Continuing with my recent reflections on the topic of work, I’ve sometimes heard it suggested that ministry work is superior to secular work (although usually not quite so directly and explicitly).
One of the reasons people may cite is that, paralleling it with what they understand Paul to be saying about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7.32-35, ministry work supposedly enables more ‘unhindered devotion to the Lord’ while secular work means your ‘interests are divided’.
What can we say about this?
I’m aware that temperatures rise and many people have a hard time distancing themselves in this debate. Most of us belong to either the secular or the ministry work-force. So we’re personally invested.
And I’m no different.
But I do think it’s worth scrutinising this position — especially the parallel with marriage.
To begin with, it’s slightly odd that in the context of 1 Corinthians 7 Paul has already used the (presumably) less controversial issue of work to illuminate the harder issue (marriage and singleness), whereas we want to turn it back the other way.
More significant, though, is the question of what Paul means when he says that married people have ‘divided interests’.
Does it mean they can’t serve the Lord as effectively as those who aren’t married?
Is Paul saying singleness is a superior state as far as ministry is concerned — more full of (this-worldly) concern and anxiety?
And is this the same Paul who suggests elsewhere that those in Christian leadership should have exemplary family lives — faithful in marriage and managing their children and households well (1 Timothy 3.1-13)?
Safe to say I think this isn’t quite right.
Paul frames this whole set of instructions to single and married people with an exhortation to be free from anxiety. And I think this applies to people in both states of life.
Wouldn’t it be strange for Paul to commend singleness as the most reliable path to anxiety-free living — given what he’s already said about marriage as good, marrying as not only not sinful but positively helpful for some in the pursuit of self-control?
So marriage and singleness are simply two different contexts in which to live without anxiety — although doing so will have a distinctive shape in each state.
Likewise, can’t we say that secular work and ministry work are simply two different contexts in which we can serve and please the Lord while admitting that doing so will have a distinctive shape in each?