In modern culture we have increasingly come to evaluate virtually everything from an individualistic perspective. We find our identity in ourselves individually, by our individual accomplishments, position, possessions, etc. We increasingly have difficulty relating to the notion that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.
Yet the Bible portrays a very different paradigm. People are to find their identity in being part of a corporate whole: a lineage, a family or, most importantly, the body of Christ. But many of us struggle to apprehend this corporateness. For example, most Westerners have no more than a theoretical understanding of Jesus’ claim (Mt 19:6; Mk 10:8) that a husband and wife “are no longer two but one flesh” or Paul’s contention (Ro 12:5) that “we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.”
I have always embraced these truths academically. But experientially I couldn’t grasp how my wife and I were one in more than the most rudimentary sense of physical intimacy. Similarly, most of my church experience has reflected the assumption that the church is a conglomeration of individuals attending the same function.
As the Lord is leading many to see the New Testament apostolic pattern of gathering in private homes, I suspect that like me, most bring with them the baggage of their past experience and understanding. But the Lord is apparently restoring the understanding and experience of the corporateness of the body of Christ among many house churches today. He is moving us past a solely theological assent to the truth of unity, to the reality of being experientially knit together into a whole that is bigger than its parts.
One way He is doing this is by restoring the foundation of household unity and identity. I theorize that one of the reasons for the homeschool movement (an apparently separate work of God, but one I suspect is linked in God’s coordinated purpose) is to prepare households to function unitedly in the church. Historically, as individualism gradually shaped self-perceptions in Western society, the church incrementally lost its awareness of “The Spiritual Power of Ministry Households” (the title of a spoken message from which this chapter springs).
As God deposited in the nineteenth century church the vision for foreign missions, an insidiously destructive seed began to sprout and flourish. Missionary families were concerned about the education of their children. As institutional education became the assumed norm, this created a perceived conflict for many missionaries and the agencies that sent them. Gradually, an educational infrastructure of missionary boarding schools was developed to meet the seeming need. By the twentieth century, it was typical for missionary parents to be separated from their children for extended periods, often beginning at very early ages. As special boarding schools for missionaries’ kids (MKs) became more common, a tragic phenomenon became increasingly accepted. The children of missionaries were raised as virtual orphans by loving care-givers who did their best. But many of the sons and daughters of foreign missionaries became bitter about the sacrifices their parents made. Sadly, today there are numerous accounts of MKs who want nothing to do with the Lord, and blame the church for separating them from their parents during a time when, by God’s design, they were supposed to be their parents’ primary ministry (though not their only ministry).
To this day there are missions agencies that require missionary candidates to commit to enrolling their children in boarding schools. This is not only rationalized as being for the children’s good, but also is overtly intended to free up the individual parents to minister on the field with less distraction. Missionary couples are thus seen as partners in ministry, more than as a household unit. The sending agency expects to reap the benefit of utilizing two individual workers rather than seeing the couple as a single unit.
This not only has a devastating effect on the children, but on the very notion of the household. In fact, it hastens the spread of individualistic presuppositions, undermining what are ironically sometimes more Biblical cultural family mores in the groups being evangelized. The grievous result is that the new churches being planted are presented an unhealthy and unnatural model of family life. They never get to see an example of whole, healthy households in the lives of those who are discipling them. (During my ministry in Asia, I’m afraid I have frequently observed the prevalent fruit of ignoring, excusing, or even praising unfaithfulness in family life among modern Indian and Chinese churches.)
This sad state of affairs isn’t unique to foreign missions, however. During the last few generations the church in the West has increasingly seen Christian workers who have so exclusively focused on their ministry that they have neglected their families. While this phenomenon isn’t new, it is becoming pervasive in institutional Christianity. The destructive consequences include the poor reputation of preacher’s kids and the undermining of examples of godly family life among God’s people.
Before proceeding, let me qualify my exhortation with an acknowledgment that the opposite error is also a trap. Just as it is possible for a man to fall into the idolatry of his own ministry, it is also possible to idolize one’s family, or the idea of family. We must always love Jesus Himself above anything, whether our ministry for Him or the family He has entrusted to us. Jesus issued warnings against putting our families above Him (Mt 10:34-37; 12:47-50; 19:29; Mk 10:29-30; Lk 9:59-62; 14:20-26). Yet these scriptures are increasingly used to rationalize an unbiblical neglect of family responsibility. Without neglecting the cautions against inappropriately idolizing family, let’s consider what else God’s word says about the priority of family ministry, and how it impacts other ministry.
God Loves The Family
God created families and He expresses His emotions regarding them. In an exceedingly clear expression of his heart, God expresses his passionate feelings about family in Malachi 2:16. “For the LORD God of Israel says That He hates divorce!” I believe God loves the principle of family. He chose family relationships as the dominant metaphor for New Testament Christians’ relationship with Him and with one another. Christians become God’s children (Jn 1:12; Ro 8:16; 1Jn 3:2) — part of His household (Ep 2:19). Jesus came to, among other things, reveal God as Father (Lk 11:2; Jn 1:18, 16:25). The Holy Spirit was given to, among other things, reveal God as our Abba (Daddy — intimate reference for Father; Ro 8:14; Ga 4:6). One of the most frequently-used identifiers for Christians in the New Testament is the word brothers (Mt 23:8; Ac 6:3; 1Pe 1:22; 1Jn 3:14, 16). One of the most beautiful pictures of the relationship between Christ and the church is the relationship of a Bridegroom and his bride (Mt 9:15; Jn 3:29; 2Co 11:2; Re 19:7-9; 21:2, 9; 22:17). While these metaphors are not completely lacking in the Old Testament, they are all vastly expanded in the New Testament. The Lord intends our healthy family relationships to provide these physical pictures for His use in revealing spiritual realities. If the picture is neglected, we lose part of God’s intention for this revelation.
In fact, Paul said every family is designed to be a reflection of the Heavenly Father’s patriarchy. In Ephesians 3:14-15 He wrote, “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father [Greek: pater] of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom the whole family [Greek: patria] in heaven and earth is named.” By His design, families are to be led by fathers and apparently defined by the patriarchal jurisdiction of fatherhood.
Far from abolishing or even minimizing family, the New Testament reinforces and expands what was introduced regarding family in the Old Testament. One of the Old Testament commands quoted most frequently in the New Testament is the command to “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12; Le 19:3; De 5:16; Mt 15:3-9; 19:16-19; Mk 7:6-13; 10:17-19; Lk 18:18-20; Ep 6:2). In their letters, the apostles spent a fair amount of time teaching about family practices (1Co 7; Ep 5:22-6:4; Col 3:18-21; 1Ti 3:2, 4-5, 11-12; 5:4, 8-10, 14, 16; Tit 1:6; 2:3-5; 1Pe 3:1-7; Heb 12:5-11).
One of the key practices encouraged in the New Testament is hospitality (Ro 12:13; 1Ti 3:2; Tit 1:8; 1Pe 4:9). It should arouse our suspicion of an underlying problem since this is one of the most blatantly disregarded mandates in the modern church. Hospitality is practiced in a family setting. But if our families are being atomized into fragmented individuals, each with his own independent life to pursue, there is very little potential context for being hospitable.
It is instructive that one of the observable qualifications God instituted for evaluating the qualifications of potential leaders in the church is that they be hospitable (1Ti 3:2; Tit 1:8). When I was a young man, I served as a youth pastor and associate pastor in two different institutional churches (each for over a year) in which I never once stepped inside the home of the acknowledged senior pastor. In one case, I never even learned where the pastor lived.
I am not completely faulting these sincere men of God who were supposed to be “examples to the flock” (1Pe 5:3) for this shocking disregard of Scripture. I was nearly as bad. I figured that the neutral territory of the church building was the most appropriate place for fellowship, and that while hospitality was nice, it wasn’t essential. Thus there were saints I ministered to who could easily charge me with the same failure. We simply didn’t get it!
An Elder’s Family
The explicit minimum qualifications for leadership in the body of Christ include other family matters. An elder or bishop (demonstrably the same thing as the pastor in the New Testament church — see poimaino,presbuteros, and episkopos in Ac 2:17, 28; Tit 1:5, 7; 1Pe 5:1-2) was to be “the husband of one wife” (1Ti 3:2; Tit 1:6). There is some controversy, today, over the application of this. Some simply apply this to polygamy, others suspect it precludes divorced and remarried men from being publicly recognized as exemplary, and still others take it to mean that an elder must be a “one woman type of man.”
I suspect the requirement of being “the husband of one wife” not only means a man with more than one wife is disqualified, but that a man with less than one wife also is not qualified to be recognized as a model for the church. While single men certainly have the benefit of fewer distractions and responsibilities, and thus more freedom, this very lack of responsibility is also a handicap when it comes to leading in the church. It is more likely for a single man to be (or at least be perceived as) a novice, but Paul told Timothy (1Ti 3:6) to choose as elders those who were “not a novice.” He further made it clear that the reputation, as well as the reality, of a man’s maturity, was important (1Ti 3:7; “he must have a good testimony among those who are outside”).
Some time after I married my wife, Connie, I began realizing how unprepared for marriage I had been. I was simply not mature enough for marriage. Yet as I pondered the matter, I concluded that I likely would never have been mature enough for marriage, while I was single. But it seems to me that within months of getting married, I had been stretched in wonderful ways that forced me to mature. I doubt I would ever have grown in those areas as a single man. Marriage made me something I could not have become otherwise. Truly in all but a few cases, “It is not good that man should be alone” (Ge 2:18). There are probably exceptions, but a man who has never been married is not as likely to be a thorough and balanced role model for the body of Christ.
In fact, I suspect that a man who has not experienced fatherhood will be similarly handicapped. Paul told Titus (1:6) to only recognize as elders those men who are “the husband of one wife, having faithful children.” Just as I was not ready for marriage until after I married, I was not ready for fatherhood until after Connie and I were blessed with our first child. Being a father pressed me in certain ways that I would likely never have matured in without having children. As the Lord continued blessing us with more children, and as each of them was trained through different stages of childhood and youth, I was being further prepared for eldership.
The other home schooling fathers and I, in our local congregation, have theorized that God’s reason for leading us to disciple our own children at home rather than sending them to school is not exclusively (perhaps even primarily) for their benefit. God has called us to teach our own children at least partly because of the maturity this brings to us as fathers. Any teacher will acknowledge that the teachers learn as much or more than the students, in the process of teaching. In fact, I suspect one of God’s primary reasons for raising up the home school movement in this generation is to prepare truly qualified elders who have learned how to disciple others as a result of discipling their own sons and daughters.
Sadly, as noted earlier, the children of those who are devoted to ministry in the contemporary church often have the worst reputation. I’m blessed to be a PK myself (not Promise Keeper, but Preacher’s Kid). But as a child I learned that the acronym PK is often a derogatory term in the contemporary church. While this is not always deserved (many love to find fault in leaders to excuse their own failures), it is too often true that the children of those in public ministry are not examples to the rest of the body of Christ.
I imagine we have all seen men who seem to have a true call of God on their life for public ministry, yet who are so focused on that ministry that they neglect their own family. Paul included, as a qualification for local church leadership, that an elder’s children must be well trained. He defines “one who rules his own house well” (1Ti 3:4) as “having his children in submission with all reverence.” Then he reasons (1Ti 3:5), “for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?”
In his instructions to Titus (1:6) he is more explicit in specifying the expectations of the fruit of an elder’s fatherhood. He must have “faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination.” The children of elders must not only be in submission, but their faithfulness must be so evident that they are not even accused of excesses or disobedience.
Obviously elders’ children are going to be selfish and inclined to sin, just as all humanity is. Yet only those men who have proven their capacity to “train up a child in the way he should go” (Pr 22:6) should be publicly recognized as models for the church. The word translated faithful in regard to his children (Greek pistos) is elsewhere translated believing. (For example, Jesus used this word as a contrast to Thomas’ doubting in John 20:27. See also Ac 10:45; 16:1; 2Co 6:15; 1Ti 4:3, 10, 12; 5:16; 6:2.). It is certainly not a stretch to contend that only men who have trained believing children should be considered for eldership.
Some might point to the examples of Jesus and Paul as unmarried, fatherless men. Such exceptions should certainly motivate us to be cautious in applying the scriptural norm too rigidly. Yet we should also avoid using exceptions to invalidate norms clearly taught in Scripture. Although there are good reasons to conclude Paul was single, some scholars believe he had been married. Even if he was a eunuch, His own Spirit-inspired writing specifies that local church elders (not necessarily itinerant apostles) be “the husband of one wife, having faithful children.”
Some might persist by pointing to the other apostles who apparently left their families to follow Jesus. But I suspect we view these accounts through a distorted, modern filter that skews our perception to our own individualistic paradigm. Even the one explicit account (Mk 1:20) of how James and John “left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants,” was not likely a dishonoring of their father, in light of Jesus’ later extended rebuke (Mk 7:1-13) of the adult Pharisees of “making the word of God of no effect through your tradition” when they rationalized failure to honor their father and mother. Although arguments from silence are suspect, it is not unlikely that James and John had Zebedee’s blessing. This is particularly likely given the fact that their mother also seems to have been one of the women who traveled with Jesus (Mt 20:20; 27:56).
But who were these “many women who followed Jesus from Galilee” (Mt 27:55-56; Mk 15:40-41; Lk 8:1-3; 23:49, 55; 24:10)? Some of them are named (“Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.”), but apparently there were many others. It’s rather surprising that there is no hint of the pharisees accusing Jesus and the apostles of impropriety, given the many women who accompanied them. One possible explanation is that these many women may have included the apostles’ wives.
Again, some will protest that this is an argument from silence. Yet the contention that the apostles left their wives and children to follow Jesus is only based on inference, as well. Some are arguing that when Jesus commended those who “left house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or lands” for His sake and the gospel’s (Mk 10:29), He was making this normative. Yet if this were so, it would be in conflict with the rest of His and the apostles’ teaching. Clearly, wife and children are among those we are commanded to hate (Lk 14:26) in comparison to our devotion to Jesus. Yet husbands are elsewhere commanded to love their wives (Ep 5:25; Col 3:19).
Were The Apostles Married?
We know Peter was married, because each of the synoptic gospels reports that Jesus healed “his wife’s mother” (Mt 8:14; Mk 1:30; Lk 4:38). Isn’t it amazing that other than this single instance, Peter’s wife is nowhere mentioned in the Gospels? But the Gospels’ silence about this woman can’t be taken to imply some lack of activity or devotion on her part. We know that Peter’s wife later traveled with him in ministry (1Co 9:5).
In fact, we find that the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord also traveled with their wives. How many of the other apostles had wives? Paul may be using hyperbole here, but it sounds like he is implying that he, and possibly Barnabas (1Co 9:6) were the only apostles who didn’t follow this practice.
We don’t know when these other apostles married. It is certainly possible it was subsequent to their three and a half years with Jesus, but it isn’t necessarily so, just because their wives are not mentioned in the account. We would only conclude this when reading the account filtered through modern paradigms. Today it would seem highly inappropriate to neglect mentioning the apostles’ wives. But if it weren’t for the single parenthetical comment by Paul, we would have no direct mention of the apostles’ wives at all. If it weren’t for that statement, many would assume from the Scripture’s silence that they weren’t married. Yet this appears to be a relatively recent paradigm.
What about children? It is likely that the apostles’ marriages were blessed with the fruit of the womb. Although their children are not mentioned, any more than their wives are, it is only through contemporary frames of reference that we would use this silence to conclude that such children didn’t exist, or travel with their parents. In the Hebrew culture, men were assumed to have a wife and children, with few exceptions.
Evidence of another apostle’s wife and children comes from a surprising source. Prior to betraying Jesus, Judas was “numbered among the twelve” apostles (Lk 6:13-16; 22:3). And he was married & had children. After his death Peter told the other disciples (Ac 1:16) there was a “Scripture . . . which the Holy Spirit spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas.” He then went on to quote part of Psalm 109:8, which says, “Let his days be few, And let another take his office.” Notice that this Psalm continues speaking of the same person (Ps 109:9-10): “Let his children be fatherless, And his wife a widow. Let his children continually be vagabonds, and beg; Let them seek their bread also from their desolate places.” The passage continues talking about his fatherless children and posterity. And Peter claimed this passage was a scriptural prophecy regarding Judas. Thus, arguably, Judas had a wife and children.
While such indications are not some major theme, I am proposing that we moderns have assumed, from the scriptures’ silence regarding the apostles’ families, that they only followed Jesus individually. It would be more historically valid, given the cultural context, to assume men were married and had children. I am thus persuaded we should use the relative silence regarding the apostles’ families as evidence of their existence and that their whole households were following Jesus.
New Testament Ministry Households
Not only did most of the apostles have families, but the New Testament alludes, more specifically, to several ministry households. Aquila and Priscilla were a couple devoted to the work of the Lord. The Scripture’s silence regarding whether or not they also had children as part of their ministry household should not be taken as evidence against the likelihood that they did. Historically it would have been unusual for a couple not to have children, and it would not have been unusual for them to remain unnamed and unmentioned.
The reference (Ac 18:2) to Paul having found Aquila in Corinth, may indicate that he was already acquainted with this family, and was looking for him. At any rate, they welcomed him into their household, even apparently allowing him to be part of their household’s tent making business (Ac 18:3). Paul stayed in Corinth a year and a half. When he left for Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila accompanied him. If they had children, as I suspect is likely, their children would have undoubtedly been part of the household that relocated. Paul only stayed in Ephesus a brief time, intending to return later. But Aquila’s household remained in Ephesus (Ac 18:18-19), possibly as a preparation for Paul’s anticipated return to that city (verse 21).
During Paul’s absence, a man named Apollos began to preach the gospel in the Ephesian synagogue, but his understanding was lacking. So Aquila and Priscilla “took him aside” (Ac 18:26; likely to their own home) “and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” Paul later stated (1Ti 2:12) that he did “not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence.” How can this be reconciled with the account that Priscilla, as well as Aquila, “explained to [Apollos] the way of God more accurately?”
One solution to this seeming contradiction might be found in the distinction between “explaining” and “teaching.” Another might be that Paul’s admonition to the silence of women in the church gatherings (1Co 14:34-35) seems to be limited to when “the whole church comes together in one place” (14:23). It is quite likely (or at least possible) that Paul’s admonition against women teaching men is in the same context. Thus it would be quite acceptable for women to exercise spiritual gifts in more private settings, or any setting other than the actual gathering of the whole church gathered corporately. So as a significant (prominently mentioned) part of Aquila’s ministry household, Priscilla would find appropriate expression of her teaching gift in private conversation, even in helping to meekly correct Apollos’ insufficient understanding of the gospel.
We find that when Apollos later left for Corinth there was a body of brethren in Ephesus (Ac 18:27) who corporately “wrote, exhorting the disciples [in Corinth] to receive him.” It would appear that Aquila’s household ministry was bearing fruit. We definitely know that by the time Paul wrote the epistle of 1 Corinthians (presumably from Ephesus) he sent greetings from Aquila and Priscilla (1Co 16:19), “with the church that is in their house.” Their household ministry was obviously bearing increasing fruit.
We can only conjecture how things progressed for the ministry household of Aquila as the years went by, but some time later, when Paul wrote his epistle to the saints in Rome, he specifically said, “Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus” (16:3). Apparently this household was now in Rome, and it seems the Lord was using their ministry there as well. After further commending them, Paul says, “Likewise greet the church that is in their house” (16:5). As in Corinth and Ephesus, Aquila and Priscilla and their household were clearly ministering together effectively in Rome, for the kingdom of God.
Another interesting ministry household in Scripture is that of Philip the evangelist. He was one of the “seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” (Ac 6:3) whom the apostles chose to supervise the distribution of food to the widows in Jerusalem. He was later used mightily in bringing the gospel to Samaria, and then led the Ethiopian eunuch to the Lord. The silence of Scripture regarding Philip having a wife is clearly not to be taken as implication he was single. It was not unusual for a man’s wife to be in the background. In this case, we conclude Philip had a wife, because his “four virgin daughters who prophesied” are mentioned (Ac 21:9).
This ministry household provided hospitality to Paul and his companions (including Luke). Some assume that because Philip’s daughters prophesied, their use of their gifts are arguments against Paul’s repeated direction (1Co 14:34-35; he specifically claimed this among “the commandments of the Lord,” verse 37) that the sisters “keep silent in the churches.” However, there is nothing in the text causing us to think these young ladies prophesied in the church gatherings. Similarly, when another prophet, Agabus, showed up and prophesied that Paul would be bound in Jerusalem (Ac 21:11), there is no reason to understand that this prophecy was given in a church meeting, but rather in the hospitality context of Philip’s family entertaining guests. Philip’s was a ministry household where prayer, exhortation, and even prophecies were likely common, everyday occurrences by both men and women.
Yet another ministry household mentioned in the New Testament is that of Onesiphorus. Paul wrote (2Ti 1:16-17), “The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain; but when he arrived in Rome, he sought me out very zealously and found me.” This brother, and perhaps his household, traveled to Rome at least partly for the purpose of finding Paul and ministering to his needs. Whether Onesiphorus’ household was with him or not, Paul blessed the whole household. Why?
It is clearly more effective to show someone something, than to simply talk about it. The biblical model is for leaders in the body of Christ to be examples to the flock rather than being lords over them (1Pe 5:3). One of the primary areas in which elders are to be examples is in the way they manage their families. To be such an example, those being ministered to must be able to see the household of the leader in operation.
I challenge the body of Christ to seek the Lord for revelation regarding God’s heart for families, and to identify the bondage our cultural individualism imposes on us. I urge Christian workers to make their families their first ministry — their own children their primary disciples. Then when we minister to others, we do well to do so, as much as possible, in the presence of our family.
For many years the Lord has led me to avoid traveling alone. Occasionally another brother will travel and minister with me. But usually I bring my wife or one of my children. When a ministry opportunity is close enough to drive, I often take my whole family with me. (As I write this, my whole family — wife and six children — are together on a three-month ministry tour in India.). I have seen the subtle, but definite, impact of having at least part of my family with me in ministry situations. It gives my words much more credibility, when folks see the fruit of my life-style, modeled before them.
My longing is that my family would be, like that of Stephanas, a pleasure to the Lord Jesus as an exemplary, powerful ministry household.
1. How has individualism impacted our families and churches?2. Many Christian workers have so exclusively focused on their ministries that they have neglected their families. What effect would this have on the churches in which these workers minister?
3. What do the scriptures indicate concerning God’s attitude toward the family?
4. Give some examples of how God chose family relationships as the dominant metaphor for the New Testament Christians’ relationship with Him and with one another.
5. Why is the command for hospitality one of the most blatantly disregarded mandates in the modern church?
6. Why might marriage be an essential prerequisite for being an elder?
7. Why might having well trained children be a prerequisite for being an elder?
8. What does the Bible indicate about the apostles having families and traveling with their wives?
9. What examples of whole households that ministered are there in the New Testament?