Marriage out of the faith 

Despite the many grey areas in our walk in Christ, there are some things which are plain wrong. Marriage to unbelievers is one of them. We live in a world which cannot tell right from wrong, and which judges behaviour according to the situation individuals find themselves in (dressed up as " situational ethics" , in the jargon). A marked feature of our community is that the majority of new converts are not only single, but live in relative isolation, with little regular contact with other believers. Finding a believing partner is a major problem. Resisting the spirit of "situational ethics" is inevitably difficult. The thought evidently runs through many minds: "In my situation, there's no Christian for me to marry, so why not...?" . Esau probably thought like this; but his heathen wives were a "grief of mind" to his Godly parents. Isaac forbad Jacob to take a wife of the "daughters of Canaan" , probably after seeing the spiritual destruction these women had wrought on his other son. Samson's parents likewise rebuked him for marrying a Philistine. The record of the good and bad kings of Israel and Judah seems to emphasize the influence of the mother; a pagan mother nearly always resulted in a child who later turned away from the Truth.  

The following are some plain Biblical reasons why marriage to those out of the Faith is absolutely wrong. We must live our lives by the guiding light of God's principles, not how we perceive our situation. If there were examples in Scripture of where sometimes, in some situations, believers married out of the Faith and God accepted it, we would have excuse for saying " Well, there's no believer near me to marry, so I'll marry an unbeliever'. But there are no such examples. The Bible teaching is plain; only marry those in covenant with God. To do otherwise is to deny our covenant relationship with God. 

Covenant Relationship

As with many problems we face, marriage out of the Faith is associated with a chronic lack of appreciation of covenant relationship. If Dinah had married Hamor, this would have been a covenant relationship which would have resulted in the people of God and the surrounding world becoming “one people” (Gen. 34:16,22). We can’t very well marry out of the Faith and claim we are still God’s people, separated from the world. Through baptism, we are the seed of Abraham, we are the people of God, we have been selected to undergo a few years preparation now, so that when the Lord comes we may enter His Kingdom. We are not here, therefore, to get the maximum happiness and self-realization we can, living as if this life is the end. At baptism, we pledge to seek first God's Kingdom and the things of His righteousness, in faith that all human things will be added unto us as far as God knows we need them (Mt. 5:47,48). Baptism is an entry into a covenant relationship with none other than the God of Israel. His covenant grace and mercy is for ever; He has promised to keep us as His very own peculiar people, until we reach the eternity of His Kingdom. Separation from this world is therefore a fundamental stage in our redemptive process, as Israel left the world of Egypt, separated from them by the water of baptism, and walked the wilderness way to the Kingdom of God. Time and again Israel were taught that because they were God's covenant people, it was a denial of that covenant to enter into any covenant relationship with anyone who wasn't in covenant with God.  

This is the basis of the Law's prohibition of marriage with non-Israelites. Because Israel were in covenant with God, therefore they were not to make covenants with the other nations, and marriage is mentioned as an example of this (Ex. 34:10,12). In his repetition of this part of the law in Deuteronomy, Moses gave even more repeated emphasis to the fact that our covenant with God precludes any covenant relationship with anyone else: " Thou shalt make no covenant with them...neither shalt thou make marriages with them...for thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God: the Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all (other) people that are on the face of the earth. The Lord ...set his love upon you ...chose you...because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers...the Lord hath brought you out (of the world) with a mighty hand, and redeemed you out of the house of bondmen...know therefore that the Lord thy God, he God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments...and repayeth them that hate him to their face, to destroy them; he will not be slack to him that hateth him. Thou shalt therefore keep the commandments..." (Dt. 7:2-11). The wonder of our relationship with Yahweh is stated time and again. To marry back into Egypt, the house of bondmen from which we have been redeemed, is to despise the covenant, to reverse the redemptive work which God has wrought with us. In this context of marriage out of the Faith, we read that God will destroy " him that hateth him" , and repay him to his face. On the other hand, not marrying Gentiles was part of loving God (Josh. 23:12,13). 

So according to Moses, whoever married a Gentile was effectively hating God. It is possible that the Lord had this in mind when He taught that we either serve God and hate the world, or we love the world and hate God (Mt. 6:24). This isn't, of course, how we see it. We would like to think that there is a third way; a way in which we can love God and yet also love someone in the world. Yet effectively, in God's eyes, this is hating Him. Doubtless many Israelites thought Moses was going too heavy in saying that those who married Gentiles were hating God. And the new Israel may be tempted to likewise respond to the new covenant's insistence that our love of God means a thorough rejection of this world. Whoever even wishes to be a friend of the world is an enemy of God (James 4:4). There are two roads, one to death, the other to the Kingdom (Mt. 7:13,14; and Proverbs is full of this theme too). They go in opposite directions. We cannot unite ourselves in a lifelong covenant of love with someone outside of Christ and still claim to love God. We can't travel both roads. If we love this world, we hate God. There are only two groups of people in this world, in God's eyes; those in His Son, and those in the world, who will die in their sins. " The world" is described by God as actively sinful; not just nice people who live in ignorance of God's ways. There is no middle group of 'nice people who are in the world'. This 'group', if they exist, share the same judgment as the more 'wicked'. The Proverbs repeatedly warn Israel against marrying the " strange" (Gentile) woman; and she is consistently described there as a prostitute of the lowest sort. Proverbs is God's comment on the Mosaic Law. These purple passages are not simply warning against the hooker who stands on the street corner; they are saying that " the strange (Gentile) woman" , whoever she is, however nice and respectable in human eyes, is the lowest sort of call girl in God's eyes, because she is out of covenant with God. 

Israel were not to marry people from the surrounding world because God had chosen them to be His special people, " and because he would keep the oath that he had sworn unto your fathers" (Dt. 7:2,8). Those " fathers" were Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. By baptism, we enter into the same covenant as they did; the promises to Abraham are made to us (Gal. 3:27-29). We enter that same Abrahamic covenant which in prospect extended to Israel (although it was only ratified or enabled by the death of Christ). The everlasting, Abrahamic covenant extended to all generations of Abraham's seed (Gen. 17:7-9). The fact Israel were forbidden to marry Gentiles was not only a type of how the new Israel should not marry unbelievers; we are in essence in their position. We are the Israel of God, not just their antitype. We too have been chosen, we too share the same fathers, and the covenant made to them. Whilst this is supposed to be a first principle among us, the average Christian seems to hear precious little about it after baptism. God's essential morality does not change over time. If He forbad His covenant people to marry those not in covenant, on account of the implication of the Abrahamic promises , that still stands for us today who through baptism have entered this same covenant. 

Breaking Covenant

To marry out of the covenant is effectively to deny or even break one's covenant with God as defined in the promises to Abraham, seeing that we cannot love Him and the world. Those who married Gentiles " profaned the covenant of our ancestors (Abraham etc.). Judah has broken faith" by intermarrying (Mal. 2:10,11 Jerusalem Bible). Thus those who 'married out' in Ezra's time admitted: " We have broken covenant with our God (" have broken faith with our God" , RSV) and have taken strange (i.e. Gentile) wives of the people of the land...now let us make a covenant with our God, to put away all these wives" (Ezra 10:2 LXX). Ezra confirms the truth of what they said: " You have broken covenant and taken strange wives" (Ezra 10:10 LXX). Some years later, Nehemiah stridently criticized Israel for yet again marrying Gentiles. He described their action as " breaking covenant with our God and marrying strange wives" (Neh. 13:27 LXX); the Levites likewise " defiled the priesthood, and the covenant of the priesthood" (Neh. 13:29) by their marriages. Notice how the repentant Jews in Ezra's time realized that they had broken the covenant, and sought to rectify things by re-entering the covenant, through serious repentance. 

Paul spoke of how those who join themselves with unbelievers (and marriage must surely have been in his mind) had to retract or repent of that relationship, and then God would receive them and be their God (2 Cor. 6:14-17). He was referring back to the Abrahamic promise of Gen. 17:7, that God would be the God of Abraham's seed. Is not the suggestion that those who unrepentantly marry into the world have broken the covenant? 

Strong Language

Marriage out of the Faith is this serious. Consider the severity of language which is used about it:

  • " To do all this great evil, and act treacherously (" playing traitor" , Jerusalem Bible) against our God" (Neh. 13:27 RSV).

  • The first recorded marriage out of the Faith was when the sons of God (the believers) saw the daughters of men (the women of the world), that they were " fair" (translated " better" 72 times; i.e. they preferred them to the faithful) (Gen. 6:2). The next verse describes how because of this, God decided to destroy mankind after 120 years. The corruption of God's way at that time was epitomized by marriage out of the Faith. The situation just before the flood is a type of that in the last days (Mt. 24:38); marriage out of the Faith will be a major problem for our last generation, according to this type.

  • Marriage with Gentiles was " forgetting God" (Jud. 3:6,7); although that's not how Israel saw it at the time.

  • The girl who married a Gentile couldn’t eat of the holy things; and neither could a Gentile, it is added, in the same passage (Lev. 22:12,13). The point was: if you marry a Gentile, then you are a Gentile, and you forego your spiritual privileges which you have as an Israelite. But if she was a widow or divorced (from the Gentile?) then she could eat the holy things.

  • God said that the sign of His condemnation and rejection of Israel was that He would give their daughters to be married to Gentiles (Dt. 28:32). To willingly marry a Gentile was therefore to proclaim oneself as rejected from the Israel of God.

  • Ahab's marriage to a Gentile was far worse than all the sins of Jeroboam; the idolatry, the perversion, the making of Israel sin; these were " a light thing" compared to the evil of marriage out of the faith (1 Kings 16:31). That perspective on marriage out of the Truth doesn't seem to be shared by all Christians. And further, those who married the daughters of Ahab were led astray by them (2 Kings 8:18,27).

  • Time and again in the record of Esau it is emphasized that he married Gentiles. The record mentions this fact no fewer than nine times in Gen. 36 alone! Why such emphasis? Surely to demonstrate how through the millennia of human history, God has remembered Esau's behaviour and held it against him, recording it for our learning.

  • Ezra was deeply repulsed at the way the Jews had married Gentiles: " At this news I tore my garment and my cloak; I tore hair from my head and beard and sat down, quite overcome. All who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered round me (cp. Job's friends, as if Ezra's grief was of a like magnitude), when faced by the treachery of the exiles...I went on sitting there, overcome (cp. Job again)...at the evening sacrifice I came out of stupor and falling on my knees with my garment and cloak torn, I stretched out my hands to Yahweh, and said (concerning marriage out of the faith)...our crimes have increased...our sin has piled up to heaven...we have deserted your commandments...our great fault...are we to break your commandments again and intermarry with these people...will you not be provoked to the point of destroying us...(Ezra) was in mourning for the exile's treachery" (Ezra 9, Jerusalem Bible). The " fierce wrath" of God was upon them for marrying those Gentiles (Ezra 10:14).

  • Nehemiah's reaction to similar news was also extreme: " I reprimanded them and called down curses on them; I struck several of them and tore out their hair (reminding them of Ezra's grief some years before?)" (Neh. 13:25 Jerusalem Bible).

  • Some years later, there was yet a third wave of marriage out of the Faith. Mal. 2:11 comments that this was an " abomination...for Judah hath profaned the holiness of Yahweh, which he ought to love" (Mal. 2:11 AVmg.). Likewise the prohibition of marriage with unbelievers in Ex. 34:12 was made straight after the awesome declaration of God's holiness on Sinai. It was as if God was telling Moses: 'See, this is your God, so wondrous in grace and determination to save you. So please, be mine, don't unite yourselves in marriage to this world that doesn't know Me. If I, in all My moral and physical glory, am your God, how can you intermarry?'. There is a kind of juxtaposition between the heights of God's moral revelation in Ex. 34:1-8, and then the 'down to earth' prohibition against marriage out of the Faith.

  • Josh. 23:13 is explicit that it was because of marriage out of the faith that Israel lost their inheritance in the Kingdom, and the Gentile nations there remained a thorn in their eyes.  

Unmistakable Judgment

Because of the seriousness of it, the prohibitions against intermarriage are often accompanied with an unmistakable threat of judgment: " The Lord will cut off the man that doeth this" (Mal. 2:11); " destroy them...(the Lord) will not be slack...he will repay him to his face" (Dt. 7:2,10); " know for a certainty...that God will expel you from the land" if you intermarry (Josh. 23:12,13); " him shall God destroy" (2 Co. 6:14-16 cp. 1 Cor. 3:13). If we deny our covenant with God by marrying into the world, we have effectively cut ourselves off from Him. The command for widows to marry " whom she will; only in the Lord" (1 Cor. 7:39) is alluding back to the command to Zelophehad's daughters to marry " whom they think best" , but only " in" their tribe, otherwise they would lose the inheritance (Num. 36:6,7). The implication is that those who do not marry " in the Lord" will likewise lose their promised inheritance. And this rather strange allusion indicates one more thing: the extent of the seriousness of marriage out of the Faith is only evident to those who search Scripture deeply. As man and woman within Israel were joint heirs of the inheritance, so man and wife are  joint heirs of the inheritance of the Kingdom  (1 Pet. 3:7). 

And Spiritual Problems

In nearly every reference to marriage to Gentiles, there is the comment that this would surely lead to adopting the religious views of the Gentile partner; views which inevitably take a man away from the one and only Divine Truth, as revealed in the covenants of the Gospel. Turn through the following passages, which all make the connection between marriage out of the covenant, and adopting idolatry: Ex. 34:12-16; Dt. 7:2-9; Jud. 3:6,7; 1 Kings 11:2,3; Mal. 2:11; 2 Cor. 6:14. Dt. 7:4 RV dogmatically predicts that a Gentile man will definitely turn away the heart of his Hebrew son-in-law… So certain is it that marriage to Gentiles leads to accepting their idols that Ezra 9:1,2 reasons that Israel hadn't separated from idols because they had married Gentiles. Time and again, those who marry out of the covenant claim that they feel strong enough to cope with it, that marriage is only a human thing, and that their spiritual relationship with God is between them and God, and unaffected by their worldly partner. Yet this is exactly the opposite of what God's word says. It's not true that you can marry into the world and be unaffected in your own spirituality. Solomon thought he could handle it; and apparently, he did- for the first 20 years or so. But his Gentile wives were his spiritual ruin at the end. The record brings out his spiritual self-confidence: " But King Solomon loved many strange (Gentile) women...of the nations concerning which the Lord said...Ye shall not go in to them...for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods....it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods...and Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord" (1 Kings 11:1-6). The Law said that " surely" intermarriage meant spiritual ruin. Solomon thought he could handle it. But in the end, God's law was right. They led him back to the way of their parents. By contrast, the only provision for marrying a Gentile involved her going through a process of separation from her parents, reconciling herself to the fact she would never see them again, and making her realize that because she was outside the covenant, she was to be treated like a leper or defiled person (Dt. 21:11,12 = Num. 6:9; Lev. 14:9). Only once she had learnt this lesson could she enter into covenant with God's people and be married. 

Diverging Paths

There are of course a few isolated cases of those who have married into the world, and then repented. Every brother or sister like this which I know is exceptionally humble, and exceptionally strong in the Lord- now. Each of them will admit the pain and agony their mistake has put them through. " Marry in haste, repent at leisure" is too mild to describe their torment. Their examples prove the depth of God's grace; that despite such clear warning and prohibition, even those who openly flout all this can still have forgiveness. And His grace and zeal to work with fallen man is demonstrated all the more by the fact that occasionally (not as often as is sometimes claimed), the unbelieving partner is converted. Esther married out of the faith, egged on by her uncle; but in the crisis which came upon apostate Jewry, God worked through her failure to save His repentant people. But those who will not bring themselves to a full, crawling repentance (before God, not men) have gone the way of Solomon. In the cases of all those who have truly repented of their folly, there is a free and open admission that life with the unbelieving partner is difficult; they realize, more than most, that they are on roads which lead in exactly opposite directions; they serve different masters; one is the seed of the woman, the other the seed of the serpent. And there has to be that antagonism between the two. The alienation and passive conflict in such a marriage will not only be demonstrated by the Biblical principles. It has been realized by impartial observers of such marriages. Bryan Wilson is one such: " There can be no doubt that the rule against exogamy [marriage with the alien] effectively promotes the individual's allegiance to the Faith, and that most ...are so brought up that the rule operates without them feeling very much constraint. For those who make outside affiliations, a real conflict of allegiance develops" (1).  Or to put it Biblically, there is nothing, nothing in common, no sharing, no fellowship, between those in the temple of God and those in the world (2 Cor. 6:14-16). To marry out of the faith into the world is to effectively say that we have nothing in common with the things of God.

Practical Considerations

All this has far reaching implications, beyond the act of marriage. Relationships with those not in Christ, outside the covenant, are equally wrong. All too often the impression is given to new converts: 'You mustn't marry out of the Truth, so if you have a boyfriend / girlfriend, make sure that you teach them the Truth and get them baptized first, before the wedding'. It seems to me that this is wrong advice. If we appreciate what it means to be among God's people, to have been chosen for His Kingdom, to have been separated from this world by Him, the emphasis will change to: 'Don't have a boyfriend / girlfriend in the world. Preach the Truth to all you meet, not just the girl you fancy at college. And marry a baptized believer who is wholeheartedly committed to the Lord and the Hope of Israel'. It is inevitable (yes, inevitable) that anyone 'in love' with a Christian will realize that their friend really requires them to convert and be baptized, and they will be inclined to 'go along' with this for the sake of marriage. And therefore their interest in the Gospel will be overshadowed by another motivator rather than seeking to personally respond to the love of Christ. Solomon warns the young believer to be especially wary of the " stranger" (the Hebrew word is usually used about Gentiles) who has forgotten the covenant of God- i.e. she had an appearance of interest in becoming a proselyte, in accepting covenant relationship (cp. baptism), but she wasn't really serious about it.  

In my observation, those who marry out of the faith either don't preach the Gospel to their intended partner, or they do but the partner doesn't respond. In the latter case, this means they may be responsible to judgment- at which, as far as we can tell, those who have known but rejected the Gospel will be condemned. I cannot understand someone who claims to believe the Gospel marrying someone who has rejected it, with all this implies. The only other possible scenario is that the believer has not preached the Gospel to the person they wish to marry. If we hide the Gospel from the person we chose to intimately share our lives with, we don't really love them; and more than that, it seems to me that faith in the Gospel will inevitably be shown by preaching it to others (2). If you don't teach the Gospel to your future partner; do you really believe it? If it doesn't well up within you, does it mean anything at all to you, in real terms? The believer who marries out is either reflecting a lack of real faith in the Gospel, or is saying that they are willing to marry an " enlightened rejecter" of the Gospel. Either way, they are rejecting  the Gospel of the Father and Son.  

For many couples, producing children is an expected part of marriage. Mal. 2:11-15 shows that the sin of marriage out of the faith is because it is a denial of God's principles regarding children; He instituted marriage to create " a Godly seed" . It stands to reason that marrying an unbeliever (or an uncommitted believer, for that matter) cannot very easily produce a Godly seed. Israel were not to sow " mingled seed" in their fields, or make clothes of " mingled" materials (Lev. 19:19). The materials would, as the Lord Himself mentioned, tear apart. The garment wouldn't last. And sowing different seeds together likewise would bring no fruit to perfection. But the LXX in these passages is quoted in one place only in the NT: " Be not unequally yoked together with unbelievers" (2 Cor. 6:14). If we are, the relationship can't work. So don't think that if we marry out of the Faith, it will all work out OK. Unless there is serious repentance (and even then, not always), it won't work. It will be a garment patched up with two different materials. Solomon's difficult, ultimately unsatisfying relationship with his Egyptian girlfriend as outlined in the Song (e.g. 8:2) is one of many examples of this. He married the daughter of an Egyptian Pharaoh, and became like a Pharaoh, her father (1 Kings 3:15 cp. Gen. 41:7). Surely, as God had prophesied, that woman turned away his heart; but according to the Song (and our own informed imagination), neither she nor he had any satisfaction from the relationship.  

The Potential Missed

Marriage as ordained by God was clearly intended to have a spiritual dimension, and marriage to an unbeliever nullifies or ignores this intention. God created Adam and gave him the command not to eat of the tree; He then created Eve because Adam alone was the only thing “not good” in an otherwise “very good” creation. It could be argued that the provision of Eve was in order to “help” Adam not only in God’s work of tending the garden, but against temptation. The whole story of Eve’s creation teaches that in Christian marriage, there is one specific woman intended for the believer. David Levin’s translation brings this out:

This one at last, bone of my bones

And flesh of my flesh,

This one shall be called Woman,

For from man was this one taken”.

This sense that ‘this is the one for me’ can only ultimately and lastingly be true in the context of Christian marriage. The creation record teaches that the bond between parents and children is somewhat temporary- for the children must leave them and cleave to their partner. But the bond between man and wife is to be permanent, and is an ever increasing process of being ‘joined’ to each other by God. Insofar as the man represents Christ and the woman represents the church, this speaks of how we are progressively bonded with Christ and feel a decreasing bond with our natural background.

What If...?

I would hope that most of what I've written so far would basically be agreed by all of us. Far more tricky is the question of how to treat a brother or sister who, in the face of all this evidence, still goes ahead and does it (just as we all fly in the face of Biblical teaching at times, knowing full well our folly). It's here that the principles are more difficult to discern, and almost impossible to universally agree upon throughout the brotherhood. What follows is only my suggestion.  

" There is hope in Israel concerning this thing" (Ezra 10:2). Really, " there is hope" for wayward Israel. There is a way back. We must never give the impression that marriage out of the Faith is irreversible. But it's a hard way back. In our pastoral response to those who 'marry out', there can be no giving the impression that it's as easy as writing a letter saying 'I'm sorry I did wrong and I want to fellowship again'. It may be that easy to get back into a church, but it won't be that easy to get to the Kingdom. Marriage sets an example. Thus Nehemiah rhetorically asked those who had married Gentiles: " Shall we hearken unto you to do all this great evil, to transgress against our God in marrying strange wives?" (Neh. 13:27). The fact they had married Gentiles was a silent invitation to the rest of Israel to follow suite. Sexual attitudes undoubtedly spread. Thus if a very poor man discreetly prostituted his daughter out of financial desperation, the whole land would fall to whoredom and sexual abandon (Lev. 19:29).  

Personal Pleading

Because of this, marriage out of the Faith cannot be 'let go' unchallenged. Something must be done. But 'automatic' withdrawal doesn't seem to me to be the way to handle every case. We are seeking to reflect the saving and restorative work of the Lord Jesus in all our ways, privately and in the ecclesia. There must be a real pleading with the person concerned, especially in the lead up to marriage; not just two brethren going to see him or her, with the attitude that the outcome of their meeting is all a foregone conclusion. Why can't every member of an ecclesia be involved in pleading with the person concerned? Consider again the Biblical principles involved. If we have any sense of concern for our brother's salvation, we must make some response to the prospect of marriage out of the covenant. Remember Ezra's response. And Nehemiah's. There was no indifference there, no shrugging of the shoulders, no hiding inaction under the disguise of love and tolerance, no 'automatic withdrawal' syndrome. There was a feeling of personal guilt; Ezra felt that he too was implicated in the marriage out of the Faith, because he too was in the same body of Israel. The intensity of his grief and prayer should be our example. Only if this 'fails', only if there is wilful persistence in the evil way, should we dissociate ourselves formally. And yet I fear, really fear, that Ezra's example is all too much hard work for many of us. We'd rather write them off by automatic withdrawal, or shrug our shoulders and let them stay, kidding ourselves that such an attitude reflects our spirituality and commitment to God's principles.  

There is something about which every member of our community needs to bow our heads in shame. We will travel, or enable others to travel, the length and breadth of this planet, undertaking the most dangerous, difficult and unknown journeys, in order to baptize someone. But right on our doorsteps there are those who have left the faith, in a far more serious situation than the world generally; and (generally) we scarcely lift a finger to contact them. Let's not make excuses. We simply aren't very good, individually or collectively, at replicating the zeal of our good shepherd. And especially is this seen with those who 'marry out'. We see all the tell tale signs, their relationship with someone deepens, the wedding comes and goes; and then they are disfellowshipped or drift off. And usually, little more is heard from them. Brethren, this ought not so to be. We really ought to be making far more effort to win back and save the lost sheep of Israel, especially in this vital area of marriage out of the Faith.  

It seems that Ezra's example was what prompted the guilty ones to repent. Ezra hears the news, and sits in utter grief and emotional pain. The more spiritual among the guilty people come and stand around him for several hours; doubtless the crowd grew larger as the afternoon went on. Then he falls down on the earth and prays, as the ram of the evening sacrifice bleated in agony. " Now when Ezra had prayed, and when he had confessed, weeping and casting himself down, there assembled unto him out of Israel a very great congregation...the people wept very sore" and confessed, just as Ezra prayed, wept and confessed (Ezra 10:1,2). They saw in the depth of his concern and grief the seriousness of their ways. And perhaps if we showed a similar attitude, this in itself would lead back those who go astray in this way.  

How To Repent?

Those men expressed their repentance by divorcing their wives, and sending them back to Babylon, along with their children. Those men listed in Ezra 10 are spiritual heroes of the highest order; maybe that's why God listed their names, to show His eternal memory of them. In our minds, let's really salute them. They could have done what those in Nehemiah's time did; they accepted Nehemiah's rebuke of them, and promised to do what they could to ensure that their example did not spread; and this meant that they were " cleansed" from their relationships with the Gentiles (Neh. 13:30), even though they remained married to them. The men in Ezra's time could have done the same, but they chose, on their own suggestion, to divorce their Gentile wives. The picture of that convoy of women tramping back to Babylon, dragging those mixed up, pathetic little children (jabbering half in Hebrew, half in Chaldee?), and those broken, broken men left behind... you must have a heart made of stone if this picture doesn't bring tears to sensitive eyes. Yet this is the cruelty of sin. The fact the children were sent away too is twice emphasized (Ezra 10:2,44). Those men were real heroes to make that suggestion, and do it. They rose to the highest level. Men of Ezra 10, I salute you. 

But what does this mean for us? With caution, guided by this Biblical precedent, I would suggest that  those who marry out should consider expressing their repentance by leaving the partner. I'm not saying that those who marry out must leave their partner; I am simply directing us to the Biblical precedent. Marriage to an unbeliever is not blessed by God. Those who come to the Faith already married have their marriage " sanctified" by God- if God did not do this, their children would be " unclean; but now are they holy" (1 Cor. 7:14). The implication is that God does not see marriage in the world in the same way as He sees marriage between His children. The implication of 1 Cor. 7:14 seems to be that if a believer has a relationship with an unbeliever, the resulting children are " unclean" , illegitimate, even if they are married in the eyes of the world. However, if the believer was married to the partner at the time of baptism, God sanctifies the relationship, and the children are therefore " holy" . If this is correct interpretation, it follows that those who deny their covenant with God by marrying an unbeliever do not have a marriage which is " sanctified" by God; for this reason it is not possible for us to support in any spiritual sense the 'marriage' of a believer with an unbeliever, e.g. by offering prayers at the 'wedding'. Further evidence that God does not fully recognize 'marriage' in the world is in the fact that He instituted marriage partly to produce " a Godly seed" (Mal. 2:11-15), which is evidently irrelevant to the 'marriages' of the world. The way Paul talks of how in 'marriage', the man represents Christ and the woman the church, helping each other towards salvation, would indicate that he presumed marriage was only relevant to believers; Christian marriage seems to be the only model of marriage he assumes. Likewise Peter speaks of husband and wife praying together (1 Pet. 3:7); he too assumed marriage in the Faith as the only model of marriage.  

Proceeding still with caution, the idea of separating from the unbelieving partner may be countenanced in 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1: " Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers...what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?...wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing...having therefore these promises...let us cleanse ourselves" . The links with Is. 52:11 and Rev. 18:4 suggest that the people referred to were actually in spiritual Babylon; they had unequally yoked themselves together with unbelievers; they needed to separate (s.w. to divide, sever) themselves, and come out from among them. The idea of unequal yoking is a marriage allusion. Could it be that Paul is suggesting that they sever themselves from the unbelievers they had wrongly married?  

Whether this is what Paul is suggesting or not, we have in Ezra 10 the highest level of repentance in connection with marriage out of the Faith; a leaving of the Gentile partner, even if there are children involved. In Neh. 13 we have a lower level of response, which is still acceptable; by recognizing their sin, repenting of it, and doing what they could to stop others following their example, those who had married out were " cleansed" from their relationships, even though they didn't actually end them. This " cleansing" was presumably in the same sense in which God " sanctifies" the relationship between a believer and an unbeliever who they were married to at the time of their baptism. 

And finally. I have more nervousness than I think my readers realize when I write on this kind of subject. I sense that burden of responsibility which any brother has when writing about issues which affect the intimate lives of others; there is a deep responsibility to correctly expound God's word. A false turn in exposition, a mistaken emphasis, could place a burden too heavy to be borne on a fellow believer; or give another a false way out of a situation where, if he would attain the Kingdom, he must face up to carrying a cross. And yet one cannot be silent. I have prayed, studied, and prayed, before, during and after writing all this. I can only commend each of us to a merciful Father, and to earnest personal reflection on the word of His grace, which is able to build us up, guide us, and lead us to that inheritance " among all them which are sanctified" (Acts 20:32). 


Notes

(1) Bryan Wilson, Sects And Society (London: Heinemann, 1961) pp 292,293.

(2) See We're All Preachers.