Every so often we will do this here at Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion: Pick a topic and talk about it for several posts until we’ve beaten it to death and there’s nothing more to say about it.
If you haven’t guessed, we’re in the midst of a series about love. You can click the links above to catch up on all the past installments (only one at this point), which will be there for ever and ever, or at least as long as there’s an internet.
If you are at all familiar with the sort of blogs where I hang out regularly, then you may have heard the term “post-evangelical wilderness”. For me, this “post-evangelical wilderness” is reality; it is where I have lived for the better part of the previous decade.
This post-evangelical wilderness is a real place inhabited by real people with real stories. These are people who have grown up in evangelicalism or invested a significant season of life in evangelicalism, but who now, for whatever reason, feel seriously out of place in evangelicalism in its current state–people who are, to quote an RHE post I linked some time back, “caught between who we once were and who we will be, the ghosts of past certainties gripping at our ankles”.
As the proud husband of an amazing imaginary wife and proud father of 2.6 amazing imaginary kids (which is to say: a single person), love is one of the areas in which this post-evangelical thing becomes real for me. So in these posts I am turning a critical eye toward much of what evangelicalism says concerning love, sex, and dating.
Today we are going to look at the “equally yoked” thing. This is basically the idea that Christians should not marry outside the Christian faith. In evangelicalism, this translates into: Do not date or marry outside of evangelicalism. In many parts of evangelicalism they take it a step further: Do not date or marry anyone unless they are at the same level of spiritual maturity as you, or better.
The “equally yoked” thing comes from an illustration in 2 Corinthians, where Paul writes:
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. –2 Corinthians 6:14-16
It is also born out of anxieties related to Old Testament examples such as Solomon, who had multiple foreign wives and concubines who led his heart astray, or Samson, who was determined to pursue and marry foreign women, to his own undoing ultimately.
There is a certain wisdom in this. If two people in a relationship have differing answers to the most fundamental questions of life and the universe, then that relationship faces long odds of success.
Yet in many places it seems as if the “equally yoked” thing is nothing more than an ideological litmus test. As if ideological compatibility is a magic bullet that can cover over a whole host of relational difficulties and incompatabilities. As if a relationship between two people who are very compatible personally, psychologically, and otherwise is doomed to failure if they have ideological differences.
There are an increasing number of stories coming out of the homeschooling movement of evangelicalism (a movement which is all about courtship, purity culture, and the “equally yoked” thing–more on this in a subsequent post) which give the lie to this. Josh and Anna Duggar are a prime example.
Another effect of the “equally yoked” thing is that it turns us into people who judge where someone is with God based on how they spend their Sunday mornings. Many layers of relationship have to form before you can feel comfortable asking someone probing questions about where they are spiritually. But you can get an idea: If she sleeps in or does her long run on Sunday mornings instead of going to church, it’s a pretty good sign that she is not Christian, or at least not a very mature Christian, and it would very much behoove you to move on.
That seems to be the standard evangelical way of looking at these things. And that is how I would have looked at things, even as recently as a decade ago. Now? Not so sure about that.
At this point, in order to guide our thinking on this issue, let me give you a couple of stories. The first is of a friend of mine who recently met a girl via a Christian dating site. They are still in the early stages of their relationship, but for him it is an exciting time as he is fired up by the prospect of taking the lead in all the evangelical spiritual disciplines (like saying the blessing before meals)–just like any good man who subscribes to conservative, complementarian evangelicalism’s ideals of what a man ought to be in the context of a relationship with a woman.
I look at that and I cannot help thinking that there once was a time–as recently as a decade ago–when my heart and imagination would have been fired up by the exact thing. I would have relished the prospect of meeting a good Christian (read: evangelical) young woman, entering into a relationship with her, and taking the lead in all the ways in which conservative, complementarian evangelicalism expects men to show leadership in their relationships with women.
Now? Well, if I ever wanted to punish myself for some great and horrible sin, to punish myself disgustingly, I would date an evangelical.
Yes, I’d say some things have shifted on the inside of me over the course of the previous decade.
In all seriousness, though: If I were to date an evangelical woman, she would have to be someone who is on the same journey as me, or something remotely close to it at least. That narrows the field significantly. There aren’t a whole lot of evangelical young women out there who are on this journey. And to find such a woman in any of the church/ministry environments where I am actively involved–well, I’m just as likely to meet a mature Christian young woman at the local strip club.
One of the experiences which pushed me into the wilderness was a failed relationship (more accurately, a failed attempt at pursuing a relationship) with a young woman I met at my church’s annual singles beach retreat. I liked her, and I think she actually kinda, sorta liked me. For a little while, at least. But then something shifted. I can’t say what, where, when, why, or how. If I could, I am convinced that it would have been much better for everyone concerned. At any rate, that ended with her telling me that I was distracting her from pursuing God and that I needed to back off and give her space.
Now, let me share another story. You may recall Charles Featherstone’s story which I shared here a couple of weeks back. His journey to faith took a detour through some of the radical neighborhoods of Islam. At one point he considered going off to fight in the Bosnian conflict of the mid 90’s with a group that would turn out to be linked to Al-Qaeda. But at the time he was married, and he viewed that as a higher calling. His wife Jennifer was a providential relationship in his faith journey. As he put it:
But there was Jennifer, whom I’d met at San Francisco State. There would be no one to care for her. She loved me enough to let me go fight a war in a faraway country because my conscience was pulling me there. But I could not leave her. I belonged to her, and she to me.
…Jennifer was slowly catechizing me. Not by telling me about Jesus or demanding that I convert, but simply by being with me. Unlike anyone before, she accepted me for who I was, loving me without condition or reservation. It was an early grace.
This is what fires my imagination: The idea that I can be in a relationship with a woman and catechize her–not by telling her about Jesus, or by shared evangelical spiritual disciplines such as devotions or blessings before meals, but by simply being with her and loving her.
But get this: Jennifer was with Charles when he was an unbeliever. She was a Christian (a Lutheran) who obviously did not share our evangelical hangups about not being “unequally yoked”.
One of the most compelling arguments I hear against dating outside the faith is this: If I enter into a relationship with a non-Christian, then at some point I am going to have to be a bad boyfriend or a bad Christian. A bad boyfriend, because any love I show her will of necessity be with an agenda: to get her to become a Christian. Or a bad Christian, because if I love her and accept her for who she is then I of necessity am choosing her over my faith–choosing her over Christ.
Seeing an example like this makes me push back and ask: Really? Are those the only two options on the table? Is it really not possible to accept someone and love them for who they are, and trust God with the outcome?
Suppose I do date an unbeliever. Perhaps a couple of years down the road she comes away from the relationship thinking “Not sure I want to be with him for the rest of my life because I can’t believe all the crazy shit those Christians believe. But gosh, I don’t want to be with another man unless he treats me the way this man treated me.” How is that not a win?
My imagination is fired up by the idea that I can love someone and accept her for who she is, regardless of where she is with God, and just trust God with the outcome. That in doing so, I can be the providential relationship (one of them at least) that moves her toward Christ. I would not know where she is with God or whether or not she believes all the stuff, but what I would know is this: She is someone whom God loves, someone for whom Christ died, and if she has any reason to doubt that or to not believe it, it sure as hell is not coming from me.
How ironic it would be if I had to date outside evangelicalism–perhaps outside Christianity–in order to find this.