Note: This post first appeared at The Front Porch. The Front Porch is a website dedicated to “conversations about biblical faithfulness in the African-American Church and beyond.”

“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 (Phil. 2:29).

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 (1 Tim. 5:17-18) and for women worthy of respect (1 Tim. 3:11; 5:2-3). 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 (1 Cor. 4:1-2), 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 (1 Tim. 2:11-3:7). 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.

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18 thoughts on “Don’t Call Her “First Lady””

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  2. Scotty Mac says:

    For that matter, the title ‘pastor’ isn’t really Scriptural either. As a pastor, I see it more as function than title. I never refer to myself as ‘Pastor Scott’, nor do I insist that others call me that.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hi Scotty,

      Thanks for dropping by, bro. I don’t insist on being called “pastor” either. But the office or title “pastor” is biblical. Eph. 4, for example, and it’s synonyms throughout the NT (bishop, overseer, etc.). I’m more allergic to “bishop” and “overseer” than I am “pastor” :-).

      T-

      1. Eric Miller says:

        To Scott’s point, though, the turning of biblical offices into titles serves to only create artificial class distinctions between the brethren. Furthermore, the preacher or commonly called “pastor” occupies a role that corresponds neither to the biblical office of pastor/deacon or elder/overseer/bishop. I say we use preacher, since that’s what he does, or evangelist, since that’s what he is.

        1. Thabiti says:

          Hi Eric,

          Isn’t the presence of offices a distinction between the officers and the ones they lead? Isn’t 1 Tim. 5:17 even a distinction between officers? All those mentioned there are “elders” (office and title) and there are some whose work is preaching and teaching and others who do not primarily do that. I think you’re tempted to flatten these distinctions in an unhelpful way. There’s nothing wrong with offices or even the titles that must inevitably be used to denote those offices. These are things given to us by the Lord in His word. We shouldn’t be shy about them, and we shouldn’t add unhelpfully to them.

          T-

          1. Mark Pertuit says:

            The titles aren’t inevitable. They make us feel more special. As mentioned below, we don’t use titles w/in our biological families. Why should we in the more important family of God?

            1. Curtis Sheidler says:

              “…we don’t use titles w/in our biological families. Why should we in the more important family of God?”

              Unless you grew up calling your parents by their first names and are raising your kids to do the same, then YES–you DO use titles in your earthly family and always have. “Mother” and “Father” (or “Mom” and “Dad”) are actually titles, you see–and, what’s more, they’re titles that you’re using in exactly the same way you say that Brother Thabiti shouldn’t be using the title of “Pastor.”

              So to redirect your question: Since we obviously use titles within our biological families, why SHOULDN’T we use them in the more important family of God?

  3. Musa says:

    With you would have thrown “armor bearer” in there! :-) Great read!

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      lol. I think H.B. Charles nailed that one! See here: http://www.hbcharlesjr.com/2013/09/03/armor-bearer-is-not-a-biblical-church-office/.

      Grace and peace,
      T-

  4. Chancellor Roberts says:

    Setting the pastor’s wife above the other women in the local church is showing partiality (which James wrote against) and dishonors the other women in the church. I always cringe when I hear people referring to the pastor’s wife as “first lady.”

  5. H. Richard Bates says:

    Amen!

  6. Mark Pertuit says:

    I insist on NOT being called “pastor,” which is an office, and not a title (as has already been noted).

    I insist on being called “Mark,” just like I call others by their first names. And I jokingly “threaten” the congregation every time I feel like people are forgetting: “If you call me Pastor Mark, don’t be surprised if I call you His/her Holiness, or His Eminence, etc.” They’ve gotten the point.

    If you’re a doctor, do you expect your biological siblings to call you “Dr. Whatever”? Of course not! How much less should we use titles w/ the family of God?

    Jesus told us not to call others father, rabbi, and teacher. I think the point isn’t that we should avoid those 3 words (and then critique Catholics because they use one of the words, as we continue on with virtually identical substitutes). No, the point is that He wants us to treat each other as equals before our holy God.

  7. Mark Pertuit says:

    In other words, she shouldn’t be called “first lady,” just as he shouldn’t be called “Pastor Whatever.”

  8. Mark says:

    Thanks for this article. As a Korean-American man preparing to enter ministry, this really hits home for me and my wife, since this is just as pronounced in the Korean-American community. The wife of a pastor (or even a seminary student!) has a special title in the Korean church, and the congregation readily expects her to live up to the title. I remember when my wife and I were talking with another Korean pastor and his wife. We weren’t attending a Korean church at the time, but this Korean pastor’s wife addressed my wife as “Sammonim” (similar to “First Lady”), and my wife was shocked. This pastor’s wife continued to ask whether my wife was ready to be a sammonim in the future.

    Needless to say, much hurt has come to the Korean church and to Korean pastor’s wives because an unbiblical title and unbiblical expectations are placed on women who simply desire to be seen as growing members of churches, just like any other woman in the church.

    Thanks again for the article! Let’s pray that our churches hold fast to biblical titles and biblical qualifications, and hold loosely (or let go entirely) those titles that are not found in scripture.

    1. Thabiti says:

      Wow, bro. Thanks for leaving this comment. I had no idea there was a Korean equivalent. I join you in that prayer!

      T-

  9. Tim says:

    First Lady is a title that has absolutely no place in the body of Christ. It saddens me that this is even a topic of debate: First Lady Should Be Banished From The Church.

    Cheers,
    Tim

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Thabiti Anyabwile


Thabiti Anyabwile is assistant pastor for church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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