Friday, September 14, 2007

unequally yoked?

Naomi Schaeffer Riley in today's Wall Street Journal-- on Christians dating outside their (stated) religious beliefs:

In an episode of "Seinfeld" that lays bare the characters' secular sensibilities, Elaine is shocked to learn that her on-again, off-again boyfriend, Puddy, is a believing Christian. "So is it a problem that I'm not really religious?" she asks him upon realizing their differing worldviews. "Not for me," he answers. "I'm not the one going to hell." Though Elaine herself acknowledges that she doesn't believe in an afterlife, she becomes increasingly angry with Puddy for not caring more about her eternal damnation. Finally, she explodes: "You should be trying to save me!"

However unlikely, the "Seinfeld" writers seem to have nailed one of the essential problems of evangelical Christians dating outside their faith community--what some jokingly refer to as "missionary dating." Lisa Ann Cockrel, the managing editor of Brazos Press, a Christian publisher, writes in an email that "hell is a good barometer for what a Christian will think about missionary dating." In other words, if Puddy really thought Elaine was going to experience such a fate, could he really date her, let alone marry her, without trying to save her?

Christians generally trace the prohibition against dating nonbelievers to this passage from 2 Corinthians 6:14: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?" But many young evangelicals wonder whether there might be exceptions. An advice column in Today's Christian Woman tackles the question, "Is it a sin to marry a non-Christian?" And a Christian teen magazine called Brio advises girls on "what to do if someone you know is missionary dating."

Interfaith dating and marriage has long been a subject of concern among smaller religious groups like Jews (in part out of fear that their numbers are diminishing). Evangelical leaders are now tuning in to this conversation. There are a variety of factors at work here. As Americans become more geographically mobile and attend college in higher numbers, they are encountering more people outside of their religious communities. These encounters are bound to lead to more romantic relationships.

For evangelicals who want to pair up with others of the same faith but don't manage to do so in their early 20s, trouble lies ahead, particularly for women. Evangelical churches now typically have a 60-40 split between women and men, which means that there are many more single evangelical women out there than their male counterparts. As Ms. Cockrel explains, "I have friends who wanted to marry a Christian guy, are still single, and are more and more open to dating non-Christians as they get older. They're tired of waiting."

...In fact, for older evangelicals it is less often their parents than their friends who steer them away from such relationships. Camerin Courtney, a columnist at, tells me that most Christian parents are just concerned that "their children find someone they love and who loves them back."

But pastors regularly remind their flocks to avoid dating outside the faith. Lee Strobel, formerly a teaching pastor at Saddleback Church in Southern California and the author of "Surviving a Spiritual Mismatch in Marriage," tells people that "conjugal evangelism" doesn't work. "If you're feeling like if I just marry this person, I'll be able to influence him toward God, it's self-deception." He notes that "the nonbeliever is more likely to pull the Christian away from his faith." This is a contention, by the way, that sociologists, like Brad Wilcox at the University of Virginia, generally support. Mr. Wilcox explains: "Evangelicals who marry nonevangelicals are typically less likely to remain as or become as devout as those who marry within the fold."

But Mr. Strobel may be the exception that proves the rule. He and his wife, Leslie, were both irreligious when they married. When their second child was an infant, Leslie started to explore her faith. Shortly after, Mr. Strobel's wife became a Christian, and he thought that they would "probably divorce." The issues dividing them quickly came to the fore: "We started clashing on whether to give money to the church, how we would spend our weekends, what we would teach the kids to believe. Every area of life is affected by faith." After a couple of years, though, Mr. Strobel himself became a Christian and the two are now spiritually matched.

It is true that both men and women often return to religion once they marry and have children. But Mr. Wilcox says, in effect, don't count on it: "Promises to convert or to attend church with a spouse on Sunday are often broken after the wedding day, once the romantic bloom is off."


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