How Do I Address My Spouse’s Ongoing Sin?
We end the week with a sobering email from an anonymous wife who listens to the podcast. She’s reaching out for help. This episode will cover mature themes — just a heads up.
The wife writes in to say this: “Dear Pastor John, I am married to a professing Christian husband with a twenty-year history of hidden porn use. He’s confessed it, though he struggles also with sins like lying to look good, not disciplining his children, and using a flippant demeanor. These are continuing with regularity in my husband’s life. As far as I can tell, he’s not showing fruits of repentance. My question: How do I, as a wife, relate to him biblically? Hebrews 3:13 says to ‘exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.’ But 1 Peter 3:1–2 commissions women, saying if some husbands do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives. I understand that 1 Peter 3 is commanding a respectful, submissive attitude that may win a husband. I’m hung up on what the phrase ‘without a word’ means. Does it mean that a wife in my situation should not ever exhort her husband, as it says in Hebrews 3? Should I never bring up my concerns over the continuing sin that wreaks havoc in our home? I would truly appreciate any insight or advice you can give me.”
Not many things are more heavy on the heart than long-term marital disappointment. We hoped that there would be sweet harmony in those early days, and spiritual mutuality. And there has been very little of either, maybe for decades. We see our whole life going by, imagining what might have been, and it can be utterly disheartening. So, one of the things that needs to be dealt with is this: What if change — say, in this husband — never comes? What if all the things you dreamed, hoped, and prayed for don’t happen?
“There is great reward for those who endure in a godly, Christ-exalting way the disappointments of this life.”
I want to say loud and clear that there is grace — there is great grace — for that situation. Even grace for flourishing in it, not just coping with it. And there is great reward forever and ever for those who endure in a godly, Christ-exalting way the disappointments of this life. Now, that’s not what she’s asking, but I felt it’s important to say it. She’s not asking how to cope with disappointment, but rather what strategies are permitted or encouraged for a godly wife to seek change in her husband who’s living in sinful ways. So, let me offer a few clarifications of what I hear in this question.
Unbeliever or Believer?
First, 1 Peter 3:1–6 is dealing most immediately with a woman who is married to an unbelieving husband. I say that because when 1 Peter 3:1 says that they “do not obey the word,” that language elsewhere in 1 Peter refers to believing the gospel and becoming a Christian. For example, 1 Peter 1:22 refers to “having purified your souls by obedience to the truth,” which in the context means having obeyed the command in the gospel to believe, and thus experiencing its purifying power.
The same thing is true in 1 Peter 4:17: “It is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” — which again refers to those who do not obey the command to believe the gospel and be saved. So, when 1 Peter 3:1 says, “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives,” it’s referring to a marriage to an unbelieving husband.
Now, the reason that matters in this case is that massive new realities are in play when we are dealing with a professing Christian husband and a professing Christian wife. And that’s not the case in 1 Peter 3:1, but it is the case in this question that I’m being asked. New factors come into play when we are talking about two Christians.
Members of Christ’s Body
For example, with regard to the husband, under God he is not only responsible to his wife, to live with her in a certain way — like providing for her, protecting her, leading her spiritually, honoring her, as it says in Ephesians 5:25–33 and 1 Peter 3:7 — but this Christian husband is also responsible to the leaders of his church. Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” He’s responsible to his church covenant — that is, to the biblical implications of being a member of the body of Christ.
That’s what the biblical language of “members of Christ” means in 1 Corinthians 12. “The body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Corinthians 12:14). One cannot say to the other, “I have no need of you.” This husband can’t say that about the other Christians in the church, especially his leaders. “You are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Now, whether he thinks in these terms or not, that’s true about this husband. And he needs to think in those terms. He needs those other believers. He needs those Christian leaders in his life.
“The Christian husband is not a free-standing moral agent, doing whatever he pleases in this marriage.”
The Christian husband is not a free-standing moral agent, doing whatever he pleases in this marriage. He is a member — an arm, a leg, a finger, an ear, a tongue — of Christ and responsible to Christ as the head and to other members, especially the leaders of the body of Christ that he’s a part of. That’s true of the wife as well, which means that this marriage is not an isolated couple with no accountable relationships. They are part of the body of Christ. She and he have recourse to the church for help. They are members of Christ’s body.
Now, in this case, the husband does not seem to be seeking help from the body of Christ or from the leaders, but rather is prone, she says, to cover up — to cover up his need rather than seek help for it. This means that more of the burden is falling to his wife, which is not the way it’s supposed to be, and it’s putting her in a very difficult position.
Massive New Realities
So, let me underline for her the new realities that her belonging to Christ bring into play in this marriage. For example, she’s not only his wife, with the biblical implications that has for submission (which I’ll come back to in a minute), but she is also his sister in Christ, with appropriate implications for how a caring brother and sister might speak to each other.
She’s his fellow heir of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7), which implies a kind of regal dignity as God’s daughter, and which, if she’s mature, has implications for dealing with her co-heir, her husband, in a mature, humble, and fitting way.
She is, as we’ve seen, a member of the body of Christ as he is. This implies, as Paul says, that we are individually members of one another. That is, she’s part of her husband’s very being, and to speak to him is in a profound sense to speak to herself.
Also, because they are one flesh, this has profound significance in view of the Golden Rule — do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12) — because, in this case, he is you.
And she’s also indwelt by the Holy Spirit. This means not only that she has the treasures of wisdom and knowledge from God in her, but that she may be empowered at any given moment for some perfectly suited gift from God for what that husband needs.
And she’s created in God’s image — not only as all humans are, but doubly so because she’s been recreated in the image of Christ. As a Christian, she has, Paul says, become a new self, a new person, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24).
Now, I’m pointing out all of these glorious realities about this wife as they come into play because she asks, Should I never bring up my concerns over the continuing sin that wreaks havoc in our home? And I want her to see that these many realities about her position, her identity — in Christ, in relation to the church, in relation to the Lord, and in relation to her husband — all of them imply that she’s fully competent to think biblically about herself, her husband’s behavior, their relationship, and the impact it has on their children, and to approach him earnestly with her concerns for him and for them.
Now, I said I’d come back to the issue of submission. In my understanding of submission, none of this that I’ve just itemized — about all of the wife’s remarkable dignities — implies that in speaking to a husband about her concern she would necessarily be acting in an insubordinate or unsubmissive way. She might be if her attitude is wrong, but I think a mature, godly, Bible-saturated woman knows the difference between nagging a husband in a pushy or insubordinate way, on the one hand, and humbly and wisely bringing to the husband her concerns and seeking with him a way forward toward relational health that would make both of them and the children holier and happier.
If they can’t seem to make progress together, then it might mean seeking the husband’s agreement that they would bring a wise biblical counselor into their lives. I don’t think they should be ashamed of that. It is a mark of wisdom and maturity when we admit that we have reached the end of our resources and must seek help from some wise member of the body of Christ.