I get emails weekly from readers who, sadly, are in marriages with non-Christians, while they themselves are believers. Some find themselves in this situations due to a loss of faith by their spouse, who used to believe, but far more often, it’s because they have chosen a spouse who wasn’t Christian. Sadly, I have two sisters and a sister-in-law who have chosen this same path. I can’t change their decision, and they can’t go back now, they’ve made vows, a commitment for life, and as much as I love my brother-in-laws, I’m saddened by their decision, because every week I hear the pain that the Christian couples go through in living out this decision.
What the Bible says
I think the Bible is quite clear on the subject of whether or not this should happen.
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said:
“I will live with them
and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they will be my people.”
“Come out from them
and be separate,
says the Lord.
Touch no unclean thing,
and I will receive you.”
– 1 Corinthians 6:14-17
Now, this verse, I think, goes beyond marriage. I think we need to be very careful in choosing our closest friends, our comrades and confidants, as well as business partners, but all those relationships can eventually be broken off is things turn sour. A marriage is for life, or at least should be, and we are strongly warned not to be so closely attached to unbelievers. Why?
The way we view the world is different
Christians are called to view the world differently than the rest of humanity. We aren’t to see this as our home, but rather a battle ground, while it’s fine to build up a house here on earth, have a family, children, and create a safe place, we should be ever mindful that this safe place is only a fox-hole in the continuing barrage of fire from the world, that it’s only temporary.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. – Matthew 6:19-20
Whatever we can amass here isn’t permanent. We can’t take it with us. The best we can hope for is that we have enough that we don’t have to worry, and not too much that we get distracted by it. Ideally, any beyond that should be used for furthering God’s kingdom, for helping those in need, for spreading the gospel and building up God’s people.
But, when you live with someone who doesn’t share this viewpoint, it can become a point of contention. If they feel that their wealth is a measure of their worth, then using it to further God’s kingdom will look like a waste. Spending money to go on mission trips instead of vacations looks ludicrous, and tithing looks to absolute insanity. But, it’s not only money, but also time. For one who doesn’t feel a desire to build a relationship with God, spending time daily in prayer and reading the Bible is unproductive, going to church weekly, on the weekend no less, is wasting perfectly good relaxation time, and resting on the Sabbath is hard when your spouse is seeing housework, yard work, and home maintenance to do. Standing firm on a belief not to make others work on Sabbath is difficult when your spouse wants to go to the mall, or see a movie, or take you out to dinner.
The way we view ourselves is different
Christians are called to believe that their body is a temple to God. Non-Christians tend to believe that their body is a temple to god as well…it’s just that they are their own god, and as such, they can decide how to worship in that temple. We have a God who loves us enough to give a lot of instruction in the Bible for the proper care and feeding of our bodies and our minds, but following such rules requires, above all, a love for God, and a wish to honor Him, as well as self-control and discipline. A non-Christian spouse may not understand your desire to abstain from alcohol, or certain foods. They may not see a need for losing weight. They may not appreciate things like getting enough sleep so you can be clear minded.
As well, Christians are called to practice humility and selflessness, whereas the world teaches the opposite: to look out for number one. This comes out in all facets of life. Even communication is different. If you care more, or at least as much, for the person you are talking to, you will interrupt less, you will be less demeaning in your speech, you will work to understand the other more.
The way we view marriage is different
The bible teaches that marriage is a covenant, but the world teaches that marriage is a contract of convenience. Where Christian marriages should be each spouse promising to love and cherish the other, regardless of circumstance, the world is teaching us that marriages are there for our pleasure, and when it becomes too hard, not we’re not seeing the benefits we wanted to get out of it, then it’s time to leave.
It can be difficult to convince an unbelieving spouse to stay and work on the marriage instead of leave, and I hear far too often of spouses at their wits end trying to get their unbelieving spouse to stop watching porn, or to start having sex with them. But in their minds, they’re not doing anything wrong, after all, marriage is supposed to give them what they want, and if you don’t like it, well, leave.
The authority we accept is different
While Christians are called to respect and submit to government authority, we are called first to submit to God’s authority, as shared in the Bible, and to the authority of the church, which does it’s best to interpret that Bible for our daily life. When we become members of a church, we accept the authority of our local church to not only educate us, but also to keep us accountable to that which we have promised to uphold, and to discipline us, if necessary, to unsure we don’t stray from our intentions.
Jesus gave us a conflict resolution plan incorporating this authority:
“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. “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” – Matthew 18:15-19
I’m not going to go through the whole thing, but ultimately, if there is a conflict in your marriage that you cannot handle, there is a final authority you can go to, that will, hopefully, wake up the spouse that’s in the wrong, or both, if need be.
When married to a non-believer, this authority does not exist in their life. You have no recourse. The only one available to you is the governmental one, which isn’t an authority for change within marriage, because they don’t concern themselves with the inner workings of your marriage by and large. They are only concerned with whether you want to be married, or not. They have no interest in disciplining spouses for being bad spouses, because they ultimately don’t care whether you’re married or not. They just care that they know whether your married or not.
Where this leaves you
To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her. And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him.For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
But if the unbeliever leaves, let it be so. The brother or the sister is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace. – 1 Corinthians 7:12-15
Unfortunately, this leaves the believing spouse in a difficult position. They have made a covenant with someone who doesn’t reciprocate it. They have an authority they need to submit to, but their spouse doesn’t. In short, they’ve promised to love and cherish their spouse, for the rest of their life, and their spouse has made no lasting promise to do the same (even if they said the words). The relationship is unbalanced…unequally yoked. So, what do you do?
The best thing you can do is also the hardest. To not only love, but love like God does. To model Christ for your spouse in the hope that day in and day out, they will get to know God by your reflection of that light. I’m going to be honest, it doesn’t have a great success rate. Far more often, the believing spouse drifts away from God and leaves the church. They end up having to choose between their spouse and their God, almost daily, and that’s an incredibly difficult choice to make day in and day out. It’s a situation I don’t wish on anyone. But, once in a while, it happens. A believing spouse manages to hold out long enough for the holy spirit to work in the other, and for them to make a choice, to commit to God.
How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? – 1 Corinthians 7:16
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