04.22.14

Don’t Call Her “First Lady”

“Big Tim” does it every time he sees her. It doesn’t matter if it’s at church, in the grocery store or at the little league game. Every time he sees my wife he smiles real big, bows his head ever so slightly and says, “Hey, First Lady! How you doing First Lady?”

I chuckle on the inside because I know Kristie is gritting her teeth. She doesn’t like the label—not one bit. I’m getting a good laugh out of the entire episode. Meanwhile Kristie gets this nails-on-the-chalkboard cringe in her soul. But she’s smooth as water. You’d never know she dislikes the label because she smiles that big country grin back and says, “I’m fine. How are you ‘Big Tim’?”

The “First Lady” no longer lives at the White House. Michelle Obama isn’t the only leading lady in town. Chances are you have a “First Lady” right at your church. The “First Lady” had come into her own, with top 20 awards and even clothing lines designed especially for her.

My wife’s reaction illustrates a healthy skepticism towards this phenomena.

On the one hand, my wife senses everything that’s unhealthy about the label. “First Lady” is not a biblical office. Neither is “pastor’s wife.” My wife eschews any sense that she has a unique role and calling in the church apart from being a growing Christian, a faithful member and servant. She doesn’t feel entitled to any special treatment because she’s my wife—whether positive or negative treatment. She doesn’t seek any privileges as the woman married to the pastor. She knows such practices can be abused.

Indeed, we see the abuses. We see or hear stories of wives of pastors usurping their husband’s role and office. They move from pastor’s wife to first lady to “co-pastor.” Or, we see the love of the sheep turned into opportunity for gain. Congregants take great pride in their first lady’s appearance and status, financing shopping trips and lavish lifestyles. I guess it’s the feminine equivalent to all those Cadillacs churches have purchased for their male pastors. It’s not difficult to spot the problems.

But while some abuses exist, it’s also true that honor for pastors and their wives can be almost non-existent. The wives of pastors sometimes live in fish bowls, always watched and judged. They can live beneath inordinate expectations and nearly suffocate from stifling criticism. Such women often mourn the absence of friendship in their churches and their husbands wonder if leaving the pastorate might not be a better decision for the sake of their families.

So there’s another perspective on this “first lady” phenomenon. I think my wife grins and bears “Big Tim’s” greeting because she knows Tim is attempting to honor her. She discourages anyone else from calling her that, and even tries unsuccessfully to dissuade Tim (who usually gets a pass because he’s lovable in that big teddy bear way). Her discouragements aside, Kristie knows a healthy respect brims beneath Tim’s use of the phrase. She accepts the respect that’s intended–and she should. Many wives of pastors serve faithfully in their churches, give as much or more as their husbands, disciple younger women and carry themselves in a manner worthy of respect. It’s natural and right that those who feel encouraged and helped by their lives and labors should love and hold them in high regard ().

Accepting appropriate shows of honor while discouraging inappropriate displays can be a difficult balancing act. So what to do?

A few thoughts:

First, let’s positively encourage appropriate displays of respect for faithful pastors () and for women worthy of respect (). I don’t think most of the church world suffers from showing too much respect—perhaps too much criticism. And though many selfish, greedy and worldly leaders have bred contempt among some Christians, nothing is as liberating and life-giving as a congregation of saints who affirm, encourage, uphold and honor one another. Such honor should be shown to the wives of pastors who support their husbands in the work of the ministry and sacrifice much for the blessing of the saints. We don’t want to abandon appropriate respect because of inappropriate abuse by some.

Second, let us use words more often. It’s not uncommon for appreciation to be shown in large gifts. Pastor appreciation banquets (itself a sometimes problematic phenomenon) often feature the unveiling of some expensive material gift from the congregation–cars, cash gifts, extravagant vacations. This is how many churches say, “We love you.” But I wonder if it’s not better to simply say the words. Often. Sincerely. Thoughtfully. Churches can run the risk of treating their pastors the way some parents treat their children at Christmas or birthdays. Having neglected to show their affection all year long, some parents try to “buy” their children’s affection or assuage their guilty consciences with expensive toys. Perhaps some of the church’s celebrations are really corporate exercises in assuaging guilt for neglecting the pastor and his family for most of the year. And let’s be honest: the members of the family most likely to be neglected are the pastor’s wife and children. So, we might have a healthier culture of affirmation and respect if we simply expressed ourselves with words throughout the year and filled our sisters with a sense of our affection and appreciation.

Third, let’s endeavor to use biblical labels for biblical offices and shy away from creating new ones. It’s not a sin to create a role or title. But sometimes doing so confuses things. Like “First Lady.” In the secular culture of politics that title suggests an honorific role and a level of representation that nowhere exists for the wives of pastors in the New Testament Scripture. As stewards called to be faithful to our God’s word (), we need to be wary of adding to His word or innovating. When we do, we tend to open Pandora’s Box and some departures from God’s word can’t be easily fixed. We are safer and stronger if we treat God’s word as sufficient and stick to the biblical offices and titles He gives us.

Fourth, let’s do more than use biblical labels. Let’s also return to biblical qualifications for the offices of the church. The church is God’s household. As such, the Father sets the rules for the house and all us children should happily comply. Sometimes Kristie and I leave the children at home for a couple hours when we’re away. Usually we leave the oldest in charge of the others. She’s not their mother, so she can’t do whatever she’d like. But she is trustworthy, mature and capable in a pinch. While my 14 year old daughter could do a good job as well, not all the children meet those criteria yet—especially my 7 year old son who asks to be in charge nearly every time we run an errand. He desires a good thing, but he doesn’t meet our qualifications. So it is with women who desire to lead as pastors in the local church. The Father has left His family to live according to His rule—one of which is only qualified, mature men should care for the Father’s family in His absence (). One of the most difficult but necessary things ahead for the church is the restoring of proper biblical leadership.

I’m really thankful my wife takes no delight in being called “first lady.” She’s quite happy to be my wife and helper in life. And I’m glad we’re part of a church family that frequently honors her with kind words and small gestures. Kristie knows their love. Consequently, adopting man-made titles and extravagant displays are unnecessary. Life is biblical and simple, so we all win.

29 So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, (ESV)

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (ESV)

11 Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.

1 Timothy 5:2-3

older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.

Honor widows who are truly widows. (ESV)

4:1 This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. (ESV)

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.

3:1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (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

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