In the Bible, the term “pagan” generally refers to someone who worships idols, false gods, or practices idolatry. A pagan wife then is a wife who does not worship the one true God, Yahweh. Intermarriage between believers and non-believers is discouraged throughout Scripture. However, the Bible also provides guidance for what to do if a believer is already married to an unbeliever.
- God’s people are instructed not to intermarry with pagans because it can lead believers astray.
- If already married, believers are not to divorce their unbelieving spouses solely because of religious differences.
- Unbelieving spouses can be sanctified through their believing spouse.
- Believers must continue living faithfully and set an example, even if the unbelieving spouse refuses to convert.
- Unequally yoked relationships bring unique challenges that require prayer, discernment and sacrifice.
Old Testament Warnings Against Intermarriage
In the Old Testament, God’s people are repeatedly warned against intermarrying with pagans from surrounding nations. This command was given to protect Israel from adopting idolatrous practices and straying from devotion to God alone:
“Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the LORD’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.” (Deuteronomy 7:3-4, NIV)
Marrying pagans was viewed as a form of idolatry itself, indicating a lack of faith in God’s provision and plan. The entering of foreign wives into Israel is cited numerous times as a source of spiritual corruption. When Solomon married many foreign women, Scripture says:
“His wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been.” (1 Kings 11:3-4, NIV)
Following the exile, Ezra called for mass divorce from pagan wives, recognizing the damage these marriages caused (Ezra 10). While these warnings are strong, Scripture also provides guidance for what to do if already in a spiritually mixed marriage.
New Testament Teaching on Unequally Yoked Marriages
In the New Testament era, many converts to Christianity had unbelieving spouses. The apostle Paul addressed this situation specifically in 1 Corinthians 7. Speaking by the Spirit, Paul writes:
“To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.” (1 Corinthians 7:12-13, NIV)
While advising believers to marry “only in the Lord” (7:39), Paul recognizes many are already married to unbelievers. In this case, he cautions against divorce solely because of religious differences. Separation is permitted if the unbelieving spouse insists on leaving, but the believer should make every effort to maintain the marriage (7:12-16).
Paul’s teaching aligns with that of Peter, who says of women married to disobedient husbands:
“Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, even if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see your pure and reverent demeanor.” (1 Peter 3:1-2, NIV)
Through their conduct, believing spouses can positively influence unbelieving partners. Both Paul and Peter recognize God can work through believers to potentially bring salvation to the unbelieving (1 Cor. 7:14, 1 Pet. 3:1).
Sanctification of Unbelieving Spouse and Children
In 1 Corinthians 7:14, Paul makes a remarkable statement about family sanctification. He writes:
“For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.” (1 Cor. 7:14, NIV)
Though complex theologically, Paul seems to argue that the presence of a believer brings some sort of blessing or favor upon the unbeliever, making them “sanctified” in some sense. The children of the union are also made holy instead of unclean.
Exactly how or to what extent the unbeliever is sanctified is debated. At minimum, it means they are set apart from the world through their connection to a believer and exposure to godly conduct in marriage. Some see it as an external sanctification by association only. Others believe it may imply the unbeliever’s increased chance of salvation. Biblical commentator David Guzik explains:
“This does not mean that the unbelieving spouse is automatically saved, but that they are surrounded by the blessings of being married to a believer and hearing the word of God…”They are set apart in a special way for God’s favor and goodness.” (Enduring Word Commentary on 1 Corinthians 7)
Regardless of the precise theological meaning, the main point is that God’s grace is able to operate through believers to positively influence unbelieving family members.
Maintaining Christian Witness in a Mixed Marriage
Marrying an unbeliever comes with unique challenges for the believer. The believer must continue living out their faith with integrity, despite having a spouse who does not share their commitment to Christ.
Author Wendy Alsup offers wisdom for navigating a spiritually mismatched marriage. She explains that setting an example requires sacrifice:
“You have to give up the right to make your spouse live the Christian life in exchange for demonstrating what it looks like on your own…You may have to adjust hopes and dreams to reflect your reality. You may have to let go of some things you desire because your spouse does not desire them” (The Gospel-Centered Woman)
The believer should persist in purity, prayer, church involvement, and other spiritual disciplines even if their spouse resists. Through unconditional love and avoiding preachiness, the believer makes the gospel attractive.
Author Alicia Bruxvoort likens it to an ice cube on a warm hand. Just staying close to the believing spouse melts the unbeliever’s heart over time. The sacrifice and perseverance required in unequally yoked relationships ultimately honors God.
Navigating Family Traditions, Holidays and Child-Rearing
Mixed marriages face additional challenges when it comes to family traditions, holidays and raising children. Couples must thoughtfully navigate issues like:
- Which religious holidays to celebrate together?
- What do we teach the children about faith?
- How much should each spouse compromise?
There are no cookie-cutter answers. Each couple must communicate openly, compromise, and come to mutual decisions. The believer especially may have to demonstrate flexibility, grace, and sensitivity to the unbeliever’s wishes.
Though it requires wisdom, these differences can also create opportunities to expose the unbelieving spouse to biblical truths. The believer can introduce spiritual elements into holiday celebrations that make the gospel message come alive.
Hope for the Salvation of the Unbelieving Spouse
Despite the challenges, Scripture gives hope that unbelieving spouses and children can come to faith through the believer’s witness. 1 Peter 3:1 calls the lifestyle example of the believing wife “more persuasive than words.” The respectful conduct has power to win over the disobedient spouse “without a word.”
Paul asks pointedly how a believer can know if God might use them to bring their unbelieving spouse to salvation:
“How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Corinthians 7:16)
This hope should motivate believers to persevere in unequally yoked marriages, relying on God’s power to bring redemption. With prayer, humility and sacrifice, God can use the difficulties to draw unbelievers to Himself.
Intermarriage between God’s people and pagans is strongly discouraged in the Bible, as it leads believers into idolatry. However, God’s word also offers wisdom for believers already married to unbelievers. According to Paul and Peter’s teaching, separation should not be pursued solely over religious differences. Believers must continue living out their faith with integrity. God can use their pure conduct to win over unbelieving spouses and families. While challenging, unequally yoked relationships present unique gospel opportunities if the believer perseveres in love and sacrifice. With God all things are possible.