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:
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.