Priestly Celibacy: What About 1 Timothy 3:4?

So, you may remember an ongoing dialogue I have had with Reese Currie. It began with an article he wrote criticizing the Catholic Church, and claiming that all sorts of un- or anti-biblical doctrines had become part of Catholicism just since 1000 A.D. I responded to it here, with evidence for each of the items he mentioned showing that it predated 1000 A.D. I sent him a copy of my responses, which he read over, and he challenged me on a few other issues related to Catholicism. Pretty soon, he had the Compass Distributors webmaster remove the anti-Catholic page.

Anyways, most of the dialogue since then has centered upon two issues: priestly celibacy (you can see what’s been said so far here), and the canonicity of the Deuterocanon (here and here). After that, Reese responded, and I …. got caught up in finals, work, etc., and completely failed to get back with him for more than a month and a half. Last night, I finally fixed that. So without further ado, here’s the next chapter in the ongoing dialogue with Mr. Reese Currie. He’s in red, I’m in black, and I’ll post a chunk of this a day due to its length:

(1) Marriage is actually a qualification of an overseer (depending on the version, bishop) according to 1 Timothy 3:2–“husband of one wife” or in the Greek, “one woman man”. How is that reconciled with a celibacy requirement?

Paul can’t mean that marriage is a qualification for an overseer/bishop. Within the multi-tiered structure of early Christianity, it goes: Apostles, Bishops, Elders, Deacons. But the greater always includes the lesser: so elders (known pretty quickly as priests, apparently within a few decades) are also deacons, bishops are also priests/elders and deacons, and Apostles are all of the above. That’s why in 1 Peter 5:1, St. Peter refers to himself as a “fellow elder”; Paul refers to himself constantly as a “deacon,” the lowest of the ordained ranks (cf. 1 Cor. 3:5, 4:1; 2 Cor. 3:6, 6:4, 11:23; Eph. 3:7; Col. 1:23, 25 — note: a lot of Bibles translate it as “servant” or “minister” when he uses the word diākonos, but it literally means “deacon”). (Incidentally, Pope Benedict XVI just sent out a letter to priests of the world that began, “Venerable Brothers in the Episcopate and in the Priesthood”).

Here’s why that matters. Paul, as we know, was celibate, and thought everyone who could bear should be as well (1 Corinthians 7:7, for example). Paul’s pretty clear that he views celibacy as being a higher calling than marriage (although both are good — it’s an issue of “good v. better”). So it’s not just that Paul would be contradicting himself – he’d literally be declaring himself unfit to be a bishop, and therefore, unfit to be an Apostle.

Additionally, Paul says right after the part you reference (in 1 Timothy 3:4) that a bishop must keep his children (plural) under control. But no one reads being a father of more than one child as a prerequisite of being a bishop (at least, no one I’ve ever heard).

What Paul’s actually saying is that bishops can’t have more than one wife. This includes divorce and remarriage as Mark 10:11–12 and other passages make clear. Divorce was a problem in Christian communities from the start, and Paul’s demanding men of the highest caliber. In fact, Martin Luther used this verse for a very different purpose – pointing out that this is the only clear ban on polygamy in the New Testament (and applies only to bishops), he concluded that Phillip of Hesse could take a second wife. While it’s a good warning on the danger of sola Scriptura, it’s also indicative of the way that Luther and a great many others read the verse.

More tomorrow!

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