lay in the nation of Israel, God's chosen people. It was through this people that God intended to "bless all the families of the earth." (Genesis 29:7) Unfortunately, however, Israel fell far short of God's plans. Instead of providing an example of a people with intimate relationship with their God, they prostituted themselves to many idols and grew progessively more distant with the priests, then the judges and then the kings.

Like His relationship with Israel, it is God's intention that our marriage relationships today should reflect Christ's relationship with His bride, the Church. The reason Israel fell short of displaying such truths is instructive to us who are called to take up this mantle. Although God gave Israel many teachings and warnings, one admonition sticks out as significant to this topic; they were commanded not to marry foreign wives:

Deuteronomy 7:3-4 (3) Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. (4) For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you. (NASB)

God's reasoning here is clear -- He didn't want Israel to intermarry with those who were locked into sin. He allowed for His people to marry outside of Israel (eg. Genesis 21:10-14), but not to merge in with these peoples, to intermarry, giving and taking wives until the cultures were so intertwined that their enemies' sin became their own. God forsaw this, and thus commanded against it. But Israel repeatedly refused to follow His command, always resulting in their adoption of idol worship. The beautiful image of intimacy with Him that God had intended, became corrupted and polluted by Israel's sin.

The Biblical record is clear, the pattern is repeatedly shown. Time and again, God brought His people back to Himself, only for them to fall away from Him under the influence of their neighbours. Can we truly believe that our faith is so strong that it could survive this test, when dozens of generations have already shown they could not? Clearly, we can see in Israel's pattern the danger of disobeying God. God's commandment stands eternal, He has instructed His people to marry within the family of God, and we can easily recognize the wisdom of His command.

Does the new covenant bring in a different standard?

And so, we come to the New Testament. What insight does it offer us concerning relationships? It includes the most quoted verses on this topic:

2 Corinthians 6:14-15 (14) Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? (15) Or what harmony has Christ with Belial, or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? (NASB)

These verses are in the midst of a passage where St. Paul is describing some general principles for the Corinthian church to live by. In preceeding verses he has talked about serving God in purity and patience, along with many other character traits. In the following verses he talks about purity of heart and holiness. Personally, then, I feel that the context of these verse does not apply to any specific area, but should be applied as a life principle, as all the other virtues he described should be.

Just as we would hope for kindness and genuine love (v6) in all aspects of life, so we would avoid making covenants with non-believers (v14) in all aspects of life. Clearly, if this is a general life principle, it applies equally well to marriage. And so St. Paul tells us that we should not enter into any form of covenant with non-believers. Why would this be? Well, St. Paul expounds on his reasoning in the following verses, and similarly I, following his formidable example, discuss it further below! :)

A bit of help from mathematics

There is a process in mathematics called proof by negation, which is used by scientists to prove something is true. It is quite simple in principle, basically you just assume the contrary position, and prove that position to be a logical fallacy. Then one has shown that the original statement is true, since only one of them can be.

We can apply this process to the discussion at hand, for example:

1 Corinthians 7:3 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; and likewise also the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (NASB)

Now we know that, as Christians, we are in submission to Jesus Christ, as our Lord. As long as our partner is a Christian, we can still fulfill our fealty whilst obeying the above, since our partner's final authority is also Jesus. However (here comes the proof by negation! :), if our partner is not a Christian, we can no longer completely fulfill this obligation, since surrending such authority would be, through our partner, surrending ourselves to the world, and could lead to sin.

Similar logic can be applied to St. Paul's instruction for widows:

1 Corinthians 7:39 A wife is bound as long as her husband lives; but if her husband is dead, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. (NASB)

Are we to believe that there is a different standard for widows than for the rest of the church? Surely St. Paul had the opportunity here to lay down many important considerations for a marriage partner, but he only feels it is necessary to admonish that the widow marry "in the Lord."

There are literally hundreds of other cases where we could apply this logic, and reveal the principle that entering into covenant with a non-Christian limits our capacity to fulfill our covenant with God. I believe that this limitation, together with the possibility of being brought into sin, is the reason St. Paul admonishes us against entering into covenant with non-believers.

Other areas of concern

I do not mean to delve into all the possibilities suggested above, however I would like to outline some other significant attributes that should be considered when evaluating a partner. These attributes have weighty consequences for those who choose to disobey God's directive to marry a fellow-believer.

The husband should be the spiritual leader

This goes further than the Christian/non-Christian distinction, a woman should be looking for a man who is passionately pursuing his relationship with God, and is appropriately equipped to fulfill his role as spiritual leader. Otherwise, she will find her own spiritual growth hampered, or perhaps even outright restricted, by a husband who increasingly doesn't tolerate her "irrelevant" spiritual life. Worse still, competition may arise, to show whose values are the most fulfilling and effective, and thus instead of being a team working together for success, the "partners" become competitors in a boxing match with no winners.

Of course, the greatest area of impact is on the kids. Most kids try, at some stage in life, to play each parent off the other, in an attempt to get their own way. How poorly disciplined and discipled will the child be, who can play a non-believing parent against the Bible-standards based one? Unless some form of compromise is found, this marriage will be a very tense and stressful one. And if a compromise is reached, it will, by it's very nature, mean watering down the Biblical standards.

A husband should lead as a servant-leader. He should exercise authority as one who is under authority. Where does the unbelieving husband get his authority from? Biblically, he is empowered by God, and yet if he does not accept God, can he truly walk in the fullness of that power? Any marriage with a non-believer cannot possibly be as effective or as powerful as one where both partners are connected to the True Life Source.

Finally, we should consider the difficulty of maintaining ones passion when one is a "coal outside of the fire." God designed us to be inspired and encouraged by each other, to "stimulate one another to love and good deeds." (Hebrews 10:24) This is just like being a coal in the fire -- the heat from the other coals helps us to maintain our own fire. This should be especially true in marriage, where each partner knows the other intimately, and is well-placed to encourage and support them. Pity then, the person who marries a non-believer, and ends up like a coal sitting far out from the hearth.


I cannot understand why anyone would want to go against the clear pattern of scripture regarding marrying outside the faith. Ultimately, our marriages are supposed to convey the wonderful joy of intimacy with God to the unknowing, unseeing world. How can a covenant with a non-believer display this joyous and fulfilling intimacy? Christ's covenant is only complete to those who accept it, and so, if we wish to model His covenant to the lost, we need to model this truth: Christ is in covenant with Christian, and, for our benefit, desires that we too, only be in covenant with those who have first committed to Him. For it is only through our covenant with Him that we can truly have meaningful relationships with others.

Further Resources

There are many other great resources on this topic, including books by Christian authors on relationships. Here are two excellent references I've found on-line:

Hebrew definitions from "A concise dictionary of the words in the Hebrew Bible; with their renderings in the authorized English version." by James Strong, S.T.D., LL.D.
© Copyright 1997-2007, Nathan Bailey, All Rights Reserved. Scriptures taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. Permission is granted to print these articles for personal use, in whole or in part, provided the extract references the original URL, http://polynate.net/books/courtship/, so that people can find the latest version.