A few mornings ago, someone I generally respect posted this years-old blog post from a (presumably) well-respected Christian ministry leader, with the commentary that he agrees strongly with what she wrote.
I found the post deeply disturbing for multiple reasons, and walked away from the situation to think carefully about what I want to say. I once was a Christian and now am not, so I come to this from perhaps a more blended perspective than some. I’d like to address both Christians and non-Christians in my response.
[And for reference, the verse in play here is 2 Corinthians 6:14 — “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”]
Dear Christians (at least those who espouse the belief that Christians should not marry non-Christians — I won’t say “unbelievers” and we’ll get to why in a moment):
I am worried about you.
I worry that your theology has become warped by your desire to be “Biblical” (to follow the letter of at least those spiritual ‘laws’ you like/that support the way you live and how you choose to see others) vs. your desire to be Christlike (compassionate, open, egalitarian).
Being Christlike is Biblical, but being Biblical is not always Christlike. Can you see that? I don’t believe Jesus would be happy with a lot of what His followers are doing in His name. Do you think He would want you to sit in judgment of your fellow man?
When you hold someone up as unworthy of marriage to anyone in Christianity because their beliefs don’t match your own, that is what you’re doing. You are reinforcing a hierarchical dynamic — here, that Christians are somehow superior to or above non-Christians — that is about as un-Christlike as it gets. You are also reinforcing an “us vs. them” dynamic that is so, so dangerous in today’s world. We’ve seen the increasingly vitriolic rhetoric alienating Americans from their fellow citizens in politics; we do not need further divisions drawn and underlined by spiritual leaders.
Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to be building connections. We can’t do that if large swaths of the populace are defining their communities more exclusively all the time, becoming more insular and cut off from those who aren’t just like them. Understanding cannot happen if we slam the door between us without listening, all because someone who lived a long time ago had their own agenda that made it into a holy book.
Do you truly see non-Christians as “darkness” and yourself as “light?” Do you honestly believe that non-Christians have no moral compass? (Never mind that some of the most immoral people I’ve ever known claimed to have a close personal relationship with God.)
Some marriages don’t work, Christian, non-Christian, and blended. And yes, religion can definitely be a source of conflict within relationships — though one would hope that these conflicts would rear their heads long before marriage, and could either be resolved or provide illumination that the relationship will not work.
Faith does not have to be contentious within a marriage, even a marriage of mixed spiritual traditions. If the foundation of love and respect is there, an interfaith marriage can be a source of tremendous growth for both partners. Respect for others’ faith traditions provides stability, and there are generally ways to work out things like holy days and dietary requirements without marginalizing either party’s beliefs (or non-beliefs, for atheists/agnostics).
Even though my husband and I are of different spiritual traditions, we uphold and respect each other’s right to believe what we feel called to believe/follow. I believe that our differences complement each other and make us a stronger family unit as long as we come to the table respectfully and with open hearts. Our path has had normal bumps (I refer to life events and stresses, not spiritual conflict here), and being in an interfaith marriage has not impeded our ability to weather tough times.
Marriages don’t fail because of a lack of God. Marriages fail because of a lack of a foundation of mutual respect and love, or because something has eroded that foundation over time. There are many lifelong, solid marriages God never entered (at least by Christian standards), and many Christian marriages fail.
I’d like to address the term “unbeliever” here for a moment. It’s a pejorative term applied to all non-Christians. It’s a way of saying that there’s something flawed about these folks. For people who follow other spiritual traditions, it’s especially insulting. I’m not an unbeliever; my version of Deity just looks different from yours and the tenets of my faith aren’t mirrors of your own (though they have more than a little in common when both are at their best).
I’m a believer, just not a Christian one. Call me a non-Christian but don’t insult my faith by insinuating that since it’s not the “right” one, it doesn’t count.
Now, what about those marriages between a Christian and a non-Christian that have already happened despite your best efforts to prevent them? And what about the relationships where one person enters or leaves the Christian faith after marriage has already happened, unbalancing that precious “yoke?”
Maybe…just maybe…instead of calling those Christians who married non-Christians foolish — does insulting people ever make them listen? — the support of a loving community would serve them better. Maybe instead of judging (so Biblical! throw the Good Book at them!), you could exercise compassion if they’re struggling (like Christ would).
I can’t help but suspect, too, that the approach many hardline Christians take actually creates problems within these marriages where problems might not otherwise exist. Imagine being the non-Christian spouse and learning just how much your partner’s spiritual community resents you or sees you as an impediment to spiritual growth. How would that feel? What recourse would you have? Imagine being the Christian spouse in that situation and seeing your beloved spiritual community react with judgment or even hatred toward the person you love most in this world.
Which is more important to you, Christian community: being Biblical (as I described earlier in this post), or following Christ?
All of that said, I don’t really expect to see Christians welcoming non-Christians with open arms anytime soon. Because of the vitriol I’ve seen, I feel that, as much as I dislike coming across as “us vs. them” myself, I need to warn my non-Christian friends (Christians, keep reading to see how this looks from “the other side” if you will):
They’re probably right, those good Christian folks — but they have it backward. You shouldn’t marry them. Non-Christians shouldn’t marry Christians, not as things stand right now.
A Christian spouse won’t view you as their spiritual equal, no matter how devoted you might be to your own faith and no matter how much good you do through your spiritual traditions. Christians are taught that their path is the only one up the mountain, and it is always acceptable, even mandatory in some sects, to push one’s beliefs on those around them. Entertaining other points of view (or questions/doubts) without hostility is not common, and rare is the Christian who will engage in dialogue with a truly open mind and heart. (Cherish those few when you find them…but do not marry them either.)
Their faith community will never accept you. Those in this community will almost certainly make attempts to convert you to Christianity (and will probably be overly friendly during this phase, which can last years). If these attempts fail, eventually you may be ignored or ostracized instead.
There will be people within the church actively working to undermine your marriage. I’ve seen pastors encourage this. Better a divorce than fifty years of marriage full of love and laughter when the other person loving and laughing isn’t of the right faith, it seems. No matter how much you love your significant other, knowing that there are people who want you to break up, who want the marriage to fail, will put a heavy strain on your relationship.
If your Christian spouse’s faith ever wavers, if s/he goes through a period of doubt, the blame will fall at your feet, paving the way for resentment (fostered and fanned by the church) to fester. If s/he tries to see things from your perspective, they may face ridicule or loss of position within their church family.
Because Christians are taught not to respect others’ beliefs as equally valid (I think this is to make it easier to superimpose their own/to get used to evangelizing — when you honestly think you’re helping someone, it’s easier to justify doing it than if you were aware that you were doing something ethically questionable), you might not feel comfortable worshiping your own way in the home you share. How can you set up an altar to your Goddess knowing that your spouse sees it as idolatry?
Let’s talk kids. Many Christians would not allow their offspring to fully explore his/her sexuality and gender identity if such didn’t seem to match the cisgender, hetero “norm.” Shame is a tool often used by Christians in parenting (not only by them, but the Bible certainly seems to sanction it — I have also seen this book used to justify corporal punishment). Christians may also have a difficult time giving a child room and resources to explore various faiths, and may forbid this spiritual seeking altogether. Would you want to raise a child in this environment?
Lastly, it is an unequal burden, because the non-Christian may always have to deal with a lack of fundamental respect from the person who pledged before their God, family, and friends to love and respect them for life. Nobody should have to spend decades knowing that the person they love most sees them as flawed and less-than, and that, short of converting to a system of belief that hasn’t thus far been right for them for whatever reason, they can do absolutely nothing to mitigate this, to stop “failing” on this front.
I wish things were different. I hope one day they may be. Until then, though, it will always take a very special bond and Herculean strength to even approach overriding the inherent problems with non-Christians marrying Christians.