'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 that 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!"
Should It Be?
The question is, should it be? From the perspective of the New Testament, it is hard to see why. 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.
A Wonderful Blessing
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 Al Mohler recently blogged on this. There are 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 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.