RELIGIONS around the world—such as the Roman Catholic Church, the various Orthodox churches, Buddhism, and others—require celibacy of their religious leaders and clergy. On the other hand, many people feel that this practice lies at the root of the recent wave of sexual scandals involving clerics of various religions.
It is, therefore, reasonable to ask, Is celibacy a Scriptural requirement for Christian ministers? To answer that question, let us consider the origin and development of this practice as well as God’s view of it.
CELIBACY IN RELIGIOUS HISTORY
The Encyclopædia Britannica defines celibacy as “the state of being unmarried and, therefore, sexually abstinent, usually in association with the role of a religious official or devotee.” In a 2006 address to the Roman Curia, then Pope Benedict XVI linked compulsory celibacy to “a tradition that dates back to an epoch close to that of the Apostles.”
Celibacy, however, was not a religious custom practiced by first-century Christians. In fact, the apostle Paul, who lived in the first century, warned believers about men who would make “misleading inspired statements” and “forbid marriage.”—1 Timothy 4:1-3.
It was during the second century that the practice of celibacy began to make its way into the Western “Christian” churches. According to the book Celibacy and Religious Traditions, this was “consistent with the new wave of sexual restraint that arose in the Roman Empire.”
In the following centuries, church councils and so-called Church Fathers promoted clerical celibacy. They thought that sexual intercourse was defiling and incompatible with clerical duties. Nevertheless, the Encyclopædia Britannica points out that “as late as the 10th century many priests and even some bishops had wives.”
Clerical celibacy was enforced during the Lateran Councils of 1123 and 1139, which were held in Rome, and it has remained the official position of the Roman Catholic Church to the present day. With this measure, the church prevented the loss of power and income that resulted when priests who were married willed church property to their children.
GOD’S VIEW OF CELIBACY
God’s view of celibacy is clearly expressed in his Word, the Bible. In it we read Jesus’ words about those who remained single, as he did, “on account of the Kingdom of the heavens.” (Matthew 19:12) Along the same line, the apostle Paul spoke about Christians who chose to follow his example of singleness “for the sake of the good news.”—1 Corinthians 7:37, 38; 9:23.
However, neither Jesus nor Paul were commanding ministers to be celibate. Jesus stated that singleness was a “gift” not possessed by all his followers. When Paul wrote about “those who have never married,” he frankly admitted: “I have no command from the Lord, but I give my opinion.”—Matthew 19:11; 1 Corinthians 7:25, footnote.
In addition, the Bible shows that many Christian ministers in the first century, including the apostle Peter, were married men. (Matthew 8:14; Mark 1:29-31; 1 Corinthians 9:5) In fact, on account of the prevalence of immoral sexual practices in the Roman world of that time, Paul wrote that if a Christian overseer was married, he was to be “a husband of one wife” and have “his children in subjection.”—1 Timothy 3:2, 4.
These were not celibate marriages, for the Bible candidly states that a “husband [ought to] give to his wife her due” and that married couples should “not deprive each other” of sexual intimacies. (1 Corinthians 7:3-5) Clearly, celibacy is not required by God, nor is it compulsory for Christian ministers.
FOR THE SAKE OF THE GOOD NEWS
If celibacy is not compulsory, why did Jesus and Paul speak favorably of singleness? Because singleness may afford a person greater opportunities to share the good news with others. Single ones can give more of themselves, since they are spared the anxieties that married ones experience.—1 Corinthians 7:32-35.
Consider the example of David, who decided to quit his well-paying job in Mexico City to move to a rural area in Costa Rica to teach others the Bible. Does David feel that singleness helped him to do so? “Definitely,” he says. “It was a challenge to adapt to a new culture and different living conditions, but since I had only myself to care for, the adaptation process was easier.”
Claudia, a single Christian who has moved to serve in places where evangelizers are needed, says: “I enjoy my service to God. My faith and my relationship with God are strengthened when I see how he takes care of me.”
“It does not matter whether you are married or single, you will be happy if you give your best to Jehovah God.”—Claudia
Singleness does not have to be a burden. Claudia adds: “It does not matter whether you are married or single, you will be happy if you give your best to Jehovah God.”—Psalm 119:1, 2.