I'm in the early stages of dating a fine Christian lady. She is a godly, caring and beautiful woman. We click well together and both have a desire to stay on a trajectory toward marriage.
However, I have one glaring concern. She is a physician by trade, and ever since she was a child, she has had a desire toward missions work. She has been on many short-term missions trips, and this last one has appeared to solidify that calling. This was not a complete surprise to me as she in the past has told me of her feelings on the topic. It's the suddenness of the transition from "maybe" to "yes, definitely" which caught me off guard.
She says that marrying someone who doesn't share the same heart for missions isn't a deal-breaker. But it gives me pause. I support missions, but it's largely in a financial capacity. A number of missionaries say it's important that both the husband and wife have that calling to work overseas because of the extraordinarily difficult and demanding lifestyle. The last thing you want said during an argument is, "I never wanted to be here in the first place."
Yet sometimes you hear about a wife who is not enthusiastic regarding her spouse's calling or location and follows him anyway for the sake of support and naturally because they are married. However, I can't find any stories where the wife led and the husband "tagged along," so I can't investigate about how things panned out for them. Furthermore, my training and profession revolve around traditional office work, which may not translate well into the field. I'm concerned that I may be feckless toward the ministry there and would be unable to cope with such a radical change in lifestyle for an extended period — not to mention I'd be leaving a fairly lucrative job which I know I'd never be able to return to (this relates to the whole "providing for your family" duty).
Ultimately, my question centers on my lack of passion toward a cause versus my desire to be with this person. Despite much prayer on this, I have not received a clear answer. I know this may become a non-issue if one of us has a change of heart, but if it doesn't, how far should I take things before deciding it's best not to continue? Or should I simply continue and "hope things work out"? I am worried that no matter which path I choose — to stay or leave — I will experience a lot of regret and feel I made the wrong choice.
Thanks for your question. Based on the situation you described, it sounds like you are thinking through the right issues, and some of those issues have clear biblical as well as practical implications. Let me lay out some broad biblical principles that I think will inform your situation and then talk about how they might apply.
To get started, I'm afraid I have to trot out a slightly cumbersome theological term: complementarianism. Complementarianism is the theological position that God created men and women equal in worth, value, dignity and the extent to which they reflect God's image (Genesis 1:26-27), and then, within that equality, assigned and equipped them for different roles in the church and family, such that they "complement" one another to God's glory. The opposing position to complementarianism is called egalitarianism. This view, in a nutshell, accepts that men and women are created by God with equal value and worth, but rejects any notion that God assigned and equipped men and women for differing roles within the family and church, such that every role in both contexts (for instance, "head" or "leader" in the family context and "elder" or "pastor" in the church context) is equally open to either men or women.
Extensive study and long experience have convinced me that of these two differing views, complementarianism is the view supported by Scripture. I don't have space here to make a comprehensive argument, but the Counsel on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood provides a huge amount of material on these topics if you're interested. Also, Capitol Hill Baptist Church has a Sunday school curriculum on biblical manhood and womanhood that provides a solid but more streamlined treatment of the issues.
So, when we apply complementarian principles to marriage, we see that as God establishes marriage and the roles man and woman are to play in it, God gives Adam the primary responsibility (some might say "calling") to work the garden and care for it, and He creates Eve to help Adam in that task:
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it....
Then the Lord God said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.' Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, 'This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man' (Genesis 2:15-23).
Complementarians understand this passage to teach (among other things) that in the biblical model for marriage, the husband's work and ministry outside the home is primary, and the wife's work and ministry is primarily to be oriented toward her husband as his helper or "helpmate." This is not to say that a wife cannot have her own independent pursuits and ministry (see Proverbs 31; Titus 2:3-5), but that she should understand her "primary" ministry to be that of "helper" to her husband and all that entails regarding the home and family.
This idea gels with, among other passages, Ephesians 5 ("the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church"). And in Proverbs 31, we see the "excellent wife" given extensive praise for all her unique competencies and abilities and independent pursuits even as she does all those things while oriented toward helping her husband and family (look at verses 11 and 12 preceding the list of all her accomplishments: "The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life").
By the way, this assignment of roles should not in any way be understood to devalue or call into question a wife's gifts, abilities, intelligence or worth before God or compared to that of her husband. It simply reflects God's design for how she is to prioritize and apply her efforts in the context of marriage (if she chooses to marry).
I should also note that the same passage that designates the husband as "head" of the wife (Ephesians 5) also commands husbands to "love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (verse 25, emphasis added). That is, husbands love sacrificially for the spiritual good of their wives. That passage provides instructions about how a husband fulfills the role God has called him to, that of servant leader (see Matthew 13:1-17) in the service of his wife’s spiritual good. It is not, as some egalitarians have argued, a justification for husbands to abdicate or reject the role God has called them to in order to make his wife’s work and ministry primary in the marriage.
So how might all this inform your questions? First of all, whether you agree with what I've written above or not, I would suggest that you and your girlfriend have a "theology of marriage" conversation fairly soon. Reasonable Christians can and do disagree about the complementarian versus egalitarian views and how they play out practically, but if you and your girlfriend have very different views on these issues, it is a recipe for a difficult, conflict-filled marriage that may not be wise to pursue.
Second, because I subscribe to the complementarian view, I could not recommend that you have, as a long-term plan, to put your work and ministry aside and prioritize your (wife's) work and ministry as "primary" within the marriage. The fact that your girlfriend currently plans to pursue missions work (as opposed to a stateside medical practice or law practice or social work or whatever other worthy calling she might contemplate) does not change or trump the biblical model for marriage. Generally, I counsel couples who are considering marriage that it is wise to proceed if their perceived "callings" for themselves as individuals are similar (for instance, both have a strong desire to pursue long-term missions work), or, if they are different, there is flexibility on the woman's part based on complementarian principles. It doesn't appear from your question that it has come to this yet, but if your girlfriend took the position that she expected you to follow her onto the mission field so she could do full-time missions work (as opposed, for instance, to orienting your marriage and life stateside and taking a short-term trip or two each year), I would consider that a red flag.
Your question raised a number of good practical issues. I hope I've provided a framework to consider these issues theologically and biblically as well. Seems like you two have a lot to think and talk about — preferably in conjunction with your pastor(s) or other wise Christians who know you well. I will pray for openness to Scripture and wisdom for you both.
For His glory,
Copyright 2014 Scott Croft. All rights reserved.