When we were first married, we both sensed a call to full-time ministry, and this calling did not disappear when we had our child. We wrestled with questions like “How does a called couple organize its life to fulfill both callings to minister without costing it its family?” and “How exactly does such a couple balance familial and professional responsibilities?” For some Christians, the answer is that God always calls only the husband to work; wives are to be homemakers and stay-at-home mothers. For egalitarians attempting to pursue God’s call on both spouses’ lives with equal diligence, the solutions may not be so simple.
Of course, every family situation is different, and God does not call every egalitarian woman or man to full time work or ministry outside the home, as God has us. Yet, we believe that what we’ve learned in our years of marriage has applications across different relationship contexts. Forty-one years of marriage have taught us that by pursuing a healthy model of marriage and then making intentional efforts to prioritize family and relationships, we can serve God effectively in whatever capacity God calls us.
The apostle Paul describes the Christian life as a foot race (1 Cor. 9:24). In this technological age, many married Christians’ lives can be depicted as a long distance auto race with periodic pit stops for refueling and repair. So, we see four basic models of marriage, which can be symbolized by four different types of race courses and pit stops.
In the self-centered model, each spouse has a totally different race course and they meet only between races. Sometimes, they may even decide to live in different places until eventually they wonder why they are married! We knew just such a couple when we were in seminary. She was a student in New Jersey, he was working in Europe. They kept regular communication, but eventually they drifted apart. Such separation may be necessary at times, but is this God’s ideal long-term model? “Traditional” or patriarchal model In the so called “traditional” or patriarchal model, the husband runs the car. He is the driver. At the pit stop, the wife and children are waiting and they run out to service the car and driver. The husband decides what is best for the family. What is best for the husband is assumed to be God’s will for the family. Is this what God intends—one of every several Christians working while the rest stand by and mainly watch and wait to serve the chosen one?
The pioneer model is the truly traditional model. The whole family is in the car, the husband might drive, while the wife checks the map, and the children each have their job in maintaining part of the car. At the pit stop, the whole family jumps out of the car and services it and the driver. Generally, the family divides tasks by gifts—spiritual and natural.
The pioneer model is typical in contexts where economic need demands the participation of all family members. It is what appears to have existed in the first century, where husband and wife had different roles but, with the children, all ran the household.
Mutual submission model
In the mutual submission model, the driver changes. At the pit stop, the rest of the family services the car and the current driver. The family divides tasks by gifts and also alternates responsibilities. Christ is the direct head of the family, owner of the car (and the race course, too!).
What is mutual submission? It is putting the other person first and cooperating with others as they fulfill their roles. It is, as well, relying on one’s spouse’s strengths and one’s children’s strengths, as they are able.
Our values as egalitarians should affect not only the model we pick, but also the way we structure our lives. Dialogue with one another. Make your roles as clear as possible. Also, each family member needs to decide what is most important: ambition or relationships? Is it to succeed in work or to succeed in relationships? A key question for each to ask is: Are you willing (if able) to delay approval from your employer, if necessary, to further familial relationships?
We do not intend to discourage industry in work. Each of us should always do our best. But at times, the cost of discipleship may affect not only what we say and do, but also how we structure our lives. John teaches us in 1 John 4:8–16 that “God is love” and Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13:1–3: “If I succeed as the greatest speaker in tongues or the greatest prophet or the greatest giver to the needy, but I do not put a priority on loving others, I am a failure” (paraphrased). Christianity involves a justified relationship with our creator, and if we want to encourage others to join us in this communion, then relationships should be very important to us.
Here are seven suggestions we have found helpful for succeeding in our family and relationships, while still being able to do well in our work:
Schedule your work so as to allow space for family (and relationships). Families with children should try to make their work environment as family friendly as possible. Watch out for too much traveling away from each other because it may bring temptation, as well as distancing to the relationship. When Aída first began working as a professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, her goal was to prioritize her family. After explaining this to the dean, she carefully planned her class schedule in a way to maximize time on campus as well as time home to plan lectures and be present with our then preschool son. By being proactive about planning her schedule, she was better able to balance work and family obligations.
Schedule time off every day and every week to allow space to develop your relationships with family (and, especially if single, with friends). When our son was younger, we went out together as a family once a week, and once a week we parents had a date. Now that our son Steve is an adult with his own life and home, we empty nesters go out twice a week and still have recreational times with our son whenever possible. We have noticed that if we do not rest, we more easily get sick.
3 Avoid competition
Do not compete with each other, your children, or other Christians. Each of us has different strengths and weaknesses, and these are meant to work together, not to compete. In a book we once read on egalitarian marriage, the wife mentioned that she liked to compete with her husband. We wondered how they could manage it. Later, we discovered, they divorced, so it did not work for them! 1 Corinthians 12:26 counsels, “if one member suffers, all the members suffer together; if one member is glorified, all the members rejoice together.” There is no room for competition if we are all members of the same body. Another person’s success is our success too.
4 Be communal
Assist everyone in the family to succeed in reaching their goals and potential. That entails helping figure out each person’s gifts. Affirming family members and Christian brothers and sisters as they perform well enables them to recognize their spiritual gifts.
Early on in our marriage, when Bill was recommended for Who’s Who in Religion, he then recommended Aída. When Aída was recommended for Outstanding Young Women in America, she then recommended Bill for Outstanding Young Men in America. There was no need to be envious. As one person raced ahead, he or she reached out to include the other. This has set a pattern for the way we have related to each other for the last four decades of our marriage.
5 Make conscious decisions
When you have an opportunity that affects the family, think of how your decision affects everyone in the family. Seek mutually agreeable resolutions. Listen to each other. Seek Christ’s peace. Remember 1 Corinthians 13:5’s wise advice: “Love is not self-seeking.”
6 Choose your workplace carefully
If possible, choose an employer that allows you to do quality work in your own way, rather than a quantity of overwork. Many organizations praise those who overwork, but later will not praise those same employees if their family relations are not working! Other employers will work with you to maximize your family’s gifts and abilities. When Aída was a student in Southern Seminary in Kentucky in the 1980s, she discovered that spouses of students could attend classes for free. Because of this, when we came to Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Massachusetts, we suggested establishing a scholarship for team ministry and now Gordon-Conwell has institutionalized it, offering for-credit study opportunities for spouses and thereby encouraging the ministry of both wife and husband.
Try to work as a team with your spouse as much as possible. Male and female are both called to rule and subdue (Gen. 1:26, 28). Why not do it together? We team-teach when we can and teamwrite when appropriate. Though we have been together for four decades and have known each other for five, we are still learning about each other. We consistently strive to be proactive in our efforts to organize our marriage as we think the Lord would like it to be organized and not by models others tell us we must implement to have a truly Christian marriage. Perhaps your situation is very different from ours—God does not call us all to work outside the home, and many couples have little choice in where or how they work. Many of our sisters and brothers are single. We believe that whatever your specific context, God has designed us all to flourish in relationships and in our work. Do not settle for society’s or anyone else’s model for your work and relationships. We encourage you to develop your own model and strategies with mutual respect and in continual dialogue with God.
In a Nutshell
Try out these strategies for structuring life around healthy relationships:
- Schedule your work to allow space for your family and relationships.
- Schedule time off every day and every week to allow space to develop your relationships with family, and, especially if single, with friends.
- Avoid Competition
- Do not compete with each other, your children, or other Christians.
- Be communal
- Assist everyone in the family to reach their goals and potential.
- Make Conscious Decisions
- When you have an opportunity that affects the family, think of how your decision will affect everyone.
- Choose Your Workplace Carefully
- If possible, choose an employer that allows you to do quality work in your own way.
- Try to work as a team with your spouse.