What does the Bible teach about priests and celibacy?

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By BibleAsk Team


Celibacy

The topic of celibacy among priests is a deeply rooted tradition within certain branches of Christianity, particularly within the Roman Catholic Church. However, the concept of mandatory celibacy for priests is not mandated in the Bible. While acknowledging the validity of celibacy as a personal choice, it is essential to recognize that it should not be enforced upon all clergy. Let us examine the relevant biblical passages, particularly within the New Testament to understand this question.

Biblical Perspective on Celibacy

The Bible nowhere requires celibacy for priests or for those serving in positions of church leadership. The Bible clearly teaches that elders, priests, bishops, overseers, and deacons are encouraged to be married “the husband of one wife” (1 Timothy 3:2,12; Titus 1:6), “he must manage his own family well” (1 Timothy 3:4,12), and “his children obey him with proper respect” (1 Timothy 3:4; Titus 1:6). Certainly, Paul here condemns the mandatory celibacy of the clergy. When churches go against the Biblical teachings in this area, the consequences are adultery, fornication, and the sexual abuse of children.

Paul includes this in his counsel regarding bishops because a married man would be more adequately prepared to understand many of the problems arising among the families of the church. The companionship of husband and wife is one of God’s ordained means for the proper spiritual development of both, as Paul himself declares (Ephesians 5:22–33; 1 Timothy 4:3).

The apostle writes, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her” (Ephesians 5:22-25).

Further, the Bible warns, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from foods which God created…” (1 Timothy 4:1-3).

In 1 Timothy 4, Paul warns against fanatical concepts that were first introduced into Christianity by the Gnostics and promoted by the monastic system. The Gnostics believed that all matter was evil, and that the human body, being material, must have its desires repressed and denied. According to this school of thought, marriage became a way to fulfilling the passions of the flesh, and was therefore sinful. Paul clarifies that marriage is a divine institution and that to attack this institution would be to attack the infinite wisdom and good purposes of God (1 Corinthians 7:1).

Celibacy is not the normal state, and it is a lie of Satan that, of itself, it can lead to a superior state of purity than would otherwise be possible. The Scripture record states that Peter was married, and probably the other disciples were as well (Mark 1:30). Jesus never recommended celibacy, either for Christians as a whole or for Christian leaders.

Paul’s Life

The apostle Paul is often cited as an example of voluntary celibacy within the Christian tradition. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul discusses the advantages of remaining single, particularly in terms of undivided devotion to the Lord. Paul teaches that in some instances, celibacy has a positive impact on ministry, “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs — how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world — how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided” (1 Corinthians 7:32-34).

However, Paul’s encouragement for men to stay single was clearly due to the “present distress” of persecutions and the great trouble that the early Christian community faced (1 Corinthians 7:26, 28). He explicitly states in the same chapter that celibacy is a matter of personal choice, not a requirement for all:

“For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:7-9, NKJV).

Some prefer to remain single, and have the ability to live a satisfactory life without marriage. Others prefer to follow the normal plan for life on this earth, and enter the married state. Both courses are approved by the Lord when carried out in harmony with His counsel.

Paul acknowledges celibacy as a gift but emphasizes that marriage is also honorable. Certainly, he does not belittle the divine order of the home, which God instituted in Eden. He teaches, “Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Hebrews 13:4). When the purpose of the Creator is carried out in family life, immeasurable good results. Only when marriage is corrupted to satisfy unworthy purposes, does it lose the quality of being honorable.

Eunuchs by Choice

In Matthew 19:12, Jesus discusses various reasons why some choose not to marry. He mentions those who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. “For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother’s womb, and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He who is able to accept it, let him accept it” (Matthew 19:12, NKJV).

Among the Jews, celibacy was pitied, and it was practiced only by extreme ascetic groups such as the Essenes. Those who were made eunuchs were objects of sympathy (Isaiah 56:3–5). Priests thus physically mutilated could not serve in the priestly office (Leviticus 21:20).

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Bible does not mandate celibacy for priests or ministers. While celibacy is a valid choice for some individuals, it should not be imposed as a universal requirement within the clergy. Paul’s teachings affirm celibacy as a gift but emphasize that marriage is also honorable. Moreover, the qualifications outlined for overseers in the pastoral epistles prioritize moral character and fidelity in marriage rather than celibacy. Therefore, the imposition of mandatory celibacy contradicts the biblical principles of freedom of choice and the recognition of marriage as a sacred institution. Instead, clergy should be allowed to make their own decisions regarding celibacy, guided by their personal convictions and calling.

In His service,
BibleAsk Team

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