I have waited 44 years to write this. It is my last sermon as a single man. This coming Saturday I will marry the love of my life, Miss Jennifer Terrell.
The unusual circumstances of my marriage give me an opportunity to say some important things. The first circumstance that makes my marriage atypical is my age. I am 44 years and 7 months old. If the national average age for a man’s first marriage is 28, this means I’ve had more time than average to think about these things.
The second circumstance is my role in the church. I have been a pastor for 20 years and senior pastor here at Bethel for 15. My observation is that bachelor pastors are rarer than Packer fans at Soldier Field, and they are sometimes treated like them. They receive disparaging comments, questions of sexual orientation, and the like.
A third circumstance that gives me this opportunity today is that I am technically still single. Over the years of my singleness, I have grown to appreciate the unique blessings and challenges of adult Christian singleness. These challenges are often overlooked in the church and I have one last chance to write about them as an insider, before I become one of those married pastors telling singles how they should feel.
Many people have had the misunderstanding that my singleness was somehow related to a monkish vow of ministry or that I was so focused on Jesus that I had no interest in women or marriage. To the contrary, I have had my marriage radar on high alert since I went to college. I wasn’t desperate, and clearly wasn’t in a hurry, but I have greatly desired marriage and the blessings that go with it. In fact, I would say if I erred on any side, I have erred on marriage being too important.
You may say, “How can you hold marriage too high?” Hebrews 13:4 tells us, “Let marriage be held in honor among all.” Marriage pictures the very love of Christ for the church and mirrors the love within the Trinitarian Godhead!”
We all would feel something is desperately wrong if someone viewed marriage as not that important: “Yeah, I’m getting married. So what?” The other extreme is singles like me who have thought and prayed about it so much that over time it slowly becomes the seemingly unattainable dream. My marriage desire has led me, since age 18, to pray almost every week of my life, specifically for my wife and her character and safety and for me to have eyes to see the kind of woman God would have for me. It has aggravated me to see guys I’m pretty sure haven’t prayed at all about it land a wonderful wife. Here I am praying and hoping and…nothing. Do the math, that’s a weekly prayer for 26 years. You know what happens when you pray and long for something for 26 years? It slowly becomes a kind of dreamy obsession as much as you don’t want it to be.
Is it possible to hold marriage too high? To make marriage and companionship and sexual freedom and family so desirable that it actually gets in the way of getting married? I think so. But I have tried my best to approach this rightly and in the grand picture, God is sovereign and his plan for me was 44 years of singleness and now I’m beginning a wonderful new chapter with this wonderful Christian woman he has brought into my life.
The Bachelor Pastor: Three Reflections From my Single Life
Singleness and marriage are both gifts – honor and enjoy them
I want to say, singles, don’t waste your singleness; and married folks, don’t waste your marriage. When I think back over these years, I have wasted too much time wishing I was married. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would spend less time pining for what wasn’t in my life and enjoying more of what was.
The Bible says both are wonderful gifts from God. The Apostle Paul writes as a single man:
“I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” (1 Corinthians 7:7) The word there for gift is charisma, “grace gift.” He uses the same word later in chapter 12 for spiritual gifts. Marriage is a charisma and singleness is a charisma. Marriage is more often celebrated as a gift. I’ve never seen a party thrown for someone choosing to remain single, but we’ve all been to parties for people choosing to get married.
Marriage is clearly a gift from God. He designed it and instituted it in Genesis 2:24: “A man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” God declared a married Adam and Eve part of his good creation.
Marriage addresses at least two basic human needs – the need for companionship and the need for reproduction. God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18), so God created Eve from Adam suiting her to him. Of all the things I am looking forward to in marriage, even more than sexual union, I am looking most forward to Jennifer’s life companionship.
The second need is for reproduction. To fill the earth, you need a male and a female. Enough said.
So marriage is a wonderful gift, but it has its responsibilities as well. This is what Paul highlights as he argues for singleness as a valid marital status.
“I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs —how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided…I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:32-33, 35 NIV)
This is a realistic life assessment from the apostle. He describes marriage as a life of divided interests. The Christian man or woman should have the spiritual desire for full devotion to the Lord, but marriage requires them to be concerned also for their spouse. Singleness is gifted with undistracted devotion and service of Christ’s church.
So we can draw some principles here. Both marriage and singleness are a gift. Singles, do you view your singleness as a gift? The reason this is important is that nothing is more annoying than whiny and discontented single people. The single whines, “If only I was married, then I would be happy!” You go out with your friends and they grow weary because all you want to talk about is how much you want to be married or how lonely you are or how sexually frustrated you are. Just ask my friends, they will tell you how annoying that is!
I want to say, singles, don’t waste your singleness! There are so many opportunities that your singleness provides that marriage will diminish. God may have you single for a season or for your whole life. You don’t know. Don’t live your life in a state of suspense thinking, Maybe this will be the year. Assume it won’t be and enjoy this year to the fullest.
The church desperately needs the balance of Scripture. When we diminish each gift, we wish we had the other gift. So the singles whine, “If only I was married!” Some married folks whine, “If only I wasn’t married!” Both are expecting something that God never intended singleness or marriage to create in us – contentment. Marital status cannot provide it. It won’t. Paul said, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.“ (Philippians 3:8) When I make anything else ultimate to me, I suffer the pain of it. Idols make unhappy people. I’ve learned some hard lessons and am determined not to look to Jennifer or my marriage to be the source of my happiness.
Singleness and ministry go really well together
My journey as a single pastor began when I was hired as an associate pastor by College Park Church in 1992. My singleness was the object of much humor in the church and the Senior Pastor, Kimber Kauffman, took every opportunity to mock me in his sermons. It didn’t bother me as I viewed it as free advertising.
I was already beginning to ponder what ministry as a single senior pastor would look like. I remember having the opportunity to ask Pastor John MacArthur about it once. During that time I happened to be at something he was attending and I had a few moments with him. I asked him, “What do you think about single preachers?”
He laughed and said, “I assume you are talking about yourself?”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “Let me ask you, do you have the gift of celibacy?”
I thought for a moment and I said, “I hope not!”
He went on to say that the marital status of the pastor doesn’t matter because it’s God Word that matters, not whether the person who is saying it is married or not. Good advice. It was when I became a senior pastor that I sort of became a pastoral freak. How many times was I asked, “Is your wife here?”or “Do you have children?” I would say, “No, I’m single.” Crickets… “Uh, wow.”
Even children think I’m weird. I once was out of town and visiting former members of our church. They have several young children. They introduced me to their children as their old senior pastor. Their 6-year-old daughter asked loudly for all to hear, “Mom, is he married?”
The mom said, “No, he’s single.”
The daughter said matter-of-factly, “That’s odd!”
I have written a defense of singleness and ministry that is available online here, so I won’t go over it again other than to say, from my experience, there are massive advantages to being single in pastoral ministry. The freedom of time, the lack of diversions, and the ability to give yourself more fully to kingdom work are all fantastic. This is the “undistracted life” Paul spoke of.
It would make me happy if my two decades of single pastoral ministry in some small way argued for the validity of single pastors. The unnecessary and unbiblical bias against single pastors is unfortunate and is a self-inflicted wound to the church.
Some would perhaps grant that in small churches or ministries, a single pastor can work or at least be a necessary liability. I recall meeting the executive pastor of a nationally known church who didn’t know much about Bethel Church. We got talking about my singleness and he said that their church constitution required the senior pastor to be married. I made a few points and he said, “Well, in a ministry the size of ours it’s needed.” I stayed silent. Later it came out, not from me, that Bethel is actually slightly larger than his church. I smiled inside. That’s one for the single pastors. So for all the single men who wonder if they can have an effective gospel ministry, the answer of Scripture, and the examples of Paul, innumerable singles down through history, and my own life are, absolutely yes.
You are not lacking anything that matters. You have the Word of God in your hand and the Spirit of God in your heart; you can have the blessing of God in your ministry.
Purity is worth it
For this is the will of God, your sanctification:that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own bodyin holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. (1 Thessalonians 4:3-7)
I want to speak frankly to the matter of sexual purity. I have fought the fight for purity since my first real girlfriend in 10th grade. That is 28 years. It’s hard to believe. As an adult single in the Christian dating scene, it is frightening to see how little concern there generally is about sexual purity. Yet God’s Word makes it clear, God’s will is for our sanctification – that we control our bodies with holiness and honor. If you would have told the 18-year-old me I would still be dating in my 40s, I would have thought, “Well, at least the temptations aren’t as strong. You’re old. You probably don’t even think about it.” I actually think in some ways it’s harder as an adult than as a college student.
In spite of all the struggles and challenges, purity is worth it. After 28 years of battling this, let me share a few lessons I have learned.
Nothing is more helpful than only dating highly committed Christians
Over the many years, I have been blessed to spend time with some very godly Christian women. This has been so helpful because committed Christian women are very interested in purity. If you date marginal Christians or Christians in name only, the power of sexual temptation is so strong that it is extremely difficult to remain pure. Young people, singles, the caliber of Christian character that you date will largely determine your purity. This is especially true these days when expectations in the dating world for what is physically acceptable are so very low. I would urge you to only be interested in dating highly committed Christians.
Set wise boundaries, communicate them right away, and stick to them
Our sexualized society requires me to speak with some frankness here. God made certain parts of the body for sexual expression. Go there and it’s the point of no return. So at the very least, wisdom would say that you should never go there outside of marriage. Don’t touch the sexual places. I call them the “no fly zones.” Jennifer and I had that talk very early so there were no questions about our intentions. The conscience is very helpful too. I’ve learned that when the yellow light of my conscience is blinking, I need to heed the warning.
Stoke the greater passion
You can put all the parameters in place, have accountability partners, and date high quality Christians, but sexual desire will overwhelm all the boundaries unless in my heart I have one thing – a greater desire for God’s pleasure than sexual pleasure. That doesn’t just happen. I have to stoke my desires for God while starving my desire for sexual fulfillment. You don’t starve it by undressing in your mind every pretty woman that walks by. You don’t starve it by viewing pornography. You don’t starve it by making entertainment choices that allow you to watch actors doing things with women what you wish you could do with one. Those things fuel illicit desire. Then you get a girlfriend and you put on the godly Christian man smile, but inside there’s an inferno. Purity doesn’t last long like that.
As a Christian, I am not helpless in this. If I will do the things that stoke my spiritual desires and not do the things that kill them, I have a powerful ally in overcoming temptation. “But Pastor Steve, I can’t do it! I’m 19 years old and it’s too much!” Do it for 26 years and then come talk to me. With God’s help, you can do it.
I am so blessed to be marrying a woman who has fought that fight successfully. That reality means we can’t wait to be married. We can’t wait for our honeymoon. We have waited a long time in our lives to experience the full joy of sexual expression in the sacred confines of the marriage covenant. It has been hard. I have had moments of embarrassment and immaturity, but to come to our wedding day knowing she has never been with another man and I’ve never been with another woman, is a precious, precious gift.
I put that out there as a motivation to purity. Virginity is mocked in our culture, but treasured by God. Purity before marriage and in marriage is worth every effort. It is God’s will for us. Yes, there is true forgiveness for sexual sin and praise God for his grace to us in this area. That doesn’t in any way diminish the call of God for his people to strive for purity of mind and soul and body.
So fight the fight brothers and sisters. It’s worth it. I am confident this coming Saturday night, Jennifer and I will be very glad we did.
I want to conclude by saying thank you to Bethel Church for taking a chance on a bachelor pastor so many years ago. There have been challenges with that, but they have been so wonderful to me. I thank them for all the moments they shared in my loneliness, invited me for a meal or time together. I thank them so much for all their prayers. Jennifer has been nearly prayed into existence. It is our desire that God would be glorified in our wedding, and more importantly, in our marriage.
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.
Additional Scripture quotations taken from Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
©2012 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, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.
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