By Jessica Burke
When Rosaria Butterfield was first invited by Pastor Ken Smith to dinner at his house over twenty years ago, she was antagonistic towards the gospel. She was a tenured dean at Syracuse University immersed in a feminist, lesbian community. She hated Christians like Ken and his wife Floy and only accepted his invitation as research for a book against the Christian faith. But through the gentle, loving hospitality of the Smiths, Rosaria came to know Christ in what she calls a “trainwreck conversion.” Rosaria’s testimony of God’s grace in her life is a reminder that no one is out of God’s saving reach.
She is now a popular Christian author and speaker but spends her days as an unassuming mom and pastor’s wife. I had the opportunity to speak with Rosaria about being a pastor’s wife with a public ministry, how hospitality has affected her children, and more.
This interview has been edited for conciseness and length.
You’re a sought after speaker and your books are quite popular. Has your public image affected your relationship with your church as a pastor’s wife?
Our church does not make superstars out of people. The people who know what my other job is–that would not be everyone in my church–pray for my protection, pray that I would be useful, and pray against me ever getting puffed up with pride. Nobody ever tells me to use my gifts; there’s not a lot of flattery that comes my way.
The Lord’s given me the right kind of context. We’re a small church. We have sick people and old people, and I spend my days caring for people, and that’s it. There’s no presence at my church that would suggest I’m anything other than Kent’s helper. You won’t find a copy of a book I’ve written. We don’t pray publicly for my speaking schedule at church, and the reason is that we don’t want that to be a thing. We’re there to worship the Lord.
Church is a safe haven for me and hopefully for others. The object of our worship is the Lord Jesus Christ. We believe that obedience is not something to be prized or praised, but it is what we are expected to do.
We believe our gifts are filthy rags. If God wants to use our filthy rags for the furtherance of the kingdom, that’s great. And we believe the purpose of the Christian life is to give glory to God and to reveal his kingdom on earth to the best of our ability. With that, my life is pretty much this: you will publicly repent of your sin, you will publicly turn the other cheek and forgive people, and you will publicly wash a lot of stinky feet.
It’s not a glamour job. The church is not a place that you would know that I do anything other than serve the little people, the older people, and my husband. The first thing I do when I get home from speaking on Saturday night, I make communion bread. That’s a good reminder of who we are in relation to who God is.
You have experienced suffering in your ministry at church and at home, as well as in your ministry as a writer and speaker. How have you seen God use your trials and suffering in your life?
I think that’s what God uses best. Every trial is tailor-made to bring us closer to Jesus. How we handle every trial allows us to exercise the means of grace. How a Christian suffers is going to speak greater volume to a watching world than how you enjoy your birthday cake. Because of that, suffering to a Christian is the phonics of the Christian life. It’s the ABCs of the Christian life.
Part of why my husband and I decided to include the story of a church discipline situation [in my book The Gospel Comes With a House Key] was because people need to know how to practice hospitality in the context of church discipline.
If we’re really going to prepare for the post-Christian world, for the persecution that may occur from us living out our faith, we need to anticipate what hospitality looks like under these kinds of real challenges and what some of the dangers are.
We also need to remember that the purpose of church discipline is to win a person to Christ. The purpose is to say, “We love you, wake up. And we love you too much to watch you walk this road to hell. And we are beholden to you because we are part of the same body.”
Hospitality in your home is a family affair. How has your family’s practice of hospitality shaped your children?
My children love having people here. They have seen people come to Christ. My children have fallen asleep under the table as their parents have pled with people to put their faith in Jesus. And when they themselves put their faith in Jesus, they knew that Jesus wasn’t some silly prop you pull out to make you look good.
The other thing–we’ve been talking about this more now that they are teenagers–that has come is the responsibility that they have with living in a hospitality home. The responsibility they have to be a leader among their peers, to put the word before unbelieving teenagers, and just how painfully hard that is–how embarrassing that is! When Paul said, “I’m not ashamed of the gospel,” I can’t help but think that he said that because at some point he was, or because he was tempted to be, because we are all tempted to be.
One of the heartbeats at our house is the conversation of how people are doing in the Lord, and whether we’re serving them or not in our conduct. My son has been really thoughtful in his prayers…It’s been great to see some hardened teenagers come to Christ. We have seen someone who just a year ago was really deep into drugs, sex, and rebellion… he was still my friend though and he would still sleep on our couch and get up and argue with us about the gospel, but now it’s just an amazing change. He’s become like the big brother of the house now. My kids have seen this. My kids know that once the gospel gets a hold of people, they become more themselves in the best of all ways. So it’s not like they sit around thinking, “God couldn’t do that.” They have me as a mother. And they’ve actually witnessed some pretty amazing transformative conversions. But it’s still hard. It’s hard to put your faith and words together when people are mocking you and when they are mocking Jesus. So we talk about it as we’re emptying the dishwasher, as we’re walking the dogs, we talk about what kind of help my kids need to be the man or woman of God they are called to be in the face of their friends.
We’re all muddling through this. No one finds it easy to be mocked. My children know I’m mocked. They know there are people in this world who hate me and make fun of me for the gospel. We don’t square off against our children. We’re right there with them, we know hurts and that it’s hard and that we want to suffer for righteousness sake if we’re actually suffering.
Where do you think the church is failing in ministry to the LGBTQ community right now?
The falsification of the gospel is really a big problem. I truly believe that the biggest problem is within the church right now because the gospel you call people to is crucial. You cannot arrive at biblical ethics without a biblical anthropology. So to deceive people into really allowing them to believe that gay is who they are and that all they need to do is just live with an obedience is a losing theology. To celebrate the sin of identity, but condemn the sin of practice is a losing, losing theology. Now the churches who know better need to get it right.
You can read more about Rosaria’s conversion, her thoughts on sexual ethics and the gospel, and how Christians are called to hospitality in her books.
Jessica lives in North Carolina with her husband, BT and their four children. She currently serves on the 2019 ERLC Leadership Council and loves to write in her spare time. The Burkes lived overseas for three years as missionaries and are members of King’s Cross Church, a multiethnic plant in downtown Greensboro.