Be Wary Of Churning Out Marthas Rather Than Marys

Our church has a practice of presenting new members to the congregation during morning worship.

It serves two purposes: to ask the congregation to formally pledge to uphold these new members in service and in prayer, and to introduce these new members to their new church family.  As such, it’s a pretty rote practice and not unfamiliar from what I’ve experienced at previous churches – with one subtle difference.

After his spiel about church membership and the duty of the church to its members, the pastor passes the new members a microphone.  “Introduce yourselves,” he tells them, “and talk about what you’re doing in God’s body here.”

And they do.  This woman is in the choir; that man has just started handbells.  Another woman says that she has participated in a lot of short-term projects but wants to get into a small group.  And that man on the end, well, he’s already doing everything there is to do at the church.

I suspect that’s how most Christians engage in discussion about their spiritual walk: we want to speak in terms of doing.  We like to say what we’re involved in, what ministries we’re a part of, what studies we do or have done, what church-wide service projects we loved.  “How’s the Christian walk going?” someone might ask us, and our temptation is to reply, “Amazing!  Just the other day, I did/went…”

But Christian doing is not Christian identity.

Let me make it quick and clear before I delve deeper: Christian doing is absolutely fundamental to Christianity.  Service and ministry, the external things that we go and do – all of that stuff – is to a great degree the meat and potatoes of the Gospel.  It is necessary to the running of the church and to the linking of the church to its community, and of individual believers to their own communities.

With that said, I’ve noticed lately that all of our emphasis seems to be on these externals.  It is how we define ourselves: “I am part of this ministry, or I am a member of this study.”  It is often how we measure other believers’ spiritual health, or lack thereof: “Man, I am just so amazed by his relationship with God – he’s so engaged with the church and with ministry!”  And it is how we disciple and evangelize people: “Go and plug in!  Go and get involved!”

What I’m saying is that we are very good at teaching people how to be Martha.  Luke 10:38 tells us that Martha “opened her home” to Jesus – what hospitality!  She was a do-er.  An administrator.  The kind of person who made things happen.  The sort of woman who took care of business and had no patience for other people lollygagging when the Lord was right there.

And that is how we tend to raise up believers.  Go, we say.  Do.  Get busy.  The Lord is right here!  So we train up people in programs, and we mentor them, and we give them groups to join, and things to do, and lists of tasks, and we teach them how to train other people in programs, and mentor them, and give them groups to join, and things to do, and lists of tasks…

But missing from all of this doing is the deliberate cultivation of a reflective interior life that allows for individual growth and a changing, evolving, rich relationship with God.

That’s what Mary had.  She sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what He said (39).  In the midst of a hurricane of activity, she was…well, she was doing what to most of us seems like nothing.  She wasn’t helping.  She wasn’t checking items off the list.  She was listening to Jesus.  And, as Jesus tells Martha, Mary was making a right and appropriate choice.

Sometimes Jesus wants us to put everything down and come listen.  But we are so, so bad at teaching people how to do that.  I don’t know many believers who even attempt it.  In fact, most believers I know chalk their spiritual lives up to the sum of their spiritual activities – group studies, church attendance, choir participation – and don’t aspire to anything else.  Ask people “what’s God been telling you or teaching you lately?” or “what’s been on your heart about your spiritual walk this week?” and you’re as likely to get a blank look or a stammered, vague reply as anything else.  People are hardly even comfortable talking about their relationship with God on an individual, intimate level, and it’s not always because they’re shy.  Sometimes it’s because there isn’t one.

I was fortunate, growing up, to be surrounded by a phalanx of godly women.  And though these women taught me in Sunday School and church and encouraged me to be active and to do, they also taught me – by example – what it meant to actually develop an individual walk with Christ.  To nurture a relationship.  To sometimes just listen, or learn.  To reflect.  To think.  To make God not just an activity, but a fundamental facet of my individual identity.  To get comfortable with a one-on-one relationship with Christ, to really embrace the Holy Spirit’s desire to challenge and shape you.  To have my relationship with God be something that existed independently outside of all the stuff that I did for and through church.

What I fear is that, in our modern church era, we’re losing that.  In our desperate desire to do and to be Marthas, we have become, as she was, “distracted,” and many of us are losing the ability and even the knowledge of how to be a proper Mary: to simply sit and learn, to want to approach Christ individually, to cultivate an inner life that is separate from and complementary to the activities-oriented outer Christian lives we lead.

It is vital.  We are who we are in and because of Christ, and we need to remember what cherishing that looks like.




4 thoughts on “Be Wary Of Churning Out Marthas Rather Than Marys

  1. That may be, to some extent, a rather complementarian fault in thinking. Since men are supposedly the spiritual heads of their family, the ones who are supposed to lead prayers and lead Bible study within the family, a woman’s spiritual role is to just follow their husband’s lead. She can do lots of stuff for the Lord, nurture her children and model submission like Jesus did; but she’s not supposed to be spiritual one. Marthas are just what Christianity has been pressuring women to be; get married! Have children! Do stuff at church! Be busy for the Lord! Mary is the opposite, and the church never quite knows what to do with those.


    1. You know that’s a really interesting point, actually, and one I hadn’t considered. That really is true – especially in that moment when we see her Mary is sort of deliberately subverting those sorts of expectations, huh? You’re right that some of that method of thinking may well have a source in complementarianism.


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