I was recently asked this question in a class discussion. I was glad that this question was asked, as it is a highly practical issue that would need to be handled properly and with great care. What I will do here is outline the presuppositions of the question and then attempt to give an answer. I would love for you to contribute to this discussion by commenting below.
The question simply is this: Should a couple who differs on the doctrine of baptism marry? The scenario is this: A man who believes in believer’s baptism only (say, a Baptist) is dating a woman who believes in infant baptism (say, a conservative Presbyterian). They are both incredibly biblically convinced of their positions. They are both strong believers and passionately committed to Christ. The two have expressed a desire to marry. What advice would I give them? What would I counsel them to do?
This is a somewhat lengthy post, so if you are just here to see where I stand, then let me sum it up for you. Should a couple who differs on the doctrine of baptism marry? No, for the sake of unity in marriage and the inevitability of practical problems that would arise.
An exegetical (biblical) basis for my answer is found in 1 Corinthians 7:39. In reference to widows, the apostle Paul writes,
“A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord.”
There is a level of unity that should exist between a couple considering marriage. Marrying “in the Lord” implies that there are certain issues that should keep two people from marrying. Firstly, Christians should never marry non-Christians (v. 39). Marriage is not a mission field (1 Cor. 7:16). So, if a couple is at odds on primary issues (the Trinity, the atonement, authority of Scripture, the person of Christ, etc.), they should not marry. I also believe that there are secondary issues that could keep two believers from marrying “in the Lord.” One example that would fall under this category is gender roles. There needs to be unity in understanding and practice of gender roles. Essentially, and most desirably, the two should affirm biblical complementarianism. Husband and wife are equal in worth, but distinct in role (see Eph. 5:22-33).
Another secondary issue that I feel should keep two believers from marrying is baptism. I would not go so far as to say it is impossible for a practicing Presbyterian and Baptist to marry, but I would consider such a marriage to be unwise. There are too many practical problems on the horizon for these couples.
An Example in Inter-Denominational Ministry
When I consider how I would do ministry with someone who affirms infant baptism (say, an evangelical, conservative Presbyterian), I could see partnering with him in a conference setting where we can solely focus our strengths around those central themes of the faith that we both passionately affirm. I could write a book with a Presbyterian. I could even engage in a healthy debate over the issue of baptism.
However, I am not certain I could do missionary work with a Presbyterian. I know I could not plant a church with him. The more intimate issues of the faith, such as church membership, gathering for worship on a regular basis, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, etc. would have us at odds and thus require us to not cooperate in such settings. There are a few important issues that require us to remain separate or not unified, according to our biblical convictions and consciences. Of course, the two of us could be great friends and partners in the gospel in many ways.
The Uniqueness of Marriage
But friendship is not marriage.
I would apply this line of thought to a couple with differing doctrinal understandings of baptism considering marriage. Though I would tread carefully, I would encourage this couple to be patient and to continue to search the Scriptures. I would advise them to show considerable grace to one another as they delve into this issue. I would encourage them to honestly consider each position, all the while pointing them to credible literature dealing with this doctrine. I would have them not only speak with me on this issue, but speak with the pastor of the one who affirms infant baptism (assuming they already attend separate churches).
Assuming they are both totally set in their biblical and theological convictions; and after considerable time are still at odds on this issue, I would advise them to not marry. Marriage is to be an earthly demonstration of a heavenly reality. It is a picture of the relationship between Christ and his Church. As such, to glorify the grandeur of this relationship, it is important that there be unity between husbands and wives (particularly on primary and even certain secondary issues).
A couple who differs on interpretations of Revelation (what I consider a tertiary issue) will disagree, but at the end of the day, be able to worship regularly together and be on the same page when it comes to their children.
On the other hand, a couple who differs on the issue of baptism will want and (personally) need to worship in different local churches in different denominations, according to their own convictions. I would fear this to be too dangerous to the marriage, particularly when it comes to children. Would the infant be baptized or not? Would one spouse compromise his/her convictions to worship with the other? If so, which one? It would be incredibly gracious for one to abandon their own convictions for the sake of unity, but I am not sure there would actually be unity with an issue of this magnitude. One, depending on his/her position, would feel they are personally disobeying God when their child is either baptized or not baptized.
If you marry, marry to the glory of God. Glorifying God in marriage will require unity, especially in more pertinent matters. For this reason, I do not think it wise to marry someone who differs with you on the issue of baptism.
A Possible Exception
I have heard it argued differently, namely, that the wife should sacrifice her biblical convictions out of submission to her husband. So, if the wife affirms infant baptism, she would sacrifice that and join a Baptist church; and when they have children, the babies will not be sprinkled. In certain cases, particularly all tertiary issues, I would agree with this argument. I do see this as a possible exception to my argument. If a woman is entirely willing and eager to submit to her husband on this matter, I may would change my mind. Still yet, I find this issue, though not primary, to be too important and to hold too many practical problems. And would there be true submission and unity in marriage over an issue of this magnitude?
Even though this is not a primary doctrine that would separate a Christian from a non-Christian and of course make marriage unbiblical, I feel that the issue of baptism is one that needs to have both husband and wife standing on common ground. Again, I would encourage this couple to not marry because of the importance of unity in marriage and the biblical convictions/conscience that would be compromised.
If you are in such a relationship or have counseled couples in similar situations, I am eager to see your reaction to my position and would encourage you to correct me where you feel I may be off base.