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What Bible says about

inter-faith marriages

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The writers of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) tend to take a very dim view of religiously mixed marriages. Their main concern appears to have been that if an Israelite married someone from another tribe, that they might end up worshipping other Gods, and be lured away from faith solely in Jehovah. St. Paul in the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) also opposed inter-faith marriages.

Some applicable Biblical passages are listed below. Unless indicated, they are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV).

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Hebrew Scriptures:

The Scriptures contain a few cases of inter-faith marriages that appear to be approved by God. One is:

bulletIn Numbers 12:1, Moses is recorded as having married a non-Israelite woman who presumably followed a different religion. Aaron and Miriam criticized Moses because of this. God supported Moses' decision. He punished Miriam by making her leprous.

However, almost all references to inter-faith marriages are condemned:

bulletExodus 34:12-16: "Take care not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you are going, or it will become a snare among you. You shall tear down their altars, break their pillars, and cut down their sacred poles...You shall not make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land...And you will take wives from among their daughters for your sons, and their daughters who prostitute themselves to their gods will make your sons also prostitute themselves to their gods."
Here, God orders the Israelites to destroy the religious structures of the people of the land that they were invading. He further instructs the Israelites to not allow their sons to marry foreign wives - women who would follow a different religion and worship other Gods.
bulletDeuteronomy 7:1-4:  "When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are about to enter and occupy, and he clears away many nations before you...you must utterly destroy them. Make no covenant with them and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for that would turn away your children from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly."
This passages is a little confusing. On the one hand, God orders the Israelites to commit genocide against the inhabitants of the lands that they were invading, and totally exterminate them. Then, He assumes that there will be foreign survivors because he specifically prohibits inter-marriage with them. As above, the concern is over the spouses bringing other faiths into Israel. The penalty for a father who allows a child to marry outside their faith is death.
bulletEzra 10:2-3:  "Shecaniah...addressed Ezra, saying, 'We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. So now let us make a covenant with our God to send away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. They clave to their brethren, their nobles, and entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God's law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, and his judgments and his statutes; And that we would not give our daughters unto the people of the land, nor take their daughters for our sons."
Ezra was distressed that the Israelites had inter-married with people from foreign tribes. The leaders and priests decided to forcibly divorce all inter-tribal (and thus inter-faith) marriages in Israel. In those days, religious unity was apparently considered more important than family values. Although there are many locations in the Bible where marrying women of other faiths was prohibited, this is the only location where existing inter-faith couples were ordered to divorce. The fate of the women and children who were sent away is unknown.
bulletNehemiah 13:25-27: "And I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God, saying, 'You shall not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not King Solomon of Israel sin on account of such women? Among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was beloved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless, foreign women made even him to sin. Shall we then listen to you and do all this great evil and act treacherously against our God by marrying foreign women?' "
Nehemiah, distressed at inter-faith marriages, physically assaulted some people who had married outside their religion. He referred to King Solomon who had taken hundreds of wives and hundreds of concubines and had been subsequently led to the worship of other Gods by these women. This was considered a massive sin and great evil.
bulletMalachi 2:11: "Judah hath dealt treacherously, and an abomination is committed in Israel and in Jerusalem; for Judah hath profaned the holiness of the LORD which he loved, and hath married the daughter of a strange god."
By marrying outside of his faith, Judah is accused of being faithless and committing an abomination against God.

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Christian Scriptures:

bulletMatthew 1:5: This passage refers, without comment, to the marriage of Salmon, a Jew, and Rahab, a Canaanite. Their great-great grandchild was King David.
bulletSt. Paul makes two negative references to inter-faith marriages in two of his Epistles to the Christians at Corinth:
bullet1 Corinthians 7:39: "The wife is bound by the law as long as her husband liveth; but if her husband be dead, she is at liberty to be married to whom she will; only in the Lord."
The Bible in Basic English translates the final phrase "but only to a Christian." A woman cannot divorce her husband. If he were to die, then she could marry anyone that she wished to, but only if they were a fellow Christian. It is not clear whether St. Paul intended for women to marry only a member of a Pauline church, or whether she would be free to marry a member of another 1st century Christian movement - a Jewish Christian or Gnostic Christian.
bullet2 Corinthians 6:14-15: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?" (KJV)
Belial, Baal, Bal, Bel, Balder or similar were Pagan Gods from the Middle East and beyond. Belial is translated Satan or the Evil One in some Bible translations. Here, St. Paul is exhibiting total intolerance of non-Christian faith groups. He defines them as Satan worshipers. He sees Christians as being righteous and exhibiting light, while non-Christians were unrighteous and showing darkness. His prohibition appears to extend beyond marriage to any close cooperative activity with non-Christians.

However, he recommends that existing marriages in which one spouse converts to Christianity and the other remains Pagan should not be terminated by divorce:
bullet1 Corinthians 7:12-14: "To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If a brother has a wife who is 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. 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." -  (NIV)

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Are these Biblical passages valid today?

Perhaps yes. Reading these passages literally, they appear to totally prohibit the creation of new inter-faith marriages:

bulletIn the Hebrew Scriptures, God ordered the total genocide of the inhabitants of the lands that the Israelites were invading. So, not only were inter-faith marriages not allowed, but the men, women, children and newborns who followed other Gods were to be exterminated.
bulletSt. Paul not only instructed the Christians at Corinth to avoid forming inter-faith marriages, but to avoid even working with or associating closely with "unbelievers."

The Bible's condemnation of other faith tradition is based on the belief that there is only one valid religion. Other religions were viewed as evil and unrelated to the God who created the universe. Two of the passages which teach this are:

bulletExodus 20:3-5 condemns the worship of any other God and promises dire punishment to the offender, the offender's children and even down to the third or fourth generation: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me." (KJV)
bullet1 Corinthians 10:20-21 says that non-Christians worship demons, not God: "But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord's table, and of the table of devils." (KJV)

There are many other Biblical passages which teach intolerance of other faiths. There are very few passages which teach tolerance.

Since many people believe that God does not change, and since these passages have never been contradicted by more recent Biblical verses, some would argue that these verses are equally valid today as in the era when they were written. Inter-faith marriages remain against the will of God, except perhaps in very rare instances like Moses.

An essay on one web site notes that God has separated born-again Christian believers from the rest of society. Thus, we should not "should not put together that which He has separated." i.e. we should not unite Christian believers with non-born-again-Christians in any way. This would seem to include both an inter-faith marriage or a marriage between a conservative or liberal Christian.  2

Perhaps no. It can be argued that present-day society is totally different from the cultures under which these Bible verses were written. In North America, for example, about 3 out of 4 adults regards themselves to be a Christian. Each of the minority religious faiths is followed by fewer than 3% of the population. This is totally different from the environment:

bulletWhen the Israelites invaded Canaan. The ancient Israelites found themselves to be a small Monotheistic nation surrounded by warlike Pagan tribes who were continually attacking them.
bulletWhen St. Paul was writing his Epistles to the various Pauline Christian congregations. Christianity was then one of the minority faiths in the Roman Empire. It was being persecuted by both Judaism and the government.

In today's diverse racial, ethnic, and religious climate, it may be argued that these passages are no longer applicable. Perhaps they are not absolute truth (valid for all eras and all societies) but relative truth (valid for certain ancient cultures only). Christianity has historically shifted its interpretation of other themes in the Bible. Slavery is no longer tolerated. We no longer burn some prostitutes alive, murder sorcerers, or kill gays who engage in sexual rituals in Pagan temples.

The Constitutions of the United States and Canada guarantee freedom of discrimination on the basis of religious faith. There is a wall of separation between church and state: by law in the U.S. and largely by custom in Canada. Tolerating other religions, by granting individuals the basic right of freedom of religion, assembly and speech, has become a cherished civic virtue. If multiple religions are tolerated within a country, some would argue that multiple religions within a family should be allowed.

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References:

  1. New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the National Council of Churches of Christ.
  2. Life Bible Class,  Question and Answer on marriage at: http://www.bibleclass.com/mainpage/qa/qa73.html It discusses inter-racial, inter-faith, and intra-faith marriages.

Copyright 1999 & 2001 to 2002 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally published: 1999-MAR-16
Latest update: 2002-MAR-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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