In the church, she appears to be single. She's the believer whose husband never joins her because, while he may or may not believe in God, he has no interest in Christianity. While she is devout, he can be found somewhere on the continuum between tranquil unbelief and agitated intolerance. Such unequally yoked unions are not ideal and definitely not recommended, but it's reality for many evangelical women—myself included.
Recently, TGC published an article by M. Connor on how she came to understand prior to her wedding that marrying an unbeliever is not what God intends for Christians. Unfortunately for many believing women, this realization doesn't occur until well after the rings have been exchanged. Other women come to faith during there marriage, and often without their husbands. For all of these women and their families, there is an important question that needs our attention: How does a wife honor God's intended plan for marriage in a circumstance that doesn't comport with God's plan to begin with?
Ministry of Wives to Husbands
Scripture provides clear instruction to those married to unbelievers. Paul writes,
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 (1 Corinthians 7:13-14).
The apostle doesn't specifically deal with how we navigate the every-day difficulties in this kind of marriage, nor does he encourage "missionary dating." He does, however, speak to the ministry potential in unequally yoked situations. That the unbelieving husband "is made holy" does not say that he enjoys salvation vicariously through the believing wife, but rather that proximity to his wife's Christ-centered living creates opportunities for godly influence. Each time a wife models godliness (1 Peter 3:1-6) to her husband, that's another moment he's not being influenced by the godlessness that desires to lay claim on his soul. In this way he "is made holy" because he is set apart from the world and more likely to receive the gospel. Similarly, because of the decision to remain intact as a family, children of the marriage have a greater opportunity for exposure to the influence of biblical truth.
As difficult as it is to accept—and it was for me—these words on marriage between believers and unbelievers written to the church at Corinth are not merely recommendations but timeless truths that apply today. By choosing to stay in the marriage, the unbeliever provides an opportunity for ministry to the believing spouse, aiding the restoration of two relationships. We can't change the person we are married to—even when we want to; we can only work on becoming the person God has called us to become. This isn't psycho-babble but an appeal to the grace and mercy of God.
I've seen firsthand how it has transformed my own spouse in various ways and at various points during almost 20 years of marriage. When we choose to live as Jesus lived, with a tender influence that avoids anger and provocation, the "hidden person of the heart" can soften the hardest of hearts. Husbands sometimes soften to the work of the Spirit and miraculously transform from the natural to the spiritual. Sometimes they don't. But we are called to be faithful to Scripture despite our circumstances and individual longings.
Unequally Yoked: Functionally Egalitarian?
For some women in spiritually unbalanced marriages, it's difficult for them to understand how they can honor God's design for marriage in their marriage. If her husband isn't a Christ follower, he cannot provide leadership in matters of faith even though he might be able to function with the borrowed capital of godly wisdom in other meaningful ways. Then again, he might not. In the absence of a husband fulfilling his God-ordained responsibilities, wives should not seek to assume his role but to fulfill their own God-ordained responsibility of living in a way that demonstrates respect and purity, "that he may be won without a word" (1 Peter 3:1). This, of course, doesn't restrict her to unqualified silence but guards the relationship by asking her not to pressure him to fit her own standards in her own time.
The responsibility that belongs to her husband parallels Christ as head of the church (Eph 5:22-24) and is rooted in the order of creation (1 Tim 2:13). Believing this truth does not detract from her spiritual maturity, nor does it lessen the need for a husband and wife to communicate and learn together what is best for the well-being of their family.
Some argue that in these situations where the husband is present yet essentially absent, functional egalitarianism results. But we cannot expect an unequally yoked marriage to represent the best of either a complementarian or an egalitarian framework. Yet when a wife chooses to honor the model for marriage God instituted prior to the fall, the trajectory of such a marriage can be oriented toward the design that reflects the relationship between Christ and his Bride, the church (Eph 5:32).
Spiritual Health Promotes Marital Health
A wife's spiritual maturity shows forth when she encourages her husband toward faith in the same gentle and affirming way she would share Christ with any other person she encounters with the gospel. Because of the stress and other difficulties in such marriages, husbands can often be the last person to experience the same compassion and grace other unbelievers might expect from his wife. For this reason, every wife should study God's character and allow Christ's example of grace and mercy to permeate every single thought with a particular awareness for interaction with her husband.
This spring I reckoned with my husband's eternal destiny when he was diagnosed with a genetic heart disorder often first discovered in the morgue. His emergency situation helped remind me that for my ministry to him to be effective, my love for the truth of God's Word needs to be deliberately coupled with a gentle spirit and ongoing, intentional expressions of love and compassion. Over the years, it's been easy to blame his behaviors and addictions for any of my growing callousness in the relationship—a mindset to which any person in an unequally yoked marriage can fall prey. But Paul's words to wives of unbelievers remind us that God calls even us to participate in the redemptive stories of those he has called to lead. It matters that we are spiritually mature.
As our culture becomes less churched, more single-marrieds will be in our midst. The challenge is not just for wives of unbelieving husbands—or husbands of unbelieving wives—to know how to glorify God in his design for marriage, but even for pastors and ministry leaders to connect, equip, and minister to them. Wives can be grateful to know that God, in his revealed Word, provides grace-filled instruction for how to live in a circumstance that falls short of his intended plan for marriage. Through the work of his Holy Spirit, these marriages can truly be redeemed in both structure and function.
Bride photo by Danny Ignacio, Vignette Photography.