1 Timothy 3:2 seems pretty clear – an elder is to be “the husband of one wife.” This seems to say that it would be wrong and sinful for a man to be a pastor if he wasn’t first married. This would of course mean that great pastors like Charles Spurgeon and John Calvin were both in sin for a time, as they were both pastors before they were married. This also means they were wrong in their beliefs concerning this passage. And it means a great many other good, godly pastors have been wrong and sinful in this area as well.
Now I don’t start with that fact because I think that John Calvin and Charles Spurgeon are automatically right, or that just because some great teachers throughout history believed a certain way, that they must be correct because they lived during a generally more pious time for christianity. The reason that I start this way (and will come back to the issue of church history on this subject in a moment) is to show the weightiness of this issue. The qualifications for an elder are extremely important and weighty, and to get them wrong is a big deal, and so we must think carefully about this issue and not hastily make a decision one way or the other on this particular issue.
What I wanted to do then, is to answer this question as best as I can from scripture. I have read and studied this issue quite a bit, and unfortunately, I haven’t seen very many more comprehensive lists of reasons for against on this issue. So, I hope mine is helpful, though I wouldn’t say it will be exhaustive, it is comprehensive.
Must an elder be married? No. And here are 8 reasons why.
(note: these aren’t in any particular order, and I recognize that some of these carry much more weight than others, but the weight of all of them together is, I believe, very convincing).
First, if this were the case, Jesus would be excluded.
For some this might not be a reason at all, but it bears mentioning. To say that Jesus wouldn’t be qualified to be the shepherd of a church when he is in fact, the chief shepherd, seems strange at least, and downright insulting at most! Our Lord, who taught the very first pastors how to be pastors, isn’t qualified himself to be one? Certainly not!
Now, a possible objection could come up that Jesus is, in fact, married, because Christians are the bride of Christ. This could be answered a couple ways though.
First, Jesus is actually only “betrothed”, as the marriage supper of the lamb hasn’t yet occurred. Even so, there is the “already/not yet” factor, and so if someone wanted to spiritualize the requirements of eldership for Jesus, then it that sense, he *could* be considered to be married. But, to spiritualize this brings up another problem. Jesus has many disobedient, unbelieving children. So, if Jesus is qualified because of his spiritual bride (or bride-to-be), it seems he would turn and be disqualified because of his rebellious spiritual children.
Furthermore, spiritualizing the qualifications doesn’t help the case for requiring marriage in elders, because even a man who is single is “married” to Christ spiritually. So, if Christ is qualified spiritually because he is married, then so are all the elders who are single because they are married to Christ.
And so, a better way to answer the objection that Christ was, in fact, married, is simply to say “no he wasn’t.” He was never married to anyone during his earthly life, and yet, our Lord and Savior would’ve most certainly been qualified to serve as a shepherd in his own church.
Second, the translation issue
It’s a very unfortunate that an issue of translation has caused so much confusion today, and I imagine that if people had a better grasp of biblical Hebrew and Greek (something I do not have either), confusions like this wouldn’t happen quite so often.
I think this is most convincing argument against the belief that it is just plain and clear that an elder must be married, and it is simply this – that’s not what the text actually says. A better translation would be “an elder must be a one-woman man.”
And now what “seemed” to be a plain and clear text is shown that it is not quite so straightforward. I always advocate beginning with a text’s most seemingly plain meaning and moving out from there, but in this case, with this better translation, the plain meaning is not easily discerned. We have to do more work to figure out what Paul may have been meaning by this. I do not think though, that if this was how the verse was commonly translated into English, that we would have quite as much confusion as we do on this issue.
In Paul’s day, polygamy was a huge issue, so was he saying something about not engaging in that?
Was he saying that an elder’s character character must be one that is not prone to lust (notice that in the rest of the qualifications, sexual purity isn’t mentioned)?
Was he saying that a man may not be married more than once, thus also excluding those who’ve lost a wife through death or a divorce where the husband wasn’t at fault?
Was he saying simply that a man must be married?
Or was it some combination of some of the above?
Well, it’s telling that most solid commentators (including Calvin, Gill, and Barnes) don’t interpret it to mean that a pastor must be married, but more on that in a moment.
For me, I think that if you look at the context of the passage, and note the specific context that Paul was writing in, it’d be hard to come away thinking that he was forbidding single men from being elders. Especially if you consider Paul’s view on the blessing of singleness for ministry (see next point).
Third, Paul’s high view of singleness
In 1 Cor 7:32, Paul says “the unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord.” Paul had a very high view of singleness, which was so uncommon in his time to have, and it seems unlikely that when he was encouraging some young men to stay single, that he would’ve said “unless you burn with passion OR want to be an elder.” For Paul to say “I wish all were as I am” would’ve equaled him saying “I wish there were no elders” if marriage was a requirement for eldership. Surely before Paul wrote a letter to the churches he would’ve thought about that contradiction.
Instead, it’s more likely that Paul didn’t see singleness as barring someone from eldership.
Alexander Strauch, who wrote “Biblical Eldership” (so you’d think he’d know a thing or two about it!) said this concerning this issue: “If Paul requires elders to be married, he flatly contradicts what he teaches in 1 Cor 7 where he outlines the distinct advantages of singleness in serving the Lord and even encourages singleness for the purpose of more effective, undivided service. If an elder was required to be married, Paul should have qualified his statments about the advantage of singleness because singleness would disqualify an aspiring elder or deacon. However, Paul didn’t write ‘an elder must be a man who has a wife.’ Rather, he says that an elder must be a one-woman man, which is quite a different point.”
I agree with Strauch.
And although the issue of singleness is bigger than simply how it concerns eldership, Paul clearly does say that there are advantages to being single when it comes to serving the Lord. And I don’t think that Paul would think here that eldership is excluded for those who are single when he so heartily affirms its usefulness for service to the Lord.
(note: for the record, I would agree with Paul that each person has their own gift, and would also say that marriage is an incredible blessing as a pastor, but it also presents many of the challenges Paul lists. Both marriage and singleness have advantages and challenges in serving Christ, though I don’t think that’s the main point Paul was trying to make in 1 Cor 7).
Fourth, if you have to be married, you also have to have multiple children
1 Timothy 3:4 says that an elder’s children must be submissive. That word “children” there is plural. The word for “child” and “children” are very similar, and have similar roots, but in the greek (in both the Textus Receptus and NA28) the word used is plural. For a very brief, but helpful, discussion of this, see here.
So, if the word “children” there is plural, and we are reading with a very wooden literalistic (not literal) understanding of the text, then we have to conclude that not only must an elder be married, but he must also have not one, but at least two, children.
But this certainly seems to be stretching the text beyond what it could possibly be addressing. Now, if a man wishes to serve Christ as a pastor, he and his wife must be fertile enough to have multiple children? On top of that, what happens if they can’t have children, and decide to adopt? Is that acceptable? What if they don’t adopt newborn children, but adopt children who are older? They haven’t raised them from birth, so can we really know that a man can manage his household well if he hasn’t gone through the “terrible two’s”?
Surely this pushes the intentions of Paul to the breaking point.
But, once we commit to this literalistic interpretation of Paul on marriage, we have to do so regarding children as well.
It goes further though, because there are numerous practical problems (a few points down) that arise also when we begin thinking that Paul was trying to regulate the marital and child status of his future fellow servant leaders.
It is much more likely, in context, that Paul is saying that if a man has children, then he must show that he can manage that aspect of his household well, just as he must manage other areas of his life well also.
Fifth, and related, if a man must be married, his children must be christians
In Titus 1:6, Paul says that an elder’s children must be believers. The word he uses there is “faithful” in the greek, and it most often refers to being a believer. So, if we are going to simply take things at the plain, face value, then we have to conclude that each child a pastor has (which must be at least two) must be believers. This of course would also have disastrous practical implications, because each time a man had another child, he would be disqualified from eldership until his child became a believer. Poor Paul is going to have trouble finding and keeping anyone in this “noble” task with these bizarre and unrealistic requirements.
Of course a much more likely reading of that passage in Titus is to harmonize it with the similar phrasing in 1 Timothy and see that Paul is speaking less of faith in Christ and more of submissiveness toward parents.
But even this, if read with rigidness, would still be impossible, because a man with a newborn child certainly doesn’t have a submissive child. He must teach these things, but until he’s taught them, would he then be disqualified?
Well, of course not, but if “husband of one wife” MUST mean the elder has to be married, then “submissive children” MUST mean that his children are submissive, and if they aren’t, then he’s disqualified. Again, a man with a newborn would have to step down until he’d ensured that his baby would obey daddy.
Now, someone might say “it’s not meaning the children always obey, but are generally submissive”, and that’s fine, because a newborn baby doesn’t submit at all, and the problem would still exist.
Sixth, the Apostles were elders, and one was single!
The Apostles served as elders in the church, and if Paul was single, and yet able to serve as an elder, then surely elders must be allowed to be single. Some will say that the office of apostle and office of elder are different, and so for Paul to be over a church was different than what an elder does. But this seems to confuse the two offices.
If Paul was able to fulfill all the roles of an elder, and even use himself as an example of what it means to be an elder (consider Acts 20:31-35 as one example), then how could we say he wasn’t one? Paul was able to be a pastor, and indeed in one sense, a senior pastor, in Ephesus, and yet he wasn’t even qualified to be serving in that capacity?
No, it seems more likely that although Paul was an apostle, which carried with its office certain responsibilities, that he was also serving as an elder for a time, and that he was fully qualified to fill that role also.
Seventh, the argument from history
As I mentioned earlier, both Calvin and Spurgeon were pastors before they were married or had kids, and neither of them believed that was wrong. And in the case of Calvin, we have his commentary showing us that he didn’t believe an elder must be married. But it goes further than that.
Most commentators agree that this isn’t forbidding single men from serving as elders (Gill, Clarke, Barnes, and Calvin to name old dead guys, and most modern commentators as well).
On top of that, the reformed confessions would be in error on this issue as well, because they believed that the Apostles were elders, and they used the apostles responsibility of “prayer and ministry of the word” as a template for all elder’s responsibilities. If the apostles weren’t elders, then our confessions are wrong to use them as the example. Furthermore, Paul is often held up as an example of what it means to be an elder, both in the task of preaching and ministering the word in other ways.
So, to say that an elder must be married, when an elder’s primary job is “prayer and the ministry of the word” according to the confessions, is to call the confessions (and thus the majority of its writers and supporters) all wrong.
This is a massive weight of opposition to the idea that an elder must be married.
Eighth, there are some more practical problems
Although there are many times when living for Christ creates problems for living in this world, God does not call us to act non-sensical, and there are many problems that seem to border on absurd when we hold that an elder must be married.
For example, here are just a few questions that create major problems for someone who believes that an elder must be married.
If a man was married, and his wife dies immediately prior to becoming an elder, then is he now disqualified? You’d have to say yes.
What if a man had recently been installed as an elder, and THEN his wife died, would he be disqualified? You’d have to say yes, because he’s no longer the husband of one wife.
What if a man’s wife falls into unrepentant sin, and it can be seen that there isn’t fault in the man, but she still divorces him, should he be removed from eldership? You’d have to say yes.
And since the qualifications also mention children, there are issues there as well.
If a man is striving hard to keep his children submissive, but they are amazingly rebellious, and he cannot get his child to submit, is he disqualified? You’d have to say yes.
What if a man raises a child, and they are obedient, submissive children for 15 or 16 years, and then for some reason (many could be given), they rebel and turn away from both earthly and heavenly father, is the pastor disqualified? You’d have to say yes.
What if a man loses both his children in a tragic car wreck, is he disqualified? Again, you’d have to say yes.
Surely you can see the issues that present themselves when we hold to this wrong idea.
When we think that Paul is trying to regulate marriage status and the number of children we have instead of seeing that he’s speaking of a man’s submission to God and his ability to manage himself and his home (whatever its composition may be), then we come to a very difficult place.
Now, I did have one person object and say “well, what if a man only gets married and has children after he becomes an elder…do wife and children get ‘grandfathered’ in?”
But that question misses the issue. First, it assumes that a man’s qualifications for eldership are dependent on his family, but they aren’t, they are dependent on how HE manages his family. They are similar but different. But more than that, all the same rules apply to a man who is already an elder that apply to a man who is becoming one. If he fails to love his wife or faithfully parent his children, then he is disqualified.
We wouldn’t say, for example, that just because a man managed his two children well before he became an elder, that he’s allowed to slack off on his third child right? That would be absurd!
No, instead, a man is always under the requirements of being an elder. They are not “entrance only” requirements.
Well, I hope you can see that the position that elders must be married is not one that’s tenable. It’s highly unlikely from a translation standpoint, from the standpoint of harmonizing with other scripture, from the historical standpoint, and from the practical standpoint.
Unmarried pastors will be fewer and further between than married ones, but they are not a lesser form of pastor in the slightest. It is a good and godly thing to desire to shepherd God’s people, single or not.