marriage to an unbeliever (and sanctification the result)

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Yesterday I wrote about marriage being both a partnership AND a hierarchy.  That post has generated some good discussion and I especially appreciate Tisha’s comments and questions (nothing against the rest of yours).  I penned a reply in the comments section, but decided it might itself be worth publishing as a post.  NOT because it’s a brilliant answer, but because I’d like to invite further discussion on the matter. I’m unsure of my conclusions regarding Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7, and welcome any input you guys have.

The Questions

Here are Tisha’s words (with portions edited out):

[Brett said:] “A wife who is in submission to Christ cannot conceivably offer full submission to a husband who is not. No man — or woman — can serve two masters.”

I was wondering if a woman is truly unable to fully submit to her husband if he is not in submission to Christ, as long as he is not asking her to contradict her responsibilites as a follower of Christ. Couldn’t him being sanctified through his wife, or being won by her conduct be partly due to her benevolent submission to him?

I was thinking those verses about serving two masters were in regard to serving God vs money. Do you believe they can be applied in the context of marriage as well?

Tisha raises some excellent (and difficult) points. I want to float my reasons for making the statements as I have, and then welcome your thoughts:

Two Masters

First, though, let me clarify that I was not offering the husband in the above scenario as one of the “two masters.”  Rather, I was meaning to imply (and probably was unclear) that a man who is NOT in Christ is necessarily serving the world.  And a man who IS in Christ is serving Christ. So a Christian woman, it seems, could only submit to the latter, as in doing so (if he loves her as Christ loves the church) she would be submitting to both husband and Christ in one fell swoop. So my two masters here are the same as in Matthew 6 — God versus the things of this world.

Trading Roles

In 1 Cor 7:12-14, Paul urges the Christian woman not to divorce her unbelieving husband IF “he is willing to live with her.” In this situation it sounds to me like the non-believer husband is being forced to choose between 3 options:

  • submit to his Christian wife and her Christian ways,
  • have her divorce him, or
  • leave (and i’m not sure this one is really any different than the one before it).

The Christian woman in this situation has firmly decided to serve the Lord, and if her husband wants to live under that kind of roof with that kind of wife and kids, let him; she shouldn’t divorce him. It seems the roles have now been switched.  The wife in this situation is called to love her husband as Christ loves the church, while the husband is choosing to be in willing submission to her — and therefore even to Christ.

Sanctification of the Unbelieving Spouse

I believe this is how “the unbelieving husband will be sanctified through his wife.”  So I would suggest it’s not a wife’s willing submission to her husband that convinces him to accept Christ or makes him holy.  Rather it is his willing submission to Christ THROUGH HER that sanctifies him. This is exactly the opposite of what I’ve been taught.  But it seems to me to make more sense of the text.  Also, it’s interesting to note it works the same way for a believing man with an unbelieving wife — though in that situation the roles would not be switched.

[If you think about it, loving an unbelieving husband despite his unbelief is incredibly similar to Christ loving the church.  Being submissive to him, though, would not at all be.]

The Christian woman, we’re also told, is not bound to a husband who doesn’t want to live with her (and her faith). If he leaves, she is to let him; and she’s in no way required to chase. This section seems to further support the above ideas. Marriage between a believer and an unbeliever is not what was intended, but if the non-Christian submits to Christ through his/her spouse, it will work.  It will not, though, be successful any other way.


So in the situation Tisha mentions — where the husband “is not asking [the wife] to contradict her responsibilites as a follower of Christ” — I would say there are three ways that could happen:

  1. She is leading, and he is submitting — which will work fine. Great, even.  And he will be sanctified in the process.  But she is not in submission to him in this case.
  2. They are agreeing to live their lives as if they weren’t married (Christian marriage anyway), with neither in submission to the other. This may make for a peaceful coexistence, but it’s not what marriage was intended to be.  And still she’s certainly not in submission to her husband. She may let him make some decisions, but she’s not following him as he follows his ideals and worships his gods. Because his god is necessarily going to be money, power, or even something good like family. But for her to submit to him (and his god) would be to submit to a second master.
  3. She doesn’t think she’s being asked to contradict her service to God, but in actuality she is. She is attempting to serve two masters without realizing it. [I’d argue this is probably even where most Christian marriages are — not because the husband is an unbeliever, but because it seems most Christians today are “3rd soil christians.”

What do you guys think?

Next post in this marriage series: marriage as a (misunderstood) play



Filed under family, musings on the Word

14 responses to “marriage to an unbeliever (and sanctification the result)

  1. Jason Miller

    Good conversation.

    It seems like there is a major story from the Bible being left out of this conversation, that being the creation story, wherein we get a glimpse of God’s intentions for what marriage should be. Then they messed it up, and the results are still be handed down to us. We then tell women that the punishment for choosing NOT to follow God is actually His intentions for Christian marriage. You don’t necessarily get from Genesis the idea that hierarchy (which is defined the following way: a system or organization in which people or groups are ranked one above the other according to status or authority) is God’s preference. Hierarchy seems to be part of the punishment. But if we, in our marriages, choose to follow Christ, is hierarchy necessarily a part of our marriages? This may be simply an alternative way of saying what you said.

    Second, you say “If you think about it, loving an unbelieving husband despite his unbelief is incredibly similar to Christ loving the church. Being submissive to him, though, would not at all be.”

    I believe that is the precise point of the entire book of Hosea. Except God takes it another several steps.

    Wrestling with meaning is important. Some might argue that the wrestling is the point. It even seems that Paul is saying such indirectly in 1 Cor. 7, wherein he is continuing to deal with questions of, shall we say, a legalistic nature. Instead of answering the legalistic questions directly (do we X or do we not X), he presents the issues as deeply complex…as indeed they are. This way of answering them encourages, it seems to me, a Jacobic wrestling with God in which the wrestling might itself be the point. That we cannot read this book and come away with a rulebook of dos and do nots, that this way of approaching the Bible is in and of itself flawed.

    Which is why I like this blog so much. Not only are they not presented in this way, but it seems none of readers approach their hermenutic in this way either. Wonderful.

    • not much time. you and yours are on your way to my house to celebrate new year’s. i’ve got to ezra-proof the house.

      you said, “We… tell women that the punishment for choosing NOT to follow God is actually His intentions for Christian marriage.”

      i often, reading the new testament, read of Jesus instructions to a fallen world — and then translate that in my mind to mean it was God’s intended purpose for us. rather, though, it would probably be more accurate to refer to it as our consolatory instructions. thanks for reminding me of this.

      i may do a personal study on hosea when i finish what i’m doing now — obviously i’d be staying on topic by doing so…

      i like your thoughts on wrestling with scripture and its meanings. if paul wasn’t already doing such — which he was — today we’re taking what he said and reading it in the context of a different culture. and for those of us in foreign countries we’re reading it into two different cultures. at least. i feel like i’m wrestling with scripture… while at the same time playing twister with it.

  2. Brett,
    It seems that there is a very broad spectrum between both husband and wife living (continually) in full submission to Christ, and one of them being a complete unbeliever. I think you’re right that the 3rd soil Christian category is a very popular place to be!

    As far as marriage is concerned, it’s difficult to see from Scripture a set of exact guidelines that address the complex nature of every marriage relationship at all times, with all of its intricacy. If you know a lot of married people, you know there is a wide array of circumstances couples find themselves in during the course of a marriage. Situations cause people to grow in their faith or fall back, and it may ebb and flow over time – and one or both may not always be in full submission to Christ.

    Unless a husband is a true unbeliever, and wishes to leave his wife because he is not pleased to dwell with her, I don’t think I would feel comfortable asserting that the wife is free to stop submitting to her husband or that he is responsible to submit to her as the Christian.

    Nor would we say that every couple who has experienced adultery should divorce just because it is given as just cause to do so.

    God uses such a variety of means to reach people, to draw them near, to cultivate fruit, uniquely where they are – so it’s hard to make bullet point kinds of assessments or draw arrows about the precise direction submission must always flow in a relationship as multifaceted as marriage, where ideal is often not part of the equation – you hit on this so well with the hierarchy vs. partnership point.

    Maybe, in some situations, the wife submitting to her husband who is not in submission to Christ is her being completely obedient to God, (serving one master) while in other situations it would be the complete wrong thing to do. Or maybe it’s right for a certain period of time, then it becomes no longer profitable or necessary. I don’t know….

    Sorry this is so long.

  3. JMF

    Insight thoughts, Brett.

    Perhaps Sept.5 is too soon for marriage. This all makes me feel not very mature. I really respect you for how you make it a priority to constantly improve your relationship with your wife. Good stuff, brother.

    (off subject) …And i’m taking your advice and getting a mentor/mentoree. Already moving forward with it.

  4. I agree with your assessments here.
    I appreciate your thoughtful responses. You pick and choose your words carefully when you are sharing God’s truths…..I enjoy that very much.

    You are not flying off the cuff with your words, and you put some research, thought and personal experiences into your posts.

    Now, I want to get some Tanzania stories out of you!
    What is God doing right now there, where you are? “) I’ll wait….

  5. Enjoying these marriage/church posts. They are prompting good discussions. Living these texts well is the main thing. Mutual submission (as defined by Jesus’ love for the church) is the main thing for me, in my humble studied opinion.

  6. Pingback: marriage is a hierarchy? | aliens and strangers

  7. Pingback: marriage as a (misunderstood) play | aliens and strangers

  8. Jen

    So, I read this via Tisha, after getting back from vacation and have been chewing on it for a few days. I am really intrigued by this possible interpretation. I love thinking about what scripture acually says, versus what we have possibly been handed down through generations as church “doctrine or tradition”.
    Here are some reasons this resonates with me as possible truth: 1. Paul declares that this is his opinion only, in V12. 2. How is a husband who is living according the “world’s kingdom” going to be sanctified? Unless, like Brett said, he is sanctified through submitting to Christ b/c Christ rules in the household. 3. Can the Lord be Lord of one’s life is she is submitted to an unbelievers rule? I have witnessed a close relative try and do this and my observation is no….she cannot and that the Lord is not on the throne of her life.
    This of course raises the whole question of what would it look like to allow a husband to be the “head” and still wholly follow Christ. And with that, a myraid of other questions come to mind.
    Now, then there is 1 Pet 3:1-2 in which Peter, perhaps, is expressing a differing view than Paul. But what conduct is it that wins these husbands to faith? Is it a mousy, complacent conduct or is it a conduct of authentic, contagious faith? I don’t know.

    I do find this to be a very interesting discussion that questions, and perhaps rightly so, a long standing teaching on these verses.

    How can our hearts be fully committed to Him, if we are trying to please a spouse that does not recognize His authority.
    Great conversation. Thanks Brett for your thought provoking blogs; I come by here every now and then thanks to Tisha.

    • jen, thanks for coming by and for adding your comments. i think you make some very good points regarding paul’s words. and i want to add my own thoughts (hopefully in brief) on the 1 peter 3 passage. i should again state, though, that i’m just attempting to read the text how it makes the best sense — i’m not stuck to this interpretation:

      i think the key to my own understanding of the 1 peter passage is the “in the same way” that comes before “be submissive to your husbands.” just prior to these instructions, peter writes of Jesus’ actions on behalf of sinners — that he did not retaliate or make threats, but instead suffered on their behalf to give us help when we needed it.

      so “in the same way submit to your husbands” here would seem to mean the same as paul’s instructions for husbands to love their wives just as Christ loves the church. the word submissive is indeed used here, and i would of course agree that marriage involves mutual submission. but i’m convinced these women are not to follow their husbands as they follow the ways of the world, but instead are to be willing to suffer as Christ did for the sake of their husbands. i assume this would require great wisdom in knowing when and where to “submit” and when and where the husband is “submitting” by being willing to live in a christian home, as defined by his wife.

      what do you think?

      • Jen

        I just went back and read it again and totally see what you are saying. Those chapter breaks that were not in the original text often due us a disservice and can cause us to stray from reading the whole context. I started the reading right at the beginning of chapter 3 rather than looking back to see what the likewise links us to. And I would agree that within context that is a very possible reading. The wife then, while wholly following Christ, would not, if her husband ridiculed her, caused her some kind of suffering in his treatment of her return that treatment, but like Christ would submit herself to God who judges justly.
        Hmmm…I wonder in a country like China what it looks like in a home where the wife has come to know Christ and the husband has not yet….I cannot help but think that might give me a glimpse into what walking this out would truly look like.

        • i lived in china for three years, but didn’t know any much about the home lives of any women who became christians without their husbands. we mostly worked with college students. actually there were many single women with families who were christians in some of our groups, but not as many married women.

          i do know that men beating their wives (into submission) was prevalent there, as i saw its effects many times, and saw it in person on two occasions. that makes my understanding of this passage really difficult; what does a wife do in that situation?

          • Jen

            Ugh. That is awful and I don’t have an answer to that question, obviously. There is so much I don’t understand….and I cannot even begin to fathom how living in a culture impacts how you understand scripture. When I was thinking of China…I was thinking more of the persecution aspect. I guess I think, perhaps naively, that those in persecuted cultures are following the word more accurately than we are.

            In our culture, it often seems that we have this big huge “entitlement” issue and jack verses out of context in order to mold them to our wants and desires. And another thing, just in my opinion, that I feel we have done is brought the “american dream” into the church. And I am not so sure the american dream is biblical. So, I will anwer another question here…you asked for blog titles for your top 10….”Is the American Dream Biblical?” or something along those lines.
            Take care!

          • i’m of the mindset that persecution doesn’t necessarily create more committed christians — but, rather, that persecution weeds out the nominal ones. i do think the church is strengthened as a result, though. because the churches don’t have a watered down sense of spirituality, discipleship, and obedience.

            i’ll be thinking about the american dream post idea…

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