The Bible’s View
Marry “Only in the Lord”—How Important?
“IS IT breaking a command of Jehovah to marry someone who is not a true Christian?” On October 1, 1978, a single woman wrote asking that question, a question that many have thought about.
One reason that she was puzzled was that she knew of some Christians who had chosen to marry unbelievers. Yet she also knew what the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 7:39. He there commented about a Christian woman (though it is also true of a man) whose mate had died. Death ends the marriage contract. (Rom. 7:2) So Paul said that the survivor is then eligible to remarry. The verse concludes: “She is free to be married to whom she wants, only in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 7:39) Consistently, then, she is not “free” to marry outside the Lord.
Is that statement, “only in the Lord,” to be viewed as merely human, personal advice from a mature Christian, Paul? Or is it an inspired guideline from God for his servants? In fact, some have wondered, ‘Is deliberately going against that advice a reason for expulsion from the congregation, as the Bible says is true for unrepentant adulterers, idolaters or homosexuals?’—1 Cor. 5:11-13; 6:9, 10.
Getting the Right View
Other parts of God’s Word help us to get the right view of the limitation stated in 1 Corinthians 7:39. For instance, recall Abraham’s course in choosing a wife for Isaac. Abraham and his family dwelt in Canaan, surrounded by people worshiping false gods. Where could he find a wife for his son? The most convenient thing might have been to select some eligible Canaanite woman who had good qualities and who broadmindedly would agree that any children be brought up worshiping Jehovah. Yet Abraham rejected that course, for it would have been disloyal to Jehovah. Rather, despite all the extra effort involved, a wife for Isaac was searched for among Abraham’s relatives in a distant land. Why? Because those relatives recognized the true God.—Gen. 24:1-67; compare 26:34, 35; 28:6-9.
At a later period, when God gave his law to Israel, his servants were warned: “You must form no marriage alliance with [the nations in Canaan]. Your daughter you must not give to his son, and his daughter you must not take for your son.” Why not? “For he will turn your son from following me, and they will certainly serve other gods.”—Deut. 7:2-4; Ex. 34:14-16.
But what if someone did marry a false worshiper? The Law did not command that the Israelite be cut off. It was not as with the law about adultery: “In case a man is found lying down with a woman owned by an owner, both of them must then die together . . . So you must clear away what is bad out of Israel.” (Deut. 22:22) Similarly, practicers of idolatry and homosexuality were to be executed. (Ex. 22:20; Lev. 20:13) Does the lack of such a penalty for marrying a nonbeliever mean that it did not really matter? No! God’s warning was firm and had good reason behind it, that the believer might not be turned away from Jehovah.
Underscoring the fact that this divine warning was not unduly harsh, the Bible tells what happened to Solomon. Though having received wisdom from God, Solomon foolishly took foreign wives. Over the years they inclined his heart away from Jehovah and toward the foreign gods. Solomon may have thought, ‘Oh, I know what I’m doing. I’ll never leave Jehovah.’ But he did, he really did.—1 Ki. 11:1-6.
When the Jews who returned from captivity in Babylon took foreign wives, both Ezra and Nehemiah forcefully condemned them. Ezra said that those doing so “acted unfaithfully” and brought on “guiltiness”; he had them put away their pagan wives. And Nehemiah, citing Solomon’s poor example, referred to the Jews marrying such unbelievers as people “commit[ting] all this great badness in acting unfaithfully against our God.”—Ezra 10:10-14; Neh. 13:23-27.
This Hebrew Scripture background should help us to understand how the Christian congregation and we personally should view the matter.
The Christian Scriptures mention a number of gross sins for which an unrepentant wrongdoer might be cut off from the congregation. No, not by being stoned as in ancient Israel, but by being disfellowshiped. Among these sins are fornication, idolatry, adultery, stealing, drunkenness and extortion. A Christian’s marrying an unbeliever is not given as a basis for being disfellowshiped, any more than an ancient Israelite was cut off for that. But, as we have clearly seen, that course was definitely wrong in Israel. It was unfaithfulness, disloyalty to Israel’s God. Hence, Paul’s words to marry “only in the Lord” cannot be dismissed as mere human opinion. They are actually a continuation of the overall counsel of God’s Word on the matter. And they are now part of the inspired Scriptures that are beneficial “for setting things straight, for disciplining in righteousness.”—2 Tim. 3:16.
Being imperfect, all of us daily fail to adhere as closely as we would like to God’s wise and loving counsel. Thus, perhaps by unplanned contacts on the job or at school, some Christians have let romantic attachments to unbelievers develop. This is especially a danger when it does not seem that eligible Christian companions are available. But when such feelings for an unbeliever become strong, one may be misled by a deceptive heart into believing that it is impossible to break off the attachment. (Jer. 17:9; Prov. 28:26) A person might think, ‘Some becoming Christians in the first century had unbelieving mates. Evidently those Christians stayed faithful, even hoping their mates would become believers. So if we get married, maybe my mate will become a believer too.’—1 Cor. 7:12-16.
But even if some unbelieving mates have accepted Christianity, do we honestly think that God’s counsel is mistaken? Do we know better than Jehovah? Unnumbered examples from Solomon’s time down till ours bear out the wisdom of God’s warning—the unbeliever can turn the mate from Jehovah. And even if it is not to serve a false god, but just in the sense of its resulting in continual conflicts and grief from interfering with the Christian’s pursuing true worship whole-souled, is it not better to avoid getting in that spot?
The hope of all mature Christians is that those who have married unbelievers can be helped not to leave Jehovah. (Gal. 6:1, 2) However, for those who may be considering marriage, how much better and more conducive to happiness and God’s blessing it is to realize that God’s counsel to marry “only in the Lord” is very important. Each devoted Christian who truly accepts that counsel would consider as a potential mate only one who has already proved to be a devoted servant of Jehovah.