Unequal Yokes in Calvin’s Geneva

I am continuing to work through Kingdon and Witte’s book on marriage in Geneva. At the bottom of this post you can find the other articles.

In chapter 10, the authors examine Geneva’s approach to mixed religious marriages. Should a Christian marry a non-Christian? Should a Protestant marry a Catholic? Could a recent convert to the Protestant faith leave their Catholic spouse? Here is their summary of Calvin’s teaching:

First, Protestants should not marry Catholics, Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, or unbelievers. Those who sought to enter into such mixed marriages should be strongly dissuaded, though they could not ultimately be prevented from marriage.  Second, parties who were already in mixed marriages, or whose spouse lapsed from the faith after the wedding, should remain together. Those who sought to escape such mixed marriages should be strongly dissuaded, though they could not ultimately be prevented from separating from a spouses whose abuse imperiled the body and soul of the believer. Though none of this teaching on interreligious  marriage found its way into Genevan statutes, the Consistory applied this law consistently throughout Calvin’s lifetime.

The authors note that Calvin was asked whether it was okay for a Protestant to marry a Catholic. Calvin said it was a sin, but such marriages were not absolutely forbidden. He preferred to deal with questions like this on a case by case basis. How strong was the Catholic? Were they drifting towards Protestantism? Would they castigate the Protestant spouse for refusing to take Mass? He did not lay down many hard and fast rules on this issue because there were so many variables.

Perhaps the greatest deterrent to mixed marriages was how hard it was to get out of them. Divorce was not acceptable. Using I Corinthians 7:12-16 as the key passage, Calvin taught that even if one of the spouses was not a believer, the home was still sanctified through the believing spouse. Therefore, there was no need to divorce. Unless a person’s life was threatened or the spouse refused to live with them if they did not convert, there was no reason for divorce.

A couple of mixed religious convictions could get married. Their marriage was legitimate. There was no annulment based on religious preferences. Nor could religious differences be an impediment to marriage. However, if a couple married against the wishes of the Consistory they could be banned from the Lord’s Supper. Their marriage was a real marriage, but it might not be a Christian marriage.

This teaching in Geneva was in stark contrast to the Roman Catholic teaching of the time, which stated that, since marriage was a sacrament, it was only valid between two baptized believers.

Of all the teaching at Geneva that I have read about this is the hardest to sort out. But I understand why. Marriage is not just for Christians. It is for all men. Two Muslims can marry. Two atheists can marry. A Christian and a Muslim can marry. But marriage to a non-Christian or even a Christian with very different views is difficult and hard.  Geneva tried to strike a balance between declaring mixed marriage not marriages at all and sanctioning mixed marriages.

Previous Posts
General Overview of the Book
An Overview of Marriage Prior to Calvin
Calvin’s Attack on Marriage as a Sacrament
Consent to Marriage in Geneva
The Desire for Reconciliation Instead of Divorce
The Power of the Consistory in Geneva
Courtship in Geneva
Coercion to and Conditions of Marriage in Geneva
Parental Consent to Marriage in Geneva
Impediments to Marriage in Geneva