The Hebrew understanding of man and woman forcefully urged marriage and offspring as essential to Israel’s future heritage and inheritance. An Old Testament couple without children suffered deep embarrassment, especially the wife.
But the New Testament—with the teaching and example of Jesus Christ, John the Baptist, and the apostle Paul—seems to turn from a Jewish perspective of marriage to valuing celibacy for the kingdom of God.
The Value of Celibacy for Service
This is not a forced celibacy, but a deliberate one. When Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ question about the legitimacy of divorce, his disciples commented that it would be better, then, to remain single. Jesus responded, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it” (Matt. 19:11–12).
Celibacy is a free choice before God and not a requirement for higher Christian service, as some believe. But its elevation is, by all accounts, a radical turn from Old Testament Judaism. It is also a nod toward the future. Recall our Lord’s statement that in the resurrection, none will be married (Matt. 22:30).
Celibacy in Church History
The monastic movement and Roman Catholicism have long valued the sexually abstinent life—ordered for higher clergy at the Council of Elvira (AD 306) and officially repeated as recently as 2001. Less rigidly, Eastern Orthodoxy from the earliest councils asserted the right of clergy to marry before ordination but not after ordination (Council of Nicaea in AD 325; and Council in Trullo in AD 692). In both Eastern and Western Christianity, religious males and females separated into communities in order to worship and serve God more fully. Most Protestants, and evangelicals in particular, have given little attention to the covenantal nature of singleness—despite remarkable examples of singleness such as Dr. Helen Roseveare, a medical missionary, and John R. W. Stott, an influential pastor and Christian leader. Luther’s performing marriages of nuns to priests served as a healthy protest against Catholicism’s abnormal emphasis on virginity. But it may have implied that marriage is better than singleness in Protestant circles.
A believer’s singleness in service to the triune God can be every bit as covenantal as the oath between a Christian husband and wife. Life is streamlined without the preoccupations of spouse and family. In the early church, as Peter Brown noted in The Body and Society, “to reject sexuality . . . meant the assertion of a basic freedom so intense, a sense of identity so deeply rooted, as to cause to evaporate the normal social and physical constraints that tied the Christian to his or her gender.” The importance of both single and marital covenants before God begs reiteration in our world today.
The author of From the Ground Up: New Testament Foundations for the 21st-Century Church, Dr. J. Scott Horrell is professor of Theological Studies at DTS. He has been a theologian in various world cultures including years spent as a missionary in Brazil. Along with cofounding and editing a leading Latin American theological journal, he has written several books in Portuguese and English. He especially loves to introduce students to a global understanding of Christian faith, often taking teams of them with him as he travels.
About the Contributors
Scott Horrell, Th.D, until recently was Senior Professor of Theological Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary and continues as adjunct professor at DTS (including the DMin Brazil program), the Seminário Teológico Centroamericano (DET/PhD SETECA) in Guatemala, the Jordan Evangelical Theological Seminary (Amman), and the Centro de Desenvolvimento de Liderança in Maputo, Mozambique. Most of his ministry years have been outside the US and centered on theological education and pastoral training especially in basic doctrines of the faith. While teaching at several schools in Brazil he was coordinator of graduate studies at the Baptist Theological Seminary in São Paulo, and co-founder/editor of Vox Scripturae, at that time the largest Protestant journal in Latin America. He has written and contributed to various books and written multiple articles in Portuguese and English, notably From the Ground Up: Biblical Foundations for the 21st Century Church (Kregel 2004), Exploring Christian Theology, Vol 1, eds. N. Holsteen and M. Svigel (Bethany, 2014), and A Trindade, a Igreja, e a Realidade Social (2021). His current writing centers on the doctrine of the Trinity, the supernatural world, and human personhood.
His wife Ruth, children, and eight grandchildren currently reside in Dallas and Houston.