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Let’s just dive right into this.  I believe and joyfully accept what the Scripture teaches about the equality of men and women as creations of God in His own image with differing roles according to gender in the home and the church.  I’m a complementarian.

Some men shrug at the notion of gender roles, while other men get combative.  The biblical vision of complementarity only excites a few men, and that breaks down to some extent along generational lines.

But nearly every woman grows intense and agitated on this issue.  And here’s why: How we think about complementarity and how we practice equality between men and women with differing roles affects pretty much every woman in our homes and our churches.  The self-interest of women is good, right, and necessary.  The disinterest of men is at best benign neglect, and at worst a failure to consider and love half the human population.

I’m a complementarian, but I don’t like the way I sometimes feel when I hear the issue discussed, and, more importantly, when I see shabby application and practice.  If we’re honest, many of us are better at thinking about this issue than we are at either talking about it or living it.  That’s true of a lot of issues really; but few other issues directly and immediately affect as many people as this issue.  The consternation, grimaces, hurts, and disappointments of our sisters–who are themselves complementarians–should register with us much more deeply than it appears to do in so many cases.

I’m a complementarian, but we need a way of talking, writing, and applying the Scriptures that not only celebrates gender distinctions and roles but celebrates in a way that infuses those roles with deep meaning.  Many people celebrate God-created gender differences the way they “celebrate” some cultural observance not their own, with a passing acknowledgment and perhaps a bit of intellectual curiosity without any signficant or lasting embrace of the difference and its beauty.  Our “celebrations” can be perfunctory and obligatory, rather than doxological and deep.  Such “celebrations” rarely surpass the superficial and stereotypical.  So shallow affirmations and “celebrations” ultimately feel dismissive and patronizing, lip service to quickly appease and move on without the messiness of genuine understanding.  I’m a complementarian, but I don’t want to celebrate gender differences and roles in a perfunctory, obligatory, superficial and ultimately patronizing way.

There are many questions and issues that feed this pastoral angst for me.  But if I could boil it down to one practical issue or application question it might be this: What are the meaningful roles and contributions that women should make in our families and congregations?

Years ago, I remember asking that question to some leaders and members at one of the first churches I had the privilege of belonging to and serving.  Everyone returned blank stares.  I asked the question because I was coming up blank myself.  So this isn’t a harsh judgment of that church.  It’s just an illustration of a sobering reality: most churches and leaders have not thought at any length about what meaningful roles women should play in congregations while joyfully embracing the Bible’s teaching about gender roles.  When it comes to practice, too many of us have thought about the negative–how to safeguard the complementarian position–but have neglected the affirmative–how we should equip and deploy our sisters for service.

I love my sisters in Christ and I want to see them enjoy every freedom that Christ gives and flourish in every meaningful role that Christ defines and encourages.  So over the next couple weeks, I want to sketch out about 10 things I see women doing in the scripture that help shape and define meaningful feminine roles in the church, roles well beyond serving in the nursery and helping organize the next potluck.  The Bible gives us a view of women’s roles well beyond the church equivalent of “women’s work.”  Faithful brothers should be champions for those roles.  Faithful leaders should think this issue through, since it affects at least half our membership.  And faithful congregations should work through this issue so that while the bounds of God’s design are maintained a normative culture of female flourishing develops.

As we work through this, a few resources might be helpful:

John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds), Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.  A must-have reference work exploring, as the title states, biblical manhood and womanhood.

Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.  Articles, book reviews, sermons, conference, and book reviews aimed at “proclaiming God’s glorious design for men and women.”

Carolyn McCulley, Radical Womanhood: Feminine Faith in a Feminist World. A former feminist herself, Carolyn offers a very skillful look at the history of feminism, its affects on our view of women, and how women might pursue a vision of womanhood in keeping with God’s design.

There are tons of other useful resources available.  Feel free to recommend some you’ve found helpful in the comments.  And offer your thoughts: Do you think the church and Christian leaders have an effective way of talking about and applying a joyful, meaningful vision for women’s roles in the home and church?  Feel free to give a shout out to pastors and leaders you think are doing a good job on this.

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39 thoughts on “I’m a Complementarian, But…”

  1. Bill says:

    You strike an encouraging tone here, but isn’t it convenient that you ad a male would be exploring the roles allowed to women? Maybe we men ought to step down a bit on this in a Christlike manor and make room for some women to speak for themselves. Where are the female authors on this blog?

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hi Bill,
      Thanks for reading and for leaving a comment. This is a personal blog, so for better or for worse I’m the only one who writes here–male or female :-).

      It’s good to desire input from our sisters on this issue that affects them. So, I tried to suggest a female voice on this issue, like Carolyn McCulley. We could as easily add a Carolyn Mahaney or a Nancy Leigh DeMoss (who, incidentally, is playing on my wife’s radio as I type this) and a host of other godly sisters. You might be encouraged to read some of these sisters on this topic. They are there and they are not silent, praise God.

      Grace and peace,

  2. Brad says:

    Looking forward to future posts on this subject. Love the point about championing the “negative” yet neglecting the “positive.” Hoping this will really help our leadership think through these issues.

  3. Bill says:

    Thanks Thabiti. I should have been more specific by specifying that I was referring to the gospel coalition consortium of blogs rather than yours specifically. Your response was helpful.

    1. Bill,

      Nancy Guthrie and Kathleen Nielson are to other women who contribute here. I’ve benefited tremendously from Kathleen in particular, and am really looking forward to hearing her speak at The Gospel Coalition in Chicago this Spring.

  4. Thabiti – what a timely post! I was just wrestling over how to properly articulate this challenge of negative vs. positive emphasis in the comment thread on John Starke’s piece. Literally – I prayed over how I could say it better, and “suddenly” – here is not just one excellently worded piece, but the promise of more.

    I always struggle to define my “discomfort” with the current state of complementarianism. I truly believe that genuine complementarianism best reflects the glory of the Triune God and His relationship with His people. So, obviously, I ought not to be uncomfortable with what I believe to be from God and for God. But, exactly as you say, I think we do a poor job in our practice of it.

    My Christian life has been spent in or around pretty heavy-handed complementarian churches, until very recently. Not coincidentally, those same churches were also pretty heavy-handed with the law, and notsomuch with the gospel. Thus, the heavy-handed insistence that women not work at all outside the home, a hearty suspicion of women with children who also pursue higher education or part-time work in their vocational field, an interpretation of “working at home” that commends things like bread-making, wall-stenciling and cloth weaving, but discourages/condemns writing or study (unless it’s on Proverbs 31 or Titus 2). My early years home with my dear daughters were marked with real struggle, even despondency, because my years of learning in such churches had taught me only the imperatives of my calling, without the undergirding indicatives of the gospel (to borrow the phrase of Tullian’s which I love so much). The only way Titus 2:3-8 is even possible (or desirous, for that matter), is because of Titus 2:11; same thing happens in chapter 3 – vss. 1-2 are only possible because of vs. 4.

    It’s in our nature as women to be “doers”, yes? Eve’s sin was in large part because she did first, instead of thought and asked first. (Just imagine what the world might have been like if Eve had just stopped and thought “Huh. What did God say again? Maybe I should go ask Adam to see if he can help me remember.”) But we still have this attitude in womens’ ministries! It’s a lot of law around what we’re to do (love husbands and children, work long into the night spinning cloth), done in a vaccuum (as in women teaching women with little accountability and a passive denial of the reality of our ability to be easily deceived) with not nearly enough substance around the glories of why we’re to do it (women are made in the very image of God, our work as regenerate daughters is to be an expression of who He is and what He’s done for us in Christ, to our families, the church, and the world).

    The reasons for the lack of substance, at least some of the ones I’ve seen, could be:

    Elders do not pour nearly as much effort into overseeing and supporting, with either time or funds, womens’ ministry as they do other ministries. They don’t sit in on womens’ studies, they don’t look over material women are either currently studying or want to study, etc.

    There’s no formal process for raising up and mentoring women with teaching/exhorting gifts to lead and direct her to grow in them.

    Women are encouraged to read “womens'” books and are intimidated by so-called “theology” books.

    And on and on.

    It’s ironic that in the homeschool movement, there’s so much emphasis on academics and (seemingly), so little on theology. Somehow, women needs lots of help teaching their children Latin, but when it comes to the doctrine of regeneration, or how your eschatology might influence how much time you spend on social justice projects, you’re on your own.

    So sorry for the length. I’m so looking forward to your posts, and to forwarding them on to my pastor (who, for the record, has a similar vision and is planning on doing a series later this year on Jesus and his interactions with women).

    1. Robert says:


      I am total agreement with you about the leadership of the church needing to be more invested in the women’s ministry. It can’t just be left to run on its own…that just doesn’t make sense to me. My wife and I have had many problems with this and I pray that more time and attention will be given to women’s ministry in all churches.

      I am anxiously awaiting the rest of this series and plan to read it with my wife.

    2. Patti says:

      There are really easy tools now online for us to see what the Bible says. Interlinears are good too.
      One is and another is I don’t think they are intimidating at all.
      They both use the same original words and and numbering systems as the Stong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the KJV. I think if we all felt more like we had studied for ourselves we could be more comfortable in our beliefs.

  5. Nicodemus says:

    I am looking forward to you doing this.

    One of my frustrations is with the nature of leadership generally in Church that has ramifications in this area. Perhaps it is because here in the UK there are so many weak Churches and maybe there are other reasons, but the nature of the leadership calling and demands seems so often to invite men into it that come across as detached, objective, essentially struggling with a pastoral understanding of Church and yet are excellent at providing leadership and expository teaching and goals, etc. In fact, I have come across situations that if you mention feelings and sharing, you might well be accused of being the “touchy feely type” or maybe even a charismatic? So my point, it is as much a pastoral issue surely and maybe there needs to be a stronger emphasise on pastoral theology rather than just biblical theology in both the recognition of a calling and the training process.

  6. Dear Thabiti:

    I am so pleased you will be discussing this issue. In a former post, I mentioned the fact that a well-known pastor said that he looked past the women in the congregation, and spoke only to the men.

    This is what left me a bit unsettled: most people do this to homeless people. If we treat anyone this way, we mark that person as unworthy of our time and love.

    Susan Hunt is another excellent choice for a female perspective, she spoke at the Holiness of God 2009 National Conference. You can hear her speech “Women’s Ministry in the Local Church,” at

    I am really looking forward to this series of posts.

    God bless,

  7. Dane says:

    Outstanding, Thabiti. Amen.

  8. Louis says:

    Hey T:
    I thank the Lord for the post. We will starting a second round of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in our Foundations class this month. We did this about 5 years ago. So I am looking forward to your posts and please pray for us as we take up this very important subject.

  9. Mandy says:

    Being in a small church myself and busy working thru Biblical Womanhood this statement by Susan Hunt was profound to me! Sitting in church and saying yes , yes but on Monday going out into the world and challenging men for positions in the workplace? “The crisis of womanhood is too critical for the church to be passive any longer. Scores of evangelical women are functional feminists, because the world’s paradigm for womanhood is the only one they have heard. So Pastor Thabiti “teach the full teachings of God’s Word even when it is uncomfortable and even when it is not politically correct. We want to hear all that God has to say to us women.-by Susan Hunt “Women’s Ministry in the Local Church

    1. Mandy,

      Is the phrase “challenging men for positions in the workplace” yours, or Susan Hunt’s? That’s just a loaded phrase, and I want to understand its context before offering up why it might be overly broad…. (IMHO) :)

  10. Thanks for the shout-out, Thabiti. It was an honor to read what you wrote. I wholeheartedly agree with what you’ve written. I appreciate your leadership on this topic because it is something that needs to be addressed in our circles. While I appreciate and wholeheartedly support pastors focusing on training men to be godly leaders in their homes and their churches, it can feel sometimes that the attention and resources for the women in our circles is a bit … muted.

    Certainly I was challenged in researching the history of the home for my book, Radical Womanhood. What I came to realize was that the 20th century profoundly changed the purpose of the home. Prior to the Industrial Revolution and the mass media revolution of the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively, the home was a place of considerable contribution to the economy. But in the 20th century, it went from being a place of productivity to a place of consumption. Therefore, as we study the passages in the Scriptures about a woman managing her home, we tend to think of it as the “big reveal” in those ubiquitous home design shows: “Oooohh, look at my new stuff and how my new stuff inflates my status.” That’s why we need to understand how we read our own experiences into the definition of the home–or private sphere, which I prefer to call it because the biblical concept is broader than our dwellings.

    Once we gain a broader perspective of what the home accomplished in biblical society, then we see that our generation’s challenge is to help women have a fuller orbed view of their lives — how to invest appropriately in different seasons of life, while not forgetting that femininity does not end with fertility. One of the reasons the complementarian position is often resisted is because we often don’t address how a woman influences her church, her community, and her culture when she is not rearing children. While I definitely champion the priceless positions of wife and mother, there many women in our churches who are not in one or both of those roles. Therefore, our examples of biblical womanhood needs to be broader as we address the congregation.

    In the end, if we don’t see the biblical purpose for godly womanhood is all that and much more, then we won’t be equipping our female Christ-followers to understand what’s at stake in light of eternity. As John Piper famously said, biblical womanhood is not for the wimpy. Our brothers need to see that we are in the spiritual battle with them and therefore worthy of the investment you are calling them to make.

    Thank you for writing this post. I’m sure it encouraged a lot of women this week! May the Lord multiply grace and peace to you as you serve His people.

  11. Mary Kassian says:

    Thank you for this post. It echoes what I have been trying to say to complimentarians for decades. Satan never gives us the luxury of fighting on only one front. Yes, on the one front, we must stand up for the truth of the Word of God, which clearly teaches role distinctives- We must counter the unbiblical pull toward egalitarianism. But on the other front, we must fight against a stiff, simplistic, legalistic application of complimentarity which presents a “check-list” for what biblical womanhood must look like, and is devoid of theological grounding or grace.

    It saddens me to see a reactionary segment of “uber-complimentarians” who deamean, degrade, or devalue woman, and her place and contribution to the Kingdom…who portray the 1950’s model of the stay at home mom/wife as the only legitimate application of complementarity… who have no concept of what complimentarity means for single women, or women who do not have young children, or women whose life situations differ from the stereotypical complimentarian model.

    It also saddens me when leaders of complimentarian churches don’t have a vision for encouraging and blessing women’s gifts, and fail to provide an environment in which they will flourish. Many complimentarian pastors don’t know what to do with women who are gifted in leadng and teaching, so they simply ignore that such women exist. When I once approached a pastor with some ideas about teaching and discipling the young women in our congregation, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “We don’t really know what to do with you,” and then suggested, “Maybe you could put out cookies after the service.”

    I would like to challenge you pastors to not only teach your people to mind the “fence” of complimentarity, but also to freely run and explore the vast field that the fence encircles. Some of you are so concerned about the fence that you’ve forgotten the field. And YES, your sisters are feeling the cramps in their legs.

    The Bible does give us a view of women’s roles that goes well beyond the church equivalent of “women’s work.” Faithful brothers should indeed be champions for this. Thank you, Thabiti, for leading the charge.

  12. Fred Zaspel says:

    Aw, c’mon Thabiti. Confess — your wife made you write that post, didn’t she! :-)

  13. Dean P says:

    Some previous posters above might’ve mentioned this and I missed their comment but I think because of the current on going rate of unemployment for men the last couple of years and perhaps in the near future practical applications of complimentarianism could very well become a much bigger issue for men than they have in the past. Especially since July 2010 their are now more women in the work force than men. So if this is the case how do we deal in the church with this potential role reversal?

  14. Amanda says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! As a woman it has always frustrated and discouraged me to hear all about what I CANT do but never about what I CAN and SHOULD do. Thank you for approaching this in a positive, constructive and meaningful way!

  15. Mandy says:

    Rachael it was my statement –And it was a realization that I came to in my life. Reading my comment again it was very cryptic . . .
    But let me have your thoughts!?

    1. The reason I asked is I’ve heard that line of argument mostly from the “uber-complementarians”, as Mary calls them (so loved her “fence vs. field” analogy”). It’s the argument from society/economics/politics which presumes that women working alongside men is a “competition”, and that it’s produced all kinds of harm in the world and the church. Whether or not that’s true, I believe it’s the wrong point of view from which to examine the issue. We ought to considering it from God’s point of view, beginning at Creation, then to the Kingdom and the Cross. We may along the way come to a few of the same data points or conclusions, but I strongly believe there aren’t as many as the dogmatists on this issue would have us think are there.

      I worked in the high tech field for almost ten years as a single woman. I never saw it as a “career” per se, but simply as a field of work where I was gifted, and where there was much potential for work from home (ahem ;) ) were God to bring me a husband and children. It also paid the bills! God eventually did bring me that husband (interestingly, through that job – we worked at the same company). I worked part time when my husband was laid off 3 months after I’d left full time work after having our first daughter, and continued to do consulting work on and off on a part-time basis.

      The woman of Proverbs 31 worked outside the home. She had a successful clothing and accessories line, even an outside sales and distribution channel for it. I have a hard time believing she had no “competition” in her business, although I don’t know enough about the times to know whether all the merchants and other linen sellers would have been women – that would be interesting to know.

      I believe the instructions about working at home have more to do with Paul’s other admonitions to women about what they ought not to do – lay around watching the Hebrew version of Oprah and gossiping with their friends. We are to work at home. But I’m not as sure this precludes us from working in other places, or from work that is other than housework-related,(I’ve heard different versions of that interpretation also – I’ve been called out for recently beginning to pursue a Master’s degree because my children are all now in a Christian school – I’m supposed to be homeschooling them and not be so self-centered). Of course there are fences in that work. We can’t let it interfere with our love for husbands and children. It ought not to be simply for sordid gain. It should be to advance the Kingdom. It should be with the affirmation and proactive blessing of our husband and our pastor. It will most likely look very different for each woman, according to her gifts, the number of children she has and their ages,their school situation and how much oversight that required, etc. And of course it’s not mandatory! There are a myriad of factors.

      So hat’s where I was coming from.

      I appreciate Thabiti’s generosity in letting us all think out loud about this. I’m looking forward to hearing his correction from God’s Word on my perspective, thus making me an excellent case study for the different ways a woman’s deception manifests itself, and why we need godly men to keep us from breaking down those fences and wandering into fields we shouldn’t be in. I haven’t paid my registration yet for this semester’s classes, so if I shouldn’t be going at all, I won’t be out any of my husband’s hard earned money. :)

      1. Kenny Taylor says:


        That was a loaded final paragraph, Rachael. The synapses are firing!

      2. Laura says:

        WHABAM!! Rachael, your comments never fail to make me laugh AND think. Great, great stuff, and I couldn’t agree more! :)

  16. christopher says:


    i have often thought about a number of the issues that you raise in this post. i, too, am a complementarian, but…i have often felt that there is a disconnect between biblical complementarianism and complementarianism in practice. The New Testament seems to describe (doctrinally and narratively) women in ministry in positive and elevating terms (Mary at Jesus’ feet; women proclaiming the Resurrection; Phoebe as a deacon; Priscilla instructing Apollos; women prophesying in church)–i.e., the thrust of the biblical “conversation” concerning women seems to arise from a groundedness in the dawning of a New Age (Acts 2:17) wherein God has poured out His Spirit on daughters. But in my experience complementarianism (in practice) regularly describes women in ministry in negative and restrictive terms–i.e., the thrust of the “conversation” concerning women seems to arise from a groundedness in the functional differences between men and women that govern what women CANNOT do. Perhaps this is an unintended consequence resulting from our response to the fallen world, which understands “equal” to be synonymous with “identical.” And maybe this is inevitable. But i lament what seems to be the church allowing the world to establish the direction and emphases of this conversation.

    So, one obvious way that i think the church can more effectively talk about women’s roles in the home and church is by not merely “responding” to the excesses of hyper-feminism, but laying verbal emphasis on how the arrival of God’s kingdom in Jesus’ ministry and the arrival of Pentecost have positively elevated the status of women far better than hyper-feminism could ever dream of doing.

    Secondly, i think we need to let women do in our churches what women do in the New Testament. We must let, and even, encourage/affirm women to minister like Mary, the women at the Empty Tomb, the women among the 120, Phoebe, Priscilla, women in 1 Cor. 11:4-5, etc. Rather than be overly concerned about a neat, tidy complementarianism that easily resolves difficult heremeneutical and practical questions, i think we need to take more care to avoid going beyond what is written and reading our cultural preferences into Scripture concerning women in ministry. While this is true in every area of church practice, the tendency to draw pharisaical rules around biblical rules is very strong when it comes to the issue of women in ministry. Perhaps we are overly concerned with appearing to be slouching toward egalitarianism. But we should avoid this temptation to fear of man. In my view, complementarianism is both science and art, and requires the Spirit’s wisdom.

    Lastly, i think churches should consider how ecclesiology renders the modern application of complementarianism problematic. 1 Cor. 11:4-5 seems to suggest that women (along with men) ministered within the local congregation through prayer and prophecy. However, most modern churches seem to organize their public services in such a way that only 1 or 2 voices (ordained ministers) speak publicly. As a result, women are precluded from verbally ministering to the church in a manner that seemed to be very common in NT churches. [Apparently this form of verbal ministry in 1 Cor. 11:4-5 did not run afoul of 1 Tim 2:11-12.] For the sake of our sisters in Christ and the edification of our churches, i think it is worth considering how to reorganize our public services to allow for these biblical forms of ministry to be exercised by women.

  17. Miriam Ward says:

    I’m excited about this post & the ones to come.

    I would love to have the church speak more to the fact that a complementarian view should have men looking for ways to bring the entire community “online”: volunteering for childcare, encouraging women to pursue theological depth, and striving at all times to have every member of the church feel compelled to go hard after the things Christ would have them do. I think there is a connection between the (old saw, I know) idea that Reformed folks err on the side of faith without works and the idea that women should be passive. Both are imperfect and reflect poor theology, and seem to me to be connected in how they infect a church body.

    As an educated woman saved as an adult parenting two preschool boys who is relatively new to reformed theology, I’m actually very excited about the kind of scripturally- (and therefor Christ-) centered thoughts about this topic. It seems to me it should be energizing and liberating, rather than restricting and stifling. I will add a caveat- the Bible is not easy, and there are things to which I know I must submit despite disagreeing with or not fully understanding them. This is true of any believer. The only way this is possible is through Christ- what an amazing savior, who pulls us to him even in our difficulty in following him!

    Thanks for the post, and for the comment thread. Also, please keep the author/speaker recommendations coming. I’m working through the Piper/Grudem, but love to see strong theology and application from women as well. Makes the old iPod really worthwhile!

  18. EMSoliDeoGloria says:

    Appreciated both Carolyn McCulley’s and Mary Kassian’s as well as Christopher’s and Rachel Starke’s comments here. And, like others, I’m looking forward to more posts in this series.

    It’s been no small source of discouragement when I go to church conferences and men get to go any one of several break out sessions led by experienced Christian leaders about discerning calls to leadership, leading in family or business or community and women have one break out session: on how to be more “feminine,” as a girly-girl speaker with little or no theological training chooses to define it. And that’s just one example…

    As I mentioned in conversation with one of my pastors not to long ago, I’ve thought about switching churches over this issue… Not because I disagree with male eldership but because of all the “extras” limiting or even demeaning women that gets added to complementarian theology. Yet, there is far more that I love about my church and that I would lose if I went elsewhere and I believe God has called me to stick it out…

    One thing I hope you will address in this series, Pastor Thabiti, is the teaching of Dr. Ware that seems to say that women bear the image of God in a “derived” way and are consequently not as much of a priority to God as men (, including the claim that the image of God comes through the male in procreation and that a woman derives her God-given identity through man – rather than through Christ directly…

  19. This was a well thought out post, I am really looking forward to the series. I hadn’t thought about guarding the negative at the expense of the positive. One thing is telling about how we view the gifts God has given women, and that is how you refer to working in the nursery and organizing the next pot luck. I think “what a privilege” about those roles because I was designed for them. I relish in them. Shouldn’t we be viewing them as “really cool!” instead of “there’s more” (even when there is more)?

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  22. PEARL says:

    Sorry, I just cannot get beyond, This is not the end of this type of rhetoric it is still alive and well today. If this is the best that Complimentaranism can offer, I do not want it. They seem more akin to the Levite in Judges 19 than the Lord Jesus Christ. I do not want to be a pastor, teacher or elder but neither do I want to be a mother. I am happy to be a working wife whose husband loves her.

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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