The New Testament gives no formula for choosing a husband or wife. Yes, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul speaks to a widow who wishes to marry ‘is free to marry anyone she wishes, only in the Lord,’ that is, only if the new husband is a Christian. Apart from that, the instruction that Paul gives in that chapter is directed to very specific questions about singleness and marriage. He does not offer a full set of rules. In short, the apostles are concerned that we marry a Christian and that we live righteously within marriage; they say nothing about how to figure out which Christian to marry. In the first century and in many cultures, it is not the young people who decide on a mate, but rather parents or other members of the family or tribe. In many Latino cultures up to the 20th century the Catholic church required signed permission from both fathers.
The Western church of today adds to the apostolic teaching and at times sets it aside. Christians have adopted a romantic view of marriage that has more to do with 19th century philosophy and Hollywood movies than the New Testament. What comes out is the assumption that there is a special someone for everybody, that you have to find just the right person, that marriage vows are not as important as following your heart.
Despite the single story of Rebecca in Genesis 24:10-21, God never promises in his Word to give us a special revelation to show whom we should marry. Nor does he say that there is one, and only one, person for each man or woman. What he says is that we should marry believers and live without our spouses in a godly way. Anything beyond this instruction is of our own construction, not the word of the Lord. And people who claim that “God showed me to marry this person” often land in disaster, when they realized that it was not God’s will but the tug of the emotions or of the bodily chemistry.
So, how do you choose a marriage partner? Pray and ask yourself these three crucial questions, in this order.
QUESTION I. Does God want me to remain single?
Although it is often avoided, it is the first question to consider – don’t put it off until you’re madly in love with someone. Traditionally in the Catholic Church, some adolescent girls think about becoming nuns. Their desire may not be about the Catholic faith than it is an expression of self-doubt over whether they are pretty or interesting enough to attract a boy.
Meditate on 1 Cor. 7:32-35, which shows that some people are called to special service as a single Christian. Too often people throw out this option before considering it, because they don’t want to look weird or miss out on life.
QUESTION II. Whom should I marry?
The Bible does not encourage us to seek our perfect mate or the one single person we are meant for; rather it teaches:
FIRST STEP: God’s revealed will for you is that Christians should marry only another believer (1 Cor. 7:39, 2 Cor. 6:14-16)
Therefore: any marriage of an unbeliever and a believer is outside of God’s will, no matter what hopes the believer has of converting the unbeliever, no matter what feelings you might have that this is really God’s will and an exception to the rule. Young women in particular might decide that, “I’ll marry him, and he’ll come to the faith because of how I live it in front of him!” This is risky business indeed, and all of us know exes who realized that God cannot be out-thought.
SECOND STEP: think and pray through the meaning of marriage
Think through the Bible’s teaching, particularly 1 Corinthians 7 and Ephesians 5:21-33. In particular, Paul tells believers who are married to non-believers that they should stay right where they are in the marriage.
THIRD STEP: get advice from someone godly, honest, and impartial.
It is extremely important not only in deciding whom to marry, but also getting further counsel before the wedding. Interesting, some Western Christians have moved away from total freedom and have placed more emphasis on finding a mate through other, older Christians, whether in the church or in the family. It is a foolish thing to throw away the advice of wiser Christian friends and relatives because of what our heart tells us!
FOURTH STEP: don’t throw away good Christian sense!
In the movies, romance is thought to be the ultimate experience. They emphasize love at first sight, casual marriages, and generally a lack of godly sense. Why not give the marriage a firmer footing by finding someone you at least suspect you can tolerate for decades to come?
QUESTION III. When should I marry?
Some people avoid this question, imagining that if they’ve found the ‘right’ person they ought to marry right away. Again, seek God’s wisdom and the Word of God to guide you. Finding a good partner is important, but make it better by marrying at a wise time. Hasty marriages always are riskier marriages. On the other hand, modern people have an extraordinarily prolonged adolescence. They mature when in middle school and then spend years studying and getting themselves settled. This means that they live under sexual pressure. In North America, for example, it has been shown that young evangelicals engage in sex before or apart from marriage, and at about the same rate as their non-evangelical peers. A wise evangelical may want to consider how valuable it really is to delay marriage in favor of economic stability.
Related posts and a free full-length commentary:
Studies in 1 Corinthians by Gary Shogren
By Gary Shogren, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica
the question then becomes, how do we communicate 1 Cor. 7:39 and 2 Cor 6:14-16 in a loving way (and in a way that will be heeded) to someone contemplating marriage?
It’s a delicate pastoral task. As with many hard truths, this one needs to be communicated long before the issue arises. People need to hear how it is and we need to challenge them to commit to the truth before they are charmed by someone in particular.