Last night, Scott Thomas asked the question,
“Do you think a never-married single man should plant a church?”
This question has been raised before, but I have not really thoroughly thought through it. Can a single man pastor a church, plant a church, or minister in a church? Are there biblical prohibitions? Exceptions? Prescriptions? These are some of the questions that continued to run to through my mind as I laid in bed last night.
What immediately surfaced are the teachings of Peter and Paul. Men are to love their wives as Christ loved the church, raise up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, lives with their wives in an understandable way, and so on. When giving qualifications for elders, it is assumed that they will be married and have children (see also). For the Corinthians, Paul devotes an entire chapter addressing marriage, divorce, and singleness.
As I thought about 1 Cor. 7, however, I was reminded that Paul advocated that the unmarried “it is good for them to remain single as I am.” Just a few verses later, he provides his rationale for making such a case for singleness:
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 the 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 (1 Cor. 7:32-35).
The married man is anxious, worried, and divided. What are we to think about that when it comes to church planting or pastoring? More so, what are we to do with his statement: “The appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none“?
There’s no doubt that Paul was passionately committed to the mission and the spread of the gospel. The greatest church planter the world has ever known was not a married man (at least not after his conversion). He was able to be “undivided in his devotion to the Lord” going places, doing things that otherwise would not have been possible had he a wife and family to care for. His journeys and planting of churches comprise the majority of the book of Acts, and even in the most personalized sections of his writing, he talks about those whom he has begotten through the gospel.
Then there are the words of Jesus. We know our Savior did all things without sin, including how he loved his earthly parents and siblings. Yet some of his harshest and most challenging words came within familial context. For instance, when his family sought him out, desiring to speak with him, Jesus turned to his disciples and said, “Here are my mother and brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father is my brother and sister and mother.” He told his disciples to expect that the members of one’s own household will become their enemies as a result of following him. When it came to the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom or performing a most honorable duty of burying one’s father, he told the would-be disciple to “let the dead bury their own dead but you go preach the kingdom of God.” Positively speaking, those who have left family for the sake of the gospel and Jesus’ fame will receive hundredfold rewards in the life to come.
While these words of Jesus do not address specifically marriage and whether a pastor or planter should be married, it does paint a picture of the kingdom culture created among first-century followers of Christ. It should be mentioned that Jesus did consider his mother in his final words on the cross, adjoining Mary with the apostle John. Nevertheless, Jesus was a single man. Paul was a single man. We have no evidence (of which I am aware) that Peter, James, John, or any of the other disciples were married men. Among the church planters, including Timothy, Barnabas, Silas, Epaphras, et al., the only married couple that comes to my mind is Aquilla and Priscilla. Furthermore, in the letters of Peter and Paul, there is no mention, even as a footnote, of their own wives and children which is no small omission. Rather, what we have them saying is that their “little children” and “beloved children” are those whom they are fathering or mothering in the faith (the examples are numerous).
To synthesize this, then, Scripture assumes Christ’s followers will get married and have children. Elders/pastors likewise. Yet the assumption and prescription on the one hand and the description of Christ and his followers on the other hand present a dilemma. I don’t think that arguing for different context will satisfy this conundrum. If one were to look singularly at the lives of Jesus, His disciples, and their disciples, it appears the adopted a lifestyle of singleness for the sake of the mission, devoting themselves to the gospel and the churches they planted. If one were to look singularly at the exhortations of these men, with the exception of Paul in 1 Cor. 7, they speak very clearly on the importance of and covenant within marriage. The marriage and family is rightly argued as the proof text of gospel ministry.
So how does one answer Scott’s question? If single men are not allowed to pastor or plant churches today, would we exclude many if not most of the men who planted and pastored in the early church?