It’s 7:15 a.m., and graceful arpeggios gently awaken Cathy from her dreams. She opens her eyes and squints at the alarm clock’s red digital display. Her husband, Walter, shifts on his side of the bed, and suddenly Cathy’s hand reaches for the radio switch to silence the music.

Cathy remembers that it’s Sunday morning. A despondent feeling sinks into the pit of her stomach as she recalls arguing with Walter just before bedtime.

I slave all week, and on my one day off you want to drag me to church to sing hymns and listen to a preacher talk about God,” Walter had fumed. “Well, I don’t believe that’s the only way to know God. Besides, Sunday is a day of rest – that’s in the Bible.”

The confrontation had opened old wounds. After Walter had gone to bed, Cathy buried her head in her hands and prayed, “Lord, I praise You for Sunday, a day to worship You. But Lord, will there ever be a day when we can worship You together as a family?”

Cathy sits on the edge of her bed and begins to daydream. She can hear it now: a trumpet blast from the clock radio, followed by a thunderous voice bellowing, “This is the Lord your God, Walter! Today you shall worship Me and not the golf course! This is the day I have made. Rise, Walter, and worship in church with your wife.”

Walter jolts out of bed, falling to the floor and repenting for all the times he rejected the command in Scripture to “not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” He vows to honor the Lord’s Day, and within the hour, Walter leads his wife and young son through the front door toward the glorious ringing of the church bells that are calling all God’s people to worship.

“Yeah, right!” Cathy whispers, as she stands up and puts on her bathrobe. She gently shuts the bedroom door and walks down the hall to wake up her son.

The Mission
A spouse may refuse to attend church for many reasons. If the unchurched spouse is a Christian, that refusal is ultimately a lack of obedience to a clear command of Scripture found in Hebrews 10:24-25. However, when one partner is not attending church, the reason is more likely the outcome of an “unequally yoked” marriage where one partner is not a Christian. Cathy’s marriage lacks true biblical unity, and she feels a profound void.

Pastors, church leaders and counselors hear the same story over and over: “My spouse won’t go to church with me. What do I do?” Hopefully, anyone in a counseling position will respond with caring biblical advice. But it’s interesting how often we skip over a fundamental issue: What is the Christian spouse’s own walk with Christ like?

Now some may be objecting: Wait a minute! I love the Lord, and I want my spouse to love Him as much as I do.

That’s good, but what is the motivation behind wanting your spouse to love the Lord? Is it to have peace in the home instead of hostility? To raise up children in the will and admonition of the Lord? To have spiritual intimacy? To save your marriage? To be assured of your spouse’s eternal destiny?

These things are by no means improper goals, but concentrating on the problems distracts from our mission, which is to glorify God in any situation. By doing that, we will develop a deeper acceptance of His sovereignty, even if that means the spouse never accepts Christ.
So how does this apply to real life?

The Case of the Unchurched Christian
A Christian is to be in the body of believers, using his or her gifts to serve others and getting exposure to the instruction of God’s Word. Anyone who professes to be a Christian but does not attend church is disregarding God’s Word and thus is living outside His will.

In addition to obeying God’s desire that we worship Him, there are some practical reasons why the non-attending Christian should attend church:

We are all given spiritual gifts to encourage and support each other as we live for the Lord.
If any one of us stays away from church, we miss out on serving our family in Christ (1 Peter 4:10-11). Troubles will come our way, but if we are faithful in assembling with other believers and ministering to them, we will have plenty of resources and help in our own times of need.

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God calls His people to worship in unity.
Like a parent at a family gathering, God is truly blessed when His family comes together before Him. When some, like the prodigal’s elder brother, refuse to come and rejoice, it pains the Father and detracts from the fellowship. Perhaps the most tragic aspect is that estrangement from God’s family can’t help but distance one from God himself.

Churchgoing spouses must prayerfully beware of condescending language in the guise of “loving confrontation.” In the end, actions will always speak louder than words. If we talk of love and fellowship but our tone and actions don’t reflect those virtues, our actions will drown out any spoken words with an all-too-familiar resonance: hypocrisy. But when we allow the Holy Spirit to work, miracles happen.

The Case of the Unbelieving Spouse
Unfortunately, a marriage with an unbelieving spouse seems destined to stay spiritually void week after week, month after month. Years of persistent prayer on the part of the believing spouse may produce little change in the behavior of the unbeliever. Christians must remember that the focus should be on Christ, not on winning a spouse to the Lord. Ironically, letting go by keeping our focus upward and praising God for our salvation is the most effective basis for maintaining a compelling testimony of hope.

So, how does someone like Cathy live with a nonChristian partner? According to 1 Peter 3:1-7, she is to live so that her husband sees her life as glorifying to God. Here are some ways she can do that:

Concentrate on winning the spouse without a word.
A spouse can be won by one action, whereas a thousand of the most eloquent and compelling words may fall lifeless to the ground. And that is where only the Holy Spirit can save us – and the unbelieving spouse – from ourselves. By action, we don’t mean putting Bible verses on golf clubs, the mirror, in the lunch box, or even on those beer bottles.

What will win his or her heart are Christlike acts of submission. The great danger is leaving the spouse feeling as if you’d rather be married to some “wonderful Christian.” Nor do you want to volunteer to run hot meals for needy church friends if that means leaving your spouse home alone with a TV dinner.

Submit yourselves, one to another.
“Does that mean I have to miss church and drive up to the lake with him?” Ironically, you could very well be honoring God through such submission. Refusing to budge from church attendance for a weekend away or to go to an occasional Sunday brunch is ultimately a power play that can only harm a marriage by driving a wedge between the spouse and “religion.”

Such intolerance shows a lack of wisdom and maturity as a believer. While a believer’s consistent absence from the body is harmful, a legalistic lack of grace is unChristian.

Pray for the salvation of your spouse.
God is the master of all, and Scripture is replete with examples of His working in spite of, and even through, the shortcomings of His servants. Characteristically, whenever He intervenes it is in the context of sincere prayer. God’s people come to Him on their knees and He lifts them up. Of all the words and deeds one might wisely pursue to win a spouse to Christ, the deeds of prayerful words lifted up before God will always be the most productive. Pray without ceasing.

Cathy sits beside her sleeping 8-year-old son, gently running her fingers through his blond bangs. She silently prays, “Father God – my husband is in Your hands.” She smiles and gently rocks the boy’s shoulders.

“Ben … time to get up.”

Ben’s eyes flutter open, and he looks into his mother’s face.
“It’s time to go to church,” says Cathy.
“Is Dad going with us?” Ben asks, rubbing his eyes.
“No, not today, but maybe one day. We’ll just keep praying.”
“Oh,” Ben replies, with a tinge of sadness.
“I know,” says his mom. “But let’s get ready. We don’t want to be late.”

“When Church Bells Aren’t Ringing” appeared in
Focus on the Family magazine.

Copyright © 1995 Susan Raborn. All rights reserved.
International copyright secured. Used with Permission.