Lee and Leslie Strobel had a stable and happy marriage–until Leslie became a Christian. Slowly, the relationship seemed to unravel. Lee deeply resented her newfound faith and friends, suspected the church of ulterior motives, and worried that his own children would start thinking of him less as a father and more as an evangelism project. Eventually, however, to Leslie’s prayerful relief, Lee made his own profession of faith. Together, they’ve committed their story to print, hoping to encourage others.
Their early marriage was one that many (including the Strobels) would call “unequally yoked,” borrowing from Paul in the King James: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” (2 Cor 6:14, KJV). Needless to say, the non-believing partner might take exception to Paul’s language: Yeah, right–like my spouse is so perfect.
But the phrase “unequally yoked” isn’t limited to marriage. Paul is writing to converts who live smack in the middle of a deeply pagan society, surrounded by vestiges of the old life. Relationships and commitments had to be rethought: friendships with one’s “drinking buddies,” business partnerships, and so on.
Some have used his words to justify various separatistic “us vs. them” distinctions, even within the church. But Paul’s counsel to unequally yoked couples should warn us away too simplistic an application:
If a believer has a wife who doesn’t believe, and she agrees to live with him, then he shouldn’t divorce her. If a woman has a husband who doesn’t believe and he agrees to live with her, then she shouldn’t divorce him. The husband who doesn’t believe belongs to God because of his wife, and the wife who doesn’t believe belongs to God because of her husband. Otherwise, your children would be contaminated by the world, but now they are spiritually set apart. But if a spouse who doesn’t believe chooses to leave, then let them leave. The brother or sister isn’t tied down in these circumstances. God has called you to peace. How do you know as a wife if you will save your husband? Or how do you know as a husband if you will save your wife? (1 Cor 7:12-16, CEB)
If (as discussed in previous posts) some married converts were abstaining from sexual relations for spiritual reasons, others were thinking they needed to leave the marriage altogether. Paul says no. The Christian in the marriage is not to initiate divorce, but neither must he or she stand in the way if the non-believing spouse wishes to leave.
Why? Because “God has called you to peace.” Some take this to mean something like, “Don’t be the disruptive one.” Another possibility, however, has to do with the mysterious way in which the non-Christian spouse “belongs to God” (the word is usually translated “sanctified” or “made holy”). Some of the Corinthians were thinking of choosing Christ over their marriages. To them, Paul says: How do you know God isn’t calling you to be an instrument of peace through the marriage?
(Please note: this is not biblical justification for “evangelistic dating”–the idea that you can date anyone you want as long as you witness to them. Paul is writing here to the already married whose newfound faith has put them in an awkward position.)
I know couples in this situation, and the Strobels effectively describe the pain it can cause for both spouses. Given the mystery that is marriage, Paul can offer no guarantees. But he can offer a vision and a vocation–that of being a peacemaker, an instrument of God’s divine shalom.
God calls. That is the ground of hope.