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man building a wall

Being an unmarrried elder

Independent evangelical churches very rarely appoint single men as elders. Personally, I don’t know any other single elders. The reasons for this are cultural, historical and a mis-reading of Bible teaching. The key texts used in the argument against single elders are 1 Timothy 3:2 where the elder is to be the husband of ‘but one wife’ and Titus 1:6 which again talks about the elder being a husband of ‘but one wife’ and ‘whose children believe’. If you follow through this line of interpretation, the teaching in Titus also implies that a man who is married, but without children, is also prohibited from the role of elder as would be a widower. Other texts are used to shore up this position. Those who understand the original Greek much better than I ever could, argue that the focus of this ‘but one wife’ phrase is about sexual purity and fidelity. As a single man in an eldership role, I need therefore to ensure that my Christian walk is morally pure. I am not restricted by God from the role of elder because I am wife-less. I have been given the blessing of a being a member of a church that accepts this understanding of Bible teaching. The membership also recognises the teaching of Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 about how the state of singleness can enable a person to serve the Lord wholeheartedly given that they do not have family commitments which need attention. The result is that two years ago the church invited me to join the eldership. In this article, I reflect on the encouragements and challenges I have faced and how the Lord enables me to serve in this role.

His ways are far above ours and it has been a privilege to be involved in His work 

Deepening my faith

In the economy of God, serving Him and His people leads not to deprivation for individuals, but to great blessing. I think I always understood this, but since taking on eldership responsibilities, the truth of it has become more and more apparent. I have been reminded that the church, local and universal, is the apple of God’s eye and He is building it. A church is not mine or yours, but His. The result is that I must rely on the builder to do the work only He can do. The way to do this is to pray, and do so continually. 

I have seen my own prayer life take off as I realise that much of what I am involved in is beyond my control and often beyond my understanding. Of course, as we pray, we see how God loves to answer prayer. The result for me has been a strengthening of my faith with an increasing reliance on God. 
During the last two years, I have witnessed some terrible things said and done by people who claim to be believers. I have feared at times for the church and its people. I have been at my wits’ end in some situations, wondering what will happen next. To pray and trust God was the only thing to do. Surprise, surprise! This is the place where God meets us and rescues us from our fears and doubts. He has proved completely reliable. His ways are far above ours and it has been a privilege to be involved in His work.

Finding support

Being a single man has had its challenges in these circumstances. I have needed to recognise that I am a part of a team of elders and that I need to share with them all what is going on for me. I need to hold myself accountable to them and lead a transparent life. Not easy when many of my struggles with same-sex attraction have involved shame and seeking to cover myself up and hide from others. Again, the Lord enables and has provided support for me. I am grateful for a network of wise friends who complement peer support. Many have extensive pastoring experience and have been more than willing to share their own learning with me. I have also developed and deepened my accountability relationships, which add rigour to my walking with the Lord in purity.
The result is that, whilst I am single, I have not considered myself single-handed in the task of eldership.

Using my gifts and experiences 

Before I was asked to be an elder, I had a growing sense that the Lord was drawing me into caring pastorally in a church context. I was conscious of His prompting. I prayed about it and waited. Before long, and out of the blue, an invitation came to consider joining the eldership. It seemed that the Lord had been preparing me for this time. I also became aware that my gifts and experiences also matched some of the needs of the church and contributed to those of the existing eldership. Some say that, if you do not feel drawn to the work of eldership, then don’t do it! I was honest about my experiences of same-sex attraction. I shared my testimony with the eldership. To my surprise, they shared some of this detail with the wider church and yet it did not prompt concern. This encouraged me and subsequently can see how past experiences are enabling me to serve people. I am continually amazed at how God uses that which I consider the most painful in my life for the building up of His church. It is yet another illustration of how God’s ways are so far beyond ours. 

A couple of areas of how elders serve in my church prompted some anxiety. We regularly lead services, including the Lord’s Supper, and also teach regularly. Neither of these I feel are my strong points, especially preaching on a Sunday. Thankfully, ‘teaching’ is widely defined and I can contribute in various ways. To my surprise, I was encouraged into the pulpit one Sunday to preach. The Lord blessed me and others, so I am contemplating preaching again in the not too distant future. Becoming an elder has definitely resulted in being stretched in my faith and increased my willingness to serving in new ways.

Being single

Becoming an elder as a single man has prompted me to take even more care of how I ‘manage’ myself and my life. I can see dangers in immersing myself in church work to the extent I don’t keep sufficient watch on how I am living my own life. For example, I know I need relationships with people who ask me how I am doing. Yes, people in my church do ask, but I need conversations where I do not feel slightly guarded. In psychological terms, I am even more conscious of the need for appropriate boundaries in different contexts. I enjoy those conversations where I can talk about nothing in particular. They are a gift and an opportunity to relax with those who know me well and feel they can be rude to me! 

Over a third of church members live a single life. Being single is enabling me to connect, support and empathise with them. I can ask questions which married friends might not think about asking. I have developed formal and informal accountability relationships with some. Having the role of elder gives me permission to ask some pointed questions of people and opens up conversations that previously I would not have had. My knowledge of same-sex attraction is allowing me to teach and support people facing questions in this area of life and relationships. I find plenty of opportunities to signpost the work of TFT! On a practical note, I do have more flexibility than others when responding to needs. My employment also gives me freedom to meet people for a coffee at odd times of the day. I am proving the truth of Paul’s teaching about singleness, that it gives opportunities to serve that others might not have.

Spiritual warfare

Sometimes the term ’under-shepherd of the flock’ is used to describe the work of an elder or pastor. This draws upon the teaching of Peter in 1 Peter 5:2, where he encourages the elders to consider themselves as the shepherds of God’s flock. The Chief Shepherd is Christ and we are to do His will and work. Indeed, He will hold me accountable for what I do in the role. Eldership is a heavy task and without depending fully on God, I am not up to it. It is a spiritual task. The wolves are always on the lookout for those they can devour and lead away from Christ. I have become acutely aware of the need for me to pray for church members regularly and in an informed way. I find it easy to fill my hours with activity and need to set time aside for prayer. I also need to prioritise studying God’s word and helping others to do likewise. In this way, they will become more aware of God and His call upon their lives. There is certainly much practical care I and others need, but the spiritual care has to be the focus in my role. 

I am in the war myself and sometimes it feels very much like it when attacks on the sheep occur. So, I need to submit to His Word and also to my fellow elders. This is never easy for someone so self-willed as me, but is an essential discipline if I am to be a faithful and useful servant. Please pray for me. Indeed, please pray for all leaders single or married that they may stand firm in the war and serve you well on Christ’s behalf.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2023 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend. Click the button below to download your copy.

Download the Spring 2023 edition of Ascend