Celibacy and Scripture

In case you are not familiar with the term, celibacy as it is used in religious circles refers to a decision that a person makes to remain both sexually inactive and unmarried, with the aim of being entirely devoted to God and His service. It shouldn’t be confused with abstinence, which is the deliberate decision one makes to avoid sexual activity until being able to enjoy it in marriage. Abstinence is commanded of all unmarried Christians, but what about celibacy? Is celibacy – the idea of avoiding marriage to serve God – a good thing? What about churches/ faiths that bind it on all (such as the Shaker faith) or some (such as the Catholic Church requires of its priests) of their members?

There are certain situations in life where having a spouse can keep one from the work of expanding and edifying the kingdom, such as “the present distress” (i.e., a time of persecution) that the church faced in Corinth (1 Corinthians 7:26). In such trying situations, having a spouse could cause great anxiety that might distract one from the service of the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:32-35). To have a spouse or care for a spouse in such situations would not be sin (1 Corinthians 7:28), but it would limit the ability one had to serve in other aspects of the kingdom. This is not a universal reality though. In fact, arguably the greatest work that one could do – being an elder or an elder’s wife – demands marriage (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:6). Husband and wife teams can be great workers for the Lord; just consider what the Bible reveals about the husband-and-wife team of Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:1-3, 24-28; Romans 16:3; 1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19).

Paul viewed the ability to remain celibate as a “gift from God” that not every man had (1 Corinthians 7:7). He had this gift, and it served him in his work as he moved constantly and faced great persecutions. He appears to have made a personal vow to remain celibate and forgo his right to be married (1 Corinthians 9:5), and, as a personal vow, celibacy is neither good nor bad provided it can be kept without sin. To those without this gift, Paul said, “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband... For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:2, 9 ESV).

Sexual desire (or even a non-sexual relational desire, which is another motivation for marriage) is not wrong when placed in the right context: “Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled” (Hebrews 13:4). When God “created man in His own image,” “male and female He created them” in order that they might be “one flesh,” “and indeed it was very good” (Genesis 1:27, 31; 2:24). The marriage relationship and the sexual relationship inside of it are as old as man himself. Both were created by God and cannot be said in any circumstance to be wrong or sinful provided married partners have been joined according to the law of God (Matthew 19:1-9) and are abiding by the law of God (1 Corinthians 7:1-5; Ephesians 5:22-33; Colossians 3:18, 19; et al).

Churches that forbid or cast dispersions on preachers or religious workers who marry do so against the decree of God. In fact, “Forbidding to marry” is a sign that one has “depart[ed] from the faith” (1 Timothy 4:1-3). In arguing for the rights of preachers, Paul said, “Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:5). God would have preachers marry as Christians (avoiding sin in the courtship process); wisdom would dictate that they marry Christians (i.e., not non-Christians); Christ’s law would have them marry only eligible Christians (Matthew 19:1-9; Romans 7:1-3). When two Christians who can marry do so, even when the man is a preacher, it should be a time of joy for a congregation. “Let marriage be held in honor among all” (Hebrews 13:4 ESV).

Celibacy as a religious teaching, command, or expectation assumes two false things: 1) being married somehow makes one less spiritual or less holy, and 2) one can do more for the Lord as an unmarried person than he could otherwise. Even in times of difficulty like Corinth’s aforementioned “present distress,” caring for a spouse instead of doing other work for the Lord is not sin because caring for a spouse is a command of the Lord (1 Timothy 5:8; Ephesians 5:25-33). One must resolve to be holy and obedient to God in whatever state he finds himself, married or unmarried.
-Patrick Swayne  
patrick@tftw.org

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