What about marriage?

Ben asked:

Jack, my desire is to be on the missions field as soon as possible! But right now, I have a question. You probably get this one often, but if not, you know we students and grads are thinking about it:

What about marriage?

I've been waffling back and forth between praising God for the gift of being single (especially with the freedom it provides to go to the ends of the earth for Him) and praying to Him about my desire to be married. But for the first time, it recently occurred to me that marriage could also be an incredible blessing to have on the mission field.

I'm not sure what the question is here - I think I'm just fishing for some insight. Thanks for this unique way you are serving!

Ben (name changed)

Jack Answered:

Hi, Ben:

You asked me about marriage and you put before us two options:

  • is singleness a liberty we should praise God for, "the freedom it provides to go to the ends of the earth for Him?"
  • is marriage "an incredible blessing to have on the mission field?"

Let me deal with them separately:

1) Singleness

Our Protestant heritage has by and large looked askance at celibacy perhaps as a reaction to the Roman Catholic insistence on it. However, we need to recognize that Paul not only recommended celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7 ("he who refrains from marriage will do better" - v. 38), but Patrick (4th Century missionary to Ireland), and the vast majority of the thousands of Christian missionaries up until the Protestant Reformation were all single.

Many Protestant pioneer missionaries who probed into uncharted areas (like China) discovered that children were a problem. They often had to leave them in schools thousands of miles from where they were working.

Others, like David Livingstone, lived as if they were single. He sent his wife, Mary, and their children to England while he explored Africa, where no European "had ever gone before." (Few know that Mary, daughter of Robert Moffett, also a pioneer missionary to Africa, suffered so deeply from her loneliness that she became an alcoholic.)

John Stott opted for singleness so as to be able to give himself more fully to the ministry. He saw this as a personal direction from the Lord, not a pattern for all. Viv Grigg, called to minister in the slums, noted the difficulty of raising a family in such a context.

My own son who lived in a slum in the Dominican Republic for a year, was told by his neighbors that if they continued there much longer their two-year-old daughter would certainly be abused. Eric Miller of InterVarsity's 2100 multimedia group who is on the move continually all over the world has noted that he could never do what he has done if he had been married.

2) Marriage

Most Protestant missionaries have been married and undoubtedly the majority, if not most, would testify that it has been "an incredible blessing" to be married and raise a family on the mission field. The Christian family needs modeling. Paul's command for husbands to love their wives and wives to respect their husbands is a universal one that fits into any culture.

My wife, Mary Anne, and I lived for 17 years in a large house in Bogotá, Colombia that was a student center. We lived on the second floor and prayed that our relationship to each other and as a family would be a positive illustration. From time to time comments from the students led us to believe that we were achieving our goal. (On the other hand, we have sometimes wondered if our children suffered from too much exposure to the ministry and their corresponding lack of privacy, even though they had their own rooms.) The history of many children of missionaries is impressive as to their positive contributions.

Let me summarize:

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul appears to base his answer on two issues:

  1. Context: he notes that his readers live in a situation of "impending crisis" (v. 26) which leads him to recommend singleness. He also adds the benefit of focus (v. 32-35) that singleness brings (freedom to concentrate on the Lord and His call to ministry).

    By extension we may see that an individual called into an extreme pioneering context or one of continued violence or someone who perhaps will be on the road most of the year might well ask if singleness would not benefit his or her ministry.
  2. Calling: Paul begins with the "bottom line" - "let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you" (v. 17). He recognizes that he cannot lay down a general rule for everyone, even though he has his own opinion (v. 40). He also frankly recognizes (v. 36) that not all have the gift of celibacy. For some it would be far better to be married.

    We do have the illustration of both the Apostle Peter, who traveled with a wife (I Cor 9:5), as well as Priscilla and Aquila, who operated as a husband and wife international church planting team. I note that the latter used their home as a locus for church meetings.

So, my brother, may the Lord guide you as you ponder some of these aspects and lead you step by step in His way.

In His Fellowship,



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