Mailbag #61: Does God Want Some Churches to Die; A Question about a Non-Intimate Marriage

Mailbag
05.05.2017

Does God want some churches to die, regardless of how faithful the leaders are?  »
How would you counsel a couple where the husband views pornography because the wife has no interest in sexual relations, but is still upset by his actions? »

Dear 9Marks,

I’ve been pastoring for two years. My church has about 50 in attendance on Sunday mornings, but about 10 on Wednesday and Sunday evenings. I’ve been preaching the Word faithfully every week. I’ve been praying for health, revitalization, and salvation. I’ve pursued intentional relationships to disciple and train up laypeople. However, in my two years, I’ve lost members, faced conflict with change, and have faced the point of giving up many times. No one seems to care. There have been zero salvations, and very little support. I really love my sheep, but I fear that God may have destined my church to die. Does he want some churches to die, regardless of sending faithful leaders like my wife and me?

—Dale

Dear Dale,

You’re not the first pastor or man of God to feel this way. I think of Jeremiah who pled with the Israelites for decades with little outward fruit to show for it. Or Adoniram Judson who labored for years before seeing his first convert.

You don’t yet know what the Lord has “destined” for this church. Such secret things belong to him (Dt. 29:29).

Maybe God means for you to pastor this church until it closes its doors. That’s not a bad ministry. When Mark Dever arrived at the declining and elderly Capitol Hill Baptist Church in 1994, he assumed that his might be a ministry of closing the church’s doors. Unless the Lord acted contrariwise, he expected to preach for a few years, do a number of funerals, eventually close the church, and then go teach at a seminary. Maybe that is the ministry the Lord has in store for you. Don’t despair. God’s purposes are good even there.

Maybe you’re not called to pastor. A calling to vocational ministry is both internal (your desires) and external (fruitfulness and affirmation of others). Have others affirmed you in the past? Your wife? Pastors and friends whom you trust? Another church? Has there been a track record of evangelistic fruit? Have people in the past grown toward holiness and ministry activity through your preaching? Could I find young people who would say about you, “Yes, Dale should definitely be a pastor! He helped me grow a ton”? Could I find doubters who considered abandoning the faith, but you encouraged them to persevere?

Or maybe you should just keep plodding. Good pastoring is often plodding, which is why Paul exhorts Timothy to teach “with complete patience” (2 Tim. 4:2). Not partial patience, but complete patience. Two years can feel like a life time under the strains of pastoral ministry, especially if you’re being attacked. I recognize that. And sometimes the wise thing is to walk away, especially if your family is suffering. Yet if what you’re experiencing is just the low-grade discouragement of fruitlessness, then maybe more prayer and plodding is the answer for now.

Brother, I don’t know what the Lord is doing. I know you must provide for your family (1 Tim. 5:8). That’s one very clear line. But I certainly cannot tell you what you should do vocationally. I can tell you to keeping praying for your church. Think of the apostles who did not let anything, even division and provision in the church, divert them from teaching and prayer (Acts 6:1–7). I’m certainly sorry for your discouragement. I do think most pastors go through such seasons, and it can be very lonely.

I do pray God guides you and blesses you with fruit which lasts, but more than that reminds you of his love for you and your family.

Dear 9Marks,

How would you counsel a married couple where the husband views internet pornography because the wife, by her own admission, has no interest in marital sexual relations, but is still upset by his actions?

—Matt

Dear Matt,

Tough situation. On the face of it, both husband and wife are not just sinning, but sinning in a way that violates the marriage covenant. And the sin of each tempts the other into deeper sin.

In other words, both should understand, “You’re sinning. You’re violating your marriage covenant. And you’re leading a brother/sister in Christ into sin.” He is seeking pleasure in the bodies of other women, a sin for which he is fully culpable before God regardless of what she does, and which tempts her toward a deeper rejection of him. She is (ostensibly) violating Paul’s command not to deprive one another, and leaving him open to satanic temptation, as 1 Corinthians 7:5 puts it. Moses even regards the denying of “marital rights” as grounds for divorce, which seems to be the passage Paul is building upon when he says, “The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband” (1 Cor. 7:3).

Now, I’m not saying their two sins are the same in every way. His is transparently and inescapably wrong. He must stop viewing pornography. He must repent of any self-pity or self-justification. He does not deserve to have a wife that will be intimate with him whenever he wants. He does not deserve a trial-less marriage, as much as my heart goes out to the brother in this trial. He deserves hell, and all that we have is by grace and is a gift from God. He must repent of a demanding posture, if he has had one. Instead, I would encourage him to use the (forced) “fast” from marital intimacy as an opportunity to pray and grow in humility (again, see 1 Cor. 7:5). A tough assignment, to be sure. But remind him that engaging in sexual sin of any kind shames the Savior who purchased him. It also hurts the man himself, his wife, and the marriage in the long run. And it is utterly foolish and futile.

The Lord understands his trial. The Lord is for him and for the resumption of intimacy and for flourishing marriages because they reflect well upon Christ and the church. So stay on the Lord’s side. Don’t choose Satan’s side by violating the marital covenant and exploiting other women by viewing pornography.

The husband should also put various accountability structures in place if he hasn’t already. I don’t know anything about this man’s past, but has sex or control been an idol? Does he struggle profoundly with impatience or not trusting the Lord? Whatever the answers, you might remind him that God has good purposes for him in this trial. He means to cause this man to rely more upon him. He doesn’t finally need physical intimacy of any kind. He needs the Lord. And maybe that’s what God is trying to teach him in this season.

Now, her sin also needs to be addressed if she’s open to counsel. But it’s a little more complicated. What’s behind it? Was she abused by someone else before marriage? Has she been abused by her husband? Or, if not abused, does he simply have a pattern of being selfish in their physical relations, such that she consistently feels “used” by him in the marriage bed and not cherished and honored? In other words, I’d want to start by searching hard for any reasons which make her “lack of interest” understandable, maybe even justifiable.

Or, is she simply being selfish? Attraction for our spouses is something that married couples must cultivate as the years pass. Maybe she has neglected that duty, and now her heart has grown hard and unattracted to him.

Then again, maybe he has failed to romance and cherish her over time, neglecting to take interest in her heart and soul. Maybe he’s failed to encourage her, to study her, and to love her in the specific ways she needs to be loved. And now he’s reaping the consequences of that neglect.

I don’t know what the deeper problems are. But if you’re married, Matt, you have some sense of how complicated marriages can be, and how layers and layers of sins and bad patterns and broken trust can pile on top of one another over time. What’s clear is that you have a lot of questions to ask.

I’ve heard a pastor friend of mine make this excellent point: marital intimacy is more of a thermometer than a thermostat. Like a thermometer, it reveals what the marriage already is, and broken sex (like this couple’s) probably reveals a marriage that’s already broken in other ways. It cannot change the temperature or fix those other areas of brokenness. It tells you to go looking for them. I don’t assume it’s all her fault, though it might be. Often it’s the man’s fault, even if the more visible symptoms of sin (like withholding intimacy) first show up on her side.

Does indefinitely withholding sex break the marital covenant, such that he eventually becomes free to divorce her? As I said, that seems to have been the case with Moses. Some might argue this from Paul. I’m not sure. Our elders have never had to work through that question for ourselves. To be clear, we never encourage divorce. The question is, would we permit it (i.e. not move toward church discipline), assuming her refusal rooted not so much in weakness but in rebelliousness? There is a difference between a spouse who says, “I panic!” and one who hard-heartedly asserts, “I just don’t care anymore!” With the former, a husband’s obligations may actually increase. With the latter, again, I don’t know, but a group of elders might discuss it.

I would certainly encourage the neglected spouse to do everything in his power to romance and pursue and love and be patient and not demanding but always tender and attentive.

I pray the Lord gives you wisdom. More than that, I would pray the Lord would soften their hearts and restore their marriage.

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