Managing Family Commitments

Numbers 30 provides a concrete illustration of the principle of family leadership that transcends the Mosaic Covenant. We are not under the covenant laws of the Pentateuch, yet many of the same laws are binding under the New Covenant precepts, (New Covenant = New Testament), Romans 6:14 “…for you are not under law but under grace.” The exhortations to husbands in Ephesians 5 to sacrificial and edifying love and leadership can be applied for the same effect as Numbers 30. In other words, Numbers 30:3-15 clearly illustrates the principle of spiritual headship, spiritual care, and loving protection of one’s wife and children by evaluating personal commitments.

Verse 13 makes reference to the wife’s vow that her husband perceives will “afflict her”, implying that it will be a hardship or a burden to her. This could mean a commitment to fasting from food or marital intimacy, (see Leviticus 16:29,31). But R. K. Harrison translates the phrase, “to her detriment”, (Numbers: An Exegetical Commentary, Baker, 1992, p. 379) and agrees with the broader thrust of the passage to include all kinds of vows or agreements. A husband’s holy love and care for his wife and family becomes the guiding principle of his leadership.

Many obligations can bring spiritual or even physical harm to the individual and the family. They may conflict with spiritual duties or may permit worldly influence. These obligations can be good things, yet adversely affect our spiritual life. Even “good and wholesome” things like work, ministry, or sports may conflict or displace our chief priorities and bring spiritual harm. The spiritually minded husband must carefully weigh the effects of even small commitments of his wife and children to avoid trading away godly values for some earthly prize.

In verses 13-15, Moses vividly describes a husband observing the verbal promise of a commitment within his family circle and saying nothing. Moses says, “If her husband makes no response whatever to her from day to day, then he confirms all her vows or all the agreements that bind her; he confirms them because he made no response to her on the day that he heard them.” The tone of the language is an obvious rebuke to the husband’s tacit approval, especially since verse 15 says that if he annuls her vows at a later time, then he bears her guilt for the broken promise. In other words, he knew it was not a good idea from the start but lacked the courage to speak up, he failed even to encourage prayerful deliberation before commitment.

The “no response” brings to mind the inaction of Adam when the serpent persuaded Eve. He was clearly present, Genesis 3:6 says he was “with her,” and 1 Timothy 2:14 says he was “not deceived” by the serpent’s lies, yet he did nothing to protect his wife from sinful seduction. A husband or father is a steward of God’s authority; therefore a man’s silence or inaction when spiritual danger is near is deeply sinful.

Leadership in the home requires that we interact with our wives and children over promises, agreements, or obligation they may make. A husband may ask that his wife to pray and thoughtfully interact with him over the desire to enter a ministry, or commit to a job, or whatever the contemplated obligation may be. It may be that he must say, “No,” to priorities and obligations that will interfere with the woman’s role as wife and mother; or that will hinder the family from faithfully gathering for worship with the church. Possibly he should heartily confirm the desire of his wife or child. Spiritual wisdom, prayer, and reflection are needed to give a godly response. However, what is clearly a point of danger is when the husband gives “no response whatever”. This is leadership by default instead of godly proactive involvement.

The text of Numbers 30 underscores the sacredness of giving our word whether in promise to God or to another (verses 1-2). Jesus’ new covenant teaching on vows reiterates the same principle of Numbers 30; Matthew 5:33-37

“Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform your oaths to the Lord. But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is His footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Nor shall you swear by your head, because you cannot make one hair white or black. But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’ For whatever is more than these is from the evil one.”

A vow or promise is always before God. A husband and father should help his family to wisely evaluate their obligations, avoid rash promises, and to always follow through on promises made.

The passage also has some application for spiritual leaders in the church. Many times when a believer expresses commitment to a certain ministry, I often encourage a time limit. I may respond by asking them to do this for at least one year. This provides protection from energetic starts that are exhausted within a few weeks, and on the other hand, a life-sentence to ministry when the heart is no longer in it. As shepherds we must hold our people accountable to the faithful fulfillment of their word.

Often believers caught in habitual sin will attempt to secure their sanctification by making a vow to abstain or “never sin like this again.” Many times over pastoral protest, a counselee will make an oath or promise in order to show how serious he is about avoiding future sin. Such vows are not necessary. All that is needed for our sanctification is found in the Word and in the power of the Spirit applying the Person and work of Jesus Christ to our faith. Consider all the men who attended promise-keepers and made their seven promises and have now broken some or all of them. To go beyond the new covenant obligations by making a vow is not sinful but may not be wise. We must make agreements and covenants as part of the binding together of our society in marriage and business but a wise person learns to make few promises.

Vows are sacred and binding. Breaking a vow can have grievous consequences. The believer is already bound by the New Covenant commands and directives of God. These commands and obligations are not burdensome (1 John 5:3), but issue from the love of God ignited and maintained by the Holy Spirit. Although we do not forbid believers to make vows unto God, such is unnecessary if they will obey His commands with overflowing love.

Nevertheless, pastors, husbands, and fathers should be very careful in what they allow those under their authority to vow or obligate themselves to do. Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 warns us,

“Walk prudently when you go to the house of God; and draw near to hear rather than to give the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they do evil. Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you on earth; therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes through much activity, and a fool’s voice is known by his many words. When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; for He has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed — Better not to vow than to vow and not pay. Do not let your mouth cause your flesh to sin, nor say before the messenger of God that it was an error. Why should God be angry at your excuse and destroy the work of your hands? For in the multitude of dreams and many words there is also vanity. But fear God.”

Practical Exhortations:

  1. Husbands, be proactive in shepherding your wife and her commitments; be lovingly vocal. Don’t set back and stay quiet until your family is in mass confusion, stressed out, and failing to live for Christ, and then say, “You’ve gotta quit this and stop that! NOW!”
  2. Wives, seek the counsel of your husband before you make any binding commitments. If you disagree on the matter, then pray together for a season; seek counsel if necessary, until you have solidarity. Biblical submission ultimately brings freedom.
  3. Parents, remember the principle that, “whatever you own, owns you.” So if you are committed to a soccer league, hobby club, piano lessons, drama group, softball team, riding lessons, debate team, etc., then you are owned by your commitments. But at a certain point, the tail starts to wag the dog and you and your family are no longer free to do ministry. Instead of living for the glory and the joy of God, we become slaves to a schedule of activities that interfere with our personal walk with God and hinder our ministry to others. Neither we nor our children can participate in everything we desire; we must choose carefully, discerning the Lord’s will. Otherwise we will live like fools. As Paul says in Ephesians 5:15-17: “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be unwise, but understand what the will of the Lord is.”  Sometimes, the greatest blessing to your family comes by saying, “No,” for ourselves and our children.
  4. It is great to be involved in different activities and wonderful to expose our children to music and sports. These activities may offer opportunities for gospel witness and such disciplines are often helpful in a child’s development. But we must never forget the spiritual priorities that are central to Biblical Christianity. God has called us to worship Him alone; He is to be supreme in all of life. Over commitment and oppressive schedules are evidence of idolatry; the good things in life have displaced the greatest thing, — our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.