The Bible is full of godly single men who served God faithfully. The prophet Jeremiah, the apostle Paul and, of course, the Lord Jesus come to mind first.
However, they suffered difficult lives and died. If they had wives and children, it would have been virtually impossible to both be faithful to their ministry and faithful to their families. In their circumstances, being single was the best life state for what God was asking of them.
So, as a general rule, it seems that men who are called to pastoral ministry and singleness are also called to difficult and possibly even deadly ministry, such as missionary work in a hostile culture where a family would be a liability.
Qualifications of a Pastor
Second, when the Bible lists out the qualifications of a pastor, it includes being a good husband (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:6–9). This echoes the fact that being alone was “not good” (Gen. 2:18) even before sin entered the world and that, as a general rule, God’s intent for most men is marriage.
As a husband and father, I can assure you that much of what a man learns about being a pastor he learns at home with his wife and children as his first flock.
A Lifetime of Singleness
Third, are you called and gifted by God to remain single for a lifetime?
Every man is called to singleness for a season, until he is married. But if you are not empowered by God for a life of singleness (like a John Stott), then it is most likely best for you to wait until you are married before taking on any significant pastoral ministry.
This is doubly true for missionaries and church planters who will not be in community with and under the authority of godly married men who are also pastors on their leadership team.
Fourth, in our day, the temptations and traps for a single male leading in ministry are incredibly difficult—emotionally, sexually and relationally. I could not fathom doing my job as a single man. The complexities of relationships with women and my inability to speak to issues of marriage, sex and parenting from any personal experience would greatly hinder my ability to lead others with credibility, as these are the very areas where most people, especially men, are struggling.
I have only known a few single men who were pastors, and the majority of them disqualified themselves morally. Those who did not were married shortly after they began pastoral ministry. I know thousands and thousands of pastors, and only one is a single pastor who has not disqualified himself and has a church that is healthy and growing. This does not mean it is impossible for you to lead a church as a single man, but it is improbable.
Understanding 1 Corinthians 7
Fifth, there is 1 Corinthians 7. This section of Scripture is widely misunderstood and has been throughout the history of the church. To better understand what Paul is referring to regarding unmarried pastors, it helps to consider the context of this passage, starting with a biblical understanding of marriage.
Biblically, singleness is not ideal (Gen. 2:18; Matt. 19:4–6.); marriage should be honored by all (Heb. 13:4); and it is demonic to teach against marriage (1 Tim. 4:1–3). Practically, however, there are seasons and reasons that provide exceptions to the rule of marriage for some people, as Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 7.
Paul’s words are as true and timely as ever. For those who are called to singleness for a season or a lifetime (desires can and do change), their calling will be accompanied by a diminished sexual appetite so that remaining pure and chaste is not as difficult for them as for the person not called to singleness.
Further, since most people are failing to remain chaste and holy in their singleness, most people should put their energies toward the goal of one day being married. I was one of these people, which explains why I married at the age of 21, between my junior and senior years of college.
Singleness in Times of Crisis
Paul encouraged chaste, single virgins to remain single because of the “present distress,” which may have included the coming bloody persecution at the hands of Nero and/or a deadly famine that had been prophesied in Acts 11:28. Singleness is often preferable in some seasons (e.g., persecution, famine, grave illness, war). Those who are able to refrain from marriage until a crisis has ended will save themselves and any children they may have from many heartaches and hardships. But if someone is married, Paul says, such a crisis is no excuse for a divorce, and if someone is married they have not sinned.
It is important to remember that Paul is not elevating singleness as generally preferable, but rather only preferable for some people under some circumstances. In this way, some people are called to remain single to serve Jesus in ministry; still others are called to be married, and their marriage is their ministry for Jesus. Anyone who is married will tell you that while it does restrict some ministry opportunities, it is in itself among the most difficult and important ministries.
A cultural parallel in our day might be a season of life when pursuing a potential spouse would be unwise. This would include a season of personal illness, a man being unemployed or underemployed, someone suffering through a traumatic life event such as the death of a parent, or a season of education, work, or ministry in which the demands upon one’s time are so severe that a relationship is not practically possible.
In typical times, when there is not a major crisis, many of the issues in a church are best dealt with by married leaders (1 Tim. 3:4–5; Titus 1:6; 2:3–5). This is because many of people’s issues are related to marriage and parenting, and people with experience in those areas are generally best suited to serve as models and mentors. But in times of crisis or when ministry results in danger, single people are able to do more ministry because their time and possessions are more easily freed up and the risk of death is less frightening than for someone who is a spouse and parent.
Therefore, in the circumstances Paul is addressing, singles are being called upon for vital ministry, though this call is not a restriction. Obviously, Jesus Christ is the perfect example of someone who remained single for the purposes of living in poverty and suffering for the cause of ministry in a way that he could not have if He were a husband and father.
In this way, those gifted with singleness like Paul and Jesus also often have a particular ministry calling on their life that requires poverty or danger. A contemporary example is a friend of mine who is working as a quiet evangelist in a closed Muslim country. He believes he will die for his faith and has not married as a result. Those who do not marry because they are simply selfish or irresponsible are not whom Paul is speaking of in the context of his words and life example.
Seek Godly Counsel
In light of all of this, I cannot decisively answer this question for you. I hope I’ve given you some things to think about. But ultimately this decision has to be made by godly authority with those in your community. The best ones to speak to you about this very important question will be godly elders in your local church who know you. I’m praying James 1:5 for them and for ears to hear for you.