Clergy Celibacy in Biblical and Historical Perspective

One of the changes that was initiated by the Lutheran leaders of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century was to allow members of the clergy to be married. The recently-concluded summit on clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church has focused attention on that church’s requirement that its priests be celibate, that is, abstain from marriage and sexual relations.

The reformers took time to explain the changes they made instead of just springing them on the people. Article XXIII of the Augsburg Confession is entitled “The Marriage of Priests” and describes the concerns people had about this topic in their day:

“From everyone, both of high and low degree, a mighty, loud complaint has been heard throughout the world about the flagrant immorality and dissolute life of priests who were not able to remain chaste; their vices reached the height of abomination. In order to avoid so much terrible offense, adultery, and other immorality, some priests among us have entered the married state.” These words sound like they could have been written yesterday, not 500 years ago.

The Augsburg Confession also sounds quite modern when it speculates:

“How can the marriage of priests and clergy, especially of the pastors and others who are to serve the church, be disadvantageous to the Christian church as a whole? There may well be a shortage of priests and pastors in the future if this harsh prohibition of marriage should last much longer.”

The primary basis for the reformers’ belief that celibacy was not in the best interest of the church was their interpretation of the Bible. Genesis, chapter two, notes that it was not good for Adam, the first man, to be alone. So God created Eve, the first woman, to be his lifelong companion in the covenant of marriage.

In Matthew 19 Jesus teaches that marriage was instituted by God for the vast majority of the human population. The Lord notes that the number of people who could live a God-pleasing life without marriage was quite small.

The fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke states that Peter, sometimes referred to as the first pope, was married. In I Timothy, chapter three, the Apostle Paul teaches that a bishop is to be the husband of but one wife.

The reformers also noted the torment of consciences that occurred when priests would try by human power to change what God had created. So the reformers were convinced that they had substantial Biblical and societal support for allowing members of their clergy to marry.

While there is evidence of celibacy being practiced by Christian clergy since the early centuries of the church, celibacy did not become a requirement for Roman Catholic clergy until roughly 1,000 years ago. Thus there was no requirement for clergy celibacy for the first 1,000 years of church history.

And according to the Augsburg Confession, when celibacy was imposed on the clergy in Germany it was not grandfathered in. Married priests were required to leave their wives and families immediately regardless of the hardship that ensued.

Renouncing marriage and other earthly pleasures and privileges for the kingdom of God is certainly a noble undertaking. Celibacy is even sometimes depicted as a heavenly life here on earth. And many of us believe that there are times when God gives some individuals the ability to be “married to the church” and still maintain an honorable life. But we also believe that to require a vow of celibacy for all members of the clergy is just not wise either from a physical or Biblical standpoint.

Some hold out hope that Pope Francis will institute long-sought changes in the Roman Catholic Church including allowing priests to marry. He has already stated his openness to consider allowing married priests to serve in remote areas of the world where the shortage of priests is the greatest. But he has shown to this point that, when it comes to making changes, he prefers to proceed with care and caution. In the meantime, those of us who believe that celibacy should not be a requirement for clergy stand ready to explain the reasons for our views to anyone who will listen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s