Essential Theology: Marriage

If you read the Church Times you may have seen Angela Tilby’s column from the 9th December issue urging clergy to avoid family-olatry this Christmas. It would have caught my eye at any time but I was particularly struck by her words as I have lately been putting much thought into my understanding of marriage and ministry and how a couple balances these two demanding callings. Rev Tilby argues that ‘Clergy and ministers today often seem to buy into a view of the family which is difficult to justify from the Gospels.’ I totally agree but would suggest that this is far more likely to be in the direction of neglecting the family due to idolatry of the ordained ministry than the other way around. Rev Tilby claims that thirty years ago the parish came before family at Christmas; I can imagine many clergy spouses thinking that the parish only coming first at Christmas would be a marked improvement on their clergy partner’s current working practice.

I worry that this column could give the impression that we are expected to believe that the clergy job comes before marriage. Especially when read in the context of a church environment which often sends this message to its clergy families. Some people are told it explicitly, others like me have received it implicitly – all it takes is someone questioning why your husband is taking his day-off to get the clear sense that his time spent in a dog collar is considered more important than time spent with his wife. Yet when I turn to the bible I struggle to find justification for such a view. Take Ephesians 5.25-33 for example:

‘Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy…husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no-one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church – for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery – but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you must also love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.’

Paul quotes Genesis 2.24 to try and express the mystery that the unity a man and woman find in marriage somehow corresponds to the unity of Christ with the church. As Tim Keller says, the gospel and marriage explain one another as both are about mutual fulfillment through mutual sacrifice. Marriage requires us to intentionally and intensely put the needs of our spouse before our own just as Christ sacrificed himself for his people. The Church of England marriage service expresses this deep significance:

‘Marriage is a gift of God in creation through which husband and wife may know the grace of God. It is given that as man and woman grow together in love and trust, they shall be united with one another in heart, body and mind, as Christ is united with his bride, the Church.’

When a couple model their life together on God’s self-giving love in Christ they are a living picture of the gospel message. As Tim Keller says, marriage is instituted of God for whom self-giving love is an essential attribute and therefore marriage reflects his nature. This is why the Christian ideal is that marriage be exclusive and lifelong to reflect the eternal commitment God has made to us. As Jesus says in Mark 10.8-9 ‘they are no longer two, but one. Therefore what God has joined together, let man not separate.’

This is why after God the first priority for all married people must be their spouse. If anything other than God is held in greater importance than our marriage we cannot possibly achieve the love, trust and unity which we are called to aim for. All other callings have to be worked out within the context of our marriage. To quote Tim Keller once again, he saw that in most troubled marriages he came across the problems stemmed ‘not from bad things but from very good things that had become too important. When some good thing becomes more engrossing and important than your spouse, it can destroy the marriage.’

How then do we understand the relationship between ordained ministry and marriage? For me it is important to understand that ordained ministry is just one way of doing God’s work and is no more important than any other work dedicated to building up the body of Christ. Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that every person and their gifts are of equal importance. If someone with the gift of prophecy became so preoccupied with this work that they neglected their spouse we would rightly think that they had taken a good gift and made an idol of it. Yet if an ordained minister does the same thing it is often seen very differently because deep down we think that what they do is more essential to the health of the church than anything else.

Another vital consideration is that 1 Peter 5.2-3 states that church leaders are to be an example to those they minister to. This means that clergy are committed to modelling a Christian life which is why when they are ordained they are asked whether they will ‘endeavour to fashion your own life and that of your household according to the way of Christ, that you may be a pattern and example to Christ’s people.’ God’s work is to be done in every aspect of the clergy person’s life which is why Johnna Fredrickson and William A. Smith argue that:

‘The work done by ministers outside of their ministry is also important for revealing Christ’s love to the world…There is a break between personal behaviour and the call to ministry when one’s life as a whole is not seen as integral to living out a baptismal ministry through ordained ministry.’

Such a break can be disastrous for both the marriage and the ministry. Michael Sadgrove points to the Kings of Israel, David and Solomon, as examples of how wrong things can go in public when the private person is not behaving in a godly way. Sadgrove argues that their stories show ‘that what we are in our personal lives and relationships is inextricably linked to what we are in our public lives and leadership roles…The consequences for public ministry of fracture in our personal lives are real and severe.’

Or as Andy Stanley puts it:

‘We [clergy children] know that what goes on at home is the litmus test of a man or woman’s walk with God, not how well he or she does once a microphone is strapped on.’

This applies to all clergy but for those who are married it means that neglecting their marriage will inevitably damage their ministry. Being a bad husband or wife is never justified, even if the reason for it is dressed up to look holy. When the marriage is neglected it distorts the vision of living as one in heart, mind and body. You are no longer keeping your promise to honour your spouse and forsake anything that might come between you. This neglect could only occur because of idolising something else and you can bet that if we are prioritising something over our marriage we are prioritising it over God too. The workaholism that comes from idolatry of ordained ministry has nothing to do with God and everything to do with the individual and their insecurities.

I believe that both the marriage and ordination vows require that the marriage takes priority. Spending time with their spouse is not keeping the clergy from doing God’s work in the parish but a crucial aspect of it. Their leisure time is just as important in building God’s kingdom as the time they spend in church. If we truly saw things from this theological perspective there would no longer be any guilt about taking time off work or spending time on activities which are not related to the clergy role. This quotation from a clergy wife writing to her husband will probably make sense to many clergy spouses:

‘You work for the Church, yet our family has never had a sacred time – a moment that only emergencies could interrupt. For a long time I accepted it. How could I question God’s work? He trumped me every time.’

This highlights the faulty theological thinking we all too often fall into, that clergy are only doing ‘God’s work’ when they are doing church work. God is not in competition with us for the attention of our spouse, idolatry of the work of ordained ministry is the true enemy. If the job is allowed to be idolised at Christmas you can bet it will be for the rest of the year too.

I am slightly nervous to publish this having been so forthright! Especially as when I told my other half that I was writing a post arguing that marriage takes priority over the job he declared this to be ‘controversial.’ Perhaps there are many people who would disagree with my theological reasoning or dislike my approach. Maybe things really were better in the good ol’ days when clergy wives got in line and let the job take priority (assuming this was ever truly the case) and us younger generations are just being self-indulgent. Yet having seen and heard all too often of clergy burnout, adultery and marriage breakdowns, I cannot help feeling that something is still fundamentally wrong in how at least some of the church approaches ordained ministry. Maybe there are clergy out there who indulge in family-olatry at Christmas or even all year round but I am yet to meet one; I wish I could say the same for the job-olaters.

Books referred to above and which also informed my thinking:

Being a Priest Today: Exploring Priestly Identity Christopher Cocksworth and Rosalind Brown, Canterbury Press 2002

Called or Collared? An Alternative Approach to Vocation Francis Dewar, SPCK 2000

Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend Andy Stanley, Zondervan 2012

How the Other Half Lives: the Challanges Facing Clergy Spouses and Partners Johnna Fredrickson and William A. Smith, The Pilgrim Press 2010

Public People, Private Lives: Tackling Stress in Clergy Families Jean and Chris Burton, Continuum 2009

The Meaning of Marriage Timothy Keller, Hodder and Stoughton 2011

Wisdom and Ministry: The Call to Leadership Michael Sadgrove, SPCK 2008




12 thoughts on “Essential Theology: Marriage

  1. Georgie,

    I think this is excellent and that you should send it to the Church Times – seriously! I agree with you that although there may be a few clergy like the ones Tilby mentions they are few and far between.

  2. I think that you are absolutely right in your argument, and have explained it very eloquently. I agree with Sarah that you should send it to the Church Times, although there are already some responses to Angela Tilby’s article on the letters page of today’s edition.

  3. This really is excellent Georgie, we are taught from an early age within the church that God doesn’t just want us on Sundays but in everything we do every day. But as soon as our OH is ordained, even if SSM and Part time, they are on duty every moment of every day and heaven forfend if they have difficulty coping as then the knives seem to come out!

    • Thanks! I am planning to write more posts looking at various theological issues for clergy and clergy spouses – one topic I want to cover is what it actually means to live as a Christian example and whether the expectation for clergy and their families to be perfect has any theological weight to it, as you say when we get things wrong this seems to produce responses from others which we would not expect towards other Christians. Watch this space!

  4. God, spouse + family, job – I think that’s the order for every Christian. And don’t give me the clerical piety that ordination is an extra-special “vocation”. You’re quite right, Georgie. Thank you for your post. Looking back over my ministry, too often I neglected my wife and family because of the “call of duty”. My wife used to observe that I arranged for parishioners or other clergy to phone just as the washing up began! We got an answerphone. However now vicars can be wedded to their mobiles rather than their spouses.

    • Thank-you for your comment Michael, I think getting the balance right is really hard, as a couple we’re still figuring out what it means to live with the calls to marriage, parenthood and ordination as well as all the other aspects of our lives. We make good use of the answerphone and my husband keeps his mobile phone turned off on his day-off and during holidays – I think it is seemingly small things like that which really help send the message that we are a priority for him.

  5. Thank you Georgie, this is really good. I’m a full-time ordained minister, married to a full-time professor and part-time minister with three children: we both have full diaries but prioritising each other and family has always been hugely important for us. I think you speak well , personally and theologically, into this debate. Hopefully Angela Tilbys article will have sparked enough comment for there to be some change /clarification of theology and practice in clergy priorities , so that God-family-church becomes the norm. Also, on behalf of my single colleagues and friends…they need to prioritise family/significant friendships too. The burden of ministry must never be passed from married clergy to single clergy simply because of that factor.
    Thanks for a well-reasoned and helpful piece.

    • Thank-you Bridget, I’m glad this resonated with you. I am also hoping that an official theology of marriage and ministry will be put forward one day – I was very frustrated when I discovered it didn’t already exist which is why I decided to put my theology degrees to work and think it through for myself! I totally agree that single clergy should not be expected to work more because they don’t have a spouse or children – they may well be at greater risk of over-working because some parishioners may see them as having no other claims on their time. It would be great to reach a point where no clergy person, single or married, felt they had to justify taking time off.

  6. I think the Eastern Orthodox churches do not permit clergy to marry. For this reason there are ordinands who delay ordination until after they got married which may create its own problems but the basic principle seems to be that the vocation to the married life must come first and so those ordained to the priesthood are either ordained as those who already have a vocation with which the new vocation must work or who will not have a vocation to the married life.

      • Yes, I think most unmarried clergy become monks and only unmarried clergy are appointed bishops. Actually, the Roman Catholic practice was the same with regard to marriage and ordination until the Council of Trent in 1563.

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