We were on the mission field for less than six months when not just one, but two partnering families had to leave because of marital unfaithfulness. In both cases, the couples had been married for over a decade, had multiple children, and collapsed in moral failure. In one family it was the husband, and in the other it was the wife.
Like a punch to the gut these two failed marriages—between couples farther along than us in life and ministry—took our breath and collapsed our optimism. It’s brutal out here, we thought How are we going to make it?
The demise of those missionaries’ marriages was the demise of their ministries. Worship services ground to a halt. Their disciples lost faith in them. Some lost faith in the Lord. Their Christianity lost its luster. Lights went out. Mission buildings grew dark.
Sobered and even frightened, my husband and I observed the shrapnel. The bottom line was: without unity, their marriages and their ministries failed.
OUR MINISTRIES ARE AS DIVERSE AS WE ARE
Not everyone is an overseas missionary, but every Christian is called to be in ministry. Jesus was clear that the two greatest commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors (Matt. 22:34-40). In whatever context the Lord has placed us, we are commanded to love those around us. We are called to be the salt of the earth, a city on a hill (Matt. 5:13-16).
Our ministries may be formal or informal, highly structured or the outgrowth of natural relationships. They are as diverse as we are. Christian ministers can be found in prisons and preschools, in food banks and on Fifth Avenue, across the street and across the globe, on college campuses and on preschool playgrounds, inside the church and inside the workplace, in the city and on the rural plains.
But ministry that is pursued by a married couple requires unity. Nothing derails the mission quite like disunity.
A CORD OF THREE STRANDS AND A HOUSE DIVIDED
The party favors at our wedding twenty years ago read: “A cord of three strands is not easily broken” (from Eccl. 4:12). The words were a celebration of our three-way relationship that includes my husband, myself, and God. With God at the center of our relationship and with his grace covering us, we prayed our union would be a strong cord.
The opposite of the cord of three strands is the house divided. Jesus said, “no city or house divided against itself will stand” (Matt. 12:25). And so it is in marriage: a husband and wife divided against one another will not stand. The division will grow and fester and bring their marriage down along with their ministry.
In fact, it’s not just ministry that’s affected by a couple’s disunity but all their missional endeavors. And when you’re a Christian, isn’t all of life a missional endeavor?
Disunity will scar how a husband and wife spend their money, their time, and their vacation. Disunity will scar how they educate their children, whether they grow their family by fostering or adoption or biologically, where they attend church, where they live, where they spend the weekend, and where they do ministry. It scars every effort to love God and love neighbor.
UNITY IS FOR THE MISSION
When our pastor married us, he proclaimed these wise words: “A good marriage isn’t two people standing face to face, gazing into one another’s eyes. Rather, a good marriage is two people, standing side by side, gazing ahead at what God has for them.”
Marriage is not an end in itself but the means to an end. Namely, the mission of God. And God’s mission is to make himself known.
Our marriages are made for mission. While the Christian marriage is likely full of benefits for both parties, it is not primarily designed to benefit both parties. It is meant, first and foremost, to put Christ on display (Eph. 5:32).
Like the entirety of our lives, our marriages are meant to glorify God. Our story fits into his greater story.
FIVE WAYS TO PURSUE UNITY THROUGH MISSION
How easy it is for Christians husbands and wives to grow apart from one another. We naturally drift towards our own preferences, our own visions, our own goals. Opportunities for division and independence and self-seeking pop up every hour of every day.
How, then, can we maintain unity? How can we pursue one another as we pursue the kingdom? Here are five ways from the Bible to seek unity in marriage so we stay on mission.
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. In the context of telling the Ephesians to make the best use of their time during the days of evil, Paul instructed them to encourage one another with psalms and hymns and truth, and to also submit to one out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21). We should submit to our spouses because we revere the Lord—not because they deserve it, not because they’re infallible spouses, and not because we’re excellent spouses—but simply because it’s one way we can worship the Lord. Mutual submission is for Jesus’ sake, not ours.
Maintain an eternal perspective. Paul told the Corinthians, “the appointed time has grown very short . . . For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:29, 31) and also, “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor. 4:17). This lifetime is brief, but our reign in heaven will be eternal. We can take heart knowing that our days and trouble on earth are temporary, but eternal glory awaits. This life is a mist (Jas. 4:14), so let’s offer ourselves as living sacrifices for God’s glory (Rom. 12:1).
Remember Christ’s rescue and unconditional love. Meditating on Ephesians 2:1-10 brings both humility and gratitude to even hardened hearts. When weathering disunity, Christian spouses will do well to remember that while we were Christ’s enemies, while we were walking in our trespasses, while we were children of wrath, Christ died for us. We were sweetly saved by grace through faith and none of us can boast. This merciful and pursuing love reminds us all that we need the unconditional love of our Father in heaven. And because we have freely received it, we can freely give it. Just as Jesus has loved us, so we are to love one another (John 13:34).
Know that true life is found in laying yours down. Jesus told his disciples the hard but true words: “ For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it” (Mark 8:35). The more Christian husbands and wives seek to preserve themselves, to push for their own visions and goals, to demand their way above their spouse’s, the more they will lose their own lives. Jesus says if we want to find true life, we must lay ours down for his sake and for the sake of the gospel. As we give up our own preferences, as we submit to one another, both Jesus and the gospel are elevated, and we find true life.
Believe that the Spirit will empower you. Finally, we must remember God “is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Eph. 3:20). The power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in the believer (Rom. 8:11). As we submit ourselves to the Lord and beg him to change us from the inside out, he will. God is able. He stands ready to bring himself “glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever” (Eph. 3:21). God will empower us to lay down our lives to seek unity in kingdom pursuits.
May we choose our spouses over ourselves. May we remember that our marriages are meant to glorify Jesus. May we pursue unity at all costs, so that Christ’s name is lifted high and we are enabled and empowered to go after kingdom pursuits. May we find true life as we lay ourselves down for our spouses and for the kingdom.
May we remember that marriage is for mission.
Jen Oshman is a wife and mom to four daughters and has served as a missionary for nearly two decades on three continents. She currently resides in Colorado where she and her husband serve with Pioneers International, and she encourages her church-planting husband at Redemption Parker. Her passion is leading women to a deeper faith and fostering a biblical worldview. She writes at www.jenoshman.com.