Q: Is celibacy a biblical principle?

In the Bible chapters describing Eden, we find that everything God made is glowingly described as “good” or “very good.” This includes, on that first Friday, a man and a woman. Our first father and mother were created to be in relationship with each other and to enjoy a dissoluble bond. A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. Then: What God has joined together, let man not separate (Mark 10:9).

God’s Word glowingly describes the joys of marital life, including expressions of physical love within the sacred bounds of marriage. Song of Solomon is an ode to the pleasures of the bedroom, and the Bible is filled with examples of people who inflicted scars upon one another by tampering with this divine order.

In I Corinthians 7, Paul admits that he prefers the single state – for one reason only: it allows him to pursue the task of sharing the gospel with “single”-ness of purpose (pun intended!) His life was a rough and tumble experience of sleepless nights, shipwrecks, beatings, spiritual posses, nights in prison, midnight prayer meetings. To have a wife along – or worrying back home without a cell phone – would have hindered him in his zeal to share Jesus with a wide audience. For Paul personally, he was willing to make that sacrifice.

However, in the first verses of this passage, he concedes that such a decision is not for everyone! He goes on to counsel married people to be generous with their affections and lovemaking, so that Lucifer wouldn’t be able to dangle temptation before them! Do not deprive each other, he writes, except by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus corroborates this same teaching, both in his own words and by his chosen lifestyle. For three-and-a-half years Jesus never married. He lived in a state of purity and celibacy. Would it have been wrong for him to have a wife? No! He is the creator of all worlds and the designer of this exquisite gift. But because his time among us was short, and because people needed healing and teaching and the gospel, he wisely chose to devote himself entirely to ministry. Not everyone can accept this teaching, he told his disciples. But [some] have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.

The Catholic Church, which mandates this choice for all of its priests, quotes this verse in Matthew 19:12 as the basis for their celibacy doctrine (#1579) in the Catechism. “Called to consecrate themselves with undivided heart to the Lord and to ‘the affairs of the Lord,’ they give themselves entirely to God and to men. Celibacy is a sign of this new life to the service of which the Church’s minister is consecrated; accepted with a joyous heart, celibacy radiantly proclaims the Reign of God.”

In all humility, it must be observed that to make this a mandated requirement for ministry very possibly violates the statements by Paul and our Lord that such a sacrificial decision will be rare and surely ought to be voluntary.