In the comments on posts, and in my inbox, I often hear people lamenting that their spouse isn’t acting like a Christian. It could be they never apologize, or they watch porn without remorse. It could be they masturbate instead of having sex with their spouse, they gatekeep, or they just refuse to have sex at all. Sometimes it’s that a husband won’t lead the family, or that a wife won’t follow his leading.
Whatever the issue, the point is, they aren’t acting as a Christian spouse should.
The next question is usually “What do I do now”?
There are three scenarios that we need to discern which our spouse is in. That discernment is dangerous. Pick the wrong one, and you may push them further from God. So, I’m going to start with the least risky and move to the riskiest.
Scenario 1: They are still growing
Justification is instantaneous, but sanctification takes longer than a lifetime.
For the longest time, I didn’t know what these words meant. Even though I grew up in the church and heard them often. So, I’m going to explain them for those that don’t know.
Justification, in Christian discussions, is shorthand for saying “that which justifies your salvation”. Basically, what earns you the right to heaven. The Bible teaches us that what “earns” us that right, or what “pays out way”, is accepting that:
- we are sinners
- Jesus died to pay the debt of our sin
- we want to be better out of gratitude
I think that largely sums it up in simple terms.
Sanctification, on the other hand, is basically working through that last step. Just because we want to be better doesn’t mean we are. In fact, until Christ comes back again and remakes us, we’ll always be sinful. However, we try and do our best to live that converted life now, knowing we’ll fail. While we’ll never attain perfection this side of the resurrection, we can work on becoming more Christ-like.
That process is what we call sanctification. It’s the process of “becoming a saint”. If you’ve accepted Jesus as your Lord then you are in that process. And we’re all still short if the end product. So are our spouses.
Some of us need to remember that. We aren’t perfect, we all have things that God is working in our lives. We also have things that I think God says “we’ll tackle that later” in our lives. Because He is wise enough to know we can’t handle knowing everything that we’re doing wrong. We certainly can’t handle God convicting us about it all at once. The guilt would be crushing.
Sometimes we need to realize that while we might see this behaviour that needs to change, perhaps God is working on something else in them right now. There’s no point in working in a porn addiction if God is still working on something more fundamental. It could be a lack of love for others, or even themselves.
Sometimes God winks at sins because He knows we don’t know any better yet. Don’t think that just because you told them that they actually know it. I can be told all day that overeating is a sin, and rationalize it away, but when I realize it’s a relationship with God issue, that’s when I know it.
The Holy Spirit convicts, not us.
Scenario 2: They’re Christian in name only
Sometimes we growing up “being Christian”, but we never really make it our own. We never really have that conversion experience. That point where you think “wow, I really do need Jesus”.
Sometimes we just go through life being a cultural Christian. Maybe we go to church, we help out, we tithe, we do all the things a Christian should do. But we’re not. We’re not following Christ, were following men. We’re doing what’s expected of us. And sometimes people slip back into this after having a real conversion. Often it’s due to one of those “non-salvation issues“.
What do you do in this case?
You treat them like an unbeliever.
Now, people have mistaken what to do with those who fall away from the faith in a lot of cases. In some churches, they shun you completely. Sometimes the family will even disown you. When we changed denominations a decade ago, our family acted as if we had left the faith. They stopped talking to us, stopped inviting us over. When we did talk, it was always full of backhanded comments related to our change of denomination. Frankly, they couldn’t have done much more to push us out of their denomination faster.
A decade later things can still sometimes be a bit tense, but at least we’re talking again and visiting regularly. Theology is still a touchy subject. It still constantly feels like they’re trying to convince us we’re wrong. It only serves to convince us we were right to leave.
You can inadvertently do the same thing to your spouse. If you constantly nag at them about how they should be acting you can actually drive them deeper into their behaviours.
How do you deal with them then? The same way you’d deal with a friend who wasn’t Christian. You be Christian in front of them. Don’t hit them over the head with the Bible, but rather just show them the life you have in Christ. This means you actually have to be happy in order to convince them. If you spend all your time angry at how your spouse is acting, then you’re not going to convince them that you have “the joy of the Lord”.
It’s not going to be easy, and I don’t want to pretend it will be. This is a difficult situation. All of the three scenarios are. There’s a reason we are warned not to marry non-believers. Now, in this case, you thought you were marrying a believer, so it’s a bit “unfair”. But, life isn’t fair. It’s real. Here’s where your devotion to Christ will be tested. How do you reflect Christ to your spouse? Even when they claim to be a Christian, but aren’t acting like it.
Resentment isn’t loving
Because if you’re going to a blog and commenting all about how bad your spouse is, then you aren’t really being loving toward them. You’re harbouring resentment under the guise of being a Christ-like servant. You’re a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and you’re tainting Jesus’ name by claiming to be acting in a Christian manner to them.
Wives, in the same way be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. – 1 Peter 3:1-2
Whether you’re the wife or the husband, this passage is applicable. If we have a spouse who is acting like a non-believer because they really aren’t, then we should evangelize to them. The best way to do that is without words but through behaviour. However, we need to make sure our words match our behaviour, both in front of them, or not. Because that contempt that we speak about them with to others stays with us, and it shows on our face when we talk to them, even if we try to mask it.
So, don’t just act loving, but be loving.
Scenario 3: Your spouse is acting against their beliefs
This is the difficult one because it involves holding them accountable. This scenario is if you spouse is still professing to know Christ. If they actually are acting like a Christian in other areas of their life. They aren’t just putting on a show, or going through the motions, you know they are trying to live a converted life. However, they have a blind spot in one area.
What do you do?
Thankfully, Jesus gave us the answer for that one.
If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. – Matthew 18:15-17
Step 1: Go and talk to them
This has to be done in a loving manner. Storming into the room and saying “What you’re doing is sinful!” is probably not going to get you anywhere.
Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will. – 2 Timothy 2:25-26
Rather, sit them down and say something like
I know you have a heart for God, and I’m worried that you seem to be stepping away from Him in an area of your life. Can we talk about that?
If they’re willing to talk, fantastic. If they feel convicted to change and do so, even better.
Step 2: Bring in a third party
You should select someone that you both respect and who is wise. Pastors and elders are often good choices, but the right friend or family member can be as well. The hope is that with someone else in the room, they will take it seriously. This also authenticates your concern and shows that you aren’t alone in thinking this is an issue that needs to be addressed.
Step 3: Bring it to the church
If they still won’t listen, then they are actively deciding to step away from God’s will. Jesus’ advice is to take it to the church for removal of membership. This is a harsh step and should only be taken with much prayerful consideration. This is risky. In short, you’re excommunicating them.
Again, people often misunderstand what that means. They can still go to church, and they should be welcomed as any non-believer in a church. With open arms and hearts. Show them love and compassion. But, they should not be able to say they are a professing member of the church if they continue to deliberately defy God’s word after being held accountable to it. It’s one thing to say “yes, I need to change, but I’m struggling” and another to say “I know that’s what God says, and I’m choosing to disobey”.
Unfortunately, most churches will not take this step. Accountability is no longer in fashion in Christianity. Many pastors won’t even be willing to help you with step 2. If that’s the case, if you can find no one to support you, then you fall back to scenario 2. You treat them like a non-believer. You can’t hold them accountable to things they don’t want to be held accountable to. Getting upset about it, or being resentful won’t help anyone. In fact, you will just push them away more.
This is not enabling them, this is sticking within the boundaries you are allowed to operate. Trying to hold someone accountable where they haven’t given permission is not only futile, it’s harmful. Not only to your spouse, but to your relationship with them, and with God.
How do you deal with a spouse who isn’t acting like a Christian?
In short, with patience, and compassion. That will look different depending on the scenario, but it should always be handled with love. If you are feeling resentful, holding on to anger, finding yourself dwelling on how unfair it is, then you have a heart issue that needs to be dealt with first.
How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. – Matthew 7:4-5
You don’t need to be perfect before responding, but if you can’t respond in self-less love, then you need to hold back and work on yourself.