When You’re No Longer “Equally Yoked”

“Don’t marry someone unless you’re equally yoked.”

This is something we were frequently reminded of during our later years of youth group and into Bible Study, largely thanks to 2 Corinthians 6:14:

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

Essentially, don’t marry someone (or even bother dating) unless you’re at the same spiritual level- that you both believe the core tenants of Christian faith. Marrying a believer will make things like raising kids easier, because your foundations will be the same. Going to church on Sundays will be a nonevent. Of course we’re going! All of us! As a family!

I get this, I totally do. A lot of people didn’t understand why I was only willing to date a Christian when I was one*. Many raised their eyebrows and said I was being judgemental. However, when something like faith affects literally every decision you make and you spend your nights reciting Psalms and praying at the dinner table, it’s a hell of a lot easier to do it beside someone who “gets it” and doesn’t think you’re a complete idiot.

Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of wonderful marriages and relationships that aren’t on the same page with this stuff, with one living in the “light” and the other living in “darkness” (such ostracising language, eugh). But the church will make sure you know from a very young age that it will be a marriage of immense struggle. A Christian marriage is more likely to produce Christian babies which means more people spreading the good news of Jesus Christ forevermore Amen.

Many have reported stories of being kicked out of the church for dating a non-Christian, and many churches refuse to marry Christians who have been faithful congregational members for decades because they’re marrying someone who doesn’t align themselves with their faith. As if that wouldn’t turn off any non-believer, eeeek. Anyway, I digress. This article is about two Christians coming together…

I think the way that “equally yoked” is expressed can be damaging, especially for young Christians on their path to a young marriage. One traumatic event, a simple hour-long lecture at university or a dream late at night is enough to shake up a belief in God, or a religious God, especially when you’re still trying to figure out who the hell you are, where you stand on literally everything and how that will shape your life. No matter how strong the presence of the Holy Spirit is within you, the sheer unpredictability of life has enough power to uproot everything and leave spiritual foundations as nothing but a pile of rubble. The ambiguity around whether the apostate will be able to rebuild in the same formation is the cause of many believing partners’ stresses.

My Dad rarely went to church with my Mum. Quite frankly, he couldn’t stand church. He felt that there was so little Jesus in the local church we attended due to the handling of various issues with graceless disregard. He also hated singing. It just wasn’t his thing. They assumed my Dad had “fallen away” and often approached my Mum about my Dad’s commitment. Even when I left the church, I had questions about how my parents approached Christianity at home, about whether my parents “worked together” to “keep me on fire for God” or whether they relied too heavily on my youth group leaders for my spiritual growth.

That church didn’t know that it was my Dad who read the Bible every single night and has for the last 30 years. They didn’t know that it was my Dad who sat at the end of my bed and tucked me in and prayed with me throughout my childhood and young adulthood, reminding me not to forget to thank God for all of the little blessings in our life. Practically speaking, my father was the “better Christian”, but all the church saw was my mother’s regular attendance, and assumed that reflected her faith and my father’s lack thereof.

My father never felt like he needed to tell the church that their assumptions were both incorrect and hurtful, he felt like he had a little joke with God. “I only care about His opinion Ruby” he’d say, with a soft chuckle. He continued staying home on Sunday mornings, smoking ciggies on the balcony and drinking instant coffee. He’d read the Bible with his bros over beer during the week instead. Church isn’t restricted to Sundays, it’s simply a “gathering of believers”. At least, that’s what they say on Sunday morning, before criticising those who don’t attend at morning tea.

While this is a slightly different scenario, with both of my parents maintaining their Christian belief, I think the way the church saw my parents’ faith is indicative of some of the pressure/judgement/assumptions that many make on those relationships where the partners are not “equally yoked”.

I occasionally get emails from wives and husbands about their partner who has “fallen away” or is “seriously questioning” and “doesn’t want to go to church anymore”. Their emails are sincere and searching: how can I love my partner better? How can I understand them more? How can I bring them back? Why is my fear of judgement within the church bigger than my fear of him/her spending eternity in hell? Why wasn’t I prepared for these seasons and encouraged to blanket them in love regardless of their faith?

This is where marriages that are formed more on mutual faith than genuine friendship can break down. For engaged Christians and Christians thinking about marriage- could you still love your partner without their faith? Are they still kind and loving in your eyes? What would happen if one year into marriage they woke up and thought religion was simply a man-made invention designed to organise society and nothing more? What if they thought everything you believe to be true was a lie? Does your relationship have other supports to lean on? Will you still accept them and treat them with warmth and be thankful you married them even if you believe they’ll spend eternity in hell?

The church always taught us that we had to marry someone who was equally yoked. But that simply means marrying someone and having a relationship (often only a year or two) when your faith aligns at that very point in time. It is unrealistic to expect this alignment to continue harmoniously until death do you part. Churches need to recognise that there are a significant number of congregational members struggling with unbelieving partners, and that the pressure to get them to attend church is not up to them to enforce. Like Christian parents in leadership who struggle with the social criticism of their parenting styles due to unbelieving or “off the rails” children, so do these couples struggle.

Churches need to ensure that respect is maintained, with the knowledge that what happens at home, the conversations that exist between the sheets and over dinner and after Bible Study are more complicated and raw than may appear.

To the Christian partner, you need to remind yourself that if you believe in Jesus’ divine plan, He will bring your partner to Him in due time. That is a core component of your faith and you need to rest in that. You need to be the person that your partner can turn to, as a trusted confidante, not as a preacher reciting Biblical jargon. Do not impose and do not negate the importance of their journey. Listen first, always. Be ready to be challenged and be open to changing your perspective on God just like you’d like them to be open to changing theirs.

And please, love them regardless of where you believe they’ll be spending eternity.


*Since I’ve left, friends laugh with me, saying it must be liberating now to have a significantly larger dating pool. I shake my head with a smile, “now I have to be “equally yoked” with an exvangelical” I say, rolling my eyes.

Originally published at The Gravity of Guilt.