When Church is a Mistress

It’s become hip to rip on the church. People like to blame their problems on “the church.” You can hear these criticisms in popular culture. Take, for instance, Arcade Fire’s song “Intervention”:

Working for the Church while your family dies
You take what they give you and you keep it inside
Every spark of friendship and love will die without a home
Hear the solider groan, “We’ll go at it alone””

The song paints the church as a militant institution, driven by discipline and an over-bearing work ethic. The central character sacrifices his family on the altar of “church” or ministry. This is often true. Churches all too often have more in common with Wall Street than they do Scripture. They enforce a merciless work ethic in the name of “mercy” or “gospel” ministry. All work no play.

There’s a Mistress in the House

My first year of church planting I started a new, full-time job, a new city, a new daughter, and a new church. Guess which one got the least attention? Family. As all these new things filled our lives, they began to crowd conversation with my wife. What was once natural—inquiring about my wife’s hopes, fears, and joys—became unnatural, even absent from our conversation. She patiently continued to ask how I was doing, but I was “working for the church while my family died.”

As my wife began to wither without the invigorating love of her husband, she revealed the affair. I’ll never forget her crushing comment: “I feel like there’s a mistress in the house.” I was alarmed and frustrated. How dare she make such a comparison! After all, I made a point of being home by 5:30 and on weekends. I made sure we had good family rhythms—breakfast and devotions, dinner and downtime. How could she say there was a “mistress” in our home? Then it dawned on me—you can be home without being home. I was present but absent. My thoughts, emotions, and concerns were with another Bride while I was home, not with my bride.

I had felt the gradual distance growing between us, but chalked it up to two kids under two and the important demands of church. I was wrong and Arcade Fire was right. The spark of love cannot live without a home. A house isn’t sufficient. Being present doesn’t cut it. What our relationships need is a home, a place where families can laugh, play, cry, and talk deeply together.

Recovering Your First Love

What was once natural became a discipline. I began to discipline myself to turn conversations away from church, work, and ministry and towards her and our children. I began to love her by asking about her hopes, dreams, fears, to encourage her hobbies and friendships. I relearned how to empathize and suffer, rejoice and laugh with her. Slowly the spark of love began to kindle. The warmth of friendship began to return in our resurrected home. My thought was that discipline could give way to desire. But discipline wasn’t enough.

What my wife wants, what every wife wants, is not a disciplined, duty-driven husband, but a loving, desire-driven husband. A husband whom, when thanked for a weekend get-away without the kids, says to his wife: “It’s my pleasure” not “It’s my duty”! Our wives want to be desired, cherished, valued. In fact, all people want to be cherished, but until we clear the shelf of our hearts of subtle idolatries, discipline will not give way to desire. We must put away our “mistresses.”

Repentance is Good News

In order to put away our sinful lovers, we need a power outside of ourselves. We need the power of repentance and faith. In Revelation 2-3, Jesus calls the seven churches to repentance. For example, he writes to the church at Laodicea: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent.” In love, Jesus calls us to zealously repent.

I repented from loving the worth I received from my work, the significance I gained from serving my church. To repent is to turn. When we turn, we turn away from one direction toward another. The proof of repentance is not in our confession or resolve but in turning from our lovers and turning to our Savior. Where do we get the power of repentance? How do we conquer these lesser loves? By Spirit-empowered faith in the promises of God.

Jesus continues: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. ​If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, ​I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (3:19). The call to repentance is followed by the promise of satisfaction in Christ. Leave your lovers and turn to your one, true Love. Open the door and Christ will come to you, not only that, he will dine with you. Repentance is a call away from the famine of idolatry to the feast of table fellowship with Christ. Repentance is always good news.

All who over-work and under-love need to repent. We need to confess the idolatries of worth-by-work, of significance-by-service, and turn to face the loving, all-accepting, never-ending significance offered to us in the arms of our Savior’s embrace. Through Spirit-empowered trust in the promises of God, we can draw near to Christ and receive his perfect love, acceptance, and grace. It is from this position alone that we can truly love our wives and families. When we are satisfied in Christ, we can satisfy our wives. When we cherished by Christ, we can freely cherish others.

We don’t have to work for the church, the corporation, or the business while our families die. Every spark of friendship and love does not have to die. We can build a home that is filled with love, if Christ takes center place. When we embrace the practice of repentance and faith in Jesus, the idolatries of work can be cleared away with Christ at the center of our affections. Then and only then are we free to truly love others. When we do this, we will adorn the gospel of Christ and restore the reputation of the Church, revealing the glories of the gospel in gift of marriage.