Celibacy and the New Testament

Poor celibacy. Among Protestants it receives almost no attention. Indeed, few Protestants even recognize celibacy as an option. That needs to change.

We're often told that Jesus and Paul could not have been celibate and "must" have been married, since in their day any respectable Jewish man would feel obliged to marry. Thus, the speculation concerning Jesus' relationship with Mary Magdalene and the notion that Paul was a widower.

On the contrary, celibacy posed a well-known alternative in the ancient world, including for some Jewish religious movements and Greco-Roman philosophical schools. The Essenes, the community who likely created and preserved the Dead Sea Scrolls, apparently practiced celibacy, and several non-canonical Jewish texts celebrate celibacy as well. Prominent philosophers such as Epictetus and Zeno recommended celibacy for their followers. In their view, celibacy offered freedom from preoccupation with desire and liberation from family responsibilities. Celibacy also allowed practitioners the opportunity to develop engkrateia, or self-control, a virtue highly valued in Greco-Roman cultures. Whether as a path to righteousness or virtue, celibacy posed a serious alternative.

Our biblical evidence suggests that Jesus and Paul were in fact celibate -- and that they encouraged celibacy among their followers. Jesus calls his disciples away from family commitments (Mark 10:29-30; Matthew 19:29; Luke 22:29-30; Matthew 19:12), while Paul openly wishes other believers would "become as I am" (1 Corinthians 7:7-8). At least one ancient Christian tradition, reflected in the "Acts of Paul and Thecla," regarded celibacy as central to Paul's proclamation of the Gospel and especially attractive to young women.

By the way, if we were to scour the Gospel accounts for Jesus' involvement in an erotic relationship, Mary represents only the second best candidate. The Beloved Disciple of John's Gospel, who reclines upon Jesus' chest (John 13:25) and into whose care Jesus delivers his mother (John 19:26-27), represents a far more likely possibility.

We're talking here about celibacy, not abstinence. Many Christians recommend abstinence for unmarried Christians, with marriage as the ultimate goal. Some Christian circles call young Christians to find their marriage partners as soon as possible, while others encourage believers to rear extremely large families. In my opinion, these "Bible-believing" Christians elevate some passages in Scripture but ignore the teachings and examples of Jesus and Paul. And think about it: many congregations advertise themselves as "family churches." What does this "brand" mean for single people and non-traditional households?

In contrast to abstinence, celibacy involves a choice, even a vocation, to refrain from sexual activity for a period of time or even for a lifetime. The New Testament regards celibacy as a calling, not a requirement (Matt 19:12; 1 Corinthians 7:25-40).

Paul offers two rationales for celibacy. First, he believed that Jesus would return during his own lifetime, that "the appointed time has grown short" (1 Corinthians 7:29, NRSV). Two thousand years later, that argument won't persuade many people. But second, Paul maintained that an unmarried person freely focuses on "affairs of the Lord" rather than "affairs of the world," including "how to please" a spouse (1 Corinthians 7:32-35).

That second argument merits our reflection. What would it look like if Protestant churches encouraged members to consider celibacy as a temporary or lifelong vocation? Not everyone wants to date, to marry or to have children, yet the church has no positive message for such people. Without distractions from dating and seeking partners, celibate believers would be set free for service and spiritual growth. Imagine their contributions to the church and to the world.

A word of personal testimony. For one year I experienced something akin to temporary celibacy. Appointed to do urban missions work in Richmond, Va., I lived about eight hundred miles from my fiancée. On my income of $850 per month, even long-distance phone calls were rare, and we visited only two or three times. On the other hand, I had absolutely no interest in dating someone else. For nearly a year, I spent my time pursuing ministry, developing my spiritual life, building new kinds of friendships and reading voraciously.

I recall this semi-monastic period as a highlight of my life, a period in which I contributed to other people's lives, experienced enormous personal growth and even got into terrific shape. One aspect of my ministry involved coaching basketball. My three-point shot has never been better.

Protestant churches should take celibacy more seriously. Such conversations would lend integrity to our engagement with the Bible, offer a word of blessing to believers who cannot or would not pursue marriage, and open opportunities for people to bless the churches and the world with their contributions.

Follow Greg Carey on Twitter @GregC666.