The question, “Can an Adventist marry a non-Adventist1” has been discussed in varying perspectives. Young people often ask this question when they are faced with marriages that involve a non-SDA. When this question came up in one Adventist church, a member, who opposes such unions, cited a passage from Ellen White’s writings that purports to forbid such unions. He quoted, “Never should God’s people venture upon forbidden ground. Marriage between believers and unbelievers is forbidden by God.”2 In his interpretation of White’s writings, the term “unbeliever” simply comprises all those without the Adventists’ faith. In this article, I will be looking at the term “unbeliever” as it’s implied in scripture and its usage in Adventism.
Who is an unbeliever?
The term unbeliever may not be simple to define. There is another word that comes closest in meaning that is “non-believer”. Both terms can be synonymous but with a subtle difference in meaning. In religion, an unbeliever may be, semantically, anyone who does not accept a particular faith or belief system, yet believes in other contrary belief systems. To the Christian, a Muslim may be an unbeliever (vice versa). Or as in Islam to Paganism. A “non-believer” may refer to a person without a belief system. In a more technical sense, we may consider atheists as non-believers. Let me quickly remark that most Adventist young adults are wary in espousing unbelievers and non-believers. Their questions are rather on marrying from Christian denominations other than Adventism.
In the Old Testament (OT)
The term unbeliever does not appear in the OT. Equivalent word may be non-Israelite or heathen. Ancient Israelites were given stern instruction to sanctify themselves from heathen nations. Israel was to be a distinct nation with her unique God. Balaam, the heathen prophet, prophesied this in Numbers 23: 9: “For from the top of the rocks I see him, and from the hills I behold him: lo, the people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations” (NIV, Emphasis is mine). Israel was not to have any alliance or intermarriage with other nations (Ex. 34: 15; Deut. 7: 3- 4). One of the apostasies of King Solomon was when his heart lifted up against these standards by marrying foreign women. It is written: “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the LORD had said to the sons of Israel, “You shall not associate with them, nor shall they associate with you, for they will surely turn your heart away after their gods.” Solomon held fast to these in love” (1 Kings 11: 1-2). As long as Israel remained God’s holy nation, all other nations were “unbelievers” (anachronic) because they did not worship the God of Israel.
In the New Testament (NT)
Four instances in the NT mentioned the term unbeliever (Lk. 12: 46, 1 Cor. 6: 6; 14:23, 2 Cor. 6: 14). The most applied in Adventists’ marriage is Paul’s usage of the term in 2 Cor. 6: 14. Paul wrote, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?”
Corinth was a city of Greece in the first century. Traces of Corinth can still be found in Greece today. The cosmopolitan city was known for its sexual immorality. Prostitution was cultic in the service of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, in Corinth. Words like “Corinthian” or “Corinthian girl” came to mean a prostitute. The temple bred cultic prostitutes in Corinth. The temple of Apollo was located in this city. Paul established a church in Corinth during his second missionary trip.
The two epistles to the churches explain the influences of worldliness and careless Christian ethics confronted by the community. When Paul spoke of not being yoked together with unbelievers, he was of course addressing the immoral practices of the Corinthians. The distinctive differences are between righteousness and wickedness, light and darkness, Christ and Belial, believer and unbeliever, temple of God and Idols (2 Cor. 6: 15-17). Paul wanted his audience to understand the distinctiveness of being a Christian.
With the exception of specific indications in the OT concerning marriage, Paul’s usage of the term unbeliever was not in direct relation to marriage, although not exclusive. Neither do the other appearances of the word suggest so in the NT. In all occurrences, the term suggests a non-Christian.
Adventist theology on an “unbeliever”
The Adventist Church Manual (2015), pages 153-160, talks about the church’s position on relationship and marriage. An unbeliever in Adventism refers to a person of other religions. An additional Adventist view comes from the writings of E. G. White. This is a quote from the Adventist Church Manual, “The Spirit of Prophecy consistently counsels against marriage between “the believer and the unbeliever” and further cautions against uniting with fellow Christians who have “not accepted the truth for this time.”3—5T 364.” p, 154. Unbelievers by Adventist definition may refer to non-Christians. Adventists do not consider members of other Christian faith as unbelievers. What the church considers as important consideration is whether the non-SDA partner accepts present truths4. Adventists consider present truth as constituting the Sabbath, health laws as to clean and unclean foods, the soon return of Christ, Bible prophecy including the writings of E. G White., etc. Where these fundamental beliefs are lacking, the church cautions its members.
Other quotes of E. G. White on marrying an unbeliever include:
“Never should God’s people venture upon forbidden ground. Marriage between believers and unbelievers is forbidden by God. But too often the unconverted heart follows its own desires, and marriages unsanctioned by God are formed. Because of this many men and women are without hope and without God in the world. Their noble aspirations are dead; by a chain of circumstances they are held in Satan’s net. Those who are ruled by passion and impulse will have a bitter harvest to reap in this life, and their course may result in the loss of their souls.
“Those who profess the truth trample on the will of God in marrying unbelievers; they lose His favor and make bitter work for repentance. The unbelieving may possess an excellent moral character, but the fact that he or she has not answered to the claims of God and has neglected so great salvation is sufficient reason why such a union should not be consummated. The character of the unbelieving may be similar to that of the young man to whom Jesus addressed the words, “One thing thou lackest”; that was the one thing needful.”5
“‘Can two walk together, except they be agreed?’ Amos 3:3. The happiness and prosperity of the marriage relation depends upon the unity of the parties; but between the believer and the unbeliever there is a radical difference of tastes, inclinations, and purposes. They are serving two masters, between whom there can be no concord. However pure and correct one’s principles may be, the influence of an unbelieving companion will have a tendency to lead away from God.”6
As clearly seen, the OT is precise on instructions concerning marrying non-Israelites. Even though the term unbeliever does not appear in the OT, God’s ban on Israel to marry from other nations explains the distinct nature of marriage to the distinct people of God. In the NT, the term unbeliever appears in the writings of Paul as antithesis to Christian values. Paul alludes to the same distinctiveness and holiness of God’s people. Adventists understand these precedences as blueprints for holistic Christian marriage. Marriage between an Adventist and an unbeliever is strictly discouraged. People of other Christian faith are not referred to as unbelievers according to Adventists’ teachings but the church gives precautions on marriages that involve other Christians “who have not accepted the truth for this time”. Though such unions are not considered unchristian, the church forbids its pastors to bless such unions7. However, in the event whereby a church member enters into such marriages, the church advises members “to demonstrate love and concern with the purpose of encouraging the couple toward complete unity in Christ.”8
- Mostly the term “non-Adventist” may refer to members of other Christian denominations. ▲
- Ellen White, Counsels for the Church, p. 121 ▲
- It may be contested whether Ellen White’s usage of an unbeliever in this letter was also in reference to members of other denominations. Such explicit statements are not found in her definition of an unbeliever. The person spoken of in this letter seem to be a non-Christian. Ellen White has written earlier, “do not unite yourself with one who is an enemy of God” (p. 362). Except this person is a non-Christian, such expressions cannot be said of members of non-SDA churches. ▲
- When the church attributes the phrase “who have not accepted the truth for this time” to other Christians, it does so not with the intent of classifying them with other religions but to emphasise a holistic achievement of common interest for persons contemplating marriage. ▲
- Ellen G. White, Counsels for the Church, p. 121 ▲
- Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets, p. 174. ▲
- Church Manual (2015), p. 154. ▲
- Ibid, 154. ▲