A couple of months ago, I posted a question about an ethical dilemma for a minister. When it comes to the subject of gender, he’s a complementarian, and his wife is an egalitarian. He wants to know how their disagreement on this issue shapes whether he should serve as pastor. You gave your thoughts on the issue, and here are mine.
While I mulled over your question, I wanted to check myself for any ideological filters that might skew my answer. So I imagined an alternative universe in which I am an egalitarian, convinced that the Scripture is gender-neutral on the matter of who should serve as a pastor. In this scenario, your wife is the minister, and you’re a complementarian pastor’s husband. What would I say to her?
Of course, in this universe, I’m a convinced complementarian. I believe the Bible teaches both the equality of the sexes and distinct aspects for the two in some aspects of church and home leadership. My answer, I think, in both situations would be the same.
The call to ministry is almost all-encompassing, and it engulfs an entire family in a mission many of them didn’t choose. This is why, I think, the Apostle Paul tells us it is better, if possible, for a servant of Christ Jesus to be free of such obligations in order to give himself fully to the task (1 Cor. 7:1-2).
For the rest of us though, the call to ministry pulls not only an individual but a one-flesh union itself, a marriage, a family, and all that entails. That can be beautiful and mysterious. I just read Eugene Peterson’s majestic autobiography, The Pastor, and was moved by his description of his wife’s sense of mission.
“For Jan, ‘pastor’s wife’ was not just being married to a pastor; it was far more vocational than that, a way of life,” Peterson reflects. “It meant participation in an intricate web of hospitality, living at the intersection of human need and God’s grace, inhabiting a community where men and women who didn’t fit were welcomed, where neglected children were noticed, where the stories of Jesus were told, and people who had no stories found that they did have stories, stories that were part of the Jesus story.”
Peterson found, he writes, early in his ministry that his marriage was more than an intentional partnership. There was an interaction there that was below the level of consciousness. “Interaction is too tame a word,” he writes. “The conjunction was catalytic.”
When I read those words, I smiled with recognition. At the most basic level, that’s what every marriage should be: catalytic. In the ministry, that’s certainly true. In our context, a pastor’s wife is a crucial aspect of the ministry, and that is glorious.
What Peterson is talking about isn’t the stereotype. Let’s be gone with the days when the pastor’s wife is expected to play the piano or serve as a Christified Barbie doll, waving, smiling, and hosting. It’s instead a couple sharing a life together, a life that includes carrying the teachings of Jesus to men, women, and families wrestling against demons.
This is where, I think, your differences on what are (so clinically and reductionistically) called “gender roles” do matter. Because of her place in the congregation, your wife will probably find herself, soon and often, in the Titus 2:3-5 situation of leading women younger in the faith. In our alternative universe, the pastor’s husband will also be highly visible in his unity, or lack thereof, with his wife’s calling. Ironically enough, my word of caution here isn’t because of what a woman “can’t do” in ministry, but because of how crucial her ministry is.
A husband and wife need not agree on everything. But, whatever your view, the issue of male/female relationships will persist as an issue for the sanctification of men, women, and families in your church. If a woman in your church feels herself called to preach, will your wife and you be compelled, by your consciences, to give her opposing counsel?
More likely, what will your wife say when a woman in the congregation confides that she’s facing a struggle about how to submit to her husband in some decision? Will your wife be in the awkward situation of trying to speak from her conscience, about what she believes God would have her to say, without contradicting what you taught in your sermon series on Ephesians. I would say the same in our alternative universe to the complementarian husband who is trying to counsel a church member about how on earth to apply “mutual submission” in his marital context.
Finally, I’m not sure what egalitarian Russell off in the alternative universe would say at this point, but I know what I must say in this world, and it’s more important than all the rest above. You are called to a self-sacrificial headship in your marriage. This means you love your wife, and you do what’s best for her, even to the point of crucifying your own ambitions, your own callings, and even your own life (Eph. 5:25-30). Don’t put your wife in the situation in which she must choose between loyalty to you and fidelity to what she believes. If that means serving the Lord in some way other than the pastorate, so be it. Your marriage is more important than your ministry.
I am not saying you shouldn’t be a pastor. I am saying that you probably should wait a while. You and your wife should devote some time to prayer and conversation about how you will be united in ministry on matters like these. You may find that, praying and searching the Scriptures together, your views (as often happens in marriages) come closer together. Or you may find a way for your wife to cooperate with you in your ministry with a unified front without compromising either conscience.
If that’s the case you may find that your wife is more “complementarian” than you think.
What’s your ethical dilemma? Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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