Christian Survival: How to Live With an Unbelieving Husband


“Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the Word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives” — I Peter 3:1

In the early church, many married women were converted to faith in Christ Jesus; but their husbands often remained unconverted.  It was not that the Christian women entered into marriages with unbelievers, thus putting their own faith in jeopardy by establishing an “unequal yoke” which Scripture forbids (II Corinthians 6:14); but they were already IN the matrimonial estate with unbelieving husbands when they, by means of the Gospel, were brought to faith.  Holy Scripture provides counsel to Christian women who find themselves in this situation.  May our gracious God enlighten our hearts and minds by His clear Word and empower us by the Gospel to obey His injunctions as we learn how such Christian wives should live with unbelieving husbands.

Religious Differences No Cause for Divorce:  I Corinthians 7

God instituted Holy Marriage in the beginning to be a lifelong union of one man and one woman unto one flesh (Genesis 2:24; I Corinthians 7:39; cf. Catechism Q/A 61); and God Himself dissolves the marriage bond through death (Romans 7:2).  Scripture emphatically teaches that fornication is the only legitimate cause for an innocent party to procure a divorce (Matthew 19:3-9).  The only other way an innocent party is loosed from the marriage bond is when he or she is maliciously deserted by the spouse (I Corinthians 7:15), that is, by the persistent refusal of the spouse to live in holy wedlock.  In this case the innocent party suffers a divorce because the unfaithful party has already broken the marriage; and a civil divorce merely recognizes that “a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases.”

Given these facts, a believer is required to live with an unbelieving spouse and may not leave or terminate the marriage because of a difference in religion.  This principle is stated by the Apostle Paul in no uncertain terms: “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.  But to the rest speak I, not the Lord:  If any brother hath a wife that believeth not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away.  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?” (I Corinthians 7:10-16).  The apostle first states what the Lord Jesus expressly taught in His earthly ministry (I Corinthians 7:10-11; Matthew 19:3 ff), and then speaks to a circumstance which the Lord did not directly address, namely, a so-called “mixed marriage.”  On this subject God’s will is manifest:  A believer has no right to break up a marriage to an unbeliever when the unbelieving wishes to remain and continue the marriage (I Corinthians 7:12-13); in other words, difference of religion is no cause for divorce.

Paul also gives the reason the believer should and must remain married to the unbeliever:  For the sake of the unbelieving partner and their children.  Both the unbelieving spouse and the children receive a peculiar blessing for the sake of the Godly wife or husband.  Certainly the believer offers a special opportunity for the rest of the family to hear God’s Word and also to enjoy the temporal blessings God gives His children.  In other words, the believing spouse should realize that God can and will use him or her to bless the entire family and should be willing to suffer whatever is needed and required in order to keep the marriage bond intact.

Now if the situation changes, and the unbelieving spouse maliciously deserts the believing spouse, then the Christian is free from the marriage bond (I Corinthians 7:15).  But until such a situation arises, there remains the distinct possibility that the Christian may lead the unbeliever to Christ, to saving Christian faith.  After all, a Christian according to his New Man has the same desire as the Lord that all men be saved (Ezekiel 33:11; I Timothy 2:4; II Peter 3:9), and should especially desire the salvation of one so close as his or her spouse (I Corinthians 7:16).

How, then, does one go about winning the unbelieving spouse?  This we shall learn in our next section.

How to Win an Unbelieving Spouse for Christ:  I Peter 3

The Apostle Peter has the definitive word on the problem of living with an unbelieving spouse.  The major portion of his counsel deals with how to live with an unbelieving husband, so as to win him over to faith in Christ.  He discusses the wife’s duties to husbands in I Peter 3.

After discussing the duties of servants he turns to the duties of wives with these words: “Likewise, ye wives, be in subjection to your own husbands; that, if any obey not the Word, they also may without the word be won by the conversation of the wives, while they behold your chaste conversation coupled with fear” (I Peter 3:1-2).  For the purpose of stressing the present tense of the verbs, and clarifying the use of the noun used, let us note a literal translation of the Greek:  “Likewise, wives (be) continuing in subjection to your own husbands in order that, even if some are disobedient to the Word, by means of the conduct (behavior) of the wives without a word may be gained (won), having looked upon your pure conduct (behavior) in fear.”

Christian wives are called to live in submission to their own husbands, regardless of whether the husbands are or are not believers.  This is their Christian duty, ever to be living in submission to the will of their husbands and in obedience to their just authority.  For this is the united testimony of Holy Writ regarding the proper station and relation of wives toward their own husbands (cf. Ephesians 5:22; Colossians 3:18).

With a purpose clause, Peter tells Christian wives that they should live in subjection in order to win their unbelieving husbands to Christ.  Those that remain unpersuaded by the Word of God (“disobedient,” cf. Ephesians 2:2), may be won without a word from their wives.  How?  By being shown the unmistakable fruit of that Word in the conduct and behavior of their wives.  Wives, concentrate on the witness of your lives in your efforts to win your husbands for Christ! Remember that an effective way of demonstrating the power of God’s Word in your life is your own Christian conduct —your deeds will speak louder than your words!  Practice what you have been preaching!  For you need to give your husbands evidence of how much you value God’s Word: Objective, concrete, irrefutable evidence; evidence that will move his stubborn heart to reconsider his position over against Christ.  Too often wives hope to get their husbands to come to church by wearing them down with constant nagging and pleading.  Instead this often has the opposite effect of driving the spouse further away as he hardens his heart still further.  Rather than nagging her husband and attempting to force, coerce or shame him into church, let the wife win him over by her Godly life of submission:  Be a wonderful wife!  That is a witness no husband should shun or ignore.  After your life has laid the foundation and groundwork, then your words will carry a greater weight; for they stand as testimony confirmed by objective evidence.  The behavior of the wife at home is the key witness to husbands who obey not the Word of God.

What type of life should the wife display?  A Godly life of purity and reverence, “…chaste conversation coupled with fear” (I Peter 3:2).  The word translated here as “chaste” is the Greek word meaning “pure from every fault, immaculate.”  This adjective means morally pure and includes every aspect of a Christian’s behavior.  In general, all Christians are called to moral purity in thoughts, words and deeds (cf. Philippians 4:8 with I Timothy 5:22).  Wives are no exceptions.  They are to be “discreet, chaste [i.e., pure], keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the Word of God be not blasphemed” (Titus 2:5).

Now, hand in hand with moral purity goes “fear,” that is, loving reverence and respect for the authority of the husband.  The wife must “see that she reverence [literally, “fear”] her husband” (Ephesians 5:33). She does this by respectfully obeying his authority.  Under this word we find both the proper respectful attitude and the concrete expression of a woman who obeys the apostle’s injunction in Ephesians 5:22, 24: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord” (v. 22). “Therefore as the Church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (v. 24).

Peter continues by telling wives in verse three how not to behave, and then giving positive instruction regarding proper behavior in verses four and following:  “Whose adorning let it not be that outward adorning of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel; but let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price” (I Peter 3:3-4).  Rather than putting on a worldly show through outward adornment, the Christian wife should concern herself with her inward self, her heart and spirit.  She should cultivate a meek and quiet spirit, a true inner beauty which shall endure imperishable long after outward beauty fades away.

The first quality which God highly praises is that of a “meek” spirit.  The word “meek” means “gentle, mild, benevolent, humane.”  Christ describes Himself as “meek…in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and the meekness and gentleness of Christ is again mentioned by Matthew (Matthew 21:5) and by Paul (II Corinthians 10:1).  Meekness is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23), which all Christians should cultivate (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:12; I Timothy 6:11; II Timothy 2:25; Titus 3:2; James 1:21; 3:13).  We are to be humble and lowly, not conceited, overbearing, pretentious and showy.  We are to be gentle and kind, patient and submissive, mild and easy to get along with, as Paul says, “I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:1-3).  Meekness is an attribute of the New Man, a distinctly Christian grace.  Paul therefore exhorts us to meekness, saying:  “Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering, forbearing one another and forgiving one another if any man have a quarrel against any; even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.  And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness” (Colossians 3:12-14).  We are called to flee sinful emotions and attitudes and rather, “follow after righteousness, Godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness” (I Timothy 6:11).  Meekness should be a way of dealing with even the most obstinate individuals, a way of dealing with all men (cf. II Timothy 2:24-25).  We are to be “ready to every good work, to speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, showing all meekness unto all men” (Titus 3:1-2).  A Christian should “show out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom” (James 3:13).

The other quality mentioned by Peter is that of a “quiet” spirit.  The word “quiet” means “tranquil, peaceful.”  Her whole attitude should be temperate, tractable, moderate, devoid of pride and of an angry disposition, and characterized by cooperative and obliging conduct towards their husbands.  How many husbands claim they can find no “peace and quiet” in their homes?  Let them find a meek and quiet spirit within the heart of their wives!  Thus, meekness and quietness go hand in hand in describing the nature of a lovingly submissive wife, a wife who seeks to win her husband for Christ by living her creed, loving him, not only in word, but in deed.

In so doing, such a wife follows the Godly example of the Old Testament saints: “For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him ‘Lord,’ whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement” (I Peter 3:5-6).  Such submission is a fruit of faith, an expression of respect for the headship of the husband (Ephesians 5:23).  As a helper to her husband, the wife should obey him to please her God, to do good to her husband for the sake of Christ.  In so doing she is not to be afraid of anything that might deter her from carrying out her Christian obligation in cheerful obedience to God’s Word.  By such loving and respectful submission, the wife may indeed win an unbelieving husband for Christ.

Although our text from I Peter specifically deals with Christian wives married to unbelieving husbands, Scripture sets forth the general rule in this text that the Godly behavior of the believing spouse should testify to the unbelieving spouse in deeds instead of words.  For Christian husbands should conduct themselves as Scripture enjoins in unselfish, sacrificial love toward their wives (Ephesians 5:25-33), and avoid all bitterness toward them (Colossians 3:19).  Enlightened by God’s Word, a Christian husband should treat an unbelieving wife as Scripture enjoins the Christian wife to conduct herself over against her unbelieving husband (cf. I Peter 3:7).  Empowered and motivated by the Gospel as the evidence of his thankful faith, the Christian husband should do all he can to set a good example for his unbelieving wife, as God works in him, both to will and to do, of His good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).  He should also pray daily that God move his wife to repent of her sins and believe the Gospel.  His Christian life and Godly behavior toward her as her husband testifies to her of the power and the blessing of Christian faith.

Dr. Luther exhorts Christians to live for Christ as they seek to minister to their unbelieving spouse:

What If Spouse Is Unbelieving?  [You Christians] should live peacefully with one another in marriage, also with your unchristian spouses —as long as they do not hinder your Christian conduct— and you should not be obstinate; neither drive nor force them to faith.  For, after all, it is not by your work or power but by God’s grace alone that someone is brought to faith.  Since, then, you do not know whether you are so worthy that God will save your spouses through you, you should live at peace with them.  No man should put pressure on his unchristian wife or quarrel with her about faith.  Nor should a wife so conduct herself toward her unchristian husband.  If, however, God wants to convert him or her through you, He will help you to do so and will distribute such grace and gifts among you as will serve this end.  …An insincere Christian spouse is to be dealt with in like manner.  His evil life is to be borne in peace.  One should not defy him or drive him to do good; one should do no more than quietly and kindly hold and help him to do it.  For you may not be worthy to make anyone pious.  But in case you are accounted worthy, God will invest you with the ability to do so and will mete out His gifts to you according to His will.  Meanwhile be satisfied to live with your unchristian and wicked spouse as long as you do not follow or sanction his unbelief and wicked life and he does not urge or hold you to it.  You suffer such unbelief and wrong in your spouse just as one must suffer it from all the world, including the devils; and you continue to work on him with good words and a peaceful life until God grants His grace so that he also is converted.” (E. Plass, What Luther Says, Vol. II, p. 901, #2814).

Since a happy marriage is a temporal blessing of God’s providence, especially for Christians, God’s promise regarding the fulfillment of temporal needs certainly applies: “But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33).

The Power of the Gospel Enables a Christian Woman

The Gospel, the good news of our gracious salvation because of the merit and blood of our Savior, Jesus Christ, enables a Christian woman to live Godly in her marriage.  Empowered and motivated by the sure and certain promise of the righteousness of Christ imputed to her and of the forgiveness of all her sins, a Christian woman, according to the New Man, is able “both to will and to do of [God’s] good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).  A Christian woman therefore should rely on God’s gracious promise in Christ: “…God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).  She should cling in confidence to this precious truth: “He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:32).  By God’s grace she has a faith “which worketh by love” (Galatians 5:6b).  By means of the Gospel, God works in her “that which is well-pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ” (Hebrews 13:21b).  She should therefore pray for her unbelieving husband constantly, setting forth a Christian witness before him on a daily basis, as Scripture enjoins in I Peter 3 and elsewhere, beseeching God to open her husband’s ears and heart to the hearing of His Word whereby saving faith is engendered, fruited, and preserved unto life everlasting.  To that end, may God graciously bless truly Christian wives!

E. J. W.