My husband and I bought a house today. It’s a green house on a little hill, built in 1927, and owned since 1966 by the local fire chief and his wife, now recently widowed. “Oh, the Flaherty house!” people around town said to us, “What a great family! What a great house!”
And so we bought it—the well-loved kitchen and bedrooms and front porch—the settings of half-a-century’s worth of lazy Saturdays and Sunday dinners and hectic Monday mornings. And lugging our cardboard boxes through the door, we found a note on the kitchen counter: “We hope,” she had written in the fragile penmanship of the elderly, “you have many happy years as we did in this home.” My house tells the story of a happy marriage.
The church, too, is a kind of house (1 Pet. 2:5, Heb. 3:6). Yet, tragically, the marriage stories of its well-known members and leaders are not always the happy kind.
Tullian Tchividjian, a pastor in my own denomination, recently resigned over an affair. He joins what seems like a long list of pastors whose reputation for sin now precedes them. Turning in disgust from our unrelenting newsfeeds, we might shake our heads and sadly accept the pronouncement of a Christian Post op-ed: “Moral failings among [Christian] leaders are becoming an epidemic.”
We are right to lament moral failure. Forgiveness and reconciliation are central to our Christian faith, but Tchividjian’s sin (and the sin of every pastor who is unfaithful) will still have grave consequences for himself and for the lives of his wife, his children, and the woman with whom he committed adultery. The effects will extend to the members of his church and to those who have read his books or listened to his sermons.
And as secular news outlets like Time, NBC, and People report the events to a watching world, Tchividjian’s actions bring shame on his own name, on the name of his faithful grandfather Billy Graham, on the office of pastor, the Christian church, and, for many, on the name of Christ himself.
Whenever a Christian leader fails to exemplify Christ in his marriage (Eph. 5:25-28), we must grieve. Yet, perhaps this disease of pastoral unfaithfulness has not reached the “epidemic” status many assume. The church has many examples of happy marriages, of pastors and their wives who walk in daily obedience together, of lifelong faithfulness for better or worse. For every pastor who abandons his first love, there are countless others who fight to remain faithful. If we would pay attention, we’d find that these happy marriages are both more common and more compelling than Twitter trends and news headlines might suggest.
I think of my own parents. My dad has been a pastor for 37 years and married to my mom for 42. Through hundreds of sermons and hospital visits and church dilemmas of Solomonic proportions, he and my mother have loved one another with tenderness and self-sacrifice. Perfectly? Of course not. But faithfully? Yes.
I think of my pastor during college. On the brink of forming our own adult commitments—work, marriage, and family—students watched his marriage intensely. And though he and his wife were probably unaware, we always saw them love one another with patience and grace.
I think of my year as a newlywed in the huge church of a “famous” pastor—widely known, an author of books, a speaker at conferences. Nevertheless, he and his wife invited us to their home for Sunday lunch. We all snapped stalks of asparagus in the kitchen while the two of them laughed at some nearly forgotten story from their dating years. A quiet moment of faithful affection, echoing loudly through the years.
And I think of my own marriage. For 11 years, I have been married to a pastor. And we are happy.
Ministry life poses particular challenges for marriages, no doubt. In their book, Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us about Surviving and Thriving, authors and researchers Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald C. Guthrie list five major stressors: the “normal” pressures in marriage and family life; always being on the job; conflicting loyalties of church and home, abandonment due to work commitments; and a lack of confidants in other ministry spouses.
To varying degrees, I have found all of these to be true. But “faith is a fighting grace,” as Aimee Byrd writes in Theological Fitness. Happy marriages in ministry are a testimony to God’s grace—his kind preservation from the world, the flesh, and the Devil. And happy marriages are a testimony to days of hard fighting.
We should remember that the infant church, too, had its unfaithful pastor problems. Christ himself knowingly chose its first 12 leaders. One betrayed him. One denied him and later was restored. But ten followed Christ unmarked by public scandal.
We each can name far more pastors who are faithful in their marriages than those who are not. And I suspect we would also say that it’s those faithful marriages, those ordinary, daily testimonies of richer or poorer, sickness and health, for better or worse that most influence us. One marriage fails that we might not presume, but many—many!—marriages are, by God’s grace, faithful that we might not despair.
Our grief and disappointment—or cynical resignation—at the news of one more pastor caught in public sin can blind us to the faithfulness of many. What’s more, it blinds us to the bigger picture of what marital faithfulness is. We need to remember that faithfulness is not only what happens in a bedroom at night but what happens in every room, in every moment, of a marriage. When we witness joy and peace and kindness—and forgiveness and long-suffering, too—between a husband and wife, we witness faithfulness.
“God’s glory will be shown in faithfulness wherever it is found, even in the tiny domestic picture of our seemingly insignificant families,” wrote Albert Mohler. Christ is building his house. And for generations to come, it will tell countless tiny stories of happy marriages. To the glory of God, let’s make sure we notice.