The curious case of celibacy

I’ve written quite a bit lately about my recent period of discernment. I’m sure I will write some more on this subject sometime in the future, but for now I would just like to mention one other thing that has come up during this time.

When I began in earnest to pray about my vocation, I contacted a handful of friends, explained the situation and asked them to pray for me. Also, during this time, when friends asked me “What’s new?” I told them about my discernment (with varying levels of detail) and some of my thoughts about my vocation.

Apart from a few notable exceptions, I noticed a consistent trend among my non-Catholic Christian friends. Whenever I mentioned the word “celibacy”, I almost immediately encountered some resistance, regardless of whether I was talking about celibate life as a layman, priest or monk.

As soon as the word was mentioned, I could sense a certain discomfort in my friends. The concept of voluntary life-long celibacy appeared to be a rather alien concept. They would speak about celibacy, but only in terms of it being something temporary: you’re allowed to be celibate, but it’s only something you do while you’re waiting to meet Miss Right at a Wednesday night Bible study or on a mission trip… 😉

I remember this very issue bothering me when I was a regular part of the Protestant world: where were the celibates?!

“Ce-le-bate Good Times, C’mon!”

Sacred Scripture explicitly contains considerable support for, and praise of, celibacy. When asked by the Pharisees about divorce and remarriage Jesus responded:

“Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”

Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.

…At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” – Matthew 19:8-11; 22:30

So Jesus Himself said that there are some who will be celibate “for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven” and He also said that this will be our final state in Heaven.

St. Paul, never short of words, also had a thing or two to say about celibacy:

[Husbands and wives should] not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.

I would like you to be free from concern. 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. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband – 1 Corinthians 7:5-9, 32-34

So…Jesus thought celibacy was good, St. Paul thought it was good….the question remained: where were these celibates in the modern Protestant world? I occasionally came across the odd Anglican Franciscan, but, on the whole, consecrated celibate life seemed generally absent.

It also wasn’t just its absence that bothered me, it was also that celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom was simply never mentioned in any sermon or study group I attended. For a concept which has so much Scriptural support and praise, I would have expected the subject to have come up more often, especially in churches which based their rule of faith on “Scripture Alone”. I could not explain the blind spot that appeared to exist concerning these passages.

Renewing of the mind and the Reformation

I haven’t thought about the subject of celibacy in relation to Protestantism for quite some time. In noticing this recent reaction from my non-Catholic friends, I now wonder why it is that there is this prevailing attitude in Protestantism that appears to be, at best, dismissive of celibacy and, at worst, suspicious and almost hostile towards it. It seems to be much more in line with the outlook of the world, that unless you’re sexually active (albeit in this case within the confines of marriage), you can’t really expect to be fulfilled.

I think that one reason for this general view within Protestantism is because marriage is the normative experience for most people. This will be the vocation to which the majority will be called. After all, both St. Paul and Jesus describe celibacy in terms of it being a special gift. Therefore, the default assumption that someone will be called to marriage is entirely understandable.

However, I think that some of the dynamics of the Reformation have also played a significant part in the formation of the modern-day Protestant view of celibacy. When Martin Luther started to directly revolt against the Catholic Church he rejected the Catholic Priesthood, affirming instead a “priesthood of all believers”, blurring the distinction between the clergy and laity. Following the dramatic change in his theology, Luther himself got married. He had much to say about the family (the “domestic church”), much of which I would say is praiseworthy. However, the unfortunate casualty of all this was the idea of celibacy. Without celibate ministers, the notion of celibacy slowly faded from view and has since struggled to find its home in the Protestant world.

On this subject in particular, I would be interested to hear any readers’ responses below in the Comment Box.

“Have you chosen the life of Angels?” – St. Gregory Nazianzen

23 comments

  • As in many cases, the two extremes are unhelpful. Do you need to be celibate to be a priest/missionary? St Peter didn’t think so, as he took his wife on his mission work.

    Do you need to be married to be fulfilled? I think you have summarised the arguments on that side well. I see so many young Christians struggle with the pressure not just to be married, but to get married younger than secular peers and procreate ASAP! I have met quite a few Protestants who have chosen a celibate life and believed it was their calling. What I felt most for them was the lack of community in this calling. Belonging to a community with others of a celibate lifestyle would be essential for me if I had that calling, even if it wasn’t as formal as the RC structures.

    Might be just me, but I did know quite a few older Anglican priests who were purposely celibate, most of them are no longer in full time parish work. Perhaps the demise in celibacy has escalated with time? Particularly with the rise in the social norm being instant gratification for the self, rather than self-giving for the benefit of community. My observation of late is that many Anglican churches here see their minister as a “buy one get one free” where their wife is expected to have a full-time ministry also.

    Not sure if you ever chatted to HOD about their rules of celibacy. I found their approach very helpful and sensible.

    Hope this isn’t incoherent, being a mother doesnt give much time for things like this 😉 Lots of other lessons tho!

    Blessings to you on your journey 🙂

    • Hey Amy 🙂

      >>> “Do you need to be celibate to be a priest/missionary? St Peter didn’t think so, as he took his wife on his mission work.”

      The issue I was addressing here wasn’t really about celibacy in ordained ministry, but rather about celibacy itself.

      The Bible presents it as something that’s “good” and a feature of the Kingdom of God, yet it doesn’t really find a home in the Protestant world. My question is “Why is this the case?”. Seems odd, given the Scriptural support and witness of the Early Church.

      (Out of interest, on what are you basing your statement that “St Peter didn’t think so, as he took his wife on his mission work.”?)

      >>> “Belonging to a community with others of a celibate lifestyle would be essential for me if I had that calling, even if it wasn’t as formal as the RC structures”

      From my research virtually all forms of non-ordained consecrated celibacy are found in ecclesial communities such as HOD or Opus Dei, for exactly those reasons.

      >>> “I did know quite a few older Anglican priests who were purposely celibate”

      I would imagine that there are indeed other non-Catholic clergy out there who embrace celibacy. However, I would imagine that they’re generally older, more traditional and from church traditions which are closer to Catholicism. However, this is a very small section of the Protestant world and one which I would imagine is shrinking fairly quickly.

      I’ve never encountered anything like that in the Evangelical world.

      >>> “My observation of late is that many Anglican churches here see their minister as a “buy one get one free” where their wife is expected to have a full-time ministry also.”

      I think it has probably ever been thus. Did you ever read those books we got “Curate’s Egg” and “Married to the church”? I found them really eye-opening, particularly with regards to that issue.

      D x

  • I’ve heard celibacy before. I’m not really familiar with permanent celibacy except in the priesthood. I think maybe what you are experiencing is people reacting to an alien concept. Wondering where Rosy Palm and her five sisters fit into this. BTW–Regarding apologetics, I’ve read some excellent ones as far as the existence of a god goes, but so far I’ve been disappointed with specifically Christian apologetics.

    Sorry for the lack of complete ideas, but a little overwhelmed by things to respond to here.

    • Hey TyBu,

      Welcome to my blog 🙂

      Celibacy exists in a number of forms in the Catholic Church. There are monks, priests, nuns, as well as those who choose the celibate life but remain as part of the laity (those not ordained). Celibacy is a particular feature of the Catholic world, although celibates can certainly be found outside of Catholicism (such as Gandhi).

      I had to look up what “Rosy Palm and her five sisters” meant (thank you Urban dictionary!). Purity is something that everyone in every mode of life inevitably has to deal with, regardless as to whether one is married or single. The problem with masturbation is that it is a twisted version of what sex is meant to be. Sex is meant to be a complete self-donation between two people in a way that is free, total, faithful and fruitful. None of this can be said for masturbation.

      With regards to Christian apologetics, I have lots of suggestions! 😀 Primarily, I would suggest checking out http://www.Catholic.com. They have lots of Q&A pages, as well as a very active internet forum where you can ask any question you like. Catholic Answers also produces many apologetics books which are superb.

      I would also suggest you also take a look at Peter Kreeft’s “Handbook of Christian Apologetics” (http://www.amazon.com/Handbook-Christian-Apologetics-Peter-Kreeft/dp/0830817743) as it is amazingly thorough. You can also hear some of Kreeft’s talks here (http://peterkreeft.com/audio.htm).

      I would also suggest you become acquainted with Fr. Robert Barron (http://wordonfire.org/) and his YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/wordonfirevideo).

      …plus, a good Bible with some commentary, such as this: http://www.amazon.com/Ignatius-Catholic-Study-Bible-Testament/dp/1586172506/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1317005638&sr=8-4

      Hope this helps 🙂

      Come back soon,

      David

      PS I’m assuming that you’re not a Christian? If so, books a great, but I’ve heard many a convert to Christianity say that things really got going for them when they made this prayer:

      “Jesus, if you’re real, please help me. Amen”

      Keep searching! 🙂

  • Just came across this from Calvin:

    “Let those who have it [the special gift] use it; and if at any time they feel the infirmity of the flesh, let them have recourse to the aid of him by whose power alone they can resist. If this avails not, let them not despise the remedy which is offered to them. If the faculty of continence is denied, the voice of God distinctly calls upon them to marry” – Institutes of Religion

  • You don’t hear of it in the Protestant world because marriage and family are worshipped as idols and those called to celibacy are not identified. And since we live in a lost society that associates celibacy with homosexuality, these churches are hunkering down in fear and circling their wagons tight around the nuclear family. John (51), gift of celibacy.

    • Hey John, welcome to Restless Pilgrim 🙂

      My experience would not support the charge of idolatry. There is certainly much more focus on marriage and family in Protestant congregations, which I guess makes sense since it is or will be the vocation of the majority.

      I would just say that in the non-Catholic world there’s an odd blind spot when it comes to celibacy, which is odd given the Scriptural exhortations noted above.

      What you say about the societal association between celibacy and homosexuality is an interesting suggestion. I’ll have to give that one some thought…

  • Hey David,

    I know this is an old blog but I wanted to see if I could get your input. I’m a mom of a son who’s considering taking a vow of celibacy and I’m actually struggling with this. He has asked his father and I to look into this, because he would like our blessing. We are evangelical Christians, as is he, but it just doesn’t feel right for him to take a vow. Only God knows the future. Even C.S. Lewis got married later in life when God brought him a wife. I guess my question is more about taking a vow. He doesn’t want to be a preacher or priest. He’s not even Catholic. He just thinks he may have “the gift”. Personally, I want him to have a wife and kids to grow old with. I don’t want him to be lonely. Are you exploring this? Have you taken vows? What are your views on celibacy and vows. Thanks for your input.

    • Hey Kathy,

      Thanks for your question. I am no longer actively exploring consecrated life, although I do try to remain open to the possibility, if the Lord calls me.

      I understand how celibacy can be a tricky issue for a parent, particularly one coming from a faith tradition which doesn’t really talk about celibacy. I have a few thoughts concerning what you’ve written and hopefully some of these might be helpful…

      Yes, you are correct, only God knows the future. However, would you apply the same logic in the other direction? By that, I mean, if your son was looking to marry a lovely girl, would you urge him to delay, in case God later called him to the consecrated, single life? Or would you urge him to delay, in case God called him to marry someone else? My guess is that you wouldn’t, which suggests to me the issue isn’t really about the uncertainty of the future…

      You say you struggle over the idea of a vow. Would you regard a vow as something so concerning if your son was thinking about marriage? I doubt you would. In fact, you would see it as something wonderful, that your son wished to pledge his life in fidelity. Again, this suggests to me that this isn’t so much about the vow either…

      I think it’s great that you recognize what you wish for your son – a wife and kids. I’m guessing you desire this for him because this has been the vocation in which you have found a sense of calling and fulfillment. However, even though that has been true for you, that won’t necessarily make it true for him, right? I would suggest that the important desire is what God wants for him. In His will is the best place we can ever be.

      I don’t know much about your situation, but as I point out in my article, the Evangelical tradition typically has little appreciation for celibacy. As I said, I know little about your situation, but I would hazard a guess that this is a significant part of your struggle. I’d invite you to spend some time in God’s Word and look at what it has to say about celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. I’d also invite you to dive into some history and read the lives of some of the men and women of heroic virtue who offered their lives in the service of God in this way.

      In my opinion, if an appreciation for celibacy could be recovered in the Protestant world, it would be the far richer for it. Related to this, might it be worth considering whether the Lord is calling your family to consider the claims of the Catholic Church? I’m happy to try and answer whatever questions you may have.

      Having said all that… I would urge your son to move slowly in this matter. Like marriage, this is a serious commitment and vows shouldn’t be entered into lightly. He doesn’t have to take vows right away. I would also suggest that he receive an extended period of spiritual direction, preferably from someone who is qualified and who is already living the celibate life. Consideration should also be given as to what such a life would look like if he remains in the Evangelical context. There are many different ways this could be achieved in the Catholic world, but in the Protestant world it’s not quite so simple.

      Finally, I would just urge you to trust the Master. He knows what He is about. As a mother you worry for your son and any potential loneliness he might feel further down the line. I would invite you to recall the great heroes of faith who lived a similar life and who did great things for the Kingdom: Jeremiah, John the Baptist, St. Paul and the Lord Himself.

      I hope something of what I said has been helpful, or at least been food for thought.

      God bless,

      David.

      Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding – Proverbs 3:5

  • 1 Corinthians 7:5-9, 32-34 and Matthew 19:8-11; 22:30 is not about the requirements for church leadership. The requirements for church leadership is found in I Tim 3 and Titus 1. Part of the requirement is to be married.

    • > 1 Corinthians 7:5-9, 32-34 and Matthew 19:8-11; 22:30 is not about the requirements for church leadership.

      What are they about? Where do we find celibacy in the Protestant world?

      > The requirements for church leadership is found in I Tim 3 and Titus 1

      Are these exhaustive requirements? What makes you conclude this?

      > Part of the requirement is to be married.

      Wait, you’re saying you can’t be in church leadership if you’re not married?

      It’s also worth pointing out that we do have married clergy in the Catholic Church – a married priest lives just down the street from me.

      • I Cor 7:5-9 is about husbands and wives fulfilling their sexual duties to each other. see 3-4.

        32-34 is his advice and encouragement to those who are single to remain single if they can so as to be free of concern from a spouse and family. He makes no connection to church leadership in these passages.

        There are single people in Protestant churches.

        I Tim 3 and Titus 1 tells us that a church leader is to be married. The RCC disqualifies married RC men from church leadership because they are married. This is a denial of the Scripture.

        • > 32-34 is his advice and encouragement to those who are single to remain single if they can so as to be free of concern from a spouse and family. He makes no connection to church leadership in these passages.

          Other than, of course, that Paul is speaking about a celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom and his own ministry.

          > There are single people in Protestant churches.

          Nobody would deny that there are “single people”. However, singlehood and celibacy are two very different things…

          Where do we find consecrated celibate in the Protestant world? I’m not talking about those who just haven’t found a spouse yet, I’m talking about those who have committed themselves to a life of celibacy.

          We find these celibates in the Early Church. We find them in the Catholic, Orthodox and Coptic Churches today. Where do we find “eunuchs for the kingdom” outside of these Churches?

          > I Tim 3 and Titus 1 tells us that a church leader is to be married

          You didn’t answer this before – are you saying that one cannot be in leadership if one is unmarried?

          > The RCC disqualifies married RC men from church leadership because they are married. This is a denial of the Scripture.

          In the Roman Rite of the Church it is a discipline, not dogma. As I said, we have many married priests in the Catholic Church, just not in the Roman Rite.

          • Not aware of any ” consecrated celibate in the Protestant world”. There may be single Christians who have chosen to be single for Christ.

            A single man should not be a bishop-overseer, deacons or elder.

            The RCC denies the Scripture by requiring celibacy for church leadership. Does not matter what you call it i.e. dogma or discipline.

          • > Not aware of any ” consecrated celibate in the Protestant world”. There may be single Christians who have chosen to be single for Christ.

            Doesn’t this seem like a bit of a problem? Jesus says that celibates will be a feature of the Kingdom…yet it is found in no substantial way outside of Catholic/Orthodox/Coptic Christianity.

            St. Paul writes in Scripture about celibacy in exalted terms…yet there is no substantial community of Sola Scriptura Christians choose to live this out? Doesn’t that seem strange?

            > A single man should not be a bishop-overseer, deacons or elder

            So you would be happy to exclude Paul from such a role?

            Also, if you’re going to say that “a husband of one wife” means that the man must be married, would you therefore also say that because Paul says “his children [will be] submissive”, that a man without multiple children would be excluded from Church leadership? I don’t see how you could assert one and not the other.

            > The RCC denies the Scripture by requiring celibacy for church leadership. Does not matter what you call it i.e. dogma or discipline.

            It matters a whole lot – discipline can change, dogma cannot. And, again, there are married clergy in the Catholic Church, just not in the Roman Rite.

          • Where is there any mention in the letters of the apostles that there should be some kind of celibate community in the church?

            Paul don’t speak of ” celibacy in exalted terms” but does spell out some advantages to it if a person can do it. Most people can’t which is why we don’t see celibacy as a command in Scripture nor an exhortation to create celibate communities.

            Paul did not seek to be a bishop of a local church nor to be an elder or deacon of one. He was an apostle which is a different office.

            God intended married people to have more than one child if possible. That is the norm. This is why he would say that a man who can manage his children is a good candidate. A church is composed of more than one person and so managing more than one child would be a good determining characteristic for a bishop.

            It does matter when a church disregards the commands of Scripture and places its own ideas in place such as the RCC has done with its celibacy requirements for leadership.

          • > Where is there any mention in the letters of the apostles that there should be some kind of celibate community in the church?

            This question is problematic for two reasons:

            1. It assumes Sola Scriptura
            2. The restriction to the epistles is arbitrary

            Jesus was celibate and indicated that in the Kingdom there would be those who would forsake marriage for the sake of the Kingdom. We see celibates in John’s vision in Revelation. So, even before we get to the question of celibacy in leadership, I’m asking where in the Protestant world do we see “eunuchs for the Kingdom”? Where are they?

            > Paul don’t speak of ” celibacy in exalted terms” but does spell out some advantages to it if a person can do it.

            Paul says “I wish that all of you were as I am…[some have] this gift…it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do”. That sounds like a pretty ringing endorsement to me.

            > Most people can’t which is why we don’t see celibacy as a command in Scripture nor an exhortation to create celibate communities

            I don’t understand your logic here. It’s hard and not a grace given to everyone so let’s ignore it? Don’t the words of the Lord and St. Paul carry some kind of weight?

            > Paul did not seek to be a bishop of a local church nor to be an elder or deacon of one. He was an apostle which is a different office

            So you would say Paul would be ineligible to bishop?

            > God intended married people to have more than one child if possible. That is the norm.

            Well, given the widespread Protestant approval of contraception (in stark contrast to 1,900 years of Christian teaching) you could challenge this assertion…but let’s leave that for another time.

            > This is why he would say that a man who can manage his children is a good candidate

            I think you’ve missed my point. You interpret “man of one wife” to mean that, in order to be a bishop, one must be married. Following that logic, “his children [will be] submissive” should mean that a man is unqualified to be bishop unless he has at least two children. This would exclude sterile men and men with a sterile wife.

            > A church is composed of more than one person and so managing more than one child would be a good determining characteristic for a bishop

            Nobody is challenging that. In the Catholic Churches were married priests are the norm, there are checks made to ensure that family life is stable prior to elevating a man to holy orders.

          • It assumes that all we have of the apostles is found only in the NT. To prove this is false all you need to do is to produce an apostolic writing that is not in the NT and is considered inspired-inerrant Scripture. This is not arbitrary since all that the apostles wrote and taught is found only in the NT.

            The NT does not teach there is to be a class of people who are to be “eunuchs for the Kingdom”. It never mentions such a class or order. Its never identified as some kind of requirement for church leadership.

            Paul never makes celibacy a requirement for church leadership. He does see value in it for being undistracted from the things of Christ but he does not command it nor require it for church leadership.

            The only thing that carries weight in the requirements for church leadership is found in I Tin 3 and Titus 1. Both mention marriage as a requirement.

            Did Paul desire to be a bishop of a local congregation? No. He would not have qualified since he was not married.

            You are avoiding owning up to the fact that the RCC is disobedient to the Scripture that requires married men can be bishops. There are no biblical grounds for a celibate man to be a bishop or elder.

          • > It assumes that all we have of the apostles is found only in the NT

            Your position assumes the opposite – that the only traces of apostolicity are found within the pages of Scripture. As I’ve pointed out, this runs into problems when it comes to explaining the Table Of Contents in your Bible…

            > To prove this is false all you need to do is to produce an apostolic writing that is not in the NT and is considered inspired-inerrant Scripture

            I think this statement reveals that you don’t understand what we mean when we talk about Sacred Tradition. The very definition of Sacred Scripture is Sacred Tradition which has been consigned to writing!

            > This is not arbitrary since all that the apostles wrote and taught is found only in the NT

            This is an unsupported statement. What makes you think this? Are you seriously suggestion that all the apostles taught was confined into four Gospels and a bunch of epistles?

            > The NT does not teach there is to be a class of people who are to be “eunuchs for the Kingdom”

            Jesus speaks of them. Who are these “eunuchs for the Kingdom”? You still haven’t really identified them…

            How are the 144,000 identified in Revelation 14:3-4?

  • “I’m asking where in the Protestant world do we see “eunuchs for the Kingdom”? Where are they?”

    David – We are here. I encourage you not to base all of your reality on what you see or don’t see in the streets or in the news media. Leave room for those mysteries which we cannot see, for those whose concerns are out of this world. I’ve been in the Protestant church all my life and have been working on this issue for many years. Neglecting consecrated celibacy is one thing they got very wrong. And I thing there are some today that are rethinking Martin Luther’s teachings and considering the possibility that Christ does not call only men of the Catholic faith to live as eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven. John, Eunuchs For Christ International (founder)

    • Hey John, thanks for your comments and welcome to Restless Pilgrim 🙂

      It gives me hope and great joy when I see attempts to restore features of Christian life lost since the Reformation. Another would be The Quiverfull which returns to an historic Christian understanding of children and contraception.

      With regards to consecrated celibacy, within the Catholic Church there are many different ways in which it is lived out: priesthood, monastic life, celibacy as part of an ecclesial community (Opus Dei, City of the Lord, …) and sometimes directly through the local bishop. How do you see such a vocation being lived out within the Protestant world?

      I’m also really interested to hear how your mission has been received. Have you encountered the same kind of consternation I talk about in the post?

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