THE scene is typical in many churches across the island — a large contingent of young, and even old marriageable women vying for the affections of a handful of saved males, or waiting patiently for God to send a husband. This has long been the norm, with most being admonished not to get entangled with men in the outside world, so as not to "become unequally yoked with an unbeliever".
So denying their secret longings for companionship and the desire to procreate, many remain chaste and play the wait-and-see game as they pray in earnest. In recent times though, some have been braving the stares and condemnations of their more sanctified sisters as they look beyond the church walls for a suitable mate.
Like Jacqueline Bernard, for example, a 34-year-old businesswoman who recently got married to an unsaved fellow after being in a relationship with him for nearly six years. But while now revelling in wedded bliss, she is still smarting from the fact that the clergyman who pastored her since age six refused to perform the nuptials.
"He did not appreciate the fact that I was going to get married to an unsaved man. He didn't even say 'let him come and let me see him'. From the moment I told him that he was unsaved, that's basically where the conversation ended, because he didn't want to hear anything else," shared the newly-wed, who is convinced the Holy Spirit had directed her to her husband.
For a long time she, like so many other single Christian women, had been looking to the church for a suitable partner. At one point she had been dating a Christian brother who she dumped after four years together when she discovered he was involved with another Christian girl for about the same length of time.
"When I went to his house, he always wanted sex and this was a Christian man," Bernard stressed, while adding that her husband, prior to marriage, had hardly pressured her for sex.
"Although he has objections about certain things which happens within the church, he respects my principles and helps me to keep them, but at the same time he is committed to the relationship," she said.
Stacey Morrison who is nearing 30, does not regret ditching the teachings of her church to marry her Rastafarian husband who she fell deeply in love with. But her decision was not well received by the pastor of her Church of God church who refused to perform the wedding.
"I told her that I was going to get married and she said that was nice, and I asked her if she could perform the wedding and she said she would have to have a meeting with the executive team because she doesn't want to marry me and then the other young people come and want her to do the same," Morrison said.
She admits that she has changed a lot of things about herself since tying the knot for the sake of her husband. She no longer has any reservations about wearing skirts below the knee, pants and tank tops, and has since processed her hair.
"Now that I am married I have to look good for him," she said. She said both of them are happy together and have since joined a more liberal church.
Like both women, 24-year-old dental assistant Rachel Higgins found her man outside the church too. While he has not yet taken the plunge into the baptismal pool, he has certainly won her over with his respect for the values that she holds dear to her like being patient, kind and very understanding. It is these traits and the level of compatibility a woman has with a man that should count above all else in a relationship, she believes.
With man shortage, pastors reconsidering the term 'unequally yoked'
"The church ratio of women to men is 80:20; in some it is 70:30 and a in few, just a few, you'll find 60:40, but for most is 80:20 and some even 90:10," said Bishop Rohan Edwards, president of the largest umbrella church group, the Jamaica Association of Full Gospel Churches, which oversees 50 denominations in the island. "Everyone knows that men are scarce in church, in any church, the ratio is very low. But you have some faithful ones who are not mixing. They're staying single until God sends them their husband."
But perhaps because of the ratios, women like Higgins have been backed by support from an unlikely source — the church. Because as the years go by, some pastors have been reconsidering the meaning of the term "unbelievers" as was used in 2nd Corinthians.
"The truth is, there are other interpretations of what the meaning of an unbeliever really is. The traditional conventional interpretation — which is where the problem surfaces — suggests that anybody who is not a Christian is an unbeliever," said General Secretary of the Jamaica Baptist Union, Reverend Karl Johnson, before pointing out, "There is a school of thought, however, that suggests that it is more dealing with agnostics, rather than non-Christians."
For his part, the pastor believes that there are some non-Christians who adhere to the values upheld by the church. It is upon this premise that he does not have a problem sanctioning the union of a Christian woman and her unsaved partner, if both are in agreement as to what is non-negotiable in the relationship.
"My own thing is that this whole thing about relationships is a decision, that love and so forth is a decision, and it is whether or not you are going to decide to honour the decision you make. Because no two persons are the same and there is always the need for some level of compromise," he said. "We have to get to the point now where we realise that not because we speak in tongues together, don't mean that we are meant for each other," he added, while pointing to the high levels of divorce in the church.
For him, a relationship demands serious considerations and once this is given and the individuals have made up their minds to commit to these, then he is not in a position to stand in their way.
"I would counsel a young member of my church or anybody about the hazards of getting involved with somebody who is not a Christian, but I wouldn't stand in judgement, I wouldn't withdraw my ministry and my services to them. I would counsel them and I would show them the way, because ultimately all you can do is enlighten people, the choice has to be theirs," he said.
For Father Richard Brown of the Catholic faith, being unequally yoked is not a matter of saved or unsaved, but is essentially determined by other factors such as whether a couple has the same values and goals and can live amicably with each other. As such, he along with many other Catholic priests has no problem performing the marriage of persons from two different denominations fr a believer and a non-believer.
"As long as the person is Christian minded and willing to follow the principles of the church, then we don't stop them," he said.
The big BUT
But this was a view held by Pastor David Chang of the Majesty Transformation Church in the volatile Majesty Gardens community in Kingston for a long time. However, most recently, he has realised that a number of these unions result in heartache for the woman who gradually realises that the desire of her husband and of herself are at odds.
"Sometimes the husbands don't want the wives to go to church; they say the wife go to church too often and they say the wife and the pastor deh [are romantically involved] and that sort of thing," he said.
The pastor, who met his wife while serving time in prison, said they were both denied a wedding by their churches on the premise that she was a Pentecostal and he was from a Church of God.
"They (church leaders) told me definitely that it was unequally yoked and they said, 'no, no it's not right'. But you can't run people's lives. Some of it work out, but it is not in all cases," said the pastor, a prison convert.
And Barbara James, who has been happily married for the past 10 years to her non-Christian husband, is also of the view that a saved and an unsaved should not tie the knot.
"I am not 100 per cent comfortable with the decision that I made, because I had options and sometimes I regret it. But I have learnt to live with it over the years," said James who took a break from the church when she met her husband, and returned some time after marrying him. "Sometimes you find yourself doing things and going places that you know you are not supposed to be, because you can't live separate lives and so you just have to compromise," she said.
Will my dissenting pastor find me a man, then?
But what then are women expected to do when the men in the church are either considered worse than the non-Christians or are not deemed worthy enough to endear the modern-day Christian female? What should they do when there are so few to pick from?
Bishop Edwards, like so many pastors, believe the women should pray earnestly and await God's blessing.
" If the woman is faithful, she will know in due season, in due time, God will send her a husband," he said.
But a more practical suggestion he has is for the women to encourage those men outside to come into the church. "What we say to our girls is that, if you see a young man that is not a Christian, what you need to do is convince that person. There are some who do that too. They work with the person, they don't marry them right away, they give them time to grow and a lot of girls do that," he said, while also warning girls who go this route to flee from the temptation of sleeping with these men before they get married.
Meanwhile, Joan Rhule, a counselling psychologist with the Family Life Ministries, believes that for a most part, many Christian girls have been managing to keep themselves sanctified as they wait for a saved partner. Even so, she noted that there are challenges.
"They are going to have a challenge with their various sexual needs," she said. "It does not matter how saved you are, God does not take away that part of you with your sexual desires, you are going to have it..."
Despite this, Rhule believes that some have employed various coping strategies to overcome this need. "If you think that's okay, I know that I have a goal and I want to serve God faithfully until He provides or if he doesn't provide then I am still going to be faithful, then you will be OK," she said.