By Hoyt H. Houchen
Question: Do 1 Corinthians 7:39 and 2 Corinthians 6:14 teach that a Christian is to marry only a Christian?
Reply: The Corinthian brethren had written some questions to Paul about several matters. Included in these were some questions about marriage (1 Cor. 7:1). Due to the “present distress,” Paul discouraged marriage (vv. 1-8), but to avoid sexual immorality, one should marry (v. 9). As to virgins in particular, about whom they had probably asked, Paul advised that it would be better for them not to marry because of the “present distress” (vv. 26, 38). As to those already married, believers are admonished to not leave their unbelieving mates (vv. 10-16). In verse 39, Paul states a positive truth about marriage: “a wife is bound for so long time as her husband liveth” (see also Rom. 7:2). It should be observed, that due to the circumstances which existed at that time, it would be better for none to marry, including widows. Paul says “. . . she is happier if she abide as she is” (v. 40). But if she does marry, she should marry “only in the Lord.”
If the expression “in the Lord” is restricted here to mean one who is a Christian, then it would be for the reason of the “distress,” as is seen by the context of the previous verses. To bind this restriction for all time is questionable, because in the first place, she is encouraged to not even marry. Generally we do not discourage widows from marrying because the same situation that existed then is not prevalent today.
The phrase “in the Lord” is used in other places in the New Testament. For example, in 1 Corinthians 11:11, Paul writes: “Nevertheless, neither is the woman without the man, nor the man without the woman, in the Lord.” Are they not together unless they are both Christians? Who can so believe? “In the Lord” here is by divine arrangement. It was by God’s appointment that male and female ‘were created for each other. This purpose is for all, whether Christians or not.
Again, the same phrase “in the Lord” is found in Ephesians 6:1: “Children obey your parents in the Lord.” Is Paul restricting this admonition to only Christians (members of the church)? If so, then the directive would only apply to them. No, these are moral obligations of the home, whether the family is made up of Christians or non-Christians. God’s moral teaching that children are to obey their parents is applicable to all, those in the church and those out of the church.
Another example of the phrase “in the Lord” is found in Colossians 3:18: “Wives submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” The laws of God in this regard are applicable to all, whether, they are Christians or not. Aliens are also amenable to God’s laws on marriage.
In view of these considerations, we conclude that the expression “in the Lord” is not restricted to one who is a Christian. Furthermore, God does recognize the marriage where one is a Christian and the other is not; the believer was not to put away the unbeliever, if the unbeliever were willing to dwell with that believer (1 Cor. 7:10f). As already noted, because of the adversities which prevailed at that time at Corinth, a widow or anyone who considered marriage should marry a believer. Otherwise, the burdens would be greater to bear and more difficult for the Christian to live his life of loyalty and service to God.
The second passage included in the inquiry is 2 Corinthians 6:14. Paul wrote, “Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers: for what fellowship have righteousness and iniquity? or what communion hath light with darkness?” The key to a proper understanding of this verse is the phrase “unequally yoked.” Notice that it is “unequally” yoked. This refers to any incompatible situation, whether marriage, business or false religion. Paul does not condemn being married to an unbeliever per se, or being in a business with an unbeliever; Out he does condemn being “unequally” yoked in such relationships. Some conclude from this verse that it is sinful for a Christian to be married to a non-Christian, but Paul does not say this. He is condemning incompatible relationships, whatever they may be. And, application is not made solely to incompatible relationships with non-Christians; but a Christian himself is in an incompatible relationship if he decides to walk in darkness (Eph. 5:8-11; 1 Jn. 1:6). Light and darkness do not mix. A Christian cannot be in the light and in darkness at the same time. They are incompatible. To assert from 2 Corinthians 6:14 that a Christian cannot marry one who is not a Christian is a misapplication of the verse. The context clearly shows that the Christian is not to participate in error, and to do do so is to be unequally yoked. Christians are to be separated from sin in whatever relationship they find themselves (2 Cor. 6:17). The person who is married to an unbeliever in 1 Corinthians 7:12 is admonished to not leave him, but in 2 Corinthians 6:17, 18 those who are unequally yoked are told plainly to come out and be separate. It should be obvious that the marriage of a Christian to an unbeliever is not, in and of itself, the unequal yoke.
Christians should be encouraged to marry Christians for obvious reasons. Many difficulties, could be avoided if this were the case. This writer has always urged from the pulpit, in the classroom and privately that Christians who are qualified to marry should marry Christians. But to contend that it is a sin for a Christian to marry a non-Christian is a different matter. Those who so contend, in order to be consistent, should exercise the same measures toward such people as they do to those guilty of other sins. It would mean also that God would not recognize such relationships and, therefore these relationships should be dissolved. May we always interpret God’s word in fight of its context and ever be cautious that we do not legislate where God has not legislated, being ever careful to abide by God’s divine arrangements in all realms.
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 10, pp. 293, 306
May 16, 1985