Embracing the Biblical Tension Between Family and Church Ministry

“What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 19:6b).

When Jesus spoke those words, he was referring to marriage. But in the wisdom of God, these words also apply to the relationship between our families and our ministries.

As my friend Mike Bullmore says, God has a design for your family and ministry so that faithfulness in the family enhances faithfulness in the church, and faithfulness in the church enhances faithfulness in the family.

These callings can seem to be in tension with one another, but it is a dynamic tension in which we can experience God’s goodness. God never separates the assignments he gives us from his sanctifying process in us. He is at work within your family ministry to sanctify you for your church ministry—-and he is at work within your church ministry to sanctify your family.

Eldership Is a Familial Role

We read in 1 Timothy 3 that an elder’s relationship to his family is a prime arena for testing his ministry qualifications. An elder is called to reflect Christ’s love for his Bride in fidelity to his wife. He is to be “the husband of one wife,” or a one-woman man (1 Tim. 3:2). Furthermore, “He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?” (1 Tim. 3:5).

In short, the home is a training ground for ministry in the church. In our ministries within our families, we gain the experience necessary for shepherding God’s family. A man must have his own house in order if he is to faithfully manage God’s household.

The word “manage” should not be read in a sterile, business-like sense. Rather, it conveys the idea of caring, concerned nurture—-the type of care and concern a father has for his children and a husband has for his wife.

I was helped by Phil Ryken’s observation that the word Paul uses to express “care” (epimeleomai) for God’s church is rare in the New Testament. The word is used only one other time, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where we read:

But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him (epimeleomao) (Luke 10:33-34).

So an elder’s management of the church should resemble the care exemplified by the Good Samaritan, as Ryken explains:

The Samaritan is a beautiful example for fathers and elders. Taking care of people always demands sacrifice. It includes pity, healing, and embrace. Doubtless the Samaritan had his own busy schedule with a long list of things he needed to get done. But good neighbors—-like good fathers and good elders—-are willing to be inconvenienced by other people’s problems.

 The familial nature of gospel ministry is beautifully reflected in Paul’s pastoral care for the Thessalonian church. No single metaphor suffices to convey the way he ministered among them—-he was both father-like and mother-like in his care.

We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.

Like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and changed you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory (1 Thess. 2:7-9, 11-12).

 Our families represent God’s work in redeeming us. God takes a Bride for himself. He is a Father who seeks and gathers his rebellious children and adopts us into his family. Thus, those who have been called to lead God’s church need to exemplify the familial nature of the gospel in the way we minister. Your family serves as a living model to God’s people to display something of God’s tender care, strong leadership, and covenant fidelity. Through our work at home we learn to faithfully serve God’s church; and by God’s grace, our faithful service in his church helps to nurture and deepen our care for his “little flock” in our own homes. It’s impossible to separate faithfulness in ministry from faithfulness in the home.

The Wisdom of God in Designing a Dynamic Tension

The biblical teaching on this is clear—-but trying to work it out in our lives can get murky. There are two equally perilous pitfalls we need to avoid.

1. Sacrificing family on the altar of ministry.

Eli in the book of 1 Samuel is a sobering illustration. By failing to honor God in the discipline of his sons, Eli lost both his sons and his ministry.

A recent article in The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Towers magazine illustrates that the danger is no less threatening today. But in my own observation, I think a second pitfall is even more tempting in our day. It can appear noble, but it’s just as harmful.

2. Idolizing family to the neglect of ministry.

It’s possible for someone to be so “committed” to his family that he doesn’t labor faithfully and sacrificially in ministry.

If we come to terms with Jesus’ radical call to discipleship, we will have to embrace the fact that ministry requires a life of joyful sacrifice, and our families have been called to share in that sacrifice.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and however loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Matt. 10:37-39).

Both these pitfalls—-sacrificing and idolizing family—-spring from a common error: they see ministry and family as taking from one another instead of enhancing one another.

What if, instead of bristling at the inherent tensions between our ministries in our families and ministries in the church, we embraced the fact that this is a healthy tension? Indeed, there are many situations when doing God’s will involves tension. A “balanced” Christian life still involves tension, fatigue, and difficult decisions. If we expect anything else, we will inevitably experience frequent frustration.

A wiser course is to embrace the tension as healthy, and to believe that God’s goodness is at work in the tension. How? By believing that our families belong to God to be freely submitted to him to be used for his purposes, to glorify his name through the advancement of the gospel of his Son. There is a way to walk faithfully in your responsibilities to our families and still “spend and be spent in the service of our bountiful Master.”

Your ministry and family are not designed by God to take from one another, but rather to enhance one another. You do not separate your life as a husband and father from your life as a pastor—-in fact, you believe that through your ministry as a husband and father, God is using you to shepherd your church, and through your shepherding of the church God is equipping you to build up your family.

Think of the Old Testament prophet Hosea for a startling example of how a family situation modeled God’s work. Through his painful marriage, Hosea compassionately felt and eloquently articulated the brokenhearted love of God to his unfaithful people. They could see in Hosea’s faithfulness to Gomer a visible illustration of God’s unfailing love toward them. Hosea’s marriage was part of God’s kindness in leading his people to repentance.

Joshua’s statement is more typical: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15). Stuart Briscoe helpfully suggests that this statement is a paradigm for we should view the relationship between our ministries in our families and our ministries in our churches. He writes:

This statement assumes that a believing household will embrace “Service” as a dominant life principle. Furthermore, service as a dominating principle will inform the minds, govern the attitudes, and motivate the actions of the whole household. The family then becomes not a self-serving entity primarily concerned with its own well-being—-which is not unimportant of course!—-but a committed community in which service and sacrifice for a cause even greater than the family becomes cohesive and normative. In this way, ministry ceases to be a threat to the family, and the family no longer sees itself as an alternative to ministry. Rather, the family becomes the arena in which ministry thrives and ministry becomes the environment in which the family matures.

Maturing Family and Thriving Ministry

I’m thankful my marriage to Kate and our parenting of our three children—-now 18, 16, and 12—-have all taken place in the context of an active ministry in a local church. We’ve learned in the process that our family is not the center of the universe—-God is. At times the demands of ministry have pressed upon our family; but rather than taking from us, the ministry has enhanced us by giving us opportunities to count others more significant than ourselves (Phil. 2:3).

I’m also thankful for the many ways fathering has taught me patience and gentleness, which I’m constantly in need of cultivating in my life as a pastor.

I rejoice in the many ways God has used the body of Christ to develop and to train me as a father and a husband. I remember well in the early years of our ministry how one of our elders came to our home regularly and prayed for us. He was the elder assigned to oversee our youth ministry, but instead of demanding an inventory for how the ministry was going, he was always more concerned about how we were doing as a couple, how our children were doing, and what God was doing in us spiritually. Recently I sat down with one of our elders and shared some of my fears and concerns about parenting, and the words of encouragement he shared with me that morning were both instructive and hope-giving.

I’m grateful for how my marriage has taught me to love the bride of Christ. On January 29, 2010, just a month after celebrating my wife’s 40th birthday, we were shocked to discover that she suffered from a rare and advanced form of cancer. My faithful wife and dearest friend was already in an oncological emergency by the time we discovered it, and the following year was spent in an aggressive battle against the disease, including a major surgery to remove her right lung.

I’ll never forget walking into her room in the ICU the evening of her day-long surgery. She was at her absolute weakest physically, but she’s never been lovelier to me. When I saw her, the words of the Song of Solomon described how I felt: “You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you” (Song 4:7). That’s how God will view his people, clothed in the spotless robes of righteousness, when we stand before him “guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:8).

As my wife suffered, our love for one another flourished. So did our love for Christ’s church. If this love we share as husband and wife even faintly echoes God’s eternal, unchangeable, covenant love for his people, then his love is “vast as an ocean.”

When we discovered Kate’s cancer, we were in the midst of the most significant ministry transition of our lives. Only two weeks earlier, our elders had met with the elders of another church to begin considering whether it was God’s plan for our two churches to unite together to form a new church in our community. I remember my first thoughts as I sat in the emergency room: there’s no way this conversation should go forward now—-not with everything we’re going to be facing as a family.

Then our dear friends, Pastor Mike and Bev Bullmore, came to the hospital to visit us. When I shared with Mike my reluctance to continue the conversation about the church merger, Mike looked intently into my eyes and said, “David, what God has joined together, do not separate.” He told me that God had a design for my family and for my ministry so that these two would enhance one another. Our experiences of God’s sustaining grace over the past two years have only served to prove the wisdom of those words.

Is the digital age making us foolish?

Do you feel yourself becoming more foolish the more time you spend scrolling on social media? You’re not alone. Addictive algorithms make huge money for Silicon Valley, but they make huge fools of us.

It doesn’t have to be this way. With intentionality and the discipline to cultivate healthier media consumption habits, we can resist the foolishness of the age and instead become wise and spiritually mature. Brett McCracken’s The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World shows us the way.

To start cultivating a diet more conducive to wisdom, click below to access a FREE ebook of The Wisdom Pyramid.