On Marrying Canaanites (2 Cor 6:14–7:1)

One of the great temptations faced by the Israelites as the entered the land of Canaan would be to absorb the Canaanite religion and thereby either to apostatize by becoming pagans or to attempt to synthesize Canaanite paganism with the biblical religion. Yahweh explicitly commanded that, after the entered Canaan, they shall not inter-marry with them:

Furthermore, you shall not intermarry with them; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods; then the anger of Yahweh will be kindled against you and He will quickly destroy you (Deut 7:3–4).

The command is not an expression of bigotry. The commandment is an application of the moral law: you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself” (Matt 22:37–40). The pagan gods, idols, are not (1 Cor 8:4–6). The fictitious gods of the Canaanites did not deliver the Israelites from Pharaoh and Egypt. Yahweh did. The Canaanite gods did not speak into nothing (because they are nothing) and make all that is (Gen 1), Yahweh did. The Canaanite gods are lies. Yahweh is the truth. To inter-marry with the Canaanites and then to adopt their gods would be apostasy and idolatry, both strictly forbidden by the first two commandments. It would also be cruelty to the Canaanites, to pretend that their gods are real. It would be a violation of the 9th commandment, i.e., a lie and it would only encourage the Canaanites to continue to worship false gods when they should turn, in repentance and faith, to Yahweh as Rahab did (Heb 11:31). Further, such a marriage puts the believer in spiritual jeopardy as it may lead them away from Yahweh.

Yahweh’s commands to his national people are so clear, so explicit that there can be no genuine question about the intent. Does that intent still bind Christians today or has the advent of the New Covenant so changed things that Christians are free to inter-marry with pagans today?

The first challenge is that in Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 he does not address the question directly. What was before him there was the question of the status of a marriage once one of the parties had been converted to Christianity. Should the believer remain married or should the believer seek a divorce? Paul says:

But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her believing husband; for otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy. Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace. For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Cor 7:12–16; NASB 1995).

This fits Paul’s general theme in this section, that the believer should remain in the state they were when they came to faith. He nowhere says, implies, or even suggests that believers should contract a marriage with an unbeliever. It is one thing to find one’s self, upon being given new life (i.e., upon being regenerated by the Spirit) to be married to an unbeliever. It is quite another thing for a believer to enter into a marriage with an unbeliever. Paul says that the believer who now finds himself (or herself) married to an unbeliever should remain married, if the unbeliever will permit, in part because the Lord may use this anomalous situation to bring the unbeliever to new life and to true faith. He does not say that the unbeliever is now presently saved by virtue of being married to a believer. He does does that the believer, in this circumstance, is not defiled by virtue of being married to an unbeliever. Hence his use of Levitical language of “sanctified” (ἡγίασται) and “holy” (ἅγιά) in the context of being “clean” and “unclean” (ἀκάθαρτά). See Leviticus 7:19; 10:10; 11:32, 36, 47; 13:59 etc. Paul is invoking the category and language of ceremonial defilement. One of the questions the Corinthians are asking is whether, after coming to faith, they are made ceremonially or religiously unclean or defiled by now being married to an unbeliever.

Whether a Christian should enter into a marriage with an unbeliever is another question. It does not seem that the Corinthians asked Paul about this specifically or if they did we have no record of it. Given the question he addressed in 1 Corinthians 7, given that they were worried about remaining in a marriage with an unbeliever, it would seem that they assumed that it would be immoral to enter into a marriage with an unbeliever.

Given the clear teaching in Deuteronomy 7 the principle would seem to be clear. To be sure, we must be cautious in the way we apply commandments applied for the Israelites. E.g., we know that the food prohibitions have been fulfilled and repealed (Acts 10:10–16). Nevertheless, we understand that there are certain basic principles from the Torah that are permanent. The ceremonies and sacrifices have fulfilled their purpose.

The principle of not marrying pagans is not a ceremony but a basic principle. In 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1 Paul writes:

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers; for what partnership has righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness? Or what agreement has Christ with Belial, or what part has a believer in with an unbeliever? Or what agreement has the temple of God with the temple of idols? For we are the temple of the living God; just as God said, ‘I will dwell in them and walk among them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.’ Therefore ‘come out from their midst and be separate,’ says the Lord ‘and do not touch what is unclean’ and I will welcome you. ‘And I will be father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me,’ says the Lord almighty. Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

The basic principle here is truly clear: Christians may not enter into spiritual relations with pagans. As Calvin notes in his commentary on this passage, Paul is not here addressing marriage. He is addressing the problem of syncretism, of attempting to synthesize Christianity with idolatry. As in 1 Corinthians 10, he is calling them to recognize the profound spiritual gulf between belief and unbelief. When Christians are invited to participate in a pagan religious feast, we must graciously decline. We have been bought with a price. We are not our own. We are wholly owned subsidiaries of Christ, citizens of his kingdom.

Nevertheless, this passage certainly has application to the question of marriage. Few relationships are as intimate and personal as marriage. To be married is to be yoked. In marriage, our Lord says, “the two shall become one flesh” (Gen 2:23; Mark 10:8). For the Christian, marriage is a mystery. Paul says that a Christian marriage is a picture of the relationship between Christ and his church (Eph 5:28–33).  That is not true when a Christian marries a non-Christian. Such a marriage deforms the analogy, the mystery of which Paul speaks.  There is an analogy for this. In 1 Corinthians 6, Paul says that the Christian is united to Christ. Should a Christian have sex with a prostitute, he would be (were it possible) joining Christ to a prostitute (1 Cor 6:14–19). To reinforce that point, he makes the same argument in the following verses that he makes here in 2 Corinthians 6 and 7, that believers are the temple of God and unbelievers are the temple of another spiritual entity.

If Christians may not be joined sexually to a prostitute, then, by analogy, they may not be joined to an unbeliever. This is not to say that Christians ought to divorce their non-Christians spouses. To anticipate this problem I already addressed Paul’s clear instruction on this matter.

To drive home his point Paul quotes and alludes to a series of Old Testament passages beginning with Leviticus 26:12, “And I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.” That he invokes Leviticus here tells us much about what he is thinking concerning purity, holiness, and devotion to the Lord. In passing, please note the Abrahamic language in this passage.  He also quotes Isaiah 52:11, ” Depart, depart, go out from there; touch no unclean thing; go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves, you who bear the vessels of Yahweh,” and perhaps he alludes to the Lord’s words promising his blessing on Solomon in 2 Samuel 7:14, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men…”.

Entering into a marriage with an unbeliever is the antithesis of walking with Yahweh, of going out from the pagans, of refusing to touch an unclean thing, of being a son delivered out of Egypt. As it was for the Israelites, for a Christian willingly to marry a pagan is to defy the Lord who saved them from slavery to sin and death. It is to turn back to Egypt.

If so, then, such a voluntary marriage is sin. It is not the unforgivable sin. Once contracted, on analogy with Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7, a Christian ought to remain in the state in which they now are but it is certainly to be discouraged and disciplined by the visible church when it occurs.

The  spiritual consequences in contracting such a marriage are potentially very great. We are just as apt as the Israelites to forsake the Lord. This might happen in order to justify the marriage or it might happen under pressure from the unbeliever, in order to “keep peace” in the home. Sin has a cost.

Grace is greater than sin (Rom 5:20). Christ died for this sin. Your sin cannot separate you from the Lord but that is no license for sin but rather a stimulus for grateful obedience, lived out in union with Christ.

Christian, if you have contracted such a marriage, repent and seek to live as Peter instructs: “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives” (1 Pet 3:1).   Pray for your unbelieving spouse. Be gracious. Be patient and wait on the Lord. As Paul says, who knows whether your spouse might be saved? No one should enter into a marriage with an unbeliever, however, in hopes of bringing them to Christ. If “missionary dating” is foolish, how much more is “missionary marriage.”

Christian, if you are considering marriage, you must marry in the Lord. As Paul says, and as we confess, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19,20) I understand that this is painful but waiting for a godly spouse is an act of faith. Jesus loves you more than your prospective spouse. He will provide, even if it is not clear now how or when.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. We know that the food prohibitions have been fulfilled and repealed (Acts 10:10–16); reading Heidelblog post. Could you help me out in this because my understanding is a little different? Three times Peter refused to eat the unclean animals shown to him within the great sheet, and God did not rebuke him. I thought is was devoted to the conversion of Cornelius, a Roman centurion (verse 1), the first Gentile baptized into God’s church. Verse 28: “But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.” Nowhere in (Acts 11:1-18) is any mention made of clean or unclean foods. Would’ve Peter known with the time spent with Yahshua, being a decade after death?

    One day our understanding will be perfect because thousands of denominations can’t be right.


    • C,

      Scripture says:

      The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance 11 and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. 12 In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. 13 And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” 16 This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.

      Acts 10:17
        Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate 18 and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. 19 And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” 21 And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for. What is the reason for your coming?” 22 And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” 23 So he invited them in to be his guests. (Acts 10:9-23; ESV)

      The key is:

      And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” 15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”

      What had been unclean is now clean. Further, not only are the food regulations fulfilled and abrogated but more importantly Peter is no longer to regard Gentiles as being unclean. Hence the three men who were looking for him. Cornelius was a Gentile. He needed to hear the gospel. Peter needed to know that the Mosaic restrictions were done. They had been nailed to the cross, as Paul wrote to the Colossians.

  2. My family asked me that if you cant marry then have a baby and this really hurt and i was like😳. And I must accept that after I travelled back it almost got in to me and i almost believed them to to take in their advice but I thank God for His grace and anytime I call i must be asked if am putting it into consideration and from the rest they are like Alice you will never have kids with your age! But what an encouragement this article is to me! Thanks alot.

  3. Thank-you for this post.

    Throughout the contemporary West and America Technocratic Trans-humanism’s idolatry and Scientism with its Elect (purified post-humans) and exalted priesthood of scientists and social engineers is the only allowable source of ‘truth’ about universal reality (Singularity/Quantum Energy Field), earth (Gaia), and the nature of man–an evolving holon, making Trans-humanism’s idolatry, Scientism, and Evolution “god” the West’s three most powerful fortresses of mind. What’s more, in one form or another, evolutionary theists and progressive creationists have syncretized this idolatry with Scripture:

    “The gods of the nations are not creator gods and (as) Jeremiah puts it, the gods that did not create the world will perish, as indeed they have.  In our own times idolatry, which was a universal substitute for the Creator God, has been replaced by the widely held theory of evolution.  Both are substitutes for the concept of the Creator God.  Just as the ancients and the heathen today deified and worshipped the creature as the creator…so for western secular man the modern theory of evolution deifies nature, and acknowledges it as creator of all we see around us…and in this way the God who made the world is as effectively shut out of the minds of those who are enjoying the blessings of His creation as He was by the false religions of idolatry.  Just as the idolaters could not see the foolishness, indeed the stupidity, of worshipping gods (that) have no life nor purpose nor mind, so modern believers in the theory of evolution cannot see the foolishness of that theory. The Bible says that if we refuse to have the Creator God in our mind, God gives us up to a reprobate mind.”  (Dr. Broughton Knox, principal of Moore Theological College, Sydney, 1959-1985, Creation Ministries International)

  4. Thank you for this helpful and practical post. I agree with this position. I feel a little uncomfortable leaning on Cor 6:14ff, although it is historically a proof text. You failed to mention situations of betrothed or arranged marriage, or even absence of Christian spouses. I think it is sinfully unwise in most situations but not forbidden in all. Please respond. Blessings

    • David,

      I write in a context and to contexts where arranged marriages are all but non-existent.

      There’s nothing in the NT clearly addressing this but doesn’t Deuteronomy 7 address it explicitly? No Christian parent should violate it.

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