restoring our biblical and constitutional foundations


Sister Wife

 David Alan Black  

Once in a while in my reading I run across an essay that is so beautifully expressed, so magnificently written, that it defies explanation and I simply must quote it. Yesterday I stumbled upon an essay of this caliber in the latest issue of Neotestamentica (43/1, 2009). I hope your institution’s library subscribes to this journal so that you can read the essay for yourself. It is entitled “Married Women and the Spread of Early Christianity” (pp. 145-94), and the author is Christoph Stenschke of the University of South Africa.

Referring to the key passage of 1 Cor. 9:5, where Paul argues that he has the right, as do all of the apostles, to be accompanied by a “sister wife,” Stenschke notes the widespread presence of missionary couples in the early church. Moreover, he argues, there is no evidence that the women had lesser roles than those of their male counterparts. In his words, “it is unlikely that these ‘apostolic’ wives came along only to look after their husbands and to butter sandwiches!” Quoting Margaret Mitchell, he concludes that “Missionary pairs appear to have been a characteristic of a Christian movement from the beginning, initiated already by Jesus....” Priscilla is but one example of an early Christian missionary who was married.

In an age when so much that is written about marriage is verbally pedantic, emotionally searing, and intellectually predicable, it is refreshing to come upon a work in which passion and perspective outrun technique. Stenschke’s final paragraph is the perfect peroration. It reads as follows (p. 189):


At a time when some of the traditional churches of Christendom face decline, the NT references to married women and the spread of the faith are inspiring. While the dignity and calling of marriage was rightly re-discovered and emphasized by the Protestant reformation over against celibate monastic traditions (cf. Luther’s affirmation of marriage), the significance of ordinary women (and men) of whatever marital status for spreading and revitalising [sic] the faith needs to be re-discovered and emphasized. That this is not an easy task, accomplished on a bed of roses, is also clear in the NT.

This business of a Christian being willing to be used by God in any situation is what military commanders call an SOP – Standard Operating Procedure. There is nothing new or unusual about it. This is what God wants, this is what He is after – husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters in Christ, all working together so that the life and light of Jesus may become visible in a dying and dark world.

There is a power in this principle that is quiet yet relentless. Becky and I have discovered it in our own marriage. Where everyday men and women are willing to lay down their lives for others, nothing can stop their message. It is well-nigh irresistible! God doesn’t care a snap of His fingers about all of our missionary strategies and techniques. Traditions mean nothing to Him. What He wants is a heart that is His, and a body that is available to Him. Jesus made it clear that His real mother and brothers and sisters were those who listened to His teachings and put them into practice. It is a mistake to ignore the instructions of Jesus and the example of the early church in this regard. Many times young people have come to me asking what the secret of a long and happy marriage is, expecting me to recommend to them the latest book on Christian marriage. Instead, I have pointed them to 1 Cor. 9:5 and 1 Cor. 7:29. The church of today needs to recover its understanding and experience of the missionary dimension of marriage. Our business as Christian couples is to help establish the kingdom of God through humble service to others. This is not a kingdom that can be identified with a capitalist paradise any more than it can be identified with a Marxist utopia. It is the cross, not a crown, which is at the heart of a truly Christlike marriage.

In short, as General Sherman might have said, a marriage centered upon itself is hell, an appalling mockery of what being husband and wife can and should be all about, an awful, idiotic, irrelevant joke, even though it isn’t funny. I’m not going to try and diagnose the major causes of marital illness, but certainly an emphasis on self-fulfillment and self-identity is at the top of the chart. Every good marriage must be a partnership as well as a marriage. Husband and wife share not only eros but agape, not only desire but duty, but God holds them together in His hand and He does so in such a way that their marriage proclaims a great mystery – the love of Christ for the church. A Christ-centered, other-focused marriage fosters unselfishness. It provides unity in the midst of real differences and difficulties. It speaks not of “my” home but “our” home, not of “my” calling but of “our” calling to serve Christ together.

When I think of Becky, and when I think of the joys and trials we’ve faced together in 33 years of married life, there is one word that keeps coming to my mind: grace. C. S. Lewis, about a month after he lost wife to cancer, began making notes about his grief that culminated in what many consider to be his most powerful book, A Grief Observed, which was first published under a pseudonym. His eulogy brings before us a picture of what we might call a truly grace-filled marriage (p. 39):


For a good wife contains so many persons in herself. What was H. not to me? She was my daughter and my mother, my pupil and my teacher, my subject and my sovereign; and always, holding all these in solution, my trusty comrade, friend, shipmate, fellow-soldier. My mistress; but at the same time all that any man friend (and I have good ones) has ever been to me. Perhaps more. If we had never fallen in love we should have none the less been always together, and created scandal. That’s what I meant when once I praised her for her ‘masculine virtues.’ But she soon put a stop to that by asking how I’d like to be praised for my feminine ones. It was a good riposte, dear. Yet there was something of the Amazon, something of Penthesileia and Camilla.

If, my friend, you have a “sister wife” like Lewis had, and like I do, you may count yourself blessed among men.

December 9, 2009

David Alan Black is the editor of

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