A Great Commission Marriage
I have already sketched in numerous places the implications of missions as the strategy by which a married couple relates most faithfully to God’s world. The essence of a good marriage, I am gradually discovering, is not companionship, although that is an essential ingredient. Nor is it love, if by love we mean an emotional attachment. If you have companionship and love in your marriage, that is wonderful. But neither comprises the essence of a good marriage. It seems to me that there is no greater value to a marriage than an interrelationship that is living for something greater than itself. I said as much in my essay Partners in the Gospel. I believe it bears repeating today.
Our society tells us that marriage is an end in itself, that marital happiness is a goal to be pursued at all costs. I am not against happiness in marriage, but that cannot be your goal if you are a married person. Our Creator is a serendipitous God, and we are often “surprised by joy” in our marriages. But I have discovered that joy is always the by-product of having Christ in our lives and in our marriages. As He becomes more and more the center of our relationship, His “fruit” becomes more and more of our daily experience: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The marriage I am trying to describe is one that says, with Joshua, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” The beauty of a married couple – hand in hand, living together for Christ insofar as that is possible in this fallen world – is marvelous. I call this a Great Commission marriage. It involves the “new horizons” and “new doors” that C. S. Lewis described in his essay “Christian Marriage”:
This is, I think, one little part of what Christ meant by saying that a thing will not really live unless it first dies. It is simply no good trying to keep any thrill: that is the very worst thing you can do. Let the thrill go – let it die away – go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follow – and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time. But if you decide to make thrills your regular diet and try to prolong them artificially, they will all get weaker and weaker, and fewer and fewer, and you will be a bored, disillusioned old man for the rest of your life. It is because so few people understand this that you find many middle-aged men and women maundering about their lost youth, at the very age when new horizons ought to be appearing and new doors opening all around them.
Let me say at once that this view of marriage seems to be on firm biblical grounds. In a Christian marriage a husband and wife are called by their Creator to live together in a harmonious unity. But this is not unity for unity’s sake. Note, for example, how the ancient church father Tertullian describes a Christian husband and wife: “Together they pray, they work, they fast, teaching, exhorting, supporting one another…. Willingly the sick person is visited, the poor person is helped – alms without afterthought, sacrifices without hesitancy, daily zeal without obstacle” (Ad Uxorum 2.9). Tertullian did not mean that gender differences disappear in a Christian marriage. That would be an absurdity. His description merely emphasizes that both genders can and must be involved in spiritual activities together, with each person contributing his or her own unique talents and abilities. Each enriches the other in a complementarian way. The result is true teamwork, a unity that puts God’s needs and desires first rather than our own. Thus, not only do Christian couples seek to please each other, they willingly and actively seek to be faithful to the ultimate goal of reflecting God’s glory and grace in the world all around them.
I freely admit that this emphasis on serving Christ in our marriages sounds strange in our narcissistic society. One of the things that surprised me when I began to study the New Testament teaching on this subject was that it talked so much about the way women participated in the ministry of the early church. We know that the wives of the apostles accompanied their husbands in their evangelistic ministries (1 Cor. 9:5). Commenting on this verse, Clement of Alexandria concluded that the apostles’ wives were “fellow ministers,” that is, co-laborers with their husbands as they ministered to other women. We also know that women in the early church opened their homes for church meetings. (It is interesting that Scripture gives us the names of the women in whose homes these churches met more than the names of the men: see Acts 12:12; 16:40; Rom. 16:3-5; Col. 4:15). Moreover, we know that Priscilla (Rom. 16:3) as well as Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2-3) were Paul’s “co-workers.” The latter duo went so far as to share Paul’s “struggle in the cause of the Gospel,” possibly meaning that they were exposed to the same suffering and opposition that the apostle Paul faced.
Then comes the real shocker. Paul describes Phoebe as “a helper of many, myself included” (Rom. 16:2). The Greek term for “helper” (prostatis) is defined by Douglas Moo as “one who came to the aid of others, especially foreigners, by providing housing and financial aid and by representing their interests before the local authorities.” Moo thinks Phoebe was “a woman of high social standing and some wealth, who put her status, resources, and time at the service of traveling Christians, like Paul, who needed help and support” (Romans, p. 916). When I first read that description I thought to myself, “He’s describing my wife!” Becky’s income from her employment as a registered nurse goes almost exclusively to help finance our work in Ethiopia, much as Jesus and the apostles had certain women who “were contributing to their support out of their private means” (Luke 8:3).
Such facts, it seems to me, begin to point to the function of marriage as a ministry to others. Becky and I are glad to be a team (though a frail and imperfect one) in the work to which the Lord has appointed us. Together we seek to serve both in the practical ministry of meeting the physical and material needs of people as well as in the ministry of the Word. Together we are involved in church planting. Together we host visitors in our home on a fairly regular basis. The key word is together. We are “co-workers” for Christ – and that without any diminution of our masculinity or femininity.
What, then, is my role as the head of our marriage? Jesus Himself answers our question. By humbling Himself to the point of death in His service for those over whom He was Lord, a husband is to place himself under the one he leads in service to her needs. Now let me make it quite clear that I am not an egalitarian. I believe an order exists between man and woman that is based on the creation account. This is clearly what Jesus taught. But let us go a step further. While a divine order exists in marriage, marriage is also a union of “fellow heirs of the grace of life” (1 Pet. 3:7). To put it another way, subordination does not in any way exclude mutuality. As head I am responsible to provide for Becky’s protection and her physical and emotional needs. But in addition, I am to help her identify her giftedness, facilitate the development of those gifts, and provide an opportunity for her to serve others. I claim, then, that each of us in our marriages can be faithful to our gender roles and still journey together as man and woman in full unity of service to others. It is in that sense that I ask the question, “Has your marriage died yet?” For it is only by dying to the self-life (and even marriages have a self-life) that we learn what it means to reflect a deeper ontology of living together for the good of others.
Let me repeat: I do not for one moment suggest that there is no enjoyment or pleasure in marriage or that being in love is inappropriate or sinful. All that I have been seeking to show is that love is more than a mere feeling and that marriage is more than a means of self-fulfillment. A marriage with “broader horizons” exists to serve Jesus. This means a willingness to open ourselves to God’s Spirit and the desire to render service in both public and private life.
I note, in closing, that I once read about a church in London that had a banner across the door that read, “JESUS ONLY.” After a windstorm the damaged banner read, “US ONLY.”
Which message is your marriage sending to the world?
August 9, 2007
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.