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This is the second installment in a planned 10-part series of commentaries on traditions and customs which, in my opinion, are doing great harm to the missional purpose of what is commonly referred to as the “Black Church”.
The objective of this series is not to denigrate any particular denomination, church or individual, but to humbly address what I personally view as orthopraxy that is harmful to the Black Church as an institution and detrimental to the advancement of the Gospel in general.
Please note that the order in which these commentaries are presented do not necessarily reflect a certain priority or significance of the topics that will be addressed.
2. Treating the Pastor’s Wife as “Co-Pastor”
“…but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.” – Ephesians 4:15-16 (NASB)
Having spent half my life as a member of a church that was composed primarily of black congregants, I can personally attest that nearly every one of them, regardless of denominational affiliation, adhered to various customs and rituals that were rooted more in tradition than theology.
Many of the practices observed today by these churches have their genesis in a cultural ethos dating back to the post-slavery Reconstruction era, a time when the church, by necessity to be quite honest, was the nucleus of black families and, by extension, entire black communities.
As educator, author and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois notes,
“The census of 1890 showed nearly twenty-four thousand Negro churches in the country [America], with a total enrolled membership of over two and a half million, or ten actual church members to every twenty-eight persons; and in some Southern States one in every two persons. Besides these there is the large number who, while not enrolled as members, attend and take part in many of the activities of the church. There is an organized Negro church for every sixty black families in the nation.” – The Souls of Black Folk, Chapter 10, “Of the Faith of the Fathers”
It is within this historical context that we begin to understand the critical role the church has played in influencing the black family in America and, conversely, how such generational impact can be said to be directly attributable to the level of respect and admiration the pastor has traditionally garnered among its congregants and, by extension, the community at-large.
Whether the church retains that same level of influence today is highly debatable, but that’s another topic for another day.
Suffice it to say the traditions to which many black churches subscribe today remain centered around the person in the pulpit – the one who has been called by God to bear the responsibility of accurately expounding His word toward the spiritual edification and instruction of those who hear the word of God preached.
Recognizing the incredible weightiness of this duty, it is no wonder that the apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, urges believers in Christ to give particular deference to the men who faithfully carry out this mission:
“But we request of you, brethren, that you appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13
“The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” – 1 Timothy 5:17
That any church would desire to formally acknowledge the efforts and contributions of its pastor is a relatively harmless aspiration in and of itself.
For example, I see nothing inherently wrong (and by “wrong” I mean sinful) with a church celebrating the birthday or service anniversary of its pastor or, conversely, doing likewise for the pastor’s wife as a gesture of appreciation to her, if for no other reason than that her unwavering support of her husband is of infinite value in his efforts to fulfill his God-ordained role in guiding and shepherding not only the people of God but those who have yet to come to submit their lives to Him.
Indeed, the role of a pastor’s wife can be one of, if not the, most thankless jobs on the planet, as this somewhat tongue-in-cheek example demonstrates:
“HELP WANTED: Pastor’s wife. Must sing, play music, lead youth groups, raise seraphic children, entertain church notables, minister to other wives, have ability to recite Bible backward and choreograph Christmas pageant. Must keep pastor sated, peaceful and out of trouble. Difficult colleagues, demanding customers, erratic hours. Pay: $0.” – Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, Pastors’ Wives Come Together, as published on the TIME Magazine website, March 29, 2007
Nevertheless, that the pastor’s wife happens to be the pastor’s wife does not afford her the inherent privilege of co-occupying an ecclesiastical office with her husband. Nor should a pastor, himself being both the spiritual head of his wife (Ephesians 5:23) as well as of his local congregation (Ephesians 4:11-12), allow such a practice to be established or propagated.
The truth is there is no Scriptural basis for a wife being allowed to serve in a local church so as to be considered co-equal in an ecclesiastical capacity with her husband. As pastor and theologian Thabiti Anyabwile writes, the Bible provides no support for the wife of a church officeholder (pastor, elder or deacon) being co-titled in that capacity with her husband:
“This [husband and wife as co-pastor] approach to ministry is bankrupt because it is 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 is obvious, but it bears stating: we desperately need churches reformed according to the word of God.” – “Husband-Wife Co-Pastors?” as published on the The Gospel Coalition website, August 27, 2007
Please understand that this is neither to infer, imply or suggest that women are in any way missionally or spiritually inferior to men. I’m not saying that at all, so, please don’t go all feminist or womanist on me, okay?
“Turning to the Scripture to understand what a pastor’s wife is became of utmost importance; and so, it was the Scripture that highlighted that, A: it is not an office.” – Jamie Love
To be clear, the topic I’m addressing here has nothing to do with so-called “gender equality” within the church but with the proper, which is to say, biblical, administration of the Church of Christ in general, and black churches in particular, where the husband-wife co-pastor approach to local church governance appears to be increasingly gaining traction, especially among churches with a large population of black Christian millennials.
Parenthetically, just as a point of clarification, I want to say that in using the term “Church of Christ”, I am not speaking denominationally but in the sense that the universal Church belongs to Christ. In other words, that it is Jesus Christ who is Himself the head of every church, not the pastor or his “co-pastor” spouse.
With this in mind, every aspect of how a church functions and operates – from its hierarchical structure to the order of service to even the theological substance of the lyrics contained in the songs that are sung – should first be filtered through the standard of whether or not that element has any basis in Scripture.
Theologically speaking, this “test”, if you will, is what is referred to as the Regulative Principle, the ideal that all aspects of corporate worship should be directed solely by what is, or is not, established in Scripture, not by worldly tradition or what may or may not be perceived as culturally normative or acceptable.
If what a local church espouses does not pass this test – and treating the pastor’s wife as co-pastor does not – then, it is in direct conflict with God’s word and, as such, should not be adopted or embraced as biblical orthopraxy.
Like each of us who are the elect of Christ (Romans 8:29-30), pastors’ wives should be encouraged that they, too, are uniquely gifted by God in such a way as to benefit the body and bring glory to Him. As the apostle Peter exhorts,
“As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” – 1 Peter 4:10
There are many roles for a pastor’s wife to fill within the body of Christ, however, the role of co-pastor is not one of them.
This is not a matter of personal opinion or preference but of obedience to Christ who, as the head of His Church, has entrusted the preaching of the Gospel to men, individuals who, by His Holy Spirit, have been called to the specific task of overseeing the spiritual welfare of the local body.
Now, I realize this commentary may ruffle the feathers of some of you, but for that I cannot apologize.
When I decided to undertake this series of articles, I did so with the full understanding that there would be those who would disagree with my assessment of the state of the Black Church, and that’s perfectly fine.
This blog exists is not so much so people will agree or concur with my theological views – as diligently as I endeavor to ensure that they are biblically sound – but that those who take the time to read it would be challenged to think biblically about the world around them.
I trust you’ll stay tuned for Part 3 of this series.
Humbly in Christ,
Husband-Wife Co-Pastors? – The Front Porch
Why Not to Have a Woman Preach – Desiring God
Women Pastors/Preachers: Can a Woman Be a Pastor or Preacher? – Got Questions?