We get a steady stream of really tough pastoral questions for Pastor John in our inbox. Thanks for sending them, and thank you for your patience with us as we try to work through as many of them as possible. Here’s one of those questions, from a listener named Eric, a pastor. “Hello, Pastor John! I’m a pastor wondering what should be a corrective course of action when a Christian knowingly marries an unbeliever. The believer was forewarned and went ahead with the union anyway. Now the marriage has been formalized. So how should we, the church, now respond?”
To answer this, let’s clarify how many layers of sinfulness there are when a professing believer rejects the counsel of the church elders and marries an unbeliever. I’ll just mention three layers. There are others, but this will help us feel the seriousness of it.
Layers of Sin
First, the professing believer is defying and rebelling against an explicit command of the New Testament of God. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:39, “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.” “Only in the Lord” means only to a person who is in the Lord — a believer, a follower of Jesus. So, if this teaching is made clear to the believer, and the believer rejects obedience to this command, she or he is acting in open defiance of the teaching of the apostles and of God.
Second, probably even more important, because it gets to the heart of the matter: a believer who chooses to marry an unbeliever shows how deeply compromised the believer’s love for Christ is. Jesus said, in essence, “Unless you love me more than you love your closest human loved one, you’re not worthy of me” (see Matthew 10:37). That’s an amazing claim that Jesus lays on our hearts. But if the believer enjoys the presence and the friendship and the intimacy of a Christ-rejecting person (boyfriend or girlfriend) more than the presence and the fellowship of Christ, their very faith and love for Jesus is in question by Jesus — not by me, but by Jesus. That’s the deepest issue.
How can the heart of a believer embrace Jesus as its supreme treasure and satisfaction, and reject the words of Jesus in order to be in the arms of one who has no faith and no true affection for the believer’s most treasured possession? It’s inconceivable to me. I’ve always found that incomprehensible. Something is deeply, deeply wrong with the heart’s affection for Christ. That’s the second layer of sinfulness.
“Church leaders have to be prepared to be vilified by people who think they know better than the apostles.”
And third, if faithful leaders in the church have lovingly explained God’s will based on God’s word to the believer, and have told the believer not to move forward with this illicit marriage out of obedience to Christ, then the marriage is not only rebellion against the explicit biblical command and not only a revelation of an idolatrous heart that puts a human above Christ in the affections, but also a spurning of the authority of the elders, which God gave to protect the sheep from sin.
Now that’s the situation, and I start there so that the rest of what I have to say will sound appropriately serious.
Discipline in Love
My answer is that the elders plead, they pray, they teach, and then, if all of that is rejected, you remove the believer from membership in the church, for moving ahead with the marriage. The aim of this removal is to sober the disobedient believer, wake them up, and win them to a repentant and obedient heart and restoration.
Many people do not take the Bible seriously. They are baffled and angry by churches who take the Bible as seriously as I’m saying. Many professing Christians today would regard such excommunication as more hurtful than helpful. They call it intolerant; they even call it hateful. But that’s because they elevate their own wisdom above God’s wisdom. They use the same reasoning for why we should not remove a person from membership that the disobedient person used to marry the unbeliever in the first place: Maybe the unbeliever will be won to Christ in this marriage. Maybe if you keep them as members, or keep one of them as members, the other will be one.
And the parents — oh my — of the excommunicated person, or friends, if they’re not seriously biblical, will argue that you won’t be able to win them to Christ by putting them out of the church. They’re going to get angry. The unbeliever will call you intolerant and hateful, claiming it won’t be redemptive but will be alienating. That’s what they are going to say. That’s what elders have to be prepared to hear.
That’s emphatically not what the Bible teaches. In 2 Thessalonians 3:14–15 and in 1 Corinthians 5:4–5, Paul holds out the possibility and the desire that by means of such holy ostracism, people will, in fact, be saved and restored. In fact, I have seen church discipline have that very effect in my ministry. Church leaders have to be prepared to be vilified by people who think they know better than the apostles how to love people.
Restored to Repentance
One of the other questions to answer is this, which is very important: What does repentance and restoration look like in such a situation? It does not mean that the marriage is nullified; it really is a marriage — a marriage that should not have been entered into, but now, having been entered into, should not be broken; it should be sanctified.
And Paul is just as clear about the fact that a believer should not divorce an unbeliever as he is that they shouldn’t marry one (1 Corinthians 7:12). So, repentance of sin in marrying an unbeliever does not include divorcing the unbeliever. What it includes is a heart change, not a marriage change:
There should be an authentic remorse and regret for disobedience to 1 Corinthians 7:39.
There should be an acknowledgment and repentance that the heart was not right in putting man above Christ in the affections.
There should be an apology and sorrow for spurning the counsel of God’s leaders in the church.
“A believer who chooses to marry an unbeliever shows how deeply compromised the believer’s love for Christ is.”
And all of these changes are possible while the marriage stays intact. Indeed, I would say that a man or a woman who stays in such a marriage can say to an unbelieving spouse these words: “My reawakened love for Jesus, and my treasuring Christ above you as my Lord and Savior, and my desire to be a part of Christ’s people again, and my regret over my sin in marrying an unbeliever, does not mean I have stopped loving you or that I want to leave you. We have a covenant till death do us part; I intend to keep it. In fact, my restored faith means that I now know how to love you better. I would like to show it. I hope you will have me.”
Whether the unbelieving spouse will receive that, we don’t know. But it is possible, and that’s the goal of the discipline; that’s our prayer.