Do Doctrinal Differences in Marriage Matter?

There’s a lot that can be said about Christians marrying non-Christians. There’s a lot that has been said, including on Boundless. (See, e.g., “Same-Lord Relationships” — or just enter a phrase like “unequally yoked” or “missionary dating” in the search engine above.) But when all is said and done, the guiding principles are pretty clear-cut. If you’re a Christian married to a non-Christian, stay married if your spouse is willing. If you’re a Christian who’s not married, don’t marry a non-Christian — or get romantically involved with one.

There are other cases, however, that aren’t so clear-cut. What if you’re both Christians, but you have major doctrinal differences? I’m talking about the sort that are important enough to separate Christians into different church bodies. Do they matter when you’re considering who to marry?

Short answer: Yes. To be clear, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you should never get married under those circumstances. But it does mean recognizing the real issues those differences raise, thinking through them in advance and factoring them into your decision.

For example, it’s possible to have a good marriage while attending different churches with different teachings. I know couples who do — some where both spouses entered the marriage with their respective commitments, others where one spouse developed different beliefs afterward. While it may not be ideal for a couple when they can’t share a church life, they can work around that. If they have children, though, that creates much bigger problems. What are the children supposed to believe? If Mom and Dad disagree on the truth of a particular teaching, will the kids grow up thinking that the answer isn’t important? For that matter, will they grow up inclined to think that disputed doctrines in general don’t really matter? It’s not inevitable, but realistically, it’s a heightened risk. Generally speaking, children are better off if Mom and Dad present a united front from the start and keep it up through the years.

It’s also possible to have a good marriage — and a more closely shared church life — when one spouse joins the other’s church. In some cases, people haven’t thought as much about their doctrinal beliefs before they get married as they do afterward: They may grow more or less equally together, or one spouse may lead the other into a different understanding of God’s Word. Whether you consider this good or bad in any given case will depend on whether you think they’re moving toward the right understanding. Every doctrinal camp wins some people and loses some. But whatever camp you’re in, you’re likely to know some people yours has gained through marriage, and you’re glad about that. I know I am when I see it happen in my church body, hopefully for the same reason you are when it happens in yours: not because it’s “my team,” but because I believe this is a church where the teaching and preaching is true and right.

Yet it’s important to monitor your motives. If you join a spouse’s church because your studies with your mate, or at his or her church, lead you to a conviction that they’re right about God’s Word, you’re doing it for the right reason. But there are other reasons you might join that are more problematic. If you do it mainly for the sake of your relationship — to please your mate, to avoid conflict, to give the two of you something to share — then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Marriage is full of compromises over all kinds of things, but your worship and your convictions of biblical truth shouldn’t be among them. Christians who differ on many doctrines can agree on this: God doesn’t want false worshippers, going through the motions. He wants your heart and your mind, and no one — not even your spouse — should be competing with Him for them.

Scenarios like these may not seem like urgent things to think about if you’re not involved with someone at the moment: They may seem hypothetical and remote. Actually, though, this is the ideal time to start thinking about them — before you’re emotionally invested in someone, before the desires of your heart are jockeying for the driver’s seat.

As it happens, this topic isn’t hypothetical to me: I’ve dealt with it in my own life, so I’ve thought a lot about it and could go on about it for a while. But I’ve said enough to start the conversation, so I’ll turn it over to you. Let’s hear your thoughts — and your experiences, if you’ve had any you’d like to share.