This is the second installment of the address that was given on the occasion of the graduation of Candidate Mr. Ryan Barnhill from the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary on June 11, 2015.

Marriage of the Clergy

The Reformers encouraged the clergy to marry and repudiated Rome’s unbiblical requirement of clerical celibacy. Both Luther and Calvin repeatedly blasted Rome and her pope for making this commandment of men a command of God. Calvin did so in a sermon preached on Monday, October 2, 1559 in Geneva. The sermon text was Genesis 2:22-24. The title of the sermon was, “The Inviolable Union of Adam and Eve, God’s Will for All Time.” In the course of the sermon, Calvin said that we must not

approv[e] what they call celibacy, that is, abstaining from marriage, as do priests, monks, and nuns. Now there is a great difference between celibacy and true chastity, for we see that there are dissolute people living in all impurity and filthiness, who pride themselves in being more excellent than others and belonging to an angelic condition because they have set themselves apart and hold marriage in abomination.1

Luther was as vehement in his opposition to celibacy as a requirement imposed on the clergy, which requirement had no basis in sacred Scripture. In “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation” he wrote:

Furthermore, I advise that henceforth neither at his consecration to the priesthood nor at any time shall anyone under any circumstances promise the bishop to live in celibacy, but shall declare to the bishop that he has no authority to demand such a vow, and that to demand it is the devil’s own tyranny…. But as regards the wretched multitude who now sit in shame and heaviness of conscience because their wives are called “priests’ harlots” and their children “priests’ children” I will not withhold my faithful counsel nor deprive them of the comfort which is their due…. Not every priest can do without a woman, not only on account of the weakness of the flesh, but much more because of the necessities of the household. If he, then, may have a woman, and the pope grants him that, and yet may not have her in marriage,—what is that but leaving a man and a woman alone and forbidding them to fall? It is as though one were to put fire and straw together and command that it shall neither smoke nor burn. The pope has as little power to command this, as he has to forbid eating, drinking, the natural movement of the bowels, or growing fat.2

Both Luther and Calvin lived exemplary lives in marriage. Each loved the wife that God gave him. The cordial, even fun-loving relationship that Luther and Katie had comes out in Luther’s Table Talk. He teased her—mercilessly at times—teasing that belied his love for her. Calvin’s marriage did not last ten years. He was grief-stricken when Idelette died, and nearly despaired. In a letter written to Farel, dated April 11, 1549, Calvin wrote: “Intelligence of my wife’s death has perhaps reached you before now. I do what I can to keep myself from being overwhelmed with grief. My friends also leave nothing undone that may administer relief to my mental suffering.”3

Both Luther and Calvin considered their wives to be of tremendous help in carrying out their callings, not only by assisting them in their work as pastors, but by freeing them up to do their work. After Idelette’s death, in a letter to Pierre Viret, Calvin said of her that “[d]uring her life she was the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never experienced the slightest hindrance [in the work].”4 Many of us who are in the twilight of our careers look back with profound gratitude to God on account of what our wives have been to us and done for us in our ministries. How important is the minister’s wife to his work in the gospel ministry! For my part, if I were to promote the creation of a fourth office in the church—I speak as a fool—it would not be doctor of theology or evangelist or deaconess; it would be “minister’s wife.” So critical a role do I judge the minister’s wife to play in assisting her husband in carrying out his calling. Her contribution to the effectiveness of her husband’s ministry cannot be overstated. Generally, a congregation that loves the minister’s wife will also love and be longsuffering toward her minister. But a minister’s wife who does not conduct herself in a wise and honorable way, and is not content to stay in the background, who is outspoken and opinionated, or worse, is a busybody and a gossip, who watches the soap operas and the gameshows on television all afternoon, or who is constantly on the computer involved in “social networking,” or who is continually out shopping or socializing, who does not keep her house in order and her children cared for properly—such a wife hurts not just herself, but hurts her husband—hurts immeasurably his effectiveness in the congregation.

Which Comes First? The Minister’s Wife, or the Church?

Sometimes the question is asked, “Does the church come first? Or, does the minister’s marriage and wife come first?”

The answer to that question is, “Yes!” Yes, in a very real sense, both are first. And it is not correct to pit the one over against the other. The minister must pray for the wisdom to make proper judgments so that neither his marriage nor the church suffers on his account.

From a certain point of view, of course, the church must be first in the minister’s life. Jesus says in Luke 18:29, 30, “Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or parents, or brethren, or wife, or children, for the kingdom of God’s sake, who shall not receive manifest more in this present time, and in the world to come life everlasting.” If this is true of the Christian man generally, it certainly must be true of the minister of the gospel. Certainly, no faithful minister who has made plans with his family for some Friday evening and receives an emergency call about a parishioner who has been involved in a serious car accident, or is informed of the sudden death of one of the members of his congregation, or is contacted about some other genuine emergency, will hesitate to drop whatever he is doing, explain the situation to an understanding wife, and devote himself to this pastoral situation for as long as is necessary.

On the other hand, it is also true that a man’s marriage is of utmost importance and the example of his marriage in the church cannot be stressed too greatly. The minister who allows his work in the church regularly to interfere with time spent with his wife and children, who is always in his study, at some meeting, or leading a class or a society in the church, sins against his wife. He is not being a husband to the wife God has given him. It is with the minister as it is with a Christian husband and father, that the best thing that a father can do for his children is to love their mother. So also the best thing that a pastor can do for the church is to love his wife.

The Minister’s Calling with regard to His Wife

As regards the minister’s calling toward his wife, the apostle makes plain when he says in I Timothy 3:2 that he is to be “the husband of one wife.” He is to be a husband to his wife. What does that include?

From the outset it is worth noting that the Reformed have never understood this qualification of elders, whether ruling or teaching elders, to mean that the minister must be a married man. Rather, they have understood the apostle to teach that if he is married, he must be the husband of one wife. There have been a good number of faithful ministers of the gospel who have been unmarried. The apostle Paul was single and wished that “all men were even as I myself,” although he recognized that “every man hath his proper gift of God” (I Cor. 7:7). Augustine was single. J. Gresham Machen, a founding father of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, was single. Our churches have had a number of students who graduated from seminary and began their ministries as single men. A number of our current students are unmarried. So far as I know, they are looking for wives, as indeed they should be. Most ministers need the help and support of a godly, committed wife. But this is not an absolute requirement for the ministry. The requirement of the text is to be understood in such a way that, if a man is married, he must then be the husband of one wife.

You, graduate, are a married man. In His goodness, God has given you a dear wife and helpmeet. And together God has given you two children. You will begin your ministry, the Lord willing, as the husband of one wife. Your calling, now, is to be a husband with all that that implies to the one wife that God has given you. Be the kind of husband that Scripture calls you to be: a genuine, godly, Christ-like husband.

Negatively, do not be a tyrant, a domineering master, a cruel lord, who dictates orders to his wife and expects her to kowtow to his every demand. There are, as you know, husbands like that in the church. There are ministers who treat their wives that way. Shame on them! And they often justify that attitude and behavior, of course, just as the members do when they are guilty of such mistreatment of their wives. “I am her head, after all,” they will say when defending themselves from criticism of the way in which they treat their wives. “She is supposed to be subject to me. The Bible says that Sarah called Abraham her lord.”

At times, even when the minister does not treat his wife in an overbearing manner, he is nevertheless demeaning of her, scolding her like a school girl in front of their children and even in front of others, belittling and embarrassing her. This is abuse that is condemned by Scripture. No Christian man, and certainly no minister of the gospel, ought ever to treat his wife in this way. She is not his servant. She is his wife, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh, one flesh with him. The minister who treats his wife in this way sins grievously against her.

But, positively, the minister is called to be a husband to his wife, a husband to his one wife. That means, first of all, that he is to regard his wife as the one wife that God has given to him. She is the one wife whom God has specially prepared as his perfect complement, the one wife whom God has prepared to be his helpmeet. This morning in your Practica exam, you said that your wife is “your treasure.” That is the proper perspective to take; never forget that; always have that regard for her, that she is your treasure. She is the treasure that God has graciously given to you.

Second, being a husband to your one wife means that you must be faithful to her. That certainly is at the top of the list of what it means to be a husband to her, that you are faithful to her. Faithfulness is demanded of the minister in every aspect of his life. Faithfulness is especially demanded of the minister in his marriage. We are all weak, we ministers, too. You must never put yourself in a position in which you may be tempted to compromise your faithfulness to your wife. You must never put yourself in a position in which you could be unfaithful to the one wife that God has given you. Being a husband to her includes that you are faithful to her.

A word of caution is in order here in connection with your labors with the women of the church. You must always be above reproach. That is what it means to be “blameless.” Paul says that “a bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife…” (I Tim. 3:2a). You must never give occasion for any to bring an accusation against you. When the women of the church come to see you, leave your study door open, and make sure that your wife is with you in the house. Or, when meeting with the women of the church, insist that an elder be present. The minister ought not to meet with the women alone. A word of caution is in order: “let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (I Cor. 10:12).

1 John Calvin, Sermons on Genesis Chapters 1-11, trans. Rob Roy McGregor (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2009), 198.

2 Martin Luther, “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation,” in Works of Martin Luther (The Philadelphia Edition), Volume II (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, repr. 1982), 121-22.

3 John Calvin, Letters of John Calvin, compiled by Jules Bonnet (1858 ed.; repr., New York: Burt Franklin, 1972), 2:218.

4 John Calvin, Letters, 2:216.