What should a church member do if their spouse is a non-believer? This is something that many couples encounter, either because one spouse ceases to believe or because one spouse converts and the other does not. What should the church advise these believing spouses who ask? What is the “doctrinal” implication in these situations? Does this put the believing spouse’s salvation at risk as some fear?
To me, the answer as attributed to Paul in Corinthians is crystal clear and easy advice:
1 Corinthians 7 : 12-1612 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.
13 And the woman which hath an husband that believeth not, and if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him.
14 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.
15 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.
16 For what knowest thou, O wife, whether thou shalt save thy husband? or how knowest thou, O man, whether thou shalt save thy wife?
If you accept Paul’s writings as doctrinally binding, this means you can allow an unbeliever who wants to leave to go, but you should stay with your spouse otherwise. Paul’s counsel reminds me of E. Bednar’s personal life growing up in a house with a non-LDS father and going to church with just his mother. Eventually, after E. Bednar was an adult, his father did choose to join the church. I think most confusion regarding mixed belief marriages is related to this scripture in 2 Cor 6:14:
14 Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?
But this second one seems to be about whom you choose to marry or associate with, while the first one is about someone who is already married.
According to Paul’s advice, divorce of an unbeliever is only justified if that unbelieving spouse desires to leave. Yet we hear time and again of believing spouses who consider loss of testimony a valid reason for divorce. Why? Here are some reasons that have been discussed around the b’nacle:
- Change. It’s normal for spouses to fantasize about divorce when there has been a material change to the “marriage contract” as they viewed it. For example, John McCain reevaluated his marital contract when his wife became disabled and he ditched her for the leggy blond heiress. The fantasy may be normal and common, but actually carrying through on it is a bit unsavory. All marriages will experience change. Spouses will grow old, develop independent interests, get fat or skinny, change political views, have changes to sexual interest, etc. While studies show that living in a bad marriage is detrimental to health, the negative health effects of divorce are devastating and lasting. Being resilient and flexible enough to make marriage work through change maintains your health, both mentally and physically.
- Control. If either spouse attempts to control the other spouse’s behavior, the marriage is on rocky ground. Control may not degenerate to abuse, but it is in the same family of behaviors. Marriage based on respect and mutual love does not involve controlling the choices our spouse makes. We may wish they would choose something different, but coercing or manipulating or threatening to get what we want is another fantasy best left unindulged. In marriages where the wife exhibits controlling behavior, husbands have a marked negative health impact that often results in an earlier death. Maybe that’s something the controlling wife considers a benefit of her behavior.
- Opportunism. This is one that few people will openly own, but it often sounds something like “I deserve better” or “My patriarchal blessing promised me . . . ” or “Heavenly Father wants me to have . . .” or even “My kids deserve a father who . . .” Often what is behind those statements are two sentiments: 1) entitlement (last I checked we are still only entitled to taxes and death in this life), and 2) viewing the spouse as an obstacle to “what I want” or “what I deserve.” Often, the believing spouse in this scenario feels entitled to a spouse who will allow him or her to maintain status in the church. It can also be based on a fear of loss of exaltation or salvation (meaning status in the life to come). This is the opposite of charitable love and honoring our marital vows; it is putting self ahead of the marriage. Some will also talk of the entitlement in terms of their children (e.g. “the children deserve a mother or father who . . .”), but again, it’s not giving the children a very good example of how marriage works or of Christ-like behavior.
- Fear. Behind a lot of failed marriages lies raw fear. Fear of change, fear of loss of control in your life, fear of loss of status, fear of eternal consequences that are unclear in one’s changes circumstances. Fear is something that must be faced with courage and love. This can take time.
There is obviously justification for leaving a marriage that is abusive. No one should be in fear of physical harm or be subject to ongoing verbal abuse, but even in cases of abuse, individuals have different definitions of what is abusive, when does disagreement become verbal abuse, etc. Clearly, anyone can choose to leave a marriage for any reason at any time. Marriage is voluntary. But that doesn’t make one’s choice justifiable or healthy for personal growth. Those who divorce are prone to make the same mistakes in future relationships (consider Emma Smith whose second husband Louis Bidamon was unfaithful).
What do you think of Paul’s counsel? Is divorce of an unbelieving spouse who is faithful to marriage vows, loving, a good parent, and not controlling or abusive ever morally justified? Discuss.