Published: 8 August 2022

May An Unmarried Man Be A Pastor?

Unmarried Man

The church in the United States is facing an epidemic of biblically unqualified leaders. Every week there is a new report of a pastor or church leader involved in some sort of  scandal. There are two reasons for this. First, churches are ignoring the scriptural qualifications for pastors in 1st Timothy 3 and Titus 1. The second reason is that pastors and other church leaders are not being held accountable. I’ll address accountability when we reach 1 Timothy 5 in this blog series. For now let’s focus on the biblical qualifications for pastors. First up is the question, “May an unmarried man be a pastor?”

Paul said, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:1–2 ESV). In vv. 2-7 Paul gives us a list of qualities that a person must possess in order to be an overseer (pastor). At the top of the list is “husband of one wife.”

Churches often choose an unmarried man as pastor

Clearly, 1 Timothy 3:2 teaches us that a pastor must be the “husband of one wife.” Yet, it is very common for congregations to appoint a young single man fresh out of Bible college or seminary as their pastor. This biblical requirement is routinely ignored or dismissed as being optional. Some argue that Paul’s intended meaning was if a man is married he must be the husband of one wife. Read the verse again carefully. Paul didn’t say “if” a man is married. He begins with the premise that a man who is a candidate for pastor is married. We can be certain of this requirement because vv 4-5 removes all doubt.

4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? (1 Tim. 3:4–5 ESV)

The home is a proving ground

Paul says that a man’s home is the proving ground where he can show his leadership potential. The following quote demonstrates how some people see an “if” where there isn’t one. 

“This verse also assumes that an overseer would be married and have children. Given the nature of the list, this is not a demand that an overseer be married or have more than one child; it is saying that a person who is married and has children must exhibit the proper leadership in his own household before attempting to do the same in God’s household.”1

The first sentence of the quote admits Paul requires overseers (pastors) to be married, then in the very next sentence denies it. It is only due to the unscriptural tradition of unmarried pastors that one would say “if” he is married he must be such and such. This letter makes it clear that a man must have raised faithful children in order to DEMONSTRATE that he has the potential to lead the church. The home is his proving ground to show he has leadership ability.

How can an unmarried man demonstrate his pastoral abilities?

Paul put great emphasis on the skills which a man acquires and demonstrates in the home. Therefore, we cannot consider them important only if a man happens to be married. The man who leads his house well is not a dictator, but one who has tender care for his family. Mounce points this out when commenting about the word “manage” (Greek: prostēnai) in v. 4 :

“προϊστάναι is an interesting word. Its primary meaning is “to lead, govern.” The idea of “going before” evolved into the notion of “to protect, care.” … It provides a commentary on the nature of a Christian father’s role within his family: his leadership should be not dictatorial but caring and protecting. This double nuance of leadership and caring is visible when Paul asks how someone who cannot manage his own household can be expected “to care for” God’s household (1 Tim 3:5). Leaders are not to be autocrats; they are servant leaders, following the model of Christ as a leader who serves.”2

How can a single man demonstrate these traits? The entire point of these two verses is to show that a man who has managed his own family well probably has the skills necessary to lead the church. 

If he doesn’t have a family, by what means can he demonstrate his ability to lead a church? Paul doesn’t make a seminary education the test of his leadership abilities. He doesn’t make a man’s Bible knowledge the test of his leadership ability. Likewise, a man’s oratory is not the test either. Instead, the New Testament specifies that how a man deals with his family is the means by which we can know about his caring and successful leadership.

Objections: 

An unmarried man has an advantage in ministry 

Paul said that single people have an advantage in ministry (1 Cor 7). Therefore, If we harmonize this with 1 Timothy 3:2, we see that Paul is not requiring marriage as a qualification for a man who aspires to the office of overseer, but simply that the man must live his life in sexual purity and integrity. 

Answer: 1 Cor 7 is speaking about Christians in general (of both genders) and Paul spoke it as a concession, not as a command (v. 6). He is saying that single people can serve God in any situation without concerning themselves with how adverse circumstances impact a spouse. Being single puts one in an advantageous position in many circumstances, but it is optional.

On the other hand, 1 Tim 3 is specifically about the qualifications of an overseer and is not about Christians in general. Paul’s language here doesn’t bestow the latitude that it does in 1 Cor 7. In 1 Tim 3, Paul lays out the qualifications in a very clear and straightforward manner with no implication of the requirement being optional.

We cannot compare these two passages as if they are speaking of the same situation. The requirement of being the “husband of one wife” excludes two sets of men: polygamist and the unmarried. For a pastor, being single is not an advantage, it is a disqualifier.

You’re not allowing a young unmarried man to preach or teach

By your logic single men cannot teach in the church or preach the gospel to the lost. Your interpretation denies knowledgeable, gifted young men the chance to use their talents.

Answer: This objection assumes that only pastors may teach or preach. A pastor is one who has been given the oversight of a group of people who are already Christians (Acts 20:28). The primary job of a pastor is to teach, but this doesn’t mean that pastors are the only teachers. 

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, (Eph. 4:11–12 ESV)

From this passage we can see that God has given the church evangelists (preachers), shepherds (pastors), and teachers. All of these play a role in equipping the church. There is nothing in the New Testament which would prohibit a single man from teaching or preaching. However, a single man cannot be a pastor. Pastors, preachers, and teachers are three distinct roles. While there is overlap between them, they are not the same functions.

Your requirements for a pastor would have excluded Paul and Timothy

You are saying that Paul and Timothy, who were both single men, could not have been pastors. 

Answer: People make this objection because they do not understand the difference between an apostle, pastor, and evangelist. Where does the New Testament ever say that Paul and Timothy were pastors? Paul was an Apostle, not a pastor. As far as we know he did not have a spouse. Timothy was an evangelist (2 Tim 4:5) and Paul’s apostolic delegate. There is no indication in the New Testament that Timothy had a wife. 

Paul was an itinerant church planter who seems to have only stayed in one place long enough to establish a community of disciples. As soon as a new congregation was on its feet Paul moved on. He didn’t always stay long enough to appoint pastors. Paul was never in one place for very long.

In fact, on one occasion he left the appointment of pastors to Titus whom he had left behind for that very purpose (Titus 1:5). Pastors, by the very nature of their role, tended a single flock (1 Pet 5:2) which implies they were a permanent part of the community of believers they were entrusted to shepherd. 

This is not to say that an apostle couldn’t be a pastor. Peter was both an Apostle and a pastor (1 Pet 5:1). Why could Peter be an apostle but Paul could not? Peter could be an elder (pastor) by virtue of the fact that he was a married man (Matt 8:14). 

Your interpretation would force a pastor who is a widower to resign

Your interpretation of the requirements for pastor would obligate a man who has been a pastor for decades to resign if his wife passes away.

Answer: This is a much more difficult scenario. A man who has pastored for decades has demonstrated his caring leadership and his skills at managing a church. Does he lose those skills just because his wife dies? Obviously he does not. If God’s only objective in requiring a pastor to have managed a family is to demonstrate the man’s leadership qualities, then there is no need for such a widower to resign as pastor. 

On the other hand, it is possible this is not God’s only objective. A pastor gains valuable perspective from his wife. She has her finger on the pulse of the female members of the flock and can provide her husband with insights he would find difficult to obtain without her. In an unofficial capacity, she gives a voice to those in the congregation who might not be heard quite as well in her absence. 

Should a pastor resign if his wife passes away? This is a decision between the pastor, God, and the congregation. All we can say with certainty is that if the passing of his wife results in his inability, for whatever reason, to function as a pastor he should resign.

What is so wrong with an unmarried man serving as a pastor?

The short answer is that appointing a single man as a pastor defies the plain commandments of the New Testament. Perhaps it would be better to focus on why God gave this requirement in the first place. Having raised godly children and managed a household well is evidence that a man has gained the wisdom and life experience necessary to show that he is also capable of caring for God’s church. 

A man who has not done this is untested and inexperienced. Is he prepared for the responsibilities that come with shepherding a church? It’s anyone’s guess. God doesn’t want young, inexperienced leaders learning by trial and error as they attempt to lead a congregation. He wants men who have gained wisdom by having already done similar work on a smaller scale (raising a family). There is a reason the Bible uses the term elder synonymously with pastor. By definition, a pastor is an older man – old enough to have raised children to maturity.

Churches suffer when they ignore biblical instruction

Although anecdotal, it has been my experience that churches who disregard God’s instruction in this matter suffer for it. Young men who are single, or even those who are married but have not yet raised a family, lack the life experience and wisdom needed to shepherd a flock of God’s people. The church will suffer because of his lack of experience.

Our churches are floundering due to unqualified leaders. Only when the church decides to trust God’s wisdom related to the selection of qualified leaders will the situation improve.

References

  1. Mounce, William D. Word Biblical Commentary, Pastoral Epistles, Vol 46, Nelson, 2000, 448.
  2. Ibid.