When the Church Is a Mistress
by Jonathan Dodson
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 & love will die without a home Hear the soldier 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 sometimes have more in common with Wall Street than they do with 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, in a new city, with a new daughter, in a new church. Guess which one got the least attention? Family. As all these new things filled our lives, they began to crowd out 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.
“What our relationships need is a home, a place where families can laugh, play, cry, and talk deeply together. ”
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 rekindle. 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 who, when thanked for a weekend get-away without the kids, says to his wife: “It’s my pleasure” not “It’s my duty”! Our spouses 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.”