Planting without a Family

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?

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22 Comments on “Planting without a Family”

  1. Casey Says:

    “We have no evidence (of which I am aware) that Peter, James, John, or any of the other disciples were married men.”

    Matthew 8:14 speaks of Peter’s mother-in-law, and 1 Corinthians 9:5 at least alludes to the possibility of apostles marrying. Its mention of Peter specifically seems to indicate that he may have been married. Just thought I’d mention those two texts.

    I just saw this post pop up on my Reader. I’ve been subscribing for some time, though. I enjoy the blog–keep it up.

  2. Good point Casey. I totally missed Matt. 8:14. I need to take a look at 1 Cor. 9:5 again. Does the possibility of apostles marrying give us reason to believe that they were married?

  3. brotherhank Says:

    Great considerations Timmy. Any qualifications that would disqualify Jesus from the ministry should cause us to drop ’em like a hot potato. Now what about that whole wine thing…? 🙂

  4. Marc Backes Says:


    I think you did a good job working through the question.

    With all due respect to Scott , I think the question is phrased in an unhelpful manner. Asking whether a never-married single guy “should” do something is placing both the asker and the answerer in an untenable situation Scripturally. The question truly is whether he is “prohibited” from doing so.

    And the answer to the “should” question is individual to each man and situation. If a guy is sober minded, self-controlled, able to teach, loves the truth, hospitable, not addicted to wine or money, not quarrelsome, respectable, has a good reputation outside the church, etc but is not married is he disqualified?

    Is he “suspect” and “weird” because he doesn’t have a wife and kids? What is he “guilty” of? If you’re answer to that is yes, then you must apply that label to every Catholic priest serving in every parish in the United States…which some may be willing to do..I don’t know..the point is that you cannot sustain Biblically a prohibition on single men being elders…and if you do establish that guideline, then you move beyond and IMO in contradiction to the Bible…

  5. Bryant King Says:

    I’ve always presumed from the Scriptures listed above that it would be a preferred case if the pastor or planter was unmarried (1 Corinthians 7:38), but balancing that with 1 Timothy 4:3. Perhaps I am not as orthodox in my thinking as I presumed.

  6. John Cook Says:

    Great work on the texts Tim. My thoughts on the matter would be more along the lines “all things are permissible, but not all things are profitable.” I think a single man “could” plant or pastor a church, but I think it would bring in a tremendous amount of hurdles for that man. The main issue for me would be the team/helpmate factor. In planting i guess some of that would be handled, because the pastor would hopefully have a team around him to be fellowship and accountability. But, I think pastoral care and counseling of people who are married and have children would be extremely difficult for the pastor and the families. Not to mention the effect of being a pastor to single women as a single man could be a distraction to his work.

  7. Regarding pastoring in general, it seems the issue shows us the pragmatic benefits of having multiple pastors/elders in a congregation. Obviously, some pastoral issues that arise (such as marriage counseling) are likely to be done more effectively by those who are married. On the other hand, Scripture points out that unmarried pastors have an advantage in that their interests/time are not divided.

    Regarding church planting, that is a tough one. I would say that Scripture doesn’t prohibit it, but in an American context the deck is stacked against you. It would be similar to a single man seeking a church to pastor; most people in the pews are simply not ready for it. Outside of America, I would assume this is likely different in different cultures.

  8. Yes, I think we would exclude many of those who planted and pastored the early church. There are missions organizations that require a candidate to have a spouse and children because of a rigid adherence to Paul’s qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy. I don’t think that’s what Paul meant at all. Family in that text is not a qualifier, but a disqualifier. IOW, IF the man has a family, they must be godly. A man that can’t even shepherd his own family obviously cannot shepherd those who aren’t his family. But this text does not command a family.

    We should be very careful in limiting people the Bible doesn’t. Marriage is not an ultimate reality, while the church is. So marriage or lack of cannot be the defining mark of fitness to spread that church. In fact, Paul really points in the opposite direction, as was pointed out in the comments about 1 Cor. 7.

    I also think we have this bad habit of thinking one has to personally experience everything under the sun in order to be able to speak to it effectively. That’s just absurd. A single man doesn’t need to be married to counsel someone on how to live a good married life. He needs the Bible. I’ve heard such remarks, “Well, how would you know how we should get along, you’ve never even been married.” How about because the person knows the Bible? Are we that faithless in the sufficiency of Scripture?

  9. Joe Thorn Says:

    Timmy, both Matt and 1 Cor seem to say that some of the Apostles WERE married. That seems obvious to me.

    In my estimation an unmarried man CAN plant/lead, but his singleness is an issue that would have to be examined. In the same way, of course, a man’s marriage would have to be examined before I could get behind him leading/planting.

  10. Most of you don’t know this, but I served the first three years of ministry as a single guy. After I wrote this, I began thinking about things I could do then that I cannot do now, or at least not in the way I would like to.

    Two things come immediately to mind, namely the ability to minister to the poor, homeless, and needy and the ability to do mission work overseas on a regular basis.

    On ministering to poor, it was a regular practice of mine to pick up the poor off the streets and spend time with them, sometimes inviting them to spend a night in my apartment if they were homeless. I enjoyed doing what I could to drive them to places they needed to go, sit with them under bridges at night and hearing their stories. Obviously, being married and having children virtually makes this impossible.

    Similarly, I made a commitment to go overseas to do mission work on a yearly basis after my freshman year of college. However having a wife and newborn son have made that an even more difficult both with timing and finances (a current example is the opportunity to go to Indonesia this summer but will not due to newborn son).

    So I would argue that singleness, either for a period of time, or a gift given by God, is something that can be greatly used in ways married people cannot. Indeed, singleness is a stewardship issue much liked one’s wife and children are a stewardship issue.

  11. Marc,

    Your reframing the question is helpful. I don’t see how the argument for single men as church planters is prohibited. The case *could* be made that Paul would himself be making the prescription to the contrary.


    Interesting that you bring up 1 Tim. 4:3. I have not thought of that passage. I guess one’s eschatology (“latter times”) comes to play here. But then again Paul said in 1 Cor. 7 that “the appointed time has grown short.” Wonder what he means by that?

  12. John,

    What you argued about the issues of a single man I raised with Scott last night in terms of credibility. Like you said, how effectively can a single man minister to married men with issues relating to their marriage and children? You can give Scriptural counsel, but is there not a danger of sounded inauthentic and hollow when you have no life experience on which to give credibility to what you are saying? I think that’s a big problem for single pastors/planters. Also, you’re right about addressing the opposite sex about issues. Having a helpmate to deal with biblical womanhood is a huge plus, especially in a pastoral context.


    I think you are right about the deck being stacked against you in America. I don’t think I know of one church planter in America who is single, but I know of many church planters and missionaries overseas who are. The standard seems more strict or higher here than when we send someone across the pond. Wonder why?

  13. Darby,

    I think what you are saying is that we should affirm what the Scripture says positively but be careful what is does not say, especially when we bring assumptions to the table. Because the qualifications of elders include being a husband of one wife, that does not mean that all elders were husbands, does it?


    It may be that some where married, but is it not a peculiar thing that we have so little description of it? In other words, believing the elder qualifications of being married and ruling your family well is essential, why does Scripture bear any evidence of that in any of the lives of church planters in the Bible? If such weight can be placed on necessity of being married to be a church planter, then where do we find examples of that in Scripture? That is what has me perplexed. We have numerous examples of single church planters and how they conducted their lives, but where are the married church planters in Acts 1-28 (apart from Aquilla and Priscilla)?

  14. Joe Thorn Says:

    “It may be that some where married,” Tim – it says that some WERE married. Am I missing something there? Help a brother out if I am.

    “In other words, believing the elder qualifications of being married and ruling your family well is essential,” – I do not believe it is essential.

    The Epistles address the issue of marriage and pastors, so we’re left with the narratives, Acts in particular, to examine concerning the role of marriage/singleness in leading the church/planting. Here we need wisdom since we don’t have much info. So I think the conversation is very valuable.

    I don’t find it odd that there is little info in Acts. Luke’s account is mostly about two men, and he isn’t giving details of their lives as much as he’s showing the progress of the gospel into the known world.

  15. “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

    Jesus says there are eunuchs who have made themselves that for the sake of the kingdom of Heaven. I think he and Paul and others fit that bill – their lifestyles rendering certain organs superfluous so that they could be free to spread the gospel. That’s precisely what Paul is advocating in 1 Cor. 7. I think we’re missing the point if we think one has to be married or single in order to plant a church. The point is that both are to be doing it.

  16. Ashley Says:

    Ah, but what about how a single pastor/minister divides the attention of the single women? 🙂

    But seriously, I agree that there is no prohibition even some circumstances where being single is preferred – like planting/leading churches in dangerous or physically difficult areas of the world. I’ve always thought it was more reasonable to assume that the disciples were probably married just because it was the cultural norm and not worth making a note of it. Clearly God did not think it important to let us know for sure one way or the other.

    I think, as you said, that it is really an issue of stewardship and vocation. We must all make the best use of the different seasons and circumstances God give us, serving where He has called us to serve, and trusting Him to take care of the things we can’t.

  17. I’m appreciating the discussion, especially the points you guys have brought out that I have not considered. So how about I make some propositions based off our discussions (and my post), and let’s discuss them if you don’t mind:

    1. Some apostles (or church planters) were married; some were not.
    2. The Bible does not prohibit single church planters.
    3. It was the preference/conviction of some church planters to remain single for the sake of the mission.
    4. Since Paul addresses the issues of marriage and family, it is assumed that elders would have them; however, those qualifications do not de facto disqualify someone who is not married nor has children.
    5. Scripture encourages planting/pastoring in plurality, in particular with cases of singleness.
    6. Jesus’ piercing words regarding family is not intended to undermine the institution of marriage or family but heighten the significance and preeminence of the mission.
    7. There are advantages and disadvantages both in being single or married.
    8. In both cases, godly wisdom and biblical counsel is an absolute necessity.
    9. We should encourage those in their singleness to fulfill God’s call in their lives with undivided devotion to the mission.
    10. We should encourage those in their marriage to fulfill God’s call in their families by shepherding their families before ministry while passionately pursuing the mission.

    Thoughts? Agree or disagree?

  18. Dr. Paul W. Foltz Says:

    Your 10 points, Timmy are well taken. I have known several single men who planted churches. one man started 36 Baptist churches in 45 years of ministry. Most are thriving today.

  19. Thomas Twitchell Says:

    “This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none…”

    Last night in presenting 2 Timothy 2, a very interesting thing comes out. As it does whenever Paul speaks of the ministry, Paul is sure to emphasize the soldoutness that is required of a man “drafted into service.

    One of the things that I mentioned was that a soldier going off to war does not expect to return. He kisses his life goodbye. A man who is not ready to lay down his life for a friend is not the man you want covering you. And Paul tells Timothy that all this is for one purpose, the edification of the elect. Paul invites Timothy to join him in this sufferance. It is a life that requires one to kiss his life, goodbye.

    There is no problem for a single man to enter ministry if this is his attitude, instead, it is far harder for a married person. But, this is the requirement for both: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

    If a person can live as if they were dead to their life and live soley for the benefit of the elect as Christ did, this person is one who is approved of God.

  20. hopedstephens Says:

    I agree with Darby Livingstone in that ‘both are doing it’. My husband and I are on the mission field and have a lot of single coworkers. Singleness often comes up in our discussions with others (especially as it applies to calling). While there are many advantages to be single and having fewer ‘distractions’, there is also the reality of not having a human partner.

    When my husband is seeking God’s face in regards to a step He may be calling us to take, he hears from the Lord AND I hear from the Lord. There is great assurance and affirmation in that. We never move forward until we are both in agreement that God is saying ‘go’. A single person doesn’t have that additional ‘support’ of a spouse. There are also added responsibilities, though, put on my husband as a married man. Each step we take affects him, affects me, and affects our children. That’s a heavy load to bear, BUT with a family of four affirming that God is leading us, there is strength in that unity.

    A single person doesn’t have the benefit of an affirming partner. While there is more freedom in not being distracted by the needs or responsibilities to a family, there is also not the benefit of a natural team unity in discerning God’s will.

    So, I believe that while it is possible and not prohibited for a single, never married person to be a church planter or pastor, it is wiser to do so as part of a team. Ecclesiastes 4:12 pictures this. “And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

  21. […] Tim Brister did just that on his blog, and I recommend you read the entire post. Here’s how he ended his post: […]

  22. The question assumes that the planter will be the pastor. This was not Paul’s pattern. Which brings up a point that any minister in leadership must be aware of:

    If Paul didn’t pastor the churches, then we know he worked to raised up people to pastor the churches (such as Timothy). He also taught regarding the gifts of the Spirit in the body of Christ indicating that no one person has all gifts. If a pastor is single and a married couple needs to be counseled, generally there is a godly couple in the church who could do it. The pastor is not to do EVERYTHING, but to lead his people to join him in ministry. Paul didn’t do EVERYTHING, but ministered alongside people as many came to active faith and as many went ahead of him in the faith. This is the case for all such as church planters, ministers, administrators, teachers and prophets.

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