Is mandatory celibacy “unbiblical”? And if so, does it matter?
In my last post, which dealt with celibacy, one of the objections was that the Church doesn’t have the authority to have an all-celibate priesthood, because it’s “unbiblical”:
The article makes some true points about the benefits of chosen celibacy, however the issue in Roman Catholicism is that it puts a burden on elders that scripture nowhere puts on them, and in fact explicitly assumes against (I Timothy 3:1-7, Titus 1:5-9), thus making the mandatory celibacy required by the Roman Catholic church an unbiblical accretion.
What should we make of this? First, does St. Paul require bishops and presbyters to be married? And second, what does it mean to say that a particular teaching is “unbiblical”? This will point to a final point on how we should hand extra-biblical teachings.
I. Does St. Paul set a floor or a ceiling?
In 1 Timothy 3:2, St. Paul says that a bishop must be “the husband of one wife.” He says the same thing, in Titus 1:6, about presbyters. There are two ways of reading this: as a maximum or as a minimum. In other words, is St. Paul trying to ensure that we’re not ordaining polygamists, adulterers, and divorcees? Or is he trying to ensure that we’re not ordaining celibates?
Three facts make that answer exceedingly clear: (1) Jesus was a celibate, (2) St. Paul was a celibate, and (3) Jesus and St. Paul each encourage Christians to strive for celibacy (Matthew 19:10-12; 1 Corinthians 7:38). Given this, it would by contradictory for St. Paul to create a rule that would disqualify himself, and his Lord, from ministering within Christ’s Church. And it would be equally contradictory to encourage his readers to practice celibacy, and then summarily disqualify them from Holy Orders for doing so.
History also bears this out: from quite early on, celibacy was frequent within the episcopacy and priesthood, and we don’t see anyone objecting to it on the grounds that St. Paul prohibited celibate clergy. So if that was Paul’s teaching, nobody knew about it, including apparently St. Paul himself, given his own celibacy.
So clearly, St. Paul isn’t setting a one-wife minimum for ordinands, but a maximum. But that raises a second question: can the Church set a lower maximum? To see this, we need to consider what we mean by the phrase “unbiblical.”
II. What does “unbiblical” actually mean?
The problem with the term “unbiblical” is that it can mean two very different things:
- Anti-biblical: This teaching or practice contradicts the Bible.
- Extra-biblical: This teaching or practice isn’t found in the Bible.
Those two statements aren’t even remotely the same. “The Allies landed in Normandy on June 6th” isn’t a teaching found in Sacred Scripture, but it’s true nonetheless, and it certainly doesn’t contradict Scripture. It’s extra-biblical, but not anti-biblical.
The same is true here. Given what we just established in point I, it’s not anti-biblical for the Church to ordain celibates, or even to ordain only celibates. But it is certainly extra-biblical. Nobody is saying that the western half of the Catholic Church tends to only ordain celibates because Scripture forces her to do so.
Is that okay? Can the Church impose extra-biblical requirements for ordination?
Absolutely. If your church wants to demand that an applicants have at least a Bachelor’s degree or are willing to host Bible studies on Wednesday nights, they’re 100% free to do so. Likewise, if the Catholic Church (in view of Christ’s teaching) wants to call to orders only those who have embraced the highest spiritual calling, she’s free to do so. There’s no particular reason to treat those three examples (college degree, willingness to lead Bible study, & celibacy) any differently. The Bible sets broad, minimal standards, but the Church is free to demand people meet higher (or more particularized) standards. It’s not entirely unlike the minimum wage: the federal government sets a universal minimum at $7.25, but states are free to go above that. (It would be illegal, and in this analogy, anti-biblical, to go below these standards).
The alternative to this view would be to say that as long as someone meets the minimal standards laid out in the New Testament, the Church is forced to accept them as ministers, and that’s clearly not the case. The Book of Acts is clear that the Church chooses her ministers, rather than them choosing themselves (see, e.g., Acts 14:23; 5:5-6). St. Paul asks, “how can men preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:15), and the Council of Jerusalem responds to the the Judaizers spreading heresy without instruction from the Church by officially sending Saints Barnabas and Paul (Acts 15:24-25). And this process of selection isn’t instantaneous: in 1 Timothy 5:22, Paul cautions Timothy not to “be hasty in the laying on of hands.”
III. The underlying Protestant confusion on extra-Biblical teachings and practices.
All of this points to a contradictory way that Protestants tend to approach extra-biblical teachings and practices. Should the rule be “Scripture doesn’t explicitly permit this, so it is forbidden”? Or should the rule be “Scripture doesn’t explicitly forbid this, so it is permitted”? When it comes to issues of worship, this is a serious problem that Protestant theologians are aware of: some take the “normative principle of worship” (what’s not expressly forbidden is permitted) while others take the “regulative principle of worship” (what’s not expressly permitted is forbidden).
This problem goes far beyond the Liturgy. Let me give you two concrete examples of this contradiction at work in other contexts. I wrote last year about several Biblical reasons for praying to angels. One of the responses I received was that since Scripture doesn’t specifically approve the practice (even though it depicts several Saints speaking with angels!), that it’s not okay. What’s not expressly permitted is forbidden. But then when I write things about how the early Church had a leadership structure paralleling modern Catholicism (rather than anything we see in modern Protestantism), I get a very different response. For example, this comment:
We both agree that Peter is the Prince of the Apostles and that this makes him their leader in some sense, but it does not necessarily follow that the hierarchy of the church is required to resemble this initial apostolic model for all time.
So even if Christ took the trouble to establish a hierarchy on Peter, we can freely dismantle it unless He explicitly tells us not to. What’s not expressly forbidden is permitted. On all sorts of questions, sola Scriptura Protestantism finds itself at such an impasse. For example, is tithing still a requirement? The Old Testament requirement isn’t explicitly repudiated, but neither is it explicitly reiterated.
Of course, the deepest irony is that Scripture doesn’t explicitly tell us to adopt the regulative principle itself (making it forbidden, according to the regulative principle), but neither does it forbid or preclude it (making the regulative principle permissible, according to the normative principle).
This is simply a limitation on sola Scriptura. Most ordinary believers don’t hold to one or the other position, normative or regulative, but to both: if X ‘seems okay,’ and it’s not forbidden, it’s okay; if it seems wrong somehow, and isn’t expressly permitted, it’s not okay. Obviously, this sort of double standard is as unworkable as it is arbitrary, since people will naturally differ over which practices ‘seem okay.’ Underlying this is the fact that the Bible doesn’t come with a ready-made mechanism for clarifying every possible question of praxis, because the Bible was never meant to be used this way. It’s necessary to look to the Church, to two thousand years of praxis and Tradition, and to prudence (which is, in turn, informed by the Church and Tradition).
All of this is to say that yes, the Church’s celibacy requirements (like most ordination requirements) are extra-Biblical, and that it makes sense that sola Scriptura Protestants wouldn’t be sure what to make of this. But this points to a problem within their hermeneutical framework, not within the practice of the Church.