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There's a lot that can be said about Christians marrying non-Christians. There's a lot that has been said, including on Boundless. (See, e.g., "Same-Lord Relationships" — or just enter a phrase like "unequally yoked" or "missionary dating" in the search engine above.) But when all is said and done, the guiding principles are pretty clear-cut. If you're a Christian married to a non-Christian, stay married if your spouse is willing. If you're a Christian who's not married, don't marry a non-Christian — or get romantically involved with one.
There are other cases, however, that aren't so clear-cut. What if you're both Christians, but you have major doctrinal differences? I'm talking about the sort that are important enough to separate Christians into different church bodies. Do they matter when you're considering who to marry?
Short answer: Yes. To be clear, that doesn't necessarily mean that you should never get married under those circumstances. But it does mean recognizing the real issues those differences raise, thinking through them in advance and factoring them into your decision.
For example, it's possible to have a good marriage while attending different churches with different teachings. I know couples who do — some where both spouses entered the marriage with their respective commitments, others where one spouse developed different beliefs afterward. While it may not be ideal for a couple when they can't share a church life, they can work around that. If they have children, though, that creates much bigger problems. What are the children supposed to believe? If Mom and Dad disagree on the truth of a particular teaching, will the kids grow up thinking that the answer isn't important? For that matter, will they grow up inclined to think that disputed doctrines in general don't really matter? It's not inevitable, but realistically, it's a heightened risk. Generally speaking, children are better off if Mom and Dad present a united front from the start and keep it up through the years.
It's also possible to have a good marriage — and a more closely shared church life — when one spouse joins the other's church. In some cases, people haven't thought as much about their doctrinal beliefs before they get married as they do afterward: They may grow more or less equally together, or one spouse may lead the other into a different understanding of God's Word. Whether you consider this good or bad in any given case will depend on whether you think they're moving toward the right understanding. Every doctrinal camp wins some people and loses some. But whatever camp you're in, you're likely to know some people yours has gained through marriage, and you're glad about that. I know I am when I see it happen in my church body, hopefully for the same reason you are when it happens in yours: not because it's "my team," but because I believe this is a church where the teaching and preaching is true and right.
Yet it's important to monitor your motives. If you join a spouse's church because your studies with your mate, or at his or her church, lead you to a conviction that they're right about God's Word, you're doing it for the right reason. But there are other reasons you might join that are more problematic. If you do it mainly for the sake of your relationship — to please your mate, to avoid conflict, to give the two of you something to share — then you're doing it for the wrong reasons. Marriage is full of compromises over all kinds of things, but your worship and your convictions of biblical truth shouldn't be among them. Christians who differ on many doctrines can agree on this: God doesn't want false worshippers, going through the motions. He wants your heart and your mind, and no one — not even your spouse — should be competing with Him for them.
Scenarios like these may not seem like urgent things to think about if you're not involved with someone at the moment: They may seem hypothetical and remote. Actually, though, this is the ideal time to start thinking about them — before you're emotionally invested in someone, before the desires of your heart are jockeying for the driver's seat.
As it happens, this topic isn't hypothetical to me: I've dealt with it in my own life, so I've thought a lot about it and could go on about it for a while. But I've said enough to start the conversation, so I'll turn it over to you. Let's hear your thoughts — and your experiences, if you've had any you'd like to share.
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--One of such doctrinal issues is women's role in ministry, whether it is biblical for a woman to teach Scripture or to govern adult men in the local church (1 Tim 2), and the examples that children would see in either case. I'm still trying to think it through.
--My husband, who went home to heaven last month, decided to join the Roman Catholic church in 2005. When we married, we attended the same protestant church. Because of my strongly held views on several doctrines important to me, I did not want even to attend his church with him. I remained an active member of my Free Methodist Church, where I continue to be greatly blessed and ministered to. I occasionally expressed a view on one of those disputed doctrines, but for the most part did not argue with him nor stand in his way. He was disappointed that I would not become a Catholic too, but eventually accepted it. I became friends with some of his Catholic friends, and he continued to attend the Free Methodist small group Bible study we had been in since 2000. When he died I honored his wishes for a Catholic funeral, but had a meal afterward at my church. While I found it inconvenient to deal with attending different churches, we both coped. I take comfort in knowing that he truly knew Jesus as his Savior, even though he believed some things I consider false. It was providential that our children were already grown. We managed for the most part to experience "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace," despite our differences.
--I was raised mainly Baptist/Presbyterian and my husband's experience has always been with the Assemblies of God. While I am a little uncomfortable with some areas of Pentecostal worship, I don't think they are wrong. We are members of an AG right now and it's a great church.
--Kellie, you pretty much described the situation I'm in right now, only I'm in the dating stage, not the marriage stage! I also liked what you said about things making you a bit uncomfortable, but realizing that they aren't necessarily "wrong." It took me a long time to accept that "different" does not always equal "wrong." (Sometimes it does, but not in this situation.)
--Non-denominational for me, which is the biggest Church presence in WA. There's a pretty clear distinction between the traditional and progressive Churches, so...I guess we'd know pretty early where we stand on certain things.
Almost two years ago, I encountered this. While I had long before decided to never date a non-Christian, and there were some Christian viewpoints with which I already had decided I could not agree, I had to navigate these waters with the help of some mentors. A great Christian man was pursuing me, yet we had a couple very different doctrinal beliefs. I spent most of my church life in a non-denominational, and later a Southern Baptist-influenced church. And, over the years I studied and solidified my doctrinal beliefs, eventually returning to a Non-Denominational church at 18. The man pursuing me was a member of a Church of Christ. (I realize not all C.O.C. churches share the same doctrinal beliefs.) Fortunately, we discussed our Christian faith and doctrinal beliefs in the early stages.
Where he and I ran into significant differences related to the issue of whether the Holy Spirit indwells believers today. His church taught that the Holy Spirit does not. However, I believe that the Holy Spirit does. We didn't fight about it, and we both shared with each other why we believed what we did- from scripture. As our relationship grew, it became evident neither of us were going to change beliefs on this. And, for me, I want to submit to my husband and present the "united front" to potential children. Because of that I wouldn't be able to, in good conscience, read the Bible with my potentially future children and teach them that the Holy Spirit does not indwell believers today. The second large difference he and I had was over music in church. His church didn't use instruments in its worship service. For me, that's such a minor issue I could let it go. He checked with me a few times to see if I was all right with the doctrinal differences we had. He said he was, and he wasn't trying to force me to change my doctrinal positions. However, I was having trouble agreeing, with myself, that the first difference wasn't too significant.
I wrestled with questions like, "Is this really that big of a deal?" I spent a lot of time praying. And, I got a lot of counsel. It was not an easy decision, especially since he was such a great Christian, and a great man in general. But, the decision point for me came when I was considering the future, and what life would look life if we had children.
I realize for some people this doctrinal issue is not a big issue. But, I want to have unity with my future spouse over the doctrinal issues that are most important to me. I have read of some people who would not marry a person who does not hold the Arminian view or from the opposite side a person who wouldn't marry someone who doesn't hold a Calvinist view, for others it's an issue of a person's eschatological view. For me, differences in those areas aren't that big of a deal.
I agree with Matt that, "Marriage is full of compromises over all kinds of things, but your worship and your convictions of biblical truth shouldn't be among them. "
--This was a really thought-provoking question! In my case (I'm unmarried) I would probably avoid dating someone who had some deep-seated doctrinal disagreements with my own. However, it's inevitable to disagree on something. So my question to myself is, "Is this issue really THAT important?" There's a problem with disagreeing on whether or not Jesus was the Son of God, for example, but what if it's something like whether or not war is wrong? It's not that war isn't an important issue, it's whether or not that is an issue that can break a relationship.
--"I'm talking about the sort that are important enough to separate Christians into different church bodies."
In other words, everything and the kitchen sink! (Literally, there are churches who have split over whether or not it is a sin to have a kitchen in the church building).
I grew up in one denomination and as an adult, became part of one that is essentially the polar opposite. I love my family, and we get along, but it is hard having many major differences about matters that are close to our hearts. There are a number of topics we don't discuss because it's never productive. I cannot imagine having a marriage like that. No two people are going to agree on everything, but their relationship will be smoother when they agree on the things that are the most important to them.
--When I was dating, our biggest theological difference that we wrestled with was baptism. I come from a somewhat conservative branch of Presbyterians that baptize infants, and he came from a Baptist background, and no surprise to me, baptism was the only theological difference we had. Infant baptism or believer's baptism? The biggest implication that my youth pastor pointed out was in raising children. Could I live with my children not being baptized as infants? How important was infant baptism to me? I could go into detail about baptism being a sign of the covenant (symbolic, not salvific), but to make a long story short, my answer was that while I lean towards infant baptism, I wouldn't fall on a sword for it.
In the end, we broke up for other reasons. But I learned a lot more theology through the process of diving into scripture and sending article links of R.C. Sproul and John Macarthur back and forth with him. I also learned a lot about his character as we debated and discussed theological issues. It's definitely worth having those discussions when you're dating because you can learn a lot about your boyfriend (or girlfriend). Is he willing to pray and search scripture for an answer, or is he so self-assured that he doesn't need to read the Bible again? Is he quick to tell you you're wrong, or is he humble even when he disagrees with you? Is he flaky in his faith, or does he know scripture? Does he make decisions hastily, or does he really seek the Lord for wisdom? Good things to think about before getting married.
--Wow, I really like this post and all the thoughtful comments so far. Kim, I just spent the last 20 minutes reading articles by John Macarthur and RC Sproul on infant baptism!
I used to be pretty lax about issues that genuine Christians disagreed on, and I do think we need to have charity in those areas. But to be honest, a lot of my "patience" was really just laziness on my part to not think through the issues well. While we do need to unite over the plain things like the Gospel, God is the author of all of scripture and so to say other things don't matter is to dismiss what God has called important by including it in His word.
I'm haven't had to make this choice yet, but I think the big "topic" that I would struggle with in a dating relationship is reformed theology. I didn't even know what that meant until 4 years ago, but it's become a topic that is so precious to me. God used a roommate to speak into my life at a time when I was struggling with doubt about my own salvation, and God's faithfulness to keep me to the end in spite of my failures. (I grew up in a Gospel-teaching church, but it was a little bit emotion-driven and put a lot of emphasis on human effort.) Learning that God was sovereign and faithful was an amazing truth to me, and revitalized my relationship with Him. Now I've come to love all the other aspects of reformed churches - the emphasis on preaching the Word expositionally, the worship that is so Christ-centered, the constant effort to lift our eyes to Christ rather than focusing on ourselves. I just moved to a new city, and have been so blessed to find this kind of church here (it was hard; I'm in the Bible belt but that means a lot of different things). While I have Christian friends and family who are not reformed, and that's fine, I know that I want to stay in a reformed church the rest of my life and can't imagine not having my husband share in that joy.
--There was much consternation in my church when I met my now-husband and things were getting serious. I didn't meet him at church; I met him through work friends who went to a different church.
"Are you going to ditch us now that you're marrying a guy who goes to a different church?" and "How do you know it's a good church? Is he really a Christian?" I am in my mid-thirties and live very far away from my parents, and I think the people who made such comments were trying to look out for me, albeit clumsily.
I always told them that I wouldn't consider marrying a man whose church I wouldn't want to become a member of. My husband's church is more liberal and more charismatic than my former church, but I found my values lined up very well with its values. I loved my old church, and still attend ladies' functions there as well as church service every few months, but I felt strongly that I wanted my husband and I to be a family and a united team at church. He is head of the set-up committee at his church; very well, I set up chairs with him every Sunday. We love discussing the sermon and attending small group together.
Do I differ on doctrinal points with my husband? Yes. I tend to be more conservative and he tends more towards grace, which is representative of our churches' respective positions. But we are strong together in our desire to be generous and to serve and pray together.
After being married, I have noticed that our views influence each other subtly but profoundly over time. So I would be careful of marrying someone whose values (doctrine can lead to values, but does not always) are different from your own. Over time you will find yourself leaning more towards his views. You will have this effect on him, as well. No one has influenced me as much as my husband; he is a powerful force for change in my opinions, mannerisms, and beliefs. Thankfully, most of his influence has been quite good.
--Some of the best times in our marriage have been serving together in various church ministries. I can't imagine how disappointing it would be to have such differing views that you couldn't lead a Bible study together or even attend the same church. Great blog and great comments!
--My fiance and I have several doctrinal differences. One was infant baptism, which is rare in Japanese churches. I grew up in a PCA church so infant baptism was the norm, but I've come around to accepting the view of his church, to the point where I wish I could have gotten baptized not as an infant but when I confessed belief in Jesus as a teen.
For one year I went to a RPC church which is rather more conservative, they don't use any musical instruments and sing only the Psalms, but I fell in love with that simple, Scripture-saturated worship, it was hard to leave that church...I still pray my boyfriend's church will sing more Psalms instead of man-made hymns, and my fiance agrees Psalms are best but as a musician I know the idea that he can't use his gift in church is a tough one, he might never come round to that idea. It will have to be the Holy Spirit.
Our opinions on how to be saved, prayer, Bible study, repentance, tithing, and responsible membership in the church are the same though.
I think as long as you can go to the same church and not argue about tithing and ministry, that's good. But there are no guarantees...someone might get convicted or led astray into somewhere quite different from where they started :/
--I think dotcrinal issues are very important especially if they affect your lifestyle- for example for me as the Sabbath keeper, I couldn't be with someone (it would be a sin for me to engage in such a relationship) who has anything against me and our potential children observing Sabbath and me treating sunday as a normal day as it's ought to be treated.
Any differences in biblical beliefs that influence one's lifestyle are potential deal-breakers.
--I really love many of the old and new Hymns &songs. Psalms are so great to use for prayers (as well as poems and songs)
As I understand it, psalms were also man-made just inspired by the Holy Spirit, the same as the church hymns (hopefully). Many of the words in modern hymn songs are 'taken' from psalms. A lot of changed since the time of Psalms- Jesus life on earth, death and resurrection actually happened instead of being prophesies which is reflected in the Church hymns.
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