‘Well, I’m in a relationship now.’
After over 15 years in ministry to students and young professionals, my wife and I often hear this when we ask how they’re doing. Our first response is to rejoice, remembering how thrilled we were on our first date. Very few things in life are more exciting than a relationship that’s heading toward marriage!
But not all relationships are a good fit.
For example, many Christians would not marry a non Christian, but aren’t so sure when it comes to dating a non Christian.
Does the bible provide any guidance on this key question?
Let me get right to the point. Although a word search in Scripture for ‘dating‘ won’t give you any results, it has plenty to say about it.
For example, Paul tells widows that they can marry anyone they like, but ‘only in the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 7:39). In that passage he also gives advice to unmarried men and women, and it’s fair to assume he would apply that same standard to them.
In 2 Corinthians 6:14, Paul says, ‘Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers’. Although he’s not specifically speaking about marriage, it’s not hard to see that this is one possible application.
Dating An Unbeliever Versus Marrying One
You may be thinking, ‘OK, I get it. As a Christian I shouldn’t marry someone outside of the faith, but I’m just dating. What’s the harm in that?’
Paul channels an image from his agricultural setting to answer it. At the time, farming tasks were often performed by animals, like oxen, who were joined by a ‘yoke’ that went around their necks. When animals are first put into the yoke, they (surprise) hate it and pull in different directions. Nothing gets done until they submit to the yoke and learn to work together.
Although dating isn’t marriage, it’s the first clear step toward it. In other words, the purpose of dating is to figure out whether you would like to (some day) get married.
And while God designed marriage to give us joy, on an even deeper level he created it to reflect his relationship with us (Ephesians 5:22-33). If you marry someone who doesn’t follow Jesus, you will always be like two oxen pulling in opposite directions. Which will frustrate you both, and torpedo the foundation of your marriage.
In other words, it’s not good, or fair, to either one of you.
Too often, Christians ask, ‘Will dating [this person] be good for me?’ While that’s an important question, the second great commandment – loving our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39) – means that we need to first ask, ‘Will dating [this person] be for good for them?’
If someone does not have the same core commitment to Jesus as we do, I would argue that the relationship will not ultimately be helpful to them. Instead, it is likely to end in deep frustration after they discover the relationship is not truly compatible at the deepest, most foundational, level.
But I Could Introduce Them To Jesus
I can hear someone say, though, that dating presents a special opportunity to introduce their boyfriend or girlfriend to Christ. (Some have called this ‘missionary dating’.)
Within the intimacy of the dating relationship, you can introduce them to Jesus, and then you can be on the same page spiritually, too. Right?
There are stories like that. Sure, it could happen to you. Unfortunately, that’s not what usually happens.
As Kathy Keller mentions in this article for The Gospel Coalition, there are three more common outcomes:
1. To be more in line with their spouse, the Christian will allow Jesus to become more peripheral.
Not that they would walk away from Christ altogether, but they may go to church less often, spend less time in bible study or prayer, decreasing financial contributions to missionaries, or become less involved at church to maintain unity in the marriage. There’s something deeply de-stabilizing about hiding, downplaying, or letting go of a core part of who you are.
2. If the Christian holds onto a strong relationship with the Lord, the non-Christian partner will become marginalized.
If one partner can’t fully grasp – or support – the importance of following Jesus deeply, life cannot be shared at that level, thus creating distance in the marriage. For example, a Christian spouse may be ‘all in’ at their church, but if their non-Christian spouse doesn’t view church as important, it can become a point of division, or, mere tolerance at best.
3. So, either the marriage becomes stressed and ends, or, it remains intact, but at the cost of an unhappy truce.
Are those the options you want? No matter how in sync you are in terms of common interests, personality, or any number of other characteristics, ultimately this isn’t going to end well.
This is something I have observed in people I know personally, and (way) more than once. The pain, heartbreak and frustration are personal and real.
At the end of the day, if you are ‘unequally yoked’ (again, see 2 Corinthians 6:14 above), nothing else can truly overcome that. I don’t want that for you, or, the person you might marry.
Slippery Slope: How It Often Happens
In my experience, most Christians already sense that dating a non-Christian is wrong. Or, at least have some hesitation and uncertainty.
So, why do so many Christians begin dating someone who doesn’t share their faith?
It varies, but many guys begin seeing a woman outside the faith because she’s physically attractive. Let’s be honest: our culture places a huge premium on physical appearance, and guys, being visually-oriented, are especially susceptible to falling off the wagon here.
Beyond the physical attraction, maybe she’s open to flirting, and they have some chemistry based on personality. It may feel like ‘she has everything’ he wants, and Jesus can start to seem less important.
For many women, it’s a little different. This is somewhat anecdotal, but there don’t seem to be that many godly men around. (Which reflects a deeper crisis, but that’s another post.) So, many women who said they’d never date a non-believer start to give up hope.
She meets a genuinely nice non Christian guy who treats her well, has a good job and some confidence. She finds they share common interests, and before she knows it, they’re several months in.
As time goes on, the conscience becomes muted (1 Timothy 1:19; 1 Timothy 4:2), and emotional and physical attachments form. And it gets harder and harder to find your way out.
Ripping The Band Aid Off
I want to be sympathetic here. I see why men and women who are ultimately not compatible spiritually end up together. If you’re in a relationship with an unbeliever, please know I’m not judging you or looking down on you (or the person you’re dating).
At the same time, I believe God’s word and I care about you. In twenty years, I’ve never – not even once – seen it go well for either person. Each of you have deeply different commitments at the core of your lives, and eventually that will cause insurmountable problems for you both.
So, I want to urge you to rip the band aid off. Today. To end the relationship. I know that may seem like a wild, unnecessary overreaction. Or, maybe pretty scary.
But apart from being in relationship with Jesus, who we date, and ultimately marry, is one of the most important decisions you can make.
Will you pray about it and ask God for clarity and help?
When You’re Ready
If you’re ready to break off the relationship, here are some steps that should help.
1. Do it now.
I’m not saying you have to text your boyfriend/girlfriend/fiance(e) before you finish this sentence. But reading this post is an opportunity for freedom, so commit – to yourself – to end the relationship and decide when you’re going to do it.
2. Get support.
Whenever we do something hard, we need help and support so we follow through. So reach out to some believing friends. A mentor. Your pastor. Pour out your heart, your fear and ask for prayer. Tell them when you plan to end the relationship and invite them to follow-up with you.
3. Have a plan.
After you end the relationship, there’s going to be a huge vacuum in your life. Everything will be pulling you back in, away from the freedom you’ve just begun to taste. Surround yourself with people who will remind you that you made a good decision. Go out and have fun with friends. Make sure you go to a solid church each week, and find a way to have meaningful relationships outside of Sunday morning. Find ways to give and serve so that you’re focused there instead of on what you’ve lost.
4. Lean into the Lord.
I know this can sound like a cliche. But you have a Savior who understands. His closest friends ran away at the end of his life when he needed them most (Mark 14:50). His own Father ignored him while he hung on the cross (Mark 15:34). Yes, it was for us, but the closest relationship that ever existed was broken for three horrific days. Jesus knows what you’re facing, and then some. And he invites you to ‘cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you’ (1 Peter 5:7).
More could be said, but I’m going to stop there. Please know I’m praying for you to have courage, and to experience Christ’s love for you in a very real, practical way.
I can’t promise you that making the right decision will magically lead Mr. or Mrs. Right to appear out of nowhere. But if you will trust God with this area of your life, you will be rewarded with freedom and a growing closeness to God that you haven’t experienced in quite some time.
And you’ll be on your way, again, to being the kind of person another godly person will want to marry.
Your turn: If you’re in a relationship with someone outside the faith, when will you end it? What will finding support, making a plan, and leaning into God look like specifically for you?
Also in this series: