Should church leaders be married?

31st January 2020

Many single people tell us that they are ‘not permitted’ to take leadership positions in their church because they are not married.  They tend to be from Protestant churches of the more evangelical persuasion or from BME charismatic churches.

It can be hurtful and unhelpful.  Hurtful as those with giftings from God, ministries they are called to, and time and attention in not having a family (I Cor 7) are denied opportunities to build the church up.  Unhelpful as one of the top things that single Christians say would encourage them is to have single people in leadership modelling a well-lived single Christian life.

So how does this come about? It would appear to be a combination of church history and interpretation of just a single verse in the Bible.

Church history

For much of the last two thousand years, church leaders have been single. Many, if not most, still are. The Roman Catholic denominations still retain this practice and Orthodox churches for its bishops.  This came about both because of the belief of being focussed on God and ‘married to the Church’ and also because of the political decision of the early church bishops not to be seen to be threatening to the rulers — choosing to be clear that they were building churches with spiritual heirs, not biological dynasties, and so able to co-exist peacefully.

A married church leadership emerged when Luther and the Protestant leaders asserted that those who were married could be just as holy as those single and ‘dedicated to the Lord’ as clergy, monks or nuns. Thus it is in primarily the Protestant churches that leadership is married.

Social culture

Indeed, a disproportionate number of Protestant church leaders are married, compared to the populations they serve.  In Catholicism, priests and bishops are required to be single. Perhaps in reaction, in Protestantism, it often appears that they should be married and single bishops are relatively rare.

For example, despite the average age at which Christians get married being the same as society as a whole (CRL study, Pullinger), among those going forward for Church of England selection the men are much more likely to be married and to do so at a younger age than average (Church of England data private communication).  This would tend to support the long-standing social custom of being married as a church leader in the Protestant church and preaching from that perspective.

Reading the Bible

Those who strongly advocate that church leaders should be married, tend to take this from a single verse in Paul’s pastoral letter to Timothy, which reads in the Greek ‘a man of one woman’ (I Tim 3.2).  This has often been translated into English as ‘ a husband of one wife’  (see

Now what does this mean?  it can be interpreted in many different ways and we need to look at context.  No-one disputes that we need to look at the context for the prohibition of wearing clothes of mixed fibre (Deut 22:11, Lev 19:19) or a woman covering her head (1 Cor 11.6 - the equivalent today, some say of going topless). So what was the context for this particular bit of advice from Paul to Timothy?

Although experts continue to argue about many aspects of this, David Instone-Brewer in his book on Divorce and Marriage in the 1st and 21st Century looks at the frequent interpretations and examines the context in more detail (page 19).

He lists the various interpretations as follows:

  • a church leader must be married
  • a church leader must not be a polygamist
  • a church leader must not remarry until his ex-wife has died
  • a church leader must not be a womaniser.

I’ll follow him and look at each in turn.

‘A church leader must be married’

This is the commonest of the interpretations and yet the most unlikely as it is flatly contradicted by both Jesus and Paul (1 Cor 7.7ff, Matt 19.12). And one hardly needs to point out that Paul would have no credibility saying so when he himself was unmarried.

Jesus actually disagreed with the Jewish teaching of the day about marriage in a number of areas - but in particular that marriage was compulsory.  He said that people might choose to live a celibate life (‘eunuch’ in Matt 19:10-12). This was despite that Rabbinic Judaism taught that ‘go forth and multiply’ was one of the 613 commands of the Law (p.11).

‘Not a polygamist’

Our current UK laws do not permit polygamy.  That was not the case then. The OT allowed polygamy (assumed in Exod 21.10, Deut 21.15 and Lev 18.18) and still permitted in first-century Palestine. Other places, who would have read the Pastoral letters, had laws that permitted men to have more than one wife (but not the other way round). So the verse could mean that male church leaders should not be polygamous. This idea was supported by Jesus’ discussion about marriage in Matt 19 that monogamy was the OT ideal.

That understanding might well be indicated by ‘a man of one woman’.  But in 1 Tim 5.9 there is the same phrase referring to a widow ‘a woman of one man’. Since no country laws then permitted polyandry (wife with several husbands), then it would not make sense to interpret ‘a man of one woman’ in this way. It must mean something else over and above not being a polygamist.

‘Not remarry until ex-wife has died’

This takes the view that marriage is indissoluble - that a man and woman are still married even if they go through separation and divorce and so not free to remarry. The Catholic Church maintains such a view and have a process of declaring a marriage as invalid in order to allow people to move on. UK law did so until relatively recently too.

This view of the indissolubility of marriage did not appear either in OT or NT times. Divorces appeared to be reasonably common and one of the things we know for certain was that people were free to remarry, as the divorce document had written on the back: ‘You are now free to marry any man you wish’ - which is quoted by Paul in 1 Cor 7.39 when he establishes the right of Christian widows to remarry. (The reason why he was talking particularly to widows is that divorced women had a bit of paper to prove that they could remarry, but the widows didn’t - and what if your husband went travelling and never came back?  How could you prove you were a widow or been deserted and could remarry legally?  These were important questions of the time - some conscientious husbands even provided a conditional divorce certificate when going away on long journeys so that the wife left behind could marry again if he didn’t return.)

In fact divorce must have been frequent. Why else would Roman Laws be developed and apply to such situations, with the instruction that 18 months later they should be remarried (or face a fine).

Moreover, in the practice of Judaism, David Instone-Brewer writes:

‘All branches of Judaism were agreed there were five grounds for divorce in Scripture: infertility (Gen 1.22,28), unfaithfulness (Deut 24.1), and neglect of food clothing or love (Exod.10f) and these were recognised as views implicit in a marriage contract.

However, at the time of Jesus, the Hillelites, a particular brand of Pharisaism, had popularised a new no-fault divorce called ‘Any Matter’ (from Deut 24.1). When Jesus was asked if he agreed with this Any Matter divorce, he answered that the phrase in Deuteronomy meant only Indecency, in line with the Shammaites( Matt 19).

Although Jesus reiterated his views on marriage (which we discuss elsewhere), in which divorce should be avoided, he accepted that they would occur (which is recorded in Matt 5.32 and Matt 19.9 ‘Everyone who divorces his wife, except for a matter of ‘indecency’’). And Instone-Brewer argues that he would have accepted the breaking of the marriage contract on the grounds that all religious factions accepted - the neglect of providing food, clothing or love.  Paul emphasised this aspect in his discussion in I Cor 7:3-5 and 33-34 advising how to provide them and not neglect them.

Overall there is very little evidence anywhere in practice or Biblical interpretations from the 1st Century to argue that marriages are indissoluble. That doesn’t mean that Churches are not free to develop and maintain such principles for their members for the sake of the Kingdom of God - but we should recognise that this is a Church tradition.

‘A church leader must not be a womaniser’

It was normal at that time for men in the Greek and Roman areas to share their home with another woman for her sexual services and/or to have a mistress elsewhere.  They might be married and be married to just one woman, but having mistresses was not what Paul thought appropriate for a church leader.

So he seemed to be promoting that leaders, if married, should be a one-woman man.  The expression was popular in Latin the other way round: univira -’a woman of one man’ or ‘a one-man woman’ and it was a highly prized and honoured attribute.

All other references in the Bible should also be applied, of course, if a leader is single.  That they should appear blameless in regard to promiscuity.

In summary - ‘faithful to a marriage partner if they have one’

One should remember the time when this pastoral letter was written to Timothy.  They were setting up churches and choose church leadership among those who were just hearing about Jesus and his teaching for the first time — not being in the same position as Paul, who could understand and choose ‘singleness for the sake of the Kingdom of God’.

The best interpretation appears to be that a church leader has to be ‘faithful to their marriage partner if they have one’.  More recent translations of the Bible go back to this meaning ‘faithful to his wife’ (New International Version, New Living Translation). 

So who says church leaders should be married?  It is some church traditions and social practice. Churches are, of course, free to make their own rules for their members to follow.  This is a case of some doing so, but it is important not to present that as if it is ‘what the Bible says’.   One should read the Bible as a whole, Frank Barr argued in his book on Hermeneutics, not isolated verses and certainly not ‘proof’ texts that seek to make a particular point.  Reading it as a whole readily reveals that both Jesus and Paul, leaders in every sense, were single and advocated singleness for the sake of building the church up.

David Instone-Brewer, 2001, Divorce and Marriage in the 1st and 21st Century, Grove Biblical Series B19