Saturday, September 25, 2010

When “Equally Yoked” Really Isn’t

Every so often, someone suggests, sometimes jokingly, sometimes seriously, “missionary dating” as a solution to my ongoing singleness. For those who might be unfamiliar with this concept, it usually refers to the active attempt to convert someone through some sort of romantic relationship. As a ministry strategy, it has a number of problems, especially since many a new convert has found himself or herself unexpectedly dumped as the “missionary” begins a relationship with another lost soul. That’s “defrauding” at its worst.

However, there’s another form, often promoted as a marriage strategy. The official “dating” may take place after the conversion, but the central goal of the believer is to turn someone of choice into an approved prospective spouse. My own parents’ relationship began somewhat similarly, and there are no doubt other successful conversion-marriage pairings. However, in general, I would not recommend this approach. Here’s why not.

The idea of two Christian individuals being “equally yoked” in marriage is grounded on the Apostle Paul’s instructions in 2 Corinthians: 6:14 (ESV):

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?

During Old Testament times, there was concern that an unbelieving spouse would lead a believer away from God (Exodus 34:15-16, Deuteronomy 7:3-4, 1 Kings 11:4, Ezra 10:18-44, Nehemiah 13:25-27). This still concerns believers today, as weaker Christians agree to support their spouses’ religious preferences and have their children raised Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. First-century Christians were taught to remain with their unbelieving spouses in hopes of converting them (1 Corinthians 7:10-16, 1 Peter 3:1-6). However, even then, it was deemed better to end the marriage if the spouse was unwilling. One’s loyalty was to God was more important than family relationships (Deuteronomy 13:6-8, Micah 7:6Matthew 10:35). The uncomfortable truth is that, when it comes to someone’s relationship with God, there is no middle ground (Matthew 12:30, Mark 9:40, Luke 11:23); you and your spouse must be on His side (John 14:6-7). Uniting with an unbeliever becomes a sort of treason.

Today, devoted Christians are passionate about being “equally yoked,” so much so that there’s an online dating service with that as its name. However, this commitment has led to problems finding desirable spouses. Religiously-mixed marriages are prohibited, but the plain truth is that many Christians just aren’t attracted to each other.* So many feel that the best solution is to lead someone more suitable to Christ. (Note the words “more suitable”!)

As mentioned earlier, the official “dating” may take place after conversion to avoid the appearance of disobeying Paul’s instruction, but the ministry is carried out with the goal of marriage in mind. This is essentially cheating. It’s an attempt to find a loophole in God’s Law. It’s “following the letter” while neglecting the “spirit” of the Word, as Jesus Christ accused the Pharisees of doing (Mark 2:3-28; 3:1-6). Just like people back then would dedicate their possessions to service for God to avoid supporting their needy parents (Mark 7:9-13), I believe that Christians are converting desired partners to get out of marrying someone who could truly bare the same yoke.

Now, I’m not suggesting that none of these conversions are genuine (although I’ve seen cases that have proven not to be). I’m also not suggesting that a long-time Christian can’t marry a new believer. What concerns me is the newly-converted spouse’s potential dependence on the other. We’ve all seen it happen: The youth pastor or mega-church preacher who struggles in sin or wrestles with unbelief. And many previously led to Christ weaver or even abandon the faith because it relied on the support of a fallible man. Individual converts carry the same risks.

I’m of the opinion that “equally yoked” must mean that one’s spouse can stand on his or her own two feet spiritually. When a Christian stumbles, a spouse who’s a mature Christian or a new Christian brought to the Lord by someone else would be more capable of bearing the burden. However, a stumbling Christian might easily pull his or her own convert down too. That’s particularly a serious risk when the spouse hasn’t been a Christian very long at all. Yet this sort of “missionary dating” pushes quickly towards its marriage goal, not allowing much time for a “baby Christian” to grow on his or her own or learn from other Christians.

Another problem is the whole idea of fashioning one’s spouse. Everyone knows women are eager to make-over men, and men are notorious for targeting impressionable women and women from “more submissive cultures” in hopes of creating their own devotee. It’s no wonder then that people would desire a spiritually-dependant spouse whose beliefs and views can be easily swayed, a spouse who’ll cower to another’s claims of seniority. In other words, “missionary dating” takes on a sinister, self-serving nature. Rather than working out a relationship with another believer, which might require compromise and admitting that the other is correct, the Christian seeks out someone who can be controlled. In any dispute, “I led you to Christ, so know more about the Bible than you do” is likely to make a covert appearance.

From what I can see, “missionary dating” as a marriage strategy should be a last resort…such as if there were just two humans left on earth, and the Christian didn’t care to make an exception. “Missionary dating” just can’t produce an “equally-yoked” marriage if one spouse’s faith is dependent on the other’s. What’s worse is that, by doing this “mission” work, the “minister” shows no genuine concern for the lost. Expected marital benefits, not joy of seeing someone saved, is the primary motivating factor for making the disciple.

We Christians don’t need to preach to our future spouses. We need to preach to the world. If every person engaged in “missionary dating” spent even half the effort trying to convert relatives, friends, coworkers, and others, we’d see revivals like never before. And as the number of new Christians grew, no doubt, there would be increasingly more potential spouses available anyway. Then a believer looking for one to marry could find one spiritually-independent and capable of bearing the same burden.

*In Christian circles, however, it isn’t “politically correct” to say this. So if you don’t fancy a brother or sister in Christ who approaches you, it’s recommended that you instead accuse them of being “desperate,” “forward,” or “impure.” They’ll eventually go away.


  1. Very interesting thoughts. What you're saying is true...when we cease to make pointing to Christ our genuine priority, or when we do so only for self-serving reasons, everything else gets watered-down and way out of balance. Relationships are no different.

  2. I know a woman who seems reticent to trust any religious conversions related to a marriage. I think she feels that her mother's conversion to Islam was not genuine.

  3. Yeah, that was my reaction to My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

  4. Enjoyed reading your commentary. Missionary dating seems like a disaster waiting to happen to me.

  5. Good thoughts. We call it evange-dating. :) And yes, it is a bad idea. One can never know how much a conversion had to do with romance and how much it had to do with faith in Jesus. This is attested to by the number of these conversions that end shortly after the relationship ends. We see a lot of this in youth ministry.

  6. Your arguments for why it is a bad idea to date a person who does not share your love for the Lord, the scripture you cite in Corinthians is not about dating or marriage, but syncretism. Paul is clearly saying you can't join in with those who worship idols now that you are a Christian.

    14 Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,

    "I will make my dwelling among them and(AM) walk among them,
    and I will be their God,
    and they shall be my people.
    17Therefore go out from their midst,
    and be separate from them, says the Lord,
    and touch no unclean thing;
    then I will welcome you,
    18 and I will be a father to you,
    and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
    says the Lord Almighty."

    There was no dating for Paul to address at the time this epistle was written, and though he does talk about giving your daughters in marriage in an earlier epistle. In that letter, he says it is best to stay unmarried, but he gives instructions to those who married unbelievers, so apparently it was a given that it would happen. Certainly since women had no choice in the matter, they could very well wind up married to unbelievers.

    Interestingly, Paul does not command men to choose Christian wives, a curious omission. He only addresses widows as having any choice, and to them he writes:

    I Corinthians 7:39b But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.

    Your comments about the idea of missionary dating are sound, but the proof-texting is a red herring. You would do better to quote I Cor 7:39b, and then extrapolate on what Paul might have meant by "in the Lord".

    I have only known one person who dated with the sole intention of converting someone to their religion (a Mormon) and it happened exactly as you wrote. Once she converted he moved on to another. It is not a sound practice.

    But neither is proof-texting. Though it's wonderful when it seems to work, if you keep scripture in context you will not be led astray. Peace to you, and keep studying!

  7. shadowspring: Thanks for your comment. I'll address the two issues separately.

    First: All those verses I mention? That was my summary of how Christians defend the concept of an "equally yoked" marriage. That is, I'm summarizing other people's prooftexting. So why are you crediting me with this particular interpretation of 2 Cor. 6:14? It's not "my" argument.

    My argument is that those who promote this interpretation are being inconsistent. I did "prooftext," using Mark 2:3-28; 3:1-6; 7:9-13 to support my argument, but you didn't comment on that.

    Second: As for 2 Cor. 6:14 being taken out of context when used this way, that's highly possible. Yes, I agree that the topic is syncretism. Maybe broadening out to argue against religiously-mixed marriages isn't warranted by the text. That's definitely something to study more. Let's start: Why don't you think that religiously-mixed marriages would be included in this statement against religious syncretism?

  8. After rereading my post, I guess I should clarify: I was assuming that the general "equally yoked" marriage idea was Biblical. I've never really thought about whether or not it's an appropriate interpretation of 2 Cor. 6:14. However, I'll stress again: I'm not the one who came up with this interpretation.

    If I'm going to challenge others' views, I need to summarize those views so that everyone knows what I'm talking about. On Facebook, I was accused of holding the view I was trying to argue against in another post only because I stated it. I find this rather baffling.

  9. This is an interesting and thought provoking article and it will be featured in the November Christian Blog Carnival from November 20 at


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