Each Fall semester, I teach a class on how to make the marriage decision one of your best decisions. I will soon begin my 21st year of teaching it.
I like to remind singles that there is only one explicit (very clear and direct) requirement in the Bible about who God wants you to marry.
There are a number of implicit (implied) requirements but the specific command could be summarized this way:
“If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are only permitted to marry one who is a follower of Christ.”
The exact wording is thought-provoking.
“A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord” (I Corinthians 7:39, NIV).
“A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but only if he loves the Lord.” (NLT)
The italicized words present the requirement in two different translations:
- “he must belong to the Lord” (NIV)
- “only if he loves the Lord.” (NLT)
The New Living Translation chose a practical application: “only if he loves the Lord.” The widow is only permitted to marry someone who loves the Lord.
But how can you tell whether or not someone loves the Lord?
The New International Version, “he must belong to the Lord,” also raises a question about how to identify such a person. What kind of people (or potential mates) are those who belong to the Lord? What should we look for?
Is it enough to hear a person’s verbal testimony of salvation? Are there character traits, life patterns, values and commitments found in people who belong to the Lord? (On this matter, please invest the time in listening to my audio message: What Should you Expect?)
Who makes the decision?
Before answering these important questions, notice that the widow in I Corinthians 7:39 is free “to marry anyone she wishes” (ἐλευθέρα ἐστὶν ᾧ θέλει γαμηθῆναι) within the limit that, “he must belong to the Lord.”
So if there are five available men in the Church who “belong to the Lord,” which one is God’s choice for her to marry?
Wait a minute!
Perhaps this is the wrong question. It says, “She is free to marry anyone she wishes.” Evidently, if she honors the one requirement (he must belong to the Lord), it’s her choice.
She can’t pass the decision to God. She must make a wise decision based on the resources and information available to her.
But what about prayer? Should she pray about the decision? Yes!
The issue becomes how she prays and what she prays for. Her prayers must never be used as a means of getting God to make her decision. She cannot pray for God to give her the name of the one out of the five He has chosen for her because it’s her decision. And she is wise to avoid the “Give me a sign” prayers.
It’s her decision. That’s the main point.
She can pray for wisdom and for God to help her to think carefully about the one of interest.
If she rushes the decision, she’s likely to poorly investigate the man of interest. If she chooses not to seek wise counsel in the process, she removes herself from one of God’s primary provisions for making wise decisions. If she settles for a verbal profession of faith, she might fail to take seriously what it means to belong to the Lord.
If she plays the spiritual trump card by suggesting that “God told her,” she is presuming upon the future without the required “if” from James 4:15 — “Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” No amount of prayer and no sign from heaven gives us permission to drop the “if.”
Another important text
Before considering what “belonging to the Lord” means, look briefly at another Scripture that teaches the same truth in a different way.
“Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For….what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? (II Corinthians 6:14-15)
To be “yoked together” pictures two oxen sharing the same yoke while plowing a field. An unequal yoke is described in Scripture as the yoking of dissimilar animals (Deuteronomy 22:10).
The command against an unequal yoke prohibits believers from entering into cooperative relationships with unbelievers that would bind them to compromise their commitment to the Lord. One reason might be found in Jesus’ warning that we cannot serve two different masters (Matt. 6:24).
Marriage and the unequal yoke
The unequal yoke is most often applied to the marriage decision. A marriage relationship requires more unity than most realize. It’s a yoking of life at many important points and places. If those who are yoked in marriage have too many differences, they will be pulling in different directions. Their unity will be threatened.
I keep a miniature wooden yoke in my office to use as a visual for explaining the importance of an equally yoked marriage. It’s a fitting description because life together in a marriage involves many decisions that could easily lead to disagreements (especially when raising children together).
Marriage will significantly test the oneness and unity of two people. The yoke illustration implies that believer and unbeliever will be pulling in opposite directions or working at cross purposes with each other.
But this text assumes an ability to identify the differences between believers and unbelievers. So the first question about marriage for those who seek God’s will is how to identify a true believer.