When Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, he romanticized a tragedy between two young lovers separated by warring families. How heartbreaking it is that two families who could not set aside ancient grudges would keep these two and their passion apart. And if that felt wrong in Shakespeare’s day, how much worse might it feel today? Today, we assume that all romance, all passion, all desire is good so long as one cannot define a victim of wrongdoing in that passion.
But when we look at the word of God, we see barriers put in place. IN the Old Testament, God told Israel not to intermarry with the people of the land into which the nation was moving. The Canaanites were off-limits for romance.
But wait. That has to be wrong, right? How dare God set a limit on love? Who does he think he is?
Interestingly, the limitation was very poorly interpreted by readers of the Bible for many generations. Men used the prohibition of Israel intermarrying with the people of the land as a prooftext to forbid any marriage between people whose skins were of different colors. This was never a faithful interpretation of Scripture, but it surely made an impact on a culture.
What was God forbidding? What should we learn from it today?
Joshua 23:11-13 11 Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God. 12 For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, 13 know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the Lord your God has given you.
God is absolutely clear that the people of Israel were not to intermarry with the Canaanites. Why? Is this about skin color? Is it an ethnic, a race, thing?
Joshua 23:6-8 – 6 Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, 7 that you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or serve them or bow down to them, 8 but you shall cling to the Lord your God just as you have done to this day.
No, this has never been a skin color thing. The issue is one of worship. And that issue has never gone away, not even in New Testament Christianity.
Understand that all people worship. There is no such thing as a non-worshipping human being. All are committed to a faith of some sort. The supposed scientific naturalist worships human reason. The supposed libertarian may worship autonomy. Many worship human sexual freedom in all its forms. Some worship other named deities. But all people in all the world worship something, even if that something is nothing more than self.
What God forbad was his people, people who had committed themselves to worship him, intermarrying with people who were committed to worship someone or something other than God. God would not have his people make families with idol worshipers. God would not have children raised to give a bow to the Lord on one day and an offering to an idol on the next. God will never allow for his children to worship anyone other than him—see the first commandment.
Paul warned the church of the same thing in a discussion of more than marriage. We must not bind ourselves together with those who have totally different objects of worship.
2 Corinthians 6:14 – Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?
Paul was talking about a broad array of our earthly affairs in that passage, but it is unquestionable that entering into a deep romantic relationship or the covenant of marriage applies here. Believers are not to bind themselves together with unbelievers. We worship different deities. We have utterly different values, different life purposes, different sources of authority, different standards of morality.
Do not hear me saying that Christians are the good people and everybody else is bad. Christians are bad people. The difference is that Christians are bad people who have been rescued and forgiven by God. And true Christians are committed to following God’s holy word. We fail often. But we are committed to that which God has declared to be right. And God’s word has always been plain that one of the greatest mistakes we could make, one of our greatest negative temptations, would be to intermarry with those who oppose God and try to figure out a way to live without compromise. It does not ultimately work. It will tear our hearts in two. It will either lead us to compromise or great sorrow.
Of course, I know of believers who are presently married to unbelievers. And I know that many of these couples love one another greatly. That is a grace from God. But the fact is, these couples cannot have the joy of Christian fellowship together. Neither can they have the same commitment to biblical morality. Their lives have different purposes. And, if the Lord does not intervene in a gracious way, they have different eternal destinations.
Of course, I also know of believers who were married to nonbelievers and who then saw their nonbelieving spouses come to faith. Praise God for that mercy. But we do not violate the word of God by choice just because, from time-to-time, it has worked out when others have done so. We do not advocate drunk driving just because we know of some who have made it home alive. We do not advocate swimming with alligators just because one guy made it across the river. No, we must be a people who cling to the word of God and his standards regardless of whether or not things have worked out mercifully for some.
If you were a nonbeliever who became a believer after your marriage, my heart goes out to you. I know this must be a difficult state to live in if you truly believe the word of God. And God has told us clearly that you are to remain in that marriage and pray to be a witness to your spouse so long as your spouse wants to remain together (c.f. 1 Cor. 7).
If you have gone against the word of God here and entered into marriage with someone outside the faith, understand that I’m not writing to put you down. You should confess where you went against the word of God. Repentance includes owning that you did something wrong, even if that wrong has resulted in things which truly are very good such as a happy marriage or sweet children. Again, God’s word says that you are to remain married so long as your spouse is willing. Do not think that God’s forgiveness is beyond you. But neither allow yourself to pretend that there is no sin in violating God’s standard. Confess to the Lord, if you have not done so already, and be grateful for grace.
But if you are presently in a romantic relationship with a nonbeliever and you claim Christ, repentance looks different. Yes, confess. Yes, believe the word of God. And, yes, get out of that relationship. Do not wait. Do not make excuses. Do not let yourself argue that breaking up might drive your nonbelieving partner further from the Lord. Your salvation included a commitment to the Lord and his commands first. You told Jesus he was your new master. Obedience includes not being unequally yoked together. And yes, this may do damage to relationships. But the truth is, sin always does damage. But we cannot allow that damage to prevent us from repentance.
God forbad his people from intermarrying with people who worship someone or something other than him. Forbidding intermarriage is not what the old racists used to claim. But just because one era perverted the command does not mean that the command and standard does not have a right application.
When Shakespeare wrote of Romeo and Juliet, he ended the tragedy with the possibility of a peaceful future between the Montague and Capulet families. But God has made it plain in his word that there is an eternal separation between himself and those who oppose him until death. God has made it plain that there is only one way to have eternal peace with him. And thus, God commands those who are at peace with him not to bind themselves together with those who are at enmity with him. There is no Montague and Capulet reconciliation between God and those who die opposing him. And God most certainly has every right to warn his own not to dishonor him by building lives together with those who stand against him.
To demand the right to marry anybody you choose, regardless of biblical restriction, is to worship someone other than the Lord. It is to give your allegiance to your passions, your heart, or even your physical drives. God calls it sin, and he is the one who determines such things, not pop culture.