This is a tricky question – but I’m glad you asked it! It’s good to hear that you and your girlfriend are thinking through these things not just at a basic level but are actually trying to make a wise choice about how and whether to serve together as husband and wife. Your question requires that we delve into the murky but important territory between what is theologically permissible and what may or may not be practically wise. Let me explain.
First of all, just to be clear (as much for other readers as for you, since your question implies that you already know this), it is theologically permissible for a Christian who is reformed in his or her theology (aka, a “Calvinist”) to marry a Christian who is not (an “Arminian”). (Note: there’s not space in this column to get into the specific differences in these theological perspectives, so for those of you who are unfamiliar with these terms, please forgive the “inside baseball” aspect to this discussion – and then go look these terms up! Fascinating stuff.)
All the Bible “requires” in terms of who we marry is that we as believers in Jesus marry other people who are – as best we can determine – also genuine believers in Jesus (1 Corinthians 7:39; Ephesians 5:25-33). That means (at least) that the two people must share the same essential understanding of what the Gospel is. Because Calvinists and Arminians (not really helpful terms, but I’ll go with the shorthand here) share a basic understanding of the Gospel, both perspectives are generally understood by both sides to be within the household of faith and therefore to fall within the Bible’s command to marry only another believer. Check.
Having said that, it is not always wise for two people to marry simply because they are both believers. The short answer to the headline of your question – “do doctrinal differences matter?” – is that some do and some don’t. As I’ve written before, I generally counsel couples considering marriage to have strong agreement about (at least) the following basics: each other’s essential faith and character, major theological issues, and their view of what marriage is biblically.
As to theological issues, I think it’s wise to have (or cultivate before marriage) agreement on issues of the sort that will affect your ability to worship and serve together in the same church and that will particularly affect your lives as husband and wife (and mother and father). On that list of issues, I personally would include things like your views on baptism, whether you are egalitarian or complementarian when it comes to your views on marriage, and, yes, whether or not you are both reformed in your theology.
Why include that issue? Well, even if you agree on the basics of the Gospel – and to be clear, the agreement on the Gospel between Calvinists and Arminians occurs at only the simplest, most basic level – there are some issues beyond that basic agreement that fundamentally and profoundly affect the way someone understands sin, the character of God, the state and nature of mankind, the process of salvation, the church and almost everything else about the Christian life. Disagreement on such an issue within a marriage can lead to strife and discord in a relationship that fundamentally calls the two of you to model the Gospel and bring glory to God with your lives.
The Calvinist/Arminian divide – fundamentally a disagreement about the sovereignty of God, the way salvation works and how God relates to creation and his people – is just such an issue. Genuine disagreement here, if it lasted into your marriage, could potentially produce tension and disagreement about what and how to teach your kids on any number of topics, when and whether to baptize your kids, your approach to evangelism, your approach to significant life decisions and your approach to God’s character and role as it relates to the circumstances of your life. Also, many churches have chosen to require one position or the other on this issue in order to be a member or to be in leadership in the church. I have known couples who spent years in constant conflict over where to go to church based on this disagreement. Real disagreement on this issue can also make it difficult for a husband to lead and disciple his wife spiritually and for his wife to submit to that leadership. For all these reasons, I would generally advise that a couple have some sort of settled agreement on this issue before pursing marriage.
Having said all of that, much of what I’ve written above depends on the notion that you and your girlfriend are entrenched in your positions, and that your theology on either side of the divide is pretty well-developed. For many people, neither is the case. Your question said that you and your girlfriend “lean” in opposite directions on this, which may mean that one or both of you haven’t thought a lot about it or could be persuaded to go the other direction. If neither of you feels strongly, if you could come to agreement by talking the issue through (perhaps with others), if you can agree on a solid biblical church you would both be comfortable joining and serving in as husband and wife, then it may still be fine to move forward. My suggestion in all this would be to get some counsel from mature believers who understand this issue and who know one or both of you well.
I will pray for the Lord to give you both wisdom as you think through these issues.
For his glory,
Copyright Scott Croft 2015. All Rights Reserved.