Some years ago, I ran a series called the Unequally Yoked Club (UYC). It was one of my most popular series–and also one of my longest-running! It was about how Christian couples navigate when one partner deconverts from the religion. Today, let’s return to that topic. Together, we’ll see what’s changed and what hasn’t in the world of mixed-faith marriages.
A Brief Refresher on the Christianese Involved.
An unequally yoked couple doesn’t have matching Christian faith. Specifically, one will be a fervent Christian and the other will be something else. However, sometimes Christians use that phrase to describe a couple that might both be Christian, but don’t feel anywhere near the same level of fervor.
Mostly we’re talking here about married couples, but as we’ll see soon, Christians who struggle with being unequally yoked often aren’t married yet. Regardless of their marital status, these couples will be opposite-sex and monogamous.
The phrase itself comes from a Bible verse that many Christians think means that believers shouldn’t get into any kind of relationship with a non-believer:
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6;14)
That command is thought to include all relationships, even friendships, but most especially it means romantic relationships. Christians conceptualize an unequally-yoked union as two oxen fitted with a weird yoke that doesn’t fit them properly. One or the other pulls constantly at the yoke. Thus, they don’t accomplish much work. To avoid that difficulty, the farmer (who is, of course, the Christian god) puts a yoke on them to ensure that both animals pull in the same direction with the same strength.
Getting Into the Club.
A Christian can become unequally yoked in one of two ways. They can enter into it knowing their spouse isn’t Christian, as oodles of Christians do every year. Or they can enter into it by accident when their properly-Christian spouse deconverts after the wedding day.
In the Unequally Yoked Club, we’re talking more about that second group.
The first group is largely making things work on their own terms. They’re generally doing just fine. And for quite a few other Christians, even if their spouse deconverts, it’s no big teeth. They have no trouble with being unequally-yoked because they’re not indoctrinated to view this situation as a horror beyond imagining. Their spouse deconverts, sure, fine, but they don’t become unequally yoked because they both recognize that people aren’t goddamned cows. They’re making their new normal work on their own terms as well. For the couples described in this paragraph, their mismatched faith can be a stress, but it’s not a dealbreaker.
The Unequally Yoked Club, by contrast, comprises heavily-indoctrinated hardcore Christians who get married, only to see one partner deconvert. And the reason why they’re having so much more trouble because they’re struggling to find equilibrium using someone else’s terms.
The Mayberry Marriage…
As we’ll see in a minute here, many Christians happily seek out and marry people who have the same beliefs they do, and who appear to feel mostly the same level of fervor.
In fact, those two factors, sharing the same faith and level of fervor, become literally the most important requirements for the couple in question. This concern runs second only to finding a mate of the opposite sex. The people in the relationship might seem totally mismatched in every single way–and often are.1 But if they share faith and fervor, then they are–by definition–suited for marriage together. All they need is a god to put them together.
Now, for people not thoroughly steeped in Christian culture, what I’m describing sounds horrifying! People aren’t animals, after all, and most people are sensible enough to respect another person’s religious beliefs as both changeable, not subject to control, and private.
For young Christians in particular, however, none of that holds true. Fundagelical Christian leaders encourage their young people to marry super-young, to people they aren’t particularly compatible with. Then these irresponsible leaders tell them that various irrelevant factors are incredibly important to making marriage successful, while super-relevant factors aren’t important at all.
But a weird thing can happen to even the truest, bluest Christian couple nowadays.
I’m talking about deconversion.2
If one partner loses belief, then suddenly that couple descends into a tailspin!
I doubt most Christian couples think about this possibility before marrying, much less grapple with it. It’s an absolutely unthinkable calamity. You won’t see that question showing up on very many official Christian lists of “topics every Christian couple should discuss before marriage.”
In fact, I literally couldn’t find a single Christian site suggesting that Christian couples talk about deconversion before plunging into a marriage based almost entirely upon the shared notion that they will both be fervent believers forever.
They probably prance coyly around the topic of sexual incompatibility, but they won’t even wonder about something that could affect their marriage even more disastrously than that.
Since 2013, I haven’t seen a major change in expressions of surprise by Christians. They’re still totally shocked by a spouse’s deconversion. Even though most Christians today know on some level that their religion is hemorrhaging members faster every year, they don’t connect those deconversions with something that can affect them personally.
Fairly quick and insightful video supporting my assertion that Christianity is dwindling faster every year in America.
They Didn’t Sign Up For This.
And yes, it’s a simply disastrous oversight.
It seems to me that, based on statistics, a Christian couple standing at the altar together on their wedding day today are way more likely to weather at least one deconversion between them than they are to make it to old age together as Christians. But their leaders don’t even try to prepare them for this possibility.
When–not if–that happens, the remaining Christian has a very serious problem.
The fact that that Christian’s leaders cynically manufactured that problem, then callously thrust it upon people who patently don’t know any better, in order to create exactly this cruel dilemma, doesn’t matter at all. They think that the worst thing ever is an unequally-yoked marriage. With that admonition in mind, they tried to avoid picking a partner who wasn’t on their level religion-wise. And now they’re in a relationship that doesn’t look a single thing like they expected.
They didn’t sign up for this. Nobody warned them that it could happen.
And yet here they are:
What to Do, What to Do.
A Christian marriage faces storms aplenty if someone disengages, pulling back from doing all those Christian performative displays. But if someone full-on deconverts, then the marriage gets precarious almost instantly.
Way too often, those Bible-believin’, literalist and inerrantist TRUE CHRISTIANS™ start talking about divorce almost immediately, despite the Bible very clearly forbidding divorce in exactly that situation. (If we couldn’t laugh about it we’d cry, but sometimes we end up doing both at once, and that’s fine.)
Since 2013, by the way, I’ve seen way fewer insta-dumpings, but ex-Christians still fear telling their spouses about their deconversions. In the days to come, we’ll explore whether or not that perception is reality, or simply perception–and if it’s reality, what might be feeding into the change. Christians–even TRUE CHRISTIANS™–seem less likely to jump to divorce and breakups as an immediate reaction, and to me that’s an incredible shift–if it’s happening.
(Put another way: are we simply hearing about insta-dumpings less? Or are they genuinely not happening as often? If we’re hearing about them less often, then that, too, is an interesting shift to examine. I am Hresh-Full-of-Questions, and today is my naming-day.)
Often the Christian seeks outside advice in these matters. Indeed, why wouldn’t they? Again, nobody talks about this sort of thing. When it happens, it almost always totally broadsides the Christian remaining. The more fervent the couple was on the wedding day, the bigger the shock.
Worse Than Useless.
Almost universally, Christian leaders’ advice will be worse than useless. Not only will it not accomplish what the Christian wants to accomplish, but it’ll only further deteriorate and weaken the relationship.
Most Christian advice in this area focuses on trying to “re-win” the newly-deconverted person back to Christianity. The Christian spouse is advised to be super-duper-mega-licious Christian so that their Jesus Aura can shine brightly enough to dazzle the eyes of the deconverted person.
(The Christian couldn’t behave that way beforehand, because, uh, reasons. Now they’re doing it simply to try to convert someone. And they wonder why nobody takes them seriously?)
Being okay with deconversion doesn’t usually enter into the situation. Christians receive indoctrination in not being okay with it. They see people in terms of tribalism: people are bunkmates or enemies. The tribe may not bunk down with enemies.
So far, how toxic Christians engage with mixed-faith marriages hasn’t changed a whole lot. I found advice all the way up to 2017 that didn’t sound markedly different from what I saw back in 2013. It’s all uniformly terrible–if not doomed to backfire in the most spectacular fashion.
Tell Them Lies, Tell Them Sweet Little Lies.
We can count on Christian culture to not only create bad situations, but make them worse. And we are not disappointed here, in the Unequally Yoked Club.
Having set up an absolutely untenable situation for married couples, now Christian leaders can lovingly craft a vast narrative around the situation. Christians in the UYC learn an entire framework for viewing their marriages that doesn’t look remotely like reality. Like we see with MLMs, a few people at the top of the religion boast stories that fit that narrative, all the while hinting that anybody who copies their strategies can reap huge rewards.
I saw a bit of this behavior back in 2013, but now I see it a lot more often–and often entwined with the super-trendy ex-atheist testimony (OMG YOU GUYS I totally used to be an atheist before converting!). Trendy ex-atheist testimonies weren’t quite on the radar back then!
So we see a totally-an-ex-atheist guy on Focus on the Family (FoF) writing about how his TRUE CHRISTIAN™ wife converted and then dragged his butt back not only to Christianity, but to becoming a decent human being (by fundagelical standards, anyway; our mileage varies). His advice covers the same ground I saw back in 2013, but with the added bonus of him playing up his totally-used-to-be-an-atheist past. (Another FoF post covers very similar ground. Deconversion is viewed as a sales opportunity; being okay with it is simply not an option.)
Over at What Christians Want to Know, we see identical advice–centering around a woman whose husband is an atheist. After opening with a gloat about how “people who were former atheists who married other non-believers” convert all the time, they answer this woman’s problem by advising her how best to convert her husband. (Interestingly, they stress repeatedly that she’s in this marriage “through no fault of her own,” and that Christians like her became unequally yoked “through no fault of their own.” They definitely see the situation as one meriting fault-finding!)
Christian lifestyle bloggers, like this one, still persist in talking up how her “my atheist boyfriend” in high school became “my Christian husband” after they got married because she Jesus Aura’d at him just right. OMG YOU GUYS AND HIS WHOLE FAMILY CONVERTED! AND A FAMILY FROM THEIR KID’S SCHOOL IS CONVERTING! YAY TEAM JESUS! Her comments contain quite a few people who are trying to do the same things she did, without success. Maybe their Jesus Auras just aren’t as powerful as hers is.
Overall, the narrative hasn’t changed much either. The tale-bearers have incorporated a new element into their stories, but otherwise that’s all remained the same.
Love in the Time of Evangelical Churn.
In short, in the last five years we’ve seen Christianity take a nose-dive in terms of its numbers and credibility. At the same time, the religion’s become astonishingly polarized and increasingly radicalized. The remaining members are often swivel-eyed, tinfoil-hatted culture warriors, drilling down harder and harder on platforms like hyperfemininity, toxic masculinity, extremely regressive sex-based and relationship roles, and family structures that simply don’t work for most people.
Now seems like a good time to revisit one of the religion’s biggest challenges: how members and leaders alike handle the growing legions of mixed-faith marriages happening within their own tribe.
They were handling that challenge poorly back in 2013.
I’m not expecting them to do better in 2018, not after five years of winnowing away their more sensible, compassionate members, making their ideology even more inhumane and cruel, and creating even more rules for their relationships (to add to the ones that already weren’t working).
Gang, very real people are caught in the teeth of toxic Christians’ culture wars. They married–and are marrying still–for love, however much they gussy it up with Jesus talk. They had no idea that they were leaping into these relationships with a rulebook that never could survive an encounter with reality. And when those relationships spontaneously combust, these very real people are gonna blame themselves for failing to perfectly execute those rules. They won’t examine the system that’s set them at each other’s throats.
But we will. Oh, yes. We most certainly will.
NEXT UP: Join me for future Unequally Yoked Club posts. We’re diving next into the murky world of terrible Christian marriage advice–see you soon!
1 Unfortunately, a great many Christians see this complete lack of compatibility as a selling point for the relationship. Obviously only a god could have imagined this couple together, much less happy together. Tee-hee! His ways are higher than our ways, amirite? Gosh, who can possibly understand the Divine Matchmaker? What’s that? The divorce rate among fundagelicals? LIES, all liberal feminist LIES. Any Christians who get divorced aren’t TRUE CHRISTIANS™.
2 And, to a lesser but still compelling extent, disengagement. Deconversion means to lose one’s faith entirely. Disengagement means to pull away from doing Christian stuff like prayer and church attendance. A deconverted person might still attend church and do Christian stuff, even if it’s all done involuntarily; a disengaged person might still think of themselves as Christian. Sometimes you see these processes called disaffiliation, as well, but I use the terms deconversion and disengagement on this blog.
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