The Bible’s Viewpoint
Is Celibacy a Requirement for Christian Ministers?
CELIBACY is, strictly speaking, the state of being unmarried. However, according to The New Encyclopædia Britannica, the term “is usually used in connection with the celibate individual’s role as a religious official, specialist, or devotee.” The term “celibate” designates “those for whom the unmarried state is the result of a sacred vow or act of renunciation or of a belief that it is preferable for a person because of his religious position or his degree of religious seriousness.”
At one time or another, certain prominent religions have adopted celibacy as a requirement for their ministers. Yet, in no other religion of Christendom has celibacy become more of a hallmark than in Catholicism. Today, there is quite a controversy over Catholic celibacy. The Wilson Quarterly noted that “study after study in recent decades has concluded that mandatory celibacy, a requirement for Catholic priests since the 12th century, is at the root of the church’s problems in recruiting and retaining priests.” According to sociologist Richard A. Schoenherr, “the full weight of history and social change is turning against male celibate exclusivity in the Catholic priesthood.” What is the Bible’s view of celibacy?
Marriage or Singleness?
Throughout history countless devout men and women, in many different religions, have chosen to be celibate. Why? In many cases it was because they believed that fleshly, material things were “the seat of evil.” This engendered the philosophy that spiritual purity was only possible through abstaining from all sexual activity. This, however, is not the Bible’s view. In the Bible, marriage is seen as a clean, holy gift from God. The Genesis account of creation clearly portrays marriage as “good” in God’s eyes and obviously not as a barrier to a spiritually pure relationship with God.—Genesis 1:26-28, 31; 2:18, 22-24; see also Proverbs 5:15-19.
The apostle Peter and other approved servants of God holding positions of authority in the early Christian congregation were married men. (Matthew 8:14; Acts 18:2; 21:8, 9; 1 Corinthians 9:5) The apostle Paul’s directions to Timothy on the appointment of congregation overseers, or “bishops,” make this clear. He writes: “A bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife.” (Italics ours; 1 Timothy 3:2, Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition) Notice that there is no suggestion at all that it was unfitting in any way for “a bishop” to be married. Paul simply indicated that “a bishop” should not be a polygamist; if married, he should have only one wife. In fact, the Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, by McClintock and Strong, concludes: “No passage in the N[ew] T[estament] can be interpreted into a prohibition against the marriage of the clergy under the Gospel dispensation.”
While highly esteeming marriage, the Bible certainly does not condemn singleness if it is freely chosen. The Bible recommends it as a desirable course for some. (1 Corinthians 7:7, 8) Jesus Christ said that some men and women deliberately choose a course of singleness. (Matthew 19:12) Why? Not because there is something inherently impure about marriage that would hinder their spiritual development. They choose this course simply to focus their efforts on doing God’s will in what they perceived to be urgent times.
The Road to Compulsory Celibacy
Things changed, however, in the centuries following the time of Christ. During the first three centuries of our Common Era, “there were both married and unmarried ministers,” explains David Rice, a Dominican who left the priesthood to marry. Then, professed Christians began to be influenced by what one religious writer described as an “amalgam of Greek and biblical ideas” that produced a distorted view of sex and marriage.
Some, of course, still pursued singleness simply “to attain complete freedom to devote [themselves] to the work of the kingdom of God.” Others, however, were motivated more by the pagan philosophies that they had absorbed. Says The New Encyclopædia Britannica: “A belief that sexual intercourse was defiling and incompatible with holiness emerged [in the professed Christian church] as the dominant motivation for the practice of celibacy.”
In the fourth century, says Rice, the church “forbade a married priest from having sexual intercourse the night before celebrating the Eucharist.” When the church introduced the daily Eucharist, it meant that priests had to abstain from sexual intercourse permanently. In time, marriages of priests were forbidden completely. Celibacy thus became compulsory for anyone who would be a minister in the church.
The apostle Paul warned of just such a development. He wrote: “The Spirit has explicitly said that during the last times there will be some who will desert the faith and choose to listen to deceitful spirits and doctrines that come from the devils . . . They will say marriage is forbidden.”—1 Timothy 4:1, 3, Jerusalem Bible.
“Wisdom is proved righteous by its works,” said Jesus Christ. (Matthew 11:19) The foolishness of deviating from God’s standards has been proved by its works or consequences. Author David Rice interviewed many priests around the world on the subject of compulsory celibacy. Some that he talked to said: “You stay in the priesthood, do whatever good you can, and discreetly avail yourself of the readiness of devoted, admiring women to make themselves sexually available.”
Quoting Matthew 7:20, Rice states: “‘By their fruits you shall know them,’ Jesus said.” He then comments on the tragedy that has resulted from enforced celibacy: “The fruits of compulsory celibacy are those thousands of men leading double lives, thousands of women leading destroyed lives, thousands of children spurned by their ordained fathers, to say nothing of the priestly walking wounded.”
Honorable marriage is a blessing from God. Enforced celibacy has turned out to be spiritually damaging. Freely chosen singleness, on the other hand, while not essential for holiness or salvation, has proved to be a rewarding and spiritually satisfying way of life for some.—Matthew 19:12.
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