It’s become something of a truism that 80% of the work in a church is done by 20% of the people. Understandably, that frustrates the 20%. But even those who are diligently working should ask ourselves if we are not merely busy, but anxiously busy, preoccupied, distracted.
In yesterday’s post, we looked at the story of Martha’s frustration with her sister Mary. While Mary sat listening to Jesus, Martha buzzed about the house being the hospitable hostess. No one, apparently, paid attention to her busyness or offered to help; I imagine her audibly banging and clattering utensils in a bid to be noticed.
Her story may help us understand something Paul tells the Corinthians. In Luke, as we’ve seen, Martha is described as “worried” and “distracted.” In his response to questions about marriage, Paul uses the same words, but in the negative. He wants them to be “unworried” and “undistracted,” to not be anxiously pulled this way and that:
I want you to be free from concerns. A man who isn’t married is concerned about the Lord’s concerns—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the world’s concerns—how he can please his wife. His attention is divided. A woman who isn’t married or who is a virgin is concerned about the Lord’s concerns so that she can be dedicated to God in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the world’s concerns—how she can please her husband. I’m saying this for your own advantage. It’s not to restrict you but rather to promote effective and consistent service to the Lord without distraction. (1 Cor 7:32-35, CEB)
The context, again, is that some betrothed believers are anxious because the more religiously restrictive members of the church have advised them not to marry. Paul encourages them to go ahead, even if he agrees on pragmatic (not spiritual!) grounds that for some, remaining single and celibate might be the better option. His reasoning is eschatological: marriage is part of this world, which in God’s grand historical scheme is already on its way out. The top priority is giving “effective and consistent service” to the Lord, and realistically, the normal distractions of married life can get in the way.
Keep in mind that Paul actually has a high view of marriage as a one-flesh union through which even an unbelieving spouse can be sanctified. He does not begrudge marriage to the Corinthians; indeed, that would play into the hands of the faction that’s causing the unrest. He simply has practical and eschatological reasons for preferring singleness.
As long as we live in a world in which marriage is an ongoing reality, it is right and proper for spouses to care about pleasing each other. We don’t have to interpret that negatively to recognize that it divides people’s attention. In fact, so do other concerns: what makes us sad? What do we need to be happy? How do we handle possessions? And let’s face it: if marriage has the potential to distract us from wholehearted service, singleness is no guarantee of such devotion.
The point is not to figure out what boxes we need to check off to be numbered among the committed (“Single? Check. Volunteering at church? Check”), but to serve wisely and non-anxiously in the midst of our many responsibilities. Personally, I like to think that after Jesus gently chided Martha, she eventually found a way to devote herself to his teaching and make sure lunch got on the table.
And I like to think the same about married Christians: they can be married well and serve well. The question is what adjustment of spiritual perspective may be needed in order to serve in a way that is truly care-free.