Dear Pastor Jay,
My husband and I are Christians. We love the Lord and we love his church. Yet, throughout our marriage there has been one pretty big challenge. He and I have very different experiences and values when it comes to church, and thus we tend to be drawn to different kinds of churches. We both want a church with strong evangelical beliefs, that takes preaching seriously, is warm and welcoming, and that wants to reach non-Christians. But he grew up in a solid Christian home in a very traditional Presbyterian church in the suburbs and I became a Christian as a college student at a small charismatic church in the city. In grad school we did find a church that satisfied both of us, but now we are just not finding a church that seems to fit us both. For the past six months my husband has been attending a church he really likes and I have been attending another that I really like. We feel ministered to and are thriving at our respective churches, but something about this does not feel right. We are thinking of starting a family soon, and my gut sense is that we do not want to have our children raised in this type of situation. How important is it that we attend the same church? If it is important, how do we decide on which one to attend?
One Spouse, Two Churches
Dear One Spouse, Two Churches,
This is an important question, and I am so glad you are asking for wisdom from a pastor. Most people kinda know there is something not quite right with this arrangement but keep their heads down and keep doing it, hoping for the best. Here is my honest advice, followed up by the reasons for it. I think you should do everything within your power to attend the same church.
Now, I do not think this is an issue of sin, at least I don’t know your hearts well enough to say that. Sin always has some involvement in our wisdom decisions, but you will have to seek God and match your heart with Scripture to determine that. I do think this is an issue of wisdom. Put another way, what is the best decision to make?
I guess there are reasons to attend different churches, but having racked my brain for some, I came up with scant few. Here are some:
– Transition. You are leaving a church (for Biblical reasons) and one of you feels that you need to finish out a certain commitment, like teaching Sunday school, before you both uproot and leave. One spouse goes ahead and starts to attend the new church, while the other ties off loose ends before joining the first spouse.
– Separation. Unfortunately, in devastating marital situations, separation might be a wise solution for a time of healing, counseling, and restoration. During this time it might be wise for one spouse to attend another church. But hopefully this is a short term solution, and once the marriage begins to heal both spouses should gladly worship together again.
– Extenuating missional reasons. I know of one couple who lived in a Muslim country that forbid its own people to openly worship as Christians. The wife was a foreign westerner, and so she worshiped openly at an ex-patriot church. The husband had to worship in an underground church. But, once they came to the U.S. for grad school, they gladly worshiped together for the first time in their whole married lives, prizing their ability to do so.
That is all I came up with. In other words, while there are other reasons, I think they are preferential and I think the greater good of worshiping together trumps them. I take this strong stand because of what I believe about the local church. The local church is not just a Sunday experience of getting good music and Bible teaching. The local church is an extension of our families. In fact, in places like Mark 10.29-30 Jesus says that our new family in Christ is as important, if not more important, than our biological family. So think about that. You are dividing your marriage relationship over a community that is comprised of people sewn together by the blood of Jesus, a blood that runs thicker than family. A bit ironic, don’t you think? I know it may seem like you are preserving unity by doing it this way, but I would argue you are causing subtle form of disunity that will come back and bite you because you are not living within the integrity that God has designed for you and your relationship to the local church. I cannot see how choosing to attend different churches is a faithful and accurate testimony of the covenant community of the local church. In fact, I feel like you are betraying the beauty of the church by doing so. Given my examples above, you are choosing to do something reserved for marriages in dire straights, not a marriage that is healthy and wants to fight for ever more unity, even if great sacrifice is the cost.
Sacrifice. I guess that is the operative word. If the church is all about Jesus, and Jesus is the Savior who sacrificed himself for us, then part of you getting on the same page with a church is sacrifice. If both of your churches really are evangelical, have good teaching, good community, and are committed to outreach, then the sacrifices you will make are pretty small in the big picture. That couple I mentioned, who lived in a Muslim country, I think would be amazed at how we Americans view church. We have so many good churches to choose from that we tend to be like people shopping for a car, rather than those hungry for Jesus and completely committed to his body, the church. His body! It is one. You two are one! I divided marriage for a unified church? No sense, if you do indeed have a healthy, growing marriage, as you say.
Consumerism. That is the other word. Please look at your hearts and see if you are being led by consumerism. Yes, both of you have different experiences of church. While those aren’t totally irrelevant, in no way has God given those to you to divide you, especially with regard to something as important as the local church. What if he gave you those experiences to unify you as a couple in finding and serving in a good local church?
By the way, you brought up children. Indeed. How you relate to the local church is teaching your children ecclesiology. You know this is not ideal. So, do what it takes and do the right thing, not only for your marriage, but also to set your kids up to be able to love and participate well in Jesus’ body, the local church.
So, One Spouse, Two Churches, here is what I would do. I would sit down and pray for wisdom. I would then talk with both of your pastors. If one of you goes to my church, I would actually tell you to go to the other church rather than remain at the Bible Church with your divided communities. Remember, almost every church records its sermons now. If you love your current pastor’s preaching, just listen to it online during the week. Which of you should sacrifice for the other? I don’t know for your situation, but given my view of a husband’s leadership role, I think he should hand over his rights and go to your church – at least as a starting point. That is sacrificial leadership. His desire should be for you to be blessed and he should try to take the lead in protecting the integrity of your holistic participation in Christ’s body.
God will lead you. I believe he wants you at the same church, given what he says about the church in His Word. The church is a place that is a load bearing wall, it is meant to be very influential in our lives, and so the most important people in our lives should share that with us.
By the way, if you follow my logic all the way, I would make it a regular habit to literally worship together at the same service. Try and find places to serve on Sunday mornings that allow for you to be at the same service, as much as possible. AND, for those of you dating or engaged, now is the time to talk about this! But, I guess that is another topic.