“First Lady” should be banished from the church

Like most Americans, I’ve heard the title First Lady applied to the President’s wife since my childhood. It’s antiquated but doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Actually, that’s not true. It has gone somewhere. It has wormed its way into the church.

The first time I saw it used like this was when a blogger described herself as the First Lady of her church. It turns out her husband is the senior pastor, and her church bestows the title First Lady on the senior pastor’s wife. This seemed odd to me but I thought perhaps it was merely idiosyncratic to that one church. It seemed even odder to me that she’d apply the title to herself.

Then I started seeing it applied to other women married to pastors. I imagine these are the same churches that post these parking signs:

You have to wonder what message this sends to all the other women in the church

You have to wonder what message this sends to the single mom trying to guide all her kids safely from her used minivan parked on the far side of the church parking lot from the Sunday School class rooms

The practice is apparently not limited to churches. Christianity Today recently asked five people to answer the question “Should Christian Colleges Let Female Faculty Teach Men the Bible?” The answers ran the gamut from yes to never, with various reasons given. The one that stuck out to me was this:

“The university is a gray area, but we should stay as much to the center of God’s Word and principles as we can. He is going to have far greater pleasure in seeing a male theologian in the classroom than in our seeing if we couldn’t put a woman in simply because she’s gifted.”
Dorothy Patterson, first lady, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Putting aside the issue of whether she’s right – and if that would mean a more qualified woman should step aside for a less qualified man – the title the magazine chose to give her is troubling.

Why is she the “first lady”? Because her husband Paige is the seminary’s president? If that is her only claim to fame, then why invite her opinion at all? On the other hand, if she is an authority in her own right on the subject of  Christian college and seminary faculty, the magazine should identify her qualifications and eschew an oblique reference to her husband’s job.*

Male senior pastors are not the first gentlemen of their congregations and the women married to them are not the first ladies. Vice versa for congregations with women senior pastors. In fact, we shouldn’t use the words gentleman and lady in the church context at all (but that’s another blog post).

We are all servants of God called to do his will and there is no other title that matters. Paul emphasized as much to the church in Corinth when talking about how they should look upon Apostles:

This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed. (1 Corinthians 4:1.)

If that’s the bottom line for Apostles, then it’s certainly the right line for the rest of us to take.

***

*After all, no one considers my wife an authority on the courts simply because I’m a judge; she may know more than someone not married to a judge but her real expertise is in her own field of elementary and middle school education.

***

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55 Responses to “First Lady” should be banished from the church

  1. janehinrichs says:

    So agree with you Tim!

  2. “We are all servants of God called to do his will and there is no other title that matters.”

    I seem to recall that Jesus had something to say about titles in Matthew 23:5-11.

  3. Jeannie says:

    Once again this is one of those points you raise that I wish you’d made up! Unreal.

  4. Tuija says:

    I was going to say what Jennie said but she said it already, and more eloquently than I could.

  5. Denise Reese (@denisekayreese) says:

    My husband was on staff at a Baptist church for 9 years, and on a particular Sunday morning, one of the elders asked me to come up so he could pray for me, and he called me the first lady in front of the whole church. I was horrified, and made sure he knew it later. It was appalling. That “title” is disgusting on every possible level.

  6. Aimee Byrd says:

    This brings up an interesting question of office. Is the pastor’s wife an office in the church? So often we treat it as if it is.

  7. I love your final example of the professions and expertise of you and your wife. My husband is a computer expert and sometimes people think that means that I must know a thing or two about a computer. Um, yeah, there’s the on/off button.

    My knowledge of computers compared to my husband’s is similar to a kindergartener’s knowledge of finger painting compared to the expertise of a master artist. However, ask us both a question about Jane Austen… 😉

  8. Adam Shields says:

    The title of First Lady used in a church setting is pretty limited. So it seems an odd topic for your blog. I have literally never heard it used outside of a fairly narrow spectrum of African American churches and a few multiracial pentecostal churches.

    There are certainly times where it is used where there is inappropriate regard and too strong of authority placed in the role of the pastor.

    But would not condemn it as a universal wrong. It is a cultural position within the church. Usually also combined with ‘the mothers’, a group of older women that run women’s ministry (and often form the cornerstone of the church.) In most cases I am aware, the wife of the pastor is not automatically given leadership of the women’s ministry, but sometimes has earned that role. Also common among both African American and multiracial pentecostal churches is a VERY long tenure of the pastor. Usually from ordination until death. So quite often the pastor’s wife, as she ages does move into leadership of the women’s ministry.

    When done properly this does seems to follow Paul’s instructions about having the older women instruct the younger. Of course there are lots of examples of it being done badly. But there are all kinds of things that happen badly in churches without a universal condemnation of that role.

    • Tim says:

      The CT usage is what prompted me to write, Adam. The context in Christianity includes its use in churches, so I mentioned that as well since it is the first place I’d heard it. But for CT to label a person they held up as an authority whose opinion is worth reading as “First Lady” of the seminary is fatuous and meaningless.

      I’m tending to see more and more as I get older that labels divide more often than they unite.

  9. Rev. Carlene Appel says:

    Hi Tim,
    I think I can provide some insight here. The title “First Lady” is very much a common part of African American Church culture for the male pastor’s wife. For one church in Detroit headed by a very capable (and just awesome) lady pastor for years and who took the church from 200 to 2000 members, her husband is known as the “First Gentleman.” Some other common roles within that context are “church mothers.” These are sainted elderly women who have been members of the church for many years. They typically are dressed in white dresses and fancy wide brimmed white hats, and hold lots of power. There are also “nurses,” (not necessarily real RN/LPNs) who are dressed in white dresses white panty hose and white nurses’ shoes. They are there for anyone who faints from being slain in the Spirit during the typically 2 hour church services. We might say we’re going to church while in African American culture they “have church.” Services are generally very lively with lots of singing, shouting, clapping. I love preaching in those settings because during the entire sermon congregation members are responding with “Amen!”, “preach it!” and other shouts of encouragement. Funerals (also very lively) are called “Home-goings” and the after meal “Repast.” Whereas we may go to church dressed pretty casually, even jeans, in African American context that would be very out of place. Sunday best is taken very seriously as honoring to the Lord-suits and ties for the gents, fancy dresses and often hats for the ladies. They are generally good givers and put their pastors on pedestals including wanting (typically a him) to have a nice car. Pastors commonly know what each member gives. While white pastors tend to have short tenures, by contrast, African American pastors commonly serve 20, 30 even 40 years in one place. I’ve had the pleasure of “having church” and contributing with my African American brothers and sisters over a number of years. I “cut my teeth” on worship and preaching in the African American church context. All this to say that the use of “First Lady” (or First Gentleman) is unlikely to disappear from the African American church culture anytime soon.

    On Mrs. Patterson, The Pattersons were part of a group of about 100 who did a takeover of the (at the time) 15 million member Southern Baptist Churches and seminaries. They put a stop to ordinations of women, kicked out women professors from the seminaries and made missionaries sign statements that they wouldn’t put women in places of leadership or their support was pulled and they were left stranded wherever they were serving. There were a number of missionaries who refused saying that they witnessed too many women pastors in the places they served who were definitely called by God to preach and lead. At my Alma Mater, Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, I had both male and female professors and administrators who had been at Southern Seminary. Until then I never knew anyone other than Catholics for whom their denominational identity was so much a part of who they were. There was a genuine brokenheartedness in these folks for having to leave their beloved seminary and the SBC. One of the most famous professors of theology there, Rev. Dr. Molly Marshall, did not leave quietly. She is now serving as President of the American Baptist related Central Seminary in Kansas City, Kansas. SBC Churches, seminaries and people who would not go along with these changes formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
    Women can no longer go to an SBC related seminary for an MDiv. and can’t teach men theology or any other things where they might be “over” men. But a woman can spend beaucoup bucks to get a Masters degree in “Homemaking Arts.” I believe Mrs. Patterson heads up that program at one of the SBC seminaries. This is just a very very brief overview. Google “southern Baptist takeover” if you want to read more in-depth about it.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Carlene. I knew about the SBC takeover and was somewhat familiar with the church culture issues you raised (although not to the extent your insights have provided).

  10. janehinrichs says:

    Tim,I posted this on my Facebook page and people assume it is about Mrs. Obama…..why do we humans jump to conclusions so easily????

    • Jeannie says:

      Maybe it’s something I just heard about recently, Jane — the “TLDR” syndrome: “Too Long, Didn’t Read.” (In other words, people look at the title or first line and assume the rest of the content rather than taking time to read the whole thing.) Although I can’t imagine anyone doing that with any of Tim’s blog posts…. 🙂

    • Tim says:

      I wondered if people would think that. I put “First Lady” in quotes for a reason. Oh well.

      thanks for sharing it, Jane.

  11. I am in a Reformed church (RPCGA) and have taught a counseling class for the seminary connected with the church as have two other women. Of course we use Scripture. When I write a theological blog post, I will usually pass it by my pastor. I do not feel quilts using theology as a woman; really men might consider passing things by their wives more often.

  12. Adriana says:

    In contrast to the pastor’s wife with her own special parking place, I’m thinking of how Mother Teresa always slept on the floor. It’s interesting how the reserved parking sign turns our stomachs while the thin grass floor mat has become legendary.

    “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Luke 14:11

    • Tim says:

      Good point, Adriana. And then there are the pastors and their families at the churches I’ve attended, who park far from the front door and walk across the lot with everyone else.

  13. A. Amos Love says:

    Tim

    Yes, agreed. – “the *title* the magazine chose to give her is troubling.”

    And that leads to the question…
    Why is “Today’s Religious System” allowing, promoting, so many “Titles?”
    So many “Titles” NOT found in the Bible?

    Let me not, I pray you, accept any man’s person, neither let me give
    **Flattering Titles** unto man. For I know not to give **Flattering Titles;**
    in so doing my maker would soon take me away.
    Job 32:21-22 KJV

  14. A. Amos Love says:

    Tim

    Much agreement when you write @ May 7, 2014 at 12:04 pm
    “I’m tending to see more and more as I get older
    that labels divide more often than they unite.”

    In my experience with Today’s Religious System…

    “Titles” become “Idols.” – “Idols” of the heart… Ezek 14:1-11
    That cause division and separation in the body of Christ.

    “Titles” say, I am, you are NOT.
    “Titles” say, we are, they are NOT.

    Baptist, Lutheran, Assemblies of God —- division and separation?

    Reformed, Evangelical, Charismatic —- division and separation?

    Clergy – Laity — division and separation?
    Leaders – Followers — division and separation?
    Shepherd – Sheep — division and separation?
    Teacher – Student — division and separation?

    One greater then the other. Causing walls of separation.

    In my experience with Today’s Religious System…

    “Titles” will separate. – “Titles” will elevate.
    “Titles” wil be used to control and manipulate.

    And some will “exercise authority” and be “lords over” God’s heritage. Yes?
    And both are Big NO, NO’s for one of His Disciples…
    And becomes the beginning of “Spiritual Abuse.”

    In Mark 10:42-44, Jesus teaches His Disciples NOT to “Exercise Authority.”
    …Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles
    “exercise lordship” over them; and their great ones “exercise authority”
    upon them. **But so shall it NOT BE among you:**

    In 1 Pet 5:3, Peter teaches elders NOT to be “lords over” God’s heritage.
    Neither as being *lords over* God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock.

  15. A. Amos Love says:

    Tim

    Enjoyed your blog and comments “The Ungodly Doctrine of Servant-Leadership”
    And on Karens blog and comments “Servant-Leadership is Unbiblical”

    Yes to – Servant of the servants…
    Even Jesus, as man, humbled Himself, made Himself of NO reputation…
    And took on the form of a “Servant.” Phil 2:7-8.

    It’s nice to see folks questioning, understanding, and pushing back on what I now see as, Commandments of Men, Doctrines of Men, that become “Traditions of Men,” that Nullify, Make Void, the Word of God, that Jesus warned His Disciples about.

    Mark 7:13
    NLT – you “cancel” the word of God in order to hand down your own tradition.
    KJV – Making the word of God of “none effect” through your tradition…
    ASV – Making “void” the word of God by your tradition…
    NIV – Thus you “nullify” the word of God by your tradition…

    I’ve watched so called pastor/elder/leaders SAY – “I’m a servant/leader.”
    BUT, how they lived was – What they DID was, – “I’m the Leader of the servants.”

    IN Mat 23:3, Jesus warns His Disciples about The Religious Leaders.
    “All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do;
    but DO NOT ye after their works: for they SAY, and DO not.

    And, in Mat 23:10 NASB, Jesus taught His Disciples…
    DO NOT to be called leaders. For you have “ONE” leader, the Christ.
    And NOT one of His Disciples DID,
    NOT one of His Disciples called themself leader or servant-leader.

    In the Bible, ALL of His Disciples called themselves “Servants.” 😉

    Hmmm? “Servant-Leadership?”

    Just another “Title/Position” allowed, promoted by, Today’s Religious System…
    That is NOT found in the Bible. 😉

  16. A. Amos Love says:

    Oppps

    Tim here’s another post about the “Title” First Lady.

    Seems to be a hot topic.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks, Amos. His take is heartening, if still short-sighted on what the place of women and men role in the body of Christ really is.

  17. Sue says:

    I’ve been a Christian for 26 years and today was the first time I saw “First Lady” applied to anyone other than a U.S. President’s wife when I stumbled upon Dorothy Patterson’s website. After a Google search led me to your post, I was quite relieved to find I am not the only one who finds this odd. I am familiar with two different seminaries where this was not done, and have never been in a church that used that title. Perhaps it is a tradition in some Baptist circles? (I’m not Baptist)

    • Tim says:

      It seems to be well-entrenched in some congregations in a portion of the church, and is apparently spreading to seminaries. It’s a pity to see yet another barrier between those who see themselves as running the joint and the rest of us.

  18. Bev Murrill says:

    I couldn’t agree more. This is such a sickly, yucky title, conferring a defacto authority on someone. The woman is either a leader or she is not. If she is, give her the title she deserves, whether it’s pastor or whatever. If she’s not, then don’t give her a title and especially not The Pastor’s Wife’ or “The First Lady’… it’s demeaning, not only of her but of the other women in the church. For heaven’s sake, why are we so determined to bring adulation to the leaders of churches.

  19. Bev Murrill says:

    I’m disappointed that your wife is not the First Lady of the Courts …

  20. Tara says:

    This comment by Dorothy Patterson makes me physically ill. I am completly sad for all of the women and girls who this self appointed First Lady shares the “phallicy” of being less worthy and capable in teaching roles because of sexual biology.

    • Tim says:

      She gives her opinion, but apparently agrees that it is less worth heeding than if she were male.

    • Lea says:

      It would be nice if she sat down and thought about
      1. Who gave the women these ‘gifts’ to began with and
      2. If that deity would prefer they hide their light and waste their talents.

  21. Emily Dixon says:

    Can you imagine anyone referring to Deborah as the First Lady of anything?

  22. Ross Clark says:

    A parking space for the pastor? At the church I go to (in the UK), he takes the bus!

  23. david33647 says:

    At the meet-and-greet potluck, when I was candidate at the church where I serve as pastor, my wife was asked how she felt about the role of being a pastor’s wife, and her thoughts on her involvement in the life of the church. This is my first pastorate, which I entered at age 50, and having been married for 27 years at that point. Her response was pretty simple: “Well…Dave would be Pastor, and I…would be his wife.”

    Brought down the house — in a very good way. 😉

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