Do you need to be a Christian to have a good marriage?
Last week I wrote a post on what makes a good marriage. When I was initially sketching out my points, I instinctively wanted to include something about letting Jesus lead your marriage, or having the power of the Holy Spirit in your life. I feel like Jesus is a huge part of my marriage, because I know that I live and breathe in Him, and it’s hard to separate Him from my own experience of my life with Keith.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I couldn’t put those points in that article, for one simple reason: I know a lot of people who weren’t Christians who have great marriages.
I think Christians make a mistake when we think that the only way a person can do the right thing is to know Jesus.
God created humanity in His image. And in Romans 1, Paul writes about how people can sense different elements of God’s character from nature alone. He writes in the next chapter about people who have never heard the message of Jesus but who still instinctively act as if they have. And all that leaves me with this conclusion:
All of us are made in the image of God. When we do the right thing, we’re reflecting Jesus, whether we realize it or not.
Many people are walking through this earth reflecting the image of God–being image bearers, so to speak. They may not know it. They may never call it that, or even vehemently deny it. But when we act with love, we reflect God, because God is love.
And that’s why, I think, non-Christians can have great marriages.
Now let me add another layer to this.
A while ago in the comments, we were talking about setting boundaries when husbands cheat, and someone made a list of things that shouldn’t be tolerated, and in that list was child porn. I replied to that comment off-handedly, saying something to the effect of, “oh, and if your husband uses child porn, call the police! Real children are being harmed, and the police need to know so that they can potentially rescue them. And this stuff needs to be turned over to law enforcement.” Well, a commenter was super offended by that, and wrote back. I told the story on Facebook, and it resulted in hundreds of comments in response:
My Facebook Thread:
Should you report a husband who uses child porn?
In a comment recently, I said off-handedly to someone who had used child porn as an example, that if you find your husband using child porn, report it! The police need to know so they can rescue as many kids as possible, and that’s a serious crime.
A woman commented back this: “Report them? Your spouse shares something with you and instead of getting them treatment you report them? You have no clue what marriage is. You have no loyalty to your spouse. I am frankly shocked. I will look elsewhere on advise for a Godly marriage.”
Let’s talk about a godly marriage, shall we? A godly marriage is one where we pursue GOD, not just marriage. If we cover up a serious crime out of loyalty to our spouse, then we are making marriage an idol. Let’s remember that Sapphira got to choose between doing what was right and covering for her husband. She chose covering for her husband, and God struck her down. Pretty clear what side God was on!
Child porn is one of the worst scourges in our lifetime. Real children are being raped. It needs to be prosecuted.
This idea that loyalty to our husbands is the end all and be all is the same root that makes abuse so difficult to address. People close ranks out of loyalty, rather than doing what is right. Churches don’t address the abuse in their midst because “it might ruin our witness.” Families don’t speak up about the creepy uncle who hurts kids because “it’s not right to speak ill of family.” Well, you know what? God sides with the abused.
Whenever you choose image and appearance over truth, you make an idol of something, and God is not pleased. In everything, seek Jesus first, and do what Jesus would do.
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26
While the vast majority of commenters completely agreed, asking, “why is this even a question?”, I did get some comments that I found concerning. Several comments hit this tone:
Let’s all remember that we would be the ones not only watching child porn but making it if it wasn’t for the Lord. The Holy Spirit restrains some from being as wicked as they could be. I know it can be tempting but we have no room to look down on others. That could be us but by the grace of God!
What she’s essentially saying is that without Jesus, we’re all scumbags who would watch child porn. (There’s also a huge problem with sin-levelling in this comment, by saying that all sin is equal. But that’s a huge topic for another post!).
Now, I realize the theology behind it: without God, our works are all as filthy rags. I get that. But the simple truth is that (thankfully!), most non-Christians do not watch child porn, let alone make it, and most would never, ever think of such a thing. Many even commented in reply and were quite offended!
I think we need another way of looking at why we do good things.
People who don’t know God are capable of doing good things. In fact, I would say that many people I know who don’t personally believe in God are far kinder, loving, and more generous than many Christians I know. To say that the reason we do good things is only because we know Jesus is far too simplistic.
We do good things because God is good; God made humanity; and we are created with “eternity in our hearts” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) so that we know what is good and what is evil.
That doesn’t mean that everybody knows that. Many can silence their conscience. But humanity is in the image of God, and God is love, and so we should not be surprised if non-Christians act in a loving way!
When we talk as if non-Christians can’t do anything right, though, because they don’t know Jesus, we sound crazy and judgmental.
Telling a non-Christian something like:
I’m so glad I’m a Christian because otherwise I could be watching child porn!
Is not really a recipe for them wanting to come to know Christ. Remember, people can deny God and still be image bearers. That isn’t a good reason for becoming a Christian–so that then you won’t be a raging rapist or a Hitler in training. If I were to sum up why people should want to know Jesus, I would talk about these aspects:
- You know that there is a purpose to your life
- You feel a sense of belonging. You know someone knows your whole life, and is watching over you, and cares.
- You feel deeply loved.
- You have a mission now–a reason to keep going. You realize that you are infinitely important in the broader scheme of things.
- You live with God’s power within you, so that you can grow, and you can change for the better.
- You know that this life on earth is not all that there is; there’s a greater future for you, where you’ll get to know God better and be perfect in the way that you were actually made to be.
I think we would have a much easier time talking to those who don’t know Christ if we acknowledged that many of them act better than many who do claim Christ. I think telling those people, “You know, I believe God looks at your marriage and it makes Him so happy,” will do a lot more to lead people to Christ than telling them, “Do you realize that without Christ, you could be Hitler?”
God is pleased when people do the right thing, whether or not they know Him.
Think about the story of Jonah. God sent Jonah to talk to the people of Nineveh because the people were horrendously violent. He told them to repent or God would smite them. They repented, and God relented. But nowhere in that book does it say that they understood who God was or started practising the Law (which was how people knew God back then). They simply stopped being violent, and that made God happy.
Or take the parable of the Good Samaritan! Jesus pointed out that the Samaritan, who did not know God, actually acted more like God than the Levite and the priest who DID know God. And Jesus told us to go and be like that Samaritan. (Luke 10:25-37).
I think Christians make a mistake when we think that the only way a person can do the right thing is to know Jesus.
And to say that the reason we do good things is only because we know Jesus is far too simplistic.
So why do I follow Jesus?
I’ll leave you with two quotes–one from the apostle Peter, and one from C.S. Lewis.
So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
And here’s C.S. Lewis:
I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.
Knowing Jesus opens up life. I am forever grateful. I am growing. But I don’t need everyone who doesn’t know Jesus to be terrible and awful to give my faith meaning. I think that’s a better perspective.
What do you think? Can you act right without God? Let’s talk in the comments!
One of the things that strike me is the fact that there are a lot of Christian marriages that are worse then that of the unsaved. If the only way you can have a good marriage is to know Christ why is that?
That truly is an indictment of the state of the church–and I do agree with you. My guess is that it’s because, at least in the current Western context, we look at marriage from a gender roles framework rather than a Jesus centred framework. If we simply looked at how to love, we’d do a lot better.
“In fact, I would say that many people I know who don’t personally believe in God are far kinder, loving, and more generous than many Christians I know.“
Fundies are often too focused on being right to be loving. Also the obsession with power exclusive to a sexual relationship is never a good recipe for a healthy cultural dynamic between the genders.
I completely agree, Gisele. We need to get back to loving and serving as Jesus modelled and as He commanded.
I cannot speak for others, but if I didn’t think Jesus/God would judge me, I would be tempted to do a lot of things I shouldn’t do. So yes, without having Jesus, I would do a lot of evil things. Maybe not child porn, but then again I might look at porn and once you are there…. little choices lead you down paths you do not want to go!
Certainly Jesus sanctifies us, absolutely!
But I’d be careful about this line of thinking, too, because it almost makes it sound like we’re saying, “without Jesus you can’t be expected to do what’s right.” Well, that’s not really a defence if someone does something wrong. Being an atheist can’t get you off the hook for murder.
Also, the way that Jesus sanctifies us isn’t that He puts fear in us; it’s that He changes the desires of our hearts. If we’re still operating from a fear mindset, then we’re operating in Romans 7 rather than Romans 8. I think the way around this is to stop thinking of Christianity as a set of to-dos, and just get to know Jesus better. We all know John 3:16, but sometimes I think we need to be reminded of John 3:17:
“For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.”
Jesus is our advocate. The Holy Spirit sanctifies/empowers us to yearn after the things of God. If fear of punishment is a the guiding force in doing what’s right, perhaps it may be good to read the gospels again and just look at the way Jesus treated people. I think we often get it very wrong.
Sheila, I love this response. I am 30 and have been a Christian as long as I can remember but I am still working to sort out my faith in my adult life. I think it’s so easy to make Christianity a to-do list or a fear-based relationship but that is not healthy or biblical.
I daily need the reminder that God will sanctify me through the changing of my heart and to ask Him for that changing. It’s when I let fear and to-do lists take over that anxiety, bitterness, and doubt take up roots in my heart.
Thank God that He is merciful and loving and that He sanctifies me day by day by the renewing of my mind and the softening of my heart.
Thank you for your work in bringing this and other biblical messages to all of us who need to hear and be reminded of them!
You’re so welcome, Jess! Glad it could encourage you.
Thank you so so much for this!!!! It untwists so much of the simplistic false teaching i have heard in so many churches.
It is much easier for many of us to believe things are black and white. But making complex things overly simple often blurs the truth.
I was struck as i read your thoughts about the capability of goodness being demonstrated by those who do not name Jesus as Lord, the flip side of this coin is also true. Evil can also be done by those who claim the name Of Jesus. This is a hard truth for many church leaders to honestly discuss. Believing one is either all good OR evil is over simplified wishful thinking.
Such thinking leaves Church leaders insisting those who have been accused of abuse ARE EITHER TOTALLY EVIL, or being falsely accused ~ even though most times many ( those not being affected by his/her evil acts) will see them as upstanding, kind and *godly*.
The nuanced understanding that within us all , living outside the willing dependence on the Holy Spirit, is the capacity to be and act both good and evil ( most times in different environments i.e. public/ private or church vs. home) Thank you for addressing this complicated subject. I appreciate your work!
You’re so welcome! It is highly complicated, isn’t it? And, yes, the flipside of it is what I’ve been very concerned with over the last few months. I do think that we’ve forgotten that those who claim Christ can do great evil. I also think that what we’re going to learn in the next 10-20 years is a very different way of looking at faith. We’ve been focusing far too much on having the right doctrine, and we’ve been leaving out love. I’m not saying that doctrine isn’t important, but we tend to believe “he’s a good Christian” because he believes certain things and can argue them, not because he actually acts well towards people. That will change soon, I think, with all the big name Christian leaders falling (and believe me–we’re only seeing the beginning of that). God is shaking His church, and we’ll get back to what it was meant to be.
Actually, I have seen tweets, texts, etc. praising a shortly-therafter-accused abuser as a man of God produced by his alleged victims while the alleged molestation was going on. It seems they were convinced of his devotion to God even as he was grooming them with porn and fondling them. How, I wonder, can these victims know that a person does these things, and still hold on to an image of this person as a devout spiritual example? I’m not judging or blaming them. What I mean is that it seems like some really important things must have been left out of their spiritual/religious education if they didn’t spot this behavior as contradictory to the teachings of Christianity.
Some people project and even feel a spiritual persona during worship that really doesn’t inform their actions in daily life. Some predators cloak themselves in lambswool to get close to vulnerable and credulous populations. Jesus warned us to judge trees by their fruits, and I think this is an especially important teaching to pass on to children. They need to be able to spot predators amongst their flock before they are taken down by them, either as children or adults choosing marriage partners.
Then there are sincere Christians who have simply developed a habit of being irritable and contemptuous with their spouses and families. This is also really sad to me, because it leaves such a nasty mark on the children and grandchildren who grow up watching this dynamic. It’s something I try very hard to guard against in my marriage, because it’s so easy to slip into.
THANK YOU for this post. I read this blog often even though I’m not Christian, and it is reassuring and frankly a relief to know that you acknowledge that my family can be good. I hope this doesn’t get too personal, but my husband also did his residency in Toronto (not in peds) and I have occasionally wondered what you would have thought about all the non-Christian doctors that he worked with.
A big thanks as well for pointing out that our first responsibility is to do what’s right and protect those who are vulnerable and abused, even if it means being “disloyal”.
Oh, do I have some stories about some of the docs that Keith worked with! Some were awful, some were lovely. When our son was in hospital with hypoplastic left heart syndrome at Sick Kids, we fired two cardiologists who were absolute monsters to us and asked for another (none of the three was religious, as far as I know) because he was genuinely a caring person, and he walked through the whole thing with us. The docs at Women’s College were amazing, too. My own family physician not so much. And we loved some of Keith’s colleagues, but not all. So I think it’s just kind of a mixed bag, exactly what you’d expect! And we’re still friends with a few from residency, too. 🙂
I’m glad you feel comfortable here. You are always welcome here. And it’s neat to know that part of your back story. I didn’t know all that.
Thanks. We spent the first 6 years of our marriage living at Bay and Gerrard. So, even though our backgrounds are different in other ways, I certainly related to you.
Sorry to hear that you had some awful doctors when you were going through that with Christopher. At a time like that, with all the stress and worry and grief, a bit of compassion can go a long way, and lack of it stings even more.
I had a great opportunity to speak at the Grand Rounds at Sick Kids and explain what made the doctors so bad. So that was a little healing anyway! We lived at Church & Carlton, so quite close to you!
I know scores of folks who aren’t Christian yet are nice people, have nice families, good marriages and do the next right thing. Here is the thing: i believe that for us who choose to be Christian it is easier for us amongst the challenges of life to have good marriages and good families and do the next right thing because we are blessed for loving God back. But you know what I think the real deal is Sheila? I am going to heaven. So is my wife and I pray my children follow the Christian path and will meet me in heaven. For the do gooders who are not necessarily Christian? I am not tue judge. But you know what? I am not so sure they will meet me in heaven. This week my words are positive encouragement. Thats what a Christin does. For each other and for those who are not practicing Christianity. I believe in attraction not promotion. Thats what we are talking about here. Anyway thats my 2 cents and I hope all have a great weekend! Peace
Thanks, Phil, for always being an encouragement. Have a great weekend, too!
I’ve know non-Christian couples who have good marriages and some Christians who have troubled marriages.
Part of the belief that claims things like “only Christians can have good marriages” or “Thank God I’m a Christian, otherwise I’d be watching child porn” is rooted in the idea that becoming a Christian immediately makes us superior beings to everybody else.
It doesn’t. I’m not perfect, not by a long shot. Like those bumper stickers say “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” and Jesus himself says “not everyone who says Lord, Lord will enter the Kingdom of Heaven”.
I think that being a Christian saves us, and gives us an opportunity to improve, though not the only opportunity, but we can be good people no matter what our religion, or even without religion at all.
And yes, some Christians DO watch porn, and even child porn. We all have a capacity to do good and evil, Christian or not.
Thank you, Sheila, for being unashamedly outspoken about your faith. In today’s culture it seems that everything EXCEPT Christianity is allowed full expression. We appreciate and benefit from your sound Biblical views and teaching. You are impacting thousands of individuals and therefore families and generations, for the good. Thank you.
Oh, thank you!
Just letting people know, we had to restore a site backup today so we lost some comments on this post. We didn’t delete any, so if you left a comment and it’s gone now feel free to re-post it!
Ha! We were each doing the same thing at the same time.
I know a bunch of you left comments later this afternoon, but we had a problem on the back end of the blog and we had to restore a back-up, and I lost about 6-7 comments that came in before I could reply to them! Just wanted to tell you where they went if you don’t see yours. Sorry about that! (But also pray for us, because this back up has been a nightmare!)
Sorry to hear that it was a nightmare! And also, praying for you and your team!
… don’t know exactly what kind of help you need from God, but he knows. I figure if I just pray that God’s will be done, and ask the angels to add my prayers to whatever your prayer intentions are, it’ll be covered.
I know what that’s like! websites and databases need all the prayers they can get!
And to continue the discussion of whether or not we (and our marriages) can be good without Christianity, part of being a Christian is recognizing our failings and weaknesses. Becoming a Christian doesn’t make those magically go away.
This is a great discussion! I love that you make me re-evaluate what I’ve been taught and what I believe to make sure it’s what Scripture really teaches.
I’ve come to believe that the Fall caused everyone to become spiritually dead. So it’s now our natural inclination to do and enjoy what God calls sin. We are capable of doing “good” benevolent things without Jesus because we are still image bearers of God and God’s grace to society restrains all of humanity from being as evil as we could be. (One of God’s judgments on a society is allowing them to do what they want, first in open sexual immorality and progressing to sins of envy, murder, disobedience to parents, ect. Romans 1:24-32) The problem is none of our good works can save us because we are not capable of doing them with pure, holy motivations as God’s law requires. We do good things to get praise of man, or good karma, or in fear of our justice system, or simply to feel good about ourselves. In God’s eyes that’s not going to save us, otherwise if we worked hard enough at doing good things we might be able to outweigh the bad and get to heaven without a Savior. We know that no man can come to the Father except through the righteousness of Jesus, so that can’t be true! The filthy rags verse means that on our own, the good works are so tainted by our sinful tendencies they are disgusting in comparison to God’s perfect holiness. So of course, non-Christians can be wonderful, generous people who put many Christians to shame. It’s just not enough to save them from the consequences of being unable to perfectly follow all of God’s law! When the Holy Spirit miraculously awakens our dead spiritual nature, we are able to accept the free gift of salvation. Christ’s perfect obedience to God’s law is given to us as if it were ours and His death is accepted as punishment for all our sins against that law.
That’s why being a Christian isn’t following a to-do list, like you always say! It’s a * to-done * list through Jesus and we try to be more like Him and obey Him out of love and so much thankfulness! Looking at salvation that way frees me from so much guilt! Every time I fail, I get back up and thank God for his forgiveness and perfect life standing in for me and start living for Him again!
I’d welcome any of your thoughts if you disagree with something I said. 😊
Being an atheist may not get you off the hook for murder but it will highly influence what you define as murder! Abortion, euthanasia, and even infanticide are all forms of murder accepted by many atheists. The fact that many unbelievers have what we who know Christ would define as good marriages probably says more about the lingering influence of Christianity on our culture than anything else. Cultures that have no historical influence from Christianity generally define “good” in most areas much differently than we do.
Christians often take that point of view about other things, too. Women will make various parenting choices out to be *the worst thing in the world* to lend some sort of status to their own choices or positions. They do it to other Christians and don’t care if it hurts relationships or stunts the health of the Church…they just want to be “right” and “best.” I am trying to work through some hurt in this area, confess where I have sinned and be the sort of Christian woman who supports others on the path they are walking without trying to elevate my own self by tearing down others. I would say it’s one of my top three spiritual growth “projects” right now.
This post so reminded me of my own parents’ marriage because they are not Christians, yet have a great marriage. So many of my Christian friends and family have been puzzled how it can be that my parents’ non-Christian marriage could be better than their Christian marriages. Mutual respect is a lot of it. You were dead on with the patriarchy model typically causing less intimacy and power-struggle within the marriage.
A lot of non-christians are much better than christians. I have always wondered why. Sometimes I guess its easier when you dont have the pressure of perfection over you to do things. If you do wrong things(which is very subjective) you dont have to feel condemned , you just try to become better. The pressure is off. Saw a post on facebook today where someone claimed that he felt less guilt and shame since he stopped being a christian. While I guess it means he can sin more I guess I do understand the person. The guilt and shame one lives with sometimes is horrible. I loath myself a lot because my lack of perfection and seeing christians with “perfect marriages” and really good christian lifes makes one feel even worse.
This made me think about the struggle people have with porn. I have read before and even talked about it with a pshyciatrist that the taboo about porn sometimes make it easier to become an addiction. I have discussed with non-christian couples both men and women who say that they watch porn and none of them are addicted to it. Its just something they use sometimes or when the other one is unavailable. I am not saying this is a good idea. There are many good posts on why a couple shouldnt watch porn but it sometimes seem to me like non-christian couples have an easier to deal with this then christians. A christian that struggles with this is so filled with shame and guilt all the time that the shame itself leads them even deeper into it. Non-christians may feel shame but I dont think they feel it in the same way christians do. And since its not that taboo for them its easier to let it go. In that way I envy the non-christian. For them its not a big deal and I guess that because its not a big deal its easier to give it up.
When it comes to marriage I think many have a good marriage because of the culture they grow up in. In the western world that is built on christianity the idea about marriage until death do us apart is still an important idea for some. Not all but many. I have met people who are not christian but believe in this idea because thats what they grew up with. It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming generations.
I feel like this post demonstrates how important our anthropology is as Christians. A great many of us in Evangelicalism were taught total depravity—that we are spiritually dead and are utterly bent toward evil. The fallout of this bad theology is that it shows up in best-selling marriage and parenting books saying that selfishness is the number one problem in marriages and foolishness is the number one problem in our children.
This low view of humanity has wrecked havoc on my marriage. The point of the first author about selfishness, of course, was that we are supposed to look at our own selfishness, not our spouses. But let’s face it, it still primes us to look at our spouse and see them as a selfish jerk. It’s doubly difficult to show compassion to someone you see as a selfish jerk, versus someone who is hurting and reaching out for connection. And since our very basic anthropology is now steeped entirely in shame (I am bad at my very core), neither my husband nor I felt like we actually deserved to have our needs met in marriage (since what we *really* deserve is Hell, after all). So not only did we try to convince ourselves to be content with mere scraps of love from one another, we also thought we were being good Christians by “dying to self” and not even asking or expecting those needs to be met, because having needs is just selfish anyway. Isn’t it?
This is a recipe for a really crappy, shallow, lonely marriage. Fear-based and shame-based faith will result in a fear-based and shame-based marriages. So in that sense, yes, I believe many non-Christians have way better marriages than Christians. And I believe this is why. If we want healthier marriages, we need to ditch this “worthless worm” theology. It is psychologically damaging, emotionally stunting, and IT IS NOT FROM GOD.
This is really good, Kay. I hadn’t made that connection in the same way to thinking that we are worms. It reminds me of this post that from a while ago (I think Rebecca wrote it?) on how we don’t need to teach our kids they’re dirty rotten sinners. So many parenting books start with the premise that children are inherently evil and bad, and the truth is they just aren’t. But if that’s what we think, it’s going to change how we parent for the worse.
The doctrine of original sin is true, for sure. But it’s like they totally ignore the other part of it–that we are still made in the image of God. I think the shame that many Christians feel definitely contributes to bad marriages (and certainly bad sex) which is why some non-Christians definitely do better!
Oh, one other thing. With regards to this part:
We’re always told that expectations in marriage are wrong, and that we are to die to self, and we’re supposed to be selfless, etc. etc. But actually, there are some things we should expect in marriage! It’s okay to have basic expectations of what it means to be married, and to hold each other to them.
I think the reason that Christian teachers don’t say that is because in all too many cases, that could lead to people understanding they’re in a toxic marriage or an abusive situation, and they may leave. And they’re more committed to keeping marriages together than they are to healthy people, so they’d rather people don’t open that can of worms. But God is committed to our growth, not to appearances. He cares about what’s below the surface. So it’s okay to confront it. I sure hope this message gets out there more. Thanks, Kay!
I’ve often said (on other chat boards) that being taught that we’re automatically born evil, or that our natural feelings make us inherently bad, is likely one of the leading causes of psychological problems in our history.
The idea that God will forever and eternally punish all women for the original sin that taints us all is a part of it, though by no means the entirety.
It certainly is a part of it, Nathan. One interesting thing we’ve seen recently (we’ll have a post coming up about this): All baby Bibles, pretty much, show Eve at the tree ALONE. Adam only comes later. But it clearly says in the Bible that Adam WAS WITH HER. Why is it that we always depict Eve alone? Why are we so swift to blame Eve, when the Bible says that they were both there? It’s strange and sad.