The "First Lady" of the Church

A Personal Perspective

By Laurel J. Davis
See Laurel's blog at The Reluctant First Lady

As a pastor's wife, I politely but vehemently refuse to be called "First Lady of the Church." I refuse to be called "first" of anything in the church. I personally think every pastor's wife should refuse it, too — except if it's her husband calling her "first" in the context of their marriage but not their ministry. Just like any of us in a local church body, I am just an unprofitable servant of the Most High God, and it is only by His calling, equipping and bestowing of unmerited grace that I see any fruit for my Christian labor.

But let me back up.

Firstly, I'm aware that many of you are probably not familiar with this concept of a "first lady" in the church. Often enough, I've had friends stop me in the middle of a conversation about it to ask, "What's that?" They had never heard of such a thing.

To briefly explain, it is a long-standing tradition in predominantly Black Christian denominations, which has spread into "charismatic" circles, whereby the wives of pastors are referred to as the "First Lady of the Church." The practice borrows from the familiar protocol of calling wives of governmental heads of state "First Lady" — e.g., President and First Lady Obama, or Prime Minister and First Lady Cameron of the UK. A Got Questions article provides more information here, but the original intent for its use in the church is to acknowledge and honor the (presumed) special role of a pastor's wife.

I can't remember when I first heard the term "first lady" myself. Although my husband has pastored at predominantly Black churches, we choose to follow biblical traditions over cultural ones when they contradict. (Besides, the cultural makeup of the congregation has been organic, not deliberate.) I do know that I have always been uncomfortable with the title and the special treatment associated with it. I have always preferred to be called "sister" rather than "first lady," because "sister" is a sweet reminder of the fact that I belong to a universal family of believers regardless of whom I'm married, what culture I'm born into or how I serve.

And yes, without hesitation, I think all pastors' wives should think as I do about it. But instead, this is how some of them think:
• "Everybody calls it 'first lady,' but I call it the lead lady, the lady that everybody watches."

• "I knew church. I knew how to play the role."

• "It's very important she be the best dressed in the church for setting the standard in a holy way. We represent God and our husbands. We reflect the best in the church and therefore we should look it."
Now, thankfully, not all pastors' wives who allow themselves to be called "first lady" or who have that official title in their church, are of this mindset. Plenty of "first ladies" choose to see it as simply a reference to their role as behind-the-scenes helpmates in support of their husbands' ministries. They understand and operate off of the truth that all women in the church are to properly reflect Christ, their husbands and family, and their local church in a godly way no matter what role they play.

Yes, admittedly, I have had times where grace had to abound, especially when visiting or speaking at other churches that practice this tradition. For instance, my husband was officiating a friend's mother's funeral at another church and they insisted that I as a "first lady" sit behind the pulpit instead of with the rest of the attendees. That was very uncomfortable, but it wasn't the time to vehemently refuse.

But too many pastors' wives are of that "lead lady" mindset. They kindly insist on the title, expect preferential treatment both inside and outside their church, and exercise a level of church authority over the entire congregation as though they are second in command. And all of this, with their husbands' and other church leaders' direct or passive approval. For examples, please read my blog post, "A Lady First: Being a Pastor's Wife" here.

This is why I cringe whenever anyone calls me "first lady." Not only is the title inaccurate and undeserved even by the most humble of pastors' wives, it is unbiblical. It can't be found in the Bible, there's no precedence for it among all the godly women mentioned in the Scriptures, and it immediately evokes a sense of superiority, entitlement and partiality that can lead to envy, strife and division among the body of Christ.

The Got Questions article mentioned above goes into greater detail about the anti-biblical nature of the title of "first lady of the church," but I also wanted to point out that there's a website that purports to give biblical references in support of the practice. Oddly, though, none of the Scriptures cited apply to the concept at all. In fact, they apply to all Christian women, regardless of whom they're married to:
• The Proverbs 31 woman (Proverbs 31:10-31) is a model for all of us women to aspire to, not just wives of pastors. Verse 32 refers to her husband as being an elder in the land, but that's not necessarily a church elder. And even if he was, nowhere does this passage give his wife a corresponding title in the land. Indeed, as the whole passage points out, it's her works — not she herself — that are what brings her praise at the city gate (verse 31).

• In Titus 2:3-5, no title in the church is mentioned at all. However, there is a sobering admonition for women to be careful not to cause the Word of God to be blasphemed.

• In Ephesians 5:22-23, again no title for women in the church is given, just sobering instructions for their role in marriage. Furthermore, when it says in verses 25-27 that a husband (all husbands, not just pastors) is to present his wife to himself as without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, he's presenting her to himself, not to the church.
Again, I'm not saying that all pastors' wives who allow themselves to be called "first lady" are abusing the honor. I'm also not ignoring the fact that people may mean well in insisting on referring to their pastors' wives that way. I just saying it is a man-made tradition that is anti-biblical even if the motives are innocent and especially in light of how too often the title and honor are abused and people have been hurt.

I further know that the title can put unfair expectations on a pastor's wife to live up to some role that she didn't sign up for and, more importantly, that God did not assign to her. I've had plenty of people look at me sideways when I've said, "Oh, just call me Sister Laurel." One pastor and his wife visited our church once and after the service did a double-take when I introduced myself — "Hi, I'm Laurel, Pastor Charlton's wife" — because I was sitting among the other members of the congregation. "Oh, I thought it was the lady sitting over there by herself," they said, surprised it was me and not her.

Privilege, entitlement, royal treatment, superiority, partiality, special distinction, hierarchy — these are the thoughts that the title of "first lady" evoke for me. Praise God for giving me the grace to point to Christ in what I do, and not to myself by whom I'm married to.

Image Courtesy Laurel Davis

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Christian-Life  | Church-Issues  | Current-Issues  | Ministry-Church  | Womens-Issues

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Published on 9-15-15