Unequally yoked? Christians increasingly navigate interfaith marriage
In particular, evangelical Christians who marry outside their faith face challenges, say observers.
By Ken Camp
Not that long ago, many Baptist youth ministers warned students about the dangers of interdenominational dating. After all, it could lead to marrying a Methodist, and would a child from that home be sprinkled or immersed?
Today, ministers to students are more likely to raise questions about a Christian marrying someone from a non-Christian religion. And they probably discover young people who wonder why that would matter.
“Generationally, it is becoming less and less an issue,” said Kyle Reese, pastor of Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla.
“Attitudes are evolving in every generation,” he said. “Students don’t give it a second thought. They attend multifaith, multicultural, multiracial schools.”
Interfaith unions account for more than four out of 10 marriages in the United States, according to Naomi Schaefer Riley, author of ’Til Faith Do Us Part: How Interfaith Marriage is Transforming America.
Riley, a Conservative Jew who married a former Jehovah’s Witness, includes in her reckoning marriages of Protestants and Catholics and marriages of mainline Protestants to evangelicals. Other researchers who define interfaith marriages in terms of crossing the lines of major world religions still estimate about one-third of American marriages qualify.
Interfaith marriages are growing increasingly common in every part of the country and without regard for educational status or income level, said Riley, a former Wall Street Journal editor who commissioned a polling firm to survey 2,450 Americans, adjusted to produce an oversampling of interfaith couples.
While interfaith marriages can help some groups — such as American Muslims — assimilate into the mainstream culture, they also “come at a heavy price,” Riley wrote in an op-ed article in The New York Times.
“They are more likely than same-faith unions to be unhappy, and, in some circumstances, to end in divorce. They also tend to diminish the strength of religious communities, as the devout are pulled away from bonds of tradition and orthodoxy by their nonmember spouse,” she said.
Evangelical Christians who marry outside their faith particularly face challenges, Riley noted.
“While roughly a third of all evangelicals’ marriages end in divorce, that figure climbs to nearly half of marriages between evangelicals and nonevangelicals,” she wrote. “It is especially high — 61 percent — for evangelicals married to someone with no religion.”
Practically speaking, one of the primary issues engaged couples from different faiths face is the reaction of their parents, said Reese, whose congregation includes several Baptist/Catholic couples and some Baptist/Jewish families.
“The first issue an interfaith couple has to deal with is what their future in-laws think about the faith their child is marrying into,” he said. “It’s typically the biggest deal with parents-in-law.”
Love-struck couples who fail to see the importance of their religious differences need to face reality, said Michael Smith, pastor of Central Baptist Church of Fountain City in Knoxville, Tenn., and co-author of Mount and Mountain, two volumes of dialogue between the Baptist minister and Rabbi Rami Shapiro about the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.
“I sometimes deal with couples who treat the differences as ‘no big thing.’ Later, as they deal with parents and grandparents, clergy or other religious leaders, the arrival of children and the questions their children ask, the differences often become a big deal,” Smith said.
Obviously, the subject takes on greater importance when in-laws question whether a non-Christian spouse is headed for hell and leading their grandchildren down the same path.
“Interfaith couples almost inevitability deal in some way with the matter of exclusivity,” Smith said. “Is Christ the only way to salvation? More precisely, is Christ as known in the church the only way in which God makes God known and draws persons to God?”
Sometimes, a Christian who has been taught Christ alone offers salvation may reconsider that theology once he or she enters a romantic relationship with a non-Christian, he observed.
“In my experience, the Christian spouse often chooses to be silent on the matter or to function as if his/her spouse is an exception to the rule. Others choose to reshape their belief to make room for God’s salvation to be found within other faith traditions,” he said. “I find the matter tends to become more acute with the arrival of children.”
Riley noted her research showed less than half of interfaith couples discussed — prior to the wedding — the faith in which they wanted to raise their children.
Issues surrounding the religious instruction parents offer in an interfaith household can cause marital stress, said Randall Maurer, professor of psychology and family ministry at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon School of Theology in Abilene, Texas.
“Regardless of the intentions of the parents to expose their children to multiple religious perspectives, the family has to face the very real ‘December Dilemma,’” particularly in Christian/Jewish marriages, Maurer noted.
“The holidays have to be worked out, which can be quite complex and involve not only religious observances but deeply felt family traditions and heritage. Though it is difficult to draw clear conclusions, it appears that children equally exposed to multiple religious perspectives without becoming at home in one tradition very often choose to not consistently practice any faith later in life.”
Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church seeks to make children from interfaith families — and their parents — feel “at home,” Reese noted. Interfaith couples who attend his church want their children to receive real religious instruction, not a watered-down version of Christianity, but they also want the faith tradition of the non-Christian parent to be treated respectfully, he observed.
“I don’t see a lot of interfaith couples who are not committed to their faith,” he said, noting the religiously indifferent don’t bother to attend worship services and provide religious instruction for their children.
“We unapologetically preach Jesus as the way,” said Reese, a graduate of Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary. But the church seeks to bear witness of Christ in a hospitable way that draws people in rather than pushes them away, he added.
That can be challenging for some evangelical Christians, even when they try to extend hospitality to interfaith families, Smith noted.
“Interfaith couples in the South and Southwest often find it difficult to enjoy meaningful friendships with Christian couples, mostly because the solely Christian couple often communicates — intentionally or unintentionally — that the partner from another tradition is unsaved,” he said.
Churches may wrestle with the best way to approach the issue of interfaith marriage, Reese concluded, but they cannot afford to ignore it if they expect to remain relevant.
“It’s happening,” he said. “And it’s going to continue to happen.”
© 2015 Baptist News Global