missions

Marriage vs. Missions

by Will Jackson

“Should I marry or should I devote my life to missions?”

In serving a local church in a college town, I hear this question asked a lot. As students are being saved, experiencing growth, and processing their futures, specific passages of Scriptures can be very gripping. 1 Corinthians 7 is one such passage that presents a host of marriage-related issues to its readers.  Specifically, 1 Corinthians 7:25-35 often causes young Christians to consider Paul’s wisdom that the married person is “anxious over worldly things” instead of “things of the Lord”—a gut check for the one desiring marriage. I’ve seen engaged couples begin walking through premarital counseling come across this passage and think, “oh no!” and question everything about their upcoming nuptials. 

This brings us to the question at hand for the person feeling guilty about his or her desire for marriage — “Should I marry or should I devote my life to missions?”

The Apostle Paul seems to answer, “ . . . yes, maybe.”

PROHIBITION VS. PROMOTION

If we consult Paul in 1 Corinthians 7, we see less of a prohibition against marriage and more of a universal promotion of Great Commission activity. Verses 25-35 read: 

“Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”

Where do we start?

First, we know Paul was certainly an advocate for marriage. He is, after all, the biblical author most quoted at  Christian weddings. When we think of classic passages concerning roles in marriage, we go to Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3—both authored by the Apostle. Paul especially shows a high regard for marriage in the way he illustrates Jesus’ relationship with his bride—the church. Seemingly, however, Paul speaks harsh words about holy matrimony in this particular passage. 

But upon a closer look, we find that Paul is not making a theological statement when he “speaks against marriage” in 1 Corinthians 7, as Paul’s theology of marriage is founded on the celebration of marriage in Genesis 2. Instead, he is making a contextually practical one.

Let’s dive in.

The Oxymoron of a Married Bachelor

We first notice a potential contradiction in Paul’s argument when he says “it is good for a person to remain as he is” in verse 26 (i.e. to stay married or stay single). However, he says later, “let those who have wives live as though they had none” in verse 29.  Stay married but live like a bachelor . . . ?

I think verse 28 brings helpful clarity to see there is no contradiction at all: 

“But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.”

It would seem that when Paul identifies the need to “live as though they had [no wife]” in verse 29, he assumes an audience that was typified by distracted marriages. See also his words in verses 32-35 in which Paul speaks to the way many married persons are “anxious about worldly things” within their marriage and are “divided from their devotion unto the Lord.” That is to say, throughout Paul’s journeys, he had likely witnessed more marriages that were all-consumingly-inward rather than Great-Commissionly-outward. Therefore, this present encouragement—to live as a married bachelor—is presented with a bit of hyperbolic flare.

Christians in the first century, whether married or not, needed continual re-centering as disciples of Jesus. Whereas they were new creations regenerated by the Spirit-empowered gospel, they remained weak vessels prone to stray from the path. Here, in 1 Corinthians 7, we see another example of Paul recalibrating Christians for the sake of kingdom advancement.

This recalibration brings us to our second observation. While Paul was undeniably an advocate for earthly marriage, he was even more so a herald for Jesus’ Second Coming.

Notice the emphasis provided in the phrases within verses 26, 29, and 31: “view of the present distress” (v. 26), “appointed time” (v. 29), “present form of this world” (v. 31). Each of these draws into mind the New Testament principle that Christians are living in the “last days” (see Acts 2:17, Heb. 1:2, 2 Tim. 3:1).  Universally, it would seem, the apostles took seriously the command to live in anticipation of Christ’s return. Jesus himself said he would come swiftly and without warning. Therefore, his disciples were not to delay in the completion of their task (Matthew 24-25).

The call is simple. Jesus is coming back, and he has called his disciples to maximally pursue the Great Commission until he does.

This is Paul’s framework for the appeals on marriage and singleness in 1 Corinthians 7.

It isn’t that Paul saw marriage as an absolute obstacle to missions. Instead, he wanted his readers to understand that marriage and singleness must be understood through the lens of Jesus’ calling first to be Great-Commission-Christians. In other words, in light of this fading present age, do whatever propels your devotion to the expansion of Christ’s kingdom. For some, this will be a green light to marry; for others, a life of singleness will best serve the Lord. Marriage and missions are not competing entities in God’s economy.

Maximally Pursue the Great Commission

So, where do you find yourself? Are you single and ready (or not ready) to mingle? Dating and considering engagement? Happily married? Widowed?

With whatever the Lord has gifted you, maximally pursue the Great Commission. Consider these warnings and perform a quick assessment of your life:

To the one presently gifted with singleness…

  • Don’t believe the lie that singles are second-rate people. It may be cliché, but two of Christianity’s heroes were single. One is responsible for the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles and the other—well, we worship him as God. Your life is not incomplete because you aren’t married—for we know our true selves will be made manifest when Jesus returns to resurrect us—as eternal singles.

  • Don’t believe the lie that your life is more expendable. It may be logical for the one with no responsibilities to care for family members to travel to the most dangerous parts of the world to share the gospel, but it isn’t because that person is “less valuable.” When we consider the cost of following Jesus (“to live is Christ, and to die is gain,” Philippians 1:21), we are reminded this applies to all Christians.

  • Don’t believe the lie that singles can only reach singles. Continue to build relationships with people from all walks of life and widely share the gospel, invest in younger believers, and participate in the mutual edification of all types of saints.

  • Don’t believe the lie that marriage is evil. You may well be called to marriage. Heed Paul’s wisdom provided in the rest of 1 Corinthians 7. Are you (appropriately and in step with Christian holiness) burning with passion? Has God presented a suitable companion with whom you can better walk with Christ? Maybe you should marry.

To the one presently gifted with marriage…

  • Don’t believe the lie that being married means you must throw up a white picket fence on Elm Street. You and your spouse can be mobilized together to virtually any place on the planet to spread the Good News.

  • Don’t believe the lie that you and your spouse must operate with two independently separate ministries. This is a big one. Indeed, one spouse may directly invest in persons the other spouse has little contact with, but being married means the two are now one. As such, a Great-Commission marriage is a joint effort. When one spouse mentors someone in the gospel, they do so as an extension of the couple’s ministry as a team.

  • Don’t believe the lie that married couples can only reach married couples. Marriage can be such a beautiful display of the gospel—namely in its rhythms of repentance, forgiveness, and mutual self-sacrifice. Invite singles into your home and be vulnerable for the sake of celebrating Christ’s love.

  • Don’t believe the lie that marriage is evil. You didn’t make a mistake when you said your “I Do’s” and to undo this covenant would be sinful. God, in His perfect providence, arranged your marriage. Congratulations! Because you are married, you successfully found the one for you and it would seem God gave you into marriage so that you would be a better missionary. Maximize your marital union for the Great Commission.

The call to give our lives for the spread of the gospel to the nations supersedes our marital status, but we shouldn’t view these as mutually exclusive. Live where the Lord has you. Give your life for His higher purposes. As Paul said, “secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”


Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. 

Feature image by IMB.

Researching Your City

by Lisa Hoff

It was a blustery January morning when I hailed a cab to take me across town. I had only been in the city for a few days and was anxious to meet people in the community and explore new neighborhoods. It was clear the driver knew the city well, so I asked him about an imposing building that caught my eye. He told me it was a church. I was surprised by his response because I had heard that few people in this area were familiar with Christianity. 

When I asked him what they did at the church, he said they held lots of parties, including a big get together last month. I thought he was probably referring to a recent Christmas Eve service, so I asked if he knew about Christmas and that it was a celebration of Jesus’s birth. He said that he knew of Jesus and was familiar with the meaning of Christmas. I was encouraged by his response until he said “Yeah, I really love Jesus’s white beard and his red suit.” In that moment, my excitement waned as I realized that, to him, Jesus was really Santa Claus. 

Informative Research

My initial discussion with the taxi driver seemed to indicate that he had at least a cursory exposure to Christianity. However, as the conversation progressed it became clear that his knowledge of Christmas and Jesus was not based on exposure to Scripture but on general observation or cultural interpretation. My follow-up questions provided an opportunity to assess his spiritual condition and learn more about his understanding of faith issues. 

This conversation highlights the importance of conducting onsite research to better understand a city and her people. Gathering information through conversation and observation provides a deeper understanding into the worldview, values, and inner workings of a community. When ministry decisions are based on research findings rather than assumptions or personal preferences, there is greater potential for Kingdom impact. 

Although some ministry leaders see research as unnecessary, cumbersome, and time consuming, when done well, it ultimately leads to a more efficient and effective ministry. Research does not need to be complicated, just organized and clear. To better understand a city, it is important to know how to ask good questions and have a grasp on the way a community defines and utilizes space. 

Outsider and Insider Perspectives 

Many are aware of the importance in doing preliminary research before visiting or moving to a new city. A person may scour the internet for information, read a few books, or even talk to people who have visited there before. All of this is helpful in preparation for engaging people and cultures who may not share the same belief system, values, or lifestyle. 

There are limitations, however, to gathering information in this manner.  Data is interpreted through the lens of those who collect it, analysis techniques vary, and resources do not always answer specific questions an individual may have about the needs of a community. Statistics and numbers can also be skewed because of undocumented or transient peoples or because there are government restrictions about what information is made public.

In a rapidly changing world, many printed resources become quickly outdated. This is particularly true regarding topics like urbanization, cultural change, and societal attitudes. It is therefore important for ministry leaders to know how to do onsite research to gain an understanding of a people or place. Observations and interviews can provide particularly valuable information on what influences a community to relate and act in a specific manner. 

Good data gathering and analysis is comprised of both insider and outsider perspectives. Insiders are a part of the community and are familiar with the inner workings that motivate behavior and values. They have unique access to information but may also struggle to understand the bigger picture because they are deeply immersed in the culture. Outsiders bring a greater emotional distance to a context and may be able to better identity more broad trends that are taking place. Because outsiders are not part of the societal fabric, they are often trusted with information that an individual may not feel comfortable sharing with a member of their own group.  

Spaces

Another way to learn about a community is through its use of space and place. Communal values and social practice are reflected in how people utilize their surroundings and the meaning they assign to it. On a recent trip to a European city, I walked into an unfamiliar restaurant and immediately knew that this was a gendered space meant only for men. No one had to tell me, all I had to do was observe that no women were present in this establishment that catered to immigrant workers from North Africa. Many times, limitations or boundaries on space and place are not articulated, just simply understood by insiders within the community. 

Spaces are categorized as open, semi-accessible, or closed. Understanding these different categories can be instrumental in facilitating informed ministry research. In open spaces, like a city square, there is no permission needed to just sit, watch, and interact with people. If an individual is new to a community or has language challenges, this is an easy place to begin learning. Semi-accessible spaces are not open to everyone and require affiliation or payment for access.  A fenced off community playground or a coffee shop are two examples of this. Closed spaces are the most restrictive and require a deeper level of relationship or a specific invitation to be there. These spaces include homes and offices which reflect more intimate or important aspects of people’s lives. In these locations, some individuals may feel more comfortable and willing to have personal conversations.

Conclusion

Onsite data collection can be done by anyone. All it requires is few basic research tools, a genuine desire to understand a community, and collecting relevant information. The result is a more well informed ministry that effectively meets the needs of people and expands God’s Kingdom around the world. 

Lisa Hoff is an associate professor of intercultural studies at Gateway Seminary. Her doctoral research focused on rapid urbanization and its influence on social dynamics. She lived in Asia for many years where she conducted ethnographic research projects.

Featured image by IMB.