The View from the Pew: Building a Theology of the Role of the Pastoral Spouse
Over many decades I have read many books directed at the “Preacher’s Wife”, the “Pastor’s Wife” and later, as society changed and the role was not as gender specific, the “Clergy Spouse.” In all of those early books was shared the practical wisdom, experiences, and beliefs a variety of people from different walks of faith. Some were Baptist, some were Nazarene, some were Wesleyan, and some Lutheran. In my salad days, I even wrote my own tome stressing my particular viewpoint.
As my husband accepted the pastorate of a church and we assumed the role as church leader and spouse, I had cause to reevaluate what actually was that role. I was intrigued that the literature was heavy on experiential guidance, historic tradition, and personal belief. I could not, however, find any attempt to present the role of the leadership spouse in Biblical or theological terms beyond vague and very general terms.
Could a Biblically based theology of pastoral spouse be created and how might that process be initiated? Corduan (1981) suggests all theology has a core of philosophical infrastructure to serve as the skeleton or scaffold. As such, certain stages would be driven by the core values of the group and would require defining a starting point, a metaphysical stance, methodology, and understanding of the main points of the model, interplay between the diverse scripture, experience, reason, and tradition.
At issue in the entire discussion is that fact that such individuals, their marriages, and the religious leadership setting are all different. They are shaped by sometimes-conflicting religious traditions, customs, and social expectations. A ‘fundamentalist’ clergy and spouse would step into that role with a finely detailed concept of what the role, tasks, limitations, and obligations for both individuals would be from the first day. The “wife” (because often these groups are gendered) would be expected to do specific tasks, behave in specific ways and relate to spouse and congregation in specific ways. A clergy spouse from a ‘mainline’ church may encounter some expectations, but usually there is more space for individualism and recognition of the unique role of the clergy spouse in the life of the church. These are very generalized illustrations, with room on both ends of the spectrum for a congregation’s expectations to be more diverse and elastic.
The traditional description of the spouse of a clergy seems to hover around the idea of specialized status. Some religious groups emphasis this with terms such as “First Lady.” Some groups categorize spouses as mere extensions of their pastor’s role and they are then seen as co-leaders (often focusing on the women and children if women or if mail, on the churchmen). The spouse, the marriage and the children are held to the standard of Caesar’s wife and are expected to be models of piety, behavior and accomplishment.
The paragons of matronly excellence are emphasized from scriptures (sorry, guys, they have not clarified their thinking for masculine spouses of church leaders). The Proverbs woman, the mother of Timothy, and other women are found in the Bible to serve as templates.
Biblical Examples for Discussion -1 Timothy 3:8-11
- In this section are guidelines for those who would be deacons and their wives. Likewise [must] the deacons [be] grave, not doubletongued, not given to much wine, not greedy of filthy lucre;
- 1Ti 3:9 Holding the mystery of the faith in a pure conscience.
- 1Ti 3:10 And let these also first be proved; then let them use the office of a deacon, being [found] blameless.
- 1Ti 3:1 1Even so [must their] wives [be] grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.
- 1Ti 3:12 Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, ruling their children and their own houses well. ·
- 1Ti 3:13 For they that have used the office of a deacon will purchase to themselves a good degree, and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.
Many translations use the term “wives” indicating all deacons are men, yet not all deacons were men. A more apt or better translation for the entire section from 3.1 to 3.11 may be on that reflect the lack of a gender in v.1 “a person who desires to be a bishop…v.8 let deacons…and finally v.11, ‘likewise, let women be…” The problem is that the term translated here is one also translated, just as correctly, as the more general ‘women’ (gynaikas).
Assuming that the frequently used translation is the ‘wives of deacons’, then there is an interesting assumption that the early church saw leaders as a “team” within the context of the married state. This has interesting ramifications when considering Biblical verses about the need to be matched in life and work (2 Cor. 6:14-18) and the mention of the union of man and woman as creating a third entity or the “one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 , Matthew 19:4-6 ,Ephesians 5:31 ,Ephesians 5:22-33).
In Russia there is an old and popular toy, the matryoshka or nesting dolls. When taken apart, they reveal surprise layers of delightful, and ever smaller, hand painted dolls. This is an excellent illustration of the layers of understanding in solving a mystery.
The concept of one flesh is just such a mystery, It is hidden within a mystery that has been under explored and under appreciated as a revelation about the nature of relationship between humanity and God, Christ and His Church, and between husbands and wives.
In the beginning, God was in essence ONE FLESH, the God of Creator-Redeemer-Comforter called variously the Trinity or the Godhead or the PARENT-CHILD, or simply GOD.
This ONE FLESH GOD said "let us make humans in our image: male and female...."
Therefore, the Bible says "for this reason."...a man shall leave his family and cling to his woman...a woman will move from the allegiance of her birth family to this new unit...they shall be "ONE FLESH".
The one flesh was the standard concept for explaining a uniting in which two elements combined. It was the reuniting of separates that were unique in, and of themselves, but whose completeness was best realized in a reunion of the halves to make a new whole. In the New Testament, Jesus reaffirms the importance of this marital relationship by repeating that the people involved shall be "ONE FLESH".
Because that ideal of unity, that concept of the two halves becoming once more a whole, was a fundamental concept to His own teaching about relations with "GOD."
It was the very relationship, in fact, that he wanted to have with his "BRIDE" (the term referring to those followers who would become the Church) and what he conveyed repeatedly.
Paul indicates this with his own repeated imagery of the "Body” as diverse parts all working in harmony and coordination. He indicates it with his discussion of husbands and wives. He indicates this with his imagery of the 'ev Christos' of Galatians. There in Galatians he paints the picture of moving from one sphere of existence into a new, totally different sphere, where the believer merges, integrates, blends, disappears into, becoming the new creation of Jesus Christ. All imagery of the same ONE FLESH revealed first in creation repeatedly since the creation account.
If the marriage relationship is then ‘one flesh’, the translation favored by many regarding the wives of deacons, presents an argument for a team approach to leadership in a faith community. Husband and wife then are working together, toward a common goal, and in similar ways within the church.
That, however, is not how the relationship and the role have developed for most of Christianity.
To be continued.....
Marilyn A. Hudson, MLIS
See here for a paper on a related aspect of this topic.