Your desire to marry the right person is a very good thing. Statistically speaking, you will almost certainly get married to someone at some point in your life, and it is the next biggest decision you will ever make, second only to your decision to follow Jesus. Your choice about who to marry will not only affect your life, but also the lives of your children and their children for generations to come.
Three guiding questions
Before we discuss the type of person a Christian should or should not date, it is important to ask the Holy Spirit to reveal any sins and idols guiding your desires so that you can repent. In this way you can then be open to what God has, which is always best. A few questions are worth pondering here:
- How is your relationship with Jesus? Is that relationship strong, maturing, and growing, and is it your first priority above all other relationships? Do you need to wait to date someone until a time when your relationship with Jesus is stronger? Is your goal to meet someone with whom you can grow in your relationship with Jesus?
- Are you believing cultural lies? Are you taking your cues not from Scripture, the Holy Spirit, and godly friends, but from magazines, talk shows, the media, pornography, and godless acquaintances? Are you feeding sinful thoughts and desires that need to be repented of fully before you are fit for any serious relationship?
- Do you accept that marriage is for holiness before happiness? Gary Thomas articulates this truth well in his book Sacred Marriage. People who believe that marriage is meant to complete them or make them happy are invariably depressed in marriage. Why? Because when two sinners marry there will be struggles and pain. Marriage does have happiness, but it is first meant for our sanctification and holiness. Those who understand this truth are in a much better theological frame of mind to marry, as they will be able to lovingly serve their spouse and think more about we than me.
Your choice about who to marry will not only affect your life, but also the lives of your children and their children for generations to come.
For a Christian, the ultimate objective when dating is to find a spouse. If the guy you’re interested in is not marriage material, then he’s not dating material either. So the question really is, “Is it okay to marry an atheist—or any non-Christian, for that matter?”
God says “No”
When it comes to Christians marrying non-Christians, God is opposed. There are many passages in Scripture that make this clear. I’ll share one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament.
Malachi 2:11–12 says:
Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the Lord, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob any descendant of the man who does this, who brings an offering to the Lord of hosts!
In this passage, God is addressing his people (“Judah”) through the prophet Malachi. They have been “faithless” and committed an “abomination” that has “profaned” God’s glory. What is it that has God so concerned? Believers marrying unbelievers.
People who believe that marriage is meant to complete them or make them happy are invariably depressed in marriage.
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul puts it this way: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness?” (2 Cor. 6:14). In the Old Testament, God’s people profaned his temple by uniting themselves with his enemies. Following the work of Jesus in the New Testament, now “we are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6:16).
Dating a non-Christian is a bad idea
There are numerous reasons why the theological restrictions against marrying a non-Christian make practical sense.
Since marrying a non-Christian is ill-advised, getting emotionally involved through dating is pointless and only leads to sin and/or heartache. Since Jesus is at the center of your life, a non-Christian will not even understand who you are. Because you submit to Scripture and non-Christians do not, your relationship with one has no court of arbitration in which to resolve your differences. A non-Christian is not in covenant with Jesus, so he or she has no covenantal framework for any relationship with you.
The ultimate objective when dating is to find a spouse. If the guy you’re interested in is not marriage material, then he’s not dating material either.
If the man you date or marry is not a Christian, you will have no means of dealing with the sin that will come between the two of you, because you do not both believe in the gospel of Jesus’ death for sin.
To make it clear: a Christian should not marry a non-Christian.
I can’t tell you what to do . . . but God can
You (or others reading) may ask, “What right does anyone have to tell me who I can and cannot marry?” And through Scripture, God essentially says, “I do. I created marriage; I created you; and if you belong to me, you need to listen to me.”
Since you cannot marry a non-Christian, getting emotionally involved is pointless and only leads to sin and/or heartache.
God is a good Father, and I promise you this: if any of my children ran off and married someone against Grace’s and my counsel, we would be heartbroken because our kids would likely end up in a devastating relationship. We know our kids, we love them, and we’re here to help them make this crucial decision.
Likewise, God is a Father who cares about his kids. Because he loves us, he gives guidance and boundaries through the Bible, our consciences, wise counsel, and the Holy Spirit.
Missionary dating leads to painful divorce
As your question indicates, many Christians justify romantic relationships with non-Christians by calling it an opportunity for evangelism, aka "missionary dating."
Don’t fall for it. Hit the brakes. Run away. Flirting with sin will not lead to life and joy and “happily ever after.” Don’t believe me? Ask almost any Christian married to a non-Christian; they’ll tell you about the years of pain, discouragement, and anxiety that comes with knowing that the person you love the most is running towards hell.
God is a Father who cares about his kids. Because he loves us, he gives guidance and boundaries.
Even if you can endure such an arrangement, chances are slim that your children will grow to know the Lord and love him wholeheartedly when mom and dad aren’t even in agreement on who God is.
Missionary dating is a recipe for miserable divorce. The likelihood of divorce increases with interfaith marriage, while the lowest divorce rates are among Bible-believing, Jesus-loving, church-attending evangelical Christians. If you’ve heard that Christians get divorced just as much as non-Christians, you’ve been lied to.
Many Christians justify romantic relationships with non-Christians by calling it an opportunity for evangelism. Don’t fall for it.
How to evangelize your non-Christian friend
Does your atheist love interest need to meet Jesus? Yes. Is dating him the best way to make that happen? No.
You can have non-romantic evangelistic relationships with non-Christians, but if the parties involved are single, the odds of attraction are high. A better idea would be to introduce the would-be boyfriend to your Christian male friends so that a more healthy, genuinely evangelistic relationship can form between them.
Pray for him. Introduce him to the men at your church. But don’t date him.
Portions of this article were adapted from Pastor Mark’s book Religion Saves: And Nine Other Misconceptions.