Part of my holiday reading this summer was “Long Walk to Freedom“, the popular autobiography of Nelson Mandela, former anti-apartheid campaigner and president of South Africa. He writes well, and even at 600 pages, it is easy to read. One characteristic of the book is Mandela’s honesty about his family life.

He has been married 3 times, most famously to his second wife Winnie Mandela. His first two marriages both broke down due, at least in part, to Nelson’s absence from the home because of his commitment to the struggle against apartheid. This is not something that he is proud of, a fact that is drawn out in Clint Eastwood’s film about Mandela “Invictus“; where Madela is asked about his family by one of his bodyguards and is unable to answer and simple turns and goes back in his house.

So Mandela has been feted as a great man, a brave man, and a forgiving man. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. But as I read his book, I had one nagging question – ‘Is it right to sacrifice one’s marriage and family in the pursuit of a cause, however worthy and good?’ Would Nelson Mandela’s first and second wives, and his children and grandchildren have preferred to have their husband/dad/grandad with them, rather than out at meetings and planning civil unrest (Mandela was planning violent sabotage when he was arrested)? Should family have a higher call on us than a cause?

When I was first a Christian, I was introduced to the work of Floyd McClung. He ran the Youth With A Mission base in Amsterdam in the 1980s, which was described in the book ‘Living on the Devil’s Doorstep’. In the book he shared his thinking that, however valuable the ministry God has given you, the order of priority for us should be:

1. Our relationship with God

2. Our relationship with our spouse and children

3. Our ministry for God

When I heard this as a young, single Christian I reacted to it, thinking that surely my ministry for God could be more important than my wife and children. Over the years, both through reading the New Testament, and through experience I have come to agree with Floyd McClung. My commitment to my wife and children comes before any ministry that God may have given me. I may be doing great things in my work for God, but if my wife and kids are feeling unloved and uncared for then I have failed in my calling.

This creates another problem for me. I rather changes my view of some of my Christian heroes, especially John Wesley. Wesley was a travelling evangelist, church planter, teacher and the founder of the Methodist Church in the 18th century. His ministry, and of those working with him, saw hundreds of thousands of people become Christians and join churches across the UK and beyond. His journals are loved and read by millions.

However, he did all this at the expense of time with his wife, Molly Vazeille. As Lex Loizides describes in his excellent blog:

“And so, John Wesley was married. His strategy for being a good husband was pretty simple: ‘I cannot understand how a Methodist preacher can answer it to God to preach one sermon or travel one day less, in a married than in a single state.’ At first Molly accompanied him but his travel schedule (by any standard through all church history) was relentless, and she, as a newly married 40 year old woman, was clearly hoping for some normal domestic joys.”

It’s fairly apparent from this that Wesley saw that marriage should be no hindrance on his travelling ministry. This seems in direct contrast with the apostle Paul’s statement in 1Corinthians 7:

” 32I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34and his interests are divided.”

Paul is clear that in marriage a husband and wife have to focus attention on their spouse. If you don’t want to do this, then don’t get married (Paul is encouraging this). But if you get married, then this is part of the deal.

John Wesley did not do this. His wife Molly became increasingly upset and angry (her behaviour was not always that good), they saw less and less of each other until finally, she left for good. Wesley wryly reported in his journal, ‘I did not forsake her, I did not dismiss her, I will not recall her.’

What was the right thing to do? I just wonder if the better path would be the one of less ministry and more investment in your marriage.

This doesn’t just apply to presidents, preachers and church leaders. It applies to every married person, especially if they are Christians. However valuable our work is, whether paid or voluntary – it is not more important to the higher calling for husbands and wives to love each other and their children.

2 Comments, RSS

  • James Barton

    says on:
    October 13, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    God has prepared “beforehand” the good works we should walk in” – that includes our calling in marriage. We lived and worked in India for 17 years while or sons were growing up -called by God. When they needed help to return to U.K. for 3rd level education we returned to Ireland – called of God. When they were established we were “called” again to India and spent the next 22 years in India…our family was part of God’s call.

  • Nigel Clark

    says on:
    October 14, 2010 at 5:27 pm

    While agreeing with everything said, the best thing I ever did for my children, apart from receiving salvation, was going on mission overseas, we have now been away from ‘home’ for 10 years, my daughter and son are now adults, their home, certainly not the UK, their lives have meaning, they have married cross-culturally, and made me an early grandparent, and the blessing continues with the adoption of a third child.

    and in all that, family first remains a value requiring intentionality, left to itself, the practicalities of life and the needs of ministry can overwhelm the relationships and responsibilities within the family, so I am with James, how do we separate family and calling, its a package deal! – We are a family on a mission and the best witness I can be is as a loving husband and father.