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!