Leaving a Cultic Church of Christ When a Spouse Won’t Leave


This comment was posted by a reader, and I’m not sure I have much of an answer for her. What advice do you give a woman in this situation?

Jay, I identify with your reader who faced legalism and chose to leave it. I am in a similar situation. Our congregation may even be more legalistic. But what do you do when your husband is one of the leaders of the congregation and disagrees with your “liberal” views and won’t allow a change? How can a submissive wife honor her husband and her own conscience at the same time?

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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24 Responses to Leaving a Cultic Church of Christ When a Spouse Won’t Leave

  1. Terry says:

    I have not given this much thought, but if possible, she might look for a nondenominational women's Bible study in her area. Several groups like Fellowship Bible Study, Community Bible Study, and Precept Bible Study can be found in a variety of churches. If one does not exist, she might be able to start one. (These groups also have Bible study groups for men.)

  2. anonymous says:

    maybe try going to church with her husband and then going to a later service at a Christ-formed church afterwards.

  3. Pray, pray, pray. But you already know that. Could you persuade him to go with you to a worship conference like Stream (Hallal) or Look to the Hills (Zoe Group)?

  4. Terry says:

    I thought of one other way to stay encouraged in a difficult situation. Listening to good radio programs throughout the day can help. You might check out:

    Revive Our Hearts with Nancy Leigh DeMoss (www.reviveourhearts.com)

    Discover the Word with Haddon Robinson, Alice Matthews, and Mart DeHaan (www.discovertheword.org)

    FamilyLife Today with Dennis Rainey and Bob Lepine (www.familylifetoday.com)

  5. The relationship between a husband and wife is more important than doctrine or where one worships.

    While I would encourage her to lovingly share her views with her husband, she should continue to worship with him, until he understands the greater freedom he has in Christ.

    Doctrine never trumps love.

  6. I should add, that I've given this advise to women in similar situations. And if a wife has a true sense of why she's doing it, it's an approach that always prevails.

    Christians often get caught up in "how it looks." Or, what people will think.

    Those would not be issues to Jesus.

  7. Randy says:

    Interesting topic. And very delicate. I essentially agree with Mr. Himes. One must remember two things. This church is even more legalistic than the one that disfellowshipped the other reader, and, her husband is one of the leaders (elders?) of this congregation. Her handling of this situation would most likely effect their whole congregation.

    She may as well take him to a Rolling Stones concert as to a ZOE conference. I don't see how he could possibly relate to that environment. A respectful loving attitude is what Christ call us to. I will be praying for her and her husband.

    Folks who are more apt to lean towards a more progressive thinking most likely will have to be so much more patient with those who are more stringent because that patience will not be there from a legalistic point of view.

    I often wonder how much my wife (a more conservative thinker) sacrifices in her relationships with me (an elder) and our church (on the progressive side). I know her comfort levels are stretched and I/we need to be very sensitive. But then again, God never called us to be comfortable.

  8. mark says:

    David P Himes,

    "Doctrine never trumps love."

    Is love really submissiveness then? In the Western world we are talking about a spirit of cooperation not a burka! Can love in marriage truly change those blinded by legalism? Or should love stand up grab their there kids and run for safety? For instance what if one was in the John Waddey group of churches of Christ which in my opinion is cultic I say stay home and find the truth about your spouse! A marriage cannot thrive in the secrecy of shame and despair.

    There is more to this also lets not forget child abuse in this language of cultic behavior. Is the message to our children just be submissive to those who want to harm you. Or are we telling our children call for help speak up and protest . I understand the strong views of marriage but does marriage or church affiliation trump spiritual and physical abuse?

  9. I don't think this has anything to do with submissiveness. And I don't think agape calls for anyone to stand by and watch abuse without taking steps to escape the abuse.

    But physical threat is not doctrine.

    You've taken my statement and drawn a conclusion that does not necessarily follow. People who are legalistic or doctrinaire are not necessarily physically threatening or abusive.

    And I likely agree with you, if you're suggesting that in an physically abusive situation a spouse should separate from the abuser. But nothing in Jay's original post or the note from the wife, suggests that physical abuse is part of the circumstances.

  10. Alan says:

    I don't get the impression that she considers her husband's church to be outside of the grace of Christ. So worshipping there is not out of the question on those grounds.

    The presence of children would definitely complicate the question. But in this case the husband is an elder, so one might assume the children are older and know the differing views of their parents. If not, if they are old enough to be Christians, they need to know those differences.

    Children aside, I think staying and worshipping with the husband is the noble thing to do. That is consistent with 1 Pet 3:1-6. I do think she needs outside support from more grace-filled sources.

  11. anonymous says:

    I cannot help but wonder what the advice woud be to a man who was starving spiritually because his wife (who was very involved in a legalistic church and mindset) would not leave.

    And I inferred (possibly erroneously) from one comment that staying is fine because it would not hurt the conscience of the starving disciple, and the conscience of the legalist would be hurt in leaving. An untrained conscience is no excuse imho.

  12. I would and have counseled couples on both sides of this question. But it's also important to acknowledge that few circumstances are static and a couple should be actively engaged in discussing the topics about which they disagree.

    This is not a passive solution — it should be very active.

    Do you think Jesus would have abandoned a relationship because someone disagreed with him?

    I don't. And that's the standard to which I aspire.

  13. anonymous says:

    I was not thinking that the choices were: 1) staying in a legalisitc church or 2) abandoning a marriage.

  14. Jimmy Prince says:

    I have found the best approach to a legalistic heart is an in-depth study of grace – assuming that there is a willingness to approach the subject with an open heart. For me, a true and growing understanding of God's grace has crowded out any legalistic tendencies. A great place to start is Jay's book "The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace".

    One of the major benefits that comes to the legalistic heart when it is melted by God's grace is the amazing realization that the believer is actually saved. I guess that's why they call it amazing grace…

  15. nick gill says:

    I'm not trying to be contrary here, although it usually ends up that way!

    Why should doctrine not trump *her* love for him when doctrine is clearly trumping *his* love?

    In what way is he "giving himself up for her?" (Eph 5)

  16. nick gill says:

    In my experience, legalists tend to avoid discussions and dialogue, because their minds might be tainted with impure doctrine.

    They prefer soapboxes and bully pulpits and interrogations.

  17. nick gill says:

    Me either — how did this become "worship together" or "divorce"? That sounds like a false dilemma.

  18. I don't believe Christianity is quid pro quo. Her obligation, as a believer, to love him, is independent of his actions.

    As Jay observes in a follow up post, I agree his legalism is sinful. But where we be if Jesus had said, I'll die for you, but only if …

    Jesus' actions were not dependent upon our actions. Our actions are a response to his.

    I wish this elder would "give himself up for her." But these are separate responsibilities.

  19. Alan says:

    Why should doctrine not trump *her* love for him when doctrine is clearly trumping *his* love?

    A couple of reasons:

    First, her doctrine does not rule him as lost. His does rule her as lost.

    Second, 1 Peter 3:1-6 calls on the woman to endure righteously when the husband is not doing right.

    Remeber too, we are discussing what she should do, given what he has made clear that he will do. I don't think anyone here is defending her husband's choices.

  20. A. K. says:

    I am the reader who was disfellowshipped and asked for advice myself, so i'm probably not in the best position to give it, but then again, when your spirit is broken before God and you put your faith in HIM to heal it, he helps you see what HIS way is more clearly. I love hearing the advice, It helps so much to see the different views. I thank you all for your support, care and advice. It not only encouraged me but helped me to see where God's spirit of love was and how to follow it better. The following is just my opinion. ……
    I know in my situation, I felt a panic to leave and get out… it was my natural instinct of flight. I felt trapped, controlled and labeled. I wanted out. I did leave before my husband, he had been a deacon in the church and wouldn't let our kids come with me — this was the hardest thing to handle– and it showed me that I wasn't being patient enough and like brother Himes suggested, unselfish LOVE will triumph. If we can only give it.
    I knew God has asked ME to be submissive and bring honor to my husband, and I had not always been very good at that. It embaressed him when I left without him, it hurt him and made him feel abandoned. We WERE unequally yoked– and that will only ruin a marriage… and your children's security.
    If we are one before God, how can we be seperated in our hearts and please God? How can we be seperated in our worship and please God? How can we let God's word divide us when it is to bring us closer together?? We are to be 1- made 1 by God's PERFECT LOVE!
    I made up my mind to show him respect and honor (even if I didn't feel like it). This was the advice given to me by a dear friend- I didn't like the advice at first- but I knew it was the truth. I knew it was right.
    I would lovingly teach my children the grace of God and teach and LIVE the truth without sacraficing my marriage. It had to be possible since that is what God had asked of me. Rebelling against him will not win him over.

    When my husband saw me trying to give in and be submissive, (when he knew it was nearly impossible for me since I am very strong willed!) it helped us come together and find a good foundation to build on. He respects me more and I respect Him more because we both gave in to each others needs… put each others interest first. He immediatly decided to leave and HE chose where he felt it was best for our family to go. I have to tell you I disagreed, I went anyways, but with 'an attitude'– I realized my attitude was still not good, not Godly, so I kept working on it and soon realized that my husband had made a good choice, and we are finally uniting in our faith, even though I would probably still prefer another church. but it is a group where we are free from legalism, where love abounds and where we can
    help each other grow towards our Father, not towards doctrines and dogmas. If you only do this, you will be living God's 'docrine', not man's. I hope and pray your husband will give you this gift. I'm so thankful.

    When a husband ignores his wife's needs, especially when she is craving 'good' things like SPIRITUAL FOOD it is very hard for her to respect and honor him, and very easy for us to make excuses for our lack of submission. It helps me to visualize satan tempting him to ignore my needs- we can't let satan win! visualize your husband trapped in a cage and you have the key that Christ has entrusted you with. don't leave him trapped. Pray that God will make you the very best help mate you can be. God wants him to be freed, God wants YOU to help him. This is very hard to do if we live in our flesh and not in the spirit. Every time I have the urge to insult, fight, take flight, or 'give him a well needed lecture', I have to remind myself this is my fleshly desire, my unsubmissive tendency that has been trained by satan himself. Picture your savior shaking his head- softly saying, 'don't leave him,(spiritually, physically, or mentally) you can do ALL things with me by your side'. Write the fruit of the spirit on the palm of your hand dear sister and beg God to help you live them out to win your husband over. Not only for yourself, but mainly for your husband so he can taste the sweet freedom in Christ. We know that submission isn't just doing it but feeling it. God wants our hearts and spirit to be submissive, not just our outward person.

    So my advice is to be very, very patient, — beg (and I mean down on your knees begging Him, telling him you know you can't do it yourself, You need HIM to bless you with his spirit of patients, grace and joy). Like it was advised above, tell him with LOVE, GENTLENESS AND MEEKNESS your desires, concerns, disagreements…. and then tell him you would love to worship with a congregation that lived the fruit of the spirit and where you could grow in grace and knowledge TOGETHER, tell him you need sisters that encourage and build up, tell him your not wanting to go against him, but only closer to Christ. ask him to please consider moving your membership to a congregation where you both can grow. ask him to please love you more than himself. and to not consider you 'liberal' because this labeling hurts you and makes you feel very misunderstood. This is what God wants for you- for all of us.
    and even though these are noble things you desire, tell him you desire even more to bring honor to him, to show respect and love to him and be united as 1 with him. Ask him to start studying with you and give God time to open his heart. It might take longer than you care to wait, but it can happen…..and do find a godly group of sisters (somewhere) to study and grow with. Find a ladies bible class, or something, where you can get that spiritual food your craving. I believe God is working in you. Let him use you, feed your spirit God's food. Don't let yourself starve, take care of yourself so you can nourishing your husband and others.
    I am torn on this issue, because if you must leave, (only you know where God is leading you) there is a right and wrong WAY to leave. A right and wrong REASON to leave. Just make sure God is leading and not your pride, desire or any selfish ambition. Make sure —- spend months, if not years, studying His word praying about your situation, ask him to show you what he wants of you. Tell him you WILL let him lead you.
    i am taken to the story of Ruth. I believe in the first few verses of this beautiful story- we see a husband making a foolish decision. and a wife 'blindly' (?) following, which led to the death of her husband and sons. There was a famine in the land. not only physical, but SPIRITUAL. Elimelech chose to seek nourishment in a pagan land, Moab, instead of staying in his land and having faith God would provide. What would have happened if Naomi's faith in God had been stronger than her husband's AND she refused to leave? Could her love and faith have changed his mind? was she right to submit and follow, or should she have let her faith 'over rule' her husband and seperate them.. Like when Joseph's brothers sold him to bondage, God used men's weakness for good. We know God saved his people in both situations, he used the unfaithfulness of some to make good for the faithful. Joseph became a ruler and saved God's people from a famine (physically and spiritually) and in Naomi's situation she submitted and followed, and the Savior of the world came from a pagan girls line. How beautiful to know our God can take the worst situations & help us in the end! If we only submit to HIM.

    Right after I left, before my husband had made his decision to leave, I was brought to Rev. 2 one day and was relieved to find that in vs. 18-29 there was a church that had some good- but Jesus had much against them. This group has accepted Jezebel! some where letting her lead them into horrible things. But notice in verse 24, that there were also some who 'HAD NOT THIS DOCTRINE and have not know the depths of satan!' this tells us that we will not be held accountable for what others in the churches do and even for their doctrines, what a relief. We are freed for not taking part in their sins, for standing up for truth and living the life God has called us to live. I was so amazed that God led me to this vrs. . I had read this many times, but that day I got it.
    If it's not a sin for you to worship with your husband, if you can still live acceptable to God, it seems you should do that. but one might wander—-if my husband 'foolishly' choose to go back to the legalistic church we left, would I need to submit and follow… even if it could lead to his death and the death of my children- but might help others in the end? would refusing to follow him back be pleasing to God or cause our death? – ?????? OH FAITH!

    if your conscience is hurting and you believe you are among those who are against the spirit, if your in a 'pagan' land– then seek God! God lead Naomi back where there was food. but it took many years. she made mistakes, but her sweet, loving, submission brought her food and life in the end.
    If only that could be my legacy!

    Please know that my heart is hurting for you. I know the hopelessness your feeling. but I believe in my heart if you dedicate yourself to serving God and others (your husband) — your spirit WILL BE fed and uplifted.


  21. Wow. Jay, here's another example of the power of testimony.

  22. Pat says:

    Very thoughtful, and well said, sweet friend.

  23. Joy says:

    I've been in a similar situation. My husband and I were
    both badly hurt in some churches that were actually
    practicing a form of shepherding. They probably did not
    realize it and that name was not used. I got to a point where
    I felt I had to stay home for my own sanity. I had tried to
    get my h to visit other churches or go elswhere but he
    wouldn't leave this particular group. I have also gone with
    him but you have to remember that enabling someone isn't
    the same as love.
    I note that women are taught the submissive side but
    the Bible instructs both husbands and wives to submit
    to one another, of course, we submit first and wholly to
    God. To insist another adult attend a religion church or
    group is actually a violation of our constitution (civil).
    I think loving each other, being committed to God and
    each other, respecting each other and each other's beliefs and feelings….and trusting the Holy Spirit to guide. I
    don't think this is a one rule fits all situation.
    In some cases, churches are abusive or cultic
    even if unintentionally. Where you go, and listen, will
    affect you whether true or not. I think we need to realize
    that expecting a hurting person to just go despite what
    it may be doing to them, is not love, either. We really do
    not know what is best for someone else or where they
    are at. God does so looking to Him is the best advice.

  24. Yvette says:

    It is for freedom that Christ set me free…I will not again be subject to a yoke of bondage…
    After 20 years in the same church, serving and attending and giving and submitting, I had enough of what the church had become: more about protocol and in-groups than about Jesus. One Sunday I decided I wouldn't go back. My beloved is still going there, serving and tithing.
    I attend different churches on Sundays, tasting the different flavors of Chrisitian worship in my community and region. My kids have a favorite church which I take them to — it's so nice to see them eager to rise and go to church! I wish my husband was ready to launch out on this beautiful adventure with me…but he's not ready yet. Our love and respect is stronger than ever, because I am stronger than ever.

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