Living With an Unbelieving Spouse

November 13, 2016 / No. 3854

Dear Radio Friends,
The passage before us today addresses a particular class of women in the church. We already learned of other classes of women: there are single or unmarried women, widows, married women, women with children, and elderly women. Today we address those women in the church who are called by God to live with an unbelieving spouse. Why? Because the Word of God gives particular instruction to them too, and since the Bible does this we may not forget them. The verses we consider in our broadcast today are found in I Corinthians 7:13-16. Let me read them a moment: “And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him. For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. But if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God hath called us to peace. For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?” As we can tell, this passage also applies to husbands who have unbelieving wives. Neither therefore ought such husbands be ignored in our broadcast today. At the same time, since the focus of our series is on the woman, so also will that be our focus today.
The church praises the virtuous woman. When doing so, we may not overlook that wife and mother who must live a life of faith while dealing with the hardship of a spouse who does not share that faith. The marriage relationship takes work when God joins two believers together into one. But they are bound together also in their love for God. Can we imagine the difficulties faced by a believing wife whose husband stands opposed to her faith? These godly women need the support and prayers of the church and of their fellow believers. We take time out therefore to consider what the Word of God teaches us here in this passage.
In this chapter the inspired apostle gives specific and personal instruction regarding marriage. In verses 10, 11 Paul reiterates the instruction Jesus gave during His earthly ministry concerning divorce and remarriage. We read, “And unto the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband: But and if she depart, let her remain unmarried, or be reconciled to her husband: and let not the husband put away his wife.” Paul then anticipates the question these new believers might raise to this teaching of Jesus: What about when a man is married to an unbelieving wife, or a wife is married to an unbelieving husband. Jesus had not addressed this question specifically. Paul does so now with apostolic authority. You may not divorce that unbelieving man or woman if he or she be pleased to dwell with you. As difficult as life may be, you may not put them away, unless for the cause of unfaithfulness, of course. So the instruction we consider here in verses 13-16 flows out of what Christ teaches us concerning marriage. And that we address today.
I. The Injunction
The apostle Paul writes his letter to a predominantly Gentile church. Most of its members had been converted through his preaching and had joined themselves to the church institute in Corinth. It was not an uncommon situation in the church there to find a believing man or woman who joined the church alone without his or her spouse. We well know, do we not, that just because God has chosen to work in one person’s heart by His grace and Spirit bringing them to faith and repentance, that does not mean He must work in the heart of another. The same was true during the time of the early church. In several cases the Lord may have chosen to bring a man or a woman to faith, but then did not choose to do this with the spouse. The result was that a believing spouse now lived with an unbelieving spouse. As I said, this was not rare then—but neither is this scenario strange to us today either. This scenario we will now apply to the believing wife.
There were two possible reactions of an unbelieving husband to this new life that he witnessed in his wife whom God had brought to faith. In some cases the unbeliever was repelled by that new life of faith evidenced in the one he had married. He did not like it. Her faith aggravated him. Her faithful witness was a constant reminder to him of his own sin, and this caused anger and disgust with his wife. Because of this rift in his marriage relationship, such an unbelieving husband no longer wanted to live with her. And since there was in Roman culture at that time the easy divorce that we find in our own society, the husband sought to put away his wife and depart from her. Paul addresses this scenario in verse 15: “if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases: but God has called us to peace.” I am not going to go into a detailed explanation of this verse. I believe an entire sermon could be preached on it alone, but this would steer us too far from the topic at hand. This verse simply points out to that believing wife that if her husband decides to gain an unlawful divorce from her and leave her, then she need not be filled with guilt over this situation. It is true that his departure was indeed abandoning her. That was painful enough in itself. But the believing wife need not feel guilt on account of what he was doing. The law of God in the seventh commandment did not condemn her. Her unbelieving husband was guilty. If he departed, then let him depart and let peace abide in her home and family. Also, she can have peace with God. That is all we are going to say about this verse—even though more could be said, of course.
The scenario God’s Word addresses in the passage before us is that of the unbelieving husband who is pleased to dwell with his wife despite the fact that she lives in faith and he in unbelief. To be pleased means that the husband agrees or consents to live together with her. He approves of his life in the home together with his believing wife. The husband, perhaps not caring for what she now embraced, was indifferent toward her faith, perhaps shrugged his shoulders and ignored it. As long as her faith in Christ did not get in his way or upset his own lifestyle, he was pleased to dwell with her. Some unbelieving husbands were perhaps confused and disliked what their wives were doing, yet nevertheless had a natural love for their wives and depended on their wives so they consented to live with them.
These believing wives are enjoined by the Word of God not to leave their husbands. And by “leave” is meant divorce. This is supported by verse 12, where unbelieving husbands are also enjoined not to “put away” their wives, a word that literally refers to divorce. The rule of Christ had been established, the only lawful ground for divorce is that of adultery, unfaithfulness in the marriage bond. That rule needed to be obeyed in this situation. If the husband was pleased to dwell with his wife faithfully, she may not divorce him.
But there is more implied in this injunction of God’s Word.
A believing wife must be willing to live in peace and harmony with her unbelieving husband. The home may not be filled with bitter quarreling and dissension on account of the faith of the wife. She must learn to adjust her life in such a way that she can live with her husband in love. There must be peace in the home and family. She must even be willing, as Peter says, to subject herself to the will of her husband as long as he does not demand of her to disobey her Savior. And that is the difficult and at times painful life of a person whose spouse is not a believer. We ought to understand that as a church of Jesus Christ. It is oftentimes not easy for such a virtuous woman (or man) to be able to maneuver around the unbelief of her husband. At times she (or again he) has a real struggle in her soul with whether what she is doing is compromising her faith or is necessary to keep peace in her home without denying her faith. Those struggles are not a part of the life of two people who share faith together. That is why I said earlier that we need to pray for such a virtuous woman or man that indeed experiences these troubles in life. It takes a ton of wisdom and an extreme amount of patience. If that unbelieving husband is pleased to dwell with you, virtuous wife, then you must be pleased to dwell with him. God will then bless you in that marriage relationship and He will bless your home and family too.
II. The Reasons
This blessing of God on your home makes up the two reasons God gives in the verses before us. The first is found in verse 14: “the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy.” That is a thought-provoking usage of words in this verse. An unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by her husband. That term sanctify means to be made holy. Now, it is clear from the passage itself that this verse does not mean that God makes an unbelieving person holy because his spouse is holy. God does not transfer the holiness of a believer to an unbeliever somehow through the bond of marriage. God does this only through the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Holiness comes only with salvation. So, Paul does not mean when he states that the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the believing wife that he is holy on account of his wife’s holiness.
Rather, this is to be explained in this way. The husband is made holy in connection with or in the person of the believing wife. Why the KJV translates the preposition as by the wife is hard to understand. It is clear from the Greek that the preposition is in. The unbelieving husband is made holy in connection with his believing wife. There exists a certain sanctity in the marriage itself by virtue of the fact that he is now one flesh with a holy wife. The unbelieving husband with no desire of his own nevertheless has become party to a Christian in marriage. He shares therefore, though he is totally undeserving, in the benefits that are derived from being married to a believer. I am reminded of when Joseph became a slave to Potiphar in the land of Egypt. God bestowed the earthly benefits of wealth on Potiphar for Joseph’s sake. Marriage, of course, ought to be sanctified by both parties in the marriage; but according to the Word of God here, one believing spouse also can bring sanctification to the marriage itself. And though the unbelieving spouse does not even realize it or acknowledge it, it is a beneficial thing for him to belong to a virtuous, God-fearing woman.
But not only is the marriage itself sanctified by the believing spouse, so also is the entire family, the children included. God has a great concern for the children of the church. This is true because God establishes His covenant with believers and their believing children in their generations. When God grafted these Gentile Christians into the early church, God grafted them into His covenant of friendship. He did not choose some individual adults in the church in Corinth only to leave this church in the next generation and go somewhere else. Where God grafts new believers in, God immediately grafts their believing children into the church too. God has a great concern for the children of the church. We learn from Malachi 2:15 that God has made a man and his wife one in the church that He might seek a godly seed! By means of a wife dwelling with an unbelieving husband, God uses such a marriage to seek out a godly seed. By means of a sanctified marriage—and it is because of the believing spouse—God saves to Himself a godly seed. Else were your children unclean. Were it not for this marriage to a believing wife, an unbelieving husband’s children would be unclean together with him. By means of a sanctified marriage, the children of such a family are sanctified—made holy.
No, this does not mean that this virtuous woman can pass on her holiness to her children by some kind of mystical union with them. She can no more pass on her holiness to her children than she can to her unbelieving husband. Every child born into this world, whether in the church or outside of it, must be born again in order to be made holy in the blood of Jesus Christ alone. But certainly there are the benefits of being raised and properly trained in a godly home. Though the unbelieving spouse may not see the necessity of raising his children in the fear of God, the believing wife certainly does. And she will give of her life to train them diligently in the fear of God’s name. And since God is a God of means, He is pleased to raise up unto Himself a godly seed by means of that believing wife. That then is why a wife ought not to leave her unbelieving husband.
The second reason is put in question form in verse 16: “For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband?” Beautiful! God has given us all to be witnesses, in this world, of the life of Christ that dwells in us. That life of Christ cannot help but show itself in the life of a believer. The same is true of a virtuous woman. She is sanctified in the blood of Christ. And this will show itself in all of her conversation, that is, in the very way she lives—in all of her walk of life. It will show itself in her home when she shows proper love for her husband and a proper submission to his will. It will show itself in how she teaches her children respect for their father and proper behavior in the home. It will show itself in her honest dealings with others. Her life will exude her faith.
If God uses our witness as believers to bring others to Christ, how much more can God use that witness of a godly wife to save her husband! Obviously, once again, the godly wife does not save her husband. Salvation is earned by our Savior on the cross. Only God imparts salvation by His grace. But God does use at times the means of the godly witness of a believing wife or husband to save the spouse. It is not beyond God and the power of His grace to do this! He is able to do this! I have been asked by a believing wife in her frustration and disappointment when she should quit praying for the salvation of her husband. The answer to that question is clear: you never stop praying for that spouse! Do not grow weary in prayer for him. But do not forget to pray that God’s good and free will be done in the matter too. What knowest thou, oh wife, whether thou shalt save your husband?
III. The Joy
There is a versification of Psalm 126, the last stanza of which reads like this: “The sower bearing precious seed may weep as in his toil he grieves. But he shall come again with joy in harvest time with golden sheaves.” Brothers and sisters who bear the burden of carrying on alone in a marriage where you are the only believer, do not forget this Psalm. God gives to you a special care or burden that you must carry in your lives. But remember, you are sowing seed. And as we sow that seed we may weep in our toil. Life is not always so easy. We understand. But toil on. Do not grow weary. Especially if God gives you children to bring up in the fear of His name. Sow the seed of His Word. If those children are already grown, continue to be a faithful witness to them and to your spouse.
There will be a reward for your faithfulness to your spouse. There will be a reward to your labor with your children by yourself in your home. Even if that reward is not seen in this life, it will be seen in the life to come. There comes a time of harvest—perhaps in this life when we see our children grow up and confess their faith with us. Perhaps when we stand at the judgment seat of Christ and hear Him say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” When we witness that in this life or in the life to come, we will be given joy unspeakable and full of glory. Truly, that woman who labors in her family where there is an unbelieving husband is a virtuous woman. Be encouraged therefore. And thank you, too, for your loving service.