Let’s start by saying it out loud: I’m single. So here comes another single guy, writing about relationships as if he’s qualified on the topic. But actually, I’d want to suggest to you that perhaps my singleness is in fact exactly what qualifies me to talk about this. Because, while I have never been in a relationship, I have had several serious opportunities for relationships that came close but which I ultimately decided not to pursue. It’s not that these girls weren’t Christian, but I had my reasons for knowing that pursuing a relationship with them would not have been the godly thing to do. So while I may not know that much about dating, I do know a thing or two about, well, not dating. And that’s precisely what this article is about.
So. This is an article about why, if you’re a Christian, you shouldn’t date someone who isn’t. I’m writing this in part because it is a common issue in most Christian communities – all of us will have at some point at least known a Christian who was dating a non-Christian. But it’s mainly because I’ve often thought, from the conversations I’ve had about this topic over the years, that there is a lot of unclarity and maybe confusion around how some people in church think about this. It seems to be a bit of a grey area for a lot of Christians. I want to argue that it’s actually pretty black and white. I want to argue that because I don’t want Christians to be confused and unsure about this. So I hope to bring clarity and definition to the issue for people, so that they can have a conviction about it that is not merely a product of Christian culture, but is the product of their own engagement with God’s word on the matter.
Of course life and people are complicated things, and knowing clearly what’s right doesn’t always produce a lifestyle to match. It’ll take more than one blog post to change a person’s life choices. And the huge premise here is that, regardless of where we’re at on this particular issue, we’re all together in the fact that we’re messy, idiotic sinners who get stuff wrong all the time. And so I would hate for my exhortations here to come across as a self-righteous sense of moral superiority. I assure you I have no delusions that I am a good person. But as a starting point, whatever we do with the information, it is beneficial or all of us to be informed about how God wants us to live, and to know the reasons for our beliefs. Because we definitely can’t live right, or help our friends live right, if we don’t know what right is.
How good or bad a boyfriend/girlfriend they are to you is not the issue
I think this is the first thing that needs to be said. This is not about how good or bad a partner a non-Christian will make. When I say you shouldn’t date a non-Christian, it is not based on some prejudiced, unrealistic notion that unbelievers are selfish, debaucherous people who won’t treat you right. This needs to be said because, personally, I am very perplexed by the frequency with which I hear the argument that goes, “A lot of unbelievers will treat a girl better than a lot of Christians out there.” This is so confusing. Why would you say that? Is it because you believe this is about how well someone treats you? It’s not about getting someone who will be good to you. It’s about something so much deeper than that.
Yes, there are plenty of Christian guys and girls out there who are after your affections and who don’t deserve them. There are some Christians out there who would treat you worse in a relationship than some non-Christians. But the answer to that is not to ditch those loser Christians and pick up the decent unbeliever. The answer is to neither date the inadequate Christian… or the unbeliever. The answer is to raise your standards – not lower them. The answer is to wait for someone who belongs to Jesus’ Kingdom, and will treat you right. Because Christians aren’t perfect, but you’re stuck with them. If you don’t want to marry a Christian, you might be in the wrong religion.
The Bible says no
Sorry to be blunt. (I promise this article gets more tenderly pastoral towards the end.) But I really do believe God has spoken on this topic. Well, almost. The Bible doesn’t forbid dating unbelievers. But then again, “dating” is a foreign concept to the authors of the Bible. What the Bible does forbid is Christians marrying unbelievers. We can see this in 1 Corinthians 7:39, where Paul says a widow is free to marry anyone she chooses, “only in the Lord,” which is First Century Christianese for “only if he’s a Christian.”
More famously, in 2 Corinthians 6:14-16 Paul writes about unequal yoking (which basically means “joining”). I should probably just quote the whole thing:
“Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God.”
Paul may also be talking about business partnerships between Christians and non-Christians, or any number of other things. But while he may be talking about a broad range of yokings, the consensus among scholars does seem to be that marriage is certainly included among the types of cross-kingdom partnerships Paul is forbidding.
These passages tell me that the question of whether or not Christians ought to date non-Christians is not a matter of personal choice; it’s not just a matter of “standards”. It is matter of obedience. I don’t want that to come across as harsh or judgemental. We don’t scold our brothers and sisters when they go astray, as we all have our own thorns. But in order to have the right kind of grace for each other, we do need to start by knowing in the first place what God’s boundaries and requirements actually are, so that we’re basing our behaviour off truth, not off approximate gut feelings, or off culture.
Now we could stop here and say, “The Bible says no, end of conversation.” But as you can see in 2 Cor 6:14-16, the Bible gives reasons not to marry unbelievers. So I want to get into those reasons. But before that I also need to settle the matter of closing that little gap I’ve left open between marriage and dating.
Don’t date someone you plan not to marry
A few years ago I brought a non-Christian friend to church. That was great. Unfortunately, rather than getting saved, he met the girl of his dreams. And that Christian girl didn’t think he was half bad either, and they promptly started dating. Not what I had in mind. Anyway, when her connect leader, a good friend of mine, pointed out that the Bible says not to marry unbelievers, she said, “I don’t get what the problem is; I’m just dating him, not marrying him.”
And at this point in Western Christian culture, we’ve gotten very good at acknowledging the fact that dating is not marriage. Coffee isn’t marriage. Dinner and a movie isn’t marriage. You don’t need to have a prayer meeting before asking a girl out, or before saying yes to a guy’s invitation. And that’s cool.
But there’s a difference between dating someone you’re not sure you’re going to marry, and dating someone you’re sure you’re not going to marry.
This is an issue that brings up your whole worldview about the purpose of dating and the purpose of marriage. And it would take too long to really go into that. But suffice it to say that dating is not something we do for the purpose of enjoying someone for a while and then dropping them when we’re tired of them. If you date someone whom you see no future with, you’re setting yourself up for a world of pain, because you are essentially agreeing to and orchestrating a future breakup. And 1) You’re probably overestimating your future ability to deal with the emotional backlash, and 2) You’re almost certainly not giving due consideration to the pain you’re planning to put the other person through.
(Of course, you may be dating them in the hope that they eventually become Christian. More on that later.)
They belong to a different kingdom
So why does the Bible forbid marrying unbelievers?
If you read that passage in 2 Corinthians 6, you’ll notice that it has little to do with unbelievers being bad people. It’s about something so much deeper than that. In a nutshell, it’s all about spiritual allegiance. See, the difference between being a Christian and being a non-Christian is not just behavioural, and not just psychological, and it’s definitely not just cultural, as if it comes down to being a member of a church club or community. It’s metaphysical. That is, it’s spiritual. The point is, your Christianity runs deep down into who you are. It’s not a side note in your biography; it’s the central fact about your identity. And that means the fact that your dating partner is not a Christian is also not a side note to your relationship. Their unbelief is, unless and until they repent, the central thing that defines them. Your response to Jesus makes you who you are. And it places you in one of two kingdoms: the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Darkness.
Ephesians 2:2 describes unbelievers as following the prince of this world (the Devil), saying that his spirit is at work in all unbelievers. In Colossians 1:21 Paul describes unbelievers as hostile to God. In other words, if you’re a Christian, then dating an unbeliever means dating someone who is fighting for the other team. Their allegiance does not lie with your King. It may not always look like it – they may be the kindest most genuine people – but the underlying spiritual reality is that unbelievers are following the ruler of… another kingdom. And eventually it will start to look like it. Eventually the difference of allegiance will come up in the relationship.
They are dead (and the more you love them the more deeply their spiritual death will distress you)
Another way the Bible describes the difference between Christians and non-Christians is the difference of life and death (see Ephesians 2:4-5). Obviously that doesn’t mean they’re not breathing. It speaks of a spiritual death that is actually much worse. They are living separated from God – they are dead to him, while they are alive to sin. See, Paul says in Galatians 6:14 that the world has been crucified to him, and he to the world. Becoming a Christian is a reversal of worlds. You die to the world, while you become alive to God. But an unbeliever is alive to the world, and dead to God. Thus they are alive to the things you are dead to, and they are dead to the things you are alive to. It is hard to overstate the emphasis the Bible places on just how stark the difference is between believers and unbelievers.
But this death isn’t just present; it foretells of a coming condemnation and destruction destined for all unbelievers that is too horrible to even speak of. And I personally just can’t imagine being married to someone, being closer to them than anyone else, loving them more than anyone else, and yet knowing that at the end of life, that is what they are destined for. The only way for that not to intolerably painful would be either to refrain from loving them too much, or to refrain from thinking about God too much.
They cannot understand you
One of the practical ways that this spiritual division within a relationship, this difference of kingdoms between two people, affects things is simply that your non-Christian partner won’t understand you. As Paul says, “What fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial?” (2 Cor 6:15) Or as he says famously in 1 Corinthians 1:18 that, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.” He goes on about this for a whole chapter, saying in 2:14 that, “The unbeliever/the person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.”
To the extent that you place God at the centre of your life, your partner will be unable to understand the thing that is most important to you. They can’t understand why you want to spend so much time at church, why you read the Bible all the time, but more importantly, they won’t understand this love you feel for this God of yours. Your best friend will be a stranger to them. This whole relationship you have with God will be something you can’t talk to them about or explore with them. When you feel like God’s not there or not answering your prayers, your partner won’t be able to help you. When you’re stoked that God has answered your prayer, or you feel like you’ve just discovered his love and mercy in a new and deeper way, your partner won’t be the person who’s there to celebrate the spiritual wins.
How can you build true intimacy in that context? There is only one way…
Whether they intend to or not, they will compete with God for your affections
The only way to build deep intimacy – the kind worthy of a romantic relationship – with someone who isn’t a Christian is to diminish the role God plays in your heart and in your life. God desires to be present at the innermost recesses of your heart. God wants to be so deep in you that the closer a person gets to you the more they will see Him. In a Christian relationship this causes no conflict, because both partners agree and desire to spur one another on to love God more and more, and both are happy to be second to God. But a non-Christian partner feels no impulse to encourage you towards a deeper love for this God that they don’t believe in (or even don’t like). Rather the opposite.
They may not actively try to pull you away from God (though they may). But whether they do or not, if God is the deepest, most cherished treasure in your heart, and not in theirs, then someone needs to budge in order for the two of you to connect on a truly deep level. Eventually there will probably come a point where you feel like, by loving God, you are betraying your partner. And thus it will feel like the only way to be loyal to your partner, the only way to get past this barrier between the two of you, is to in some degree diminish in yourself this part of you that they don’t understand. Loyalty to your partner will start to become synonymous with distance from God.
I don’t say this lightly: Every step towards deeper intimacy with your unbelieving partner is another step away from intimacy with God.
The statistics are not your friend
I’ve just said that your non-Christian partner will compete with God for your affections. But what should alarm you about that more than anything is the possibility that they might win.
So, it may be that you are dating a non-Christian in hope that through your relationship with them, they will see Jesus, and come to know him for themselves. In all human history, this has worked… a few times. I can personally think of two people who were Christians and started dating a non-Christian, where that person eventually became a believer themselves. The rest of the stories I know are nowhere near as fortunate; in fact they are heartbreaking. The vast, vast majority of times, the unbelieving partner keeps on being an unbeliever. What I have seen, and what all my Christian friends have seen, and what all their Christian friends have seen, is that one of two things happen. Either 1) the relationship ends, or 2) the Christian falls away from their faith.
In other words, when we date unbelievers, we ultimately end up needing to choose between them and God, and far more times than I would have liked to, I’ve seen people choose their partner. The fact is, no one will influence you more than your partner or spouse. And we mustn’t underestimate the power romantic love has over our biggest life decisions, even decisions about our eternity. The statistics here tell an unhappy story. And yes, there are exceptions to the rule. And I know you believe that you are the exception. But the thing is, you have no evidence that you’re the exception.
The exception to the rule is not something on which to base significant life decisions. The rule is. The exception is merely something to give us hope when our friends make unwise life decisions.
They want sex
Just saying. I’m not trying to scare you. And again I’m not trying to paint a picture of unbelievers as promiscuous reprobates. But this is just a practical warning of a simple fact: Your non-Christian boyfriend or girlfriend wants sex. And part of the problem is, you do too. But you have a conviction about not getting into all that sex stuff before marriage. But they probably have no qualms with getting into it right now. And they really struggle to understand why you’re not willing. And that’s just gonna get more and more problematic with every month that goes by.
Their spirituality is too important to be left an unknown variable
Ok. So what about the “potential” card: “They’re not a Christian yet, but I see so much potential in them to be a total world changer for God if they do become a Christian.” Maybe you won’t marry them until they turn to Jesus, but you are determined to make sure that happens so you can get that God-centred relationship you’re after, with them.
Well I do have to ask, what is it about them that makes their hypothetical future relationship with God so special? I hate to say it, but I wonder if what makes their hypothetical future relationship with God so special is that… you really like them. Are you really being objective in your assessment? I mean, if their qualities are so conducive to a great relationship with God, then why is their current relationship with him so bad? Right? It sounds to me like someone’s elevating the “them” part a little higher than the “God-centred relationship” part. Because if it was the God-centred relationship that you were after more than anything else, I don’t think you’d be holding onto this particular person, who can’t give you that at the moment. At the end of the day, their hypothetical future relationship with God is just that: hypothetical. You don’t know that they will ever become a Christian, and if they do, you don’t actually know that their relationship with God will look quite like you are imagining it to be, because that’s a journey they haven’t even started yet.
See, whenever we enter into a relationship, there will be unknowns, and knowns. The idea ought to be to make sure the most important quantities are known, while allowing for less important things to be left to chance. For example, you really want to know what gender they are, because nobody wants to find themselves 2 years into a relationship and then find out that their partner isn’t the gender they were hoping for. You might also want to know for sure whether they want kids, at least to the extent that children are important to you. But you don’t necessarily need to know whether they snore loudly or whether they prefer the toilet roll to dispense from the front of the roll or the back. You might not need to know what country they plan to live when they’re 40, unless you are absolutely certain that you must spend the rest of your life in Australia, in which case you need to know that they’re cool with that before things get serious. The more important something is, the more you need to be able to guarantee that your prospective partner has it. The less important things you can find out as you go along. But dating a non-believer in the hope that they will eventually become a believer makes the single most important thing in your relationship an unknown variable. It places a gamble on what is actually more important than any other aspect of your relationship, while putting all your insurance on things that are comparatively trivial. It’s like saying, “Sure, we don’t know whether the house will withstand a thunderstorm, but we don’t know that it won’t! And look! Built in wardrobes.”
Let’s make the main things the main things – from the beginning. Lest we find ourselves years into a relationship with someone before finding out that they are not going to change, and not knowing what to do about that because we are so in love. That kind of pain is very real.
Don’t date someone for who you want them to be
So do you think it makes a lot of sense, then, to start dating someone who is, in their present condition, totally un-marriable by your standards, and incapable of the kind of relationship you are ultimately seeking, in the hope that through your romantic relationship with them, you will be able turn them into the person that is fit for you to marry?
Here’s a question: how do you think being in a romantic relationship with them right now helps? Why not wait until they’re a Christian? You want a God-centred relationship with them. Wouldn’t the best thing then be to pray for their salvation so that, of their own accord, in the absence of a complicated and complicating relationship with you, they come to know Jesus and become a viable marriage option for you? Note the alternative pattern of thought. Why think of them as a dating option right now, rather than thinking of them as someone to pray for in the hope that they would become a dating option? Is it because they need you, especially you, in their life to lead them to Christ? Well if you insist, but do you need to be dating them to do that? Especially with all the conflicted intimacy dynamics that will be present until they accept Jesus (see point 7)? It’s just interesting the things we make an option to us. We wouldn’t hire a non-Christian as a pastor, no matter how gifted a public speaker he is, in the hope that he would become a Christian in the process. Because we just couldn’t entrust a congregation into the hands of someone who doesn’t actually know Jesus. So why would you entrust your life into the hands of someone who doesn’t know Jesus, knowing that they will start to influence you before they are able to influence you towards Christ?
See, if dating exists as a means toward marriage, then we can’t go and start a serious relationship with someone who is fundamentally not yet ready to marry us, and may never be. It is infinitely wiser, and more conducive to our ultimate happiness, if we choose someone to begin a relationship with because we already see in them the qualities that would make them a good marriage partner for us.
So here’s something I believe: If God wanted you to date this person, they’d be Christian by now. He would’ve already made them into the person he wants them to be to satisfy you. But they’re not yet, which means God has a lot of work to do on them if and before you need to concern yourself with their prospects as a romantic partner. In the meantime it’s not your job to change them into the person you want to marry. Because you just can’t date someone for who you want them to be if they show no signs of wanting to be that person themselves. We must decide to only date people who exist. Not people who come close but aren’t quite the person that we wish existed.
So rather than waiting God knows how long for them to change the most fundamental thing about who they are, why not look for someone who is already who they need to be in order to satisfy your God-given needs? Why not look for someone whom you already know belongs to the Kingdom of God because they are already on the journey of following Christ?
It’s not their relationship with God that’s attracting you to them
I’ve left this one till last because I think it gets to the heart of the matter: your heart. This is hard to hear, and always hard to admit to yourself. See, the problem with whole idea of dating someone into the Kingdom – dating them in the hope that they will come to know Christ through you – is that, by definition, what is attracting you to this person is not their relationship with God. It’s not their holiness. It’s not their devotion. It’s not their propensity to lead you towards Christ. It’s everything but that. And here’s something I have come to fully believe: nothing in your future marriage partner matters more than their godliness.
This is something I definitely can’t say self-righteously. Because, though I’ve never dated or considered dating any non-Christians, I have had serious attractions to girls where I’ve had to eventually admit to myself that the things I was attracted to in them had nothing to do with God. And I’m not just talking about physical lust. I’m talking about conversational prowess, music taste, intelligence, confidence. These are all great and important things. But on their own they are not enough to build a God-centred relationship. Thankfully, I’ve also been attracted to girls because of their relationship with God, and so I can tell the difference. And I know that the latter is possible.
But so if you want to say that you have Godly intentions for dating someone because you are hoping to lead them to Christ, I’d just want to ask you what part of you it is that finds this person appealing in the first place. Is it your insatiable desire for Christ that has directed you towards this person, finding in them a means of satisfying your desire for more of Him? Is it your passion to see the world won for Christ that has led you to this person, believing that they will help you on your journey to spread the Gospel? Is it your love for God’s word and God’s presence that has led you to this person because with them you tend to spend more time exploring God? Is it your longing for holiness that has led you to this person because you find that they challenge you towards a deeper level of faith and obedience? Do you long to be around this person because you look forward to talking about the goodness of God? Is it that part of you that is satisfied by your relationship with this person? Or is it other things? Is it just a desire for intimacy and affirmation from a good looking person that you can have a stimulating conversation with while enjoying the same music and going to fun places?
There’s nothing wrong with those desires. But they reveal something, don’t they? What I want to say is not that you should forget about those earthly relational desires. I’m saying, don’t forget about your desire to share your relationship with God in the context of romance. Because I’ll tell you, you can have both, if you are patient. And I think perhaps we sometimes don’t believe that there are people out there who relate to our Creator in a way that we find charming and beautiful. We sometimes just forget that there exists the possibility of a truly God-centred relationship in which it’s not awkward or forced to talk about God and pray together, but in which these aspects are the most satisfying part of the relationship. And I have come to think that, even if my partner is a Christian, if it’s not her relationship with God that draws me to her, and if she and I can’t talk about God in a way that encourages both of us to pursue him more deeply, then it’s not the relationship God wants for me.
With all that in mind then. I would personally rather be single my whole life than settle for marrying an unbeliever. I really mean that. And I’m nothing close to a perfect Christian, but this is one thing that I have firmly resolved in my heart. And it’s because I simply do not believe that a relationship with anyone other than a woman of God could satisfy me.