The View from the Manse*
Misty S. Irons
The Impossible Ideal
I have never met a seminary wife who looked toward her imminent fate of becoming "a pastor's wife" without some dread. She is not quite sure what she is getting herself into (or, as some may view it, what her husband is dragging her into), but she is sure that whatever it is, it won't be pleasant.
She anxiously discusses it with other seminary wives, and they in turn share with her the stories they have heard. Being the pastor's wife means she will be viewed by the church as an example of what a godly woman should be. As a wife, she sets the example for all other wives. As a mother, her children's behavior will be observed and compared with that of other children. She has to be pleasant and amiable, even on days when she feels lonely or depressed. She has to make sacrifices for the church, even if it means putting herself and her family last. And she will be criticized and scrutinized to no end.
While horror stories convince the prospective pastor's wife that she will be miserable once her husband enters the ministry, the success stories told by upbeat, energetic pastors' wives depress her even more. They seem to have it all together while she, a mere mortal, is doomed to failure and could not possibly live up to the standards set by these spiritual giants.
I remember as a seminary wife attending a wives' fellowship to hear one dynamic pastor's wife speak. She gave us a glowing account of her experience in the ministry, even though she would occasionally mention interesting side notes, such as how her husband worked 60-70 hours a week and quite often was not home in the evenings. And even when he did get a chance to call her during the day, they usually had only five minutes to talk before some pressing engagement forced him to ring off. Though these details raised eyebrows around the room, the speaker appeared to glide over them unphased, as she continued enthusiastically to relate to us one blessing after another about life in the ministry.
We all marveled at this woman's spirituality, asked a few hesitant questions about how she does it, and went away feeling quite certain that we would never make the cut as pastors' wives. I went home that night and promptly started an argument with my husband over how many nights a week he was planning to spend away from home when he entered the ministry. Another woman later confided to me that she went home that night and cried.
That the prospect of becoming a pastor's wife excites so much fear in people is not a case of getting all excited over nothing. The idea that a pastor's wife is to live up to a higher standard than the average Christian woman seems to be the premise of most approaches to the subject of pastor's wifehood. It was impressed upon me when I was a seminary wife that I needed to start working now on getting my life in order. I was to read this book on marriage or that book on childrearing because as a pastor's wife I would be expected to know these things and to have them implemented in my life. This was not advice that could be shrugged at, or put off, or implemented simply because I wanted a change in my life. Instead I felt like there was an urgency. It was because one day I would be the pastor's wife, and that is when everything would be different. I would have to have my act together. I would have to have the answers. Just thinking about it gave me a foretaste of some of the pressures, anxieties and expectations that a pastor's wife experiences in her world.
The impressions I received back then about what is generally expected from the pastor's wife were not unique to my experience. They are confirmed by the abundance of advice offered to the pastor's wife in books written by and for pastors' wives. To prepare her for life in the ministry, she is given tips on how to improve every area of her life: her marriage, her children, her housekeeping, her budget, her dress, her spiritual life, her ministry, her social demeanor, her friendships. If it is difficult to imagine what kinds of advice could possibly be offered to a pastor's wife in areas of such a personal nature, here are some samplings from just a few of the books I have read.2
There is advice for when the pastor's wife feels her husband is not spending enough time with her (learn to accept his busy schedule, but don't let bitterness or resentment build up, let him know how you feel, but don't get overly upset or emotional). There are personality check-lists to work on (have a pleasing personality, don't be dictatorial, have a sense of humor, but don't be the church clown, always display joy and don't get depressed). She receives tips on how to dress (always be properly groomed, avoid striking colors or extreme styles, dress conservatively but don't be drab, nicely but not expensively, attractively but without drawing attention to yourself). She is even instructed on how to answer the telephone ("The proper greeting on the telephone is 'Hello,' with a smile in your voice"3).
Thus, every innocuous decision the pastor's wife makes in her daily life has now been exalted to the heights of spiritual importance. To make her even more paranoid, these detailed instructions for her behavior are coupled with extensive warnings that the church will be looking to her as a spiritual role model and taking note of her every shortcoming. With so many scolding voices sounding off in her head, it is not surprising that a pastor's wife will sometimes be driven to extremes in striving to fit the ideal model. For instance, one poor woman always wore two dresses while she did her housework, a ragged one over a fresh pretty one, so that if a visitor from the church should drop by unexpectedly she could quickly remove the top dress and transform her appearance instantly.4
Another pastor's wife also confessed to extreme behavior. One morning the doorbell rang, and when she looked out the window, she saw two ladies from church standing on her porch, holding a pink wrapped box. They were dropping by to see her new baby. Panicking, she ran to put on her breakfast coat. Then she dashed into the bathroom to brush her hair and apply make-up. Then she ran into the nursery, dressed the baby, and stuck a pink bow on top of her head with a piece of Scotch tape. Finally she ran to open the door, but the ladies weren't there. They had gone home, having grown tired of waiting.5
Another woman says she tries to do it all: "I work full time as both [a] mother of four and at a forty hour [a] week job outside the home. At church I teach junior high Sunday school, play for worship and also sing, and am in charge of junior church. With that goes the normal calling, youth activities, community, and church activities. I know my husband feels overwhelmed at times too."6
But it's not solely the advice of books that applies the pressure that these women feel. Pastors' wives say that the pressure that affects them the most comes from people in their churches. Many have found that a list of expectations was already in place for them when they first arrived. Because they occupy the special status of being the minister's wife, they are expected to be a role model of a godly woman. "As a pastor's wife I am set up to be an example to the flock," says one woman.7 This expectation automatically makes pastors' wives feel obligated to live up to a higher standard than everyone else. "We think if we are going to have an impact upon lives," says one pastor's wife, "we have to be someone people can look up to and admire."
Since the pastor's wife is in the spotlight, her life is often scrutinized and picked apart by onlookers. Her shortcomings, once discovered, are talked about behind her back. Pastors' wives refer to this situation as "the fishbowl existence," that is, feeling like you are on display in a glass bowl where people can observe your every move from every angle. One pastor's wife complained, "Our church members watch my weight better than I do!"8 Another pastor's wife complained of a woman who liked to sit across from her during church luncheons so she could watch her eatto make sure she does it properly.
Criticism is what can drive a pastor's wife to try even harder to clean up her act. The fewer shortcomings there are, she reasons, the less there is for people to criticize. But by taking this route she pays a heavy price. She will be afraid of being open with others about her weaknesses and insecurities, not only because she fears being gossiped about, but worse because everyone in the church would know how unworthy she really is to be everyone else's role model. To make sure she is not discovered, she must work hard to put up a front of happiness and perfection. But deep down she feels insecure and unhappy. Having been placed upon a pedestal, she must struggle each day to maintain her footing lest she be toppled to the ground in disgrace.
Tradition over Scripture
Considering the hardship and ulcers many pastors' wives suffer to live up to such high ideals for their role, it is amazing how little Scriptural support there is to justify the traditional idea of "pastor's wife." I know of only one instance, 1 Corinthians 9:5, when a pastor's wife is specifically mentioned in the Bible. And even there the apostle Peter's wife is mentioned only in passing, and is referred to simply and ungloriously as a "sister."
Yet it appears that tradition has overidden Scripture. Charles Bridges in his book The Christian Ministry even admits that "there is no express letter of Scripture requirement on the subject" of the pastor's wife,9 and yet he goes on to strongly exhort the pastor's wife that it is her duty to share equally in the burdens and responsibilities of her husband's ministry. In fact, Bridges fancies the pastor's wife to be a kind of female ministry counterpart to her pastor husband, though again he has no Scripture to back it up. For he writes, "happy indeed is the pastor, whose partner is thus the mother of his people," and then elsewhere he asserts, "should not the wife aspire to the honour of being a spiritual a well as a natural mother?"10
Other books I have read have also made similar admissions of weak Scriptural proof justifying a special role for the pastor's wife in the church; and yet, like Bridges, they will turn around and start immediately building a list of special requirements for her. But the majority devote little or no attention to finding biblical support for their assertions.
That the expectations placed upon the pastor's wife are unscriptural contributes enormously to her problem in fulfilling them. For since her supposed "role" as pastor's wife is defined largely by tradition, she has no Scriptural boundaries defining how she should and should not be expected to serve in the church. Where do her duties end? No one really knows. And because no one has clearly marked out for her exactly what her role is supposed to be, the bewildered pastor's wifejust to be safe and not offend anyonewill try to fulfill the expectations of everyone around her. One wife explains, "We have our own set of expectations about our role . . . . We have another perceived set of what we think the congregation has of us, a set from our husband, and one from the board [as well as] . . . what our mentors said to us in preparation for life in the ministry."11 By using this strategy of taking her cues from others, the strange result is that the pastor's wife often ends up having more obligations to her church than her pastor husband. At least he has a Scripturally marked-out job description to limit the demands on him.
It seems to me that if we were to follow Scriptural boundaries, everything expected of the pastor's wife that is above and beyond what is expected of Christians in general can be swept away. Like the apostle Peter's wife, the pastor's wife ought rightly to be viewed as nothing more than simply a sister in the Lord. This was my strategy as I entered into pastor's wifehood: to be just another member of the congregation, and to serve as I felt called, not as I felt compelled.
Tradition's Impact on the Church
It is a simple strategy, but determining this course was really the easy part. There are difficulties to be surmounted on the way. One is dealing with the impact that the traditional role of pastor's wife has made my own mind and conscience. As my husband began his ministry, I had doubts about whether I was really doing enough for the church as the pastor's wife. I felt guilty about delegating responsibilities to others that became too burdensome for me. I would look at my shortcomings and wonder if it was really okay for the pastor's wife to be struggling in this or that area. And then I would compare myself with other pastors' wives who seemed to be filling their traditional roles just fine. Why can't I be more like them?
But the primary difficulty is the impact the traditional idea of the pastor's wife has made on the church as a whole. In this regard, I have very little to complain about in my personal experience. The congregation at Redeemer as a whole has always been accepting of me as a sister in Christ, and I have found much freedom there to serve and fellowship comfortably. But there are always those few encounters with people who have made criticisms and subtly challenged the way I view my role in the church. People who weren't satisfied with the amount of hospitality I do. People who didn't understand why I don't participate with my husband in counseling sessions. And those who didn't understand why I haven't taken it upon myself to disciple their wives into godliness.
But my trials have been mild compared to what some have had to face. It is not uncommon for a pastor's wife to walk into a church situation where it seems that the people already view her with an attitude of resentment and hostility, though it seems she has done nothing to provoke it. One pastor's wife who was new to her church said, "I've been accused of doing things that are not right[but] no one tells me what that is. . . I've been accused of not including all the women in the things that we do. But, when I ask them to comethey don't participate. Or, if I ask them to participate or [ask if] they have any ideas for things we might dono one responds."12
I think these negative and hostile attitudes that so many pastors' wives encounter are symptomatic of the strange relationship that people have traditionally sustained with their pastors' wives for so long now. In our church culture, people have come to believe strongly that the pastor's wife should be placed high on a pedestal, but at the same they may also feel somewhat resentful that she's there. It becomes obvious that these mixed feelings about the pastor's wife exist in many churches, when you hear how there are some congregations that criticize their pastor's wife for failing to live up to her role, but then there are just as many congregations that resent their pastor's wife because she executes her role too well. A pastor's wife who is too perfect is a threat. Anyone who is too perfect makes everyone else feel inadequate. How much more so if it is the pastor's wife who is viewed as setting the spiritual pace for the rest of the women in the church! Of course, it is even worse if the pastor's wife is found to be inadequate. Resentment quickly turns into contempt. Why should we treat her as if she were someone special, when she's no different from the rest of us!
In the typical church scenario, many people respond to the pastor's wife similarly to the way they respond to the law. At first they admire her and strive to live up to her standard, but it isn't long before they begin feeling inadequate, burdened and oppressed. Pretty soon they are looking for ways to lower the standard so they won't look so bad by comparison; hence, they look for her faults, and try to find out what others have also seen of her failures and flaws. When people have been conditioned to view the pastor's wife as someone who sets the standard for the other women in the church, it is no wonder many will respond to her as if she were a walking covenant of works!
In my own experience I have found that throwing off the lofty ideals of pastor's wifehood has had the overall long-term effect of reinforcing a sense of freedom in the church that is consistent with the truths of the gospel. Although at first taking such a route has brought some criticism my way because there were those who thought I was neglecting my role, as time passed it seemed that people got used to the idea of having a pastor's wife who didn't exactly fit the stereotype. I didn't have a great program or ministry set up to help all the women get their lives together. But as a result it seemed that people began to relax more and enjoy the Christian life, because they didn't have the stress of having to measure up to some artificial standard I was setting up for them. I think that the absence of this stress from people's lives removes much of the spirit of competition that sometimes spoils the fellowship among sisters in Christ, and frequently creates problems in the relationship between the pastor's wife and the women in her church.
But I am also aware that in many churches the solution is not so simple. Because of the impact the traditional idea of a pastor's wife has made on the church, even if a pastor's wife is not trying to be a threat to anybody, even if she desires to take the biblical route of just being a regular parishioner in her church, she may still find herself criticized or resented by some.
As distressing and frustrating a reality as this is, I think it may be helpful for a pastor's wife to understand the complexities of her situation. She needs to step back and realize that she has inherited troubles and attitudes that stem from a long-standing tradition in the church that has flourished for years in the soil of bad theology, pragmatic ministry, and overall earthly-mindedness. The problems she faces are symptomatic of the lack of Christ-centered preaching in the church at large.
Role Modeling As Application Bridge
Christians who are not receiving their nourishment from Christ through sound preaching will naturally start relying on people and methodology as a substitute. When a sense of spiritual dullness and discontent comes upon them, they immediately look for a stronger dose of practical instruction to remedy the problem. When people start to feel insecure about their Christian life because it has become static and routine, and then they go to churches where the preacher pounds the pulpit every Sunday and asks, "How is God making a difference in your life?" they begin to panic. They frantically look around for something in their lives they can shake up or improve. They need to assure themselves somehow that they aren't losing their grip on God.
But when the average Christian woman sitting in the pew considers her life and wonders how God could make a difference in her life, what is she supposed to come up with? Well, she could stand to lose a few pounds, she could use more hours in her already hectic day, and she could have a happier marriage. Maybe God is telling her that she is supposed to trust him to help her get her life in order. And so in the spirit of urgency to be assured that God really is making a difference in her life, mixed with some of her own personal discontentment, the Christian life becomes for her a push to have a more perfect life. And who does she turn to for insight into attaining this goal, which has been mistakenly labeled as a "God's will for her life," but the pastor's wife? After all, she is the one who is supposed to be her spiritual role model. It is her job to show the women what it means to live a godly life.
The fact is, once Christians buy into the notion that the only real difference God makes in their lives is the practical difference, the pastor's wife is doomed. For once people start thinking that the Bible is not about seeing their heavenly life secured in Christ, but is about making Christ relevant to their earthly lives here and now, all kinds of effort needs to be poured into making the Bible's teaching conform to our situations. According to this approach the Bible must be applied, otherwise it is only a dead letter and its theology remains dormant head knowledge; for the Bible is an ancient text with which our modern world can only connect through the building of application bridges. The pastor's wife becomes one of those application bridges. It is her job to show how Jesus is relevant to today's Christian woman. She must bridge the gap between the first century Jesus of Nazareth and the late 20th century modern woman.
The pastor's wife is typically expected to rise to this task by being a role model for the women and showing them how to live the Christian life. But as we have pointed out earlier, the demands that can be placed on her in this regard are conceivably endless. This is because in the application bridge approach, the gospel is supposed to make a practical difference in people's lives, but what that practical difference is can be just about anything. People want to have their lives in order, their checkbooks balanced, their houses clean, their children well-behaved, their Bible verses memorized, their marriages harmonious, and still have time left over to serve gloriously in their churches. They want something that resembles a cross between Mount Zion and the American dream. Thus, it is no surprise that the job description of the pastor's wife so closely resembles the fantastic ideals many people have for how they want God to make a difference for them. To be an adequate application bridge, the pastor's wife must have every practical and visible area of her life in order.
A biblical-theological look at the Scriptures, however, tells us that God has already made a difference in our lives that surpasses anything we could have hoped for or imagined in our own finite minds. The Bible tells us that our life's story has already been played out in the drama of redemptive history and brought to its glorious conclusion in Christ. The real difference is that we have gone from the first Adam to the last Adam, from slavery to sonship, from death to life, from hell to heaven. Thus, this difference between our old life and our new life in Christ is not something we must strive to make real for ourselves. It is an objective heavenly reality already obtained for us by the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
But are these just heavenly truths that do us no earthly good? Certainly they do make a difference here and now. For the objective reality of our new life in Christ is something we participate in by faith, hence our earthly life will reflect that difference. Because now that we possess every good thing in Christ, his love, his obedience, his intercession, his forgiveness, we cannot help but enjoy these benefits by bringing them to fruition in our own lives. Nevertheless, our good works are only a shadow, if you will, of what is true and real about us in Christ. Our life on earth draws its strength from and points back to a heavenly reality. To live according to that heavenly reality is what it means to walk by faith.
But when the application bridge approach exalts "changed lives" as the ultimate goal of Christianity, people in pursuit of this goal inevitably end up trying to be sanctified by works. This is because the application bridge model disregards Christ as the mediator between God and man. Instead, works is what sustains and mediates people's relationship with God, for people only feel like God is working in their lives if they see some kind of tangible evidence. And once Christians become caught up in this mentality, they will naturally place a great deal of importance on role models to guide their sanctification. Role models are practical and tangible. They are accessible and provide a standard that people can strive for. If all that interests people is knowing what they should be doing, that is what a role model will tell them. Of course, everyone agrees that Jesus is put forth as our ultimate role model, and it has even become a popular Christian cliché to ask, "What would Jesus do?" whenever one is caught in a moment of indecision, or doesn't know what to do in a particular situation.
However, when Jesus' example doesn't address our situation as women, it is convenient to look to the pastor's wife for the answers. While evangelical Christian women will look to her for practical tips on godly living, Reformed Christians are concerned about where their pastor's wife stands on issues and how zealously she carries out these convictions in her life. Does she approve or disapprove of birth control? Does she send her kids to public school, Christian school, or teach them at home? And what is her opinion on school vouchers? For you see, where Jesus' example is silent, the example of the pastor's wife can fill in the gaps in areas that we think are the real pressing questions of the Christian life.
The obvious problem is that role models can be abused to bind people's consciences with extra-biblical standards. Even the question, "What would Jesus do?" is a question of speculation, calling us to use our imagination to go beyond what is revealed in his life. But it is also interesting to note that although the Bible acknowledges a place for role models in the church, it doesn't teach us to depend on them for our sanctification. It doesn't even teach us to ask, "What would Jesus do?" Instead it teaches us to ask, "What has Jesus done?" Because Jesus has accomplished all righteousness for us, there is no need to busy ourselves with things we must do to make ourselves feel righteous. And since our life is now hidden with Christ in heaven, even on earth we live as those who belong to the world above. Our sanctification is not about mastering this present age or making a better life in it, but about refusing to let it define who we really are.
But people who think the bottom line of the Christian life is simply knowing what they should be doing have disregarded the power of the age to come, and pretend that the power of the flesh to keep the law is a sufficient substitute. Yet how can they reach the heavenly goal of sanctification by using the earthly means of their own efforts? How can they participate in the glories of the age to come by drawing on the resources of this present evil age?
The pastor's wife who is caught up with trying to be the role model everyone wants her to be can become especially caught up in an earthly-minded bondage to this age. For she must lead the pack in the scramble to make the Bible relevant to her life. She must continually have some kind of dynamic spiritual activity in her life to feel good not only about her standing as a Christian, but also as a worthy role model. She must be the most zealous when it comes to practicing application.
But I think that if the pastor's wife is to be any kind of example at all, she should be an example of a person who lives out the gospel, not the law. If she is expected to be a role model, then let her model the truth of God's redemption and not the false gospel of earthly decrees. It is her obligation not to get caught up in legalism, but to promote by her example the liberty that Christ has purchased for her.
Of course, the passage everyone points to in order to justify their ideas about the pastor's wife is Titus 2. According to this passage, older women must teach the younger women to love their husbands, to love their children, and to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, and subject to their husbands. Most would say Titus 2 proves that women need other women to show them how the Bible applies to their specific female needs, to span the gap between abstract theology and the practical issues faced by the women of their day.
What is overlooked is that the church of Titus 2 was a congregation with a biblical-theological understanding of themselves in Christ. Following the exhortation to the women, verses 11-13 of the same chapter explain why the women ought to conduct themselves in this way: "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of their God and Savior Jesus Christ." So according to this passage, it is the grace of God revealed from above that instructs our conduct in this present age; and it is the hope of the age to come that beckons us to persevere in that conduct.
When the apostle Paul mandated the older women to train the younger women in the ways of godliness, it had nothing to do with an older woman's ability to understand how the gospel can be made relevant to women. This was not a program to meet the needs of women, for the gospel has already met their true spiritual needs in Christ. This was not about self-improvement or feeling better about themselves; nor was it about the older women advising the younger women on whether they should breast-feed or bottle-feed their baby, or which home-schooling materials they ought to be using.
Rather reverence for the gospel, not relevance to a personal agenda, is the point of this instruction. It was about showing the younger women how they in their daily conduct can serve the cause of the gospel; how they as wives and mothers can adorn the gospel and demonstrate what it means to live for a heavenly hope. These formerly pagan women who were accustomed to a life of ungodliness and sensuality needed the encouragement and instruction of seasoned Christian women in basic areas of life, such as love, purity, and self-control, so that their behavior wouldn't bring reproach to the gospel. And I think it is important to note that these seasoned Christian women whom Paul called into service were the older women of the church; he does not even mention the pastor's wife, let alone ask her single-handedly to bear all the responsibility of this ministry.
At a biblical-theological church, a pastor's wife has a great advantage. The regular dose of Christ-centered preaching, teaching and ministry can pave the way for her to make progress in establishing a role for herself that is not so legalistic and idealistic, but is more suited to her own abilities and gifts. When people start drawing their spiritual strength from the blessed hope of the age to come, it soon becomes apparent to them that what the pastor's wife or any human being can contribute to their spiritual growth is weak and ineffectual by comparison. Why scrape the bottom of a dry cistern, when they can draw from a well that overflows to the satisfaction of their thirst? Suddenly the ministry of the pastor's wife is not so crucial anymore in their eyes; and she in turn is free to serve without always being afraid that she may be falling short of somebody's expectations.
Yet at the same time I think we also need to acknowledge this fact: given the church's long-standing obsession with relevant, pragmatic Christianity, the typical pressures and expectations placed on pastors' wives will sometimes find inroads even into churches that desire to exalt the gospel of Jesus Christ. For legalism isn't just a product of bad theology; nor is it simply an erroneous approach to ministry; it is a condition of the human heart. It takes time to root it out of the church because it takes time to root it out of man himself.
Colossians 2 and 3
But even if a pastor's wife finds herself in a congregation that does not yet understand the full implications of living for the age to come, she can still take heart. For in Christ she already possesses a freedom that cannot be taken from her. Christ has obtained her liberty from the oppression of earthly laws, when he fulfilled the law for her. She especially must cling to this truth because she has not only the guilt of her own conscience to battle on a daily basis, but must also know how to respond to the demands, the criticisms and sometimes the resentment of others. Every instinct she has will urge her to do whatever it takes to appease her critics and submit herself to their demands, because it is only natural to want to be justified before men. But the gospel says there is no need to panic about being approved by men; God has already approved her in Christ. He has silenced every condemnation pronounced against her when he rose again for her justification. She has already died to this world and its judgments, and her life is now hidden with Christ in God.
According to Colossians 2:14, Christ has "canceled the written code, with its regulations, that stood against us . . . having nailed it to the cross." And in Colossians 2:20-23 the apostle Paul says, "Since you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: 'Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!' These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on the commandments and teachings of men." When we feel reproached, either by the opinions of others or by our own consciences, for not living up to the ideal pastor's wife model, we feel tempted to try to live up to the false standard of godliness that tradition dictates for us. But according to Colossians 2:24, "such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-made religion, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining fleshly indulgence."
I'm not saying that a pastor's wife should never try to improve herself in the mundane areas of her life. I'm not saying that if I were unhappy with the way I managed my time, it would be wrong for me to go out and buy myself a Franklin Covey Planner. But I find there is a difference between buying a planner because I have a personal goal of managing my time better, versus buying one because as the pastor's wife shouldn't I be an example of a wise steward of my time? One approach is exercising my freedom in Christ to profitably redeem the time God has given me in this passing evil age. The other approach is an attempt to be a worthy pastor's wife, to fulfill a law that dictates what is and is not a good pastor's wife, and to avoid the condemnation I will feel if I fail in this area. As soon as I start thinking I should do something because I'm the pastor's wife, I am striving for and defining myself by an earthly standard. Stress and anxiety is what characterizes this worldly striving; but a sense of freedom comes when we are seeking the things above.
Paradoxically, I find that when I have the assurance of my freedom from the bondage of the law, I am much more enthusiastic about such things as working on my marriage, doing housework and serving in the church. For Paul says that once we are grounded in the indicative of Colossians 3:1-4when we apprehend that we have died and our life is hidden with Christ Godwe are free to live out the imperatives that flow from it, namely submitting to our husbands (3:18), living in peace with our fellow Christians (3:15), and doing our work heartily as for the Lord rather than for men (3:23). Only when the burden of trying to be justified by the Law is lifted do we find strength to serve in the power of the Spirit.
Freedom to Submit
But even if a pastor's wife has found freedom to serve Christ in this way, it doesn't guarantee that her critics will be silenced. What about those situations in which her freedom is judged by onlookers as unfitting behavior "for a pastor's wife"? For example, one pastor's wife who was a newcomer to a small town church said she received constant disapproving looks from the women in the church for wearing a silver ring on her thumb. Though no one said a word to her directly about it, after just two weeks the pressure became so great, she felt compelled to stop wearing the ring. Who can blame her?
Here is where we see another paradox come into play for the pastor's wife who has found assurance of her liberty from the law. For even as she faces this potentially oppressive situation, her sense of freedom in Christ does not need to be hampered. There are times when complying with the demands of her weaker brothers and sisters in Christ can actually be an exercise of her liberty in Christ, provided that she seeks to appease them out of love and not fear.
What is the difference? A pastor's wife who complies with such a demand because she fears the opinions of others will feel like she is forfeiting her liberty. But if she understands her liberty from the law to be an unforfeitable reality that she already possesses in Christ, she can choose to use her freedom to serve others. She can choose to submit herself to her brothers and sisters so as not to offend their weak consciences.
But then what good does it do a pastor's wife to say that she is free from man-made regulations, but in practice she must submit herself to some of them anyhow so as not to give offense? I think understanding her objective freedom from the law in Christ makes a big difference in this way: If the pastor's wife at the small town church gives up her thumb ring because she feels forced by the people to do so, she will feel as if she is in bondage to their whims. What else are they going to demand of me? she wonders. Then again she may doggedly continue to wear it, as if all of her Christian liberty hung on whether or not she would prevail in this struggle. In either case, her sense of liberty is dependent on what she does or does not do in this situation.
But a firm grasp of the true liberty she already possesses in Christ can set her free from such anxieties. For her freedom is already secure in heaven, and does not depend on her earthly life. If Christ has truly set her free, the choice of what to do with the ring is hers; and the Bible encourages us to use our freedom to serve one another through love (Galatians 5:13). This may mean giving it up so as not to give offense. Or it may mean keeping it out of the same principle of love. The point is, when we are living for heaven, when we know where our true identity lies, even temporary earthly subjection can become simply another way of serving our true Master above.
For a pastor's wife who finds herself in such a situation, one hope she has is that a regular dose of Christ-exalting, biblical-theological preaching and teaching will begin to set people free from the bondage they are under. For those who subject others to bondage are usually under bondage themselves. On the other hand, people who are secure in their identity in Christ will not be threatened by what the pastor's wife is or is not doing. They will have come to see her as a sister and fellow heir in Christ, even as they have come to see themselves.
The Sufferings of the Not Yet
In this presentation I have tried to show how understanding a biblical-theological view of the Christian life frees the pastor's wife from the guilt, the expectations, and the unnecessary burdens placed upon her by the traditional understanding of her role in the church. I have also tried to show how she can function much more comfortably in the church when the congregation also has a Christ-centered understanding of the Christian life. But I do not want to give the impression that a pastor's wife at a biblical-theological church shouldn't have problems, or ever face discouragement, or ever feel stung by someone's critical remark. I certainly wouldn't want to give the impression that through biblical theology, I have found a way to escape all the pains and sorrows that come with being a pastor's wife.
Biblical theology simply does not support such an ideal scenario. Perhaps the most practical lesson I have derived from biblical theology as a pastor's wife is understanding that the glories of the already exist side-by-side with the sufferings of the not yet. Suffering is real and inevitable in this life. Even Christ had to suffer in the flesh, and endure insults, persecutions, misunderstandings and rejection in this life. We who bear Christ's name will not be treated any better. In fact, we are called to bear the same cross as our Lord.
Suffering will come to a pastor's wife, if not for reasons I have already mentioned in this presentation, then simply because her husband, as a gospel minister, battles at the front lines of spiritual warfare. Timothy was exhorted by Paul to endure the hardships of the ministry like a good soldier of Jesus Christ. The woman who is married to a gospel minister will, as a matter of course, have to endure many hardships with him. There is no need for her to bring them upon herself by being a self-appointed martyr for the sake of the ministry; the trials will come to her in due time. She may not feel like her troubles are glorious sufferings for the cause of the gospel: struggling with financial difficulties, battling discouragement, or hearing her husband slandered by others. And when she suffers these things alone, as many pastors' wives do, the hardship can be overwhelming. But when she endures her trials as one whose hope is not found in this life, she does suffer for Christ, because her patience testifies of the hope he holds for her in the world to come.
But God also gives us great comfort in the midst of our sufferings. For though there are times when we must suffer hardships and afflictions that only God can give us the strength to bear, we understand that we are participating not only in Christ's blessings in heaven, but also in Christ's sufferings here on earthand that is a glorious privilege. It is through suffering that we identify ourselves with Christ, embrace his cause, and show ourselves to be worthy of his name. And it is through suffering that we also taste the glory of the cross, because just as Christ endured the cross for the joy set before him, so we also learn that even our darkest moments are a window through which we behold the brightness of heaven's hope more clearly.
Keeping that hope in sight, as we serve the Lord here on earth, is what I believe we as pastors' wives need to be encouraged to do, especially in these days when we feel so much pressure to conform to the earthly-minded expectations for our role, and undertake so much stress from the daily grind of the ministry. Only an eschatological perspective can encourage us to see that our trials are really but momentary light afflictions producing an eternal weight of glory, far beyond all comparison.
Sherman Oaks, California
* Presented at The Kerux Conference, June 22, 1999 in Westminster, California.
1 Carolyn Simpson, "Dealing With Criticism," in Help! I'm a Pastor's Wife, Michele Buckingham, ed. (Altamonte: Creation House, 1986) 84-5.
2 Jill Briscoe, Renewal On the Run (Wheaton: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1992); Lorna Dobson, I'm More Than the Pastor's Wife (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995); Lora Lee Parrott, How To Be a Pastor's Wife and Like It (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1956); Ruth Senter, The Guilt-Free Book for Pastor's Wives (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1990).
3 Parrott, 89.
2 Wallace Denton, The Role of the Minister's Wife (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962) 30.
5 Betty Malz, "Unrealistic Expectations," in Help!, 13.
6 Internet discussion: Pastors' Wives Support Board (PWSB).
9 Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry (Carlisle: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991 [reprint]) 170, n. 2.
10 Ibid., 171-172.
11 Dobson, 22.