Should a husband place ministry or family first?
I am deeply in love with a godly man. We started dating/courting after seeking God and believe God brought us together. We share the same desire to further the kingdom of God and to be who He created us to be.
The other night my boyfriend told me that before we marry, he wanted to be sure I understood that God and ministry will always come before family for him. He knows that I have been raised to believe that family is your first ministry. Yes, Jesus is absolutely first, but I believe family should be a priority.
His words cut me because I love him, and I want to marry him. But it’s hard to think that serving in the church will be more important to him than me and our children. I love God with all my heart and have prayed for a man that loves Him first. I also prayed for a man that would love me and see me as a partner in his ministry. My heart is hurting. I told my boyfriend that I understand that about him and that if we marry, I accept that as his view. But it stings. What do you think about this? Is it wrong for me to feel hurt by his words?
Thank you for writing to ask about competing priorities in marriage. I’m not surprised by your conversation — not by his words nor by your response. Both display the beauty in diversity between male and female, even as they hint at the effects of the fall. He wants to boldly pursue the work God has called him to do. You want to create a secure and nurturing home conducive to family life. Neither of you are wrong to want these things, but neither of you are unaffected by your sin nature. No matter how fervently we feel something to be right, we cannot rely on our hearts for true guidance. Jeremiah reminds us, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9). As with all issues, you both need the corrective Scripture provides.
In the New Testament church, leaders were required to demonstrate faithfulness at home before they were considered eligible for leadership (Titus 1:5-9, 1 Timothy 3:1-13). Too often in our context, we consider leadership to be so important that it’s worth neglect of home life. This gets it backward. And it’s dangerous because it’s built on the assumption that “without me, God’s church can’t survive.” But God says, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). It’s God’s church. But if you marry, you will be his wife and he, your husband. You will both give an account on the last day of how you stewarded your marriage, your parenting, your family.
Does this mean work doesn’t matter? Far from it. We are called to expend ourselves for the Gospel. And many couples did so side-by-side at great cost (see Adoniram and Ann Judson, John and Sarah Edwards, and especially David Brainerd and Jerusha Edwards who were prevented from marrying by death).
Scripture does say we must be willing to leave everything for Christ. Jesus said, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19:29). What this cannot mean, however, is that a man is justified in neglecting the duties he owes to his wife and children. Why is that? Because it is God who requires those duties of him. Earlier in this same chapter Jesus quotes what God said in Genesis about the utterly unique and permanent relationship of marriage:
He said, ‘Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate’ (Matthew 19:4-6).
The ESV Study Bible commentary says about this passage:
From the moment they are married, they are unified in a mysterious way that belongs to no other human relationship, having all the God-given rights and responsibilities of marriage that they did not have before. Being “one flesh” includes the sexual union of a husband and wife … but it is more than that because it means that they have left their parents’ household … and have established a new family, such that their primary human loyalty is now to each other, before anyone else.
There’s a reason Paul tells husbands to love their wives the way Christ loves the church and that Peter tells husbands to live with their wives in an understanding way (Ephesians 5:25, 28-29, 1 Peter 3:7). Both command husbands to strain against their bent, against that desire to conquer the world to the neglect of home, hearth and wife. But they challenge wives, too. Paul writes, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.… Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands” (Ephesians 5:22, 24). And Peter tells wives to submit to their own husbands, do good, and not fear anything that is frightening (1 Peter 3:5-6). Both apostles command wives to do what isn’t natural: namely, to trust their husbands and follow their lead, even when it’s difficult.
How husband and wife relate to one another couldn’t be more central to the building of God’s kingdom. Why is that? Because God designed marriage to refer to, or be a picture of, a cosmic reality (Ephesians 5:31). He intends that how the husband treats his wife will tell us something about how Christ treats His bride, the church. And He intends that how the wife relates to her husband will tell us the truth about how the church is to relate to Christ. Marriage is ministry. The stakes are high — infinitely higher than we realize.
Where does this leave you? I think you need to ask your boyfriend what he means by his declaration of commitment to ministry. Does he mean that if his wife and children are dangerously ill but the weekly church business meeting needs him to run smoothly that he’ll leave his family in their need in order to be at the meeting? Or does he mean he will choose hard ministry assignments, maybe even in dangerous places, that will make family life more difficult? These are just a few possibilities, and there are endless other options along a spectrum of family first versus kingdom first. The goal in everything must be faithfulness to God’s commands.
Family is a priority for the godly husband and father not because of some sentimental Ozzie and Harriet vision of the traditional family — far from it. Joining God in the creation of new life and training them in the fear of the Lord is spiritual warfare (Genesis 3:15).
When Malachi says God made them one for the purpose of a godly seed (2:13-15), he shows that it’s not enough to make babies. Husbands and wives are called, in the words of John Piper, to make babies … disciples of Jesus Christ. It’s not enough to be procreative. We must also, as disciples of Christ, be generative. Our children are given to us for a season to disciple. It is up to fathers and mothers to train their children in the way they should go. This isn’t something you do in your down time or between other “more kingdom-minded” work. This is the work of the kingdom (“let the little children come to me” Matthew 19:14). And fathers, especially, are charged to teach their children the ways of God at every point of the day: “You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:7).
All of this is not to say families should never sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom. We are called to do hard things, and often that means we must lay down our desires for God’s greater purposes. The patriarchs of old went on dangerous journeys and often took their families with them. You must decide if this man is the one you will honor and obey, the one you will follow and support in sickness and in health. If he says, “We’re moving to Africa to take the Gospel,” will you willingly, even joyfully, go? There’s not a wrong answer here. I’m not trying to guilt you into anything. I just hope you will be brutally honest about what marriage demands. And I hope you will not gloss over deep disagreements with him because you feel a certain way about him. He, too, should be assessing your ability to fit in with the plans he’s making, in view of where God’s calling him to go.
I think the more important question is what does your boyfriend believe is the overarching authority in his life? Is he willingly submitting himself to God’s Word? Does he have a high view of Scripture and all it teaches? Is he working hard to know what God’s Word says, to understand what it means, and to apply it to his life? And for that matter, in all these things, are you? How the two of you answer these questions will determine so much about how you live as husband and wife, should you decide to marry each other. The issue of family versus church is just the first of many that will come up. Life is full of ethical dilemmas. This is but one example. And so what’s even more important than knowing what exactly he means by his conviction that ministry comes before family, is knowing what he believes about the authority of Scripture.
There are many benefits and blessings that come from a fruitful marriage, but marriage requires sacrifices of both husband and wife. I urge you both to search the Scriptures together and with the help of a pastor in order to better understand the sacrifices God requires as well as His will for your relationship. It is there that we find everything we need for life and godliness. May the Spirit guide you into all truth.
Copyright 2014 Candice Watters. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Candice Watters is a wife, mom, and Bible teacher. She is the author of Get Married: What Women Can Do to Help it Happen, co-founder with her husband, Steve, of Boundless.org and co-author of Start Your Family: Inspiration for Having Babies. They have four children and blog at FamilyMaking.com.