Question: "Is it biblical to call the wife of a pastor, elder, or bishop the First Lady of the church?"
Answer: The practice of calling the wife of an elder of a local church “First Lady” (or “First Lady of the Church” or, for short, “Lady [first and/or last name]”) does not come from the Bible. No precedent for it can be found in God’s Word, and the practice is in fact antithetical to such principles as servanthood and impartiality among followers of Christ.
First, there are no instructions in God’s Word on conferring the title “First Lady” on anyone; there is no office or role of “first lady” in the local church. In Ephesians 4:11–13 Paul lists the various offices that were established by Christ for the purpose of the church’s “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ”; not once is the office, role, or title of “first lady” ever mentioned. The passage does not even mention a “pastor’s wife.” Those offices that are listed—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers—are not titles but offices or functions.
Second, there is no precedent of a “First Lady” among the various honorable women of God in the Scriptures, either Old or New Testament. For example, Noah’s wife was never consulted by God regarding the building of the ark (Genesis 6—9). Sarah did not accompany Abraham when he went to offer up his (and her) only begotten son to the Lord (Genesis 22:1–19). Moses’ wife did not help him lead Israel out of Egypt or give the Ten Commandments. Abigail, even though she proved her great integrity and loyalty, was never referred to by any title other than David’s wife (1 Samuel 25).
Even the apostle Peter’s wife is only indirectly mentioned in Scripture, by way of a reference to Peter’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14–15). Since Peter was a prominent apostle and one of the founders of the church, shouldn’t his wife have some special level of importance? But she is not mentioned. The church had no “first lady.”
Even women who are honored in the New Testament as being great servants of the Lord (e.g., Mary, Martha, Priscilla, Dorcas, etc.) are not assigned any special office or title in the church. This truth includes the “elect lady” to whom John writes his second letter (2 John 1:1) and a second woman whom he calls her “elect sister” (2 John 1:13). These “elect” women are not being addressed by some title or office; rather, John is expressing the simple fact that they, like he and all believers, are part of the universal church. These women are called “elect” ladies because they believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior, and they were chosen by God from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4).
The tradition of calling the pastor’s wife “First Lady” borrows from the secular practice of giving special distinction and honor to the wives of governmental chiefs or heads of state (presidents, prime ministers, governors, etc.). The reasoning is that, since honor is given to the office of the President of the United States, for example, then honor should also be given to his spouse—thus, “First Lady” Michelle Obama or “First Lady” Laura Bush. This reasoning is extended to church settings: since pastors are doing a mightier work for God Himself than any earthly head of state, surely they (and their wives) deserve at least as much honor. The thought seems to be, what’s good for the President and First Lady of the White House is good for the pastor and “first lady” of God’s house.
In many churches, the “first lady” is often deemed a leader herself, with decision-making authority in almost every facet of the ministry. By mere virtue of whom she is married to, she is allowed to have almost equal say in everything that goes on in the ministry. This is not the case in every local church, but it is a widening trend. Using the titles “Pastor” and “First Lady” easily evolves into calling them both “Pastors,” despite the Bible’s prohibition against women pastors.
The reasons no one in the church should be called “First Lady” include the following:
• God is the One who appoints offices in the church and the people to fill them. Often, being married to the pastor is a so-called first lady’s only qualification for a presumed position of special honor or authority. This in turn means that some local churches have women leaders who aren’t equipped by the Holy Spirit, who are spiritually immature, and who could bring much harm to their ministry.
• “First Lady of the Church” is a man-made title, borne out of the traditions of men. No matter how well-meaning, the traditions of men do not take precedence over what God provides for in His Word.
• Use of the title “First Lady of the Church” often extends to calling the pastor’s children “First Son” or “First Daughter.” But God’s church is not a family dynasty, and the elders of a church are not heads of state. They and their wives and offspring are not superior to anyone else in their church who is fulfilling his or her own God-given role.
• While it is only natural to give more attention and honor to the most visible family in the local congregation, bestowing royal treatment upon them creates a hierarchal structure that is diametrically opposed to the spirit of humility, servanthood, impartiality, and mutual respect that all believers are to give one another regardless of who they are (e.g., Luke 6:31; Romans 11:18; Ephesians 4:1–25; Hebrews 13:16).
• Distinguishing a pastor’s wife by calling her “first lady” gives her an unnecessary level of prestige among the other women in the church, each of whom is just as much a lady as she. To refer to anyone as “first” and then to treat her accordingly sets a precedent of special privilege and entitlement that have no place in the church of God.
• The “First Lady” title often displays itself in ungodly competition among believers and the parading of the flesh in the church. For instance, in many churches the so-called “first lady” is expected—and she expects herself—to distinguish herself by wearing the best clothes, showcasing the best hat, purse, shoes and jewelry, and having the best hair. It’s even called “First Lady Style” in some circles, but it is antithetical to 1 Peter 3:3–4, which admonishes women that “your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.”
The question will arise, what if people want to show their appreciation for the hard work their pastor and pastor’s wife do for them? Can’t calling her “First Lady” be one legitimate expression of gratitude? Isn’t it enough that people’s hearts be in the right place and they mean no harm to her, the pastor, or the church?
It is biblical to give honor where it is due. But certainly there are other, biblically acceptable ways to show appreciation that don’t involve adding to or contradicting the Word of God. God’s Word on the key offices in the local church is sufficient (2 Timothy 3:15–17).
No one should assume a title the Lord did not confer upon him or her. Also, the truth that the last shall be first and the first shall be last (Luke 13:30) should discourage anyone who wants to call a pastor’s wife “First Lady.”
Finally, sometimes the expectations concerning the “First Lady of the Church” end up placing unfair pressure on a pastor’s wife. Sometimes all she genuinely wants is to be her husband’s helpmate and to pray, teach other women, and serve her church family as the Lord has equipped and directed her—without any special title. We must be careful not to let congregations impose extra-biblical expectations on pastors and their families.
No one in the church should be seeking after titles among fellow believers, especially a title that says “first” of anything. Similarly, no one in the church should use titles or any other means of making an unbiblical distinction of superiority among believers.