Should Christians date people who aren't believers?
Table of Contents
One thing that's been a challenge to me recently is this idea:
Should Christians date people who aren't believers in the Christian faith?
This question has come about in my life because a fair few of my friends in faith over the past couple of months have begun relationships with people who don't share their faith. This has also been the case with a Muslim friend of mine, who is now dating a Christian woman. Its something that, as I'm getting older, I'm seeing a lot more of. And I suspect I'm not the only one who is seeing it.
So I think it's worth talking about because no one else seems to be prepared to talk about it. And that's a shame, because it's the reality a lot of Christians, particularly older Christians, are faced with. There is shockingly little support and help available for the older single Christian and, as a result, this is becoming an issue which more and more Christians are facing.
Before we begin, this is an incredibly sensitive issue which impacts a ton of people. I don't have the answers, and this article is not going to tell you who to date/not date. I'm literally the last person you should come to for dating advice. Rather, I want to offer some observation on how we approach the subject of interfaith dating and marriage, both individually and collectively, and suggest to you we can do an awful lot better.
See, here's my issue. A lot of people of faith will look at the idea of dating someone who doesn't believe or an interfaith relationship and say "no, absolutely not, the Bible says..." and present an argument as to why it's a bad idea, frequently backed up with solid scripture and sometimes even stats. Often when people say "you shouldn't do that," it's presented as a concrete fact that leaves no room for any other interpretation, feelings or discussion. That's just the way it is. The shutters come down, the lights go off, the discussion ends with a crash.
Evangelical Christianity slams its boot down on the windpipe of those struggling with this issue and will not consider removing it.
Whilst the viewpoint that says "you shouldn't date someone who doesn't share your faith, " is somewhat of a harsh viewpoint, I totally get why people come to that conclusion. There are a ton of Bible passages that tell Christians that they are set apart from the world around them, that they shouldn't be unequally yoked, don't be like the pagans around them. I've read them, and re-read them, and re-re-read them and I totally get it. There is a very strong Biblical case for not dating someone who doesn't share your faith, particularly in 2 Corinthians 6:14, 1 Corinthians 7:29, Genesis 34, Proverbs 31 and so on. It's absolutely a valid choice and and a valid argument. We are called, as Christians, to follow God's standard and many people interpret that standard as "don't marry/date someone who doesn't share your faith."
Biblical principles made real
The problem is, not so much with the argument, but how its applied. The way most Christians apply the argument of who people should/shouldn't date is with all the nuance and subtlety of a drunken toddler waving a brick.
Ask any of your Christian friends who are dating someone who does not share their faith about their experience with other Christians and generally you will hear a litany of horror stories. Judgement. Condemnation. Hurts. It's an incredibly isolating and hurtful place to be.
The argument that "you shouldn't date this person because they don't share your faith, " when applied by modern day evangelicals generally lacks 3 things in its application by other Christians.
-it lacks humility, it often seems to come from a position of moral and religious superiority. A bit like a modern day Pharisee.
-it lacks understanding of the other person's position. Their hurts, fears and loneliness are seen as not mattering to the one pronouncing judgement. A bit like a modern day Pharisee.
-it lacks action. We shove the need for repentance and change onto the one we see as a sinner without ever examining our own culpability in the issue. A bit like a modern day Pharisee.
So often, when we judge Christians for dating/marrying people who do not share their faith, we make ourselves modern day Pharisees.
The first thing this argument lacks is humility, specifically, an inability to see what we might not be 100% right.
Let's be completely frank for a second here, there are a lot of cases of Christians dating people who don't share their faith and the Christian eventually leaving church or binning off their belief. I know one, you know one. It can be immensely damaging and a huge risk. And it can be hugely harmful to families and relationships and ministries. Sometimes people just stop engaging in church life, sometimes it's a painful exit that causes carnage on their way our the door. Sometimes it's simply someone fading into the background of our lives.
But at the same time, does it always happen?
No, it doesn't. I know that, you know that, we all know that. I know several really strong believers who are married or dating people who don't share their faith, it can and it does work.
It doesn't always end badly, we just remember the times it does end badly the most vividly.
In fact, in most cases I've seen, nothing really changes. People are engaged in their church environment to the extent they are engaged with it, the partner more often than not just sees it as a hobby or an interest. So this then begs the question:
Is it the Christians fault for wanting love or is it the wider churches fault for not evangelising and reaching their partner?
Whilst we are busy pointing the finger, why are we also missing the obvious evangelism opportunity right in front of us?
To use a football analogy, we're too busy yelling at the referee to see the open goal in front of us.
Many Christians who are quick to say "you shouldn't" inevitably do so from the view point of fatalistic certainty. They are certain that persons faith will be harmed, they are certain that person will leave the church, they are certain that they will never pick up a Bible or pray again. And yet, the evidence simply doesn't show that.
The very fact that most churches have a large percentage of couples where one is an attendee and one isn't shows in stark contrast that this binary viewpoint just doesn't reflect a much more nuanced reality.
Marriage between Christians and non Christians can work, and it does work. I'm not saying it's easy, and I'm not saying it isn't challenge free, but someone's walk with God is their walk with God, not yours. Let them walk it. If it worked for the prophet Hosea, chances are it'll work for them.
The second thing the "you shouldn't" viewpoint lacks is understanding.
See, we have this idea that if someone is dating a non-believer, they're doing it for a quite unflattering reason like they don't really value God, there's idolatry or they're obsessed with sex or something like that, but chances are that the reasons are very, very different from what we assume.
Let's say you have a single Christian in their mid 30s to early 50s. They've tried to meet a Christian partner and it hasn't worked. They're now faced with a very difficult choice that they are often completely unsupported in. Do they try and have a family and marriage, or do they leave it until they meet someone in church, often when it's too late? Often we expect them to take the latter route without asking the awkward questions of "why should they miss out?" and "why is it ok for us to expect them to be ok with that?"
The "you shouldn't date someone who doesn't share your faith" viewpoint demands compliance to a rigid behavioural standard without being willing to acknowledge the internal grieving process that many Christians in their mid-late 30s and 40s are faced with. Many older Christians are grieving the families they never had, the marriages that never happened, the ideal life that they've been told by every facet of media that they should aspire to has seemed out of reach for so long, are they truly terrible sinners just for wanting a normal life?
Our approach is often judgement and condemnation when people just need love and encouragement.
Let's say your experience of dating Christians has been crap, or there are no men about to meet in the church, or you've been traumatised from spiritual abuse, or all you meet are women who are desperate to be pregnant straight away or an endless succession of man driven just by sex. There are any number of reasons why someone may choose to date someone who doesn't share their faith. If your experience of dating in the church has been horrendous, does it not make sense that people might choose to do something different?
Does it make their choice ideal? Not always, but does it mean we should wilfully ignore their thought process or just write it off as a bad idea? Not at all.
Sometimes people want a normal life, and they aren't bad people for wanting that.
The third thing the "you shouldn't" viewpoint lacks is action. It's easy to condemn, difficult to support.
It is all well and good to say "you shouldn't date someone who isn't a Christian" and leave the argument at that, but to the person making that argument, here is the counterpoint.
If we don't agree with that action, what have we done to stop it reaching that point?
What have we done to help that person meet a partner who shares their faith? What have we done to support them with the stuff that's led them to that point?
The book of James says "faith without action is dead," and in a similar way, correction and guidance without prior support is pointless.
The "you shouldn't" argument can and should always be accompanied by an internal "I should have" questioning as well. Because this situation, whilst it's easy to say it's one person's responsibility, it belongs to all of us.
Let's set an example for you. You have a friend who has, for a long time, struggled with being single. They're worried they might never get married or have kids, worried about lacking support in the future, it's a horrible place to be. What are we doing right there, in that place? Are we patting them on the head, saying "there there, God will make it better," and not investing in them? Are we actively encouraging them to get themselves out there, to ask that guy/girl out? Are we helping them meet someone? Are we praying for them? Fasting for them? Inviting them to be part of our families?
We often cannot wave a magic wand and fix it, but we can do far, far more than we actually are doing.
Condemnation of others without self examination is a waste of time.
The most important thing
What is most important in everything is that God comes first, that's always the most important thing. But in that, we need to have a lot more grace and understanding on both sides of the fence.
So to the people reading this who are dating people who don't share their faith: I love you, I support you, I will fight for you and I believe in you. Keep strong, keep praying and keep going. Don't nag your partners into church and if he's a bloke, let me have a chat to him.
To my friends who think dating someone who doesn't share your faith is a bad idea, we need to be asking some hard questions of ourselves, we need to try and understand people better.