On a few occasions we’ve looked at the question “Can/should a Christian date or marry a non-Christian?” You can find our answer here.
But what happens when someone is already married to an unbeliever? This can happen for a couple of reasons:
– Both may have been unbelievers when they met. Since then, one has put their trust in Jesus whilst the other hasn’t.
– Sometimes, against wise advice, Christians make mistakes. In their desperation they seek out someone to date and marry. Perhaps hoping that their partner will come to faith later.
– With the best will in the world, we cannot read other people’s hearts -even when we know them very well. A boyfriend or girlfriend may have been outwardly professing faith when their heart was still far from Christ.
– Finally, we might also want to consider situations where a husband or wife professes faith but their life isn’t bearing fruit. They may say they are Christians and even still go to church but they do not live as believers. It is even possible that a believing husband or wife may find themselves married to someone who is under church discipline.
What happens in those circumstances. I’ve spoken to a number of Christians over time who have found themselves in this position. Sometimes they will express regret and frustration. They may find life hard, they may have discovered that they have less in common with their spouse that they first thought. This leads to tensions and disagreements about priorities to do with time and money, parenting, hobbies, dreams, ambitions etc.
I’ve also heard a couple say that they see their unbelieving spouse as a distraction from Gospel mission. They want to serve Christ, share their faith, open up their home etc but they cannot.
Here are a few thoughts
- Trust God to keep you in the circumstances you find yourself in
In 1 Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul deals with the question of marriage and singleness. He says that there are some situations where it is better not to marry. However, for those who are married, he says “remain as you are” whatever the circumstances. This includes Christians who are married to unbelievers. In effect, he says that you cannot control what your unbelieving spouse does and they may choose of their own accord to leave. If they do, you are free. However, unless they do, you remain under an obligation to your marriage vows.
Note God’s grace in the situation. Does the unbelieving spouse contaminate the household? Do they cause you to fall into sin? Can they cut you and your children off from Christ? No, Paul says:
“1For the believing wife brings holiness to her marriage, and the believing husband brings holiness to his marriage. Otherwise, your children would not be holy, but now they are holy.”
So, in your marriage trust God to be with you and to keep you.
- Keep your side of the Covenant
Marriage is a binding covenant between two people. Ephesians 5:21-32 tells us how we are to keep that covenant:
– We are to submit to one another
– Wives submit to their husbands
– Husbands have the responsibility of headship
– Husbands are to love their wives sacrificially as Christ loved the Church
I think that Ephesians 5 presents the ideal situation where a believing husband and wife are both fulfilling their side of the covenant. But what happens when one or other party to the marriage is not keeping their side? What if there is a sense that due to their lack of faith, they cannot?
I want to suggest that 1 Peter 3 helps here. Peter writes to wives who have unbelieving husbands. He tells them:
“Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives when they see the purity and reverence of your lives.”
So, what does a believing wife do when her husband is failing to love her as Christ loved the church, especially when he cannot because he does not know Christ. Peter says that she is not to be afraid but to stick in there. She is to keep trusting God and keep submitting to her husband.
Now, in Peter’s day, it was more likely for believing wives and believing slaves to be in the church whilst husbands and masters remained hostile to the Gospel, so Peter addresses those two groups specifically. However, I would argue that by implication, things work the other way round. What does a husband do? Well he doesn’t demand that his wife submits to him. It was never about his status in the hierarchy over her in the first place. Instead he is to continue to love and serve her sacrificially.
- See your husband/wife as your first responsibility in mission
Where does mission start? The answer is in the home. This means that for elders, their first priority is not the church but their family. The test of their fittingness to serve is in how they look after their wife and children, are they faithful in this.
Similarly, if you have an unbelieving husband or wife, your first responsibility is to be a witness to them. Did you see what Peter said?
“So that … they may be won over”
Not only is it possible that you might win them for Christ but also how you live in the home with all the challenges and frustrations can be an incredible witness to your children, wider family, friends, neighbours etc.
This is a hard ask. In your own strength it will seem impossible. You may well feel like you simply cannot keep going. Remember that Christ does not call you to do this in your own strength but in him.
 1 Corinthians 7:14.
 See Dave Williams, Marriage at Work on our publications page which looks at this passage in more detail. I argue for both headship as spiritual leadership in the home and for mutual submission where the husband submits to his wife by sacrificially loving her.
 1 Peter 3:1-2.
 1 Peter 3:6.
 1 Peter 2:1.