At the church where I serve as Senior Pastor, we have spent the past several weeks looking at the idea of Christian Marriage. We’ve been discovering that what makes a marriage a Christian marriage is not the fact that both spouses have been baptized at some point in their lives, or that both spouses believe in God, or that the wedding ceremony took place in a church. What makes a marriage a Christian marriage is when both spouses are committed to growing in their love for Jesus Christ, and they allow the love of Christ to empower them to love and serve each other in an attitude of humility and mutual submission.
For many couples in our church, this concept, and the teaching related to it, have been helpful. But for some, it raises an important question, “What if I am a committed Christian and my spouse is not?” The truth is, there are a lot of marriages like that, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, when two people get married, their faith is not that important to them. But over the course of the years of marriage, one spouse might become a committed Christian while the other spouse just doesn’t have a desire or interest to make a similar commitment. Other times, two committed Christians can get married, and over the years one of them can choose to drift away from their faith or reject the faith altogether. And in some instances, a highly committed Christian will marry a non-Christian with the hope that over time, they can help their spouse come to a committed faith in Christ. Whatever the reasons or causes, there are a significant percentage of marriages where the ideal of “two committed Christians loving each other as they love Christ” is not currently a realistic option.
So what advice or guidance can I offer to people in this kind of a marriage? First, I would say that unless there is some kind of abuse or adultery going on, divorce should not be an option. For a Christian to divorce his/her spouse simply because they do not share the same faith commitment is not encouraged in the scriptures (See 1 Corinthians 7). I would also strongly caution Christians against lecturing (some might consider this nagging) their non-Christian spouse about attending church or becoming more committed in the faith. This approach usually only causes the non-Christian spouse to feel judged or condemned rather than loved, honored and cherished.
I would also avoid the temptation to “sick the preacher on him/her.” On several occasions during my pastoral ministry, I have been asked by well-meaning Christians to have a talk with their non-Christian spouse. The idea here is that the pastor will be able to say the right thing and use the right words to convince a non-Christian spouse to make a commitment to Christ. When I am asked to engage in such a conversation, my first question is, “Does your spouse want to talk with me?” Most of the time, the answer is “No, not really.” In that type of situation, I politely decline the request, explaining that unless the non-Christian spouse is open to a conversation about the Christian faith and has specific issues or questions I can address, I will not initiate a conversation. It’s not that I don’t want to help, it’s just that until someone demonstrates a real desire and openness to consider the claims of Christianity, there is little good that I can do by trying to force a conversation in that direction, and it can cause a lot of tension in the marriage.
So what can be done? First of all, pray for your non-Christian spouse. Pray regularly, daily, perhaps multiple times each day. Pray that your spouse will have an open heart and that God will surround him or her with good Christian role-models.
Secondly, leverage occasions such as Christmas, Easter, Mother’s Day, and funerals when going to church is a cultural norm. Many who are non-Christians or those who are not deeply committed Christians will attend church worship at these times. This gives them a taste of the faith. Churches like Ebenezer and pastors like me recognize that these types of occasions are opportunities to reach non-Christians, so we try to create an experience that will be positive, helpful, and thought-provoking to all who attend. You can then follow up with an after church conversation with your spouse where you encourage (but don’t nag) your spouse to pursue spiritual issues more deeply.
Thirdly, love your spouse deeply, faithfully, and unconditionally. While you cannot expect your non-Christian spouse to love you with the love of Christ, you can still love your spouse in that way. This does not mean you are a doormat or you allow your spouse to treat you in ways that are harsh and demeaning. But it does mean you demonstrate patience, forgiveness, and gentleness in how you handle disagreements and conflicts with your spouse.
It is also important to verbally remind your spouse that while your Christian faith is making a positive difference in your life, you are far from perfect and you are a sinner saved by God’s grace, not a perfect saint who never experiences frustration or failure, or who never has a bad day. The old adage, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” applies. This way, your spouse can’t accuse your faith of being inauthentic simply because you aren’t always the person you would like to be.
Finally, it is good to let your spouse know your faith is important to you, and you would like to share this part of life together. But if your spouse prefers not to join you, explain that you will still continue to pursue a vital relationship with the Lord on your own. Even if your spouse does not agree with your commitment to Christ, hopefully he or she can respect it and allow you the opportunity to pursue a faith that is deep and vibrant. It is important to reach an agreement together when it comes to how much time you are going to spend at church and how much financial support you will provide the church, so your spouse does not feel resentful towards you or the church. Like most issues in a marriage, this is an area where communication, negotiation and compromise will be required.
Every marriage has areas where there will be conflict, misunderstanding, and disagreement. If your spouse is not interested in a relationship with Christ, or holds the opinion that church is a waste of time, perhaps your quiet witness and your loving attitude will win your spouse over, or at least lower the level of concern. With an unbelieving spouse, just as with an unbelieving neighbor, co-worker, or relative, trying to argue or lecture them into the Christian faith rarely works. But patient love, showing itself in kindness, patience and goodness, often works wonders over time. It is always helpful to remember the wisdom of 1 Peter 3:15, “Always be ready to give an answer to someone who asks you about the hope you have within you, but do so with gentleness and respect.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts on marriages where one spouse is a committed Christian but the other is not.