Today’s reading: Ezra 8-10.
There may be no more discouraging situation for young Christians today than the problem of finding a believing mate. The problem could become more difficult in the future as Christians become more of a minority in our expanding culture of “nones” – those who are affiliated with no church. Desperation may drive some, whether young or older, to seek mates from among the unbelieving. Also, love can be blind, and sometimes the heart binds itself to another before the mind considers whether it is wise to marry someone of a different faith or no faith.
This is not a new problem. The Israelites who returned from exile also had issues with their members marrying unbelievers:
Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel’s guilt. Now make confession to the LORD, the God of your fathers, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives.” The whole assembly responded with a loud voice: “You are right!” Ezra 10:10-12
Let me be clear about this command to avoid foreign mates.
- It isn’t a command to avoid marrying someone of another ethnicity.
- It isn’t a command to avoid marrying someone of another race.
This is a command to avoid marrying someone who does not worship Jehovah but instead worships a pagan idol or any other false god. In the days of Ezra, the Jews were the only ones who worshiped the LORD. All the other nations and cultures around them worshiped other gods. God had made it clear in his law that they were to avoid marrying unbelievers because the unbelievers would lead them away from God, and the history of Israel had shown that his words were correct.
This is one topic where the New Testament clearly supports the Old Testament view. Paul said, “Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). Paul’s prohibition against being unequally yoked with unbelievers applies to marriage, but also to legally binding business partnerships that are difficult to dissolve. Paul goes on to explain that the result of such partnerships is like trying to mix Jesus and the Devil, that there can be no Christian fellowship in such a relationship, that there can be no agreement on the most important matters of life and eternity, and that it defiles the temple of the Holy Spirit within believers.
“But I love him/her.” God says that your relationship with him is more important than your relationship with your mate. If that relationship is with an unbelieving mate, it is a defiant act which says to God, “You matter less than my loved one.” It is an act of faithlessness that says to God, “I don’t believe you can provide what I need.”
“But I will change him/her.” The Bible and experience tell us the opposite. The general rule is that the unbeliever weakens the believer’s life of faith. The exception is the case where the believer changes the heart of the unbeliever, though by God’s grace it does sometimes happen. To be clear, I am talking about a man and woman who are already married or deeply emotionally bound to each other. I don’t mean that a believer shouldn’t witness to the lost.
“But I can’t leave him/her.” The New Testament teaching (1 Corinthians 7) does recommend that the unequally yoked couple stay together if they are already married. Paul says that this is best for the children and does allow for the possibility that the believer may save the lost spouse by their godly example.
People learn this principle at different stages in their lives. Some learn it before marriage. For them, it’s imperative to look for a partner who shares their faith in God. Some learn it after marriage. If that’s your situation, God says you can be a witness that will sometimes win your spouse (more by example than words) and will always set them apart in God’s eyes (1 Corinthians 7:14).
If the pagan wife had decided to keep her primary allegiance with her former people and their idols, she could not live among the covenant community and had to be divorced. To the end of the chapter, there is a list showing that only about 114 of these pagan wives refused to embrace the God of Israel and had to be divorced. Yamauchi calculates that it was less than one-half of one percent of the people who were guilty of this pagan intermarriage and who had to divorce their wives. Though it was such a small percentage, it still had to be dealt with strongly – and it was. It also shows that most of the foreign wives joined the people of God in their heart as well as their home. In the New Testament believers are also instructed to marry within the faith. Marriages to unbelievers are condemned (2 Corinthians 6:14) and widows (as one example of the unmarried) are directly commanded to marry within the faith (1 Corinthians 7:39). However, Paul specifically commanded that if a believer is married to an unbeliever, they are to remain in the marriage if at all possible, both for the possibility of a witness to the unbelieving spouse and for the benefit it brings to the children (1 Corinthians 7:12-17) – David Guzik
Image by John St John on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0