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Why "Marrying Unbelievers" Can Work

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Four months ago, my wife Medina and I celebrated our one year anniversary since we married each other. No sooner than having ordered Medina's present did I stumble across Kathy Keller's "Don't Take it from Me: Reasons Why You Shouldn't Marry an Unbeliever." While the article is already well over a year old, it recently gained some traction on social media, attracting my attention. I wanted to take this opportunity to push back both on the assertion, and the way it's framed.

In her article, Keller leans on a handful of shaky verses to assert her straightforward opinion:

I want to snap and say, "It won't work, not in the long run. Marriage is hard enough when you have two believers who are completely in harmony spiritually. Just spare yourself the heartache and get over it."

Keller is entitled to her opinion, just as any of us are. However, a statement like it's "just not possible" is not the basis for a logical argument. I'm not out to prove that it's Biblically ordained, but I do think the Scripture leaves space for debate, and the assertion that "it won't work" just isn't accurate anymore.

Keller does reach into Scripture to make her point, and as a Christian myself, I'm eager to follow her logic. She refers (without citation) to the Old Testament's restriction on marrying foreigners and non-Jews. She has many of options to choose from, including Genesis 24:3, Exodus 34:16, Deuteronomy 7:3, Judges 3:6, 1 Kings 11:2, to name a few. But there are three significant issues using the Old Testament on intermarriage. First, we're not Jews in the desert, and our confines of our community have no real resemblance to theirs in that time, which included an exceptionally antagonistic relationship with the Canaanites, Philistines, and other surrounding peoples.

Secondly, these verses are not only about religious, but ethnic as well. These verses were the foundation of America's racist miscegenation laws, banning interracial marriage as late as 1967, and even Bob Jones University's ban on interracial dating until 2000. Essentially, if these Biblical laws are still valid for us today, then we have to be willing to consider racial segregation as a component to God-approved marriage. I cannot with good conscious do that, nor would the majority of Christians today.

Lastly, and most importantly, we have to admit that the definition of marriage has in fact changed since the Old Testament. Today, marriage is a monogamous relationship between consenting adults. Back then, it was none of those things. Looking at the lives (and wives) of Lamech, Abraham, Jacob, Esau, Gideon, David, Solomon, Rehoboam, and countless others, polygamy was fair game. While today, both partners must consent to be wed, that also was not mandatory in Old Testament times. While most marriage was essentially a property transfer of the bride from the father to the groom (just think of Jacob "earning" his wife with seven years of work), other initiation of nuptials persisted. Deuteronomy 21:11-13 permits kidnapping as a method of courting, while Deuteronomy 22:28-29 allows rape as a pathway to matrimony. While those are atypical (read, horrifying) approaches to marriage, a marriage was not valid if the wife was not a virgin, and she'd be put to death (Deuteronomy 22:13-21). Similarly, marriage before the age of modern adulthood was common. My point in all of this, is that the Old Testament is not a great basis for defining God-ordained marriage in the 21st Century, lest you prefer the aforementioned guidelines.

From the New Testament, she draws from two verses as well. She quotes 1 Corinthians 7:39, which states, "A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord." While "only in the Lord" is unclear in meaning, what is clear is that this verse is referring to widows. She also quotes 2 Corinthians 6:14, which states, "Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?" While I can totally see the wisdom of not surrounding yourself with people who impede your own walk in faith, this begs the question, is every yoke unequal? Could someone be equally yoked with an "unbeliever" (her term, not mine), or could you be unequally yoked with someone of the same faith or denomination? The verse could have said more simply "don't be yoked with unbelievers," but it includes the unequal, which really points to the challenge, being stuck with people who don't inspire you to dig deeper in your faith. Once again, I respect some people will take this to mean that you shouldn't be in an interfaith marriage, but I simply want to illuminate that a more complex discussion can be had.

Even then, however, the Bible tells us of the powerful story of Esther. Esther, a Jewish orphan, was married to the Persian king Ahasuerus. When a prince conspired to convince the king to kill the Jews throughout the empire, Esther was uniquely positioned to convince the king otherwise, revealing her identity as a Jew. The book of Esther is not only important to Jews today, who celebrate Purim to commemorate the story, but should stick out to us Christians as a significant example of an interfaith marriage. Not only was it a union blessed by God, but it was crucial to fulfilling His will, making a lasting impact still remembered today.

Besides Scripture, Keller also alludes to anecdotes in her own life serving at her church, Redeemer, a vibrant Presbyterian congregation in New York, which I've had the blessing to visit before. She posits that all interfaith relationships end up in three situations: marginalize your faith, marginalize your partner, or be miserable together until an inevitable divorce.

While we've only been married a year, Medina and I met six years ago, dating years before getting hitched. We had some early intense conversations mapping out how we would navigate issues such as childrearing and family traditions, but ultimately, these are issues that any responsible couple must address, regardless of whether they're of the same faith tradition or not. What strikes me as so out of touch with Keller's three possible outcomes, is that it precludes any possibility that a person can encourage their spouse to explore and grow in a faith tradition that they do not subscribe to. I agree, it would be miserable if I worshipped by myself, hiding or marginalizing my faith to accommodate an anti-Christian wife. But that's not the case. Medina encourages me to participate in my faith practices, is eager to learn more Christianity, and exemplifies so many of the qualities I am called to as a Christian but struggle with, from humility to patience. In turn, I also support her in her faith. There's enough common space, from values to narratives, that allow us to have a mutually inspiring relationship, where we not only coexist, but spiritually thrive with each other.

While I find the the term "unbeliever" to both be a bit derogatory, and potentially misleading, to describe people of other faith traditions, I am sure she meant well and came to her conclusion earnestly. She likely has seen several, or perhaps even many, interfaith marriages that didn't work. Similarly, I respect her right to her opinion. However, I just don't believe we can present the "marry only your kind" principle as Biblically uncontested, and that is she can't see how an interfaith marriage can work, that perhaps it's her imagination lacking, and not the capacity for interfaith couples to function. As fellow New Yorkers, Medina and I would be happy to host the Kellers for dinner, if they don't the trek to our cramped Queens apartment.