Members With A Non-Christian spouse - How Congregations Try To Help And Hurt Instead
Talking with my mom and a friend, recently, the subject came up of how some congregations end up hurting Christian women who have non-Christian husbands. Let me be clear, the congregations that end up hurting these women are just trying to help. I know this. I knew this when they were hurting me and making it difficult for me to attend services. I knew it even as I was trying to avoid these people.
I knew they meant to help but even speaking to them was a painful experience. These well meaning mistakes can cause a woman to stop attending services and that is a horrible danger to the woman’s faith.
These two mistakes are: Excluding the woman and condemning the woman for a non-Christian husband.
These mistakes are not overt and are not intentional but they happen over and over with the best of intentions.
I experienced the first when my first husband and I were temporarily living with my parents. My parents and I began attending a nearby congregation. My parents were welcomed enthusiastically and pointed to groups and programs that would benefit them and be benefited by their involvement. I was greeted nicely but…then they returned to speaking with my parents. They had no program for a woman without a Christian husband attending with her.
They couldn’t put me with the singles – I wasn’t single. Their other adult classes were geared for couples and young mothers. I didn’t have children.
They didn’t know what to do with me and, in their discomfort, they did nothing, probably telling themselves that they were trying to avoid making me uncomfortable. They offered no solution. As far as I could tell, they didn’t look for a solution. This hurt me deeply because, in my situation, I was vulnerable and needed extra support.
My parents agreed and we went to another congregation who actively involved me in the young couples class. It didn’t matter that my husband was absent while their husbands were present. They found a place for me even though I didn’t ‘fit’. They weren’t held back by discomfort, theirs or mine.
The more subtle hurt, though, comes in the mask of encouragement. Many people, upon finding out my husband (first and present) is not a Christian offer ‘help’ on how to convert them. They tell me what I can do to force hubby to attend (as if just the act of sitting on a pew will miraculously change a person). They tell me the perfect words to say to cause the conversion. Then, the next week, they ask me where the husband is. Why haven’t I brought him? What have I tried? Why haven’t I converted him yet?
They mean it as encouragement, as help. They are trying to fix a problem. But, what I hear is: I told you how to fix this so why isn’t it fixed? Why have you failed to convert your husband?
Anyone who has tried to lead a person to Christ will tell you, it’s not easy. There is no magic word. There is no ‘forcing’ them, not if your desire is true conversion, true faith. And other people’s conversion or lack of it is not my doing or fault because I am not in control of them. I can’t make their decision for them.
Yet, I am being asked, no, it is being demanded of me to justify my actions or lack of actions, to give an accounting for why my husband is not baptized.
This hurts! I already cry at times in fear for my husband’s soul. I don’t need guilt added to my burden of worry. I pray for my husband every day. I fear anything happening to him because there will be no more chances for him if it does. I’m doing what I can to show him Christ, to teach him what the Bible says.
But, when it comes down to it, he is the only one that can make the decision and what he decides is not my fault.
I know the people don’t mean for me to feel guilty or as if they are demanding an accounting. But, when they try to volunteer the magic formula that will suddenly turn my husband into a convert, when they pry and ask about what I’ve tried when I haven’t asked for advice, when they ask, ‘Why haven’t you brought your husband yet?’ The fear and worry for my husband are heavier from a guilt that I’m not doing enough, that I’m failing my husband. It hurts and I don’t like hurting so it becomes tempting to avoid these people but, to do that, I have to avoid the gatherings of the congregation where I need to be receiving support.
So, what do you do with a woman or a man whose spouse is not a Christian?
Ask them how the spouse is but don’t demand to know why he/she isn’t there. We want them there too but we can’t force them.
Don’t give advice about how to bring the spouse to Christ until you’re asked. We’re trying already, trust us, we’re trying various methods and praying. A lot.
Involve us! Invite us to a couples’ get together or supper. Don’t worry about making us uncomfortable. If we feel uncomfortable, we won’t come but it’s better we feel wanted and uncomfortable than unwanted and uncomfortable.
Give us encouragement. Tell us you’re praying for us and our spouses. Tell us to hang in there, that it’s in God’s hands.
Talk to us about things other than our spouse. We are more than a key to our spouses. We are your brothers and sisters and we are part of the Body. We are not ‘the odd one out’. We are the pinkie toe and the hand and the ears. We have our unique challenges but we are not broken or incomplete.
We have much to offer. But only if we are not crippled by exclusion or misplaced guilt.