Mixed marriages among Adventists
Not too long ago, we could have all expected to be born, raised, and married in the same little village. Most likely our life partner would have been the boy or girl next door. Naturally, we would have been of the same race, shared the same culture, and spoken the same language. Not anymore. With global migration and modern communications, we are mixing and mingling as never before. The Adventist Church has also expanded tremendously all over the world, uniting people from every race, culture, and language group. This raises the question of mixed marriages. Does the Bible say anything at all about this?
The biblical mix
Genesis 1-2 records God instituting marriage, and this act reveals some principles that set a God-fearing marriage apart from other marriages. God had a hand in the choosing of a partner. Adam and Eve were suited to each other, and the two became one flesh. Is it possible to become “one flesh” with someone who is not committed to serving and loving God, without distancing yourself from loving and serving God (Ezra 9:10-14)? If you do manage to hang onto God, is there any surety that the godly heritage you are supposed to give to your children will not be diluted or flawed?
The Old Testament strongly criticized and prohibited the marriage of the children of Israel with people of the surrounding nations. The prohibition (Deuteronomy 7:3; see also Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 13) is repeated at each major revival in Israel (see Ezra 9; Nehemiah 13). Some of these prohibitions may seem prejudiced in our modern world. But we must remember that such mixed marriages were tools of the evil one to keep God’s children away from His primary mission and purpose. For example, when Balaam could not curse what God had blessed, the devil had another weapon. He led the king of Moab to entice the Israelites to mix with his people sexually. He wanted Israel to become one flesh with people who do not love God, and thus God’s purpose and mission could be thwarted. The result for Israel was disastrous (see Numbers 25).
Nehemiah 13:23 makes an interesting connection between religion and culture. “Moreover, in those days I saw men of Judah who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples, and did not know how to speak the language of Judah (NIV).” The fact that these children didn’t speak the language of Judah was enough to make Nehemiah rebuke them and call down curses on them (Nehemiah 13:25). Nehemiah himself, as the royal cupbearer, was most certainly fluent in the Persian and Aramaic languages, so his reaction couldn’t have been against foreign languages per se. The heart of the problem is, that if the children did not speak the language of Judah, how could they be nurtured in their religion whose Scripture and practice were in that language?
Religion is thus a key to understanding the prohibitions against intermarriage. The Old Testament is full of examples of foreigners who accepted Israel’s God and whose marriage to Israelites was approved. Consider the story of Ruth, a Moabitess, who accepted the God of Israel (Ruth 1:16) and whose marriage to a son of Bethlehem provided the lineage in which Christ was born (Matthew 1:5). Similarly Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute, had a conversion experience and some time after the fall of Jericho, married Salmon and is included in the genealogy of Christ (Matthew 1:5). Devotion and commitment to the God of Israel seem to completely eradicate the barriers of nationality and open the way to assimilation.
The Bible also makes reference to racial prejudice in marriage. Moses married Zipporah, a Midianite, but she was a worshiper of God. Because her complexion was dark and her race was different, Miriam, the older sister of Moses, treated her with contempt. The issue had grown into a full-blown authority conflict with Moses, and God had to intervene by severely punishing Miriam.
The New Testament does not deal so much with culturally or racially mixed marriages, but it does state that marriage with unbelievers is forbidden. Writing to the Corinthian Church, a culturally mixed congregation, Paul issues a warning against religiously mixed marriages: “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Corinthians 6:14, KJV).
What Ellen White says
Ellen White has a lot to say on marriage and the choosing of a marriage partner.1 She gives important key building blocks of a happy, successful marriage. She also reminds us that it is not just our happiness to be thought of, but also the health and happiness of the children to be born. In line with biblical teaching, she wrote strongly against marrying anyone who does not love and fully serve God.2 To Ellen White compatibility was essential to a happy marriage. She wrote of “lifelong wretchedness” that would result in marriages where partners are “not adapted to each other.”3 Amongst other things, she also briefly addressed the question of racially mixed marriages. Even though the post- Civil War climate with the recent abolition of slavery formed the backdrop to her counsel, two important principles can be drawn. First, any couple considering marriage, especially a mixed cultural or racial marriage, should study if their marriage would lead to “controversy and confusion” in the home, church and the society as a whole. Second, the couple must think further than themselves and consider the cultural and racial inheritance that they would be giving their children in the particular community in which they live.4
The voice of experience
I sent a questionnaire to a few friends who are in culturally or racially mixed marriages. The 13 couples who responded come from every continent. The cultural, language, and racial mix are quite impressive. All couples are practicing Adventists. They have been married between seven months and 15 years. A few couples have children.
Were you aware of cultural/racial differences when dating, or did it seem irrelevant at the time?
- Cultural differences intrigued me, and also the similarities. I was always looking for something unusual or different, and I was happy to find someone who was not typical.
- The differences seemed irrelevant at the time.
- We were aware that there would be some differences, and tried to prepare ourselves for that, but we didn’t think they would be a big deal, as our spiritual heritage is the same.
- One is aware of cultural/racial differences. But even if you are from the same culture or race there are other differences—the way you think and do. Maybe not as much, but they are. It means that you have to work hard on communication.
- They were irrelevant. We met while we were working as missionaries in a country which was foreign for both of us.
After marriage, did the cultural/racial differences blend away or become more prominent?
- Cultural differences became more prominent after marriage. For example, one just assumes the other knows how to behave in a culturally appropriate manner, but it isn’t always so.
- No, we found there were about as many differences as we expected.
- They blended away. Of course, our marriage was not a fairy tale. We had to work hard, and we needed to be aware of each other all the time. Compromise and consideration is the key.
- Both of us being Adventists, we found that the major differences lost the significance that we thought they would have.
- They became more prominent, not because of our personal differences, but because we moved to my husband’s country.
Do you feel it necessary to learn your partner’s language or live in your partner’s cultural environment in order to understand your partner?
- If one partner has another language, make every effort to learn it. You will never regret it. The language may be less important than the relationship, but it can bring real divisions at family gatherings, etc.
- It is important to know about your partner’s background and culture, since it will help you to understand why he or she reacts or thinks in a certain way.
- Yes, learning your partner’s language fluently will be helpful in understanding your partner better.
How do you cope with cultural conflicts in your marriage?
- Discuss them and compromise.
- Ask God to give you the ability to accept and love your partner for who they are and not to try and change them to fit your expectations.
- We talk them over, and try to understand each other. Or else we just talk and laugh about them.
- We try to stay calm. If things get tough, we both walk away and pray about it, and then come back and talk again.
Did your families actively support your marriage?
- At the beginning, no. Afterwards, they learned to love my husband. His mother accepted me right away but at times she has shown her discontent, and has even made racial remarks.
- My husband’s family was openly happy about our marriage. They have helped us with our wedding plans. My family just said it’s okay.
- Not initially. There has been a growth in acceptance.
- Yes, after the initial shock wore off for his family. One thing that has been hard for us is to have our parents far away from us.
Do you feel that your church has accepted and been supportive of your marriage?
- Most definitely. That’s part of the reason why the two of us are together.
- Some of the members are very sensitive about us being from different races. Two years after we were married, one member apologized to us, and confessed that she did not think our marriage would work.
- For the most part, yes, though I have heard of people in the church who believe that interracial marriages are being “unequally yoked” and therefore are not right.
- Yes, but being of the same color makes acceptance a lot easier.
What about your children? What culture/ language heritage will you give them? Do you think it will be an advantage/disadvantage for them?
- The children do suffer in trying to learn and cope with two different languages and cultures of their parents.
- Having come from a culturally mixed home myself, I see lots of potential advantages. It exposes children to a broader perspective of life.
- Children are exposed to different ideas and ways of doing things as they grow up, to help them be more open-minded.
- Our home is pretty much a wellblended multicultural home. Our kids are raised with ideas and customs from both of our backgrounds. Hopefully, it will make them more accepting of other people.
Any final words for someone considering mixed cultural/racial dating or marriage?
- Pray. God knows a lot about culture. Communicate with the other person. If you meet someone of a different culture, make sure that you visit each other’s homes and get to know the families. Things can look very different when interacting on a strange turf.
- More than differences, ask yourself: Do you both love and honor God above all else?
- Get some good counseling before you make the final decision. It helps you discover those areas that may be a source of potential conflict. It also helps to formulate realistic expectations from each other.
- If we are compatible spiritually and have the same religious background, and are willing to be flexible on a lot of things, we could work out the differences.
- It is a small potato if your culture/ race is different, but it is a big mountain if your religion is different. Make sure you believe in the same God! Discuss about kids, discipline, upbringing, names for kids, having pets, spending free time, chores in the home, etc. Learn to communicate openly and honestly. And be ready to compromise.
- Be flexible and ready to laugh. Talk to family and friends.
- Find out if this relation is your will or God’s will.
If you are dating someone who does not share your relationship with God and is not committed to making God first, now is the time to get out! Biblically speaking, such a relationship is clearly a bad idea. Marriages may be made in heaven, but they require extensive maintenance work. Don’t play with the odds for a happy future.
Then, if you are considering crosscultural or cross-racial dating or marriage to someone who does share your commitment to God, remember that you have more preconceptions to break and potentially more basic decisions to struggle over. However, with God in control it is not only possible but can be a blessing and joy as well.
Chantal J. Klingbeil is a homemaker and, in her spare time, teaches linguistics at Universidad Adventista del Plata, Argentina. Her e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes and references:
- E. G. White, Letters to Young Lovers (Boise, Idaho: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1983) and Messages to Young People (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publ. Assn., 1930) are well worth reading.
- See White, Messages to Young People, pp. 439-442.
- White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1913), p. 189.
- See White, Selected Messages, 3 vols. (Hagerstown, Maryland: Review and Herald Publ. Assn, 1986), 2:481-484.