Celibate Clergy

Does the Bible indicate that men and women in ministry should remain unmarried? A careful examination of Scripture clearly reveals that it does not.

Hebrew priests were eligible to marry. "And the high priest … shall take a wife in her virginity" (Lev. 21:10,13). Priests had children by their wives, see Ex. 29:4-9; 1 Sam. 1:3.

In the New Testament era deacons and presbyters (bishops, pastors) were married. "A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife…" (1 Tim. 3:2).

The Apostle Peter (whom some erroneously suppose to have been the first pope) was married. But in the Bible we read: "When Jesus was come into Peter's house, He saw his wife's mother laid and sick of a fever. And He touched her hand, and the fever left her" ( Matt. 8:14,15). See also Mk. 1:30,31; Lk. 4:38,39.

Paul implied that some of the other apostles were married, and stated that they certainly were free to do so. "Have we not power to lead about a sister, wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas [Peter]?" (1 Cor. 9:5)

Scripture further makes it clear that "marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge" (Heb.13:4). While God does not exclude any class of society from marriage, He does denounce sexual immorality in all, irrespective of occupation or calling. He offers no exemptions from purity, least of all for those who represent Him as ministers, see Jas. 3:1, cf. Rom. 2:19-24.

Marriage is a sacred bond, and Jesus taught that its sanctity and permanence are to be preserved inviolate. Jesus affirmed that infidelity to the marriage vow constituted the only grounds for divorce. See Matt. 19:3-9. Astonished by this high standard, His disciples said to Him, "If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry" (Matt. 19:10).

This question drew from Jesus a beautiful truth about celibacy as a special calling for some, "All men cannot receive this saying, but they to whom it is given. There are some … which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (Matt. 19:11,12).

The preceding texts show that:

Celibacy is a state that some voluntarily embrace for the Kingdom of heaven's sake, in order to serve God without the distractions of attending to the duties and intricacies of personal family life. Celibacy can never legitimately be mandated by a church for its clergy or any portion of its membership. Celibacy, even for those who serve God in full-time ministry, is the exception rather than the rule. No one who chooses celibacy is free to have sexual relations with anyone at any time. True celibacy implies the practice of inviolate chastity. God's word is clear, "This is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: that every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor; not in the lust of concupiscence" [epithymia, i.e., sinful desires] (1 Thes. 4:3-5).

We see then that celibacy is for those who find special grace with God to transcend sexual desire and the need for a marriage partner. This state of singleness is for the relative few, and is a choice (or calling) that lies between the individual and God alone; it cannot be prescribed by anyone else for another. See 1 Cor. 7:7-9.

Scripture warns all persons and would-be religious authorities from prohibiting marriage for those whose lives are morally sound. "Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils, … forbidding to marry…" (1 Tim. 4:1,3).

This prohibition directly contradicts God's testimony that marriage is honorable in all (Heb. 13:4). Further, it spawns conditions that are conducive to sexual immorality, see 1 Cor. 7:1,2,9 and 1 Tim. 5:14,15.

Truly God's word is reliable, the path of purity and prosperity is in the way of obedience to it. "Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in Him. Add thou not unto His words, lest He reprove thee, and thou be found a liar" (Prov. 30:5,6, cf. Deut. 4:2).