Pastors as Singles

I would like to comment on Dr. Albert Mohler’s recent post. I would like to comment mostly because I am seeing overreactions from both sides. Yes, I think Dr. Mohler is not correctly using scripture again, but there is something to be said for singles as pastors.

It is, indeed, true that churches prefer married men over single men. While I don’t think there is any Biblical warrant for that, such is the harsh reality. Thus, if a person wants to be a pastor, it certainly is to his benefit to get married. In a pragmatic sense, Dr. Mohler is absolutely right.

However, my concern is, as always, that we can take good council, and read it back into the text of scripture as if it were a Biblical command. Such is what I think is going on here. Yes, it is, indeed, good council to say that a single person who aspires to be a pastor should get married to help his chances of getting a job. However, does the Bible specifically say that single candidates should be preferred?

Dr. Mohler’s argument is as follows:

I would base my argument on the most normative New Testament texts that describe the pastor. In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, the Apostle Paul presents Timothy, and thus the church, with this instruction:

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, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 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? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

This text clearly suggests that the minister will be married, indeed “the husband of one wife.” It does not say, “if married, the husband of one wife.” Now, the text does not explicitly state that a minister is not to be single, but it does hold out marriage as the default and normal state.

The problem is that Dr. Mohler is taking an astute observation, and running with it to a place I would argue Paul wouldn’t even recognize.

Dr. Mohler is correct to make the observation that the text “suggest” that the candidate is married. However, how do we arrive at that? The answer is with a semantic relationship called “entailment.”

Entailment is a semantic relationship that can best be described by the following sentences:

1. The man across the street was murdered last night.
2. The man across the street is dead.

The relationship is, if p is true, then q will also be true. We could put it logically this way:

q entails p if the statement p→q is true.

However, this does not end the discussion. After you have found that a proposition entails another proposition, you must interpret what the author means in entailing the second proposition. For example, you can read the Bible and find that the statements of the Bible about obtaining water entail the drawing of water via a bucket or some other container. However, would someone suggest that it is a cultural norm that we draw water from buckets, and that, therefore, all of the water pipes in peoples’ homes are evidence of sin? Surely not.

Dr. Mohler interprets the entailment of marriage to mean that a married pastor is the norm. However, that is totally questionable. Dr. Mohler says that, “It does not say, ‘if married, the husband of one wife.'” I really have to wonder if Dr. Mohler is serious. Is he really stating that the only way to say this is to have the exact words, “If married, the husband of only one wife?” Language is far more complex than this. For example, if I live in a town where there are a lot of illegal aliens, I may require proof of American Citizenship during the application process. However, does that mean that I am somehow saying that I will only hire American citizens, and am somehow saying that resident aliens cannot have the job? No, of course not. In this context, my statement entails U.S. citizenship precisely because there is a problem of illegal aliens, and not because I am closing off the job to resident aliens.

Hence, the question must be what the phrase mias gunaikas andra is emphasizing semantically. Dr. Andreas Kostenberger, in his book, God, Marriage, and Family devotes and entire chapter [chapter 12] to this phrase. He states that “‘faithful husband’ is probably the best way to capture the essence of the expression mias gunaikas andra. [p.241]” Kostenberger defends his position by noting the fact that we have inscriptional material from this time period that confirms this interpretation of the phrase. He writes:

That this is in fact the case is further supported by inscriptional evidence regarding the Roman concept of univira, that is, a “one-husband”-type of wife. The term denoting marital fidelity was initially applied to living women in relation to their husbands and later became an epithet given by husbands to their deceased wives. This is attested by numerous extant literary references and tombstone inscriptions. Hence, the first-century BC poet Catullus wrote, “To live content with one’s husband alone is the greatest compliment a wife can receive.” A Roman imperial inscription reads, “She lived fifty years and was satisfied with one husband.” The late-first-century BC Laudatio Turiae records a husband saying about his wife, “Rare are marriages, so long lasting, and ended by death, not interrupted by divorce.” [pgs 241-242]

Because of this inscriptional milieu, I would say Dr. Mohler has missed the point of Paul’s requirement here. The emphasis is not upon the marital *state* of the candidate, but upon the marital *faithfulness* of the candidate. Kostenberger rightly concludes:

If the above discussion is on target, therefore, it seems that the problem with the first four interpretations listed above is that they are based on a literalistic, if not rigid, reading of the phrase mias gunaikas andra as denoting literally marriage to only one woman ever: one as opposed to zero as in the case of single candidates for church office, or one as opposed to two or more wives, be it at the same time (polygamy) or consecutively (remarriage of widowers, divorced). More likely, however, the phrase is to be understood idiomatically (designating “a one-wife type of husband”), that is, as a term for marital faithfulness rather than as a literal enumeration of a certain number of marriages (one rather than zero or two or more) in which the candidate is required to be engaged. [p. 241]

Hence, I would argue that we can safely say that, because the emphasis of this phrase is upon the *faithfulness* of the husband, rather than the number of spouses, to say that the entailment should be interpreted as a norm for the church is a stretch at best. The reason Paul is assuming this in his statement is because the vast majority of candidates for the ministry are going to be married, even today. Also, if the above inscriptional material is correct, the Paul is stating this in a culture where marital unfaithfulness was seen as commonplace. Hence, Paul is simply making sure that every candidate who comes forward for the ministry is faithful in their marriage, so as to not allow adulterers to hold office.

What I don’t understand is that Dr. Mohler says something that I am not certain he has thought about. He writes:

Importantly, the text’s concern does not end there. The pastor is to “manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive.” Once again, it does not state that a single minister is an impossibility, but it does hold out the expectation of a married pastor with a wife and a household, including obedient children.

Why is this so? Paul makes clear that this is all part of the minister’s credibility, “for if he does not know how to manage his own household, how will be care for God’s church?” Evidently, the ability to lead a family is an important sign of the ability to care for the family of faith.

The problem with this argument is that Dr. Mohler has not used entailment on this statement, and it would totally refute his argument. Why? Because if someone having children entails that their wife is not barren. Therefore, Dr. Mohler has just unwittingly said that churches should not consider candidates who have wives that are barren very much, because the norm is that pastors have children.

I think the mistake Dr. Mohler is making is to be found in the beginning of the article. He writes:

Both the logic of Scripture and the centrality of marriage in society,” he said, justify “the strong inclination of congregations to hire a man who is not only married but faithfully married.”

However, the problem is that the “logic of scripture” does not end by simple semantic moves such as entailment. Yes, entailment allows you to get from one statement of propositional truth to another statement of propositional truth. However, the second statement of propositional truth must likewise be interpreted in the light of the context as well as the entirety of scripture.

There is some cleaning up of the plate that needs to be done at this point as well. Dr. Mohler writes:

There is obviously great honor directed here to those who can live without spouse for the sake of the kingdom. Paul describes their service, like his own, as undivided in interest. A married man must be concerned about how to please his wife, while the unmarried man has an undivided interest and is thus more free to serve the Lord in what, as Jesus made clear, is service for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

So, this is not a blanket statement affirming the priority of singleness, but instead affirming a state of uncompromised (not burning with passion) celibacy for the sake of kingdom service.

Note that this passage is addressed to all Christians, not specifically to ministers. Without doubt, an unmarried Christian with the gift of celibacy is more free for Gospel service and Great Commission deployment than a married pastor.

But Paul is not contradicting himself, and his advice concerning pastors stands.

Of course, that assumes that Dr. Mohler is correctly interpreting the passage above. Again, we have noted many times, 1 Corinthians 7:8-9 and the phrase “burning with passion” has nothing to do with singles as Paul’s context is widows and widowers. I have addressed this before, and it bears repeating. Worse than that, Dr. Mohler again misses the point of the passage when he says that it is addressed to “all Christians” and not “ministers.” The problem is that he is talking about “devotion to the Lord.” One subcategory of such devotion is the ministry. Again, if Dr. Mohler would just apply the same kind of entailment he used to make his foundational observation, he would find that his interpretations do not hold water.

What Dr. Mohler has done is to misinterpret 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, and then, in order to support his misinterpretation of those passages, has went and misinterpreted 1 Corinthians 7 suggesting that the clear meaning of the passage is a “contradiction!” No, if you allow 1 Timothy 3/Titus 1 and 1 Corinthians 7 to both speak in their context, there is no need for even the positing of a contradiction.

I think what is even more telling though is what Dr. Mohler says at the end of this article. I would say that it explains a whole lot of what Dr. Mohler has said on this issue as well as the issue of delay of marriage:

I can also offer my own personal experience. I was called as pastor of a small country church when I was engaged to be married. This sweet church took a risk with a young seminary student who was anxious to be married and just waiting for the date to arrive. I can testify that my ministry was transformed the moment I showed up back at the church with Mary, my wife. My relations with church members of both sexes took on a much more natural shape, and this was amplified with married couples of all ages. When children came, my ministry in later years was also deepened and widened.

My experience is not normative, Scripture is. Nevertheless, my own experience helps me to understand the logic of these key New Testament texts. I know countless unmarried men and women who are serving the Kingdom of Christ with distinction and dedication. I am so thankful for their commitment and service. But this does not change the fact that when the Bible speaks of the teaching office in the church, it speaks of a man who is expected to be married.

It is a grave exegetical error to say that, “my own experience helps me to understand the logic of these key New Testament texts.” There is something to be said for your experience making certain things impossible, and that is relevant [i.e., requiring salvation to be based upon whether or not a person lifts the Empire State Building over their head is false, since the Empire State Building did not always exist, and it is impossible for any human to lift it over their head]. However, outside of this, our experience should *never* “help us interpret” a Biblical text.

For one thing our experiences themselves need to be interpreted. How does Dr. Mohler know that he has the correct interpretation of the above experience? He may answer “because of scripture,” but now he is caught in a circle: He interprets the Bible through experience, and his experience through the Bible. Worse than that, how does he know that the context in which the author is writing is the same context as his own experience? Paul wrote 2000 years ago; he was not a 21st century Southern Baptist seminary president. Now, I am not saying that this gap of 2000 years cannot be crossed; I am saying that it must be crossed by allowing the text to go where it wants to go, and not imposing our experience upon the text.

In fact, this is exactly how I would argue that one can confuse wise council for saying that the Bible is saying something is a “norm.” When you use your experience to interpret the Bible, there is the strong danger of taking something that pragmatically works, and imposing it as Biblical norm.

Now, again, Dr. Mohler is wrong in his interpretation of these passages. However, that does not mean that there are not issues when it comes to single pastors. For example, single pastors will generally be younger. Will they have the maturity to handle the stresses of the pastorate? Not only that, will they have the maturity to be able to help married couples in their marriage? If they decide to get married and have children, will they be able to run their own household well in accordance with what Paul says? While none of this bars a single person from being able to serve in the ministry, it does mean that single people will have certain disadvantages that will need to be taken into consideration.

However, the problem is that the same thing is true for married people. Married people likewise have certain disadvantages that need to be taken into consideration. I think one of the main reasons why so many churches do not hire single pastors is because they believe that they will not be able to relate well to married people, and will not be able to advise them as well. However, the reverse is true of married people. People who don’t know what it is like to be single right now will have a hard time being able to help and relate to the singles in the church. Not only that, but Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 gives at least one disadvantage to being married, and that is that you have a wife and family to look after. If a married person is too busy with is family at home, he may not be able to get his work done at church. That must be taken into consideration.

All in all, I think that the advantages and disadvantages of whatever state the candidate is in must be taken into consideration. However, a person should not be considered as a less likely candidate because of their marital status. The procedure that must be followed is the same as what Paul says:

1 Timothy 3:10 These men must also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons if they are beyond reproach.

We are to examine each person equally, and give them equal consideration regardless of their marital status. If they are then beyond reproach, we are to let them serve, regardless of their marital status.

Also, I must again reiterate what I said earlier. Because of the fact that churches do indeed shy away from single pastors, it would be wise for a minister to get married. I don’t believe that what they are doing is Biblically acceptable, but they have the right to hire who they want to hire, and if you are going to make yourself marketable, you should seek to get married.

Hence, I believe that Dr. Mohler is pragmatically correct, but not Biblically correct. Because of this, I want to be fair and not just dismiss what he is saying. On the other hand, I do think that the church can, indeed, treat singles like aliens from another planet, and that does need to be addressed. Misinterpreting scripture to make it less likely that a single person will serve God as a pastor does not help in this regard.


7 Responses to “Pastors as Singles”

  1. Peter Says:

    As one of the major duties of a pastor is to handle constant complaints from the people he ‘serves’, I would think the experience gained from marriage would be invaluable.

  2. otrmin Says:


    I agree.

    However, it is a double edged sword. For example, the experience gained as a single in today’s society is invaluable in helping singles. A person who has married, and has not had to wade the waters of singleness in the church today might not be able to handle singles as easily as someone who is single.

    That said, part of the issue is that I don’t think that a pastor should be going at it alone. He needs to have the help of other elders. That might solve a whole lot of deficiencies from both the single as well as the married pastor.

    God Bless,

  3. Someone Says:

    I confess that I’ve become heartily tried of Mohler’s crusade against single people to the point that I really no longer want to hear anything he says on any topic. That may be unfair and reactionary of me, but it’s really how I feel. What really bothers me about him is that it doesn’t seem to be enough for him to encourage and promote marriage, he seems to feel the need to repeatedly and continually promote and justify prejudice and second-class treatment towards single people, especially single men, even though he doesn’t know our stories or how it is our lives have turned out the way they have. I’m completely fed up with it.

    Sometimes I think that Mohler is an example of what happens when someone has a lot of influence and is listened to and taken seriously by a lot of people. Because they are used to having everything they say taken seriously, it seems like it becomes easier for them to be blinded by an ideological agenda so that they can’t see things any other way.

  4. Brad Cobb Says:

    Here’s something for you to consider. I Timothy 3:1-7 (and part of Titus 1) deals with the qualifications for elders. Elders are also called bishops, and they shepherd (pastor) the flock. If you doubt this, look how Peter uses the terms interchangeably in I Peter 5:1-4, and how Paul uses them interchangeably in speaking to the elders from Ephesus in Acts 20.

    The disagreement between you two is because you both use the term “pastor” as if it relates to the preacher. Timothy was never called a “pastor,” but he was called an evangelist who was supposed to “preach the word.” “Pastor” is a word often used today by men to mean “preacher” but it is never used that way in the Bible.

    Elders of the church (and each congregation should have elders–plural– to follow the Biblical example) must be married. I timothy 3 is clear that an elder MUST be blameless, the husband of one wife…. The entire list of qualifications are not optional, but “MUSTs.” Being a single elder/pastor/bishop is NOT an option.

    It is very beneficial for a preacher to be married in terms of getting a job, but it is not required. Paul was not married, and it sure appears that Timothy was not either. However, neither one of them ever claimed to be an elder/bishop/pastor (again, three words describing three different aspects of ONE role in the church).

    Paul laid down rules for elders, not for preachers. ELDERS are to be the leaders of the individual congregations, not the preacher.

    Preachers have every right to be single, and there is not one command in the Bible that says a preacher must be married (except in the case that he cannot control his sexual desires – I Corinthians 7:2).

    Really, the whole argument you have made in this article hinges on the misunderstanding of the word “pastor.” It refers to elders, not to preachers.

  5. John Morgan Says:

    As a 50+ year old straight Christian man with Apostle Paul’s gift of singleness, I must say that Mohler has no idea what he is talking about. And after reading his uneducated rant against single people, I certainly didn’t feel “honored.” His “normative expectations” and twisting of 1 Timothy 3 is comical when put under God’s word. It is truly sad that he has a place of leadership in the SBC.

  6. otrmin Says:

    John Morgan,

    Yes, I have major issues with Mohler’s hermeneutics on this issue. I have pointed out many times how he does not take his hermeneutics to their logical conclusion.

    However, I don’t believe that it is sad that he has a place of leadership in the SBC. When Mohler sticks to his strength, namely, dealing with liberal theology and the fact that it is merely humanism described using Christian theological terms, there is hardly anyone better. It is when Mohler gets out of his area of expertise and starts interpreting scripture in a “radical” or “countercultural” way that he gets in trouble.

    Dr. James White has an excellent statement he uses in regards to N.T. Wright: N.T. Wright giveth and N.T. Wright taketh away. I use the same phrase to describe Albert Mohler: Albert Mohler giveth, and Albert Mohler taketh away. You see, when you are dealing with liberalism and culture, being radical and countercultural is a virtue. However, it is *not* a virtue in Biblical exegesis. Being “radical” in how you handle the text of scripture is a good way to get yourself refuted. The exegete must be sober minded, and allow the text of scripture to develop its own ideas little by little over the course of the discourse.

    In other words, given what Mohler has to deal with, I understand why he says what he says. The problem is that you cannot read the text of scripture in the light of the evils you see in culture. It results in these gross overgeneralizations and oversimplifications that are then imposed upon the text of scripture. Hence, I simply take the good from Albert Mohler, and get rid of the bad.

    God Bless,

  7. Shannon Mulvari Says:

    Adam – So True.

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