What Does “Unequally Yoked” Really Mean? Part III

un_yoked_part_III

Part III – The Final Verdict

From Exegesis to Systematics

Should Adventist marry Christians of other denominations? Is it a sin, merely unadvisable, or not in the least problematic?

As we have seen, this is a question from our own time. It carries with it the circumstances and nuances associated with the proliferation of denominations we face today, how they relate to each other doctrinally, socially, legally, economically, philosophically, and a host of other ways. This baggage makes the question a highly contextualized one; one that the text of Corinthian correspondence does not raise or give to us. It is our question, and when we go to the Bible with our own questions, we must take a different approach, or else risk reading our suppositions into the text.

Systematic theology allows us to to frame our Bible study in the same context as the question we are asking, as regards the current scientific, social, philosophical sources, and language, that naturally pertain to the question. It allows us to parse the ramifications of the exegetical meaning through present circumstances, not with a view to change that meaning, but rather to explore its full extent for present day solutions. Let’s illustrate this by actually doing that. We will parse the exegesis of II Corinthians 6:14a through a number of current realities, and see just how expansive the text is, and therefore how relevant in addressing the specific issue of marriage (as well as others) in our present day.

The Impact of “Present Truth”

Seventh-day Adventist teaching expatiates on the gospel in ways that are significant and different from other denominations. Particularly, articulation of the gospel by Adventists aims to be specifically relevant to the contemporary environment. Adventists believe that each generation of people have enjoyed the revelation of a certain amount of truth that was necessary and conducive for their circumstances in time.[1] We call this present truth.

The Spirit of Prophecy makes a particularly big deal of present truth as that which is relevant for “this time”.[2] [3] Indeed, Ellen White goes so far as to suggest that receiving the present truth as she saw it in her day was ‘salvational’, as we like to say.[4]

And what is this present truth based on? The Three Angels’ Messages found in Revelation 14:6 – 12. We see ourselves as the prophetic bearers of these messages, the patient “saints” of v. 12. We also call them the “everlasting gospel”, echoing the introduction of the first angel in v. 6. We see the Three Angels’ Messages, in their broad outline, as the gospel for our time, the present truth. The specific messages of each angel become more relevant and more pertinent as prophetic time unfolds and the geo-political situation of the world changes.

Beyond “present truth” we also have “testing truths”, which are doctrines that provide a litmus test of faith. For example, the Sabbath doctrine is a “testing truth” with in the context of the prophetic unfolding of the third angel’s message.[5] Others are teachings like the state of the dead and the second coming of Christ. In a sense, each of our 28 Fundamental Beliefs constitutes a testing truth. Anyone who rejects any one of them cannot truly be called an Adventist.

Our view of the gospel in terms of this present truth marks us out as a peculiar people. Indeed, so peculiar that many who do not understand our theology believe we are exclusivist – that is, we believe only Adventists will go to heaven. That is certainly not our teaching, but the perception reflects just how different our view of truth marks us out to be.

From an Adventist denominational perspective, then, who is a believer? Consider Ellen White’s counsel to a young woman against marrying a non-Adventist suitor:

“Though the companion of your choice were in all other respects worthy (which he is not), yet he has not accepted the truth for this time; he is an unbeliever, and you are forbidden of heaven to unite yourself with him. You cannot, without peril to your soul, disregard this divine injunction.”[6]

Any idea what “divine injunction” she is referring to? You guessed it – the very one we are discussing: II Corinthians 6:14a! Immediately preceding this warning she quotes 2 Corinthians 6:14 – 8 and also 1 Corinthians 7:39 as the basis for he counsel.[7]

Clearly then, the Spirit of Prophecy takes the view that this verse not only can by does speak to the issue of marriage.

For Ellen White, within the scope of “relationships” indicated by unequal yoking (as revealed by exegesis), marriage is definitely – even if not deliberately – involved.

It is very important to note that she clearly delineates between believers and “unbelievers” on the basis of “the truth for this time” as taught by the Seventh-day Adventist Church. By applying systematic theology, she concludes that the unnamed suitor is an unbeliever in direct application of 2 Corinthians 14a. She allows the basic exegesis to come through the biblical theology of marital relations, and then through the specific ecclesiastical philosophy of her time. And last I checked, present truth is still a reality of our time as well.

Inter-Faith Divorce Rates and Theology

Apart from the wider developing geo-political context within which we interpret prophecy, there are specific sociological considerations that we must consider when it comes to inter-denominational marriage. Any responsible theologian must consider data from current research that provides insights into the question.

Several studies have shown that inter-faith marriages of any kind are more likely to end in divorce or unhappy unions than marriages between spouses of the same faith.[8] It is also well documented that the wider the doctrinal differences between the spouses, the higher the likelihood of divorce.[9] Even in Ghana at least one study has confirmed that the global situation holds true. [10] It is probably fair to say that Adventism is quite substantially different from any other mainstream Christian denomination, both in doctrine and in practice. The Sabbath and diet are only two cases in point, but they alone can constitute a substantial gulf in practice between an Adventist and a non-Adventist. [11]

Sometimes in the process of determining the will of God for us in our time, a step like this may appear to be out of place. We are more comfortable if every step of the theologizing process comes straight out of the Bible. But this worry need not be if we are mindful to look where it points back to the Scriptures. For example, this research information should lead to the question, “Should we encourage marriages that are more likely to end in divorce?” Malachi 2:16 makes it clear that God hates divorce, and Matthew 6:13 is a prayer against situations that foster or induce moral compromise.

A systematic approach to the question then invites other parts of Scripture to participate in the discussion. We need of course to know what each of these text means exegetically, but we must allow the Bible to interpret itself; for the verses to influence, evaluate and explain and each other freely.

Remember that we have already established that the relationship in II Corinthians 6:14 covers more in our day than it did it its immediate context. In this larger scope as we have seen from the Spirit of Prophecy, it certainly includes marriage. In that case, a simple logical argument arises: if Paul warns against relationships – such as marriage – which lead to moral compromise, and inter-faith marriage has been statistically shown to lead to moral compromise, then Paul is warning against inter-faith marriage. Further, if present truth makes us unique – within the Christian faith, then inter-denominational marriage for an Adventist is synonymous with inter-faith marriage, and Paul can logically, though not intentionally, be said to warn against marriages between Adventists and non-Adventists.

The Full Meaning

A systematics-based interpretation that answers this specific question then would read something like this: “Do not associate with anyone who does not share your beliefs.”

Who Defines Present Truth?

It is a reasonable concern to have that some might take up the prerogative of prescribing and proscribing doctrine based on their own views on what is the relevant truth for this time. Everything from reckless ignorance to personal interest can enter the mix. Thankfully, as a church we have a rigorous process of determining this, and our current statement of “present truth” is to be found in 28 Fundamental Beliefs.

Yes, we are open to new light. Ellen White rightly warns, “We must not think, “Well, we have all the truth, we understand the main pillars of our faith, and we may rest on this knowledge.” The truth is an advancing truth, and we must walk in the increasing light.”[12] But we approach any propositions on “new light” with great (some would say snail-paced) prudence. Any such propositions must be studied, tested and voted into acceptance by the church in general session.

What if you don’t believe in the Spirit of Prophecy? Well, it is belief number 18 of our Fundamental Beliefs.

If you don’t believe that it is “an identifying mark of the remnant church and was manifested in the ministry of Ellen. G. White” as the statement reads, (some people don’t even believe in the remnant church), then truth be told, your name might be on the books, and your voice in the pulpit every Sabbath, but you are not a Seventh-day Adventist.

Is it a Non-Issue?

We cannot exhaust all the important considerations that should influence our reception of the text we’ve been discussing in this article. But we have shown from only two issues, the impact of present truth on our theology and identity, and sociological research on inter-faith marriage longevity, that we cannot responsibly dismiss these realities when we are asked whether we should marry non-Adventists.

Some other areas one might want to factor into the analysis are:

  • How different faiths affect children’s religious identity and psychology
  • The implications this holds for unity in the home
  • How it influences approaches to parenting as regards entertainment, diet, lifestyle, and a host of other things.
  • The long term psychological effects of religious disagreement between the husband and wife
  • Some have also suggested that there is a cost to the vitality of religious communities that should be explored

Of course, the list is almost endless.

The ramifications of such an action are potentially – and historically – so disastrous that any minister who treats this as a non-issue is doing his flock great injury indeed.

So, Is It a Sin, or Merely Inadvisable?

Having seen the larger scope in which the scripture can be applied, I would be mindful of diminishing the strength of its voice in our time. We have not merely glanced across at statistics and philosophy; rather we have used them as mere lenses to look straight into the word of God. The objective of a systematic approach is to determine what is the word of God for me through the text, not merely what did the text originally mean? Again, Jon Paulien puts it very well:

“…systematic theology tries to determine what truth is in the broadest sense. It asks such questions as “What should I believe?” and “What is God’s will for me (for us)?”” [12]

So while I understand the sensitiveness of the question, as a Bible student, I have to have the courage to declare what the text says both to its original audience, and to you and I today.

If it was sin in the 1st Century to break the rule as it meant to them, then it must be sin today to break it as it applies to us. God changeth not.

 

I realize the risk of sounding “ultra-conservative” or radical. Some have complained that to be so categorical about who an unbeliever is or is not is divisive. But if “present truth” is indeed a substantial component of the gospel for our time, the answer to “who is a believer” must be premised on the retort “a believer in what?” If “what” is present truth, then not all Christians are believers as far as Adventism is concernced.

I concede that it is easy to become high-minded and assume that we are better than other Christians because of our privileged position as the remnant. That attitude is regrettable. You will notice from the exegetical step that the designation of ‘believer/unbeliever’, is strictly operational; in that instance Paul referred to members of the Christian church who opposed him. In other texts he uses the terms for pagans. Clearly, then in our expanded systematic view the terms are only meaningful in the context of separating between the complex claims and positions of denominations, as relate to relationships involving unavoidable spiritual influence. Marriage is undoubtedly such a relationship.

On the vast majority of issues, however, I find it wholly irrelevant to make this distinction. It just so happens that the minority issues tend to be rather critical ones.

Finally, a Logical Faux Pas

To conclude, let us look a small logical piece of the puzzle we could have looked at in the very beginning should we have so chosen. In other words, even if we do not go through the whole exegesis to systematics route to determine the meaning of the text, we can be sure that on the basis of exegesis alone, it is not logical to encourage such marriages.

If the text in its original intent does not speak about marriage, we cannot on the basis of its silence say that inter-denominational marriage is okay. It is an informal fallacy: argumentum ex silentio, or “Argument from silence.” It is certainly not good reasoning to propound doctrine based on the absence of instruction rather than its presence. Yet many ministers do just this when they say, “Oh, the text was not about marriage at all, so go right ahead, and don’t let anyone stop you!”

It’s kind of like saying the Bible does not say we should eat Banku, so we cannot eat Banku. Or if you prefer a similarly negative example, the Bible does not say that we should not eat sugar, so let’s go right ahead and gorge to our heart’s (diabetic) content.

As ministers and informed lay people, we have the responsibility to prove all things against the teaching of Holy Scripture. We must learn to understand what scripture means in its original context; that is the objective of exegesis. But we must not be imprisoned in the first century. Scripture lives on, and we must do the hard work of showing that it does, and making its voice ring clear and true to its hearers today, even if when its message is hard to bear.


References:

[1] James White, “The Present Truth,” The Present Truth 1 (1849), Volume 1, 1.

[2] Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, Volume 5, 715, 716

[3] Ellen White, Testimonies for the Church, Volume 9, 86, 87

[4] Ellen White, Christian Experience and Teachings of Ellen White, 106.

[5] Ellen White, Early Writings, xxi.1

[6] Ellen White, Testimonies to the Church, Volume 5, 364. Italics mine.

[7] Ellen White, Testimonies to the Church, Volume 5, 363.

[8] Naomi Schaefer Riley, “Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they’re failing fast too,” Washington Post, 2010-JUN-06, at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/06/04/AR2010060402011.html. Retrieved on Dec 23 2015, 17:02

[9] Naomi Schaefer Riley, “Interfaith Unions: A Mixed Blessing,” New York Times, 2013-APR-05, at: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/06/opinion/interfaith-marriages-a-mixed-blessing.html

[10] Vida Akuamoah, Determinants of Divorce in Ghana, 2008. Dissertation in partial fulfillment of M.A. Population Studies degree, University of Ghana, 25, 49

[11] Evelyn Lehrer, Religion, Economics and Demography, (Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2009), 24.

[12] Ellen White, Counsels to Writers and Editors, pp 33

[12] Paulien, 65


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Agana-Nsiire Agana is a theologian, communicator and writer. His passion is for communicating eternal truth in a contemporary context which is influenced by postmodern, secular thought. The gospel, though unchanging, can and should be expressed in terms of the challenges, philosophy and language of the present day.