Service in Marriage: The Uncomfortable Command

Within a marriage there is usually one spouse who cares about the organization and cleanliness of the house and its contents more than the other. (And if both of you care about keeping the house neat and in order…well…I’m sure Liz would be jealous  :-). For that spouse, there are many moments when they find themselves cleaning up after the rest of the family. I can think of a few time during our marriage when Liz (while doing something like picking up scattered clothes, or after I’ve asked her a simple, unassuming question like “Um, are there any clean plates?”) has exclaimed, “What do you think I am?! Your slave?”

“Slave” is quite an emotional word. Within our American mindset it is cringe-worthy. Nobody wants to be referred to or thought of as a slave. It feels wrong, un-American for sure, and unchristian. Or is it?

When we read the New Testament, we come across people who don’t mind being called “slaves.” In fact, Paul (Rom 1:1), Peter (2 Pet 1:1), James (Jam 1:1), Jude (Jd 1), and even Mary the mother of Jesus (Lk 1:38), identified themselves as slaves of the Lord Jesus. Of course most of us would be happy to be known as slaves for Jesus, after all, he did save us from our sins. But it is really not that far from “slave of Jesus” to “slave for his church.” And if we are willing to serve those who are in his church, how much more should we serve the person in his body who also happens to live in our house? The truth is, Jesus says that when you serve the least of Jesus’s brothers that you serve Jesus himself (Matt 25:37–40).

In reading the gospels we constantly find Jesus working long hours healing and preaching, often to the point of exhaustion (Mark 4:38). There doesn’t seem to be a text where he isn’t teaching disciples, talking with Pharisees, healing the sick and raising the dead. Jesus is the model for serving others (John 13:15).

Speaking to the disciples, but meaning it for all Christians (rich, poor, sick, healthy, husband, wife, child, etc.), Jesus says that “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (see Mark 10:42–45). This thought is repeated in the upper room after he’d washed the feet of the disciples.

“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master…” (John 13:14–16).

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Let’s consider some applications about marriage that flow out of these passages:

First, a spouse who is continually being served but is continually not serving shows that they believe themselves to be greater than Jesus. Think about that. Both the husband who is constantly exercising authority over his wife for his own comfort and the wife who thinks it is beneath her to serve her husband have a pride to rival Satan’s own (Isaiah 14:12–15). Jesus didn’t serve us because we deserved it, he did it out of love. So let’s not mince words, either you serve your spouse out of selfless love  or you believe yourself greater than the one who saved you.

Second, the limit of serving your spouse is the limit of death. As we saw in Mark 10:45 and will see even more clearly in Phil 2, Jesus service for others ended in death. Suddenly, being “too tired after a hard day at work to help out” or “too overwhelmed to help because I’ve had the kids all day” can seem like a  less than adequate excuses. This is not to say that we should run ourselves ragged, but if your natural tendency is to avoid work because you think you’ve done enough already, there might be a problem.

Third, serving your spouse is serving Jesus. This is a double edged sword. When we refuse to serve our spouses, we refuse to serve Jesus, but when we serve our spouses we are serving Jesus. What wouldn’t you do for Jesus? Serve your spouse in the same way.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about why we have such a hard time “slaving” for our spouses.

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