January 31, 2011
Are We Afraid of Single Pastors?
If being unmarried was good enough for Jesus and Paul…
Is being a Protestant single pastor like being a married Catholic priest? Is it an oxymoron?
I never would have thought so until the economic crisis hit, and I had to find a new pastoral position. For the first time in my career my future was in the hands of a search committee, rather than a personal connection.
I’m ordained, 37, single (never married), with experience pastoring in large churches. Given my credentials, I had zero anxiety initially. Then I started reading “job requirement” phrases like these in pastoral job applications:
-“We are looking for a married man”
-“Is married (preferably with children)”
These churches explicitly were not looking to hire someone single--like Jesus or Paul. I then was surprised to discover that even though the majority of adult Americans are single (52 percent), that only 2 percent of senior pastors in my denomination are single! Something was clearly amiss.
Why were so many churches “requiring” a pastor to be married? Jesus wasn’t. Paul wasn’t. Almost all pastors were single until the time of the Reformation. Is it wise to “require” that our Evangelical pastors be married? Is it biblical?
Some Perspective from Church History
For the first 1,500 years of church history singleness, not marriage, was lauded as next to godliness. Let me say that again—for the first fifteen hundred years.
St. Jerome’s 4th century holiness codes (which were widely embraced), taught that celibate singleness was 100 percent holy, widowhood 60 percent, and marriage a paltry 30 percent. One reason for this pervasive way of thinking was an overly physiological interpretation of Psalm 51:5. “In sin my mother conceived me” was taken to mean that the act of having sex was sinful because it passed on the sin nature.
Thus married couples who kept having sex were considered only 30 percent holy. Widows were no longer having sex so they moved up the perceived holiness ladder to 60 percent. Celibate singles never had sex. Ergo, in the Christian culture of the Middle Ages, singles were the moral high class of society.
Sound ridiculous? It was. It still is. It made an idol out of singleness.
One of the biggest scandals of the Reformation was Martin Luther preaching that it was okay to renounce your vow of celibacy. Against Jerome and the church fathers, whom he criticized as “never having written anything good about marriage,” he had the audacity to preach that marriage was a good thing. Then the former monk did the most “unholy” thing imaginable: he got married. It’s quite possible that no one in the history of the church has done more to elevate the status of marriage than Luther.
The Middle Ages undervalued marriage and over emphasized singleness. Today Evangelicals do just the opposite: we undervalue singleness and over emphasize marriage. History reveals that it’s hard for us Christians to think of marriage and singleness as equally good. But scripture beckons us to do just that.
Singleness is “Good”
Paul opens his chapter on singleness and marriage by saying, “It is good for a man not to marry” (1 Corinthians 7:1). It’s good? Have you ever heard singleness taught as “good” from the pulpit? Paul would be happy if “all men” (vs. 7) were single, celibate, and serving Christ undivided by the concerns of a spouse and children. “Now to the unmarried and widows I say: it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do” (vs. 8). Are you crazy Paul? Do you really think someone can stay unmarried and be an effective senior pastor? You seem just a bit out of touch with our Evangelical culture.
Paul wasn’t crazy. There is nothing more holy, righteous, or godly about marriage than there is about singleness. Nothing. They are both equally good before God. That’s Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 7. If you’re married, that’s wonderful. If you’re single, that’s wonderful too. You can effectively pastor the church single or married.
We need to move from a church culture that says “Many of my best friends are single” to one that can say “Many of our best pastors are single.” I don’t want to lose heart; I want to believe that it’s possible for 650 million Evangelicals to finally embrace the equal dignity the Scriptures bestow upon both singleness and marriage.
The bottom line is that it is not about being single or married. It’s about being called and gifted by the Spirit to minister to people both like and unlike us (race, gender, marital status, etc). I plead with search committees everywhere to reflect on the implications of 1 Corinthians 7 before overlooking your next single pastoral candidate. They deserve to be evaluated on their excellence, not their marital status.