Friday, January 17, 2014

Can a young, single man be a biblically qualified elder?

I took my first official ministerial position the day after my nineteenth birthday, I was in my senior year of bible college and was being brought in to a very small Baptist Church as an Assistant Pastor with the idea that over the next year I would transition to Senior Pastor. Seven years later, I am back at the church that I spent my teenage years in, but now as an Associate Pastor, and yet I'm still only in my mid-twenties and single. Nearly everyone who finds out that I'm in the ministry comments on how young I am and many question whether or not my youth and singleness disqualify me from being able to appropriately carry out the necessary requirements that come with pastoring.
Let me address these issues one at a time. First the issue of age. There is only one place in scripture that I am aware of where the topic of age is addressed in relation to a bishop's qualifications. That is in I Timothy 4:12 where Paul commands Timothy to let no man despise his youth. Some have argued that this is an ambiguous term that under Roman divisions of age dealt with men between 30-40 years old. Others have done their own math based on when they think I Timothy was written and the known fact that Timothy died at 80 years old in the year 97 AD. Those using this method of calculating have put him anywhere between 23 - 48 years old at the writing of 1 Timothy (John Gill, the puritanical pastor who wrote a verse-by-verse commentary on the entire bible is of the belief he was 23). A third argument is that in the Old Testament a Levite was not allowed to become a priest until he was 30 years old, therefore the same must be true of a New Testament bishop. I see a couple of problems with defining the word "youth" to mean thirties or forties.
First, why would a man in his thirties or forties, need to be told to let no man despise his youth? If that was the typical time frame for a man to become a priest for the Israelites, and the time when a man moved from youth to middle age for a Roman, who would it be that was questioning his qualification? It seems to me that the command not to allow anyone to despise his youth, assumes that there were those who were of the opinion that he was too young by societal norms.
Secondly, we see the word "youth" used in many places throughout the scripture and we rarely to never assume these places to be talking about a man around 40 years old. In Genesis 8:21 God says he will not destroy every living thing on the earth again "for the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth." Do we think that man's heart is evil from the time he is in his thirties? In I Samuel both Saul and Goliath disdained David because he was a "youth", was he a man in his late thirties? Wouldn't that put him in the prime of his life and the most formidable age he would ever be? Proverbs 5:18 tells men to rejoice in the wife of their youth, are we to take that to mean a man shouldn't marry until he is in his late thirties? Lam. 3:27 says it is good that a man bear the yoke in his youth. Shall we then put off working until we reach our mid-forties? The rich, young ruler in Matt. 19:20 said he had kept the commandments from his "youth up," did Jesus understand him to mean that he had begun keeping the law in his thirties? I think from just these few examples we see that the definitions for "youth," "grown man," and "old man" have not changed much since biblical times. If anything we live in a culture that extends childhood longer than they would have in those days.
The second objection I often get is that the qualification for pastors in both I Timothy and Titus include being the husband of one wife and having his children in subjection. There are many who take this to mean that only a married man with children can be pastors. If that is in fact what those verses mean, then neither Jesus nor Paul were qualified to be pastors.Seeing that it was Paul who was writing these and that he did in fact start many churches, I do not believe this to a consistent understanding of those verses. Rather, I take it to mean he is not to be the husband of more than one wife, he is not to be a polygamist. This may even mean he cannot be divorced and remarried, but the fact that he says the husband of one wife, coupled with the fact that the first interpretation would disqualify himself, causes me to think he does not here exclude single men. It is also relevant to note that in I Cor. 9 where Paul is talking about the rights of gospel ministers, he says they have the "power," or the right, to have a wife, which reading would imply that while the right was theirs, not all took advantage of it. It is not that he must have one wife in order to be qualified, but that if he has more than one he is disqualified. The reason for the stipulation that they have their children in subjection is clearly stated to be because if their household is not in order, we can see a clear flaw in their leadership ability. Much like the qualification for wives, this requirement ensures that a man who has an unruly household is precluded from becoming a minister, not that a man with only one child or childless altogether is kept from the presbytery.
Last (and least), the argument is often made that a young, single, childless pastor will not have the experience to help the older, married with children, men in his congregation because he doesn't have the experience. But nowhere in scripture do we find experience to be an important trait in a bishop. What of the divorced and remarried men in the congregation? They will not have a minister who has the experience to help them. What of the widow and widower? The minister will probably not have the experience to help them. What of the man in the military, the man with the special needs child, the man with a degenerative disease? There are a million specific situations every human will uniquely encounter that the pastor probably won't have personal experience with, therefore he is to know God's Word intimately. He is to be able to rightly divide the Word of truth, he is to be instant in season and out of season, he is to be ever ready to give an answer to those who ask about the hope that lies within him. He is to be of sound speech that those who are opposed to the truth may be ashamed with no evil thing left to say to us. The job of the pastor is to be steeped in the Book, not personal experience.
Let me close all of this out by saying two things. First, the qualifications for an elder are steep, they are heavy, they are demanding on a man of any age. The pool of men who are in their youth, who can bear them, is very small in our society. He cannot be a novice (newly saved and/or unlearned in doctrine), he must flee youthful lusts, he must be an example in word and deed, etc. I am not here promoting that every 19 year old who has the urge should be made a pastor, but rather that there are occurrences where young men do in fact meet all of the qualifications. Secondly, I am sure ministry is much easier with a wife. There are unique challenges to trying to minister as a single man. I am sure there are benefits to having children that prove that you can practice what you preach when it comes to child-rearing. Quite the opposite of promoting singleness or childlessness in pastors, I would recommend it when God allows it. But if God in his divine wisdom has withholden a wife from a man, or if he has given him a wife but has closed her womb, he is not disqualified from serving, he will simply have to do it with the handicaps that God, in his good pleasure, has seen fit to place him under at that stage in his life.


  1. I think you are, well, I am a bit prejudice...

  2. I agree with you on those texts. I would however wait on the Lord if it is your desire to pursue any place of prominence and allow Him (through His people and circumstances) to give you the high seat when (and if) He is ready. I was gung-ho a couple years ago to get into seminary and pursue ministry, but life happened, I got married, and I have kids now... Honestly, after becoming a father and a husband, I am fully convinced that I was not, and still am not capable of any sort of leadership position. I have the theology, but I completely lack the character. A great lack of maturity was exposed that I did not see and now I am content to yield to being sanctified. Anyways, I got to get to work, but maybe being an Assistant Pastor is a great place for you, because it will put you in the "fray" as it were, but in a place where you do not have to bear as much responsibility. Maturity is a funny thing, and so is pride. Be content to learn and submit. I would even confront yourself with the scenario that maybe being the Riker to God's Picard might possibly be God's design for you (not saying it is, but a submissive spirit is pleasing to God) .

  3. Shuan, thank you for sharing your story. I agree with you, I think the place I am now as an associate and an understudy is exactly where I am supposed to be right now. I was not intending this article to be an argument for why I should currently be a senior pastor, but an apology for the "biblical" qualifications over and against cultural or other subjective standards.