The Pastor's Wife
I was tempted to post an article titled: What Does The Bible Say About The Pastor’s Wife? The body of that article would have contained just one word: ‘Nothing.’ Of course, with sensationalism comes overstatement. But the simple fact is this: my imagined article would have been truer than the considerable emphasis many Christians place on the role of the pastor’s wife. Now, I’m not for a second suggesting that the wives of pastors don’t face unique challenges, which I hope to address in the latter half of this post. But before I do that, I want to challenge the unbiblical—and therefore unhelpful—significance and status many churches grant to the pastor’s wife.
1. Pastor’s Wife Is Not An Office
Though not limited to such situations, church governance structures that exaggerate the significance of an individual leader within the local church tend to also give an unbiblical prominence to their spouse. When there is a single pastor, who is ‘more equal than the others,’ esteem is usually follows for his wife. Much like the child in the playground who frequently reminds his peers that his mother is the principal, the pastor’s wife easily assumes a primacy over other members of the church. Authority is gained through association or affiliation.
Forgetting for now that the New Testament consistently presents a plurality in local church leadership, authority among Christians is never the result of association. Elders are appointed, having met the biblical requirements; likewise deacons. But these church offices do not come with coattails for spouses. True, an elder must manage his household well, and this certainly extends to the healthiness of his marriage (1 Timothy 3:4-5). Yet the office of elder does not extend to his spouse. A pastor’s wife should not enjoy any privileges, an elevated position, or authority by virtue of being married to the pastor.
Last year a friend told me about an interview that he had with a church eldership. The interview was to see if he was called to minister in that congregation. In the meeting were the church’s elders, lead pastor, and his wife. The problem for my friend was that while the lead pastor was part of the church’s eldership, his wife was not. Her only claim to a seat in the interview was her husband. She sat in authority simply by virtue of her marriage. It soon became clear to my friend that he wasn’t called to minister in that church.
As I put it in my satirical pastoral epistle, “If anyone aspires to the office of pastor’s wife, she desires a noble task. A pastor’s wife must be married to the pastor” (3 Timothy 2:8-9). In many cases, that is the only qualification required. Thus the unofficial appointment of the pastor’s wife is a mistake on at least two levels. Firstly, it ignores gifting in favour of association, tending towards nepotism. Secondly, it upholds an unbiblical office that dilutes the the New Testament’s leadership model. There is no such office as pastor’s wife.
2. We Must Not Overburden The Pastor’s Wife
While the role of pastor’s wife can be a strategic ‘office’ for those who desire more authority than God has granted, it can also come with crushing expectations for others.
When my wife and I were studying at seminary together she was enlisted in extracurricular training for ministry wives—she was, after all, going to be a pastor’s wife. Ignoring the fact that this ‘training’ didn’t go much further than exhorting her to embody a housewife from the 80s, she struggled with the entire notion. For she wasn’t going into ministry in the same way that I was. I had been called to minister in a local church. She hadn’t. Yet with my appointment a host of expectations were assumed.
The above problem is compounded by two things. Firstly, there is much talk these days of ‘ministry couples.’ I have no issue with the concept, or its various expressions. Throughout history countless Christian couples have entered the mission field together, started schools, and created foster homes for children. Added to this, church history presents us with ‘powerhouse’ Christian couples—we need only think of Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora. But exceptions make bad rules.
A couple may choose to enter ministry together. And if this is the case then both should receive a salary from local church or ministry organisation. But I worry that many churches have opted for the language of ‘ministry couples’ because it allows them to squeeze a pastor’s wife for more than she’s committed or able to do.
Secondly, and related to the above, we speak about ‘going into ministry together.’ Yes, the pastor and his wife should see their marriage as an opportunity for selfless service and generous hospitality. But then so should every married couple. As with the above point, I fear that this is often nothing more than a veiled and cost-effective means of heaping unbiblical expectations onto the pastor’s wife.
Of course, when a man enters into ministry his wife should be made aware of the particular challenges and peculiar demands that will be placed on him, and therefore his home life. If this is what one means by ‘going into ministry together’ then it is a necessary caution. But it should never be plied to make a pastor’s wife feel guilty, forcing her into areas or volumes of service that she has not felt called to. When a church calls a pastor he is the one going into ministry. Naturally the pastors’s wife must support her husband in his ministry. But this is very different to the view that says she is also going into ministry.
In The New Pastor’s Handbook, Jason Helopoulos offers some excellent advice regarding how men entering ministry should navigate the various assumptions that will be made about his wife—the pastors’s wife. Helopoulos says: let the church know that they are not hiring both of you. This will pave the way to set up clear expectations. He writes, “Make these expectations plain not only to the elders of the church and the congregation but also to your wife. Everyone should know—and your wife first of all—that you expect nothing more from her in the service of the church than you would expect from any other woman in the congregation…not less but also not more. She may serve more than an average layperson, but that is nor your expectation and should not be the church’s expectation either.”