Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.
~1 Peter 3:1-2
Instead of just talking about the text, I’m going to share my own experiences and wisdom I’ve gleaned from talking with others about marriage to an unbelieving spouse. Hopefully, I can show you an illustration of the text rather than expositing it. Every marriage is different, and submission will look a little different as it plays out in different lives. I’m going to offer my experience, and let you use what you can in your own situation.
I think it is important to note that when we talk about submission, we are not talking about submitting to violent behavior or to a husband in flagrant and unrepentant sin who asks you to look the other way. If you are in a marriage in which you are afraid or feel verbally beaten, betrayed or emotionally exhausted, please call one of your elders or the counseling center.
My husband does not attend church with me. We will have been married 37 years next month, and for about 32 of those years, I’ve been a Christian.
My husband and I were high-school sweethearts. He was two years ahead of me in school, and a friend of my sister. We began dating my junior year in high school, got engaged at my graduation and married a year later, when I was 19. We had a volatile marriage that first year, and it was almost all my fault. I was a dirty fighter. I called him names, I was bitter, I screamed. I always needed some kind of drama going on, and I was completely self-focused. I never thought about what he needed, and I didn’t trust him. I played out the dynamic of my parent’s marriage. It did get better after that first year, but not much.
About five years into our marriage, my oldest son, was born. I had never loved someone selflessly up until this point, but I loved him fiercely. I would do anything to protect him. I would have died for him without a second thought.
One afternoon when he was three months old, I spent some time thinking about how I had been raised. I wanted something so much better for my son. One of my high school teachers once said that we parent how we have been parented unless we make a conscious effort to change. So I sat down and wrote out a list of ways that I would change – things that I would do differently than my parents. The list included things like telling my child that I loved him every day, to never scream at him or call him names, to never let him hear me say unkind things about his father or allow him to hear us fight…and at about that point, God began to show me how utterly helpless I was to do these good things. I had never been able to do good things for any length of time. I was an emotional disaster and always had been, even as a child.
God directed my thoughts back over my life and showed me how I had done and justified every evil deed I had ever wanted to do. He showed me my pattern of always doing what was easiest through lying, and changing who I was like a chameleon to match whoever I happened to be with. And that was just the tip of the mountain of evil God revealed in my life.
I was completely undone. I had thought of myself as a good person – religious, even. After all, I knew the books of the Bible in order, didn’t I? But now I saw the truth, and I was terrified. I learned that while I thought of myself as someone who sinned a little once in a while, I was really a helpless sinner through-and-through. Now I knew who and what I was, and I knew from the Bible training I had that my only hope was in Christ. But what if Christ wouldn’t forgive me? I spent two miserable days longing to come to Christ but terrified to do so. Not knowing was better than facing the possibility of rejection. I didn’t doubt God’s power to save, but His desire to save someone so unlovable.
The next day I received some Christian literature in the mail that talked about repentance. It included a written prayer about turning to God and away from sin. As I read this prayer, I tentatively stuck a toe of faith on the path toward Him.I confessed my sin and asked for grace. I can’t describe the relief and joy that occurred when I placed my sin on Christ, weeping in shame and sorrow. Wesley describes it this way:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
The only thing I would change about that lyric would be to say, “I rose, went forth, and made every mistake in the book.” This is what qualifies me to write on the topic of submitting to an unbelieving husband. I’ve learned from my vast repertoire of error.
I would love to save some of you the heartache and turmoil I caused in my marriage with some counsel from God’s Word and my experience over the last 32 years. If you find yourself in a marriage to someone less interested in spiritual things than you are, you will find that many of these concepts also apply to you.
And a word of hope: Even though I am far from perfect, God has been merciful, and that screaming, selfish 19 year old seems like someone else with no real relationship to who I am now. Everything on my list that seemed impossible is effortless now. It is all of grace.
One of the first mistakes I made was to become suddenly over-involved in church.
I left my husband home with the baby while I attended every time the doors were open. He finally sat me down and asked, “Don’t you want to be with us?” I needed to take a careful look at my priorities. I needed fellowship, yes, but I also needed to be with my family. Time together is an important priority for my husband, and submitting to him means making it my high priority, too.
We need to be in a weekly meeting of the whole church, I think, to obey the admonition of Hebrews 10:25 not to forsake the assembly. But after that, use prayer and be sensitive to how much you can do without causing your husband to feel neglected.
Believing wife, you may need to take the initiative and be creative in meeting your need for fellowship. For me, it has meant meeting with other women during the day when it doesn’t conflict with my husband’s schedule. I tried a variety of ways over the years to meet my own need for fellowship. When my kids were little, I was a part of a group of moms who met one morning a week to read books together, discussing them while our kids played on the floor. I’ve attended and taught Bible studies, including a neighborhood study in my home. Later, I started a Christian book discussion group. Some of us have been meeting for about 15 years now, and the love and support we share is a lifeline. They speak truth in my life, pray for me and encourage me, as I hope I do for them. I can’t urge you strongly enough to make fellowship time with other women a priority – right after time with your church and family.
The next big error I made was manipulation…or at least trying to manipulate my husband.
You probably can’t call it manipulation if it didn’t work…and it certainly didn’t work. There are many books out there about marriage in general and marriage to unbelievers in particular, and I read all of them back in the day.I assumed that if a book was in the Christian bookstore, it must be wise advice.This is not true.
Here’s a typical example of what would happen. On Sunday night we watched a video series at church. The teacher said that the first five minutes that my husband was home after work was the most critical to set the tone for the evening. Now you have to understand that we lived less than five minutes from my husband’s stressful job in sales, and so he usually needed a couple of minutes of quiet to unwind when he got home. I left him alone and he’d come find me when he was ready to check in about our day. This worked well for our family until the video series said we were doing it wrong.
So Monday afternoon I decided to meet my husband at the door with enthusiasm and love. My husband, however, did not see the video series and had no idea we were doing it wrong all those years. I leave it to you to imagine what happened next…….. And I blamed him. I will say that those first five minutes that Monday night did set the tone for the entire evening – the video instructor was right on that count!
Scenarios like this happened over and over as I tried to save my husband in my own power. One of our elder’s wives recently said that the urge to control was stronger in some women than in others – let me tell you, the force is strong in this one!
All of the books and articles I read about being married to an unbeliever were really instructions about how to wiggle out of this situation instead of submitting to my husband and to God in it. They gave steps and outlined programs to win my husband, but no matter how faithfully I followed those steps and programs, my husband didn’t get on board.
I left stuff lying around that I hoped he would read. I was alternately super-submissive and, when that didn’t work, I tried to tell him just what to do in order to conform to my agenda. He was surprisingly uncooperative. I engineered social encounters with other believers and complained to anyone who would listen. I didn’t see it, but I wanted my husband to come to the Lord for mostly selfish reasons – to make my life easier and to allow me to be as involved with church as my friends’ families were. God did not bless my self-serving plans.
Now, I understand that when the Bible says, “be subject to your own husbands” (1 Peter 3:1) and when it describes the Proverbs woman, “Looking well to the ways of her household” it charges us to adapt to the needs of our particular family, and not to try to make our families adapt to our agenda or whatever book we’re reading.
Please know that I do believe there is value in some solid Christian books about relationships. But my warning is that they need to be firmly based in Scripture, and focused on the reader conforming to Scripture, rather than “How to Change your Husband in Three Easy Steps.” Looking back, I would have been much better off spending more time in the Word and less in searching for the super secret magic formula to change my situation.
When manipulation didn’t work, I got angry.
Angry at my husband and angry at God for not answering my prayers in the way I wanted. There was an edge of bitterness in my life. I cycled for years begging over and over for God to save my husband and then not praying for him at all because my prayers seemed to fall on deaf ears. I could not see then what I see now, that the Lord didn’t give me what I asked for in order to give me Himself. He wanted to teach me to depend on Him, to find joy in my relationship to Christ, joy that is not dependent on having the perfect circumstances.
In Edith Schaeffer’s book, Affliction, she talks about the scene in the Bible where God says to Satan, “Consider my servant, Job.” She imagines that there is something a little like a heavenly gallery, where God can show how His people glorify Him. He might say, “Consider the women at our church, and how they glorify Me.” Satan might respond, “Ahh, but if you take one of their husbands suddenly, then will they glorify you?” And God may point to Elizabeth and say, “See? After 500 days she still considers me worthy of praise.” Perhaps Satan then would object, “But if you afflicted one of them with cancer, then they would turn from you!” And God might respond, “See my servants, Adrienne, and Sue? They are faithful.”
I know this is just speculation, but I think the point is valid that God has placed each of us in a particular situation in which we can show aspects of His sustaining grace in a way that no one else can. This is a weighty honor.
Elizabeth Elliot says something similar (slightly paraphrased to fit our conversation):
“This [place]… has been given to me. Therefore, it is a gift. Therefore, it is a privilege. Therefore, it is an offering I may make to God. Therefore, it is to be done gladly, if it is done for Him. Here, not somewhere else, I may learn God’s way. In this [place], not in some other, God looks for faithfulness.”
We must pursue obedience to God in our present circumstance, even while petitioning God for a change of circumstance.
And speaking of circumstances, let me note here that all through church history it has been the case that some women are a part of the church when their husbands are not. You and I are not all that special. Don’t lapse into self-pity or think of yourself as in a strange, isolated circumstance. Read the story of Monica of Hippo, if you get the chance.
As I mentioned earlier, some of the worst arguments and the most damaging were in response to me trying to manipulate my husband for selfish motives. I remember actually saying to him once, “The book says that if I do these things, you will respond this way. What is the matter with you?” To which he sadly responded, “Can’t you love me for who I am?”
That question was a turning point in our relationship. I stopped trying to trick him into the kingdom. Instead, I began trying to love him in the way Christ loved me.
And now that I shared all the things I did WRONG, let tell you what repentance looked like. But before I start, remember,
It’s never going to be black-and-white. Submitting to an unbelieving husband is a balancing act. Sometimes you have to weigh the command to submit against the other commands of Scripture. You must not submit, for example, if he asks you to sin. Like the disciples, you must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). Remember that Sapphira did not earn God’s favor by submitting to Ananias’ evil plan (Acts 5:1-11). And Abigail was anything but submissive when she saved Nabal from David’s wrath (1 Samuel 25).
These are rare exceptions to the principle of submission in the Biblical record, but they are exceptions, nonetheless.
In the book, Fifty Crucial Questions about Manhood and Womanhood, Piper and Grudem say:
In the cases where his leadership fails to win her glad response, we will entrust ourselves to the grace of God and seek the path of Biblical wisdom through prayer and counsel. None of us escapes the (sometimes agonizing) ambiguities of real life.
Sometimes it may be necessary to ask for help from an elder to figure out how to handle a particular agonizing ambiguity, and don’t be afraid to let one of them into your confidence – they want to help you be a submissive and obedient wife and a godly woman. It has been my experience that sometimes they can see a third option – something between obey and disobey – that I might miss.
I would advise, however, against asking for a multitude of opinions from your friends about what you should do in any situation. Your husband is not going to appreciate your friends weighing in on your private business, and you need to learn to trust the Holy Spirit to guide you. Usually, these conflicts need an immediate answer, and the Holy Spirit is the only ever-present help in times of trouble. Paraphrasing James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let [her] ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given to [her].” In the end, you always have to do what your informed-by-the-Word conscience sees as the right thing.
But before you make the call about not submitting in a particular situation, you need to ask yourself this: Do I long to submit to my husband, or do I look usually for loopholes that will justify me pursuing my own agenda? Do I have an attitude of submission so that it grieves me when I can’t defer to him? If you must refuse to obey your husband in some matter, make sure he knows why, and that it breaks your heart to do so.
Note that if you defer to him 99 times and regretfully and respectfully refuse on the 100th, he is much more likely to understand, rather than if you have a pattern of only submitting if you happen to agree with him anyway.
What repentance looked like:
I no longer spoke about him to others, unless it was to build him up in their eyes.
I noticed immediately that when I stopped talking about him in a negative way, he became a better person. Actually, he was always a good husband. My perception changed when I quit talking about him in a negative way. It took the focus off what he was doing wrong, and not talking about it meant I didn’t get the sympathy and emotional coddling from my friends that kept me in a cycle of critical speech. You understand how that works? I complained about him, and my friends said, “Poor baby” and I was the center of attention. So I’d look for something else to complain about next time and by doing this over and over, I developed a critical spirit. I found this definition on the Internet:
“A critical spirit expects and finds disappointment wherever it looks. It is the opposite of 1 Corinthians 13: a critical spirit arrogantly judges, is easily provoked, accounts for every wrong, and never carries any hope of being pleased.”
Refusing to speak this way any longer, with the help of the Holy Spirit, actually changed my thoughts and the feelings that followed them, and, I think, was the single most helpful change in this process, with nearly-immediate results.
I quit daydreaming about the perfect marriage and became more grateful.
I had developed a bad habit of fantasizing about what it would be like to be married to a believer. I didn’t think small forest animals would come and help me make the bed in the morning as birds sang sweetly in the background, but it was almost that bad. No husband could live up to the fantasy I created, and I’m sure I conveyed this air of disappointment to my husband. I blamed him for my lack of sanctification instead of taking responsibility for my own spiritual growth. I focused on what I couldn’t do in the church rather than what I could do.
I had a friend whose Christian marriage I envied. They usually sat in front of me, and he always put his arm around her in church. They were so sweet together . . . and then he had an affair.
It woke me up to the blessing that my husband was to my life. I began actively looking for more things about him for which I could thank God, and God showed me many blessings he has given me through my hard-working, dependable husband.
As a result of this new awareness, I started saying thank-you both to my husband and to God for many of the little blessings I received. The more I did this, the more happiness I found in life. Gratitude began as a discipline, but soon became a source of great joy as it opened my eyes to God’s hand in my life. I stopped being angry and feeling forsaken by God.
I Thess 5:18 says, “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”
I learned how important respect is to a relationship.
As I began to see my husband’s good qualities, my respect for him grew. Submission became easier –it’s obvious, isn’t it? It is easy to submit to someone you respect.
The Bible commands wives to conduct ourselves respectfully (I Peter 3:2 talks about them seeing our respectful behavior.) – I think that means that we don’t roll our eyes at our husbands, we don’t engage in put-down banter, we don’t contradict him in public or embarrass him. We ask for our husband’s advice, and then we follow it.
But the Bible also commands wives to respect their husbands (Eph. 5:33 . . . the wife must respect her husband.)– not to just act respectfully, but, I think, to actually feel respect toward them. When we act respectfully without actually having respect, it is almost impossible to keep from telegraphing our real feelings to our husbands. They see it in our body language, and it will probably, despite our best intentions, pop out of our mouths (The Bible says, “Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.”)
If you are struggling with this, I urge you to ask God to open your eyes to aspects of your husband’s character and personality that are praiseworthy. Does he go to work every day? Is he creative? Does he care for you, or for your children? Is he fun to be with? Is he smart? Is he disciplined? When you find the characteristics you admire, tell him.
When I think about the importance of respect and submission, I nearly always remember a young seminary couple who were members of a home group I was part of many years ago. He was a gifted Bible teacher and she was a gifted musician. When it was his turn to lead the small group, it was his responsibility to have a hymn and a Bible lesson ready for us.
We all dreaded his week in the rotation. His wife was convinced that he started the hymns too low on the scale. So to correct this grievous error, she would always come in a few notes later and in a different key, hoping we would all follow her lead. He, sensing the threat to his leadership, made his bass voice boom. She also had a set of pipes like an opera singer and was not to be trifled with. She matched his volume, but not his key. The rest of us squirmed uncomfortably, mouthed the words and prayed for the rapture to come.
No one left home group on those nights relieved that she had saved the day by correcting his pitch. No one praised God for her musical talent or her nearly-perfect ear. What we saw was that she had the opportunity let him lead and to add her gift to his make a beautiful harmony. Instead, because she was disrespectful to her husband and refused to submit in this minor thing, the way she used her gift created disharmony and ruined everyone’s experience of worship.
I think of this story as a metaphor. When we submit to slightly imperfect leadership where ever we find it and add our gifts in an attitude submission and respect, we have a lovely offering for the Lord. We can add something beautiful that men would lack without our gifts. But if we insist on challenging leadership and going our own way in unimportant issues, (I’m not talking about sin here) we create disharmony, even if we are technically right about whatever minor conflict is at hand.
A note here to wives with laid-back easy-going husbands. One of my friends offered this wise council for you:
Respecting and submitting to your husband is more than just obeying him. My husband is pretty laid back and there are few times when he ever makes demands of me. So my difficulty is not that I don’t do what he wants me to do, my challenge is not to over-run him. I don’t mind being in charge of people, and that includes him. I could manipulate him into doing a lot of things, and I have. But I know that is not what God wants me to do. When I realize that I have been kind of bossy, I try to stop myself by telling him that he needs to make the decisions. Then I realize that I am doing it again: telling him what to do. You may have a husband that is happy to let you make . . . decisions. . . . But as in all things, you must question your heart motive. Pray that God will show you when you are over-stepping your position. If he doesn’t make demands, find out what he wants and strive to please him. Pastor Tim said that we should be a help to our husbands. To be willing to rearrange our schedule to his. That was a great help to me. …my husband works hard and I try to anticipate what makes his job easier for him. . . if he never becomes a believer I want to strive to at least make sure that the life he has with me is not hell on earth.
I resolved to do the right things, as God enabled me to do so.
There’s a lot of bad advice out there about how to deal with a husband who isn’t a believer or one who does not lead. One particularly awful bit of instruction I received was not to take up the spiritual slack in my family – not to teach my children when he wouldn’t, not to go or take them to church when he did not attend. This was intended to force his hand and demonstrate submission, but I disagree with this idea whole-heartedly. Your husband may indeed change, but he may not.
Don’t experience the heartbreak of looking back over a lifetime of disobedience waiting for a circumstance to change. Teach your children and pray with them. (It might be best to do this when your husband is away at work so that it doesn’t draw attention to the fact that he doesn’t participate.) Be in church regularly. You need your spiritual life to be strong so that you can continue to demonstrate kindness to your family and perhaps win your husband.Just like every other woman in the church, you need to participate in the spiritual disciplines of personal Bible study, prayer, memorization, fellowship and meditation on the Word. Jesus said, “He who has my commands and obeys them, He is the one who loves me.” John 14:21
I tried to see things through his eyes.
Sometimes I forget how different our perspectives are. For example, I had a poster in my son’s room with scripture references on it. My husband asked, “Why does it say, “John at 3:30?”” He saw the same thing I did, but something completely different than I did.
By definition, believers and unbelievers have different minds – we think and understand differently. Your unbelieving husband isn’t going to understand church lingo. He might feel threatened by the respect you have for the pastor. He may see church as your hobby and Bible study as brain washing.
Understanding how he sees things helps us be sensitive to topics that we might want to avoid or explain in a different way. There’s no easy, three-step program for this. All I can say is that we need to be sensitive to clues and pray for understanding.
Proverbs 4:7 …Though it cost all you have, get understanding.
I stopped making excuses and told myself, “All biblical instruction about relationships still applies to me.”
No matter the spiritual state of your husband, all the commands of the Bible still apply. I am still required to respect him (1 Peter3:1-2) to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, to show courtesy (Titus 2:3), I must put away bitterness, wrath, anger and evil speaking (Eph. 4:31).I need to be kind, tenderhearted and forgiving (Eph. 4:32).
Read 1 Corinthians 13 and insert your names – can you say “I am patient toward my husband?” I am kind to him? I am not arrogant or rude in dealing with him? Do I insist on my own way? Do I resent my husband? Thinking this way helps me to forgive any failing in my husband as I see great failings that Christ forgives in me.
Eph 4:32 be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
I allowed myself to be happy.
When I say this, I don’t mean that I can indulge my flesh and have everything I think will please me. What I do mean is that it is fine and good to have a happy marriage to an unbeliever and to enjoy your husband. It is not more spiritual to be miserable.
Sometimes people tell me that they find it unimaginable to be happy while married to an unbeliever. But my marriage is not an affliction. I love my husband. The pain I feel knowing that he is lost is the affliction.
Let me explain what it is like – we laugh together. We enjoy being together. We love our kids and have jokes together that no-one else in the world would understand. We love old movies and hole-in-the-wall diners. He saves puns for me when he hears them at work, and I always bring him home half my piece of cake when we have a party at church. (Well, sometimes I take two pieces and bring him one of those). We do have areas of conflict, but many more areas of agreement.
Just like any marriage, there are hard days and hard seasons – our values are different. Sometimes there are agonizing ambiguities that hurt my soul, and my faith sometimes embarrasses him and makes him feel judged. It is not all butterflies and lollipops. But I know from experience that women married to unbelievers can learn to be content in this imperfect circumstance, all the while longing for the circumstance to change. (Phil. 4:12). I think the “spiritually single life verse” must be:
Romans 12:12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.
But a warning here – marrying an unbeliever is disobedience (2 Cor. 6:14). If you haven’t done it, don’t even consider it. Don’t presume on grace. These marriages often end with broken hearts and broken marriages.
I pray for my husband.
I am comforted to know that Paul knew what it was like to long for salvation for someone else. He said, “I have intense sorrow and continual anguish in my heart.” (Romans 9:2) and many of you know just what he means. The ache of longing for our loved ones to be saved never goes away.
My son introduced me to podcasts this year. Recently I listened to an episode of NPR’s Radio Lab titled, The Cathedral. They told the story of a young couple whose 18 month-old son was diagnosed with cancer.
One night the father was with the boy in the hospital while the mom went home to be with the other children. The baby had a brain tumor and a stomach bug, and he was miserable. He cried and cried, and nothing the father did could comfort him. He placed him in his crib, but the baby kept batting his head against the rails. He tried giving him juice, but the baby threw it up. He tried rocking him, but the baby just squirmed and cried; he tried distracting him with toys, singing to him, and pacing. Nothing helped. Exhausted, in the early hours of the morning he placed the baby back in the crib and called out to God in prayer. As the father prayed, the baby stopped crying and fell into peaceful sleep. It was a miracle that encouraged that weary father beyond words. He knew he was not alone with his baby in that dark hospital room. God was with him.
The father longed to share his experience with others – to let them know what it was like to have a child with cancer and to see the hand of God in this moment of grace. Since he was a video game designer by trade, he decided to design a video game of this experience to tell the story.
Imagine the scene – you see the action from the position of the father. You can pick up your crying child, and can click on options to try to soothe him. You might click on juice, or rocking, or pacing or a toy. Perhaps you try several different options, then try them again in a different order. Nothing works. Your anxiety increases as the baby just keeps crying, no matter what you do. And then the father character prays, and the baby falls asleep.
When I heard this, I thought, “I wish I could design a game about what it is like to feel the pain of knowing that my dear husband – part of my flesh – is currently headed to eternity without Christ.” I’d make the game from my point of view, and I’d have options to click – You could leave tracts in strategic places around the house, you could ask others to talk to him or leave the radio on loud so he could catch a little John Piper second-hand…but nothing would work. Nothing you could do would quiet the crying-baby of your soul, and your anxiety would increase as the timer ran down and you tried frantically to find some hidden Easter egg of relief.
But then you would go to God in prayer. You would ask Him to save your husband, knowing that if He does God is good, and if He does not, God is still good. And the crying-baby of your soul finds peace, and rests in Christ. This is what we do every day, and every day God is faithful to give rest for our souls. We are not alone in the dark. God is with us.