The Pastor's Wife: Marriage And Ministry
A few weeks back I wrote an article on the pastor’s wife. In it I made two very simple points. The first criticised the unbiblical emphasis that is often placed on the pastor’s wife. I suggested that this emphasis tends towards an unofficial ‘office’ and unwarranted status in the local church. My second point cautioned against the unkind and often unbearable expectations that are placed on the pastor’s wife. Both points challenged the view that makes the pastor’s wife an extension of her husband and his pastoral office. In this and another follow-up article I will pick up on a few comments made by friends and readers. Engaging with these I hope to further clarify our thinking about the role of a pastor’s wife.
Wendell Berry: “Marriage As A State Of Mutual Help”
More than a couple of readers felt that my post understated the significance of marriage. Commenting on this, Jade correctly noted that the pastor’s wife finds herself in a “unique position.” She argued that the biblical pattern given for marriage is not only union but that of partnership. In one sense, when people marry they become a “team.” But more than simply needing to share a similar vision or pull in the same direction, Jade added that spouses shape one another. Therefore a pastor’s wife possesses significant influence within the church, not through leveraging her association with the pastor but by the formative impact that she will have on him. This influence is not authoritative but relational. But that does not mean it is insignificant.
Jade’s point converges with one made by Wendell Berry, in his essay Feminism, The Body, And The Machine. Berry describes “marriage as a state of mutual help.” And he contrasts this description with the more modern and popular version of marriage, which he provocatively suggests has “taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.” Berry writes, “There are, however, still some married couples who understand themselves as belonging to their marriage, to each other…What they have in common…To them, ‘mine’ is not so powerful or necessary a pronoun as ‘ours.’” Allowing Wendell Berry’s vision for marriage, a pastor’s wife can rightly see her husband’s ministry as her own—as ‘theirs.’ But I have two cautions, what we might call reservations, about this sort of language.
1. Sacrificial Support Must Go Both Ways
Firstly, in my own church experience Wendell Berry’s “state of mutual help,” or Jade’s “team,” is only pressed in one direction. We readily refer to the pastor’s wife, emphasising her ministry contribution and asking her—in Berry’s words—to view her husband’s ministry with the pronoun ‘ours.’ In other words, she is regularly made to feel that she should be committed to and invested in her husband’s ministry. Yet, on the other hand, I hear little to no emphasis on the pastor’s wife’s independent function and calling. She very rarely rises above being an appendage to her husband. She is always the ‘pastor’s wife.’
This observation is evident in the fact that the pastor is rarely considered in a supportive capacity to his wife. As Berry says, marrieds should understand themselves as belonging and therefore needing to help each other. While significant demands are often placed on the pastor’s wife, calling her to make sacrifices for her husband and his ministry, there are precious few examples of the reverse. Yet it is the husband and not the wife who is commanded to lay down his life (Ephesians 5:28). Thus, while a pastor’s wife may make sacrifices for her husband’s ministry, he should readily make sacrifices for her. Whether she is working as a full-time mother, CEO, or in her own pastoral capacity, the pastor must ask himself how he might support and partner with her.
2. ‘Oneness’ Does Not Conflate Calling
Secondly, I worry that Christians exaggerate the the notion of union or ‘oneness’ in marriage. I argued this at length in another post on marriage and singleness. In short, it is worth remembering that men and women possess the image of God independently of one another (Genesis 1:27). Therefore whatever them becoming “one flesh” means (Genesis 2:24), it does not indicate completion in the marriage union—let alone a fundamental change to the respective persons. We should avoid collapsing spouses into a ‘oneness’ or union that ignores their God-given identities as individual people.
To quote from my post, “In Genesis 2:25 our English translations possibly obscure an important detail in the Hebrew. Robert Alter notes that 2:24 emphatically concludes with the word ‘one,’ yet 2:25 awkwardly doubles back on this by referring to ‘the man and his woman’ as ‘two.’ Despite their remarkable intimacy in sex constituting ‘one flesh,’ the man and woman remain two.” This must be kept in mind when we talk about ‘ministry couples’ or consider the role of the pastor’s wife. For the pastor’s wife fundamentally possesses the image of God as well as her own calling. In order to appropriately and faithfully affirm these biblical truths—while also protecting the pastor’s wife from burdensome and unbiblical expectations—perhaps we should abandon the title altogether.
At 10 months old, my son wasn’t the greatest sleeper. One Saturday night before I preached he was particularly disruptive, owing to a raging temperature. When I stepped into the pulpit on Sunday I made a passing remark about being tired. During tea I was taken to task by one of the women in the congregation because—as she claimed—my responsibility as a pastor was to preach; my wife’s was tending to our unwell son and indirectly my office.
That conversation demonstrates how the marriage partnership is narrowly defined. For it reveals how the the pastor’s wife is seen as an extension of and support to her husband’s office. It collapses her calling and even her person into a marriage ‘oneness’ that prioritises the husband. Such understandings of marriage and the role of the pastor’s wife are not only mistaken, they are in conflict with the gospel.