Welcome back to the podcast. This week we’re talking about pastoral ministry. Can single men pastor — or must pastors be married? That’s today. And then, how much should pastors make? That’s up next.
So, Pastor John, we know that many professing Christians around the world claim that church leaders must be single men who have taken a vow of clerical celibacy. We of course disagree with that. For Protestants like us, pastors are typically married men. So we face a question in the opposite direction — and it’s a question recently asked by two different listeners. First, Josiah. “Pastor John, thank you for sharing your insight with us week after week on this podcast. Do you believe a first requirement for eldership is that he have a wife and kids?” Then Josiah cites 1 Timothy 3:2–4 and Titus 1:6. And Blake, another listener, likewise asks if a single, non-married man is eligible to be a church elder. What would you say to Josiah and Blake?
Whether a single man is permitted biblically to be an elder or pastor boils down to whether two passages — one in 1 Timothy 3, the other in Titus 1 — mandate that elders must be married. If they do, that settles the matter: we obey. If they don’t, then we have to ask whether there are other passages or other pointers or principles that would suggest it’s permitted or wise or unwise to have pastors who are not married.
Here are those two most immediately relevant texts:
He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? (1 Timothy 3:4–5)
This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained in order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you — if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife . . . (Titus 1:5–6)
A couple of observations are, I think, especially relevant. First, Paul does not say here or anywhere else that elders must be married. He could have said that very clearly. It would’ve been easy in Greek to say that. (It would’ve been easy, of course, in English to say that.)
“Paul does not say here or anywhere else that elders must be married. He could have said that very clearly.”
For example, Titus 1:7 says, “An overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach” (see also 1 Timothy 3:2). And the Greek dei — “must,” “has to be,” “is necessary” — makes it an explicit necessity. No questions. Paul could have said, “an overseer must be married,” but he didn’t say that. What he said was, first, the elder “must manage his household well.” And second, if he’s a husband of one wife, he can be considered. Neither of those statements amounts to an explicit mandate for marriage.
So, it appears that marriage was assumed, but that it was not explicitly commanded. And I expect that it was assumed because ongoing, lifelong singleness in cultures was so rare that it scarcely needed addressing. That’s the first observation.
Another observation is the assumption that the elder would not only normally be married, but that he would normally have children. Both passages assume that the elders have wives and have children. So, if we’re going to infer that marriage is required for the pastorate, on the same grounds, it seems to me, we would need to infer that a pastor have children, not just a wife.
So, if I’m right that in these texts there is a strong assumption that a man will be married with a family if he’s a pastor, and yet there’s no explicit command that he be married or have children, then my question becomes this: What other considerations in the New Testament might help us decide whether it’s wise to have a pastor who is not married — or to expect that he would be or require that he would be?
Exemplars of Singleness
Now, the first consideration we might look at is that neither Jesus nor Paul was married and yet fulfilled roles of leadership and teaching and care for the churches very much like a pastor. Nothing is ever said about Jesus being married or single. The topic of his own marriage never comes up. There is no wife in the story of the Gospels, and it would be a total fantasy — some people have spun out that fantasy — to claim that he was married.
Paul, on the other hand, tells us more than once that he was not married. For example, in 1 Corinthians 9:5, “Do we” — meaning Barnabas and he — “not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” In other words, they certainly do have the right, and yet there are practical reasons why marriage for Paul would have been unwise. He didn’t use his right. The call on his life was just constant movement — and a lot of it in jail, enduring almost constant suffering. Marriage would probably have been constantly dangerous and miserable for a wife.
Whatever the reason, he wasn’t, and he makes it explicit in 1 Corinthians 7:7–8: “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. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am.” It seems to me that the singleness of Jesus and the singleness of Paul imply that an unmarried man can have an exceptionally fruitful ministry and be an effective pastor.
Then add to this the amazing praise that Paul sings to the benefits of singleness. And here’s what he says (this is 1 Corinthians 7:32–35):
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
Single and Married Pastors
We’re tempted to say, then, “Well, Paul, why don’t you just make singleness a requirement for the pastorate?” I mean, the church went off the rails at one point and did that.
“Sexual desire is intended ordinarily to be satisfied in marriage. And that goes for pastors too.”
And Paul would say, I think, in response to that question, first, that sexual desire is intended ordinarily to be satisfied in marriage. And that goes for pastors too. First Corinthians 7:1–5 are amazing verses. Second, while there are advantages to singleness in the pastorate, there are great advantages also to marriage in the pastorate, not only in the matter of sex, but also in the matter of firsthand knowledge about marriage and parenting and the stresses and joys of ordinary family life. All of that is a great benefit for pastors. And having a wife at your side — oh my goodness — is a great ministerial blessing, I testify. When Paul is singing the praises of singleness, he’s not singing them as though there were no corresponding praises for marriage, especially in the pastorate.
My conclusion is that the reason Paul assumed marriage for the pastoral role in 1 Timothy and Titus was that it was culturally normal and it was a great advantage in knowing how to manage a household and empathize with married people in the church. And that was the norm: most people were married. But also I conclude that marriage is not an absolute requirement for the eldership or pastorate, and that, along the lines of 1 Corinthians 7, there are advantages of being single in that role. So, if I were on a search committee for the next pastor of our church, I would assume we’re looking for a married man who has a family. But I would not rule out a gifted single man whose life and ministry had shown and borne real fruit.