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By Gary F. Zeolla
A Christian dating a Mormon; a Christian dating a Jehovah's Witness; a Christian dating a Jew; a Christian dating a non-Christian; a Protestant dating a Catholic; a charismatic dating a non-charismatic, a Catholic dating a Mormon.
Over the years, I have received emails from people involved in these various types of interfaith dating relationships. Sometimes the emails have come from the Christian involved in the relationship, but other times from the non-Christian.
I have posted a few of these on the Web site (see Ethics, Spirituality, and Christian Life: Dating). I could post many more, but some contain too personal of information for public posting. But given the number of emails I have received with these scenarios, this is obviously a pressing issue for many people. So in this article I will try to summarize some of the advice I have given. I will use the three most common interfaith situations I have been contacted about as examples, but the same principles would apply to other types of relationships.
A Christian Dating a Mormon
Probably the most common interfaith dating situation I have received emails about is a Christian dating a Mormon. The biggest difficulty I run into in addressing this issue is neither party in the relationship seems to realize there is a big difference between the two. I have even received emails telling me it is "ridiculous" or "silly" to say that there would be problems in such a relationship due to religious differences.
So the first thing I do is to encourage both parties to better understand their own and the other person's faith. If it is the Christian writing me, I will tell him/her to study your own faith. Understand what true Christianity teaches and what it does not teach. A good aid in this regard would be my Scripture Workbook. The bulk of this book presents the Scriptural basis for the "essentials of the faith" - the most important doctrines that define Christianity.
This is important as so many Christian really do not understand what the Christian faith teaches. They are especially confused on such important issues as the nature of God, the doctrine of the Trinity, and even what salvation by faith really means. But I address all of these issues in my book and in various articles on the Web site.
The next step is to do some studying on what the other person's faith teaches. In the case of Mormonism, I have articles posted on the Web site that detail the official teachings of this religion, documented by direct quotations from its "prophets and apostles." See Mormonism for a list of these articles.
Most people are rather shocked to find out what Mormonism really teaches. Many even refuse to believe, for instance, that Mormonism does in fact teach that our God used to be a man on some other planet out there, but by following Mormon ritual and rules he attained to godhood and was given this planet to rule over; and similarly, that Mormon men can one day become gods and be given their own planets to rule over. Yes, this is Mormonism. And again, I document very clearly on the Web site that such teachings are their official doctrines.
The problem is that many Mormonism are not even aware of these teachings. And as long as both parties in a dating relationship are ignorant of these facts, they can get along just fine. But where the problem in a relationship starts is when one or the other becomes aware of these doctrines. And what I try to tell people is it is best to hash these things out now, before things get serious, than later, after you're married with children.
In fact, I have received emails in which an interfaith marriage resulted from such a dating situation. And at the time of the marriage, neither party was very serious about his or her faith. But as the years went by, one or the other did become much more serious, and that is when problems began.
For instance, the Mormon begins to spend more and more time at the Mormon temple and finds out about the "men becoming gods" thing. But he also finds out that he needs to be married to a Mormon woman for this to happen. So he proceeds to try to "convert" the non-Mormon wife. But when she is not willing to do so, a divorce inevitably results.
One such case I remember was a lady who had married a Mormon years before, and things went along just fine for several years. But a couple of children later, the man became serious about his faith. When she refused to convert, the Mormon Church basically pushed the man into divorcing her. The Mormon Church even provided legal aid in the ensuing custody battles, but she was left rather destitute as a result of the legal costs. I not sure how things worked out, but it was a sad situation.
But if the couple doesn't end up divorced, another area of conflict would be the children. Which church will they go to, a Christian church or a Mormon church? The couple could "compromise" and have the children sometimes go to one church and sometimes the other. And again, this pattern might work for a while, as long as neither spouse is very serious about their faith nor finds the other's that objectionable. But again, once say the Christian finds out about the "unique" Mormon doctrines, s/he might not be so obliging about letting their children be taught such things.
A Protestant Dating a Catholic
There are many things in common between Protestants and Catholics, but there are many differences as well. I address these on the Catholicism section of the Web site. But again, many are not aware of these differences, but they could very easily become an issue for the daters.
For instance, most Protestants would feel rather uncomfortable if the couple tried praying together, and the Catholic began praying to Mary. And the Catholic would probably take offense if the Protestant asked him/her to stop. But if you cannot even pray together, this is a sign of possible future problems.
Similarly, where are you going to go to church? Will the Protestant feel comfortable sitting through a Catholic mass? For that matter, would the Catholic feel comfortable in a Protestant worship service?
As long as neither party is very "serious" about their faith, again things might work out. If the Protestant does not really understand the import of the "sacrifice of the mass" then s/he will have no problems sitting through it. But once the Protestant comes to understand its significance and how much it conflicts with Protestant theology, then s/he might not be so obliging.
On the other hand, if the Catholic accepts the Catholic teaching that attending mass is a "holy obligation" and that attending a Protestant service does not fulfill this obligation, then s/he would not be willing to go to the Protestant service instead of mass. But again, if you cannot even go to church together, will things really work out?
Let me say, they might. I know of one couple in which the man is Catholic and the woman is Protestant. Over the years, they went to church separately. And they recently celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, so things obviously worked out for them. However, neither of them are that serious about their faith. They would go to church and be involved somewhat otherwise in their respective churches, but as far as I know, neither of them ever read the Bible on their own, nor would either claim to be "born again."
Then there are my own parents. When they met, my dad was Catholic and my mom was Protestant (Methodist to be exact). But before they got married, my mom converted to Catholicism and has attended mass with my dad throughout their lives. They have now been married for 48 years, so again things did work out.
However, when I say my mom "converted" it was in name only. I know that she never really accepted any of the unique Catholic doctrines. She never prays to Mary, never prays the rosary, does not believe the pope is "God's vicar one earth" and the like.
For that matter, my dad never prays to Mary or the rosary, and there were never any statures of Mary or other "saints" in our home. My dad simply attends the Catholic Church because he was raised Catholic, but in many ways, he would be right at home at a Protestant church. So that is why things worked out for them. But if my dad had been insistent about unique Catholic doctrines and practices, or if my mom wasn't able to so easily ignore the differences between her Methodist upbringing and the Catholic mass, then maybe things might not have gone so well for them.
As with the Christian/ Mormon situation above, a possible area of conflict is the children. In the case of the children of the first couple mentioned above, they were baptized in the Catholic Church and raised Catholic, as were my brother and I. But many Protestants would not be so obliging as to let their children be raised Catholic. Those of a Baptist persuasion would even find the idea of infant baptism objectionable. So children would definitely be another potential area of conflict.
Incidentally, both my brother and I eventually left the Catholic Church. He to attend charismatic-type of churches, and yours truly to attend Baptist-type churches. Neither of our parents were offended by the switch. They are just happy we continue to attend some kind of Christian church. But some Catholic parents would be very upset if their children left the Catholic Church, and especially so if the other parent encouraged them in this regard. And that is something else to consider.
A Christian Dating a Non-Christian
The most obvious situation where conflicts could develop would be a Christian dating a non-Christian. By a "non-Christian" I am not referring to an avowed atheist. I am referring to the person who simply has no spiritual leanings. S/He is not hostile toward Christianity, but does not really believe or follow any of its tenants.
The potential areas of conflict are many. Mentioned above was not being able to pray together or go to church together. Both of these would be problems in this type of relationship. But there are many others: what TV shows to watch, watch movies to go see, what kind of music to listen to, and most generally, what to do on a date. The Christian most likely would have some misgivings about many entertainment activities that the non-Christian wouldn't give a second thought about, like for instance going to see a "R-rated" movie or going to a bar.
I have witnessed this type of relationship many times. And the most common rationalization the Christian gives for dating a non-Christian is the Christian believes s/he will "convert" the non-Christian. And this is possible. Through the dating relationship, the non-Christian might genuinely be led to Christ. But more often than not, what I have witnessed is the non-Christian "converts" the Christian.
By this I mean that at the beginning of the relationship, the Christian continues to go to church, and maybe even brings the non-Christian along for a while. But eventually they get "busy" and don't seem to have much time for church. And as the relationship progresses, neither of them are seen in church at all anymore. And going back to the question of what to do on a date, at least at times it will be the Christian who will give in and go places or do things that go against his or her values. And with each compromise, the Christian could gradually become desensitized to questionable things, and slowly backslide as a result.
I remember one such instance when a Christian woman was dating a non-Christian man. To add to the difficulty, the man was separated, but still legally married. The Christian woman had experienced many hard times in her life, but had progressed rather well since her conversion, overcoming a drug addiction and other hardships. She had been attending church regularly, but once she started dating this guy, her attendance at church became sporadic.
Then one Sunday, she walked out in the middle of the sermon. I saw her leave and followed her out to see what was the matter. We talked for a while. She said she walked out because she felt too guilty about her relationship to sit through the service any longer. And that was the last time I saw her in church. I tried calling her a couple of times, but she never returned my phone calls. So I'm not sure how things turned out.
But let's say things do work out and the Christian and non-Christian get married. Once again, the raising of children will be a potential conflict. Will the non-Christian consent to having the children baptized? Will the non-Christian object if the Christian takes the children to church every Sunday, or will the non-Christian conveniently find other things for the children to do every Sunday? These are all potential areas of conflict that need to be discussed before the couple even thinks about getting married.
Going back to the idea that the Christian will convert the non-Christian, the problem with this hope is that if the non-Christian does "accept Christ" the Christian will never know if the conversion was genuine or if the non-Christian was just saying this to keep from "losing" the Christian.
For instance, a few years back, I met a lady at a Bible study. Years before, she had been dating a non-Christian man, while she was a Christian. When things began to get serious, she told the guy flat-out that the only way she could marry him would be if he became a Christian. And so he accepted Christ and seemed to be genuinely born-again. He stopped going out to bars with his "drinking buddies" and instead began going to church, getting rather involved in church activities, and even read the Bible regularly.
But eight years and three children later, out of the blue, he announced to her that he couldn't "fake it" anymore. That he had never been born-again and simply did not like their lifestyle and wanted his old life back. He stopped going to church and reading the Bible, started going to bars every night, coming home drunk, became abusive, and even started cheating on her. It was at that point they got divorced. So this very nice lady was left with three young children to raise on her own, and she was fighting the guy in court for child support, being left rather destitute as a result.
Love, Feelings, and Reason
I am sure we all can think of one or more cases where a couple was dating, but "everyone" told them things would never work out for one reason or another. But no amount of persuading or pleading would convince them of this, so they continued dating. But sure enough, a few months or years down the road, a bad breakup occurred, and someone ended up with a broken heart. Or maybe they even ended up getting married, but shortly thereafter ended up in divorce court.
The point is, when someone thinks they are in "love" you will never "reason" them out of it. When those feelings swell up, the person simply is not thinking logically. And that is why in all of the advice I try to give to people involved in interfaith relationships, I have never told them they should break-up. I'll admit this was my first inclination when I first started receiving these kinds of emails, but I had to stop for a minute and be honest with myself. Being 40-something and single, I'm not sure how I would handle it if I met someone who was interested in me and who seemed "right" for me in every way, except she "just" was not a Christian. I know it would be very difficult to walk away.
It would be easy for an observer to wonder how a Christian could come to the conclusion that a non-Christian is right for him or her given all of the differences. I have even wondered this myself as I have read these emails. But again, I know all too well that once those feelings start gushing up, it is very easy to ignore any difficulties or "warning signs" and to be controlled by your emotions.
So although I could quote Scripture to the Christian involved with a non-Christian about not being "unequally yoked" and the like, it would probably be ignored. They probably would simply shrug it off, muttering, "Love conquers all." So I figure the best I can do is to try to prepare them for some of the potential areas of conflict. If encouraging them to think about these things causes them to rethink the relationship itself, then so be it. But I am not going to tell them what to do. I'll leave it to God to work on their hearts as to what is the proper course of action.
Interfaith Dating. Copyright © 2005 by Gary F. Zeolla of Darkness to Light ministry (www.zeolla.org/christian).
The above article first appeared in the free
Darkness to Light email newsletter.
It was posted on this Web site November 2, 2005.
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