Does Jesus have to be the centre of your marriage for your marriage to survive? Could that teaching even be dangerous?

After I wrote a post recently about how non-Christians can have good marriages, someone who has been following this blog sent me an email about how a crisis of faith has actually made her marriage to her husband stronger. I’m going to post that email in a minute, but I want to tell you a bit about a journey that Keith and I went through, and are still going through, to explain what she’s talking about.

I’ve been a Christian all my life; Keith became a Christian when he was 18.

We met in university, and he was totally on fire for God. God was definitely the centre of our marriage when we wed. But God in a very distinct way: God with all the trappings of the evangelical church.

The first big shift came when our son was born with a terminal illness.

We had people say to us, “Just have faith and God will work a miracle,” which is a terrible thing to say to parents in our situation, because it implies that if your child dies it’s because you didn’t have enough faith. We prayed and prayed, and Christopher did not get healed. I held on, but Keith went through a dry spell when he couldn’t figure out the purpose of prayer.

With that as the background, a few years later he went through a full-blown crisis of faith.

The crisis was two-pronged: One, when he became a Christian, Keith tried to give up his belief in evolution, because he thought he had to. But when it came down to it, he believed the science showed that the earth was very, very old. He believed that God could use evolution and then intervene, setting humanity apart. But he was told that to believe this would mean he didn’t believe in Jesus. Our church even had a Sunday School class called: “Do You Choose God or Do You Choose Evolution?”

So he read all the books on creation science he could get his hands on, to convince him, and it made it worse. The books were dishonest. They were quoting scientific studies to show what those studies didn’t show; or they were using studies that were debunked. It made him think: “Why are Christians being so intellectually dishonest?”

At the same time, I had been leading a praise team at church, and I caused a crisis because, my first day up, between two songs I said, “As you sing this next song, take the burdens of the week, and set them before the cross. Let them go, and just look at Jesus.” And then, another time, I said a two sentence prayer. So the deacon’s board decided to debate, for a whole year, whether I was allowed to do that because I was a woman.

My husband was on the deacon’s board, and he was put in the position of having to defend his wife. Keith said he felt it was like taking a tour of a sausage factory: He saw how decisions were actually made in church, and it thoroughly depressed him.

On two fronts he felt that Christians had bad motives, and he couldn’t reconcile this with the Jesus he was supposed to be following.

A Man Having a Crisis of Faith: Can Your Marriage Survive?

For quite a while, he didn’t talk to me about it.

He was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. He tried to broach the subject once, but I balked. I was scared out of my mind. I was honestly sure that my husband was going to stop believing in God, and then what was I going to do?

We ended up leaving that church, and have since landed at a good one. Keith spent a few months memorizing the Sermon on the Mount (the whole thing) so that he could get back to the words of Jesus. But for quite a while  that side of our relationship was virtually cut off from each other, because Keith felt like he couldn’t tell me his doubts. If he did, I couldn’t emotionally handle it.

Keith and I going through the crisis of faith

What helped us was not our spiritual life together but instead the principles about stopping the drift and engaging with each other’s emotions that I talk about in this free 5 week email course. It took me a while to be objective enough about this that I could be a safe place for Keith, but I did get there once I let myself just listen:

Recently it became my turn to have a crisis of faith.

 Everything–Christopher’s death and the meaning of prayer; the dishonesty of many evangelical institutions; everything–it all came crashing down on me, culminating this year.

This may sound silly, but I never actually read many Christian marriage books until this year (I only made an exception when I read one to give an endorsement). I started writing in 2003, and my biggest concern was that I’d plagiarize someone, so I wanted to keep my thoughts my own. But I assumed that other authors were like me, wanting to help people create healthy, intimate marriage relationships.

When I read Love & Respect, it was as if someone shot a cannon right through my worldview. If a woman lived out Emerson Eggerichs’ full instructions, she would not be emotionally healthy. It would be a toxic relationship, especially in the area of sex. How could Christians be spreading this kind of stuff? How could people not see how damaging it is? I’m still reeling, especially combined with how the Southern Baptist Church is handling its sexual abuse scandal.

Anyway, I’ve been grieving, heavily, all year. I’m spending this year only reading the gospels, and nothing else. I want to see Jesus’ words with new eyes. I want to get back to the heart of Jesus, which was the same journey my husband took several years ago.

And that’s the same journey that my reader has taken: A crisis of faith has deepened her walk with Jesus, but labeled her a troublemaker.

For some background, she came from a church with all the markings that I described in this post on legalistic churches. And she’s been following what I’ve been writing about submission and about the toxic teaching that’s often given to women, as I explain in this post on the ultimate flaw in the Love & Respect book–which is the same flaw that many churches have when it comes to women. We tell women that they should worry about making their husbands happy rather than making Jesus happy.

Here’s her story:

When I first realized my faith was shifting, I felt like I could not share it with my husband because I was truly afraid he would no longer love me and reject me. I thought changing my beliefs would destroy my marriage, so I stuffed it down for as long as I could. Until I couldn’t anymore. Thankfully I found blogs like yours and others that are asking some hard questions about the teachings we’ve been handed, so I gradually began to gather the strength to speak up no matter the cost.

I wish I could say that I was pleasantly surprised to find that it didn’t destroy my marriage, but the truth is that is almost did.

My husband felt totally betrayed by my changing beliefs. Eventually the word “divorce” came up for the first time in our marriage. But it actually turned out that my husband was afraid that I was going to leave him (whereas I thought he might leave me); he feared that my faith-deconstruction was going to lead me to eventually deconstruct our marriage. And that because I feel that this bad theology is toxic, he assumed that meant that I believe that he is toxic too. (I don’t.) In short, we both believed that we ARE what we believe, that our faith is the whole of our identity.

But that just isn’t true. My faith has changed but I am more myself than ever before. A marriage built on beliefs that can shift is a fragile one. 

We finally had an excellent conversation recently that majorly repaired our relationship, in which I explained that I am committed to him despite any number of changing beliefs, and that I believe we were lied to when we were taught that we will automatically be distant and disconnected just because we have drastically different belief systems. I explained that I fully believe it is possible to be close and connected no matter how different we are, as long as we choose “togetherness.”

We promise to be together. Period. No matter what changes. We promise to find a way to be together. In short, commitment. Marriage needs to be built on commitment and mutual respect despite differences. That you can still have unity without uniformity; in fact, that is kind of the entire point of the gospel, is it not? To bring unity without uniformity? And perhaps it is the churches that insist on uniformity that have strayed the furthest from the gospel, to the point where I love Jesus more than ever yet am told I am not a Christian because I will not conform to one denomination’s precise doctrines.

Anyway, that’s my current soapbox.

We supposedly have an “unequally yoked” marriage now because our beliefs are very different, and yet I feel like our marriage is in many ways healthier than it was before.

It’s still super messy, don’t get me wrong. But I think we both feel safer and more loved and secure now that our marriage is NOT based on shared belief but on actual commitment to each other.

And we are now free to quit being the “thought police” and squeezing each other into these tiny preconceived boxes but we can be fully ourselves, because we know that we are loved and accepted anyway. Despite any shifting sands.

Staying Close Despite a Crisis of Faith

So… we’ve made progress. SOOO much progress. We are trying a new church that I know can’t be a long term home for me personally, but it feels like a good stepping stone for now.

I can tell you from my other online groups that this is one of the most common questions asked by those experiencing a faith shift; will my marriage survive?

For those who married because of their similar (usually fundamentalist) beliefs, regrettably the answer is often no.

I think it’s “two become one” teaching gone wrong. People grow and change, and so do our faith and beliefs. This is not only inevitable but healthy. No two people are going to have identical (uniform) beliefs on every issue all the time. Our marriages ought to be built on a foundation that cannot be shaken by our evolving faith. Can we build relationships that hold plenty of space for two very different people with two very different belief systems to enjoy each other together in one marriage?

I believe we can. It’s as simple (though not easy) as committing to be together and refusing to let our differences cause distance.

And I think that’s beautiful.

I think she’s right. The Holy Spirit works in all of us at different times, and my fear was actually stopping Keith from a faith journey he was supposed to be on (one that I would later join him on). It didn’t lead us away from Jesus; it brought us closer to Jesus, but further from our church, and that’s okay. But as my reader realized, if we’re told that a certain set of church’s doctrines determine the health of your relationship, that can be awfully dangerous shifting sand.

It goes the other way, too. I have known two women who divorced their husbands because their husbands weren’t strong Christians, and thus they felt their marriages were invalid, since they weren’t equally yoked.

Your marriage is about the two of you committing to one another, not about the two of you staying a particular denomination. Do that, and leave room for God to work, without feeling that you have to control each other.

And that, in the end, really can be beautiful.

Have you ever gone through a faith shift like this, where one of you felt like you had to leave a church? What happened? Let’s talk in the comments!

Have you ever gone through a faith shift like this, where one of you felt like you had to leave a church? What happened? Let’s talk in the comments!

Like this post? You should also check out:

10 Signs You’re in a Legalistic Church

Are You Following a Legalistic View of Marriage?

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