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Single pastor? No thanks.

It’s not often that something I’ve dealt with in a casual conversation shows up in the New York Times, but an article on single but unemployed pastors by Erik Eckholm [link] did just that. This is not a great article; it’s sort of a by-the-numbers churches-vs-modernity human interest story suggesting that while churches are exempt from federal anti-discrimination law when hiring for religious purposes they shouldn’t be. It’s thin on numbers, saying that in conservative churches 5% of pastors are single but not giving enough context to make sense even of that number.

There’s an appearance by Al Mohler, who gives good copy:

“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.”

Mr. Mohler said he tells the students at his seminary that “if they remain single, they need to understand that there’s going to be a significant limitation on their ability to serve as a pastor.”

But Mohler as quoted doesn’t deal with the Pauline background here (e.g. Paul’s instructions to Titus and Timothy that an elder should be the “husband of one wife”) and as a result ends up in a vague modern narrative about “society” and job opportunities. As a result we’re left with an article that is mostly about the tension between perceptions of discrimination and the needs of a church:

Mr. Almlie, 37, has been shocked, he says, at what he calls unfair discrimination, based mainly on irrational fears: that a single pastor cannot counsel a mostly married flock, that he might sow turmoil by flirting with a church member, or that he might be gay. If the job search is hard for single men, it is doubly so for single women who train for the ministry, in part because many evangelical denominations explicitly require a man to lead the congregation.

The objections cited are pretty good ones; I don’t think a man is ready to lead a church until he’s raised a child. And it’s often problematic to have a single man in a leadership position in a church, not just because he might find women in the church desirable, but also because they might find him desirable. And of course there are more of them than there are of him.

I’m in the very conservative camp here: I tend to take “husband of one wife” to mean that an elder has to be male, and married, exactly once. As a modern person I’m always looking for counterexamples; I am still looking for a great preacher who doesn’t meet these three criteria.

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  1. mark almlie
    March 25, 2011 at 7:27 pm

    How about John Stott as a great preacher? single never married.

    • March 28, 2011 at 12:07 pm

      Mark —

      Thanks for coming by. I’m not sure I can comment on Stott given that he’s retired, he’s from a tradition rather different from mine, and I’ve never heard him speak.

      I understood the article to be more about pastors of local churches, rather than movement leaders or book authors or what-have-you. I have yet to see good evidence that a single man can serve as the pastor of a local church in the roles mentioned in the article.

      Perhaps I’m being unfair by raising a question regarding “great preachers,” since they’re always hard to find. But I’m still looking for someone who is single and so exceptional that they could reasonably be argued to be a great loss if they weren’t in ministry. I believe the author of the piece took the position that once someone is qualified (ordained? graduated? I’m not sure) that they should be able to find a job whether they are male or female, married or single. What I’m saying is that I understand Scripture to set forth a standard, and I’m looking for an exception worth understanding Scripture differently.

      I think I might argue that Stott’s contribution has been as a writer, thinker, and movement leader, rather than as a preacher.

  2. Carol Brown
    March 26, 2011 at 5:01 pm

    Paul the Apostle and Timothy would meet these criteria. Read your Bible.

    • March 28, 2011 at 11:54 am

      Carol —

      I’m at a loss to understand how your two sentences are relevant. What makes you think Paul and Timothy were never married? And what sense does it make to compare two first-century missionaries to twenty-first century local church pastors?

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