9. How to Live with an Unbelieving Husband by Dr. Jay E. Adams
In the history of the church, it has never been uncommon to find Christian women married to unbelieving husbands. The phenomenon is certainly not new. In the days of Christ's earthly ministry women remained at the cross, when men fled. This is a very interesting commentary on women. The disciples had gone, but the women remained. Have you ever
wondered who their husbands were and where they were? It was women who arrived first at the tomb on Sunday morning, the day of the resurrection. So it would seem that the church from the beginning has faced the situation of faithful women who are married to men who are not quite so faithful. The circumstance is of frequent enough occurrence that one would expect Scripture to speak directly to the matter. And, indeed, it does.
The first thing that must be made plain before going further is that God does not countenance the marriage of a believer to an unbeliever. In I Corinthians 7:39, Paul says that Christians must marry only "in the Lord." That phrase means within the common faith that Christians hold toward Jesus Christ, that faith which identifies them as a part of the body of Christ. Thus they can be said to be "in Christ," or "in the Lord" together. Nothing in Scripture in any way relaxes the clear, cut commandment that believers must not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. Christians may marry only in the Lord; that is, only within the faith.
Therefore, when Scripture gives instructions to a believing wife who is married to an unbelieving husband, it in no way countenances the marriage of a believer to an unbeliever. What is particularly in view is that situation where one of two married unbelievers becomes a Christian. This is not an infrequent occurrence. And more often than not it seems that it is the wife who becomes the believer rather than the husband.
Why that happens is difficult to explain. Interestingly enough, in the Reformed churches with which the author is most intimately acquainted, there seems to be a very high percentage of men in the congregations. For that we must be very thankful. God is blessing us richly with men. Other churches may face the problem as a greater threat than perhaps some of our churches do. Nevertheless, all of us need to know what God says about this matter. And in studying what God says, it is possible to learn some general principles about witnessing to unbelievers, too. One also may learn some vital principles about how all believers must live at home. None of the recommendations may be isolated to one situation; the principles in them cut through our whole experience as Christians. So while this chapter is particularly for those who might happen to have unbelieving husbands, its message is also for all of us. Believing husbands who have unbelieving wives may best witness to them by assuming the responsibilities of "loving leadership" that have been discussed in the chapter of that name.
It is of utmost importance to emphasize the fact that Scripture requires the believer to live with the unbelieving partner if he wishes to continue living with the believer. A Christian may not abandon his unbelieving partner. God insists that the Christian must go on living with him. This is a plain commandment from the Word of God. In I Corinthians 7, Paul speaks to the matter in verses 12-16: "To the rest I say, not the Lord...." (By this he does not mean that he is speaking without authority from the Lord. What he had written previously was only an echo of what Jesus Himself had said to His disciples during His earthly ministry. Now what he says goes beyond Christ's words; he is considering a matter that Jesus did not discuss. Jesus' words referred only to the marriage relations of two believers, not to that of a believer and an unbeliever. Yet it must be remembered that Jesus is now speaking through the apostle Paul as he says this.)
To the rest I say, not the Lord, if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever and she consents to live with him, let him not send her away. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband and he consents to live with her, let her not send her husband away. I Cor. 7:12, 13
Words could not be clearer. If the unbeliever wants to continue the marriage, then the believing husband or wife has no right before God to break it up.
Why does Paul say this? He not only gives the directive, but he also gives the reason. He says that for the sake of the children and also for the sake of the partner, the believer must continue the marriage: "For the unbelieving husband is sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified through her husband, Otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy" (v. 14). It is not possible to enter into a full discussion of what "uncleanness" and "holiness" mean in this passage. This is extremely difficult to determine. It must mean this, at the very least: that other persons who live in the same home with a believer bear a certain unique relationship to God that they would not if that believer was not in their midst. How full is that relationship? How much does that believer bring to an unbeliever (whether it is his child or a husband)? This question is hard to answer. Clearly the presence of a faithful person sanctifies, or sets apart (see Gen. 18:22-33, where the presence of the righteous is said to have a preserving influence). Because of the presence of the believing partner in that home, an unbelieving partner or child stands in a special position. Certainly that means, on the very minimal level, that the gospel is in the home within easy access. The fruit of the Holy Spirit who dwells within the believer is in that home. His work may be "tasted" and His power may be seen by the others (Heb. 6:4, 5). How far the passage goes beyond this is a very difficult question to answer.
Paul goes on to say that if the unbelieving partner leaves, the situation changes (w. 15,16). The unbeliever who was once married to an unbeliever but now is married to a Christian, must cope with something that he did not bargain for when he got married. Now his wife goes to church once a week, reads her Bible, and prays. She has new friends and is interested in fellowship with Christian people. She no longer agrees to lie on the income tax form and doesn't care to do many of the things that she used to enjoy doing. In his view she may have become an irritant. He may decide: "I didn't strike this kind of bargain when I married you. You were an unbeliever. You believed in the same things that I believe in; you lived the same kind of life that I lead. Now that you've got religion, I don't like you anymore. I'm going to find someone who will cut comers along with me. So long." If the unbeliever wants to leave, the Bible says, "Let him leave. The brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace." The Christian in such a situation is free from his marriage bonds and may be divorced and remarried. He (or she) is free.'
However, if the unbeliever wants to remain, there is the possibility of winning him to Christ. Paul says, "How do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?" (v. 16). One of the reasons for continuing the marriage if the unbeliever is willing to do so is in order to lead one's partner to faith in Jesus Christ. Certainly that must be an uppermost thought in the heart of any Christian. The fact that someone for whom she cared enough (at least at one time) to marry does not know Christ as she has come to know Him should arouse a strong desire to win him to the Savior. Paul says that if he leaves, then her opportunity is gone. That opportunity always exists unless the unbeliever himself says, "Forget it; I m leaving.
If, then, there is the possibility of winning the unbelieving partner, how does a Christian do so? Specifically how does a wife who has an unbelieving husband go about seeking to win that husband? What does she do? How must she behave? What must she avoid? What will she stress? How can her behavior and words best contribute to this purpose?
There is no need to speculate about the answers to these questions. That precise problem is discussed definitively in I Peter 3:1. Here Peter says: "In the same way you wives be submissive to your own husbands. So that even if any of them are disobedient to the word they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives.,' It is on the witness of their lives rather than on verbal evangelism that Peter puts the emphasis , not to the Word of God, when he says that husbands are won without "a word." Notice, then, that the stress is placed on behavior rather than talk. He continues:
1. See John Murray, Divorce (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1961), pp. 67-78.
They may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives as they observe your pure [or chaste and respectful behavior. And let not your adornment be external only, braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, and putting on dresses, but let it be the hidden person of the heart with its imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way, in former times, the holy women also who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.-I Peter 3:2 6
And he says to husbands:
You husbands likewise live with your wives in an understanding way as with the weaker vessel, since she is a woman. And grant her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life so that your prayers may not be hindered (v. 7).
Then, summing up, he concludes:
Let all be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, humble in spirit, not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead, for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing (v. 8).
Now, it is those first six verses in particular that lay down clear guidelines for the conduct of a believing wife in a home where there is an unbelieving husband.
Such men will not listen to the Word of God. Ordinarily the last persons that they will listen to are their wives. As sinners live together, they tend to irritate one another. All unbelieving husbands who have believing wives know that their wives are not perfect. Although their wives are Christians, they do irritate and they frequently rub their husbands the wrong way. It is very easy for a wife to major on preaching the message while forgetting about her life. But when she does so, the irritations speak far more loudly than her words. Husbands are driven from the gospel when wives continue to lecture and preach but make no attempt to improve the way that they live.
Some wives believe that their calling, once they become Christians, is to set up Bible studies in their homes as evangelical traps in which to catch their husbands. Others leave gospel literature in profusion all over the house. But as the long, suffering husband shuffles up the front porch and into the living room through tracts and pamphlets, he only too clearly gets the point. And, ordinarily, he doesn't like it; he concludes that he is being needled with the gospel.
One woman who sought counseling was upset over the fact that her unsaved husband was rejecting the gospel. She revealed her method for winning her husband to the Lord: she kept the local Christian radio station on from morning to night and turned up the volume when her husband came home. And he would go around muffling his ears. He didn't like the music, he didn't like the continual preaching, and he was getting fed up with his wife and with the gospel. Her counselor advised her to get an ear plug for her radio set and to start paying more attention to the way she was living. He urged her to show more concern for her husband as a wife and to bombard him with acts of love and concern rather than with sermons. It was not long before the husband showed up at the counseling sessions and at length became a Christian. She had been driving him away from the Lord by the radio.
It is very important for a wife not to lecture or preach to her husband (or become a suppliant who begs him to go to church). She must not deceive and trick him, maneuvering him into positions where he is constantly inundated by Biblical preaching. These kinds of maneuvers on the part of wives have been used from time immemorial to try to get husbands to come to Christ. The wonder is that they have worked as often as they have. But more often they have failed, and they have driven husbands away from the gospel. The worst thing that a wife can do is to nag her husband about the gospel. Husbands turn off wives who are like that.
One thing that a husband can't turn off, one thing that he usually doesn't want to turn off, is a wife who is a wonderful person. That is where the apostle Peter puts the stress. She must win him not by her words, but by her behavior. Her life lays the groundwork for her words. That doesn't mean that somewhere along the line she or someone else will not need to present the gospel message. Certainly it does not mean that. No one was ever saved apart from believing the gospel (Rom. 10:17). But it does mean that he will be won most readily without her continual talking, nagging, and preaching. The behavior of the wife at home is what is going to make the difference. Let me ask you: what kind of a wife are you? How do you live at home?
Virginia came for counseling. She said, "My husband will never come. He doesn't care about me or the marriage or about anything." The counselor urged: "Virginia, don't give up so easily." He began to talk about her life. Virginia saw many things that were wrong. In various ways she had been going in the wrong direction. She was failing both as a mother and as a wife. She came to see that she must change, but not as a technique to win her husband to the Lord. That can never be the prime motivation. Her change had to be based primarily on the fact that she ought to be living the right kind of life before God. She had to seek God's change whether this won her husband or not. The basic motive had to be changed living because God says, "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness." That must always be the fundamental reason. So Virginia became convicted of the fact that she was not doing what she ought to be doing before God as a wife. She confessed this to God and asked Him to help her to become a better wife. She had given up on her husband.
The counselor asked: "What little things could you do to begin with?" She could think of nothing (it had been a long time since she had thought along those lines!). So the counselor gave her an initial suggestion: "Why don't you put candles on the table the first night when he comes home? Let him come home to some candlelight Let him see that you really care and that you have begun to work at making this marriage go. He will notice that you are trying to be different. Just for him' put candles on the table." She protested: "He'll laugh! He'll make fun of me. He'll say, 'You've got all the lights out; I can't eat in the dark,' and that sort of thing." "Got a better idea?" "No." "Then try it anyway." Do you know what she said when she came back the next week? Her husband, Bratt, came through the door, looked at the candles, and said, "Hold everything!" He disappeared. A minute later he came back with a camera and took a picture of it! He noticed. She didn't say anything, but she did something. Conduct that first day made more impact than all of her weeks and months of nagging. That was only a minimal beginning. She had many more vital matters to deal with. But by means of this first attempt Virginia (and Bratt) got the point.
Conduct, not speech, makes the difference. She had talked to him about going to church, she had talked to him about coming to counseling, she had talked to him about all kinds of things, but it did no good. When she began to do something, it made the difference, all the difference in the world.
Here are some actual comments from counselees about this matter. One husband, referring to his wife, said: "I came here to see what happened to her. When she came home and said, I'm sorry,' I was shocked; that was the first time that she had said she was sorry in our entire marriage." Another husband put it this way: "I came here because I knew we had reached a breakthrough when she said, 'I want to submit to you.' " Because of this he began for the first time to work on making a success of his marriage. The apostle Peter says: "You wives, be submissive to your own husbands. So that even if they are disobedient to the word they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives."
What kind of wife does your husband think you are? If you have an unsaved husband, what does he think of you? What kind of image of you does he have? Does he think of you as a nagging Christian? Does he think of you as one who talks a good Christianity but who doesn't live it? Or does he begin to see you as someone whose faith has gotten down into her life and has done things for her? As a result, is he becoming curious about whether this faith might do things for him too? Does he see that Somebody has been working in your life? Does he see a wife who is ever working at being a good wife, no matter how careless he is? Does he see kindness and love in you, even when he is resentful, bitter, nasty, and cruel? Does your faith make you treat him sweetly? Does he notice in you that imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit?
It is not the nagging, but the behavior, that shows Christ in a life. The quiet winsomeness of a wife speaks eloquently of Jesus Christ.
It is interesting to notice that Peter uses two words when speaking of the wife's behavior: "pure" and"respectful." One refers to respect for her husband; it is the same word that Paul uses in Ephesians 5 when he speaks of her submission to him as God's authority in the home. But notice the other: "chaste" or "pure" behavior. There are Christian wives who have given their husbands reasons to suspect their behavior. Not just to suspect that they are resentful, but to suspect their faithfulness. In a number of situations unsaved husbands have been turned away from the church of Jesus Christ by what was careless (if not more than that), indiscreet behavior on the part of wives. And there have been wives, Christian wives, who have become all too much enamored with some fine Christian preacher or elder who is "so different" from a "wretched, unsaved husband" at home. When a wife acquires that kind of attitude, she often starts to get a roving eye. She is far from a sinless person down inside. The temptation to look at the grass across the fence may grow strong. She thinks, "How nice it would be to have a wonderful Christian husband like John," or "How lovely it would be to be the wife of a preacher like Joe." She may even begin to have fantasies about it and give her husband reasons for becoming suspicious.
All in all there is little danger of this for a woman who in every way is seeking to fulfil all her duties as a wife. She will be careful not to stake bargains with her husband with her body or withhold sexual relations out of anger. Rather, in strict accord with I Corinthians 7:1-5, she will be zealous to fulfil her role as her husband's submissive, alluring, and sexually satisfying partner. Her husband will have no need to suspect her. She will "do him good and not evil all the days of her life" (Prov. 31 :12). She will encourage him to "rejoice with her"; she will endeavor to be his satisfying lover, exhilarating him with her love (see Prov. 5: 15-20). How often Christian women have failed in their sexual duties and thereby not only have placed great temptation before their unsaved husbands, but have brought reproach on Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, there is but one message to the wife of an unsaved husband: win him by your life. Pray and live; that is your basic witness.
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