The moral mandates of Scripture are binding on all mankind, and to ignore them is sin. Living by God’s standards as revealed in Scripture results in human flourishing, and advocating for those standards is good and loving. But the primary message believers have for unbelievers is not a code of conduct or set of principles to live by.
Sadly, many of those who have fought long and hard to preserve a biblical view of marriage sent the wrong message to the world. As John MacArthur said years ago, politically-engaged Christians have too often made enemies of their mission field.
We are not faithful to text of Ephesians 5 when we attempt to enforce its standards on the world. In fact, doing so ignores the context of Paul’s exhortations and misdirects church resources that would be better used in equipping the saints to more fully live out God’s design for marriage.
In his book The Fulfilled Family, John MacArthur sets the stage for Paul’s discussion of marriage and family.
It is vital to understand that Paul wrote his instructions about marriage in Ephesians 5 for Christians. He addressed the entire epistle to a church. The first four chapters are all about the Christian’s position in Christ, and everything Paul said to fathers, mothers, and children presupposed that he was speaking to believers. If you’re not a Christian, there is no hope whatsoever that you can make your marriage and your family everything God intended them to be, unless you first acknowledge your need for Christ and trust Him as Lord and Savior.
Obviously, there are non-Christian families that appear to be successful, to a point. They may have orderly homes, with well-behaved children and close, lasting relationships between family members. But wherever Christ is not recognized as Lord of the family, the seeds of that family’s ultimate breakdown are already present. Such a family has no real spiritual stability, and (especially in a society where the family is already under siege) that family is courting disaster. To borrow imagery from Matthew 7:26–27, such a family is like an impressive structure built on sand. When the floodwaters come, its fall will be great.
For all the noise over defending traditional marriage, this fundamental point is rarely mentioned: God’s design for marriage and family starts with a right relationship with Him. Apart from a firm foundation in the Lord, no marriage can achieve what God intends for it.
What About the Unequally Yoked?
The fundamental necessity of salvation does raise some questions for believers who have an unsaved spouse. Can they expect anything close to the pattern laid out in Scripture? And what standard should believers hold their spouses to when they lack the essential elements for a godly marriage?
By God’s grace, I don’t have any firsthand experience of the daily struggle it must be to love someone who doesn’t love the Lord. What I do know is that holding nonbelievers to biblical standards they’re incapable of achieving is a good way to embitter them against the Bible, the church, and you. You’re wrestling with square pegs and round holes if you expect an unbelieving husband to love his wife as Christ loves the church, or an unbelieving wife to biblically submit to and support her husband in all things.
If you are unequally yoked in marriage, your daily prayer and focus must be the salvation of your husband or wife, not behavior modification. Short of true repentance and faith, unbelievers can’t hope to even comprehend God’s design for marriage and family, much less conform to it.
While Paul writes to believing wives and husbands, Peter writes to those married to unbelievers (1 Peter 3:1-7). In essence, Peter’s exhortation is to be a godly example to your spouse. Fulfill your responsibility as a husband or wife, and pray that as you live a life pleasing to God, the Lord will draw your spouse to Himself. Shine your light, not in an effort to ignite the stone-cold heart of your spouse, but as an act of worship to the Lord. And pray that the Lord will shine His light into your spouse’s heart in due time (2 Corinthians 4:6).
The True Focus of a Godly Family
The point of God’s design, after all, is not that we have impressive families or easy lives. The point is that every aspect of life in the family lines up under submission to His ultimate and final authority. The end result of all this is that God is glorified and the gospel adorned—nothing short of that fulfills His design.
Here’s how John MacArthur makes that very point in The Fulfilled Family:
Besides, apart from a knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ, we have no motivation for righteousness, no constraint from evil, and no real ability to obey from the heart what God commands for our families. That, then, is the essential foundation: Christ must be first in our hearts and in our families.
Remember, by the way, that Jesus said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37). So He demands to be first in the family. It’s only when we love Him more than family that we can really love our families in the highest, purest sense.
He ends with an earnest call to any unbelieving readers, and it’s an appropriate way to end today’s post.
If you’re not a believer, you need to acknowledge your need of the Savior. Confessing that you have sinned against God, repent, and call on the Lord Jesus Christ for salvation. Scripture says, “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).
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