A Biblical Defense of Clerical Celibacy

An Evangelical pastor I’ve been talking to lately raised a number of questions about whether clerical celibacy was compatible with Scripture, since:

  • Peter and some of the Apostles were married (Mark 1:30; 1 Corinthians 9:5).
  • Paul, while single himself, called for bishops to be the husband of one wife (1 Timothy 3:2). 
  • Paul called the doctrine of “forbidding to marry” a “doctrine of devils” (1 Timothy 4:3).

Here’s my response:

The first thing I should probably mention is that, contrary to popular belief, there are a lot of married priests in the Catholic Church (something like 20% of Catholic priests worldwide are married). There are two reasons for this. First, the Eastern half of the Catholic Church permits married priests (but not monks, for obvious reasons – trying to raise a family in a monastery isn’t good for the family, or the monastery). The Western half of the Church does not permit married priests usually, but it makes exceptions – specifically, She permits married Anglican and Lutheran pastors, who convert to Catholicism, to become priests. I’m from Kansas City, and the Catholic priest at one of the churches I grew up near, Fr. Ernie Davis, is married with three kids. Widowers are also permitted to become priests in both East and West.

So what’s the Scriptural basis for the West’s general refusal to ordain married men? There are two points which need to be established.

  1. The Church has an important gate-keeping role. We see this throughout the New Testament. To give but a few examples, the Church chooses Matthias (Acts 1:14-26) and Titus (2 Cor. 8:19). Titus is then put in charge of ordaining presbyters in each town (Titus 1:5), the same role that Paul and Barnabas play throughout Lystra, Antioch, and Iconium (Acts 14:21-23). Even when the Twelve give permission to the rest of the disciples to choose men to be deacons, it isn’t made official until the Twelve lay hands upon them (Acts 6:1-6). So while there are different methods for choosing clergy within the Church, there’s no question that the Church chooses the clergy, rather than the other way around.
  2. Celibacy is viewed as even better than marriage. We hear from Scripture, “It is good for a man not to marry” (1 Corinthians 7:1), and Paul says of the unmarried and widows, “it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am” (1 Cor. 7:8). Paul’s depiction in this chapter is that celibacy is superior to marriage for those who can handle it, and even his rules regulating marriage are given “as a concession, not a command” (1 Cor. 7:7). When Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:2 that a bishop should be husband of one wife, then, he’s not encouraging them to be married (this would be contradictory to his teaching in 1 Corinthians 7, and hypocritical, given that he was an unmarried Apostle). Instead, he’s setting the max at one, so that divorced and remarried men are barred.

Beyond St. Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7, Our Lord Himself says the same thing in Matthew 19:12, where He praises those who are “eunuchs” “for the Kingdom of Heaven,” adding, “The one who can accept this should accept it.” I suspect we would both agree on what the Scriptures say. Marriage is good – a gift from God, even – but celibacy is even better, although not all men can achieve it, since it’s a true sacrifice. In saying this, we say nothing more than 1 Corinthians 7:38. So here’s where a question of prudential judgment comes in.

The Church has the ability to accept or reject men who desire the priesthood, and because of the Scriptures referenced above, one of the criteria that the West has opted for has been restricting the priesthood generally to only those “eunuchs for the Kingdom.” In other words, She’s not forbidding marriage, She’s forbidding certain men’s ordination to the priesthood, something which fits in perfectly with Her gate-keeping role. She would rather have just the cream of the crop, those ones who can accept Jesus’ teaching above, even if it means fewer priests. And of course, if a man has proven himself to be an able Lutheran or Anglican pastor, She’s not ironclad on the rule.

A comparison could be made between the Marines and the Army. The Marines have much tougher qualifications, and there are far fewer Marines. They consciously go for quality, not quantity. The Army’s qualifications are still tough, but less so than the Marines, and they’re willing to take men who aren’t as capable (at least on paper), and try to turn them into good soldiers anyway. The West takes the “Marine” approach, while the East takes the “Army” approach. The Bible does not require either choice, and the Church is never forced to accept a man as a priest simply because he wants it.

So what’s this bit about “forbidding to marry” in 1 Timothy 4:3? It’s simple. Certain heresies have arisen which taught that marriage was evil, and should be banned. Some Gnostics at the time of Paul were teaching this doctrine. Later, groups like the Manicheans would teach it (The Manicheans are a dead fit for what Paul was talking about in Timothy 4, since they taught that marriage was evil and that eating meat was evil). The Church that opposed them, the foe that insisted that marriage and sex were gifts from God, was the Catholic Church (The fact that the Catholic Church loves marriage, and marital sex, should be obvious from Her strong defense of traditional marriage, and the size of traditional Catholic families.). There’s no clearer example of this than St. Augustine’s Reply to Faustus the Manichean, Book XXX.:

You see, then, that there is a great difference between exhorting to virginity as the better of two good things, and forbidding to marry by denouncing the true purpose of marriage; between abstaining from food as a symbolic observance, or for the mortification of the body, and abstaining from food which God has created for the reason that God did not create it. In one case, we have the doctrine of the prophets and apostles; in the other, the doctrine of lying devils.

So the Manicheans taught the doctrines of lying devils, while the Catholics taught (and teach) the doctrines of the prophets and Apostles.


  1. @Joe:
    1) “there are a lot of married priests in the Catholic Church”
    How you use eastern-rite priests and ‘protestant’ pastor converts to refute ‘forbidding to marry’ as a mention of the RCC is beyond me. It still doesn’t take away from the fact that everyone else seeking the priesthood is to make a vow of celibacy (‘forbidding to marry’). Yet you call your church one that has the faith passed down by the apostles even though they were married as your evangelical pastor friend was right in pointing out.
    2) “Celibacy is viewed as even better than marriage.”
    You use 1Corinthians 7:8 as support. Yet Paul also states: “But since there is so much immortality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman her own husband.” (1Corinthians 7:2) And again: “for it is better to marry than to burn with passion”. (1Corinthians 7:9) But because of the priests vow, he must avoid such even though it is written: “But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned.” (1Corinthians 7:28) Also, concerning the vow: “But I tell you, do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’, and your ‘No’, ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:34,37)
    3) “When Paul says in 1Timothy 3:2…”
    He was stating: 1) you can’t remarry post-divorce after conversion, and 2) a church elder can’t be polygamous.
    A remarried elder isn’t banned from marriage if his wife dies. He’s also not banned from marriage if he was divorced before conversion. (As an example: Paul says an elder must be in good standing with the church, yet he murdered members of the church pre-conversion. He’s not hypocritical, for he was an elder in good standing within the church.) That said, your evangelical friend should have stuck to 1Cor 9:5 and Mark 1:30 as examples of elders being allowed to marry, because, as you said, citing 1Tim 3:2 as a must would contradict Paul. – We can at least agree on that.
    4) “So what’s this bit about ‘forbidding to marry’ in 1Tim 4:3?”
    Well, that was taken straight from the Douay-Rheims (Challoner)! Anyways, the last days are obviously from the time of Christ (Acts 2:14-21) until, well, the end. So to use Gnostics and Manicheans as examples (whom the common man hasn’t heard of) and not the RCC (which almost all common men have heard of), even though they are all of the last days, is quite naive.

  2. I can’t believe I didn’t address the last part of 1Tim 4:3. The spaghetti dinner was callin’ my name a bit too loudly. That said:
    5) “(The Manicheans are a dead fit for what Paul was talking about in Timothy 4, since they taught that marriage was evil AND that eating meat was evil.)”
    That’s just it, the RCC taught both, too. Pre-VaticanII the RCC condemned eating meat on Fridays; post-VaticanII the RCC condemned eating meat on Fridays during lent. The time of the Manicheans (whom hardly anyone has heard of) were considered the of the last days; and the time of the RCC (whom almost everyone has heard of), obviously even right now, is of the last days. Again, don’t be naive. As I should’ve also similarly stated in my #4 to you: Just because the unheard of Manicheans condemned both marriage and meats, doesn’t wipe out that the RCC does the same.

  3. however Paul is NOT speaking about Catholics when speaking of those who condemn marriage. Catholics don’t condemn marriage but view it as a holy sacrament worthy of great dignity. They do not believe eating meat or getting married are evil things in themselves.

    Not eating meat on Fridays is a fasting practice to be contrasted with the Manicheans’s belief that the physical body is evil. Catholics do not condemn eating meat period like the Manicheans did nor did they condemn marriage period. So no, they don’t do the same nor did they.

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