We had this idea that we were trying to figure out. If you get really fanatical about church and ministry, does that form a point for your marriage to rally around? Or does that investment come at the expense of your marriage?

This is, in part, prompted by the observation that a lot of highly involved spiritual leaders end up with failed marriages. We don’t want to get into the whole issue of fallen pastors and spiritual leaders and the psychology behind that, although that is a very interesting – and tragic – topic, but today want to bring this into our lives.

All of us are vulnerable to going crazy about the church or some ministry or even a hobby together. As we build the meaning of our relationship around the intensity of our activity and involvement in spiritual works, we have to ask the question: Is this a good thing?

This is where it gets tricky! How could you say, “No, it’s not good to be that involved at church or in Missions work or whatever”? It seems sacrilegious. On the other hand, we do know that when we get very, very busy our marriage doesn’t feel better, it feels worse. So we need to look at what is going on and what the right balance is for us so that we can, as a couple, engage in ministry that is meaningful but do so without sacrificing our marriage.

Remember the Biblical principle found in the instructions of Samuel when he said, “To obey is better than sacrifice” (1 Samuel 15:22). This reminds us that it is better to obey the command as husbands to love our wives than it is to sacrifice our relationship with our wives.

It’s ironic how we can talk ourselves into something like it’s noble of us to sacrifice marriage and family in the name of God and for expanding his kingdom – but it is actually disobedience!

This is in no way a voice of criticism here for those who are seriously committed to serving God. Each marriage has a different tolerance for time apart vs together, the amount of activity vs together time, etc. It’s a unique balance for each couple, but the principle of obedience being better than sacrifice is one we all need to consider and reflect on.

Before we start looking into the research, let’s define a few terms.

Religiosity: a word to characterize the activity or busyness or works of faith.

Sacredness: a word meaning the process of assigning divine character or sacred significance to something. The “sacredness of marriage” is about the idea of Divine involvement/approval/blessing on the marriage.

Here’s what the research shows.

General religiosity has a very weak link with marital outcomes. In other words, being busy with ministry does not add to your marriage.

On the other hand, sacredness strongly predicts desirable marital outcomes. “Spouses who regard their unions as sacred and who sense God’s presence in their relationships tend to report more good feelings and fewer negative emotions towards their partners”.[i]

Spouses who value sacredness also generally use more collaborative problem solving and have less tendency towards aggression or stalemates in disputes. There are also more bonding experiences: everything from shared leisure, activities and conversation to a more rewarding sex life.

Fundamentally, sacredness also predicts the degree of commitment in the marriage.

We conclude from this study that the meaning we give to our marriage and the meaning that we ground our concept of togetherness on is more important than activities that we might base our marriage on. Sacredness trumps religiosity.

We’re not saying you shouldn’t go to church or be involved in serving God through various ministries. What we are seeing from the research is that there is no benefit to your marriage to place more value on these activities than on the sacredness of your marriage.

A second study from 2013 found very similar conclusions. After looking at 354 couples for a 3 year period, they found that the idea that religiosity is associated with stronger relationships is unfounded.[ii]

They did find that the key was relational virtue which they defined as commitment, sacrifice, and forgiveness (sounds like sacredness to me!).

We can see, both in terms of evidence from the research and the Scripture text we referred to (to obey is better than sacrifice) that we need to be cautious when involved in a spiritual activity that we don’t do so at the expense of our marriage.

We suggest that if you take care of your marriage first, you will be better positioned to serve more effectively in your ministry. Again, we are not discouraging you from going to church or being very engaged or involved there. What we are concerned about are the more extreme situations where we begin to define the terms of our marriage as a response to the demands of the ministry we are doing.

This is a very interesting dilemma for believers. We talk about putting God first, but none of us, as a spouse, wants to play second fiddle to our spouse’s role as an elder or preacher or pastor or whatever.

So, do we put God first or our wife first?

It is easy to say “Oh yeah, I’m putting my wife first and that’s why I don’t put anything into the church.” When we say ‘either….or’, as in it’s either God OR marriage or Ministry OR marriage, we’re asking the wrong question. The question to ask is ‘both….and’.

Husbands are commanded in the Bible to love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it. Husbands are also commanded to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind”.

That’s why I don’t it’s ‘either…or’.

There is another scriptural principle in 1 Timothy 3 that specifically says a spiritual leader “must manage his own household well”. Here is the principle that you should be taking care of your little kingdom assigned to you by God before he is going to put you in charge of his big Kingdom.

So often we (especially men?) find ourselves searching for significance in the big Kingdom and we are so hungry for it that we’ll quite happily throw ourselves at it at the cost of our families, our little kingdom. Yet it is in the home where we learn to serve and to lead before we are qualified to do so in the church.

Balance is essential

It is legitimate for us to conclude from the scriptures and the research that we need to take care of our marriages before our ministry. From that place of fullness, security, and learning to be in a relationship, we can then move out in service to others.

Marriage has so many benefits:[iii]

  1. Married people live longer and are physically healthier
  2. Children and adolescents do better in married households
  3. Worldwide, married people are happier than those who are cohabiting or single.

The list goes on, but the point is that if we want to serve God, grow personally and thrive, we do that best by taking care of our marriage first. Then, from that place of fullness and security and love and strength, we can reach out to serve in God’s bigger kingdom.

We know that the younger part of our audience is doing this already, and that’s awesome. Studies show that for younger men and women, being a good parent and having a successful marriage remains much more important than career success.[iv] We want to affirm and encourage this because it is so important to God and it should be to us as well.

[i] Christopher G. Ellison et al., “Sanctification, Stress, and Marital Quality,” Family Relations 60, no. 4 (October 2011): 404–20.

[ii] Randal D. Day and Alan Acock, “Marital Well-Being and Religiousness as Mediated by Relational Virtue and Equality,” Journal of Marriage and Family 75, no. 1 (February 2013): 164–77.

[iii] Sylvia R. Karasu, “The Institution of Marriage: Terminable or Interminable?,” American Journal of Psychotherapy 61, no. 1 (2007): 1–16.

[iv] Eileen Patten and Kim Parker, “A Gender Reversal On Career Aspirations,” Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends Project, accessed July 10, 2015, http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/04/19/a-gender-reversal-on-career-aspirations/.