That’s Odd: On Bias Against Single Pastors

A friend wrote me about how I would respond to the recent New York Times article chronicling the frustration of singles pursing pastoral positions. I probably came to his mind because I am both single and a pastor. I am completing 14 years as senior pastor at Bethel Church—a church who bucked the apparent bias and took a risk on a 29-year-old single fellow. It has proved to be a great ministry partnership. I am no crusader for singleness in ministry, and I address this subject with a fair amount of shyness. Truthfully, I would very much like a wife and family and have prayed consistently since I was 18 for God’s provision and gift.

I am well aware of the cultural expectations for marriage and ministry both here and in other parts of the world. I recall candid discussions in Sierra Leone and Romania where men are not allowed to be pastors without a wife. An unmarried American pastor teaching and preaching there was a source of some concern and amusement. I have experienced countless moments of bewilderment and awkwardness from others when I answer their inquiry about my wife and children by pointing to the lack of a ring on my finger. The U.S. evangelical church’s perspective is well summarized by an experience in North Dakota a few weeks ago. I was enjoying a visit with some former members of our church when their 6-year-old daughter whispered to her mom, “Is he married?” She replied, “No.” The little girl proclaimed loudly, “That’s odd!”

Not a bad summary of the attitude The New York Times highlighted when it comes to singles in pastoral ministry: “That’s odd!”

The question is, should it be? From the perspective of the New Testament, it is hard to see why it would be. As is often pointed out, the head and hero of the church is a single adult male. Jesus obviously gets a Messianic pass and is not often factored into the “oughtness” of married pastoral leadership. Yet the early church was dominated by apparently single men (at least when the manuscripts were written); John the Baptist, Paul, Luke, Silas, Barnabas, Timothy, and Titus. When this list is combined with a single Savior, we should at least be in a position of neutrality on the matter.

It would be hard to see Paul as neutral, at least in respect to his own singleness in 1 Corinthians 7. He speaks to the single man’s freedom from anxieties (7:32) and freedom to serve with “undivided devotion” (7:35).  The married man (pastor) has responsibilities that “divide” his attention. This is balanced by Paul’s affirmation that marital responsibilities are good and holy and also a “gift” (7:6). Paul teaches neither singleness nor marriage is inherently more spiritual or holy, although the freedoms of singleness lead him to say, “I wish that all men were as I am” (7:8). Paul’s basic starting point is that marital status in the kingdom is spiritually neutral, each with its own benefits and responsibilities.

He goes on to say that marriage is a category that, along with the world, is passing away:

This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away (1 Cor 7:29-31, ESV).

Here is where today’s bias against single pastors betrays an eschatological weakness. It projects a perspective of kingdom priorities that will not stand the test of time. Jesus points out this same failure when the Pharisees tested him with the scenario of a woman who married seven brothers. “Who’s wife will she be after the resurrection?” Jesus’ reply is simple, “In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Matt. 22:28). Marriage in the future kingdom is not even a category of consideration. I think our ecclesiology could use a little eschatology. The resurrection will change our thinking in many ways. Human identity as married or single is most certainly one of them.

Too often the debate feels the need to pick one or the other. Does God prefer married pastors or single ones? I affirm aspects of what Dr. Al Mohler recently blogged on this.  There are some practicalities about marriage and ministry that advantage the married pastor in some categories. Every married pastor would affirm that a godly wife is a wonderful blessing both personally and pastorally. We should recognize and celebrate that a married pastor’s marriage is a tremendous asset in both his personal growth into holiness and the resources it generates for shepherding a flock.

But we must also recognize that a pastor’s singleness is equally valuable in different ways. Speaking from my experience, singleness has its own anvil on which God shapes character and pastoral gravitas. In addition, single pastors have some tremendous gifts to share with their congregations. When I speak of my loneliness, how many hearts leap with hope identifying with my trial? When my voice quivers as I describe life lived with unmet and unfulfilled expectations, what heart can’t hear the echo? A normal red-blooded, sexual, single, Christian man battling all the normal desires yet pursing contentment in Christ is a living sermon that Jesus alone is sufficient. These strengths, combined with the greater energy and time that single pastors can pour into their churches, should lead us to conclude that singleness ought not be viewed as a negative. If Paul was serving on the search committee, I think he’d argue for it as a positive.

Arguments that cast Paul as prioritizing marriage in ministry wrongly make the helpful reality of marriage a biblical preference.  It is important to note that the pastoral qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 were written by a single apostle (perhaps a widow or even a divorcee but nevertheless single). Would Paul write qualifications that handicapped himself as a pastor?  Further, we have no indication that Timothy and Titus were married. Yet they are charged with identifying and laying hands on elders who would serve under their leadership. It seems that what is good for the apostolic goose should be good enough for the pastoral gander.

Finally, if we affirm that 1 Timothy 3 teaches that marriage is a near requirement for pastors/elders, in order to be consistent we would need to require a pastor to have children as well. Taken one step further, he would have to have more than one child since “children” is plural. This is all unnecessary and unwarranted.  Paul is simply describing how a pastor/elder must be faithful to his wife IF he is married, and he is describing the quality of a pastor’s parenting and leadership IF he has children.

At my 10th anniversary, Bethel Church very graciously threw me a big celebration. It was one of the high moments in my life. One of the points emphasized that night was how my singleness had been a blessing to the church. One faithful member told me, “I selfishly hope you stay single so you can stay focused on us.” There was kindness in her words and some pretty good pastoral theology, too. We would do well to cherish all of God’s gifts to the church, including single men called by God and gifted by the Holy Spirit to shepherd a local congregation.

 

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

© 2011 Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction.

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13 comments

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  1. Lisa

    Well said (as I feel most of what you say is.) We’ve been attending Bethel for a year now, and I appreciate your honest thoughts on this subject! It never seemed ‘odd’ to me that you weren’t married. We’re now pursuing membership at Bethel, and pray God’s best in your life, whatever that may be: singleness, or a spouse. Again, thanks for your transparency…of all the things we’re coming to love about Bethel, that is one thing I value the most.

  2. Claire

    “When my voice quivers as I describe life lived with unmet and unfulfilled expectations, what heart can’t hear the echo? A normal red-blooded, sexual, single, Christian man battling all the normal desires yet pursing contentment in Christ is a living sermon that Jesus alone is sufficient.” Thanks for your honesty, and for your example of what following Jesus really looks like; I find that more helpful than a thousand wise words by married friends exhorting me to trust God because He knows best.
    I hope we get to meet someday.

  3. Nita

    Your ministry is a blessing to many and I pray that you continue to serve the Lord faithfully!! Thank you for your blessing in our lives.

  4. Jordon Byers

    Steve, I just wanted to say that you’re a real inspiration to me, and that I found this post to be really encouraging. I’m 25, single, and have flirted with the idea of going to seminary. I appreciate your candor, and I respect that you’ve come so far and have been single the whole time! Awesome.

  5. Joe

    Thank you. As a single older guy my heart sank when I read Mohler’s piece. There is lots of material out there for single Christian women, but this is the first piece I have ever read on single guys. A real encouragement.

  6. Matt Ray

    This is the first time I’ve read your blog (a friend recommended it).

    As a single man who also does not hope to stay single forever but is intent on staying single until God decides otherwise, I really appreciated this. I think we single men many times stunt our own spiritual growth by waiting until we’ve established a family to get started on the good works He has prepared in advance for us to do. I, like you, am praying for a Godly wife, but I’m not incomplete without a wife. I am completed by God and I am looking for someone who is completed by God.

    Keep up the good work and, like Timothy, don’t let anyone look down on you but be an example on how a Godly man, even a Godly single man, lives.

  7. Rebecca

    Steve,
    My dear friend and her family have recently moved to your area and have been visiting Bethel, and she thought to forward your post today onto me in Houston. I’m glad she did! As a 30 something (I’ll still claim it while I can!) single woman that serves as one of a team of student ministers on a church staff, it is encouraging to hear of others who desire marriage and yet meanwhile are passionately pursuing God’s purpose for their lives. Thanks so much for sharing some Biblical support and also for your honesty as you work through the real life aspects of being a single pastor. I too trust that God’s sanctifying work in my life is through both the joy and sadness of singleness (among many other aspects of my life) at this time although He does the same type of work through marriage and parenthood for many of my friends and co-laborers. God is good and faithful and sovereign and loving regardless and for that I am most grateful! 🙂 Thank you so much for the reminder of that today!

  8. Kristin

    Refreshing perspective. In all my years as a believer and in the Church, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone address the “issue” of single pastors.
    Thank you.

  9. Daniel

    Thank you for an excellent response. Having read the original published article by Dr. Mohler I saw where he failed to give the extensive biblical acknowledgement to the very viable & capable effectiveness of the single pastor as you so aptly did. All of your citations were unarguably sound & biblically based.

    Though I could also selfishly agree with the “faithful member” you quoted towards the end of your article, know too that Our Precious Lord knows the desires of our hearts. When our desires are the Lord’s desires, & the Lord’s desires are our desires, it is a testimony to being ‘sold out’ to the Lord; in your words: “Jesus alone is sufficient.” After all, it’s “All About Him” isn’t it? So if our desires emanate from Him, might He not be faithful to fulfill His wishes & see His will come to pass? Prov 10:24b says “the desire of the (uncompromisingly) righteous shall be granted.” He wishes to give us the desires of our heart, does He not?

    IIChron.15:15 says “And all Judah rejoiced at the oath, for they had sworn with all their heart & sought Him with their whole desire, & He was found by them. And the Lord gave them rest & peace round about.”

    So, married or single, it’s really a matter of the heart anyway. A faithful heart will recognize that we are here to serve the Lord God Almighty, in whatever capacity to which He has called us! God bless you and anoint you Steve, and may you continue in what many see you faithfully do: serving the Lord with your whole heart.

  10. Tina Duke

    I can relate, although from the perspective of a single working mother. Our society, especially the church, is very couples oriented. Immediately after my divorce, well-intentioned family and friends wanted to help me “get on with my life” by setting me up with this or that “nice guy.” However, after considerable counseling and prayer, I had determined to put off dating until my child was raised. Not only did people continue to pressure me to date, they actually laughed at the idea that I had decided not too. They simply could not accept that I was content in my circumstances. Although I appreciate their concern, I don’t think people realize how intrusive and hurtful their comments can be. It hasn’t been easy, but now that my son is in college, being single has given me even more time to serve in my church and community. Should it be God’s will that I remarry, I am trusting He will provide the right man, at the right time. He has provided everything else my son and I have needed.

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