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Should Gospel ministry effect family life?

The verses about Onesiphorus in 2 Timothy 1:15-18 are a challenge to us, as they remind us that a divine calling to follow Jesus Christ wholeheartedly will inevitably have a cost on family life. However, the Bible is clear that for those who answer the call of God on their life the cost is both necessary and worth it. In Matthew 10:34-38 Jesus speaks about how just turning to Him in faith may cause you to be distanced from your family:

“34 ‘Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35 For I have come to turn ‘“a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law – 36 a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.”37 ‘Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38 Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

The sword is the symbol of conflict. Jesus is saying that answering the call to follow Him will bring conflict into many families, but at the end of the day, being obedient to Him is more important than family unity. He is not saying this is the ideal that He wants, and He is not saying that it is going to be this way in every family, just that this kind of resentment and animosity will arise as people put Him first. Jesus is clear, many children will resent their parents for answering the call to follow Jesus. That is not a good enough reason to refuse to follow Him.

In Luke 18:28-30, Jesus is speaking to His disciples, just after the rich man refuses to surrender his wealth in order to follow Him: “28 Peter said to him, ‘We have left all we had to follow you!’ 29 ‘Truly I tell you,’ Jesus said to them, ‘no one who has left home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.’”

These verses perhaps speak to more of a ministry context. Jesus refers to those who have left “home or wife or brothers or sisters or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God The implication is that some of them had done this in order to take part in His mission. We have to remember that this is spoken in a culture which places extremely high value on the home and the family. For someone to leave their home and family behind to follow Jesus was scandalous in the eyes of the society. Yet Jesus commends them for it, and goes further to say they will be rewarded!

Let’s be clear about what Jesus is not saying.

  1. Jesus is not advocating divorce, as he himself also said of marriage: “what God has joined together, let no one separate” Matthew 19:6.
  2. Jesus is also not saying that anyone is free to abandon the responsibility to care and provide for their family. He instructed John to take care of his mother after he died (John 19:26-27), and Paul says that those who don’t care for their families are ‘worse than unbelievers’ (1 Timothy 5:8).
  3. He is also not giving people an excuse to get out of a hard family life. There is no place for selfishness in following Christ, if family life has become a struggle we cannot opt out in order to ‘answer our calling’ - using Gospel ministry as an excuse to have an easier life.
  4. Jesus is not talking about workaholism. Those who effectively abandon their family because they love to work more than they love to be at home. These people are not Gospel motivated but selfishly motivated. They have not left home ‘for the sake of the kingdom of God’, but rather for the sake of ‘the kingdom of me and my fulfilment’.

What he is making clear is that in order to follow Him, there will be a cost to family life. For Onesiphorus, as we see in 2 Timothy 1:15-18, these teachings were very real. He literally left everything behind when he died in the cause of his ministry. Jesus says that his reward in heaven is very great for doing so. He answered the Gospel call and died serving His Lord, literally losing His life for His name’s sake. We are not told how His family responded to his death, but life would most likely have been much harder for them without Him around. But it does seem though, that they weren’t resentful of His sacrifice. Many people had abandoned the faith in Ephesus (v15), and they would have had greater cause than most, yet we see the end of Paul’s letter that they are still there and faithfully serving the Lord, as he is able to offer them His greetings in 2 Timothy 4:19. That should challenge us too. They continue in the Gospel ministry, despite the fact that they have lost their father to it’s cause. Following Jesus has cost them a great deal, yet they remain faithful. This points to the fact that they were on board with the calling Onesiphorus had received. Gospel ministry is best done as a family business, where all members understand the priority it takes and know that the cost involved is nothing compared to the reward for those who are faithful to Him.