Marriage & Ministry: setting priorities
I’ve written before about we can think wrongly about competing priorities in life and it’s worth thinking that through again. There is a school of thought which ranks our roles in some kind of order and then uses that as a grid to process our lives. It goes something like this: I’m a Christian first (responsibility to God), husband second, father third, pastor fourth.
There are two problems with this. First, it’s theological twaddle. Second, if acted upon it would give rise to some very odd behaviours and priority setting. Frankly I would spend all my time on priority number one.
But back to the twaddle. It’s simply incorrect to set things that God calls us to do well against our responsibility to him. They are not two things. I’ve been helped with this by something Christopher Ash wrote which never made it into his larger marriage book, but which is nonetheless helpful. It’s worth repeating in full and you therefore get the bit of the book no one else has got.
“The double-command to love God and neighbour is a unitary command rooted in love for the one God; Deuteronomy 6 is in Paul’s thought here (Rosner 1994:164-6). There cannot be conflicting demands on us arising from this one demand, or else the universe is at war with itself. ‘Hardly could a more frightful thing be conceived than that there might be a collision between love for God and love for the persons for whom love has been planted by Him in our hearts’ (Kierkegaard, in O’Donovan 1994:226). O’Donovan uses a cricketing analogy: ‘God does not stand in line waiting his turn at the wicket, not even at the head of the line. Rather, he brings this or that neighbour to the head of the line, and demands our best attention for him. And at another moment, perhaps, he closes the wicket, sends the whole line away, and demands to inspect our books’ (O’Donovan 1994:233).”
You get the point. Practically what does that mean? I can tell you what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that priorities don’t matter. Oh my, do they matter! And we have to make wise and godly choices about how we spend our time so we can be godly pastors, fathers, husbands. But we don’t set these things off against one another as though they are competing priorities that never serve each other.
For each couple this will look different at different seasons and with different ministries. But a starting point for each couple is to surely list what God calls us to do (try to do that using biblical language) and then prayerfully and carefully evaluate the time, energy and focus you’re giving to each one.
That’s a start, at least.
Marriage & Ministry: some principles
What does the Bible say about marriage and ministry? Er, nothing. Not really. There is a lot about marriage of course. Guess what? All of it applies to ministry couples. There is a lot about ministry. Guess what? All of it applies to ministry couples. I won’t insult your intelligence by rehearsing all of this, other than to say ‘Physician, heal thyself.’ A good starting place is to take the things you so often teach others about marriage and about ministry and apply them closer to home. That’s where you get some foundational principles from.
But marriage and ministry? Is there anything precisely about this “explosive-or-glorious?” combination in Scripture? Well, the nearest we get is some rather perplexing stuff in 1 Corinthians 7. It’s not precisely about marriage and ministry but it articulates the key issue that is often at stake.
There Paul, writing in a personal capacity rather than as an authoritative Apostle, encourages people to remain single. Why? “I would like you to be free from concern” (v32). The reality is that unmarried man is “concerned about the Lord’s affairs” whereas the married man is “concerned about the affairs of this world – how he can please his wife.” There is a parallel statement for wives. Result? “His/her interests are divided.”
That all seems slightly perplexing. The “cares of this world” is a very negative sounding word, as though marriage is somehow worldly. Well, in one sense that is right, is it not? Paul has been setting marriage in an eternal context, looking forward to the second coming. In this sense, marriage is worldly – it belongs to this world only.
And we should not read Paul too negatively. After all, it is a good thing to be “concerned for the Lord’s affairs” – so we should not read the word “concern” negatively at all. In other words, Paul is making a straightforward and relevant point. Those who are married have to divide their attention. It’s a simple fact, and especially true to ministry couples for whom the affairs of the Lord loom large 24/7.
In other words, there is an inherent tension in any marriage, and especially in ministry marriages; a tension to which we need to apply gospel truths. But more of that tomorrow.
Marriage & Ministry: an introduction
Monday and Tuesday of this week, Mrs R and I are being joined by 11 couples escaping just for 24 hours to think and pray about marriage and ministry. Wallace and Lindsay Benn are doing the same thing with a different set of couples. Do pray for us all, please.
Our desire to see preaching flourish means this is an important investment for us, as we desire to see the marriages of those preachers who are married flourish. Mrs R and I have been thinking this through a lot, so for one week (and a day) only, here are some very brief thoughts. You won’t necessarily agree with everything, but our prayer is that our thoughts may stimulate some thinking of your own.
This is something that every married ministry couple should be doing on a regular basis. We meet lots of ministries which are undermined by ungodly (let’s call a spade a spade) marriage; and lots of marriages which are put at risk by ungodly models of ministry. It’s frightening. And there are, of course, the high profile failures. However, the reality is that even situations which don’t end in failure, but in which either marriage or ministry is being carried out in an ungodly way, are situations which we must not and cannot tolerate.
Moreover, this is something to which couples need to return again and again. Seasons of life change rapidly. Having had a house full of daughters and various hangers on, we’re now, effectively, parents of an only child. We always have to be thinking and evaluating.
So, sit back and enjoy the ride this week. Or, rather, you may not enjoy it, because searching and changing attitudes and practices is never a comfortable journey. But it is a necessary one. Are you ready?
Job swap anyone?
OK, not a serious suggestion, but here’s an interesting observation. The senior pastor of our East London, UK church is an American. I don’t think many people visiting would fail to spot that – though I guess some might suppose he’s from Canada. He has been in the UK over 25 years, so I guess he’s somewhat Anglicised. But among his many other qualities, he has this: in many ways he’s class-less. I mean that you can’t listen to him and say “oh yes, he comes from so and so a background” or “oh yes, he’s from such and such a place.”
I guess visiting Americans may spot it, but we are ignorant. I thank God that in his providence he’s given us such a pastor because in the cultural melting pot that is the East End of London, we have someone who appears to many to be culturally neutral. He’s not of course, for none of us is. But that’s how it appears.
Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that we all go for pulpit swaps, though if any readers are in the Florida Keys…. Nor am I suggesting we should be something we are not. Nor am I even suggesting that churches are not trained to accept those who are not like them, including leaders. No. No. No. And no again.
We can’t change much about ourselves, including our background. But we can think hard and work hard at how we appear to others. It’s always worth asking whether there is something about me that is in my control that is an offence to others, or even a stumbling block. I don’t know what it is myself, because I’m blind to my own cultural norms. But if I’m a brave preacher, I will want to know. And if it’s appropriate and within my control, I should want to do something about it.
It’s almost as good as a job swap.
In praise of McCheyne et al
The eagle eyed among you may have noticed I’m reading 1 Kings at the moment. That’s not just because we’re preaching through it in church, but because 1 Kings is one of the books of the moment in the McCheyne reading plan. These Bible-in-a-year plans get some bad press. And some of the criticisms made of them have some weight: for instance, you get so obsessed reading through the Bible, four chapters a day, that you never do any really serious study.
I happen to think that if Bible-in-a-year was your only method, you would end up having a pretty shallow faith. Where is meditation?
Nevertheless, they have an important place and I don’t want them written off too quickly – hence why I’m back with old Robert this year. For a preacher, there is no substitute, you see, for all round Bible knowledge. It doesn’t make a great preacher, but a lack of good Bible knowledge sure makes it hard to be one. When I visit other countries and cultures, I’m always convicted by the deep Scripture knowledge that exists. We have long neglected this discipline and it surely needs to be rekindled. If McCheyne can help, then I’m all in favour of Bible-in-a-year.
The detail of Old Testament narrative is fascinating. We all know Solomon was wise, for instance, but how wise? “Greater than all the people of the East.” Oh yeah. “Greater than all the wisdom of Egypt” Sure (1 Kings 4.30). “Wiser than anyone else…” – that just about sums it up. But wait, there’s a little more. “…including Ethan the Ezrahite”. What, even him? Yep. Oh, that wise!
Reading this through the other day, I couldn’t help but smile. And think. Why on earth did the powerful, all-knowing, all-wise Spirit, preserve this detail? Presumably he knew that Ethan would be long forgotten in the mists of time. As a comparison for us, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t add anything to “wiser than anyone else.” The point is already well made. Why do we need to know that someone is wiser than someone we don’t know?
You may have your own theories, but it seems to me that this detail reinforces the “real-ness” of the text. A made-up account might be bald and uncoloured. “He was wisest of all.” But this story is not made-up and it is deliberately coloured to make it real. We don’t know anything about Ethan and we don’t need to. His name is not there to invite us to make comparisons, but to nurture authenticity.
It’s always worth asking these questions in Old Testament narrative. We tend to take long passages, because we want to preach whole stories. That’s right and proper, but the danger is we miss the detail which brings colour to the text. If you were preaching 1 Kings 4, the temptation would be to sanitise the text. You might even do it in an engaging way. “Yep, wise dude, that Solomon. Top of the wisdom tree.”
But that seems to me to be doing an injustice to the text. You’ve flattened the colour and detail that God the Spirit has inspired. I’m not saying ignoring Ethan will make for an unfaithful sermon. Not at all. Nor am I saying that bringing him in is particularly easy. But if you believe in the inspiration of Scripture, I think you’ve got to at least have a go.
Understand the times
Mr Preacher, you’re a leader in the church. You may not be a formal leader (though you probably are), but the moment you’re in the pulpit, you’re a man with authority. I hope you understand that. This highly privileged responsibility brings with it an onerous responsibility – in fact, many such responsibilities. This week, I was struck by how the tone and analysis you give on the day’s events sets the tone and understanding for the whole congregation.
Most preachers reference news in some way. It’s a worthy thing, admirable even as we try to relate the timeless truth of God’s word to the situations in which we live. But there is a great danger in doing so: it is misunderstanding the times. I’m especially cautious of the kind of application of misunderstanding that whips people up. I don’t use such techniques in my preaching appeal (see 2 Cor 4.2). Nor should I in my illustrations,
Here’s a for instance. This week, the national and Christian press reported that a crematorium in Burnley was removing its cross from the main building so as not to offend non Christians (see here for story). In fact, that’s a very perjorative headline. More of the story in just a moment. But for now, can you see how a preacher could easily take the headline without any effort to understand the story and use it to illustrate, for example, the world in which we live. Go on Mr Preacher! Stir ’em up!
Well, of course, that’s not the whole story. The whole story, it seems, is that the cross is already removable and is routinely taken down for humanist ceremonies and whenever asked (I as a non conformist might do just that!). But so many people ask for it to be removed that now the crematorium will have it down by default and put it up when asked.The cross is to “be put in a cupboard”. Hmm. Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s a story there and a point to be made. It’s not that the story is neutral. It’s just not the headline people want to make it. And if you are not leading your people in understanding the times, you’re not leading your people at all.
Pastoral praying: trying something different
I don’t know about you, but I’m always battling to keep prayer times fresh. Pastoral praying, in particular, can quickly become stale. This is because it – by definition – works in a systematic way. If you’re going to pray for your people (and you must), then there’s no substitute for working through a list. That’s the only way you’ll pray for all those the Lord has placed for a time into your care. And, I would argue, it’s the kind of pastoral praying that will best inform your preaching. You don’t want to be just preaching to the sick and infirm, which you might subconsciously do if you are only praying for them. No, you want to be praying for those doing well as much as those struggling.
But this week, just for a week, I’ve tried something different. I’ve suspended my prayer list for a week and taken just five individuals and couples and tried to pray deeply just for them every single day. Not a kind of “and please bless Bob” prayer (which is what so much vacuous pastoral praying gets reduced to), but the heartfelt prayers of a loving pastor who wants to see his people flourish.
It’s not a sustainable pattern, because there are 200 others in the church who are left out. But as a short stint, it’s been good for me to really work through the implications of the gospel for them in my praying and it’s (as these things always do) rekindled my pastor’s heart. Why not give it a go?
No amazing conversion?
Perhaps your conversion is amazing. I know every conversion is miraculous – but perhaps, I mean, you were a terror before you became a Christian. Drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll. Some of us have stories like that. But the truth is many of us have conversion stories that are less spectacular (‘I can’t remember a time when I was not a believer’). I was converted aged 12 and I can’t really remember much of my life before that, apart from a few isolated incidents, including one very memorable run down the right wing for the school football team.
How do you treasure your conversion and continue to marvel at its miracle if that is the case? If you have a life of sin to look back on and see dealt with perhaps it is easier, at one level, to say ‘that is what I was, but by the grace of God…’ For those of us with less spectacular turnarounds, I think we treasure our miracle of grace less, or at least, there’s a real risk that we do.
The answer, of course, is to see our transformation in Bible terms, which means not just in terms of actions, but in terms of categories. I was dead. I was an enemy of God. My heart was utterly black. Before God I was deceitful above all things. A real appreciation of what we were in these categories does not require us to have to say ‘and I murdered someone’ (I exaggerate to make the point). If we really understood our hearts in Bible terms, we would never cease to be grateful for our own amazing, miraculous, grace-filled rescue and never cease to be preaching and praying tirelessly for the salvation of souls. In today’s ‘good’ world, it may just be a help not to have had such a miraculous conversion, because it forces us to see things as God sees them.
The fragility of the English Reformation: a lesson for today
I’ve just finished reading Philippa Gregory’s latest Tudor novel retelling the story of Katheryn Parr, The Taming of the Queen. I’ve not particularly got into any of her books in the past, finding them a little contrived. And, sure enough, this one had a few flaws. For one thing, I think she is keen to rewrite historical women to make them more 21st Century, as though Germaine Greer was herself in the court of the king. This is not just Gregory’s flaw: it’s common enough in historical fiction.
Amazingly, you don’t really need to do this with Queen Katheryn. She was an extraordinary figure anyway, producing a translation of the psalms and, after Henry’s death, an amazing book detailing her Protestant convictions (Lamentations of a sinner). Who knows what might have been had she lived beyond labour (she remarried shortly after Henry’s death). All this is true and her Protestant convictions well documented. However, Gregory has her as co-author of the Prayer Book alongside Cramner, something for which, as far as I am aware (and I would be happily corrected) there is not a jot of evidence (interestingly, in her author’s note, whilst she admits to licence in some areas, she does not do so in this one).
Gregory makes Katheryn stronger still by having her give a young and doting Elizabeth advice on how she must be a king for her nation, were she ever to become Queen. Neat, huh? I find it a little tiresome, I’m afraid.
But, overall, the book is excellent and captures the fragility of the Reformation in England. Henry is presented as a flawed monster, playing people off against one another to his own end rather than serving the cause of any faith. Unlike Gregory’s take on the Prayer Book, this is all well documented.
It’s good to be reminded that our heritage is not solid. The Protestant Reformation was very fragile, very fragile indeed. It could have faltered at many stages, and very often nearly did. It was – humanly speaking – highly dependent on the vagaries of individuals and rulers, often those with no care for biblical truth. And yet, here we are. God has been sovereignly good and we have benefitted from his merciful and gracious providence to bring us to this place.
And, we should remind ourselves, he continues to be just the same, yesterday, today and forever.