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Marriage: Made in Heaven? Part 15 “Living with an Unbeliever”
We’re wrapping up a series on God’s design for marriage. If you haven’t read the previous posts in this series, you can read them here. In today’s post we’ll talk about living with an unbelieving spouse.
Marrying an Unbeliever
A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord (1 Cor. 7.39).
That phrase “in the Lord” means “in Christ” or “in the common faith.” While Paul is speaking, specifically, to women in this verse, the principle applies to men and women who are single, biblically divorced, or widowed and is addressed in 2 Corinthians, as well.
14 Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? 15 And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? 16 And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God (2 Cor. 6.14-16).
This is not a suggestion. It’s not Old Testament. It’s a command. Unfortunately, some people come to the Lord with the idea that His Word is just a nicer way to live, perhaps the ideal, but we’re still free to do it or not. That has never been the case.
We women are, particularly, prone to try to justify dating and marrying unbelievers:
“Well, he comes to church with me.”
“I think he’s close to getting saved.”
“How will he come to know the Lord if I break up with him?”
“He believes in God.”
“He’s OK with me going to church.”
“It’s not a problem for us.”
“He’s a Christian, but he doesn’t believe in going to church.”
Need I go on?
I’ve counseled many women who were dating or engaged to unbelievers. I have explained God’s clear commands and warned them of the natural consequences of choosing to disobey God (Gal. 6.7-8). Sadly, few listen once they are emotionally attached, especially, if they have further disobeyed God by becoming sexually involved.
Many have come back later and said, “I should have listened.” Because …
The boyfriend who was willing to go to church to get the girl he wanted was no longer interested now that he had her. In fact, he may be irritated that she wants to be in church every Sunday.
Ten, fifteen, or twenty years later, that guy who was “close to becoming a Christian,” still isn’t. And the years have been filled with disagreements over everything from parenting to how to spend their time and money to filing tax returns.
Can two walk together, unless they are agreed? (Amos 3.3).
The woman who thought her boyfriend was a Christian, in spite of dozens of red flags (often because she wanted to believe it), has realized too late that she is married to someone who cares nothing about the things of God and has become increasingly hostile to her attempts to talk to him about it.
And while they had the freedom to break off the relationship before they were married and should have, once they entered into the covenant of marriage, God’s commands are completely different.
1 Corinthians 7:
12 But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. 13 And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.
16 For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?
Coming to Know the Lord After
Of course, many people are married to unbelievers, not because they disobeyed God, but because they came to know Him after they were married. This was common in the early church and with the people to whom Paul originally wrote this passage.
Either way, if we seek to live God’s way, God is faithful to give us the grace we need.
Living for God’s Glory
Let’s look at that 1 Corinthians 7 passage again.
“But to the rest I, not the Lord, say …” This doesn’t mean Paul didn’t have authority from God to say these things (2 Tim. 3.16-17). Rather, this was something Jesus had not already addressed, so Paul was expanding on Christ’s teaching on marriage and divorce (Matt. 19.3-9).
Verses 12 and 13 make it plain that the believing spouse is not free to divorce his or her unbelieving spouse, as long as that spouse is willing to stay married. Instead, they’re to be salt and light in their home. They’re to love their unbelieving spouse with Christ’s love. They’re to stay in the marriage for the sake of the children and spouse and for God’s glory.
“For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.” This, clearly, doesn’t mean the unbeliever is saved because he or she is married to a believer, anymore than children are saved because they have believing parents. But just as children in a Christian home will be exposed to the gospel and the godly love of their parents, so will the unbelieving mate.
And God will often bless that home, including their finances and other things, because of the believer, just as He blessed Potiphar’s household because of Joseph.
So it was, from the time that he had made him overseer of his house and all that he had, that the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had in the house and in the field (Gen. 39.5).
There are times, however, when the unbeliever isn’t willing to live with his or her spouse. He or she may become involved with someone else or want a divorce for some other reason. In those cases, the believing spouse is no longer under bondage to stay married. If divorce is the result, he or she is free remarry.
Living Together Well
So how do we live together well with an unbelieving spouse?
1 Peter 3 give us a blueprint.
¹ Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear. 3 Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel— 4 rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God. 5 For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror.
Notice the word “likewise” in verses 1 and 7. Peter is referring back to chapter 2 where he said, “Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh” (1 Pet. 2.18) We’re to obey God in these areas not just with those who are easy to live with, but those who are “harsh.” Another translation says, “unreasonable.”
1 Peter 3.1 says, wives should be submissive to their unbelieving husbands, so that they may be won over, not by their constant preaching or leaving tracts in not-so-subtle places or playing Christian music whenever they’re around, but by their respectful, Christlike behavior. The quality of their lives should reflect the difference Christ has made.
Much damage is done when wives constantly preach to their husbands and yet, make no attempt to change their behavior.
1 Peter 3 goes on:
7 Husbands, likewise, dwell with them with understanding, giving honor to the wife, as to the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life, that your prayers may not be hindered.
Believing husbands should seek to understand their wives, to understand what they like and what concerns them. They should treat them as a “weaker vessel.” Weaker in the sense that a delicate vase is weaker than a stoneware pot. They should treat them as something valuable and precious. Just as with believing wives, they must let the love of Christ shine through. Peter went on:
8 Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; 9 not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing.
And in chapter 2 he said:
But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.
Who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously (1 Pet. 2.20-23).
So, Christ is our example when living with an unbelieving spouse. Whether or not things change, whether or not we are treated well, whether or not our spouse comes to Christ on our time table, we are to commit ourselves to God who will work all things out in His time. In the meantime, we are His ambassadors in our homes and He will give us the grace we need to fulfill our callings.
I hope this series has been a blessing to you. Next week I’ll begin a new series on “Handling Emotions Biblically.”
For More Information on Marriage, Divorce and Living with a Difficult Spouse:
How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong by Leslie Vernick
Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the Bible by Jay Adams
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