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Husband and wife co-pastors?

October 2014 | by Thabiti Anyabwile

It was once a rising trend. It’s now a model for ministry for significant numbers of churches and pastors. It simultaneously offers itself as an example of deep partnership between husbands and wives, and yet dismisses biblical instruction.

What am I talking about? The widespread approach to pastoral ministry, where a husband and a wife ‘co-pastor’ a local church.

Within that branch of ‘evangelicalism’ (I’m using the term loosely) — typically associated with Word of Faith, prosperity ‘gospel’, Charismatic believers — this approach to ministry appears to be dominant.

The trend grew slowly. Generally a man pastoring a church would achieve a certain status. After a few years, his wife, typically called the ‘first lady’ of the church, would be noted for some teaching gifts and call to ministry.

She would make occasional appearances in the pulpit to improve her gift, but not too many appearances to upset those discerning some problem with the practice. Over time, she’d appear more and more in the pulpit, relieving the husband while he was away and shepherding the people as a ‘pastor’.

It’s been a silent revolution. Not many shots have been fired at all really. It has occurred like so many other errors in that camp, while auditoriums are filled with people, Bibles open, taking notes — and swallowing the camel.

High profiles

Kenneth, then Gloria, Copeland; Creflo, then Taffy, Dollar; Randy, then Paula, White. To a lesser extent, T. D., then Serita, Jakes. These high-profile preachers have spawned a practice of ministry that now replicates itself in malls and megachurches around the country.

Seven years ago, Paula and Randy White, announced before their 23,000-member church in Florida that they were seeking a divorce. Paula and Randy had pastored the church since its founding.

Understandably, the news of their divorce shocked and hurt a lot of the church’s members. But in the years leading up to it, Paula had eclipsed her husband in popularity and ministry as a frequent conference speaker and hosting regular radio shows. Emulating in many respects the ethos of black women preachers, and preaching ‘health and wealth’, Paula has been something of a rock star in some circles.

The sad announcement of their divorce prompted a number of questions about the nature of gender roles in the church and marriage, and the effect of such ministry models on the local church.

First, can the practice of husband and wife co-pastoring be consistent with complementarian roles [the view that men and women have different, as opposed to identical, but complementary responsibilities] at church and home?

Most of the folks I know adopting this practice intend to be complementarians. They preach a great deal on the home and family, and the necessity of male headship and female submission in the home.

They would argue that a woman should only have a ministry of this sort with her husband as ‘her covering’, exercising headship by granting approval and support. Otherwise, a wife should not have such a ministry.

Leaving aside the myriad of theological difficulties with this position, can it even work practically? I have my doubts. And the families of such churches, whether knowingly or not, imbibe from their ‘pastors’ a model for family life ill-fitted to the biblical design and their joy.

Biblical authority

Secondly, can such a practice be consistent with a high view of biblical authority in the church and the home? Again, most people in these camps would say ‘yes’. They would appeal to examples of women prophets in the Scriptures and reason that Paul’s prohibition against women in authority was cultural, time- and circumstance-bound; it was a woman who brought news of Jesus’ resurrection to men and so women ought to be able to preach, especially under the ‘covering’ of their husbands.

But that clearly contradicts Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 2, ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, but to be in silence’ (v.12). And the attempt to justify the practice is little more than setting aside the authority of Scripture. And, not surprisingly, the church suffers great confusion.

Thirdly, can there be any genuine biblical accountability of such couples? Given that the authority of Scripture is set aside on so basic a matter as who God appoints to lead in the home and the church, it’s difficult to imagine that there can be any real accountability for ‘co-pastors’ in these situations.

Most of these churches are set up like corporations, not like NT churches. So, typically, husband and wife are founding board members, along with a couple of other trusted friends. Nothing appears to be governed in either a congregational or a connectional manner. So, there is no higher ‘court’ than the co-pastors themselves.

Cliff edge

When trouble hits, appeal is made to ‘life coaches’ and trusted friends as accountability partners. It’s really an unloving, unscriptural and dangerous position for the ‘pastors’ and the church. This approach to ministry is bankrupt, because it’s so consistently contrary to God’s blueprint.

The couples approaching pastoral ministry this way are placing themselves in spiritually precarious situations, and the churches they ‘pastor’ are toeing a cliff as well. It’s obvious, but it bears stating: we desperately need churches reformed according to the Word of God.

Thabiti Anyabwile

The author is assistant pastor for church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC, and a council member with The Gospel Coalition.

© Gospel Coalition. Edited from a blog article at http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/thabitianyabwile/2007/08/27/husband-wife-co-pastors, by kind permission