I let it slide for about two weeks but do so for two reasons. First, Toby B. Holt article Wedding Bells, Hell’s Bells: The Nightmare Of Being Unequally Yoked is one of those articles saying what really needs to be said about many of the marriages in the church: many are unequally yoked. Secondly, the article really helps explain the what and why of being equally yoked. Believers are ontologically different from non-believers. It is for these reasons we need the article.
Listen to Holt’s words:
The man sat, his eyes closed. We’d been talking for hours. He rested his head in his hands, elbows on the table.
He knew it. I knew it. But he didn’t want to say it aloud.
Then, finally, the question: “Pastor, do you think my wife and I are unequally yoked?”
In a moment, the path for counseling this couple had changed– we were no longer talking about a philosophical chasm between two spouses, but an ontological one. We were talking about two people with contrasting natures. And this man, theologically sound, knew what that implied.
He knew it, and began to weep.
Several years have passed since this conversation took place. I wish it had been the last time I’d encounter an “unequally yoked” couple. It hasn’t. Sometimes the concern is for the husband, sometimes for the wife.
Believe me, I know this happens far more often than not. Sadly, God allows Christians to marry non-Christians and this is very difficult for Christians to endure. This is not to say God is at fault here. But for His purposes, and glory, He allows Christians to marry non-Christians.
Paul even addresses the issue in 1 Corinthians 7, saying that if the unbelieving partner leaves and wants a divorce, then it is biblical to do so. If they want to stay together, then it is biblical to do so. We need this reassurance because I believe it happens far more often than most are willing to admit.
What Paul writes is the second reason given in Scripture for Christians to divorce, the first was given by Jesus. In Matthew 19, He tells the Pharisees that adultery is also a reason for divorce. I know this is a side note to the issue, but I must also address it while it is fresh on my mind.
Fundamentalist do not hold to these two reasons, rejecting Paul’s words. Paul wrote: But to the rest I, not the LORD, say: … but if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. They feel that since it is Paul saying it, not the LORD, that it is not binding on believers. What they fail to see is that everything Paul wrote to us is from the LORD, yet what he writes here was not said by the LORD in His earthly ministry.
We know Paul’s words are from the LORD because he says as much: 1 Corinthians 14:37 If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. In other words, everything Paul wrote to us was from the LORD. So his words are binding on believers as well.
Yet, it is still very important that believers do their very best to marry other believers. Paul’s words are actually encouragement to the church because we know that when we find ourselves in a marriage that is not equally yoked, we do have the freedom to endure and persevere in that marriage if the non-believer desires that as well.
As I’ve suggested, when “unequally yoked” people marry, the problem isn’t intellectual or philosophical, it’s ontological. The couple’s ensuing battles (particularly over matters of faith) will stem from conflicting natures. And sadly, counseling can’t change someone’s nature. All of the counseling in the world cannot make an apple an orange, or an unbeliever a believer.
However, that doesn’t mean things are hopeless. For the Gospel can accomplish what counseling cannot.
When encountering an “unequally yoked” couple, I’ve learned to be part counselor, and part evangelist. There’s no other option. Only the changed heart of the unbelieving spouse will bring unity to such a relationship. And so I subtly (and not so subtly) introduce the Gospel to the unbeliever in these instances, rinse and repeat.
As for the believing spouse, I point them to 1 Corinthians 7 and 1 Peter 3, for encouragement on being salt and light in the context of one’s marriage (with the hope that God might use the believing spouse’s faithfulness as a means for converting / sanctifying the lost).
So how can one detect if a couple is unequally yoked in the first place? Is it obvious?
Well, sometimes “unequally yoked” marriages are indeed obvious, acknowledged by all parties. But not always. Not all who say “Lord, Lord” are actually regenerate. And so pastors and counselors must be careful. We must ask questions that establish the presence of spiritual fruit and maturity, in order to know what we’re dealing with.
And if, after prayer and diligence, the possibility of unequal yoking exists, we need to adapt our input accordingly.
No conversation about love languages or conflict resolution (as helpful as things things may be) can heal a relationship that is ontologically fractured. In such a relationship, there is no three-fold cord, there is no spiritual unity, there is no shared faith to undergird and enfold the couple when in crisis. Such a couple may be able to remain married, even happy on a number of fronts, but ultimately unfulfilled (emphasis added).
Everything he says is wonderful and helpful, up until that last clause. He is implying that by being equally yoked, we will be fulfilled. As I said in my last post, this is just not true. Marriage, even among those who are equally yoked, was never intended to fulfill us. I know as pastors, we want to tell young couples that their marriage will be one of complete and total fulfillment and bliss. However, to do this is to ignore sinful nature and place a burden of perfection on the couple that they cannot live up to. It is to invite failure.
Remember what Paul said about the law in Romans 7:7 What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”
By implying marital bliss because the two are equally yoked is placing a new law upon a couple. I’m not saying that Holt is doing this. I’m saying that the church as a whole does this with the number of marriage seminars given and the number of books published every year on better marriages. If these seminars were so good, and the books so helpful, a couple would only need to go to one, maybe two. The problem is that most of them are filled with more law.
The reason it is so important that both are equally yoked in a marriage is because they both need to know from the outset that they are sinners in need of God’s grace. No marriage will ever work as God intended it without His grace first being evident in the lives of both members because they are going to need the reminder over and over again: Matthew 6:14-15 “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
I’m not saying that this is the silver bullet either. We need God’s grace in every relationship we have, not just marriage. But with two that understand it and have truly tasted His forgiveness as He gives it through the gospel, we are better prepared to face the trials that come when a man and woman come together in matrimony.
And we must admit that even when this happens, both are likely to live with longings that do not go fulfilled. There is no way another person can fulfill us when only Christ is intended to do so. So no matter how much grace, how perfect in form and personality, no person can truly fulfill another unless they are living in a delusional state thinking their partner is a demigod. But that is for another post.
Those marriages that honor Christ are filled with His grace. The couple that does this did not come together looking to fulfill one another, but looking to be fulfilled by Christ together. Only He can fulfill us. Only He can satisfy us. Only He can feed us. (Does my repetition help drive home the point?)
We should encourage young Christians to only marry other Christians, but even when that doesn’t happen, we know God’s grace is sufficient for this reality as well.