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.