A theology of loving your unbelieving spouse

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A Facebook friend recently asked a question after reading my piece about the 8 words. Her question in essence was, “How does God want you to love your husband when he doesn’t share the same love of Christ you have?”

I’m not a seminary graduate, but as my pastor says, I am a theologian.  We all are, he says. We may be bad theologians, but we all believe something about who God is or what God does and says, and that’s theology.  Of course my nearly 25 year marriage to a man I dearly love, who does not love Christ with me, is a long enough walk down this road to test what I believe about God on this subject.

So from my theological understanding of marriage in the scriptures, the husband and wife relationship, above all relationships speaks of the ultimate purpose of all human beings- to be in a covenant relationship with Jesus Christ. Christ laid his life down for us (the church) in love so that we could be united with him and say, “My beloved is mine and I am his.” To be in such a bond with Christ is the fulfillment of human existence.  When a husband and wife don’t share a love of Christ, the brokenness in that relationship is so apparent that the way you love your unbelieving husband or wife looks more like the way you love any person who doesn’t believe and less like the way Christ and his church love one another.  In other words you loose the intimate union and live in a separate but together state. Paul put it this way:

‘Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, “I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”‘ 2 Corinthians 6:14-18

In a marriage where Christ is not the mutual highest object of affection and hope, the couple have no lasting intimate partnership, no fellowship, no accord, no portion together, no agreement.  There is a separation where there should be oneness. This doesn’t mean the believer and unbeliever have nothing in common. And it doesn’t mean there isn’t grace for both of them.  There is common grace and common ground between the believer and the unbeliever.  But there is not partnership or union at the deepest level of identity, hope and joy.  They don’t share the same love.

Now, this doesn’t mean we should “go out from their midst and separate from” our spouses.  Paul makes that clear:

‘To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. ‘ 1 Corinthians 7:12-17

There is no common love of Christ in a marriage between the unbeliever and the believer. But there is a holiness.  The fellowship and oneness intended to grow out of mutual love for Christ is not present.  But a set-apartness is.

There is a way in which you “come out from among” a marriage to an unbeliever that doesn’t mean divorcing or leaving them.  You are set apart, and so are they, and so are your children.  There is a mission, a ministry, like that of the missionary setting his love and life on a people group who do not know Jesus.  The aim in a marriage to an unbeliever is not a united front to pour out your mutual love of Christ on others.  It is a calling on the believer to not go the way of the unbelieving spouse’s idols and pseudo-saviors. It’s a calling not to join them in loving the world, but to come out from among them and let the love of Christ compel you to lay down your life to win them to Christ.

I know some will say staying in a marriage to an unbeliever to win them to Christ is not a good reason to stay married.  I say that is exactly what the scripture says is the reason a believer should stay in the marriage. For, “For 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)

Does that mean if your spouse doesn’t become a believer or wants out of the marriage you’ve failed?  No!  God may use your faithfulness to save your spouse, or he may not. But if the ubnbeliever is willing to stay married to you it’s a really great possibility that’s totally in God’s hands and worth investing your life in.

Staying in a marriage to an unbeliever with a missional heart to win your husband or wife to Christ is right. And it is not a manipulative or enabling or unhealthy co-dependent emeshment.  Loving your husband or wife with a desire to win them to Christ is not self-preserving or sin-enabling.  Loving your husband or wife with a desire win them to Christ may be the very thing that causes them to no longer want to be married to you.  You have to hold your marriage with an open hand.  The goal is not to prevent loosing the marriage.  The goal is glorifying God by loving your spouse.  You may loose your marriage and win your spouse to Christ.  Or not.  You don’t stay in the marriage and love your spouse so that you’ll get the outcome you want.  You stay in the marriage and love your spouse because the love of Christ compels you.  Love of God supersedes love of spouse, even as the reason for your faithfulness and vulnerable love towards your spouse.

Does that mean the believer’s love for the unbeliever is not real because it is not the fantastical romantic love we idolize?  No!  The love a believer has for his or her unbelieving spouse is very real, very Christ-like, if it is compelled by Christ’s love, not fear of loosing the spouse, not an insatiable need for the spouse to fulfill you. And in this way, loving an unbelieving spouse is a good example for how even believing spouses should love one another.  We all, in all marriages, have to bear the pain of the other’s sin.  No Christian husband or wife will fulfill you.  Only Christ does that.  As C.S. Lewis influenced me to say, if I find in myself desires which this marriage can’t satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another “marriage.”   That truth applies to all marriages, to believers and unbelievers.

This could really be a long post.  Um, it already is a long post.  So I’ll try to respond more directly to the question that spurred this on.

Q- How does Christ (my heavenly Husband) ask me to love my husband who doesn’t share my same love?

Response- With open hands (1 Corinthians 7).  With laid down life (John 15:13). With willingness to loose my marriage (1 Corinthians 7:15).  With willingness to stand opposed and willingness to submit myself (1 Peter 3:13-17).  With hope in God, not in husband.  With fearlessness of many frightening things (1 Peter 3:6). With faith that I am here for such a time as this.  With prayers that God will bring my beloved to his senses and save him (2 Timothy 2:25-26). With hope that the labor Christ is working in me to love my husband is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).

6 thoughts on “A theology of loving your unbelieving spouse”

  1. Sheila,

    I appreciated this blog post. I too am in a relationship with an unbelieving spouse. This blog helped me think about the love of Christ and how we should respond to our spouses according to our love for Christ.

    Thank you,
    Chuck

  2. I’m glad it was helpful Chuck. May Christ give your wife eyes to see Jesus and give you endurance and hope in trusting him! Bless you!

  3. This is my situation, too, and for 33 (of our 46) married years! Your post is very encouraging as our 47th wedding anniversary approaches. I will continue thanking God for the husband He gave me, and I will keep trusting God to pull him safely through. I appreciate your putting this into Word(s) for me. Thank you!

  4. Whitney I’m so glad it was helpful. Praying today for you and your husband!

  5. Thank you, Sheila for this poignant post. I too am living with what I believe is an unbelieving husband. We grew up in a cult-based faith church, which causes young people to ‘walk the walk, and ‘talk the talk’ yet when real life comes into the picture, the rules and regulations one has been brought up with fall short of what a true life in Christ is all about. Hence, it took me years to figure out that my husband is most likely unsaved. There has never been a time when he can relate spiritually to what my life has been about, serving Jesus as my Savior. What your post has done for my heart is, it has given me a restful spirit, one of peace, knowing that our Lord does all things well, and His timing is perfect, and I appreciate the mission field that is in my homefront on a daily basis. I have been married for almost 45 years, and the pain in my spiritual and physical heart, and emotions has been so excruciating at times because of the lack of that oneness of Spirit a believer craves to have in their relationship with one’s spouse. Your words have had more impact upon my discernment than any other blog I have been too. And that is saying a lot…as I have been to Narcissist sites, so-called Christian marriage sites, emotional abuse sites, trying to figure my husband out. Then my own sister and brother, who are believers ask me, a couple of years ago, to ask my husband what John 3:16 means to him. My husband could not give me a direct answer to the affirmative that he had accepted Christ. He said, “What do you mean?” This is what people do when they are trying to avoid a confrontation. To me, it was just a simple question which any believer could readily answer. Then he said, “You express it better than I can.” No. That was not an answer. That was an excuse on his part. He stopped the conversation, thinking that he had given me an appropriate answer. So, I sent him an email and said, “I was hoping you could tell me yourself what John 3:16 means to you.” And I also said that it is God who wants him to express it to God, not to me, his wife. He did not reply to that email, because he did not have an answer. Later on, I believe he must have talked to a gal at work who is a Baptist, as my husband came back with a very lame answer and he said, “I just know it.” I’m sorry, but my Savior is not an ‘it’. I did not address the subject again. But I do believe that at that point in time, I began to see signs in my husband’s normal conversation that he truly could not hold a life-giving, spiritual conversation about Jesus…and sad to say…after all these many years…he still has not been able to say Jesus’ name in any conversations which he thinks are ‘religious’ conversations with me. I do digress. My husband CAN and DOES every dinner, pray the same rhetoric prayer night after night without much difference, very humbly, yet we have no conversation about God or Jesus at any other time during dinner, nor have we ever read the Bible together as a family growing up with four children. I was the one who said the prayers, and sang Christian songs to the children when putting them to bed at night. They all accepted the Lord at young ages, in spite of a raging father, at time. I have been the submissive wife almost to a fault. Other sites have said to confront the unbelieving spouse with repentance, and that has barely worked. In fact, it had tended to make my husband clam up, and hide what things I know in his life are sins, and dishonestly. And so, I will continue to pray, and continue to live my life in front of my husband with Jesus’ love, as I would any other unsaved human being; with hope and patience, and pity, yet not being partakers with the sin which needs to be confessed and forsaken, and repented of. Some people and churches say that one needs only to ‘believe’ yet Jesus always added to anyone whom he delivered from demons,or healing, he would say, “Thy sins be forgiven thee, Go and sin no more.’ That is the key to being a believer. Doing the work of believing and living the transformed life which gives every believer access to that instant oneness when one meets another believer. And that empty place in my heart, where I don’t have my husband dwelling in unity with my spirit, is one of the most difficult pains in my life. And God knows that, as He too wants to have that same fellowship with my husband. Thank you again! And be brave, and stand fast in the faith and the hope of the high calling of Christ! Amen!

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