“I’m going to get married!” My wife and I rejoice with them at the happy news. But when we enquire who the lucky man is, we discover he’s not a Christian.
This scene has been replayed for us at least seven times over the past decade. Our experience has been that many Japanese Christians, especially women, date and end up marrying non-Christians.
The biggest surprise has been that almost no one, often not even the pastor, raises an eyebrow. The consensus seems to be that ideally a Christian should marry a believer, but if a suitable Christian is not available, then marrying a non-believer is the next-best option.
This problem is not limited to Japan, but it’s exacerbated by the fact that women usually greatly outnumber men in Japanese churches and the low percentage of Christians in Japan. Also, the expectations of non-Christian parents may play a role.
Some may object that you will search the Bible in vain to find the command “Thou shalt not marry an unbeliever.” It’s thus important to consider what the Bible teaches regarding the matter.1
Marriage in the Old Testament
The Old Testament repeatedly warns Jews against marrying outside the covenant community.
Abraham made his servant “swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell, but will go to my country and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son Isaac” (Genesis 24:3, 4 ESV). In the next generation, after Esau displeases his parents by marrying Hittite women, Isaac charges Jacob saying “You must not take a wife from the Canaanite women. Arise, go to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel your mother’s father, and take as your wife from there one of the daughters of Laban your mother’s brother” (Genesis 28:1, 2).
Before Israel enters Canaan, God commands them regarding its current inhabitants: “You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly” (Deut. 7:3, 4).
When the Jews break this prohibition after the exile, Nehemiah rebukes them in the strongest terms:
You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin on account of such women? Among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was beloved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel. Nevertheless, foreign women made even him to sin. Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women? (Neh. 13:25–27)
Ezra confesses the people’s sin of intermarriage in a heartfelt prayer to God (Ezra 9), and the people go as far as sending away their foreign wives and the children they had by them (Ezra 10).
While Moses and Boaz married foreign women, both Zipporah and Ruth joined the covenant community. Thus, it’s clear that God’s people were not free to marry outside the covenant community in the Old Testament.
Moving to the New Testament
At first sight, the New Testament seems to lack any such restrictions about whom Christians can marry. Certainly, with the Gentiles being incorporated into God’s people, interracial marriage is no longer prohibited. But a couple of places make it clear that Christians are expected to only marry Christians. Paul says that a widow “is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39). Likewise, he asks: “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” (1 Cor. 9:5). While, in context, these verses apply to the special cases of widows and apostles, they surely admit broader application to all believers.
The passage that makes the strongest case against Christians marrying non-Christians is where Paul tells the Corinthian Christians to “not be unequally yoked with unbelievers.” He then asks: “For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?” (2 Cor. 6:14–16). There is some debate about what relationships this passage excludes (for example, does it imply that Christians cannot become business partners with non-believers?), but if it means anything at all it must surely apply to the closest relationship two people can have: that between a husband and wife.
I take it then that the Old Testament principle that God’s people are not to marry outside the covenant community applies also to the church. The only thing that has changed is that the community is no longer a national one but includes all who believe in Jesus.
Pastoral responses to the problem
The ultimate solution is to address the underlying issue of why men are under-represented in Japanese churches. But in the meantime, there are some helpful responses.
We should be praying for the singles in our churches that God would lead them to godly partners who will support them in their walk with Jesus. We could also actively seek to introduce them to other Christian singles. Churches, both in Japan and our home countries, could cooperate in this. Omiai-style introductions (traditional Japanese introductions that may lead to marriage and that involve both sets of parents) may even be beneficial.
Most importantly, there needs to be clear teaching both from the pulpit and during counselling that Christians are not to marry non-Christians. And since the main purpose of dating is to see if a couple is suited for marriage, I think the same principle applies to dating non-Christians.
Seekers who are considering becoming Christians need to be told that this is a part of counting the cost of following Jesus. Also, unbelievers who are considering marrying a Christian should be clearly told what they’re getting into. They need to hear there’s a third person in the relationship—that Jesus has first place in their prospective spouse’s heart and that Christians love Jesus far more than they will ever love their spouse. The unbeliever needs to know that faith touches every aspect of life, including money, time, priorities, and the discipline of children.
Christians who are married to unbelievers can play an important role here by giving a realistic assessment of difficulties people in unequal marriages can experience.2
As sensitively but as persuasively as we can, we should try to dissuade Christians dating non-believers from continuing the relationship. And when a Christian announces that they’ve become engaged to an unbeliever, we should encourage them to take the difficult step of breaking off the engagement. But if they chose to ignore our counsel and go ahead with the wedding, I think there is a point at which we should embrace the couple and offer them all the support that we can, praying that, in God’s mercy, the unbeliever will come to know and treasure Jesus. Certainly, after the marriage has occurred, the couple should receive our full support and encouragement.
I’m very conscious that this is a difficult and contentious area and that I don’t have all the answers, but it’s one that urgently needs addressing in a biblically informed and loving manner.
1. https://www.9marks.org/article/can-christians-marry-non-christians-a-biblical-theology/ “Can Christians Marry Non-Christians?: A Biblical Theology” by Mike Gilbart-Smith
2. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/dont-take-it-from-me-reasons-you-should-not-marry-an-unbeliever “Don’t Take It from Me: Reasons You Should Not Marry an Unbeliever” by Kathy Keller
Simon Pleasants works as an editor in the Tokyo office of a scientific publishing company. Originally from Wales, UK, he moved to Australia in 1988. He helps maintain several Japanese-related websites, including Reaching Japanese for Christ: rjcnetwork.org