When Black Churches Treat the Pastor’s Wife as “Co-pastor”

When Black Churches Treat the Pastor's Wife as Co-pastor

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From the Darrell Harrison series: 10 things the black church should stop doing

This is the second in a series of commentaries I’ll be writing on traditions and customs that, in my humble opinion, are doing damage 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 (orthodox practice) that is harmful to the Black Church as an institution and detrimental to the advancement of the Gospel in general. – Darrell Harrison

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15-16, ESV).

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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

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 (2 Timothy 2:15) expounding His word toward the spiritual edification and instruction of those who hear the word of God preached (Colossians 1:28).

Recognizing the incredible weightiness (James 3:1) of this duty, it is no wonder that the apostle Paul, under the inspiration (2 Timothy 3:16-17) of the Holy Spirit, urges believers in Christ to give particular deference to the men who faithfully carry out this mission:

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves (1 Thessalonians 5:13-14).

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in 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

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, 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.

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.

Ministries such as those of Paul and Debra Morton, Tony and Cynthia Braselton, and Creflo and Taffi Dollar are three of the more prominent examples of this.

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, it is Jesus Christ who is Himself the head (Colossians 1:18) of every church, not the pastor or his “co-pastor” spouse.

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With that 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 (practice).

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 has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace (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 (2 Timothy 2:2), 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.

I do not expect all people to agree or concur with all of 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.

Call to action

  1. Do you have any secondary issues that have taken on a larger role in your mind and practice?
  2. Are there practices in your church that are not derived from God’s Word?
  3. In what ways have you been challenged by this article?

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