I'm the only nonbeliever in a Christian couples group

I haven't exactly lied to them, but I haven't told them I'm an agnostic either.

By Cary Tennis
Published June 8, 2005 3:36PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I am agnostic, my husband is a Christian. He attended a Christian college and his immediate family members are all Christians. I attended a women's college and my immediate family members are all agnostics or atheists. These differences are not problems for us -- we worked them out when dating, and we are both happy with our arrangement. So that is not the problem. But this is:

Part of our arrangement involves me attending church services with my husband. I understand that it makes him happy to have me with him at his church community. He understands that I look upon it as an academic exercise, an opportunity to have moments of "Oh, that's why people say they're being tested like Job!" I was not raised with any sort of religious instruction, and I enjoy attending a weekly church service as sort of a historical/cultural lesson. But. I do not believe the things my husband believes (Father, Son, Holy Ghost). I do not believe the things our "church friends" believe. They do not know that about me, and as time goes on I feel worse and worse about it.

We started attending the church before we were married, and a new group of young couples was forming. We joined that group, which meets weekly in a member's home, and have become friends with the other members. At the initial meeting, we were all supposed to share something interesting about ourselves. That would have been the perfect opportunity to say, "Hey, I think it's interesting that I'm not a Christian, I'm just married to one." Instead, I told some lame story about driving a car.

So for the past two years, we have been meeting weekly with this group of couples. We have barbecues and baby showers and they all attended our wedding. We discuss the topic of the church service, and we talk about our lives. I don't pretend to believe something I don't, and I don't lie. I don't bow my head in prayer when the group prays, I don't make up stories about a faith I don't share, and I don't sing in church. My husband is quite the biblical scholar, and I think I'm probably "passing" by riding his coattails -- he teaches a doctrine class at church, and he advises the pastor on sermon topics. The pastor is aware that I am not a Christian, but he thinks faith is personal and has not told anyone, to my knowledge.

I feel like it's too late to come clean with our friends. Is it? Maybe some of the group suspect I don't share their faith, but maybe not. I've never gotten a hint that anyone questions me -- no pointed queries about when I became a Christian, or anything of that sort. I would like to believe that if I cleared the air, the reaction would be, "Hmmm, interesting, no problem." However, there have been a couple of times that people have said things they probably wouldn't say in the company of a non-Christian. Such as, "I just found out John McEnroe is not a Christian. I am so disappointed in him. He's a fool!"

What should I do? Like every secret, it's going to come out eventually. Should I bring it up myself? How do I do that?


Dear Surrounded,

What to do? Some would say you should simply tell them and let the chips fall where they may. That option is attractive in its simplicity and ease of execution. But while it's an answer it's not exactly a solution. I mean, it may create more problems than it solves.

In an ideal world, a principled and thoughtful discussion would follow your revelation, and out of that would arise a model of how contemporary Christians and non-Christians can meet halfway in intellectually honest debate, come together to do good work, care for each other and seek wisdom. But in the real world, confusion and hard feelings could develop if this were not handled expertly. For instance, some in the group might assume that your statement of agnosticism was some kind of cry for help, that despite your avowals to the contrary you are actually struggling to become a person of faith. (Some might even suspect the devil's hand in this.) There's nothing more frustrating than explaining to a well-meaning person that you are not all that concerned about this whole everlasting torment thing, that you will plumb the depths of your own soul on your own time, thank you very much.

Others might feel terribly guilty about having mocked John McEnroe. You could assure them that he deserves to be mocked on general principle. But that might not settle the question completely. It's important for people to feel they can speak freely in their in-group. So you might try to reassure them that you don't give a hoot if they make fun of non-Christians, that all groups to some extent develop a kind of us-against-them mentality, and that it's fine with you. (But would it be?)

Still others might legitimately ask: If you are not seeking a Christian understanding and Christian faith, what are you doing in the group? If most of the people in the group are there to increase their faith, they might feel that your presence detracts from the mission, by introducing a subtle note of dissension. Of course, in the secular world we value dissension; we believe that confronting counter-arguments helps us refine our thinking; in opposition is true friendship and all that. But this is not about thinking. This is a group of people struggling to maintain faith in something beyond reason. So the effect of dissension may be felt rather intensely.

Actually, it's worth asking yourself: What indeed is your purpose in the group? I know you say you value the friendship of the people, and you and your husband are trying to bond with various social groups. But these are people bonded by a single purpose, and you are the only one who does not share that purpose. Doesn't it make you feel a little odd, when you think about it? Are you sure that staying in the group is what you want to do?

Assuming you do want to stay in the group, here's an idea. You say the pastor of this church knows you are not a believer and considers faith to be a personal matter. That makes him sound like a reasonable man. Why not meet with this pastor and tell him what you have told me? Perhaps he has dealt with such matters before and can share his experience with you. He might also be willing to meet with your group when you make this admission and help all of you discuss its implications with an aim of mutual understanding.

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