There has been a teaching that has gone around certain church circles intermittently for the last several decades that states, “Newly married couples should step away from church-related ministry for at least one year.”
I remember hearing about this when I was newly saved in 1978, and it was going around in some segments of our youth group. Although I thought it an interesting concept, I thought it did not match up with the full weight of Scripture, and I paid it no mind. Eventually myself and my wife, Joyce, used our wedding money to finance a six-week trip to the Soviet Union to evangelize during the Moscow Olympics in the summer of 1980, two months after we were married.
God moved in powerful signs and wonders with many atheists and Communists hearing the gospel—evidently, God must not have taken that teaching very seriously either, especially in how He surely led me and Joyce in the first few months of our marital sojourn!
The teaching we are speaking of in this article seems to have originated from the interpretation of a Scripture in Deuteronomy 24:5, which, when taken in the context of previous passages in Deuternomy 20:1-8 shows it primarily relates to choosing undistracted soldiers for war.
Deuteronomy 24:5 reads, “When a man is newly married, he shall not go out with the army or be liable for any other public duty. He shall be free at home one year to be happy with his wife whom he has taken” (ESV).
Deuteronomy 20:3-8 reads, “And he shall say to them, ‘Hear, O Israel: Today you are on the verge of battle with your enemies. Do not let your heart faint, do not be afraid, and do not tremble or be terrified because of them; for the Lord your God is He who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you.’ Then the officers shall speak to the people, saying: ‘What man is there who has built a new house and has not dedicated it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man dedicate it. 6 Also what man is there who has planted a vineyard and has not eaten of it? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man eat of it. And what man is there who is betrothed to a woman and has not married her? Let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle and another man marry her.’ The officers shall speak further to the people, and say, ‘What man is there who is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return to his house, lest the heart of his brethren faint[a] like his heart.’"
The principle of biblical interpretation—especially for obscure passages—is for Scripture to interpret Scripture. Hence, in order to fully unpack and understand Deuteronomy 24:5, we have to take it in context with Deuteronomy 20:3-8 because it came first and both passages deal with the same subject: engaged and/or newly married men who are told not to go to war. Deuteronomy 24:5 also adds that said men should not be liable for public service.
When we think of the days in which they lived (no cars, paved highways, no airplanes, without cellphones, email, Skype, FaceTime, Facebook, Twitter—no way to come and go and communicate regularly and quickly), "public service" most likely was another way of saying "serving as a soldier," and even if it was not, it probably entailed being away from home and disconnected from one's spouse for long periods of time to serve the nation at large. This is quite different from ministering today in a local church, in which said couples are able to live together and in many cases serve together in the ministry.
The following are seven reasons why I do not agree with newlyweds taking one year off of ministry:
1. If we are going to use the above passages for engaged or newly married couples to push away from ministry for a year, then, in context, they also should not minister if they open up a new business, buy a new house, plant a new garden or are dealing with anxiety or fear over anything in their life. If that is the case, then there will hardly be any people ministering in the body of Christ!
2. The proper context of the above passage has to do with going into a real physical battle—thus, the reason for this commandment from Moses to betrothed couples and/or newlyweds was because there was a chance the husband would be killed in battle. Obviously, somebody should not start a new business or get married and then immediately go to a war and be killed.
3. Of course, some will attempt to spiritualize this portion of Scripture and say that they should not be involved in ministry because it is “spiritual warfare.” My answer to them is that you are going to have spiritual warfare throughout your life—in school, on your job, dealing with your mother-in-law—so if you step away from church-related ministry because of spiritual warfare, you might as well step away from every aspect of your life—including marriage and having children, because that is one of the primary places you will experience spiritual warfare.
4. There will always be things we have to focus on in our life. There are always seasons when we will emphasize one thing more than another. Of course, when someone first gets married, they may have to step away from some ministry for a brief period of time—but anything close to approaching one year, in my opinion, is ridiculous unless, of course, you are in a marital crisis and not in a position emotionally or spiritually to minister to anyone. For that matter, it can be applied to any point of your marriage—not just when you first get married. On the other hand, I have seen God move through couples in spite of their marital challenges, and the ministry can actually help them have a common focus and/or connection to one another that is God-focused and keeps them connected to others in the body of Christ who will hold them accountable and keep them in good company.
5. Once we are in the habit of stepping away from ministry because of an engagement or new marriage, then we will also want to step away when we have our first child, then our second child, or when we get a new job that is stressful, or when we have an argument with our spouse. The Bible is clear—you shall have no other gods before Him. This means we should always put His kingdom first, no matter what personal things we have to take care of. Jesus said in Mark 4:18-19, in the parable of the sower, that some fall away from Christ because of desires for other things or because of persecution, tribulation and the cares and pleasures of this life.
Someone might say, “Well, I am serving the Lord by loving my wife.” That is true; marriage is in the kingdom as much as church is. But what is church ministry? It has to do with serving your neighbor—using your gifts and abilities in conjunction with your fellow members of Christ to fulfill the corporate destiny God has for a region or a faith community. It binds diverse families together by giving them a common cause in alignment with their same Lord. Where does it say in Scripture that once we get married, we throw all this out the window and we no longer have to function together with the church to serve our neighbor? Where does it say that we are to cease using God-given abilities and gifts to impact people for Christ or to stop winning souls for God for one year after we get married and or when we get engaged?
6. Truly, if Deuteronomy 24:5 was relevant in the church age, something this important would have been alluded to or unpacked some more in New Testament passages regarding proper marital relations. We find nothing of the sort in Ephesians 5, Colossians 3 or 1 Peter 3.
7. Finally, in my experience, I have seen many highly committed people focus totally on their engagement, their wedding day plans and eventually their marriage—and for the duration of the engagement, they virtually drop out of ministry. I have rarely seen any of these folks recover their zeal and passion for God. You cannot turn passion for the kingdom on and off like a water faucet! It is a gift of God and something to be cherished. Representing Christ in His service to His body is something to be highly esteemed. In Galatians 6:10, it instructs us to do good to all men—especially to those who are of the household of faith. First Corinthians 12 admonishes us to function as a body, in which we in the local church depend upon one another. When we just focus on our marriage, we are essentially cutting off our life-giving anointing, which is meant for the service of others, and turning it inward. This is contrary to Acts 1:8, which teaches us that the power of the Holy Spirit is to be His witnesses—hence, the power of God is not primarily for self-edification.
Consequently, when we stop ministering outside our small circles, we are in danger of becoming a swamp instead of a life-giving stream. Romans 12:4-8 commands us to use our gifts to serve one another in the context of His body. There is no Scripture on marriage and family that temporarily suspends that command in the New Testament.
Finally, in my opinion, those that push away from all ministry for a year after they are engaged or married are in danger of committing idolatry and worshipping their marriage union more than the Lord who brought them together to promote and extend His kingdom. In the long term, self-focused marriages and families usually generate lukewarm or backslidden children who are narcissistic and fail to perpetuate a generational blessing.
May God help all emerging young couples find a balance in marriage and ministry and together love God with all their heart, mind and soul.
Joseph Mattera is overseeing bishop of Resurrection Church, Christ Covenant Coalition, in Brooklyn, N.Y.