Is it OK if my girlfriend and I come from different church denominations?

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Is it OK if my girlfriend and I come from different church denominations?

Dec 20, 2010 |John Thomas
Question

In the last few months, my friendship with a woman I've known for more than a decade (since we were teenagers) has progressed into a deeper stage of affection and respect, and we've begun pursuing a romantic relationship with an eye toward the future. We're both deeply committed to Christ and are trying to guard our hearts as much as we can throughout the early stages of this process.

I do have one rather significant reservation about the future of our relationship: We come from two different denominational backgrounds. There are several commonalities between the two, but they differ on some key ideas (baptism, church structure, approach to corporate worship).

Complicating things is the fact that I feel a clear call on my life to go back to school to get a theology degree and step into full-time pastoral ministry within my denomination.

Growing up in church, we are told to make sure the person we marry is a believer in Jesus. But is that enough? What if our core doctrinal convictions are consistent but the secondary ones are in conflict? Is there a possible way to resolve this or should I consider breaking off this relationship and pursuing someone within my own denomination?

Answer

This saying (most commonly, and possibly incorrectly, attributed to Augustine) came to mind as I read your note: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” This sentiment is all fine and good until we're married and my non-essentials are your essentials and we're about to decide what essentials we teach our children!

Let me give you some guiding principles about oneness in marriage with regard to these issues.

First, there is no substitute for good mentoring in this area. A mentor couple could help you think through these questions with real-life application from their own experiences, and calm or confirm some of your concerns. By all means, find a couple you both respect and admire and talk these issues through with them.

Second, understand there is a difference between doctrine and preferences on how that doctrine is applied. Here I'm referring to things you mentioned such as corporate worship. Is that a doctrinal issue or a stylistic one? You don't go into detail in your note, so I just caution you think carefully through what you hold up as doctrine — that which you find clearly spelled out in Scripture and on which you cannot compromise — and that which is merely a preference on doctrine's application.

That isn't to say that some preferences aren't essentials for some people. If one prefers contemporary worship and another traditional and neither will compromise, well, then that becomes a real issue in the relationship, which leads me to the next principle for oneness.

Allow each person room to grow and mature in all areas and expect it. This applies not only to non-essentials but even to doctrine. A thriving, maturing relationship with Christ is going to expand in understanding of who God is and knowledge of His Word, His works and His kingdom. That kind of relationship with Christ will test and challenge your beliefs; it will move non-essentials into the essential category and vice-versa. It will strengthen that which is built upon rock and reveal that which is built upon sand. My wife and I have grown so much in our faith since we married 17 years ago that we're hardly the same people — and that's a good thing!

Fourth, remember that once you're married you're on a shared journey at a much greater intensity than as a single. Yes, it's true that even as singles we're on a shared journey with the Body of Christ, but marriage takes that sharing to a new level. As such, we no longer just run off in any direction as if it has no immediate impact on anyone else. Marriage puts us in a three-legged race (and, when kids come, a multi-legged race).

My point is, after marriage, when God calls one He calls all. Before my wife's sister got married, my now-brother-in-law had a long conversation with her about his calling to South Africa. He didn't know when, but he knew that's where God was calling him. My wife's sister said, “Sure. No problem.” He said, “No. You really need to pray about this and think this through and picture yourself raising our family there.” She took some time to do that and came to the conclusion that yes, she could do that with joy. It's a good thing, because that's exactly what happened.

That leads me to my fifth point, which is that most of your concerns can be resolved by a good conversation that takes the differences and considers how they might play out. For instance, you take what you each believe about baptism and play it all the way out to what you teach, how you baptize your own children and other believers, etc. Can you accept that outcome with joy? Can she accept that outcome with joy? If so, then continue moving down the list of major concerns.

Your call to be trained, teach essentials and function within your denomination has very obvious expectations. Narrow down the ones that must be embraced with joy by both of you as a team and talk them through. Take time to pray through them; don't try to get it all figured out in one night or even one week. These kinds of things take time.

What matters will eventually surface and you'll have your answers. Again, I urge you to do this in the community of another couple; there is much wisdom in counsel. I am praying for you to have the clarity you seek. I know God will give it to you.

Blessings,
JOHN THOMAS

Copyright 2010 John Thomas. All rights reserved.

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