The Real Danger of Being Unequally Yoked

The Real Danger of Being Unequally Yoked October 5, 2016

We’ve been talking lately about that movie Christian Mingle and the ideas it puts forth about being “unequally yoked.” By this term Christians mean that fervent Christians (like themselves) should never get romantically tangled up with anything less than another equally-fervent Christian. This policy has been in place for many decades, to the point where it is a doctrinal stance every bit as entrenched and hallowed as the fundagelical culture war against LGBTQ people is–and only in recent years has that stance become a serious problem for Christians.

(Credit: IRRI Photos, CC.)
(IRRI Photos, CC.)

A Demographic Disaster in the Making.

With so many people leaving Christianity and causing a membership collapse in many denominations, single Christians have fewer marital options now than they likely have faced in history. A policy that probably seemed like a very safe bet back in the 1980s and 1990s is now blowing up in Christian leaders’ faces. As I showed last time, though, their response to this ticking time bomb is to drill down harder on the policies that are already failing them–even as an increasing number of their flocks step across the line those leaders have drawn so they can date and marry outside the group.

The ironic thing is that out of all the made-up, manufactured terrors that Christians burden themselves with, this one actually is a problem. Today I’ll show you why Christian leaders put so much emphasis on never being unequally yoked–and why they should fear it.

Bound Together.

The idea of “equal yoking” ties into a lot of other Christian teachings, reinforcing and even providing confirmation of them to nervous Christians. A worrying number of things can cause a Christian to lose faith in the religion’s various supernatural claims, but dating or marrying someone of lesser fervor (or none at all, gasp!) is a certain ticket to apostasy.

Even back when I was a Christian myself, the idea of marrying anybody who wasn’t a totally on fire* Christian was on a level with the idea of marrying a puppy-kicker. A Christian that foolish would almost certainly end up being dragged down in their faith. They would pick up the sinner’s bad habits and become complacent about sin. They might even lose their faith entirely. And obviously, we were taught at every single turn, an unrepentant sinner was far more likely to abuse or cheat on a spouse–and more likely to consider divorce in times of trouble. Christian leaders still teach this idea, as I mentioned in comments the other day. (Here’s the post that got me peeved–and as many of you predicted, my response to him hasn’t yet been published. I can’t imagine why. I mean, I didn’t even swear at him.)

Even when a mixed-faith marriage seemed happy, it was doomed. The Christian spouse would be forever upset about the eternal fate of their “lost” partner, and would forever feel like the other person couldn’t really meet their needs. Non-Christians and non-gung-ho Christians simply didn’t understand love the same way that Jesus-infilled TRUE CHRISTIANS™ did.

Neither I nor the kids getting indoctrinated alongside me questioned anything we were being taught.

In the culture in which we were raised, we really couldn’t. There simply didn’t exist any serious pushback in our environment to fundagelical ideas like this one. We didn’t have a lot of mixed-faith relationships to compare with, much less ones with two non-believers. And our culture was moving toward greater religiosity and a greater emphasis on being “separate from the world,” an idea that would eventually have disastrous ramifications for our religion as a whole.

Jesus-ified Marriage.

The “unequally yoked” doctrine spoke to a trend that was fast becoming ubiquitous: the injection of religion into everything in sight. Christians generally were becoming very enamored of turning absolutely everything they did, said, bought, used, or promoted into a statement and demonstration of faith.

Christians who bought into this idea didn’t just have a job; they had a job that they also considered a ministry in a weird kind of way. They didn’t buy books, go to movies, or wear clothes unless those products had some religious theme to them. They didn’t make any personal decisions whatsoever, not even about where to eat lunch, without praying about it first–because obviously “God” had strong opinions about every topic relating to his children. They proudly displayed “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelets and worried about what kind of car Jesus might have driven. They tried to only talk about very religious topics (or to bring religion into topics that didn’t seem elevated quite enough, a practice now amusingly called “Jesus Juking” by some of them) and to do only recreational stuff that reflected Christianity somehow. Associating with non-Christians (or less-fervent Christians) was highly discouraged. Indeed, doing anything really secular might bring their lofty considerations down to a more earthly level–and thereby drag their faith into the ground.

What they were doing was carefully constructing a social bubble for themselves. Inside the bubble, they were safe. Nothing in it would or could challenge their fragile faith overmuch. But outside? Oh, there were dragons there, dangerous places and horrifying risks. Only after girding oneself carefully with the sword, shield, and armor of faith could one venture out into “the world” and hope to return intact.

The Obvious Christian.

And while a Christian was out in that dangerous world outside the bubble, every person seeing them had to know beyond a doubt that they were, indeed, Christian.

Relationships of any kind had to be cultivated with great care, in that exacting environment. Romantic relationships, so rife with strong emotions and needs, were viewed as particularly powerful influences on a Christian’s walk.** A marital partner could make or break someone’s faith, so a Christian’s choices there had to be carefully patrolled and controlled.

If someone discovered after making the relationship that the other person’s feelings about Christianity had changed, then that relationship had to end immediately–indeed, even today one finds totally fervent Christians who consider a spouse’s deconversion to be a perfectly valid reason to end a marriage. Such Christians will do so even though the decision flies in the face of their belief in the literal truth of the Bible and their stated desire to follow the Bible precisely and exactly.

Obviously “Jesus” would be okay with a breakup in the face of the eternal repercussions of being unequally yoked, right?

Nope.

But that’s not what the Bible says. Jesus literally declares in the Gospels to his followers that unequal yoking is no excuse at all. Later New Testament authors very clearly preach against the idea of breaking up if someone deconverts!

I’ve even heard of pastors who have counseled the wives of ex-Christian men to dump them–and distressingly often still, these women obey. The advice they are receiving is simply the end product of decades of teachings. In the face of such savage indoctrination and fear, love can barely survive.

Many of these women received the same lifelong teaching that I did, long ago. I was looking earlier today at a binder I received from a church group at a dating seminar I attended in my teens. The seminar was called “Love/Life Principles.” A line drawing in the binder shows a pretty young woman in a bridal outfit holding the arm of a considerably-older balding man in patched, worn-out clothes and a five-o’clock shadow. It accompanies the text of II Corinthians 6:14 (“Do not be bound together with unbelievers,” the main clobber verse† for marriage).

This sort of imagery was consistent with how the Christians around me thought about a mixed-faith relationship of any kind. They considered it a serious mismatch–and no matter how good, kind, noble, resourceful, reliable, and romantically-faithful the non-Christian might be, they were always going to be a step down for even the lowliest and most-flawed of believers. This teaching has only intensified over time with the polarization of the religion’s adherents; apologist Max Lucado very famously (and nonsensically!) summed it up more recently as “Marry someone who loves God more than you do.”

For our part, the young people I knew–especially the young women–weren’t all that worried about the matter. We’d not only find the mate that our god had picked out for us from the beginning of time itself, but that person would definitely believe the same things we did and with the same fervor.

That’s pretty much how it went down, too, at first. The super-fervent young people paired off, got married, and began families. It was very unusual to see a young person still single after age 22 or so–at least they’d be dating, if not in serious negotiations for marriage. There seemed to be someone for everyone; it was like the ending of Grease where all the T-Birds and Pink Ladies are paired off and seem destined for happily-ever-afters.

So this belief in being “equally yoked” was a very easy sell for us.

 

That desire to Jesus-ify everything in sight gets taught to young Christians with another doctrine that is potentially even more disastrous and less rooted in reality: the idea of prayer being a valid way to affect a Christian’s reality.

Promises, Promises.

Christianity makes a lot of promises to its adherents. One of the most common promises made is that believers can pray for what they want and have a decent shot of getting it, as long as the prayer checks off an alarmingly extensive list of prerequisites. This promise is completely untrue, unfortunately, but it persists as a belief because humans are both extremely prone to magical thinking and extremely good at seeing patterns where patterns simply don’t exist.

When that promise knocks up against most people’s natural desire to form relationships, the results can be downright cruel.

Christians today are being raised on the same steady diet of idealized romance and fantasy marriages as I was, but they no longer have the benefit of a large pool of partners to pick from. Women in particular get taught that their appearance doesn’t matter to Jesus, so therefore doesn’t matter to Jesus-worshiping men; they’re told that their personalities, domestic skills, fertility, and fervor are all that matter.

Imagine their surprise when they get old enough to date and discover that Christian men are interested in exactly the same traits in a partner as men “in the world”*** seem to be. Joy Beth Smith wrote about her frustration with this situation a few months ago in the Washington Post. She touched off a firestorm at the time, much of it from Christians themselves, but she wasn’t saying anything really new or different than anything her peers have been saying for a few years now: that legions of young women just like her are getting older every year but not finding husbands from among their brethren.

Women like Ms. Smith are getting told, just as I was, that Jesus has already picked the right man for them. (And men obviously were probably told the opposite!) All they had to do was pray a lot and be faithful, and that promised husband would show up when they least expected it to sweep them off their feet to their Happily Ever After. Those shopworn promises were never true; they were just easier to fake being true because there were just so many more Christians around, which allowed pairings to happen much more easily. Nobody even wondered just how convenient it was that “soulmates” so often belonged to the same community (as the Onion lampooned). Now that those numbers are failing, the promises’ falseness is becoming way more obvious.

You can see similar resentment and confusion from any number of other young(ish) Christian women. Sometimes you can read between the lines to see that they perceive the issue as appearance-related; other times they have no idea why they haven’t gotten married yet.

No Guarantees.

Worst of all, the Christians who do find mates of equal religious conviction are discovering that this fervor does not, in fact, translate to either a happy marriage or even lifelong fervor.

The idea of a lifelong pair of happy, committed Christians doing “God’s” will together and toiling in the fields under the same yoke–that’s the promise of fundagelical teachings about marriage. That’s the vision that swims before the starry eyes of single Christians the world over. The fantasy doesn’t end with a fairytale wedding, by any stretch! Really, one could say that the fantasy Christian leaders offer about the Happy Ever After is just as potent as the one they offer about courtship itself.

But more and more Christians are discovering that their marriages aren’t running the way that the teachings suggest. They’re not reaping the rewards of faithful prayer and service. They’re fighting with each other. Cheating on each other. Deceiving each other. Engaging in petty warfare with each other. Viciously hurting each other. Manipulating each other.

Divorcing each other.

The Unequally Yoked Club: The Difference Engine.
The Unequally Yoked Club: The Difference Engine.

And they’re doing it all just as often–if not more often–than “worldly” mixed-faith couples are. Being of unequal levels of faith or mismatched religions entirely can certainly stress a relationship, especially if one partner is especially zealous and makes that mismatch an issue, but if two partners respect each other and care enough about fairness and honesty then they can get through just about anything. Contrariwise, if they don’t then all the fervent zeal in the world won’t save their relationship.

One of the cruelest ways that fundagelical teachings fail their adherents can be found here, in its promises to adherents about what their future marriages will be like, its assurance that a person’s faith has anything to do with their ability to conduct themselves in a relationship, and its attempt to make an “equally-yoked” marriage seem all that different from one that is not so.

I cannot help but think that deep down, Christians see it all happening and know that nothing really seems to effectively divorce-proof a marriage between them and even the most fervent of spouses. How else to explain how they are, increasingly, opting to consider mates from outside the group? Or how, increasingly, the spouses of deconverted Christians are opting, increasingly, to stick with the marriage and see how it goes before instantly ending the whole relationship?

Cascade Failure.

When one combines the tendency of fundagelicals to inject religiosity into absolutely everything with the idea that prayer accomplishes anything tangible whatsoever, then spices it up with a demographic time bomb of decreasing numbers of young Christians–particularly Christian men–one sees exactly what’s happening in Christianity now: increasing numbers of young people who are leaving the fighting ring entirely to seek or maintain relationships with people who don’t believe the exact same way they do.

Nothing we’re seeing now should be happening. Nothing here is going the way that Christian leaders want or teach their flocks to expect. They’re preaching this “unequally yoked” message harder than ever–but their flocks are listening intently, hearing the lesson, then ignoring it or finding a way to rationalize their real-world situations to fit into those teachings in some weird way.

Desperation is driving these changes, yes. But once they’re in the middle of a mixed-faith relationship one way or the other, fervent Christians can’t help but notice that things don’t work exactly the way their long-held indoctrination says they ought to work.

It Just Takes One Realization.

Sometimes these true-blue Christians begin to notice that their partners aren’t the unfaithful jerks that they were told they’d be. A non-Christian’s luck isn’t particularly different than that of a Christian who is guarded always by angels and hedged by the protection of prayers. Non-believers don’t appear to be secretly sorrowful or suffering for their total lack of faith–or even to really care or think about the threat of Hell or promise of Heaven.

In terms of the Christians’ own daily existence, the world doesn’t end when they leave the bubble. They’re welcome to pray or go to church or do whatever it is they want to do, as often as they want to do it. Nothing whatsoever hinders them. A good marriage between “unequally yoked” people isn’t much different at all from one that isn’t.

In every way, really, the world looks pretty much the same for a non-believer as it does for a believer. As one indoctrinated point after another gets dismantled, all the remaining ones begin to shiver precariously. Intense love has a way of overriding people’s differing indoctrination and beliefs–and playing upon them all at the same time. Love can make big differences of opinion both intriguing and difficult to bear, especially for people who might have been raised without learning constructive conflict-resolution or frustration-management skills.

So a mixed-faith couple might lurch a little from crisis to crisis, but chances are that if they just allow it to happen, they’ll settle into a routine and find an equilibrium of their own.

And that process of learning is a big huge problem for their leaders. The fact that more and more couples are finding that equilibrium points to an increasing crisis in their ranks.

At all costs, Christians must maintain the tenuous membrane of their culture’s bubble. But mixed-faith relationships puncture that membrane in a way that is almost impossible to repair–or ignore.

A Structural Integrity Field, Weakened.

Much of the Christian bubble’s strength comes from practices and beliefs forming a shared experience between adherents. Everybody needs to be on board with its practices and saying and doing the same things, or it all starts looking pretty damned silly–if not harmful and grotesque. When removed from a groupthink context, as I discovered myself at the very beginning of my own deconversion, fundagelicalism especially begins to look embarrassingly childish and weird.

Christians in a mixed-faith marriage can see exactly how pointless and irrelevant church is because their spouses often sleep in or do other stuff besides church on Sunday. Sleeping in and enjoying a quiet, leisurely weekend at home with one’s family starts looking really nice. Missing church doesn’t really impact the week much.

They can see how ineffective prayer is because their spouses don’t pray, and somehow seem to be doing fine. Wasting time on the practice starts looking foolish and counterproductive.

If they make the cardinal mistake of trying to preach at their spouse or argue about religion, they may well learn that the Bible isn’t magic and that it has a great many flaws that their pastors never mentioned. They may stop seeing the Bible as a special book that was divinely authored by a living god.

When trouble comes their way, as it inevitably does, they may see how their spouses deal with and adapt to the situation, and thereby see that “Jesus” doesn’t seem to make a damned bit of difference to anything. They may learn ways of dealing with adversity that do not revolve around magical thinking.

Constant Contradictions.

Every day, an unequally-yoked Christians see in their spouses a living contradiction to their beliefs. They can see that even their most cherished rituals and beliefs are non-essential, foolish, counter-productive, time-wasting, and worst of all based around untrue ideas. This constant contradiction of belief doesn’t spell the utter end of a Christian’s faith, but inevitably it will wear down the most extremist corners of it. Rare indeed will a Christian in a surviving mixed-faith couple be able to maintain zealotry.

Little wonder that Christian leaders want to avoid, at all costs, their flocks interacting too much with the unwashed! And little wonder they are bashing their brains out trying to figure out a way to get more young people into their churches–and retain the increasingly-low numbers of the ones they have now. Every Christian who tiptoes beyond the bubble is one more at risk of learning just how much of their indoctrination is false.

Next time, we’re heading into some hilarious ways that those leaders are devising to try to reverse their religion’s catastrophic losses–ways that promise to be just as effective as all the other stuff they’re doing, thanks to the concerted efforts of Christians themselves (whoops!). See you then!


* On fire: a quaint little bit of Christianese that means to be extremely fervent, zealous, and generally kookoo for CocoJesus 24/7. I have no idea why anybody ever thought that being on fire is a good thing. They just do, and since I actually have a little bit of third-hand experience in the matter, this beyond-grotesque rah-rah of theirs around the matter is one of the reasons I look really askance at their religion.

** Walk: The sum total of a Christian’s religious observances, obedience to doctrines, level of faith, and general fervor. One can often hear fundagelicals asking each other, “How’s your walk?” And by this they wish to know how the other person is managing their religious convictions–and if they still feel them at the same properly-high level as the last time the question was asked.

*** The world: anything that’s not specifically Christian, or heavenly, is secular, or worldly. The worst thing you can tell a fundagelical is that they are too worldly. Their main job, as they see it, is to be as unworldly as possible.

† Clobber verse: a Bible verse typically wielded like a sword to end all conversation on a topic and vindicate whatever the Christian using it is trying to say. Usually one hears about these in relation to equal marriage; there are a great many good arguments to be made for equal marriage even within the pages of the Bible, but a vanishingly few verses seem to condemn the idea out of hand–so those are the verses wielded by fundagelicals opposing this right. Ironically, these verses only rarely actually work for the use they are put to. As a rule of thumb, anybody who claims that the Bible “clearly says” absolutely anything is working off of a very childish understanding of the text.


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(Cas tidied this post up a little bit on February 14, 2019.)

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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