Clerical Celibacy

We have heard a lot in the last few weeks about the scandal of pedophile priests in the Roman Catholic Church. Do you think the fact that the church insists on the celibacy of the priesthood has contributed to the problem?

Without question.

In requiring celibacy of her priests the church is requiring something which is quite unnatural. Marriage should be looked upon as the norm, not only for men in general, but also for ministers of the gospel in particular.

The creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2 give us a paradigm for properly understanding God’s intention for the relationship between men and women.

In Genesis 2, the Lord is represented as saying, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen. 2:18). This suggests that marriage should be considered the norm. It should be considered the ideal. Further, it suggests that marriage should be considered a holy relationship, if for no other reason because it was instituted before the Fall. It was not a concession to man’s fallen state, but was given to him prior to the Fall as a gift and blessing in Paradise. This is where we should begin our thinking on the subject.

Now, has God revealed anywhere else in Scripture a different norm, a different standard for clergy—a special requirement or command that they be celibate? No, he hasn’t. Is there any indication that celibacy is holier than marriage? No.

In fact, what we find is that the holiest men of the Old Testament, those who were set apart by God as priests, were married men. Even the high priest, who alone could enter the Most Holy Place, was married. Those who voluntarily separated themselves to God by a Nazarite vow were likewise married (Num. 6:1-21). Scripture doesn’t mention the marriage status of all the prophets, but of those whose status is mentioned, we find that Isaiah was married. So too were Ezekiel and Hosea. In light of the impending Babylonian invasion and destruction of Jerusalem, God instructed Jeremiah not to take a wife and to have children (Jer. 16:1-2). We don’t know the marriage status of the other prophets. But the undeniable fact that several of those serving as prophets were married is a clear proof that marriage is not a bar to serving God in ministry.

And what do we find when we come to the New Testament? Are things different for the apostles? Not at all. It is true that Paul was single. But we find that Peter, whom Rome claims as the first Pope, was married (Matt. 8:14; 1 Cor. 9:5), as were the other apostles and the brothers of our Lord who had ministries similar to that of the apostles (1 Cor. 9:5). None of the apostles in their writings require ministers of the gospel to be celibate. In fact, the presumption is that they will be married. In his letter to Timothy, Paul gives instructions concerning the selection of church officers and he specifically says that they should be “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2; see also v. 11 and Tit. 1:6).

Now Jesus does mention the matter of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God. In Matthew 19, after explaining the very limited reasons for which a man might justly divorce his wife, his disciples said, “Well, if a man cannot divorce his wife for any reason whatsoever, perhaps it’s better that he not marry at all. And Jesus said,
Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it (Matt. 19:11-12).
In other words, this is not for everyone. It’s not even for everyone who is called to the ministry of the gospel. God does not require it of his ministers. Some may be called to it, as Paul was. Others—we have reason to believe the majority—are called to be married and have children, as were Peter and the rest of the apostles.

In requiring celibacy of her priests the church is presuming to require what God himself does not require. And doing so, whether in the matter of clerical celibacy or in other matters, is always a dangerous proposition. We run into trouble when we seek to be holier than God. Paul even mentions in 1 Timothy 4 that the Holy Spirit had shown him that some would deviate from the faith and teach false doctrines including forbidding marriage (1 Tim. 4:3).

God has made us to be sexual beings. There is no sin or shame in finding enjoyment in a sexual relationship, provided it is found within the boundaries God which has appointed, which is in marriage between a husband and wife. Normal people have a natural, God-given desire for sexual pleasure, just like they have a normal, God-given hunger for food and thirst for water. A vow of celibacy doesn’t change that.


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