Married Life with an Unbeliever

By Dr. Ab Abercrombie

Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?  And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? (2 Cor 6:14-15, NKJV).

The language of this passage is very direct and absolute. Paul writes with clarity that leaves no room for discussion or concession. Christians should not, must not, be “yoked together with unbelievers”. And yet within our counseling ministry, this is perhaps the fastest growing segment of counselees seeking marriage counseling.

The issues affecting this mixed marriage are often complicated and even volatile.  As our text states, there is no communion (fellowship) between light and darkness, and there is no accord (agreement) between Christ and the devil. How then do we expect these contrary spirits to effectively merge?

I have purposely chosen the New King James Version of this text, because the words “yoked together” are particularly descriptive. A yoke, is a wooden implement fastened over the necks of two animals, for the purpose of pulling a cart or plow. I prefer this translation because it denotes anticipated movement. The animals are “yoked together” in order to share in the labor assigned.

When two are under this yoke, it is impossible to move in different directions. They can only proceed at a single pace. Both must move or both must stop. There is no autonomy; the two must act in one accord. For this reason, the Bible states: “You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together” (Deut 22:10).

Imagine the conflict endemic to this circumstance. Two disparate creatures, yoked together for a unified task. Movement, as one might expect, is labored, conflictive, and often combative. When the ox and donkey come for counseling, they typically want help with the conflict that arises within their union. They wish to communicate better, to have greater intimacy, and solve conflicts in a more effectual manner. If the biblical counselor is not cautious and discerning, he/she may be drawn into this effort, attempting to modify behavior when eternal matters are in play.

Prolonged peace in this marriage is unlikely, no matter how much investment is made in communication skills, intimacy exercises, and other humanistic labors. Instead, the counselor is assigned the task of evangelism with the unbeliever, and exhortation of biblical obedience with the Christian.

The biblical call to the Christian, living with an unbelieving spouse is difficult indeed. Many believers in this circumstance will suffer in their marriage to the point of seeking separation or divorce. Many feel entitled to divide because of the futility of their efforts to change their spouse. But the Bible provides no such escape. Paul wrote to the wife in this situation:

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, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior (1 Pet 3:1-2).

 This is a demanding calling, to be sure. The text is a continuation of the final verses of 1 Peter 2, where Peter writes about the calling of believers to share (1 Pet 4:1) in the sufferings of Christ:

For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously…(vv 21-23).

“In the same way…” means that the wife of an unbeliever is called to bear the sufferings of her circumstance, in hope of her husband’s salvation. The wife is directed to submit to her husband, even if he is “disobedient to the word.” A hard matter, yet one with eternal reasoning. The conduct of the wife is to be chaste (pure) and respectful.  She is to convey holiness in the midst of darkness. Returning to 1 Peter 3, the text continues:

Your adornment must not be merely external–braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God (vv 3-4)

 The wife of an unbeliever must constantly tend to her heart before God. She must not stifle her actions only, but rather her conduct must be changed through the transformation of her heart. She must be a person of introspection, examining herself according to the Word; quick to godly sorrow, always confronting any impediment to godliness.

There is no parallel instruction to the husband, concerning his role when married to an unbeliever, but there is ample teaching concerning the man’s call in marriage. And these directives are constant, regardless of the wife’s conduct or spiritual condition. Whether married to a believer or an unbeliever, the husband must seek to live an obedient lifestyle:

You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered (1 Pet 3:7).

Again, this passage must be viewed in context, as it follows the instructions given to the wife in the same chapter. Husbands then, must act “in the same way” as the wife (1 Pet 3:1-4), and “in the same way” as Christ (1 Pet 2:21-23). Consequently, the man must dwell with his wife in an “understanding way as with someone weaker”. Weaker does not imply inferior, but different. It is a call for compassion and empathy for the unique aspects of a woman, even if the difference is spiritual unbelief.

He must honor the wife, as a “fellow heir of the grace of life”. Commentators disagree in the meaning of this phrase. Some translate the wording to mean the general grace of God, distributed to all creations; while others believe it is a reference to eternal life. In either case, the husband’s prayers are impeded should he fail to understand and honor his wife; whether she is a believer or not.

The husband must love his wife “just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). This commandment does not hinge upon the wife’s spiritual condition, nor her obedience to the Word. Rather it is a stand-alone instruction to demonstrate the love and character of Christ in one’s marriage. Imagine the long-term impact of Christ-likeness, displayed through the husband’s sacrificial attitude and actions. He is to demonstrate the gospel in and through his life.

Finally, after writing many things concerning marriage, Paul turns his attention to marriages that are unequally yoked:

But to the rest I say, not the Lord, that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he must not divorce her. And a woman who has an unbelieving husband, and he consents to live with her, she must not send her husband away (1 Cor 7:12-13).

Division is not an option, even though the circumstance is hard. For the reasons already stated, the believing spouse bears an eternal responsibility to convey Christ and biblical obedience before the unbelieving husband or wife. The only exception follows:

Yet if the unbelieving one leaves, let him leave; the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases, but God has called us to peace.  (v 15).

 The believer must sustain him/herself in the righteous position of obedience, unless the “unbelieving one leaves”. Sometimes the gospel divides. More often than not, truth is rejected. But we are called to demonstrate and teach Christ for whatever period is required. To illustrate Christ is to persevere in faithful obedience. Paul reminds the believer held in this circumstance:

For 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).

 When couples come for counseling, these are our defining principles. Biblicists must evangelize the lost (Matt 28:19-20) and restore the fallen (Gal 6:1-2). We must not work with the superficial struggles that are predictable in mixed marriages; but instead contend for the salvation of the unbeliever and the scriptural obedience of the elect.

When I married my wife Karen, she was an unbeliever and I was a fallen Christian with no evidence of Christ in my life. Soon into the marriage, Karen was miraculously saved and immediately became a student of the Word. Seeing her in the Bible angered me and caused much conflict because I was rebellious and hardened to the Spirit. In many ways, my life was like that of an unbeliever.

Many have asked Karen, “How did you cope with a man like that?” Her answer: “I just asked God to give me an unquenchable love for my husband.” She never pressed me to change or confronted me with Scripture. She was patient, loving, kind, and generous. She submitted to me even though I was “disobedient to the word.” She was in many ways, like our Savior. Her “chaste and respectful behavior” was convicting. Soon I repented and the Lord graciously restored my heart. Thirty-years later, we are grateful indeed for the instruction of God’s Word and His faithfulness to our covenant.

4 thoughts on “Married Life with an Unbeliever”

  1. Thank you for this article! & THANK YOU for the personal insight as well. I have seen this so much lately and this explains the biblical instruction perfectly – to a T. I’m assuming the same instruction would apply when 2 unbelievers marry and THEN the wife becomes a believer? I have a friend who is in this situation and she wants to leave him. So I could see her argue that they were not unequally yoked when they married so “that part” of being unequally yoked would most likely not speak to her – but she would agree that now they are.

    • Kim,
      You are correct–the same biblical principles apply no matter the beginning spiritual condition of the man and woman at the time of marriage. In fact, Paul’s instruction in 1 Cor 7, was predominately written to people in the exact circumstance you wrote about, concerning your friend. In Paul’s day, it was common for two Gentiles or two Hebrews to marry with no faith and belief in Christ. Most during his time were only learning of Christ after marriage! The standards are the same no matter how we begin. Encourage your friend to obey the Word and trust God with the salvation of the spouse. Thank you for writing. God bless!
      Dr. Ab

  2. Thank you for your insight to this common problem. My concern is that oftentimes although this is good counsel, it often does not address the practical aspect of what the submission of a believing wife to an unbelieving husband looks like daily. For instance how far does submission go when a husband makes irresponsible decisions that bring hardship to a family, what role does a godly wife have in helping to maintain a budget when the husband wants to frivolously spend on selfish pleasures, etc. We know that ultimately a wife is to submit to her unbelieving husband until she is asked to sin but that leaves much grey area that is typically not addressed through biblical counseling articles, blogs, etc.


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