Our challenges begin before we ever say, “I do.”
As a single person vetting candidates for marriage, it’s tempting to not prioritize faith. What does it matter if the person you’re interested in is a member of a heretical group, or a non-Christian world religion? Does it really matter that much if he hates church? So what if she doesn’t believe in God? You’ll work it out later. Besides, in all the other areas you click so well.
Yet every serious Christian should remember that faith is a front burner issue, not something you want to wait and figure out later. You can compromise in the Honda versus Toyota debate. Or Papa John’s versus Pizza Hut. But not commitment to Christ.
Armed with that understanding, singles log on to Christian dating sites and say, “I’m born again, my faith is important to me” and then pointedly ask, “Is that true of you as well?” The other person says, “Yeah, sure. we’re on ‘Christian Connection,’ aren’t we?”
But often as time passes, it becomes apparent that not all who haunt the Christian dating scene are in fact Christians at all, and many who claim to follow Jesus have no idea what that means. The tip-off might come through risqué selfies, inappropriate humor, requests for pre-marital hook-ups, or revelations that they visit church with the same regularity as DoDo bird sightings.
The Christian moves on and realizes he or she just dodged a bullet.
Yet even when two reasonably positive authentic Christians enter marriage, they may later experience spiritual mismatch. A husband can suddenly decide he’s not interested in pursuing Jesus any further, and stops in his tracks. A wife wants to take a sudden turn to the mission field. Somebody wants to slow down or speed up. These moves are jarring precisely because two people are involved.
We have a mistaken thought that if we can find the right person and they have saving faith in Christ, we can throw the marriage on auto-pilot, and Jesus will take care of the rest. After all, you reason, I did my part. I married inside the faith. Divorce rates among Christians prove this is not enough.
If you want a great marriage, you have to think in terms of upgrade, something bigger than “Happily Ever After.”
We typically understand marriage this way:
But not this way:
The Apostle Paul warned about mismatches in long term committed relationships like marriage when he said, “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14).
Yoking shouldn’t happen between an ox and a donkey or an ox and a llama or an ox and a St. Bernard. Those other animals have differing natures ; they’re not beasts of field labor. They don’t have a mind to pull a plow for a master. Even if you successfully yoked them, they’d be pulling against the yoke, trying to escape it, struggling to be free and to run off.
The most famous example of an equally yoked couple in the New Testament was Prisca and Aquila. Paul referred to them, writing, “Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 16:3). The moniker “fellow workers” tell us the marriage had risen above mere marital gratification.
But what exactly does it mean to be equally yoked? How does a couple get there? The rich imagery of 2 Corinthians 6:14-16 goes a long way toward answering that question. By taking a look at the highlighted words of the verse, it’s easy to see what equal yoking really is, according to the apostle:
2 Cor. 6:14 Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? 15 What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? 16 What agreement has the temple of God with idols?
The key terms inside those verses are mildly synonymous with one another, but each holds a slightly different shade of emphasis. Due to latitude in translation, you’ll find them rendered differently from one version of the Bible to the other. I’m sticking with a combination of ESV and NASB, two that are noted for literal accuracy.
Partnership refers to two parties pooling resources for the purpose of making a difference.
Consider Billy Sunday, the ex-pro baseball player turned firebrand evangelist. This dramatic larger than life preacher married Nell, his virtual opposite. Nell preferred administrative functions and shunned the limelight.
The two found their unlikely pairing difficult at first, but eventually a true partnership developed between them. It has been said that if Sunday stood on his head in a mud puddle he could gather a hundred people and that Nell would then whip out a notebook and take their names. That’s Partnership.
Sometimes we look at differing temperaments and gifts as a problem, and start to meditate upon the perceived faults of our spouse. You may begin to wonder if you married the wrong person. But barring infidelity, if you said “I do” at the altar, you got the right one.
Remember this: probably the thing that attracted you the most to your spouse is now the thing that annoys you the most about your spouse. And the thing that annoys you most about your spouse is the thing you need the most from your spouse. Forget the petty aggravations and upgrade your marriage from tolerating one another to partnering with one another.
If we stop at partnership though, it might sound like two people who got together and started a lemonade stand. Paul takes us deeper. “Fellowship” refers to the interface of two souls, the sharing of hopes and dreams, a certain level of enjoyed communication. Not everybody gets this one right.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was a colossal figure in church history. By the time of his death, he had preached 42,000 sermons, traveled 250,000 miles on horseback, and gained 153,000 converts to Methodism. Yet he didn’t marry until he was 47, and by his own admission, despaired of finding any woman the equal of his mother, Susannah.
After several aborted romances, he finally married Molly. But in so many words, Wesley let her know that nothing much would change in his life or schedule after marriage. His negligence of Molly, coupled with her natural propensity to complain, led the two of them into a life-long, unhappy marriage.
A number of noble factors can pull a husband and wife apart, not only intemperate ministry busyness, but work, schooling, kids, and hobbies. As this happens, there must be determined efforts to pull back together again.
It might mean deliberately setting aside a little time every week like an oasis, where communication between husband and wife can take place on a deeper level. Spiritual topics are a good idea, a short study of some kind, or whatever stimulates conversation. Don’t let your marriage flatten into becoming roommates. Upgrade it into an equal yoking through fellowship.
For two serious married Christians, “Accord,” or, harmony, addresses more than merely getting along, or agreement on primary beliefs like the Bible being the Word of God or Jesus being the Son of God (Actually, those issues are all foundational, and should have been settled prior to marriage). After the I-do’s, harmony involves joint spiritual development.
Take Tom Holladay’s case. He came to faith in Christ, and then married Chaundel. She was light years ahead of him in terms of Scriptural knowledge and spiritual experience. If that weren’t intimidating enough, her brother was Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Community Church.
Rather than sharpshoot her novice husband on the many issues of Christian living, she praised him when he made real spiritual advances, and encouraged him when he faced opportunities. Tom eventually became teaching pastor at Saddleback, and by extension, a help to many other Christians throughout the world.
We won’t always be neck-and-neck with our spouse in terms of spiritual development. God works in everyone at a different pace and intensity according to their season of life. But you can also ignore your spouse and leave him or her too far behind. Never think this is inconsequential. One of the most painful things you can experience is when the spouse whom you dearly love has lapsed in their faith.
The worst thing you could do under those circumstances is to panic and begin to nag, accuse, or condemn them. Learn to pray. Encourage your spouse to discover their spiritual gifts. Don’t expect them to be exactly like you in all areas. You’ll also want to encourage him or her to have same-sex Christian friendships. A lot of spiritual development has to do with addressing concerns specific to gender.
Be your spouse’s biggest cheerleader and remember that their development is ultimately tied to your own happiness. You want to serve God with them, not drag them around everywhere by a rope. Harmony is a serious marriage upgrade.
A shared portion speaks of a specific spiritual passion we have in common with our spouse.
While my wife (Aleisha) and I lived in Texas, we mostly had people over to dinner and hosted some Bible studies. But we later relocated to Ohio, where the culture was different. In this new environment and new church, Aleisha got interested in High School ministry. Our family dynamic changed. Kids were in and out of our house and our refrigerator.
She started trying to recruit me—“They’d love you,” she said. I always begged off. I felt the youth population wasn’t serious about spiritual formation and was only there because parents forced them to show up. But wifely persuasion being what it is, I eventually visited the outer fringes of some youth gatherings. It became a regular habit.
Over time I learned some important things about ministry, like the difference between how one talks to a second generation Christian youth versus a rank west Texan sinner. Before long, Aleisha and I settled into college ministry together. This new arrangement became a long and winding road that led to planting a church populated with mostly young people.
It’s always a good idea to at least accommodate the spiritual passions of your spouse. Help them if they need it, and if at all possible, participate to some extent in what they’re doing. You will almost always be enriched by doing it. Upgraded marriage comes by sharing in one another’s portion of faith.
At the end of these verses, Paul uses a Greek word translated here as “agreement” but it really captures better the idea of “union.” This is the bringing together of all disparate parts into a meaningful whole, a plane where two people literally look as though they were made for each other. It’s like finding the cog from a wristwatch on the ground. You’d never believe such a part was manufactured as a stand-alone item. You know by looking at it that it’s made to fit something else.
The Dream Team couple, Prisca and Aquilla, demonstrated that kind of interdependence when Apollos came to town. They functioned together as a unit to disciple an already enormously gifted Christian:
“He [Apollos] began to speak boldly in the synagogue, but when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:16).
This same couple became a field of influence to other believers as they hosted the church in their home:
“The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord” (1 Cor. 16:19).
Don’t just shoot for not getting divorced and don’t just hope to be happy. Aim for being equally yoked, so your marriage becomes a factor for the kingdom of God. As Paul signed off from his ministry and was about to go under the executioner’s axe, his final greetings included a mention that speaks volumes:
Greet Prisca and Aquila…” (2 Tim. 4:19).
Photo credit: Jim Denham