Is Mandatory Celibacy Unbiblical?

Theophanes the Cretan, St. Paul (1546)
Theophanes the Cretan, St. Paul (1546)

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:

  1. Anti-biblical: This teaching or practice contradicts the Bible.
  2. 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.

18 Comments

  1. Two points:

    1. The RCC allows for married clergy (specifically Uniates, converted Anglican Priests, etcetera) so I really don’t think the opposition to the RCC on celibacy is even accurate, let alone framed correctly.

    2. Here’s a Biblical text specifically against the worship of angels: “Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind” (Col 2:18).Worship is owed only to God. “You shall fear only the LORD your God; and you shall worship Him and swear by His name” (Deut 6:13).

    God bless,
    Craig

    1. Joe,
      One of the best articles I’ve read recently.

      Craig
      Worship is far different than praying (praecare). Apples and oranges. Point 2 is null and void. Far too many people have issues and don’t know the verbiage.

      1. Joe used the term worship. So I didn’t have the wrong verbiage. Plus we don’t pray to angels, we pray through or perhaps with angels.

        1. Craig my friend
          i believe you’re making the same mistake Joe alludes others made when they mistook worship for prayer. Read again Joes article. He says that worship is somethings Protestants have had issues with, then he speaks of his article on prayer. And yes if you believe we pray through angels only that is a mistake in a way. We pray to them and through them and with them. Praecare…to ask. That is not worship. So yes it appears you have your verbiage wrong when bringing to point Col 2:18.

          1. Again Trogos, I don’t use the word worship. Joe does in the article. Take it up with Joe, not me.

            Dulia is veneration, hyperdulia is “hyper-veneration” for Mary, Latria is worship.

            Joe used the English term for Latria, which is due to God alone.

            WHy? I don’t know, but I’m not the one using the wrong verbiage.

          2. Hmmm, I might owe you and Joe an apology. I could have SWORE Joe used the term “worship” for angels, but instead I see the word “prayer.” DId Joe edit it or am I having significant cognition issues?

          3. Craig,

            No, it’s not edited. I said “prayer,” not “worship,” but coming as it did after mention of the normative and regulative rules of worship, I can see how you might innocently make the mistake.

            In the post I linked to on angels, I went to greater lengths to explain that by praying to angels, I don’t mean worshipping them. Here, I didn’t make that distinction, simply because it was being used just as an example.

            I.X.,

            Joe

        2. Craig,
          Not sure if the article did originally say “worship” or not, but the issue is further complicated by the change in language over the years. “Worship” used to have more connotations in English. An easy place to see it is in the first Star Wars movies. Condescendingly, Han Solo refers to Princess Leia as “your worshipfulness,” making fun of the actual language that English speakers would address royalty way back when (“Your worship, your grace” et cetera). https://youtu.be/cKMV2WXLNgk?t=22s While it would be inappropriate/imprudent to use phrases like “the worship of veneration” to differentiate between dulia and latria, it is historically accurate.

          1. In English-speaking countries other than the USA, relatively minor officers of State such as mayors and magistrates are still addressed as “Your worship”.

    2. Craig, I agree with you about the framing issue in point one. Recently, however, I was doing some research on the early Reformers’ views on annulment, divorce, and remarriage (and the civil authority’s power over those issues) and was quite surprised by how much relative attention Calvin and Luther, at least, pay to the issue of the Latin rite’s celibate clergy. Even relative to modern evangelical standards, they seem more obsessed by that issue than their contemporary successors. It’s an oddity that I’m not sure I really understand.

      1. I have honestly read very little of the Reformers, so I would not have much to add to that. I know that Calvin remained celibate for a long time until he was essentially set up with a wife, and when she died, he reverted back to celibacy. I would presume that they took issue with the popular view that monks and priests lived “holier lives” than lay people, and they viewed the outard holiness as a sort of hypocrisy.

        Speaking for modern Protestants, I can say they are extremely defensive on the issue of celibacy. If I were to teach 1 Cor 7 in my church one Sunday morning, I would get push back about how marriage is a divine institution and that God intends for us to enjoy it. Well yeah, that’s all well and good, but marriage is not the highest calling for men and women, marriage is a good calling and celibacy is a better one. However, not everyone is intended to be celibate. Protestants can get quite nasty as you can see in my article “Debating Calvanists on Celibacy” http://christianreformedtheology.com/2015/05/22/debating-calvinists-on-celibacy/

        As for myself, there was a period of time where I was already living celibate and so I considered not dating or looking for a wife because physically it was not difficult. Ultimately I chose against it because the nagging desire of every time I seen a woman or had a dream I knew that ultimately it was not something I could be entirely at peace with. So physically I was fine, but emotionally I felt like a hypocrite of sorts. I am very grateful that my wife is a great woman and has helped me mature a lot as a man and grow a lot closer to God. So, I am confident that God works all things for good for those who love Him, and that includes marriage or celibacy, whichever He calls one to.

        God bless,
        Craig

        1. The book that I used that pulls together early Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican views on marriage and its relationship to civil authority is called From Sacrament to Contract: Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition by John Witte, Jr. The book is sympathetic to the views of the reformers, but I appreciate the straightforward way in which it describes the Reformers’ approach to marriage as being a fairly radical break from the past. It weaves in lots of stuff about Luther’s and Calvin’s views on priestly celibacy and argues that those views are very relevant to their overall views of marriage. A characteristic sample from Luther: Mandatory celibacy in the priesthood and religious life led to “great whoredom and all manner of fleshly impurity and … hearts filled with thoughts of women day and night.” Calvin discusses clerical celibacy at some length in the Institutes’ section on marriage (Bk. IV, Chapter 19 — third paragraph of the section on marriage).

  2. Mohler says in Symbolism that the Reformers rejected all the sacraments that did not “confirm and consolidate the forgiveness of sins”. Which is why Luther only kept the sacraments of the Eucharist and Baptism.

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