Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Today in agnostic biblical literacy: Southern Baptists and single pastors

Today's NYT has an interesting story about single pastors and their inability to get hired because churches want to hire married men with children. Naturally, there's a justification:
R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said it was unfair to accuse churches of discrimination because that word implied something “wrongful.”

“Both the logic of Scripture and the centrality of marriage in society,” he said, justify “the strong inclination of congregations to hire a man who is not only married but faithfully married.”

Mr. Mohler said he tells the students at his seminary that “if they remain single, they need to understand that there’s going to be a significant limitation on their ability to serve as a pastor.”
Now, I know, I know: I'm agnostic. And I also believe the Apostle Paul was kind of nuts. But Paul did write a fair amount of scripture, including lots of stuff that suggested that he saw marriage as desirable only insofar as it kept horny men from committing sins of passion. Otherwise, he was pretty down on the institution. Just a couple of quotes from I Corinthians Chapter 7.
8 Now to the unmarried[a] and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. 9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
If a church decides that it needs a married pastor, I'm not going to dispute it. And certainly, I'm not a fan of the priestly celibacy requirement in the Roman Catholic church--though, again, it's not my place to dispute it. But if you're going to turn away single ministers based on "the logic of scripture" as opposed to "scripture itself," it seems like you've already gone down the slippery path of moral relativism that Mr. Mohler likes to yell about in other cases. More to the point, it's kind of sad to see churches deprive themselves of the service of dedicated ministers who happen to be single. And those churches shouldn't fool themselves: there's lots of biblical argumentation against their position.


Monkey RobbL said...

Wow, this is a complicated topic. Quick disclosure: I tend to agree with Dr. Mohler on theological issues and disagree on social/cultural issues. But real life can't be so compartmentalized.

Having grown up in theologically conservative evangelical churches, including in positions of leadership, I can vouch for the presence of bias toward "married with children" pastors, and the pigeonholing of single pastors toward only certain positions. The NYT article hits on some of the practical and prejudicial reasons for such bias, but since your post focuses on Mohler's quote and the biblical angle, I'll try to respond in kind:

In the scriptures, and in most Protestant understanding of same, a pastor is a type of elder/overseer. In my denomination (Presbyterian Church in America) a pastor is a "Teaching Elder" and differs from "Ruling Elders" (the name for lay leaders) chiefly in his responsibility to regularly preach the word and administer the sacraments. So the passages most Evangelical churches go to for qualifications are 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 . Both passages include the phrase "husband of one wife" and make reference to the managing of his household and children.

(Note: The phrase "mias gunaikos andr" is probably better translated "one-woman man" or "a man of one woman", but you get the gist. I'm also not going to debate whether the focus here was a prohibition against polygamy, as I'm trying to describe the predominant evangelical interpretation, not defend it.)

So, when Al Mohler refers to the "logic of Scripture" I believe he is likely referring to the inference that Paul's letters to Timothy and Titus favor married men with believing children for the office of overseer. This interpretive inclination may be even stronger for Mohler because he is a Southern Baptist, and in "Big B" Baptist denominations the pastors are the only elders, and the lay leaders are deacons.

The passage you cite is a good counterpoint, and in fact is part of the traditional Roman Catholic defense of celibate clergy and monasticism.

I really feel for single pastors who are out of work right now. Whether the interpretation is justified or not, it is certainly prevalent in evangelical churches, along with other pragmatic biases. In these tight economic times, even married pastors with years of experience are finding it hard to maintain full-time work in the ministry. An unmarried minister is going to find things particularly difficult.

Lou Covey said...

The theological position on this is really a smokescreen. The practical position makes a lot more sense. Whether it is a church, synagog, mosque, temple or what have you, unmarried male clergy cause a significant problem. The single female population in any community are predominantly looking for a relationship with an eligible male. You may not like that statement, but almost every television show has that as a main theme or a subtext. Sex and the City was lauded for how it spoke to single women and the show was mostly about them trying and failing to get committed relationships. It's no different in worship centers.
If a single man takes the job of pastor in a church where there is any number of single women, or any number of women in bad relationships/marriages, those women are going to look at the pastor as a potential mate. What follows is competition, rejection, jealousy, gossip and, ore often than not, a career ended over absolutely nothing but conjecture. I've been involved in enough churches over the years to have seen it happen, regardless of what the faith was. I've even seen it happen in churches where the pastor was gay and had a significant gay population. Except in that case, it was gay men and single straight women who were at odds over the pastor.
The only two practical answers are 1. forbid marriage for the clergy or 2. require it. Neither is a perfect solution but both offer some level of protection for the clergy and the congregation.

Monkey RobbL said...

Oh, I agree that the real reason he's having trouble is probably much more practical. I was just addressing the theological/biblical interpretation issue since that's what Joel focused on. I think you've nailed the pragmatic problems with single pastors precisely.