When Only One Believes
May 20, 2018
“Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage, goes together like a horse and carriage”, at least that’s what the song says. You know as well as I do that isn’t always the reality. Sometimes the horse doesn’t want to pull the carriage, and sometimes the carriage doesn’t want to be pulled.
For the last seven weeks, we’ve been focusing on love and marriage. We’ve looked at what makes a biblical marriage, sex God’s wedding gift, the language of love, leading your children to Christ, had some tips for loving our kids and last week we looked at honouring our parents.
We are tying up this week and going in a little different direction.
In the scripture that was read earlier, Paul is giving some direction to folks who were married to spouses who didn’t believe as they believed. This appears to have been an issue for the past 2000 years.
An example is given in Acts sixteen, it is here that Timothy is introduced into the New Testament narrative. Timothy was a protegee of Paul who would eventually go on to pastor the church in Ephesus and two of the New Testament books are letters that were written by Paul to Timothy.
And when Luke is introducing Timothy into the story he makes this observation. Acts 16:1 Paul went first to Derbe and then to Lystra, where there was a young disciple named Timothy. His mother was a Jewish believer, but his father was a Greek.
Did you catch that? His mother was a Jewish believer, but his father was a Greek.
It’s not that Luke had anything against Greeks, you see it wasn’t what Luke said about Timothy’s father it was what was left unsaid.
He was a Greek, not a Greek believer just a Greek. And so, we have a household where one spouse is a Christ follower and one isn’t and the challenges that are posed in such situations can never be fully understood unless you are in that situation.
And ever since I stepped behind my first pulpit in January of 1981 there have been people in my congregations who have dealt with that issue on a daily basis. It wasn’t some abstract reality it was life for them. Sometimes it has been a believing husband and an unbelieving wife, but more often it is a believing wife and a husband who either doesn’t believe or isn’t as passionate about his personal faith.
So, what happens when one partner in a marriage believes and follows Christ and the other one doesn’t? Or is it even an issue?
Let’s start with 2 Corinthians 6:14 Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. Or as it’s said in the NKJV 2 Corinthians 6:14 NKJV Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?
It’s here we have The Warning This is the go-to verse when we are warning our kids about dating non-believers, which is sometimes called missionary dating or evangelistic dating. You know the concept of “Maybe they don’t believe right now but if it’s really love they will come to believe”
But the prophet Amos kind of summed it up when he asked the question, Amos 3:3 Can two people walk together without agreeing on the direction? Which of course was a rhetorical question and the answer is obviously “no”.
Now to be fair, 2 Corinthians 6:14 isn’t specifically about marriage, although it’s often treated as if it is.
While “don’t team up with those who are unbelievers” might make more sense in 2018, “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers.” Is a more accurate translation.
This is, of course, is an agricultural reference, which we don’t get, but 2000 years ago or even today, in an agricultural society those who yoked animals together would understand.
There’s even a reference in the Old Testament law that says Deuteronomy 22:10 NIV Do not plow with an ox and a donkey yoked together.
And it was a practical law, donkeys and oxen were different in strength and temperament and so it was a recipe for disaster to expect them to work as a team.
This scripture doesn’t specifically have to do with marriage as much as it does relationships, such as business partnerships or political alliances, but really our marriages are probably the greatest relationship in our lives and this scripture warns about the conflicts that this will bring.
Later in the chapter, there are some guidelines for a woman to remarry if she is widowed and it says, 1 Corinthians 7:39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. If her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but only if he loves the Lord.
So, I would suspect that if Paul’s preference for those who were widowed to marry within the faith that probably crosses over to everyone. And there are some very practical reasons for that.
Again, it’s easy to think that Paul is just meddling, but is he? Is this just an area where the church is being a bit of a control freak or are there valid reasons for Christians to be married to Christians and not to be quote-unquote “Unequally Yoked” with unbelievers?
Which leads us back to, 2 Corinthians 6:14 Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness?
And it’s here we see The Challenge
Like the donkey and the ox who are unequalled matched in strength and temperament, there are definitive differences in how believers and unbelievers view things and what their life priorities are.
For example, in every marriage it seems that there are financial challenges and considerations, where will money get spent?
But in a mixed faith marriage it gets messier, the unsaved partner sees money being given to the church as a waste and you don’t even want to get started on how the believer views money spent on vices such as smoking, drinking or gambling.
There are social considerations. Who will their friends be and how will they spend their social time. And there are moral decisions. What should or shouldn’t be watched, listened to or read, what should they do or not do? What happens on a nice weekend is it church or the beach?
If the non-believer comes to church it’s often with a pout if they don’t come to church the believer feels out of place with all the families and couples.
What was it the song said, “One is the loneliest number of all.”
2000 years ago, they probably weren’t fighting about whether the kids should be in church or hockey, baseball, soccer, scouts, sparks or band but I’m sure there were similar cultural concerns back then.
Would the kids be in church and youth group or will he be at the chariot races and practising for the Olympics?
I warn Christian teens about the challenges that they will face if they marry someone who doesn’t share their faith and I tell them “if you don’t believe me, I can give you the names of a hundred people who have been there.”
And then I tell them the easiest way to not marry a non-believer is to not date a non-believer. And they tell me not to worry they have everything under control. Sure.
By the way if you are in that situation, that as a believer you married someone who wasn’t then you were probably warned, and you probably thought “Oh they’ll change, and it will all work out.”
I can sympathize with your situation, but understand you put yourself in it. Not wanting to sound unfeeling but. . . you got what you got.
I remember reading an article in our denominational magazine years ago and the woman writing was speaking about that very thing. She had gone to church and left her husband home watching sports and on her way, she was grousing to God about how unfair it was. And she wrote that God asked her “how has he (meaning her husband) changed since you got married?” “And that is the problem” she responded, “he hasn’t.” And then she realized, that was the answer. She hadn’t exactly bought a pig in a poke.
When I counsel couples getting married I remind them if they can’t live with that person the way they are for the rest of their life they have no right to marry them expecting them to change.
And up to this point, this probably hasn’t been super helpful.
A number of years ago we owned a speedboat that we kept at Beulah camp on the Saint John River. And one summer as I was putting the boat into the river for the first time, I carefully backed the trailer down into the river, released the lock on the winch and pushed the boat off the trailer into the deep water. Where it immediately began filling with water, because I had forgotten to put the plug back in place in the stern.
I immediately winched it back on the trailer ran around jumped into the Suzuki and pulled it up on the beach and watched as the water poured out of the stern. At that point, a friend walked over, looked everything over and said: “You should have put the plug in first.”
Not helpful. I already knew what the problem was, now I was trying to remedy it.
With that being said, Acts 16:1 still reads this way Acts 16:1 Paul went first to Derbe and then to Lystra, where there was a young disciple named Timothy. His mother was a Jewish believer, but his father was a Greek.
And so here is The Reality
Even with the warnings, even understanding the challenges it still happens, there are still marriages where one partner believes, and one doesn’t.
It was a reality for Timothy’s parents and it’s been a reality with some people in every church I’ve pastored. One person believes and walks with Christ and the other doesn’t.
Sometimes it because of a life transformation after the marriage happened. Neither partner is serving the Lord and then either the husband or wife become a believer. That’s probably how it happened with Timothy’s folks.
And that’s often awkward, because with that decision to follow Jesus, things change. Priorities change, morals change, people change. The nonbeliever finds themselves married to a very different person then they had stood at the altar with. It’s tough.
Sometimes it happens when both partners were originally serving God and then one decided to walk away from God. And with that decision, things change. Priorities change, morals change, people change. The believer finds themselves married to a very different person then they had stood at the altar with. It’s tough.
And sometimes . . . a Christian marries a non-Christian. They had the best of intentions. They knew that through the power of prayer and their stellar witnessing that the one they loved would see the light and become a Christian. And then they didn’t.
You see they didn’t take into account free will. God won’t make your husband or wife a Christian just because you are praying he will. God didn’t take away your free will and he’s not going to take away their free will. That doesn’t mean you stop praying, but maybe your prayers need to change. From “Make my Spouse a believer” to “Help make me the witness I need to be.”
You see that is the problem with missionary dating, it doesn’t always work out the way you anticipate and then you have to live with the consequences.
So, what is the answer? Well, let’s start by saying that if you are a believer and your spouse isn’t don’t start thinking how much easier life would be if you were married to so and so who is a believer, cause you’re not.
Don’t go down the “Obviously I married the wrong person and God will understand if we get a divorce” road. Don’t even go there, because there is never a good reason for doing the wrong thing.
Paul seemed fairly clear when he wrote 1 Corinthians 7:12-13 Now, I will speak to the rest of you, though I do not have a direct command from the Lord. If a Christian man has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to continue living with him, he must not leave her. And if a Christian woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to continue living with her, she must not leave him.
But don’t give up, I know all kinds of couples where the believer was faithful in their relationship to Christ and in their marriage and their partner saw in them a faith they wanted as well. It’s just not easy and it’s not always fast, or least not fast enough. Let’s keep reading the scripture that we started with,
1 Corinthians 7:14-15 For the Christian wife brings holiness to her marriage, and the Christian husband brings holiness to his marriage. Otherwise, your children would not be holy, but now they are holy. (But if the husband or wife who isn’t a believer insists on leaving, let them go. In such cases the Christian husband or wife is no longer bound to the other, for God has called you to live in peace.)
Here are Some Answers
There are a couple of thoughts here. The first is that your marriage is better because you are a Christian. Paul reminds his readers that they bring God’s holiness into the marriage. He’s telling those whose spouse is at best apathetic toward the things of God and maybe even openly hostile that that darkness can never defeat light that the smallest flame will always chase away the darkness.
William Barclay writes this “He (Paul) has the lovely thought that the unbelieving partner is consecrated by the believer. They two have become one flesh and the wonder is that in such a case it is not the taint of heathenism but the grace of Christianity which wins the victory.” Barclay goes on to say “A child born into a Christian home, even into a home where only one of the partners is a Christian, is born into the family of Christ. In a partnership between a believer and an unbeliever, it is not so much that the believer is brought into contact with the realm of sin, as that the unbeliever is brought into contact with the realm of grace.”
This in no way negates the concept of free will, your spouse and your children still ultimately need to make the decision for themselves, but you have given them a boost.
What if your spouse needed to live with a Christian for 12 years for it to make a difference in their life and you decided to call it quits at 11 years?
You are called to live your marriage vows out the same as you are called to live your life out.
That’s spelled out in Hebrews 12:14 Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord. Work at living in peace with your spouse, and sometimes it takes work, and work at living a holy life. And living at peace means that you aren’t nattering at them about not going to church.
And if the non-believer insists on leaving the marriage, Paul says you are no longer bound to them.
But don’t play games with that. Paul Simon sang there are 50 ways to leave your lover and I would suspect there are 50 ways to make your lover leave you. Don’t try to justify that type of behaviour, God knows.
King Solomon was reminded of that very thing when he was told in 1 Chronicles 28:9 “For the LORD sees every heart and knows every plan and thought.” So don’t think that if you cause your unbelieving spouse to leave because of unreasonable or unChristlike behaviour that you will be the innocent party.
But Paul’s words don’t end there he goes on to write, 1 Corinthians 7:16 Don’t you wives realize that your husbands might be saved because of you? And don’t you husbands realize that your wives might be saved because of you?
And so, Paul leaves them with A hope
I wish I could tell you that if you are faithful to God and your Christian convictions that your spouse and your children will become Christ followers. But I can’t, but to echo the words of Paul don’t you know that your spouse might be saved because of you?
Her name was Eunice and she was a Jewish believer and her husband was a Greek. We don’t know what happened to Eunice’s husband, but we do know that her son, Timothy, went on to become a pastor and is still remembered today.
There was another lady whose name was Monica, she was a devoted Christian who was married to a nonbeliever. Her husband had a nasty temper and we are told that he cheated on her through their marriage, but she prayed for him and their children and lived her Christian faith in front of them.
And it was only on his deathbed that her husband Patricius gave his heart to God. We are told that all three of her children became Christians, but you would only be familiar with one of them.
He broke his mother’s heart when he rejected her faith as a young man, but when he was 32 he embraced the claims of Christ. You might recognize his name, it was Augustine.
You will never know the impact that your life will have on the life of your spouse and the lives of your children.
Don’t you know they might be saved because of you? You can’t make them believe and you will never be held accountable for their behaviour, only yours.
Two things to remember. Remember how much you loved them when you married them, and remember how you believed that one day they would believe.