One partner remains a devout evangelical Christian while the other left the faith. What will they do about the children?

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Not too long ago, a friend of mine unsubscribed from the Christian faith. His wife did nothing of the sort, however, and now she is worried about how their three small children will turn out.

Their extended families are both devoutly evangelical, so you can guess how they feel about my friend’s apostasy. Sometimes the nicer ones will tolerate such betrayals because they’re picking their battles, holding on to hope that one day their beloved infidel will return to the fold.

But the children are a different story. Very few families relax about the indoctrination of the children because, whether they realize it or not, the survival of their religion depends on it.

It doesn’t matter how sweet your family is—it undermines the whole enterprise if the children grow up with the impression that the Christian faith is just one among many acceptable alternatives. Everything inside of them militates against this.

Absent a firm belief in its own exceptionalism, the Christian faith is like a cell without a membrane, dissolving upon prolonged contact with an opposing belief system.

They know this whether or not they know that they know it, you know? It happens below the level of their awareness, but to everyone else, its effects are as plain as day.

Very few families relax about the indoctrination of the children because, whether they realize it or not, the survival of their religion depends on it.

No matter how strong their faith, they instinctively understand that culture is stronger than God, like the iron chariots in the days of ancient Judah. Walls must be built to keep out those other belief systems—especially when the children are young—or all will be lost.

“Train up a child in the way he must go and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

Proverbs 22:6

Whenever I hear that verse, it makes me think of those painful shoes into which Chinese mothers long ago would squeeze their daughters’ still growing feet. Only the daughters, of course, because that’s how patriarchies roll.

Christian missionaries used to come home from the Far East recounting tales of such atrocities, never noticing that their own faith squeezes women into molds of its own. They believed their religion is better because it fashions braces for children’s minds instead of their feet. That would just be barbaric.

Today they spin Bible verses like the one above by noting it spoke of the way the child must go, as if that means he or she will have any real say in what becomes of them. But it doesn’t really mean that at all. It says train them and that means exactly what it sounds like it means. It’s about the importance of indoctrination beginning at the earliest age possible.

My exvangelical friend desperately wants to find compromises with his still-evangelical wife, but their faith tradition forbids it. His paradigm shift poses an existential threat to her faith. If he wants to spend an eternity roasting in Hell that’s his decision because he’s a grown-up, but won’t someone please think of the children?

Think of the children

That question never fails to raise people’s heart rates because we’ve been programmed to protect our little ones most of all. That’s why the Republican Party was so successful in taking over the Christian church in America—it’s the magic phrase that overrides all of their capacity to think for themselves (see: “What Does the Bible Say About Abortion?”).

It works on everyone, by the way, including you and me. If the idea of children being indoctrinated into a faith you despise makes you want to spit, you yourself may be a normal human being. Perhaps you believe your “tribe” is better because you value science and critical thinking over tradition and dogma, but I can assure you that your team has its own sins and virtue signaling, and they are just as capable of being awful to each other. Ask me how I know.

Deep down everybody wants to be righteous; some of us just work that out differently.

I’ve walked through something similar to what my friend is going through, so I have strong feelings about these things and I am far from objective. I also know there are no easy solutions, and the odds are high that bridges will get burned no matter what this young couple does.

Compromise is a dirty word among evangelical Christians, so they both have their work cut out for them in trying to establish neutral ground. But they need safe spaces for discussion. Unlike many I know, my friend’s wife was willing to consult a nonreligious marriage counselor in order to work through their issues. That alone gives me hope for them.

But I also know that there are forces at work here that are much larger than the two of them, so it will take a lot of courage and patience from both partners. She will encounter tremendous pressure from her church and from her extended family to stand her ground on virtually everything, regardless of relative importance.

You see, fundamentalists* cannot distinguish between little things and big things since their theology deems all sins equally bad, no matter what the damage done. They sweat the small stuff, so to speak, because to them nothing is small. Everything is potentially important when it comes to a child’s eternal destiny, and that sets up a dysfunctional dynamic for a family in my friend’s situation.

Compromise is a dirty word among evangelical Christians, so they both have their work cut out for them in trying to establish neutral ground.

Whether they wanted to be or not, they are caught in the crossfire of a larger culture war that’s only gotten worse over the course of our lifetimes. Ultimately neither side will value the integrity of their little family unit over the larger struggle for cultural dominance.

The church will insist that they alone will focus on the family, but I’m calling bullsh*t on that because I know better. That’s a dishonest sales pitch that flies in the face of what their founders repeatedly said.

Jesus made it clear that his followers must put spreading the gospel above everything else, family included, and he counts as unworthy anyone who is unwilling to prioritize their faith over their spouse and even their children.

The apostle Paul similarly warned against allowing family needs to compete with the advancement of the kingdom of God, encouraging his people to avoid starting a family in the first place. Those who had already started one, he added, should do their best to live as if they hadn’t.

Growing up evangelical, I always heard that families are the building blocks of the church, but nowadays I hear something different. Building materials, just like tools, serve a function and it renders them useless if they become incapable of fulfilling their given purpose. If the salt loses its saltiness, Jesus said, what good is it? It is thrown out and trampled upon. Except he wasn’t really talking about salt, was he? He was talking about us.

In time I expect my friend and his wife to find the church driving a wedge between them wherever a potential compromise threatens the supremacy of their faith. Identity markers will be weaponized against them from both sides, and these two people will have to choose to hold on to each other again and again in the face of punishment from their respective communities for choosing each other over loyalty to the tribe.

Whatsoever is good

What should my friend and his wife do? How can their family survive being aggressively recruited by opposing group identities without becoming yet another casualty in the culture wars?

First and foremost, I would hope that they keep reaching for each other, refusing to let either of their warring ideologies to come between them. I hope they can both learn to recognize and resist the fear tactics that others use to keep them in line. I’d love to see them take an us-versus-the-world mentality and apply it in every direction, even if that means being alienated by church and family.

Protestants always distinguish between the visible and invisible church. Among other things this means they acknowledge that in real life the church can get things very wrong. When those situations arise, you’re supposed to “test everything, holding on to the good” and throwing out the rest. 

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.

Philippians 4:8

If something edifies your family, it shouldn’t matter whether it came from the church or from somewhere else. Good advice is good advice no matter who spoke it. I often point out that if God can make good advice come out of a donkey, then why can’t it also come from an unbeliever?

Anyone who truly believes that “all truth is God’s truth” should approach life unafraid of following the evidence wherever it leads. They shouldn’t worry for example that scientific investigation into the natural world will undermine their faith. If it does, that means their faith needed revision anyway. Perhaps they’re overdue for another upgrade.

Semper reformanda, as the Calvinists like to say. If you’re always reforming, that means you’ve never really arrived.

If faith is a gift of God and salvation comes by grace, then a person shouldn’t be afraid to venture out into unknown territory since it’s ultimately not up to them how everything turns out. This is a perfect opportunity for someone to put their faith to the test. 

Do they really believe that only God can make people right? If so, then they need not fear that meeting their spouse halfway will ruin everything. Truly believing in grace means you can trust that it’s all going to be okay in the end, particularly if you believe in providence

Mark the troublemakers

If I could say anything to a believer caught in this tug-of-war, I would encourage them to mark those whose advice and influence separates them from their spouse and children. Beware of those who fan the flames of conflict between you and your spouse because that’s ultimately about control. In effect, those people are telling you that their group identity is more important than the survival of your family, and I hope that makes you deeply uneasy.

I don’t believe people always know when they are doing this, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still doing it. The heart is deceitful, right? That’s what the Bible says, and for once I agree with it. If nothing else, we are good at fooling ourselves, which means that even those who love us can cause harm despite their best intentions.

For the deconverted, my greatest concern is that they fight to make space for themselves to be who they are (and who they’re becoming) without behaving like doormats, always capitulating to make everyone else happy. When you’re the only person around who sees the world the way you do, it’s very easy to just go along with what everyone else wants simply because it’s the path of least resistance.

But resentment can build up when you erase yourself in order to avoid conflict. You might as well try shoving a beach ball underwater–it’ll just pop up again somewhere else with a lot more force. You have to speak up from time to time, reminding yourself and everyone else that your personal agency matters, too. Church never taught us to work through differences in healthy ways because it always insisted that one way is right and all others are wrong.

Self-advocacy may be a new skill for an exvangelical, so it’s going to take practice. Start out with little things and then you can work your way up to the bigger issues. I’ve been at this task for years and I am still barely able to do it in my relationships. Hopefully, others will be better at it than I have been.

And lastly of course, as I always do, I already recommended my friend and his wife pick up a copy of Dale McGowan’s In Faith and In Doubt because it’s written precisely for people in a situation like theirs. When they began their family, they were on the same spiritual path. Now they find themselves in a mixed-faith marriage, and those take more work: more patience, more empathy, and dare I say more grace?

I see no reason why only God gets to use that word. Grace is something we can give each other no matter what our beliefs. A little bit of that can go a long way.

* Fundamentalist can be a slippery term because it’s relative. People typically use the label to indicate views more extreme than their own, but to the rest of the world, those differences are mostly cosmetic. For example, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians believe essentially the same things, only one group has a bigger vocabulary while the other just has bigger hair.

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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...