In early March, C.J. and Carolyn Mahaney addressed a room full of couples being trained for pastoral ministry at the Pastors College. Soon these couples will return to their home churches to begin (or resume) the public and transparent life of pastoral ministry.
A question asked by one of the wives was simple: How should a wife respond when her pastor-husband is criticized? The question was asked in the context of pastor’s families, but the answer will likely benefit all married couples.
Question: Carolyn, as a pastor’s wife, how do you handle situations where your husband is criticized or there is grumbling in the church about your husband?
Carolyn: Obviously, it certainly isn’t easy to have your husband criticized. But as wives, we must recognize our role as our husband’s helper and make sure we don’t take up an offense, which would not be helpful to our husbands. And that does not take place without a fight. This is the person you love the most in the whole world, and if someone is criticizing him, you can be easily offended and want to defend him. Yet, I must realize that taking an offense would be a disservice to my husband. So it’s important that we as wives guard our hearts, making sure we don’t take up an offense, seeking to serve our husbands as helpers.
C.J.: Your point is an excellent one. There have been many times that I have desired Carolyn to take up an offense—“Join me in my offense against this individual.” I’m not immediately happy that she hasn’t taken an offense, but I have learned that eventually she has served me invaluably when she does not take up an offense. In no way is she defending or justifying what others have said or done, but helping me monitor my heart, and impressing upon me that a sinful reaction from me would be more serious than whatever they are saying or doing, are the most effective ways she can serve me.
Sadly, over the years we have witnessed couples in ministry where wives have taken up an offense.
And this doesn’t just apply to sinful criticism, but also to when a husband is legitimately corrected by a member of the pastoral team or a member of the church. So you need both those categories. It’s difficult when those serving with your husband correct him in a certain area or bring an unfavorable evaluation. A wife might find herself more vulnerable to taking up an offense when her husband has been corrected. I am grateful for the way Carolyn has served me by not taking up an offense. And numerous times she has agreed with the correction, protecting me from arrogantly dismissing the correction and preventing me from sowing discord among those I serve in ministry.
So, whether it’s sinful criticism or legitimate correction of me, how do you guard your heart, Carolyn?
Carolyn: Wives should carefully listen to what’s being said. If there is something legitimate, bring that lovingly and carefully to your husband. I don’t think it serves a husband for a wife to just take the side of the person bringing criticism. But if there is a degree of truth, bring that in a way that serves him.
And just helping to mirror back to him what you are hearing him say. If he is sinning in response to the criticism, where appropriate, lovingly mirror that back to him: “It seems like this is how you are responding. Is this true? Are you offended at this person? Are you bitter?” Asking skillful questions.
It takes a lot of prayer and soul-searching in our own hearts to keep our hearts free from taking up an offense. But we must have a conviction about our role as our husband’s helper and ask, “What will truly help my husband?” It will not help him if I’m adding to the temptation he’s already experiencing. If he is being corrected or criticized, he’s already got a battle he is fighting. And if I come along and agree and participate in that, it makes his battle more difficult.
My husband has gone through seasons of correction, and it’s a temptation and fight. So I find myself having to pray for those who bring criticism or correction and filling my own heart with appropriate Scriptures so I can be a true helper to him during that time.
C.J.: Yes, but where they have been accurate observations—whether critics analyzing or friends correcting—you have courageously transferred that to me. Too often I have not been grateful in the moment. Eventually, I am grateful.
Would you say that one of the biggest challenges these ladies will confront as pastors wives is will be—when they hear the criticism or correction and they find there are aspects they agree with—how to inform their husbands of that without appearing to support any sinful attitude of others?
Carolyn: Yes. And I have through the years seen wives not do that, I’ve seen the effect and the outcome, and it has put the fear of God in me. At the moment it’s not always easy to take a stand and say, “I don’t think you’re responding humbly to this situation right now.” And it takes courage. Yet we’ve seen, because we’ve been in ministry for as many as we have, some very sad situations where I think wives really could have been the difference-maker if they would have challenged or confronted their husbands.
C.J.: So wouldn’t you say that over the years that some wives misunderstood submission and honor (or so it appears)? I think that has played a role. And for some it could be fear of man—fear of husband.
I can tell you this: For any marriage, correction of the husband by the wife would be one category on my short list of most important. If I observed a wife who was reluctant to correct her husband I would be concerned with that marriage. Obviously, I’m not arguing for a contentious marriage, but correction, humbly communicated, must be part of every marriage.
Part of what Carolyn has modeled personally and taught well is what she taught at the last Leadership Conference—“Watch Your Man”—in broadening an understanding and application of “helper” to include appropriate correction. I would argue that correction is not just part of marriage but an aspect of what it means to be fellow heirs of the grace of life.
Carolyn’s encouragement has been of immeasurable benefit to me, but equally so or more, on balance, has been her correction. She has protected me when sin was deceiving me. What a gift this has been to me!