Are non-Christian marriages — the marriage of two non-Christians — legit in God’s eyes? It’s the question today from a listener named Steve. “Pastor John, thank you so much for your ministry,” he writes. “This podcast and a number of your books have had a large impact on my spiritual walk. Here’s my question: A coworker asked me if I thought God honored secular marriages. My gut reaction was yes. My coworker said no. He believes that if two parties don’t believe in God, then God is not in that marriage, and therefore God does not recognize the marriage. He went further to state that God does not even hear non-Christian prayers. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know how to respond or defend my opposition to his stance. Is there biblical backing for the legitimacy of secular marriages?”
This is one of those classic instances where disagreement precedes definition, or where conflict precedes clarification. So it’s an opportunity for me to get on my soapbox and plead with all Christians that we not engage in conflict or in debates where the terms of the conflict and the definitions in the debate are not clear.
Define Up Front
Arguing about words or phrases that are undefined is like a watchdog barking at shadows. It might scare away a burglar, but he also might scare away the fireman who’s here to save your house from burning down. An argument without clear definitions is like playing tennis with the net down and all the lines erased on the court. And you can argue till doomsday: “The serve was in!” “No, it wasn’t!” What good does that do to? That’s just crazy.
“What often happens when we insist on clear definitions is that problems begin to solve themselves.”
This is my plea: insist on definition and clarification before you disagree. For example, what does this person mean by saying, “God is not in the marriage”? What in the world does in mean? What does it mean when he says God does not recognize — or he said honor — the marriage? What does recognize mean? What does honor mean?
So what often happens when we insist on clear definitions is that problems begin to solve themselves. I’ve seen it over and over again. Often, the definitions themselves answer the questions you were debating. So I would encourage all Christians not to waste your time playing tennis without any lines on the court.
Marriages That Fall Short
So let me guess at the way this person’s mind might’ve been working, who asked this question about the validity of marriages between unbelievers. My guess is that he thinks something like this: Romans 14:23 says, “Whatever is not from faith is sin” (NASB). That’s pretty radical. Therefore, if faithless people marry, they are sinning. And since God disapproves of sin, he, therefore, disapproves of this marriage. And then the leap is made: and therefore it’s not a marriage. Well, maybe. But you’ve got to get a little bit of argument in there first.
So whether that’s the train of thought or whether there’s another one that I don’t know about, let me give several biblical reasons for why I think marriages between a man and a woman who make a promise of lifetime faithfulness to each other as husband and wife are, in fact, married. They have real marriages — even though they are not ideal. They’re not believing, they’re not rooted consciously in God’s purposes for marriage, and so they are disobedient and Christ-denying and fall short. I think that’s the way we should talk about these marriages — not that they’re not marriages.
“Marriages between an unbelieving man and woman are real marriages that fall short of God’s highest purpose.”
So, I don’t say they’re not married — which, by the way, I do say about so-called “marriages” between two men or two women or a person and an animal. That’s not marriage. It’s not marriage. There is no such thing as a marriage between two people of the same sex. Whatever the world calls those relationships, they’re not marriage. But marriages between an unbelieving man and an unbelieving woman are real marriages that fall short of God’s highest purpose for marriage.
Now, why do I say that?
1. Sinful marriage does not equal invalid marriage.
First, going back to Romans 14:23, which is a very radical text: “Whatever is not from faith is sin” (NASB). It does not follow that if something is sinful, it’s not real and shouldn’t happen. For example, in the context of Romans 14, the point is that eating certain things, even innocent things, will be sinful if they’re not done in faith.
So, if an unbeliever eats God’s good gift of meat, or drinks God’s good gift of wine or orange juice, that act, not done in faith, is a sinning act. God intended food to be eaten and drinks to be drunk with thankfulness and faith in him. All other uses of his gifts are sinful. They are failures to live up to God’s design for meat and drink.
Now, the question is, Should we conclude that unbelievers therefore should not eat since their eating is sinning? Or should we conclude that unbelievers should have faith when they eat? And the answer is this: God does not require of unbelievers that they stop eating; he requires that they trust him and thank him when they eat. And if they don’t, they’re going to be in big trouble. The same thing is true of marriage, since marrying without trusting Jesus and thanking Jesus is sinful. What does God require? Does he require that unbelievers not marry? Or does he require that unbelievers believe and trust him and thank him for the gift of marriage?
2. Unbelieving institutions still fulfill God’s purposes.
God ordained that there be human institutions like government. He explains in Romans 13:1–7 and 1 Peter 2:13–17, and he teaches that governments are real. They’re real governments, and they accomplish many of his good purposes, even when the emperor and the governors are unbelieving. So everything these governors and emperors do is sin in their unbelief, because they don’t do it from faith. And yet, that doesn’t stop God from recognizing the governments as real, God-ordained institutions of government accomplishing his purposes.
In the same way, God ordained the institution of marriage, and it too accomplishes many of God’s purposes, even when the husband and wife are unbelievers, like providing replenishment for the earth, some measure of stability against chaos, some semblance of the covenant love that God intended marriage to portray.
Now let me underline that last point. The ultimate purpose of marriage, according to Genesis 2:24 and Ephesians 5:32, is to portray the covenant love between Christ and his church. This is done most clearly in an obedient, faithful Christian marriage. But it is done obscurely even in a lifelong, promise-keeping, adultery-avoiding, unbelieving marriage. So marriages accomplish some of God’s purposes imperfectly, even when the spouses are unbelieving.
3. Converted spouses should stay married.
In 1 Corinthians 7:12–16, Paul addresses Christian spouses who are converted while they are in an unbelieving marriage, so that one spouse is now a believer and one is not. And he tells them not to divorce, lest they think, “Oh, I’ve got to divorce my spouse because now this is a wrecked marriage because one of us is an unbeliever.” He does not tell them that they are now in a half-marriage or an illegitimate marriage, and he doesn’t tell them that they need to have a new wedding ceremony because they were in a non-marriage. They weren’t. They were in a marriage. It was a marriage, and it is a marriage — imperfect, to be sure, but still marriage.
4. Wrongfully entered marriage is still marriage.
When Jesus speaks of divorce, and he describes remarriage after divorce as adulterous, he still calls those marriages marriages. For example, in Luke 16:18 he says, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Well, that’s very strong language, and there’s no escaping that Jesus uses the word marry for what ought not to happen, but it does happen. And when it happens, it is what it is. If Jesus treats wrongfully entered marriages as real marriages, then it’s not a stretch to treat the marriages of unbelievers as real marriage.
Now, lots more could be said here, but let me end with this: Marriage is rooted in God’s design for creation at the beginning and is a valid institution for all his human creatures (Genesis 2:18–25). Where there is a covenant made between a man and a woman for a lifetime of faithfulness as husband and wife, we have a marriage. It will become God-honoring, Christ-exalting, truth-based when the couple believes.
What we say to an unbelieving couple is not, “Don’t marry,” but rather, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).