09.05.14

Husband-Wife Co-Pastors?

It was once a rising trend. It’s now a model for ministry for significant numbers of churches and pastors. It simultaneously offers itself as an example of deep partnership between husbands and wives, and dismisses biblical instruction. What am I talking about? The widespread approach to pastoral ministry where a husband and a wife “co-pastor” a local church.

Among that branch of “evangelicalism” (I’m using the term loosely) typically associated with Word of Faith, prosperity “gospel,” charismatic believers, this approach to ministry appears to be dominant.

The trend grew slowly. Generally a man pastoring a church would achieve a certain status. After a few years, his wife, typically called the “first lady” of the church, would be noted for some teaching gifts and call to ministry. She would make occasional appearances in the pulpit to improve her gift, but not too many appearances to upset those discerning some problem with the practice. Over time, she’d appear more and more in the pulpit, relieving the husband while he was away and shepherding the people as a “pastor.”

It’s been a silent revolution. Not many shots have been fired at all really. It has occurred like so many other errors in that camp of contemporary Christianity–while auditoriums are filled with people, Bibles open, taking notes, and swallowing the camel.

Kenneth, then Gloria, Copeland. Creflo, then Taffy, Dollar. Randy, then Paula, White. To a lesser extent, T.D., then Serita, Jakes. These high-profile preachers have spawned a practice of ministry that now replicates itself in strip malls and megachurches around the country.

One couple, Paula and Randy White, announced before their 23,000 member church in Florida that they are seeking a divorce. Paula and Randy pastored the church since its founding. Understandably, the news of their divorce shocked and hurt a lot of the church’s members.

But Paula has well eclipsed her husband in popularity and ministry. She is a frequent conference speaker and hosts regular shows on BET and TBN. Emulating in many respects the ethos of black women preachers, and preaching “health and wealth,” Paula is something of a rock star in some circles.

The sad announcement of their divorce prompted a number of questions about the nature of gender roles in the church and marriage, and the effect of such ministry models on the local church.

1. Can such a practice be consistent with complementarian gender roles at church and home? Most everyone I know who thinks this is not only an acceptable but a good model would say “yes.” In other words, most of the folks I know in this camp and ministers who adopt this practice intend to be complementarians. They preach a great deal on the home and family, the necessity of male headship, and female submission in the home. They would argue that a woman should only have a ministry of this sort with her husband “as her covering,” exercising headship by granting approval/support; otherwise, a wife should not have such a ministry. Leaving aside for a moment the myriad of theological difficulties with the position, can it even work practically? I have my doubts. In the case of the Whites, Paula is continuing on with her ministries, establishing a home in another city, and with her husband dissolving the marriage. It would seem that at essence the model is egalitarian and models a “partnership” model of marriage that distorts biblical gender roles. And the families of the church have, whether knowingly or not, been imbibing from their “pastors” a model for family life ill-fitted to the biblical design and their joy.

2. Can such a practice be consistent with a high view of biblical authority in the church and the home? Again, most people in these camps would say “yes.” They would appeal to examples of women prophets in the Scriptures and reason that Paul’s prohibition against women in authority was cultural, time and circumstance-bound. It was a woman who brought news of Jesus resurrection to men and so women ought be able to preach, especially under the “covering” of their husbands. But that clearly contradicts Paul’s instructions in . And the attempt to justify the practice is little more than setting aside the authority of Scripture. And not surprisingly, the church suffers great confusion.

3. Can there be any genuine biblical accountability of such couples? Given that the authority of the scriptures is set aside on so basic a matter as who God appoints to lead in the home and the church, it’s difficult to imagine that there can be any real accountability for “co-pastors” in these situations. Most of these churches are set up like corporations, not like NT churches. So, typically, husband and wife are founding board members along with a couple other trusted friends. Nothing appears to be governed in either a congregational or a connectional manner. So, there is no higher “court” than the co-pastors themselves. When trouble hits, appeal is made to “life coaches” and trusted friends as accountability partners. It’s really an unloving, unscriptural and dangerous position for the “pastors” and the church. Paula will continue with her ministry pursuits. Randy will continue as pastor of Without Walls. That was the second divorce for them both, a divorce proceeding without any biblical grounds according to the article. The model appears closed to any loving, biblical accountability that would help the couple fight for their marriage, submit to the counsel and discipline of the church, and model grace during real difficulty for the congregation.

This approach to ministry is bankrupt because it’s so consistently contrary to God’s blueprint. The couples approaching the ministry this way are placing themselves in spiritually precarious situations, and the churches they “pastor” are toeing a cliff as well. It’s obvious, but it bears stating: we desperately need churches reformed according to the word of God.

This article was originally published at Pure Church, on August 27, 2007.

2:1 First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth.

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10 but with what is proper for women who profess godliness—with good works. 11 Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control. (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

C’mon Up!

  • Tony Carter

    Hey T, another trend I am seeing is for the husband to be a “bishop” and the wife to be the “pastor.” Some would argue this keeps the male headship in order (at church and home), while allowing women to exercise God-given gifts and leadership under his headship. Yet, such reasoning seems to me to call into question the biblical definition of “bishop” and “pastor”. Would you agree? I am sure Rev. Love has some comments on this issue. In fact, when I read the title, I thought he had wrote it :).

    • Thabiti Anyabwile

      Ha! You know Lou got something to say about this! 🙂

      Yeah, Tony, you put your hand on the core problem with that approach. It takes synonyms (bishop, pastor, overseer) and divides them in an unbiblical way to basically contradict biblical teaching.

      T

      • Louis Love

        You brothers are funny. Carter, when I saw the title I thought I had wrote it too. :-).

        There is so much wrong with this new trend. It has many ungodly and unhealthy tentacles attached to it.

        It undermines God’s plan for the family structure. This is why I sense Paul referenced creation in in addressing the issue in Ephesus. He masterfully sets the home and the church in order with a few strokes of the quill.

        Also, this trend is useful in keeping the funds in the family. You’re getting one for the price of two in a way of speaking. The co-pastors are both on staff and in most cases both are receiving a salary.

        There is a thick and bold line between women ministering within the congregation and church leadership.

        I’ll stop right here, cuz I just returned from vacation and I’m trying to keep my stress levels low. T always getting something started! :-).

      • http://twitter.com/natemup Nate Tinner

        This may just be a personal thing, but I’ve seen that in the same way they unbiblically divide the terms used in the NT for leadership roles, we may also have some ‘splaining to do, in that we associate “preaching” with Sunday morning sermons in a way that I do not see in the NT. This seems like a churchly tradition that we have imposed on the Biblical text.

        Even above, you mention not drawing a hard line between preaching and teaching, whereas in the Bible it would seem that preaching is evangelism and teaching is sermons. That seems like a hard line, no? I think this can also affect (and confuse) the way we view what women can and can not do as it concerns teaching functions in the church.

  • Josh Reed

    Hey guys, thanks for the article. Had a convo yesterday with a single girl in the church about some of these things. Couple of questions I’d like to lob into the mix.

    1. Would you see it as viable for a woman to lead a mixed community group (I would say with another male leader as well for shepherding reasons), where a woman is driving the discussion from sermons or a particular book study?
    2. Do you see a distinction between teaching and preaching and would you see it problematic for a woman to ‘teach’ in a mixed setting (sunday school, seminar, etc.).
    3. Are women’s teaching gifts only related to teaching other women?

    Really grateful for you guys. Thabiti, will see you in Raleigh in a couple of weeks. Grace and peace.

    • Thabiti Anyabwile

      Hey Josh,

      It’ll be great to connect in Raleigh. I love the time at 9Marks@Southeastern. Good fellowship. As for your questions, I’d love to hear what others think, but here are some quick responses:

      1. I think it’s helpful to have a woman assist her husband in mixed community groups. I’d think it’s inappropriate (or can be) for men to try assuming a role with young women in the church. The older ladies are clearly identified as the lead teachers with younger women’s discipleship.

      2. I don’t draw a hard line between teaching and preaching. All preaching is in some sense teaching. As for a woman teaching in a mixed setting, I’d mostly be concerned with that in a gathering of the local church, as I think Paul is in . Depending on the setting, I can see women teaching in mixed company. Let’s say a panel discussion at a conference. I don’t think that usurps the local church elders’ teaching and leadership role. Personally, I’d be comfortable with a woman leading a seminar in the church on some area of expertise and topic she could address (hypothetical example, a woman OB/GYN addressing birth control issues in the church). I wouldn’t think Sunday school would be an appropriate place.

      3. I don’t think so. But I’d want to be careful to distinguish between using teaching gifts and exercising authority in the local church. A gift can be used with women, with children, and outside the gathered assembly in mixed settings, for example. But those would not be settings that conjure the issue of usurping elder authority in the church. That a woman has and should use teaching gifts in appropriate settings seems indisputable to me (even though there’s some gray area in defining ‘appropriate settings’).

      I’d be interested to hear from others. Come on up on the porch!
      T-

      • John Cobb

        I agree with your comment regarding Scripture allowance of women teaching in a mixed setting where and is being followed. I think our problem in this area stems from the lack of biblical teaching from leadership within the Afro-American church. Though this “ship” is difficult to turn at this juncture, it is not impossible and within the providence of God, I believe it shall in His time, through the instrumentality of reformed pastors such as you and others within this camp (for lack of a better term).
        Though late to the game, I look forward to actively participating in your discussions on “the porch”.

    • Rease Wilson

      Great questions Josh, Its good to see you on the porch my brotha lol.

  • http://www.sharonbrobst.com Sharon Brobst

    Thank you Pastor! Always a good word on The Front Porch.

  • YML

    Thank you Pastor. First time reader, and I’ve really enjoyed your writing. Quick question. It’s hard to draw a clear line on how much of a ‘teaching’ role a female can have, so let me ask questions that are specific to my situation.

    1. Currently, our pastor’s wife (who has a PhD in marriage counselling) will give the sermon during the main Sunday service once or twice a year on specific issues as family, marriage and healing.

    2. Our young adults group was once led by a married couple. The wife would always teach Bible studies to the young adults and college students. Personally, I’ve been very blessed and challenged by her teaching.

    According to your thoughts, are either of these out of line from the Biblical principles?

  • Timothy F Reynolds

    Thank you for this timely word, brother. I have noticed a parallel trend – for leaders of parachurch organisations (such as missionary societies) to have a husband and wife as joint leader or director. We have an example of one based here in our village. This does not come up against but it does seem to me to be potentially confusing male and female roles. I have noticed some people encouraging my wife and I to think of ourselves as a pastoral team in a way that I think is potentially sidelining the other elders of the church and unbiblical in the way you describe.

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  • http://livfearlessly.com Jessica J.

    This was a really good article. It was my first time reading anything written by Mr. Anyabwile and I must say that it probably won’t be my last. I definitely agree that the idea of co-pastors are confusing to the congregation, especially when examining God’s Word on the structure that is supposed to be upheld. And as Mr. Louis Love wrote in reply to a previous comment, it does send the signal of two salaries entering one household which raises a flag to me. But as I continue to grow in my understanding of the Word of God and grow spiritually I have constantly been faced with the position that women are to have. And this idea of women as pastors or co-pastors has continuously come up. It’s funny that I would stumble upon an article like this as this topic keeps arising around me.

    Thanks for the time and thought you put into this piece sir!

  • Terrence Williams

    Awesome!!! Greetings from Michigan!!

  • http://twitter.com/natemup Nate Tinner

    I believe it’s “Taffi” Dollar, just FYI

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  • http://brandonstarnes.com brandonstarnes

    Unfortunately this is not a trend in student ministry. My wife and i both have callings in student ministry and have not found any church that will officially hire the both of us. It is always a two for the price of one.

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