Marriage Across the Protestant/Catholic Divide

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A reader of my recent post wrote the following question:

“I just read your recent blog post on the TGC website entitled ‘Dating across the Protestant/Catholic Divide.’ I just wanted to follow up with a quick question: how do you counsel people in your congregation who have already married across that same divide? Do you have any helpful resources for them, or for me (their pastor)? These folks have young children, which complicates matters as well. They are now experiencing those same ‘complexities’ and the ‘inevitable confusion’ that you referenced. Can you point me to any assistance?”

Thanks for this question. The article begged it; unfortunately, I had already exceeded my word limit when I thought of it. Here is my thinking on the matter.

The challenge of husbands and wives relating across the Catholic/Protestant divide was my initial reason for writing Holy Ground. As a pastor at College Church, I found myself counseling a few couples, all of whom consisted of a Catholic and Protestant. In two instances, the marriages were suffering on account of their religious differences, questions like: which church would they attend? Do the children join youth group or their parish’s equivalent? How about fulfilling sacraments like Holy Communion? Is it okay to approve of their children’s observance of Catholic customs with which they disagree? Do such concessions communicate loving support or a negligent compromise?

At the end of the day, the question of how to shepherd these couples is a discipleship issue. Pastors should approach the conversation, first and foremost, as an opportunity to elucidate and apply the gospel, explaining that the conversation between husband and wife happens in the context of what Paul describes in Philippians 2:12-13: “… work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God is always in the process of weaving his grace into the fabric of marriage—in the Catholic and Protestant alike. We shouldn’t let the conversation be limited to the question of “who is right.” Of course, we are always concerned with doctrinal integrity. But this pursuit of right doctrine happens in a context in which husbands and wives are working out their faith together, the conscious application of redemptive truth and redemptive grace (John 1:14).

The people whom we serve often lean toward one of these extremes: grace or truth. Some of us naturally resemble lambs; others are more like pit bulls. That’s life in a world full of uniquely created people. Consequently, we shouldn’t be surprised when we disagree on how to handle specific issues; but such disagreement can’t undermine the enterprise of trying to thoughtfully navigate through our differences. As always, Jesus is our example, particularly as he embodied and expressed the delicate balance of “grace and truth.” As Christians, we the Church are called to do the same. Not everyone will slice the onion exactly the same way, but slice we must. If we toss out the entire onion or consume it whole, we’ve failed to do the hard work of upholding both virtues.

One of the reasons why Christians fail to engage the process of balancing grace and truth among Catholics is overconfidence coupled with a lack of respect for the other person. In his book titled Humble Apologetics, author John Stackhouse clarifies this notion:

To put it more sharply, we should sound like we really do respect the intelligence and spiritual interest and moral integrity of our neighbors. We should act as if we do see the very image of God in them. . . It is a voice that speaks authentically out of Christian convictions about our own very real limitations and our neighbor’s very real dignity, not cynical expediency. We are rhetorically humble because we are not prophets infallibly inspired by God, let alone the One who could speak “with authority” in a way no one else can speak. We are mere messengers of that One: messengers who earnestly mean well, but who forget this bit of the message or never really understood that bit; messengers who never entirely live up to their own good news; messengers who recognize the ambiguities in the world that make the message harder to believe; and therefore messengers who can sympathize with neighbors who aren’t ready just yet to believe everything we’re telling them.[1]

Being humble doesn’t mean that we have compromised our conviction of what constitutes truth any more than being meek suggests that one is devoid of strength. Jesus was all powerful, and yet he humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:1-11). It’s only when we have an informed conviction, having taken time to listen, learn, and think, that we possess the requisite courage to relate to others in a vulnerable, humble way. Conversely, when we attack the jugular of the one who disagrees with us, we demonstrate our insecurity. Once again, Jesus is our example. Although God, Jesus did not exploit his deity, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant (Phil 2:6-7). This is the Christian way.

Shepherding couples who live at the Catholic/Protestant intersection is among the biggest challenges that a pastor will face, precisely because it demands such nuanced attention to the grace/truth balance. When this value and vision are at the leading edge of our approach, we still won’t have ready-made solutions to each problem, but we will at least have the general perspective necessary to facilitate the conversation. I’ll close with one recent example of how this approach has served my ministry.

I was in California delivering a lecture on Catholicism. At the conclusion, after everyone had left, there was a man who remained. He was a big fellow who looked like he could have been a professional wrestler. Immediately, tears filled his eyes as he described his situation—his dear wife was Catholic and not only did she refuse to join him at his evangelical church, she also wouldn’t allow their children to do so. Every time the topic of faith arose in their home, it became a heated argument and at this point he was in despair.

I suggested that this fellow needed an advocate and perhaps there was no one better to help than a Catholic priest. Understanding that among some Catholics there is ignorance and defensiveness toward Protestantism, the priest of his wife could help to mediate the discussion and in some way validate the intentions of this husband. I told him. “Find one of your wife’s priests whom you regard as Charismatic, that is, who values the Bible and is amenable to Protestantism. Tell him your situation explaining that your desire is to shepherd your wife and kids from the Bible, that you’re not anti-Catholic, but that you want to lead your home as a man of God. Invite the priest to sit down with you and your wife and discuss your common commitments in this regard. The priests whom I know would be all over such an opportunity, providing you with encouragement and support, and any priest worth his collar should recognize this as a gospel opportunity.”

At once the demeanor of my newfound giant friend changed from despair to hope. Did he have a long road ahead of him? Sure. But he at least had perspective and a plan. That’s the gift that we have pastors can offer the Catholic and Protestant couples whom we serve—grace and truth centered on the person of Jesus Christ.


[1] John G. Stackhouse, Jr., Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 229.

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  • I’ve been visiting and revisiting this page (as well as the original article here http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/153328-dating-across-the-catholic-protestant-divide.html) because this is the very intersection I find myself on. Evangelical woman, seriously considering a great renewed/charismatic Catholic man… we could really make it work. I’m just having a very difficult time seeing how it would. It’s like we hear the same music playing but I’m dancing the salsa and he’s doing the tango. Kinda tricky… It will be interesting to see how God will make this story turn out.

    And thanks, I really needed to hear this (from the dating article)
    “You want a guy who is a man of the Word, who is captivated by the triune God. Someone whose life is defined by redemptive grace from top to bottom, who embodies it, proclaims it, and understands his marital calling in terms of shepherding you by this grace… You’re not looking for perfection, but he must demonstrate a credible trajectory toward gospel priorities.”

  • Thanks Giglet, I appreciate your candor. I don’t want to be legalistic about it… but, as you said, it requires us to soberly and honestly look at the realities and count the cost. It is not a problem to step on another’s foot if it’s for a few songs; but if it’s for the length of one’s life, it may get a little old. I pray for God’s wisdom to be yours. -Chris

  • Hello My Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

    I was looking for some “hope” when I stumbled across your article. I happen to be in the opposite situation from your example above. I am the Devout Catholic and my wife is the Devout Protestant. Ultimately It should be the pursuit of Truth (Manifested in Christ, and Christ alone) which will lead the couple to Church that Christ will recognize as his Church. Until Christ comes again no-one will possess the Truth completely. The issue is unfortunately difficult, it requires a desire for the Truth, the discarding of lies, falsehoods and misunderstandings. There are so many misunderstanding when it comes to Jesus and His Church. Look at all of the disagreements between all of the denominations claiming to be “The Church” Catholics do not agree with Protestants, and Protestants do not agree with other Protestants on what are “Essential vs. Non-Essential” Beliefs. Sacred Scripture needs to be interpreted correctly and completely taking into account all of the Sacred Writings not just our favorite verses, used out of context. Who Jesus is, what he commands and expects of us is not a onetime feeling and acceptance of a belief system, rather it is a lifelong complete and total loving relationship with Him, which should be firmly grounded in his revealed Truth. How that relationship is defined is dependent on ones willingness to surrender to Christ, His Church, His Truths, and His Plan for your Life.

    Most Relationships stop growing at some point and as soon as the growing stops the Dying starts. Make sure your relationship with Christ and your spouse, never dies. If you’re in a relationship with a person of a different faith, be patient, kind, loving, forgiving, admit when you are wrong or confused, never assume that you know his Truth until Jesus reveals it to you directly. We are called by scripture to test our beliefs and ensure that it is consistent with all of Sacred Scripture. It will take a lifetime and then some to ever fully understand the infinite God, and it will only be completely understood when it is revealed to you by Christ himself. Until then WE are all amateurs trying to make sense of the incomprehensible God.

    1 Corinthians 13: 11-12
    When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.

    Regards in Christ
    Andrew

    P.S. If you want a Real Challange, Marry outside of your Faith, Marriage is Challenging enough fo most couples, my advice is to Marry someone who approaches Jesus the same way. it will save you and your offspring a lot of frustration.

  • my wife and I are in this exact situation. She is a Catholic and I am a Protestant. We have kids. It has been the hardest five years of my life. Im not saying don’t interfaith marry but if you do have EVERYTHING worked out before entering marriage.

    • I’m curious as how this has turned out for everyone posting here. My boyfriend is very Catholic (and also the most wonderful man I’ve met, and you can tell he genuinely loves God) and I am evangelical. We’re talking marriage but can’t seem to figure out how to approach these differences. Any experience, life updates, and advice would be appreciated!

      • Good morning, I’m a Christian and my husband is Catholic…we ” dated” for 20 years..three kids and last year finally got married…only because he’s Mexican and I’m american, (the two countries weren’t on the same page, otherwise we would’ve been married years ago) my point being I live in Mexico with him and I attend the Catholic Church. It bothered me alot in the beginning..but I listen to the word and almost EVERY WEEK the sermon is about something we’ve been talking/disputing about. I don’t get down my knees when everyone else does (I was nervous the first few times) but I’m there to listen to the word of God and not worry about what other people think. As far as our children go.. baptized in catholic church( another hard one) but we discussed that when they’re older they can choose if they’re Catholic or Christian… I love my God, my husband and my children…and they love me!

        • Just to point out, Catholics ARE Christians Crystal. No matter what you think is right or wrong, Catholics were the first Christians for well over a millennia. You are Protestant and he is Catholic. Just be sure to call Catholics Christians as well because that is what we are.

      • Hi Miche, I’m in the same boat as Cody… the answer for me (as someone pointed out) is it depends on how rigid and “devout” the Catholic partner is, and how tolerant the other partner is. If he is a devout Catholic, I can tell you from nearly 20 years of experience that you and your faith will be second fiddle to all the superfluous teachings (IMO) of the Roman magisterium. After a while you begin to lose your very identity, especially when/if your kids begin to see Dad’s faith (in my case) as inferior or unworthy. Do NOT go into this lightly or you will be in for a rude awakening down the road… I pray for God’s grace daily but so much damage has already been done I’m not sure there is anything left to salvage.

        • Miche, like Scott and Cody, speaking from experience may I strongly advise NOT to enter into marriage with your catholic boyfriend. When my husband and I married ten years ago we were both protestant, attending a non-denominational church. Three years into the marriage, around the time of the birth of our first child, he converted to catholicism. He is extremely devout, follows every jot and tittle, attends mass several times a week, which some may think is admirable, but it causes great distress – he is critical and suspicious of other Christians; our marriage is greatly suffering due to lies, secrecy, emotional destructiveness and dysfunction. Some of this is due to childhood issues from divorce, but much is from his choice to convert. We have four precious children ages 7 and under. They are currently getting a mishmash of both sets of beliefs – his RC and my deeply held reformed beliefs (I now attend a PCA church). It’s going to get very difficult as they grow and have questions. Of course my husband wants to raise them in the RC church. This is heartbreaking for me as I don’t know how to counter the lies and errors without causing more destruction to the marriage. He considers me an unsubmissive wife. The truth is I want him to lead our family spiritually but not into a system rife with error. This is a daily struggle. It has caused much stress – I now suffer from anxiety, insomnia, IBS, etc. It’s easy to despair when I look into the future and wonder how this is going to work. However, I trust God to sustain our family through his wondrous grace and to somehow bring beauty out of the ashes.

  • I’m a 33 year old never married Catholic woman who was always single since birth. I always looked for a future spouse of my same faith, but no Catholic man ever seemed to reciprocate interest back in me. I decided to be more open and just maybe God wanted me to meet someone outside of the Catholic faith. Well, I began dating this guy 13 years older not knowing what his religion was. I decided to accept him no matter what is religion was. He turned out to be an Evangelical Protestant and we went out for almost 1 year. He would be the one to always bring up discussion about my religion. He always resorted to “name calling” my religion whenever we got into debates about it. He would speak disrespectful towards my religion. He was verbally abusive. I broke up with him 3X over him doing that and every time I broke up with him, he wanted me back. I would fall for the trap. One day, out of the blue he just blew up on me and told me he would NEVER marry me unless I got out of my catholic religion. He broke up with me and I told him I would look for someone of own faith and never date a Protestant ever again as a result of my experience with this man.

  • Hi WhiteDove. Thanks for writing. I am really sorry to hear about your experience. There is no excuse for behavior like that. I pray that that if it is your desire to get married, that God would provide you with godly Catholic man who loves Jesus and loves you. God bless you! -Chris

  • Hi Chris, good evening. Thank you for writing this, really enjoyed reading it.
    Just like Giglet said; I too am a Evangelical Protestant woman, seriously considering marrying a Catholic man. I do believe we could make it work, but we don’t know what to do with the religion. We’re at the point in our relationship were we would like to get married but are having a very difficult time with the religion differences and are not sure how we should move forward, and then if we were to be blessed with children which religion should we raise them? Is it possible for us to keep our own religious beliefs and then raise the kids one way or the other? But how do you choose which one? Really appreciate any help/thoughts you may have, this is a very difficult topic and we are not sure how to move forward and I worry if we cannot, possibly he is not the one God has chosen for me. Though should this be the one thing to keep us apart? We both believe in God and that he has brought us together. Any thoughts? Thank you

  • Hey Bluestar, isn’t that situation just the hardest? Anyway i just wanted to update. Catholic boyfriend and I tried our best but we ended up not marrying — no big problems, no big fights and we loved each other dearly but we just couldn’t see how we could raise a family together with such deep differences in faith, which we both took too seriously to compromise. After much prayers and tears, we parted as friends. And not long after I met a really nice man on a mission trip and a year later we got married! I never knew life could be this easy!!! Not saying that marriage isn’t hard work but there’s so much more peace and rest knowing that (a) we don’t have to argue over fundamentals and (b) I can trust this man to lead me and our family (and our future children) spiritually. I’m still having some adjustment issues re submitting to my husband’s leading (ex: i long for small church life but he’s grown in the faith in a megachurch. so i chose to honor God’s leading there and follow him in the big noisy church) but in the big picture, life is so so good.

  • Thank you! I could weep at the despair and division I am experiencing now after 28 years I’d dating and marriage to my husband within the Christian churches- with him changing every 4-6 years to another denomination- and now he has returned to the Catholic Church suddenly without discussion with me- and as a devoted Christmas follower- believing entirely in the Bible, baptism by ummersion, submitting to your husband as to the Lord and giving God alone glory and honor versus thousands of saints and hailing Mary as Queen and having to listen to hours on end of Catholic radio and having to struggle with all of my teenage children and their hating the Catholic Church and it’s weird practices and ways of worship seeing most of their Catholic friends living as hypocrites and none living as if they know ow or live Jesup Christmas as personal Lord and Savior- I struggle daily with how to talk to my husband over what I so adamantly disagree with hin- and he so willingly accepts everything espoused be the Catholic church- saying I am judgemental and not truly a Christian as I am not seeing how all the other denominations are just trying to go off on their own and make new churches when it’s so obvious that the Catholic church was the first real church and is truly worshipping and the others are only playing and worshipping man and being entertained. Our discussions are very defensive and accusatory and critical and hurtful. He wants the kids to go to catechism- I want them to study the Bible if they are going to an classes- not just learning more rules made by man that aren’t biblical- and I am nautilus as I listen to 40 minutes of hail Mary drone on- and he gets so defensive when I try to ask” why the repetition- doesn’t she hear the first time? And why pray to Mary when Christ died for me so I could go straight to the Father through Jesus as my high Priest! How do I teach my kids to respect their Dad and follow him when he is leading them to a church which I feel is not Biblical in many of their practices- and a few of my four children are struggling with many teenage rebellious issues which this divide is only pushing them further from God- thinking we are both pushing our own agenda and not seeking God through His Word on their own to be able to make a decision as to which is right- I feel like the devil is using this to divide and destroy our family If my husband was open to praying with me and studying the Bible at home and leading his family before God is decision making and relationship skills and with love and humility leading the famimy- instead of pride and anger- then I would be less suspicious and angry about his pushing us all into this Catholic pursuit- bit as I don’t trust He is seeking God’s face- but just believing everything the Catholic Church purports is true- I don’t feel like I can trust him to lead our faniky. What does God call me to do as hisbwife? I am currently going to church with him at Catholic church then taking kids to worship by myself at Community Church and Wed night classes with youth group- facing his anger and scorn for days after each time I the them – telling me they need to go to a real class and learn catechism- which they all abhor and scoff private to ke- afraid to share and of their true feelings with him as he is so defensive and critical and harsh with them if they disagree. Pleas help- please advise- please give me some resources on how to submit to my husband and Gid- but not to Satan’s lies and deception- without furthering the division in our home. He already accuses me of not being gentle or submissive and picking and choosing what verses to follow as I disagree with him and the Catholic church. Thank you for your help and prayers- Amy

    • Amy. I am an evangelical who is discovering the beauty of Catholicism. To you I would say try RCIA. Learn the Catholic faith. RCIA will help you understand Catholic practices like the rosary and the sacraments. This will show your husband and kids that you respect and are humble and create a loving respectful atmosphere for your marriage and family. There’s a lot of misunderstanding and ignorance between the two but both are Christian. Let the Catholic church teach you what they believe and build bridges. God will work it all out. Be patient!

  • Chris, thank you so much for the tenderness and zeal with which you have approached this question. I am a Protestant man dating and considering marriage with a Cultural Catholic (as you described in “Talking with Roman Catholics about the Gospel: Sharing the Good News among Catholic Friends and Loved Ones”) woman. I have expressed to her my desire to worship with and not separately from my spouse and my unwillingness for my children to be raised Catholic. As I share the Gospel with her and encourage her to pursue a life where Jesus is her greatest treasure, is it right, fair, or wise of me to ask her to leave the Catholic Church? Or would you advise me to break up with her and encourage her to embrace Christ in the context of her Catholicism, simultaneously encouraging her to move toward Evangelical or Charismatic Catholicism? Thank you for your wisdom!

  • Hello, so I am a protestant (church of christ), and my wife is a devout central American catholic. We quickly came into some of the same issues and here is what happened. The first thing I did was come to the conclusion that we would always attend church together and that both our churches would get equal time. It started with us going to my church one week and hers the next. Currently we now attend a Saturday mass and a Sunday church. When discussing relegion I find it best to start from a place of understanding that catholics are saved. As Paul tells us “who are you to judge anotherans servant, don’t you know that they will be called to account to stand or fall on their own? And on that day they will stand their faith having been made sufficient.

    Reading the Bible and prayer help wonder. Always remember our God should be a God of unity. Do not let him become a dividing issue.
    Yours in Christ
    Aaron.

    If anyone would like to reach out to me for a longer answer please reach me at
    Aaron.springer@outlook.com

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  • The statement was made that Catholics are Christians, in fact they are the first Christians. Well, Catholics might be Christians. And also Protestants might be Christians. Do the individuals believe in the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ? Do they believe that Jesus died on the cross to pay their debt for their sins? That He rose on the third day, proving He is God? Do they believe that the only way to God is through Jesus the son? Do they read scripture and know what it says about obedience?
    I think Some Catholics are Christians but I think it is the non- scriptural details that cause problems. Scripture is clear.
    I think some Protestants are Christians also. I think the details of the denominations are the hard part for them. Again, scripture is clear.

    Besides scripture, you may like to read Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis where he describes what Christians believe, not the denominations, but Christians.

    What to do about joining and supporting a church and bringing up children should be decided before marriage.

    Many of the entries here are examples of being unevenly yoked which is discussed in Scripture.

    If you have been reading these entries, perhaps a good question is, are you a Christian. Do you love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, strength, – completely and do you obey Him and trust Him? And do you love your neighbor ( or spouse, children, ) as yourself?

    Blessings

  • Chris, we are creating a documentary on interchurch marriage. We would love to have a female Protestant marriage counselor (or an expert in this field) speak into this for our film. Do you know of someone who might fit the bill?
    Kathi Peters
    Global Story2 Films

  • I always find it interesting how Protestants are quick to dismiss Catholics. Like somehow Luther, Calvin and the rest had it “all figured out”. The author of this blog speaks as though because he is a Protestant he somehow has the Truth cornered, and us unenlightened Catholics are deceived. I wonder how he feels about the 5000 other denominations that claim they have it all figured out? Is dating a Lutheran ok if you’re Assemblies of God? Dogmatic, bull-headed protestantism masked as actual care about couples who are Catholic/Protestant mixed? You become flexible and be sensitive to your partner and honor your vows. In my marriage I attend Mass early on Sundays and then go with my entire family to a Presbyterian church. We have great discussions rooted in love about theology but I won’t become reformed and she won’t become Catholic. Mutual respect and love. Neither of us view each other as unequally yoked…or heretics. Bad advice given by this “author”…

  • My partner is Protestant (started following 3 years ago) and i’m Roman Catholic (since birth). In the beginning of our relationship I did not shy away and did explain to to him i wish to be married in a RC church and to have our kids baptized and follow the RC teachings. He was on board and agreed, but later on he was told by his church peers this is wrong and that he would be drifting away from this faith. I did not force him to agree with this and have never asked him to leave his church. We love it other very much and have is currently trying to find away to make this work. I have attended bible classes with him to understand his side but he would not attend my church as he think he know enough to not want to go cause to him RC has steered away from the bible and follows more traditions + that the Pope will have the final say over the bible which n his eyes is wrong. I have sat back and let him express his feelings and i have have also expressed mine but being born into RC i have just learnt that this is right and have questioned that i may not know enough. My heart is with GOD and i believe he has sent his only son Jesus down to die for our sins. I want this to work but he said we need to be equally yoked to be one and that mean he wants me to join him in order for us to be bound. I can’t seem to do this as all i have know and identity is with the RC and leaving his like also leaving my parents which breaks my heart his they disown me. I have agreed to attend his services along with my mass to try and see if this can work. Can anyone provide some guidance and advise on how to handle this situation and for this to work ?

  • Hi all, my issue right now is quite different. I am catholic woman married to Protestant man. Couple weeks ago he told me he wants to become a Protestant priest someday when in God’s time and want me to convert to his Protestan church and leave all my activities and service in Catholic Church. He wants me to commit and submit 100% to him and his church as according to the Bible said “ women, submit to your husband”.
    It’s hard for me to choose between my belief/ catholic faith and him. He thought it’s normal for him as a husband to decide which church we are going to serve, that’s his church as he wants to become the priest.
    Otherwise, we will have divorce.
    What should I do ?

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