Priestly Celibacy

Priestly Celibacy

By Matt1618

In this paper I will write on the issue of Priestly celibacy. I have written a long paper on this issue, which is quite detailed available here: That paper is filled with documentation and footnotes. My intent in this paper is to give a shortened version of the issue so for the reader who doesn‘t have the time to wade through a long paper, this will be a shortened version, about a fourth of the size. I will still give most of the Scriptures and some of the historical references, with less analysis. Here one can still get a gist of, but less complete arguments. More documentation is at the above piece. I have this written in the same order as I did in the above piece so if you want more analysis and/or documentation on something specific here, you can find more there under the same heading. First I will address Scriptural passages used on both sides of this issue. The second part of this paper I will give a look at how the early church viewed the issue.

Celibacy Prior to the New Testament

In the Old Testament the Levitical priesthood was passed on by descent so celibacy could not be the norm. Nonetheless we get hints of celibacy throughout the Old Testament. For example, when the people were about to meet God before the giving of the 10 commandments, Moses mandated that the people not touch women prior to this encounter (Exodus 18:15). After his encounter with God in Exodus 3, Moses was seen by Jewish tradition as being celibate. He was married to Zipporah, but never had relations with her after the encounter, so Moses could devote himself to God’s service.

Jer. 16:1-2:

1: The word of the LORD came to me: 2: "You shall not take a wife, nor shall you have sons or daughters in this place.
Here Jeremiah is mandated to be celibate.

1 Sam. 21:3-6:

4: And the priest answered David, "I have no common bread at hand, but there is holy bread; if only the young men have kept themselves from women." 5: And David answered the priest, "Of a truth women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition; the vessels of the young men are holy, even when it is a common journey; how much more today will their vessels be holy?"
We see that there was temporary continence (though sex was lawful as they were married, they give up sex) and the priests gave them holy bread only if they were abstinent. The same would obviously apply to the priests. So we see continence, though temporary, required.

Jewish tradition also sees the prophets Elijah and Elisha as celibate. It is also well known that the Essene community encouraged celibacy. It is often thought that John the Baptist, himself an unmarried and celibate prophet, had contact with the Essene community.

New Testament on Priestly Celibacy and Marriage

We know by Jesus’ example that celibacy is a preferable way that a spiritual leader can devote himself to the people. Now let us look at what Jesus spoke of on the issue of celibacy itself. In Matthew 19, Jesus speaks first of the indissolubility of marriage in Matthew 19:2-9. Then He is asked a question by the disciples:

Matthew 19:10-12:

10 The disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry." 11 But he said to them, "Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to receive this, let him receive it."
Jesus says for those who do not get married there is another option for those who will serve the kingdom of heaven. He says that there are those who will make themselves eunuchs, for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Thus, there are specific people, who by God’s grace who for the kingdom of heaven’s sake, become celibate.

Who is Jesus talking about and to who? Is He himself not only setting the example for the disciples but also speaking directly to them? He knows that the people he is talking to, will be the leaders of His Church. Though He does not say that they all must be celibate as He is, who else is he speaking to but them?

Matthew 19:27-29:

27 Then Peter said in reply, "Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?" 28 Jesus said to them, "Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of man shall sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And every one who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life.
Jesus mentioned of the indissolubility of marriage in Matthew 19:1-9, we also see Jesus say that not all can accept it, but there are some who will make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom, Mt. 19:10-12. Immediately after Jesus speaks about this, the encounter with the rich young man, (Mt. 19:16-22) comes next. Right after that, Matthew points us directly to Jesus interaction with Peter here, no coincidence. Notice the contrast, the rich young ruler refused to give up his possessions as he was too attached to them. Peter says that we have left everything and followed you. It is not a coincidence that right after Jesus says that some will make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven, and after the rich young man refused to give up his possessions, Peter by contrast says that we, all the disciples left everything to follow Him. Jesus answers the question what the apostles have given up. They make themselves eunuchs to follow Him and receive a hundredfold blessings, and eternal life.

Luke 18:28-30:

28 And Peter said, "Lo, we have left our homes and followed you." 29 And he said to them, "Truly, I say to you, there is no man who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, 30 who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life."
Notice that here Peter says that the disciples have left their homes to follow Christ. Not Peter only, but ‘we’, signifying each of the disciples who followed Christ. Jesus’ answer is that those who have left even wives and children for the sake of the kingdom, will receive many more brethren in the kingdom of heaven both now and in the age to come. He is not only speaking generally, but responding to Peter and the apostles. The apostles, leaders of the church give up wives and children to follow Him.

Next here are some significant Pauline verses:

1 Corinthians 7:7-9:

7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.
Here, those people who are stronger in the faith are those who are able to devote themselves to God fully by being celibate, as Paul is. Those who are stronger in the faith can in effect make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of God. This is exactly what Jesus was speaking about in Matthew 19:12, 28-29.

1 Cor. 7:32-33

32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; 33 but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife,
Although not specifically saying that this is about pastors, the implication is clear. The question that Paul answers here is this: Who do we want as pastors to the flock of Christ? Do we want leaders who are most able to please the Lord, or those whose interests are divided? According to Paul those who most have the ability to be anxious about the affairs of the Lord are those that are unmarried.

1 Tim. 3:1-5

1 The saying is sure: If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task. 2 Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, 3 no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; 5 for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God's church?
Here Paul on a superficial look at this passage does seem to indicate one needs to be married, and have children in order to be a ‘bishop’. The passage does not indicate that they continue to have sex with their wife and continue to produce children, nor does it imply that. This Scripture as interpreted by the early Church, never was understood in the first centuries, as giving a license to go on having children and continue to engage in sex with one’s wife after ordination. The understanding was that yes there are those who are married that became clergy, but there is a consensus that once one is ordained, one can not continue to have children and continue to engage in sex with his wife. They were called to continence.

Sts. Jerome, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, as well as Ambrosiaster, all saw this passage as only speaking in past tense as having children. They all understood that this passage assumes that the married clergy were called to continence after being ordained. Pope Damasus decrees in 385/386 which interpreted this that way only reflected all of the early Church’s teaching on this passage. The tradition that came from the apostles definitively said after ordination, after the call to service, no sex was allowed. The standard Protestant position that this gives license to conjugal rights, and to continue to produce children, was nowhere to be found in the early church, those closest to the apostles and churches.

1 Tim. 4:1-3

1 Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving;
Here Paul is addressing the Gnostic heresy which condemned both marriage and eating certain foods. The Church does not forbid marriage to anybody, those who are called to celibacy are those who choose to be a priest.

Another interesting passage in this very same letter of Paul to Timothy shows in an infancy stage a specific order of women who are called to and make pledges of celibacy:

1 Tim. 5:9-12:

9 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband; 10 and she must be well attested for her good deeds, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, relieved the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way. 11 But refuse to enroll younger widows; for when they grow wanton against Christ they desire to marry, 12 and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge. Here Paul writes of an order of women who are pledged to celibacy. If they marry they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge. The pledge they are violating is to celibacy and their single status. This refutes the idea that the 1 Tim. 4:3 passage excludes making vows to celibacy. Paul speaks here of a pledge to not marry as being a requirement of these women. He would not contradict himself within one chapter.

1 Cor. 9:3-6:

4 Do we not have the right to our food and drink? 5 Do we not have the right to be accompanied by a sister, wife, as the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? 6 Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living?
Paul argues that he has the right to take a ‘wife’ as do the apostles. Before he mentions wife, he also mentions do we not have the right to food and drink. The immediate context is about eating and drinking. This is speaking about the type of woman who is termed ‘wife’. The word preceding wife, is sister, meaning the type of woman that is termed ‘wife’ is one who provides food, eat and drink. Such as mentioned that traveled with the Lord in Lk 8:1-3, which did not mean Jesus had sex with those women.

Revelation 14:3-5:

3 and they sing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the hundred and forty-four thousand who had been redeemed from the earth. 4 It is these who have not defiled themselves with women, for they are chaste; it is these who follow the Lamb wherever he goes; these have been redeemed from mankind as first fruits for God and the Lamb, 5 and in their mouth no lie was found, for they are spotless.
I will not say that Revelation 14:4 speaks exclusively of those who are virgins, but it does specifically speak of those who are redeemed from the earth. It does give specific language that involves abstinence from sex, those who have not ‘defiled themselves with women.’ This definitely speaks to unmarried virgins faithful to God. This fits a vow of celibacy taken by priests. This speaks to us of those who have devoted themselves totally to God, and have made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of heaven (Mt. 19:12, 1 Cor. 7:34).

The Early Church and Celibacy

Often one hears the argument that the Early Church did not mandate that married priests refrain from having sex with their wives, the Eastern Church has the correct, ‘biblical’ tradition,. The first example often given is Peter, as he specifically is shown as married as there is a mother-in-law mentioned in the Bible. We see her referred to here:

Mk 1:30-31:

30 Now Simon's mother-in-law lay sick with a fever, and immediately they told him of her. 31 And he came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, and the fever left her; and she served them.
No doubt it infers that Peter is married. Nonetheless one thing in this reference is strangely silent: There is no mention at all of the wife, right when her own mother has fallen sick. Why wouldn’t she serve instead of her mother? She doesn’t even let her mother rest?

Tradition has either Peter’s wife already dead by the time that he followed Christ (St. Jerome), or that she just lived separately from him, so he had no conjugal life with her (St. Clement of Alexandria). Colchini’s study showed it was unanimous that all the apostles were celibate/continent. Peter really meant what he said when he said they gave up everything, including wives, to follow Jesus (Matthew 19:27-39, Lk. 18:28-30).

The Early Church demanded that the priests lived continently. They preferred unmarried virgins, but would take married people only if they gave up their conjugal rights. The Councils of Elvira and Neocaesarea, which preceded Nicea, said that. The Council of Nicea 325 AD, canon 3, said the following:

The great Synod has stringently forbidden any bishop, presbyter, deacon, or any one of the clergy whatever, to have a subintroducta dwelling with him, except only a mother, or sister, or aunt, or such persons only as are beyond all suspicion.
We see in the great Ecumenical Council of Nicea, that no clergy at all can have anybody living with them who has any hint of sexual relations. Thus, sexual activity is not allowed.

The Council of Carthage in 390 AD claimed that bishops priests and deacons all had to be continent, and those who break the vow of chastity be expelled. The Council said that this was apostolic tradition. Here is a part of what the Council taught; The Council of Carthage, 390 AD, canon 3:

It is fitting that the holy bishops and priests of God as well as the Levites, i.e. those who are in the service of the divine sacraments, observe perfect continence, so that they may obtain in all simplicity what they are asking from God; what the Apostles taught and what antiquity itself observed, let us also endeavour to keep

The bishops declared unanimously: It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from conjugal intercourse with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity.

The Bishops saw this as an apostolic tradition, unanimously. This is what the Apostles and antiquity taught and observed. This is not a ‘development’. No Christians of the first centuries claimed that Scripture or tradition taught it was OK to produce children and continue to have sex with their wives. Because they are consecrated, they are called to chastity.

Pope Sircius, in his response to a plea from a bishop who was dealing with disobedience to the apostolic tradition, argued in two letters, the Directa decretal in 385 and “cum in Unum” Decretal in 386, that it was apostolic tradition, that those who were disobedient were fighting against. He also gave an analysis of the Pauline, Mathean and Lucan texts, similar to those given by the Church Fathers similar to that which was given above. Citations are in the larger piece referred to earlier.

The Eastern Church

The Eastern Church in the early centuries were just as demanding as the Western/Latin Church for centuries on insisting on those who were married, demanding continence.

Of course the Church accepted the Nicean Council. The Caesarean Church, Armenian Church, in close communion with Rome and had a consanguinity of doctrine with Rome on this issue. St. Clement of Alexandria did not accept married priests having the option to have sex while married. We have already seen that the Council of Nicea, of course accepted by the Eastern Church, forbade sex by priests even if they were married. St. Jerome testified that the Eastern Church would take as not serious, even silly, the idea that either priests or deacon or bishops could have sex after their ordination. If one argued that, St. Jerome says all of the East would be against them. St. Epiphanius in his Panarion Heresy 48, and St. John Chrysostom, the great Bishop of Constantinople in his analysis of the first epistle to Timothy, also testified that all clerics had to practice chastity. The Eastern Church also accepted the In The Doctrine Aeddei (400) , which gives a probably apocryphal account of Jesus sending Thaddeus, part of the 72 of Luke 10, but mandating continence among all clerics.

Finally, the Council of Carthage of 419 AD, which confirmed the earlier Council of 390 AD, again called celibacy for clerics an apostolic tradition. There were 4 canons, canons III, IV, XXV, and LXX that affirmed permanent continence for all clerics. The Eastern Bishops in Trullo in 692 AD, referred to that Council, but they strayed from that Council and gave a unique interpretation of the Council of Carthage of 419. That somehow gave the OK to priests/deacons to have sex, except only when they are offering up the Eucharist, not found in the Carthage Council itself. The Eastern church maintained that this change was now apostolic tradition. The East maintained that bishops weren’t allowed to have sex, but no longer required continence among priests and deacons as apostolic tradition had held.

The Church made the ultimate judgment in the 12th century that priests would be better off not being married at all. The Church eventually saw that there would be some stress on someone being married having to give up sex and was not easy on both parties. This teaching on celibacy is apostolic and not a mere invention of man. The Church, just as it had the right to tell the Christians in Acts 15:28-29 to not eat certain foods, also has the authority to make celibacy a requirement (Mt. 18:18).

©2006, Priestly Celibacy written by Matt1618. This text may be downloaded or printed out for private reading, but it may not be uploaded to another Internet site or published, electronically or otherwise, without express written permission from the author.

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Completed on November 13, 2006