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Is the love between a Christian woman and an unbeliever approved by God?

Monica and Augustine

Monica and Augustine

1 Corinthians 7:39

A [woman] is bound as long as her [man] is living. But if her [man] dies, she is free to be married to anyone she wants--only in the Lord.*

*In Ancient Greek, wife and woman are the same word. The same is true of husband.

Paul’s phrase “in the Lord” designated individuals as Christians. It also described verbs. What does this clause in 1 Corinthians 7:39 mean? Must a woman wed a brother in the Lord; or does the phrase modify marry instead? In St. Augustine’s view, it could be either. According to Thomas Charles Edwards, "Augustine ( De Conj . Adult . 25 ) says he does not remember a passage in the New Test . forbidding , in unambiguous terms , Christians to marry unbelievers . His mother Monica had married a heathen . The words [whom she will] are favourable to [only marrying a Christian] , but the latter is more to the point . If a widow marries , let her do so with the same motives with which another remains unmarried . Let their lives be within the sphere of the Lord's work . In Rom . xvi . 2 , the phrase 'in the Lord' is explained by 'worthy of saints'. ”

The Apostle expecting women to wed a fellow worshiper would befit his Judaistic upbringing. This culture demanded endogamy. A Jewish divorce certificate banning intermarriage restricted a woman to marry [only] any Jew. Mark Strauss said Paul used identical language, but substituted in the Lord to mean a Christian.

Constantine Campbell argued “only” contrasts with “whom she desires”. Thus, he believes “in the Lord” described the partner. Henry Alford and Heinrich Meyer concurred the phrase constrains the whoever.

Interpreting this correctly is important. Some have theorized intermarriage is a mortal sin based off this.

Early Church Fathers

Tertullian (born 160) said this verse banned a believing woman from marrying a heathen in his work To His Wife. Those marrying unbelievers defiled themselves.

He said Christians contracting marriages with “Gentiles” (unbelievers) committed fornication. He also asked, “[S]hall we in that day produce (our) marriage certificates before the Lord’s tribunal, and allege that a marriage such as He Himself has forbidden has been duly contracted?” Mixed unions desecrate the temple of the Holy Spirit, our bodies.

Both Cyprian, (born 200), and Origen, (born 184) said it prohibited mixed marriages. In Jerome’s (347) view, 7:39 banned a born again damsel and a "gentile" uniting. Theodoret (393) supposed it meant marrying “only one of the same faith and pious, in all sobriety and lawfulness.” Ambrosiaster defined it “without suspicion of uncleanness and to a man of her own religion.”

According to Shaye Cohen, Theodore of Mopsuestia (c. 350) disagreed. To him, it conveyed she should preserve her piety, even if she married an infidel. He also quoted the Greek. To be fair, Russell Paul Dudrey said that Theodore of Mopsuestia said the verse protected a Christian from marrying an unbeliever. Both quoted a work by Karl Staab, which is unfortunately in German. Cohen quoted page 184, and Dudrey quoted page 183. So, it is possible Theodore said both.

Other Christians thought it meant:

  • “With chastity, with honor.” Chrysostom (born 347):
  • “[N]ot to be dragged as a despicable slave to concubinage to please the flesh, but to choose marriage in sound judgement, and because it will make life more convenient.” Saint Basil of Ancyra (died 362)
  • “Not in fornication, adultery, or an illicit love affair, but with a goodwill openly, in lawful wedlock, abiding by the faith, the commandments, wonderful works, piety, fastings, good order almsdeeds, zeal, the doing of good.” Epiphanius of Salamis (c. 310-320)



Language supports in the Lord modifying the verb. Consider the last phrase of 7:39: "only (monon) in the Lord." Charles Giblin stated when the simple monon (only) comes before a word or phrase, in this case "in the Lord", that word or phrase has verbal force, describing the action. According to T. Brookins and B. Longenecker, the prepositional phrase "functions adverbially, modifying an implied repetition of [to be married], 'to be married in such a way as is befitting for those in Christ.'" However, they still said it could have either meaning.

Valleskey conceded that in the Lord sometimes meant fellow Christians when Paul used a noun. Romans 16:11 (τούς ὄντας ἐν κυρίῳ) However, most of the time “in the Lord” modified the verb. “Had Paul meant to say that [a widow must marry a believer] it seems more likely he would have said widows who want to remarry must τοὺς ὄντας ἐν κυρίῳ.”

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David Konstan and Ilaria Ranelli noted that the phrase 'in Christ' often attaches to a verb, participle, or rarely, to an adjective with verbal force. If they modify a substantive (noun), they are enclosed in a nominal phrase or preceded by the article repeating.

So, the use of the word monon along with the fact that in the Lord often modified verbs, may support that in the Lord modified the verb.

If in the Lord modifies the verb, it changes everything. As long as a Christian behaves in a godly way, they may be able to marry an unbeliever.

One man, Parthenos, mentioned laboring (Romans 16:12), dying (Revelations 14:13) and speaking (Acts 14:3) in the Lord, signifying “in the faith of the Lord.” He asked, “And may marrying only in the Lord not mean that the person herself may marry, only in the faith of the Lord, i.e., not go out of him or become an idolater to get a husband?”

Who Did it Apply to?

Even if the command to marry in the Lord does mean marry a Christian, it is unknown who it applies to. W. Deming cautioned we can’t know if Paul’s mandate binds other Christians or just widows. Perchance, Paul saw them, or women as in a unique position. Paul gave virgins no instructions. So, “there is no special law in regard to them," according to Parthenos. Therefore, limiting the command of marrying in the Lord to widows makes sense.

However, perhaps virgins had no choice in their future partners. Verlyn Verbrugge and Murray J. Harris said, “Note, too, that in contrast to the arranged marriages of virgins as discussed in vv. 36-38, the language Paul uses in this verse [7:39] suggests that a widow had more freedom in deciding whom she was going to marry.”

It is unknown how much say a virgin had. Roman law, which required a woman to consent to a marriage, may have influenced Corinth. J. Dorcas Gordan noted the relationship between Rome and Corinth and theorized Roman laws influenced Corinth. She began her discussion about marriage in Corinth with Roman law. The Argive petition concerning Corinth reported Roman, not Greek, law operated. (409a).

Consent was a gray area. In reality, choice was a mere formality sometimes, perhaps presumptively present. Girls just at a marriageable age had a somewhat restricted influence. However, at first marriage, 1/3 to ½ of women’s fathers would be dead, giving them more choice. Mcginn agrees that would hold for a slim majority of females. Widows couldn’t always pick. Sometimes, a widow’s father set up a marriage for her if she was still under his control.

Even if virgins had no control over marriage partners, extending the prohibition to them may be inappropriate. Hilmar Pabel noticed widows must marry in the Lord. However, it doesn’t “qualify giving one’s daughter in marriage.”


Many reasons suggest interpreting only in the Lord as being in a Christian manner. Some church doctors considered the mandate as describing a woman’s behavior.

Whatever the interpretation, we can’t know how far this command applies or even who it applied to. William Loader argued in Sexuality and The Jesus Tradition, that the woman didn't mean a widow, but rather, a betrothed maiden. This verse is too ambiguous.

Something worth considering is that Paul could have directly forbidden intermarriage. This led Adolf von Harnack to say, “Despite Tertullian’s opinion [on 7:39] and the weighty supports of those exegetes who advocate this interpretation, I am unable to agree.” Cohen said he could have said to marry only a believer (πηζηῷ) had he wanted to exclude mixed marriage.

Basing whether a Christian can marry an unbeliever based off this verse is hard to say.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 BridgettBernadett

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