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The unequal yoke

June 2021 | by Stephen Rees

We received sad news from a missionary friend recently. For many years, Don & Marianne (not their real names) have worked in a Muslim country. Slowly they have built up a little fellowship of believers, all converted from Muslim backgrounds. None of those young Christians have found it easy. Some have faced harassment from employers, from family members, or from the police. Some have found it hard to break with the habits that are endemic in that area of the world – gambling, lying, dishonesty. But of all the difficulties they have struggled with, perhaps the most common has been that of marriage.

In any society, there is social pressure to get married. Most parents want to see their children happily settled. But especially in Muslim countries, the pressure is intense. It’s not just assumed that young people will get married: it is seen as their duty to the family. And in most cases, it’s taken for granted that the family will play a part in arranging the marriage.

So when any young man or woman is converted from a Muslim background, there are great difficulties. In many Muslim countries, the number of Christians is very small. In many cases, the new believer looks around and discovers that there is nobody within the whole Christian community who could be considered as a potential marriage partner.

Maybe he or she resolves to wait, to pray, and to trust God to send a suitable partner in his own time. But as the months and years go by, the pressure to marry an unbeliever gets greater. For the young man, sexual frustration and social exclusion can become more and more insistent. For the young woman, loneliness and the longing for children can become more and more intense. And beyond those things, there is the constant demand of the family: ‘When are you going to get married?’

Well, over the years, a number of the members of that fellowship have given in to the pressure. They have decided they can wait no longer, and they have married Muslim partners – often chosen for them by their families. In some cases, they have declared that it will make no difference: they will still follow Christ to the end. But in every case, marriage to a non-Christian has led to their drifting from fellowship with Christ and with the church.

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However, in all this, Don and Marianne have had one great encouragement. They have thanked God for one girl who has stood firm. Converted in her teens, Constance has resisted every pressure to marry an unbeliever. She has been battered by trials and troubles of all sorts – illness, tragedy, unemployment, harassment. She has been the breadwinner, the problem-solver, the coper, and the carer for all her extended family. How often Don and Marianne have prayed for a Christian man to spread his cloak over her. She and they have waited, prayed, and wept together.

And now in her late thirties, Constance’s resolve has finally broken. Her parents have found a man whom they are sure is right for her. She feels she can resist no longer. She’s been told that she is bringing shame on her family; she longs to have children and is conscious that with every year that passes, it becomes less likely; she sees her parents grieving for the grandchildren they are denied; she longs for companionship, support, security. So she has agreed to marry Hassan and they are now engaged.

So what’s the problem?

Well, why are Don and Marianne so troubled by Constance’s decision? Surely it’s only natural that she should want to be married? And if God hasn’t sent her a Christian man, perhaps they should accept that it’s God’s will that she marry a non-Christian? And who knows, maybe she’ll lead him to Christ? Perhaps this is God’s way of reaching a Muslim man who could never be reached in any other way?

Many folk would reason in that way. Maybe Constance herself would use some of those arguments to defend her decision. But God’s Word is clear. ‘Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. . . Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?’ (2 Corinthians 6:14-15).

When Paul wrote those words, he wasn’t talking primarily about marriage. He was talking first and foremost about situations where a local church links itself too closely with the society around it. But the verse must be applied to any situation where believers and unbelievers are ‘yoked together’ – in other words, where they enter into an arrangement where they’re locked together and have to try to work in harmony. Paul’s words could be applied to a business partnership. Or to a contract between two girls to buy a house together.

And the ultimate example of such an unequal partnership is surely a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever. Unlike other partnerships, it’s for life and it affects every aspect of life. Paul is saying that there never can be harmony in that situation, any more than there could be if two completely different animals were trying to pull a plough together. Just imagine a great shire horse and a little donkey locked together in a yoke and trying to move in step with each other! It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Pulling in different directions

An unbelieving man may be very attractive, very decent, very charming. But his priorities, his values, his goals in life will always clash with that of his believing wife. She wants the Bible to be the final judge of what’s right and wrong. He wants his own conscience to be supreme. She wants all the money that comes into the home to be viewed as the Lord’s, to be used in his service. He thinks of it as a resource to be used first and foremost for the family’s needs and pleasures. Her great desire for the children is that they come to Christ. His chief concern is that they should be happy and successful in life. She knows that she must love the Lord Jesus more than anything and anyone in the world. Her husband expects to be given the first place in her affections.

On the face of it, it may seem easier when it’s the other way round: a believing husband with an unbelieving wife. If he’s the head of the home, then he will have the final say in decisions that are taken for the family. But how many unbelieving wives today would be happy to allow their husband that role? And how hard it is for a Christian husband to be constantly insisting on his wife’s submission to lifestyle choices that she doesn’t understand and can’t sympathise with!

For a Christian married to an unbeliever, every day is going to bring clashes and conflicts. How the children should be disciplined; how the family spends Sunday; what entertainments are legitimate; where the church fits in – the issues are endless. Marriage is intended to be a ‘one flesh’ relationship: a man and woman bonded together as a single unit, physically, emotionally, socially, spiritually. How can that happen when one partner has a heart that loves God and the other has a mind at enmity with God? (Romans 8:7)

Some of you reading this were already married when you came to Christ. God’s command for a believer in that situation is clear. ‘If any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she must not divorce him . . .’ (1 Corinthians 7:12-13). And the Bible gives you hope that your unbelieving spouse will come to faith (1 Corinthians 7:16; 1 Peter 3:1).

For believers in that situation, God gives grace to live with and to love an unbelieving spouse, and to handle all the difficulties involved in an unequal marriage. But you can testify how hard it is to share your home and your life with someone who simply doesn’t understand the things that are most important to you. You know what perhaps Constance doesn’t realise at this point – how much unhappiness a divided home can bring. Singleness can be very lonely. But so can marriage to someone who cannot share the things closest to your heart.

I’m praying still that God will intervene and rescue Constance from a decision that could bring her so much sorrow.

Natural – but forbidden

My heart goes out to her. She is aching for things that are good and natural – marriage, companionship, love, motherhood. Her desires are not sinful. It was God who said at the beginning, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’ (Genesis 2:18). It was he who made man and woman so that neither is complete without the other. It is he who has given Constance her longing for a husband. Constance is not asking for something evil, something that is wrong in itself.

But the fact is that the Lord does withhold some natural and good things from us – even things that he has stirred us up to desire. And if we take for ourselves what he has not given, that is a path to sorrow.

Remember: the Lord Jesus in the wilderness longed for food. Food is good. The desire for it is natural and right. But Jesus knew he had to wait for God’s time. When Satan urged him to turn stones into bread, he answered, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’ (Matthew 4:4). For Jesus it was more important to obey than to eat. And the aching, lonely single Christian must learn by God’s grace to say, ‘It is more important to obey than to marry.’

We know where we stand as a church. We could never be happy to see a believer marrying an unbeliever. How we would handle it – well, that would depend on many factors. We recognise that there are situations where the marriage must go ahead. I think of a young man who was already engaged when he came to faith in Christ. He had promised his girlfriend unconditionally that he would marry her, and she had built her life on that promise. He judged that he must keep his promise even though she showed no interest in the Saviour he had found. I think he was right.

And it’s important to realise that in some cultures a girl simply has no choice about whom she marries. In Constance’s case, she is under pressure from family, but the decision in the end is hers. That is not true in every situation. A girl can be forced into marriage.

So I don’t believe there’s a blanket rule that would apply to every situation. But one thing is clear: in any situation where a believer has the freedom to choose, we would say, ‘We cannot give our blessing to your marriage to an unbeliever.’

But let me add this. If that is the line we hold, then surely that puts great responsibilities on us as a church.

The church’s role

It means, firstly, that we must show a very tender concern for single people within the fellowship of the church. In any church, but especially in a church where there are young families, it is terribly easy for single people to be made to feel odd, excluded, out of place. Often churches seem to be geared for married people; it seems the only role for the single is to do the jobs that married people are too busy to do.

Many a young person, aching to be married, has been hurt beyond words by the facetious, off-hand teasing of happily married friends. ‘Not married yet? You need to get out and about more. . .’ Even the preaching and the praying in churches can leave single people feeling isolated. Preachers often talk as if there are only three classes of people. There are the children, the not-yet-in-a-position-to-be-married, and the married. And meanwhile the ‘I’ve-been-praying-for-twenty-years-to-be-married’ sit there, wondering why nobody notices their existence.

If we are going to say to unmarried people, ‘You must say no to marriage to a unbeliever, however lonely you may feel,’ then we must do everything in our power to support them in their aloneness. Every person struggling with singleness needs to know that there is one home at least within the church where he or she will be welcomed as one of the family at any time. They must know that there is someone who will always have time for them, who will listen, understand, care. They must know that there are people who will take steps to help them through the practical problems of singleness.

What about holiday times? Many a single man dreads his annual holiday. Where does a man go on his own for a holiday? A middle-aged man sitting on a beach with no family around him can be viewed with real suspicion. Is it too much to ask that the family of the church should make sure that he is not left without the companionship he needs?

It means, secondly, that we must commit ourselves to praying that God will meet the needs of the unmarried who long to be married. He may do that by giving them what they long for – a marriage-partner. Or he may give them special grace to cope with singleness; grace to learn in whatever state they are, to be content (Philippians 4:11); grace to resist the special temptations of singleness. Many single Christians become depressed, bitter towards God, angry against their fellow-Christians. We must guard them by our prayers.

If a Christian man comes to me and tells me that he longs to be married and is attracted to an unbeliever, it is not enough for me to say, ‘Put her out of your mind.’ Yes, I must say that. But I must also be prepared to say, ‘I will covenant with you to pray that God will send you a wife of his choosing. And I will continue to pray for that until God does it or until he takes away this longing to be married.’ A Christian struggling with singleness needs to know that there is someone sharing his struggles and speaking often to God often about him.

And thirdly, it means that we must think seriously about how we help Christians to find marriage-partners. In other societies, it is taken for granted that families will help their children to find marriage partners. They will advise them, introduce them to suitable ‘candidates’, provide opportunities for them to get to know one another safely. That is the biblical way. The Bible does not commend forced marriages, but it does suggest that parents should be willing to take the responsibility of bringing young men and women together.

Sadly in modern Western society, that way of doing things has almost completely vanished. Many young people would resent any attempt by parents to influence their choice. Many parents would be unwilling to accept any responsibility for guiding their children. Most young people are simply left without guidance in the biggest and most far-reaching decision they will ever take.

I well recall a fine young man who sat in our congregation as a student. He said to me ruefully, ‘I wouldn’t dream of buying a flat or a car without getting my father involved. But if I went to my dad and asked him to help me find a wife, he’d think I’d gone out of my mind.’

I believe Christian parents need to start taking seriously their responsibility in this area. Surely a Christian lad ought to be able to go to his parents and say, ‘I’d like to get married. Can you help me find the right person?’ It sounds revolutionary, doesn’t it? And yet it should be the most natural thing in the world.

It would take a major culture shift even within the evangelical world for Christian families to start thinking and working in that way. But how much unhappiness would be avoided if we were to build the sort of churches where that was normal!

But even if that were to happen, it would still leave the problem of many Christians who cannot turn to their parents to help them find marriage-partners. It may be that, like Constance, they come from unbelieving families. It may be that their parents don’t have a wide circle of Christian contacts. It may be that they’ve reached a stage in life where they are living independent lives.

In such situations, shouldn’t the church be helping people to find marriage partners? Again, it should be possible for a Christian to approach the elders of the church (s)he attends and to say without embarrassment, ‘I want to get married. I don’t know anybody suitable. Can you help me find the right person?’

I have a list of fifteen or so pastors who are my close friends and whose wisdom and judgment I trust. When I’ve been aware of a young person longing to be married but with no one on the horizon, I’ve asked him or her for permission to send an email round that circle of friends. In the email, I’ve sent a profile of the ‘candidate’, not including the name but including everything else that might be relevant: their age, their background, their interests, an assessment of their personality and their spiritual maturity – and yes, some hints about their looks. And my question to my friends has been, ‘Is there anyone in your congregation who is also eager to be married and who might be a good fit? If so, could we arrange to put them in contact with each other?’

Yes, there are risks in such ‘marriage brokering’. And not everyone seeking a marriage partner would feel able to say yes to such a process. But however it’s done, pastors must be prepared to help single Christians to find marriage partners. It isn’t enough for a pastor to say to a lonely single person, ‘I’ll pray that the Lord will send you a marriage partner.’ He must be prepared to say, ‘And I’ll help you find that person.’

The psalmist rejoiced in the fact that ‘God sets the solitary in a home’ (Psalm 68:6). And again, ‘He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children’ (Psalm 113:9). Shouldn’t the church play a part in that delightful ministry?

Bible quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, published by HarperCollins Publishers © 2001

This article first appeared in the monthly bulletin of Grace Baptist Church, Stockport. All names in the article have been changed.

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