Ethics as Worship
4/9/13 at 05:16 PM 4 Comments

Are Interfaith Marriages Wise?

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A recent editorial in The New York Times made the case that interfaith marriages are a mixed blessing. On one hand, such marriages often lead to less satisfaction in marriage, higher divorce rates, and diminished commitment to faith traditions. On the other hand, the author claims that these marriages promote religious tolerance.

Before addressing the biblical evidence regarding interfaith marriage, let’s look at some of the facts. According to a 2010 survey, interfaith marriages have increased from 20% of married couples prior to 1960 to 45% of married couples in 2010. These marriages include what many historically consider interfaith (Jew and Gentile, Christian and Non-Christian, Muslim and Non-Muslim, etc.) and more contemporary versions of interfaith partnerships, including Catholic and Protestant, Mainline Protestant and Evangelical, and religious and non-religious.

The likelihood of interfaith marriage also increases with age. Among those who married before the age of 25, 48% were interfaith. The occurrence of interfaith marriage increases to 58% for those between 26 and 35, and it further increases to 67% for those 36–45.

The survey, commissioned by Naomi Schaefer Riley for her book ‘Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage Is Transforming America, made a quite disturbing find. She discovered that “less than half of the interfaith couples in my survey said they’d discussed, before marrying, what faith they planned to raise their kids in. Almost four in five respondents (in both same-faith and interfaith marriages) thought having ‘the same values’ was more important than having the same religion in making a marriage work.”

Even Riley, who supports interfaith marriage, believes this idea to be unrealistic. She states, “I found that interfaith couples were less satisfied than same-faith couples by a statistically significant margin—and that the more religiously active spouse (as measured by attendance at religious services) tended to be the unhappier one.”

After all the negative consequences of interfaith marriage, Riley concludes her article by stating:

So while I recognize that the diminishment of religious institutions and a rise in marital instability could be among the long-term effects of interfaith marriages, I cannot wish for the tide to ebb. Nor do I think it will.

What should we make of this biblically? Despite Riley’s conclusion that interfaith marriage promotes religious tolerance, Scripture gives clear instructions regarding this practice. The Old Testament addresses “mixed marriages” on a number of occasions for the nation of Israel (Exodus 34; Deuteronomy 7; Joshua 23). In each of these cases, God warns the Israelites against intermarrying with the other nations because they will turn their hearts away from worshiping God. In the New Testament, Paul twice instructs his readers to marry “in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7: 39) and to avoid being “bound together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14–15). The same thought process holds in Paul’s instructions as well—marrying a non-Christian will likely lead to diminished devotion for God.

The prevalence of interfaith marriages, however, is growing. Even among evangelicals, the trend of interfaith partnerships is increasing. Interestingly, Riley notes that evangelicals and black Protestants reported the highest levels of dissatisfaction in these types of marriages. In fact, divorce rates sky-rocketed for evangelicals. Riley notes, “While roughly a third of all evangelicals’ marriages end in divorce, that figure climbs to nearly half for marriages between evangelicals and non-evangelicals. It is especially high (61 percent) for evangelicals married to someone with no religion.”

Why do evangelicals rarely say anything about interfaith marriages? Why do pastors perform such marriages? I believe the answer lies in what Riley says about herself. She is shaped by her own experience. Despite the fact that she describes all the problems associated with interfaith marriages, she declares:

I am no impartial observer. I’m a Conservative Jew married to a former Jehovah’s Witness, who is African-American. (We are raising our children Jewish.) Our country’s history of assimilation and tolerance is one reason I, a grandchild of Eastern European immigrants, can live as I do. It is why I could marry the man I wanted to, without fear of ostracism.

So while I recognize that the diminishment of religious institutions and a rise in marital instability could be among the long-term effects of interfaith marriages, I cannot wish for the tide to ebb. Nor do I think it will.

Her own experience is driving her conclusion. She cannot wish for the tide of interfaith marriage to ebb because it would say that her own marriage is fraught with potential problems. I fear we say the same thing in our churches. To declare interfaith marriages unwise or unbiblical might disturb those sitting in the pew or even some in our families.

On this issue, Scripture contradicts her experience. When given the choice, she (and many evangelicals) chose experience. I pray, however, we stick with Scripture and not experience.

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Naomi Schaefer Riley, “Interfaith Unions: A Mixed Blessing,” The New York Times, April 5, 2013.

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