Are Clergy Allowed to Marry?

If you ask the question, “Are pastors allowed to be married?” in Protestant circles, you will no doubt be greeted by strange looks as if you were an alien from another planet. Protestants have never required their ministers to be unmarried. In contrast, Roman Catholicism believes in priestly celibacy and Eastern Orthodoxy practices episcopal celibacy where bishops are not allowed to marry while priests are. These three groups all come to different conclusions because they each have different starting points. I have discovered in my study of Christian theology that one’s conclusions are almost always determined by the presuppositions that one brings to the debate. If we believe that the Bible is the sole infallible rule of faith, then we will not believe in clerical celibacy because no such thing is taught in Scripture. If we believe in papal infallibility, then priests must be unmarried unless they were already married when they converted to Catholicism because the pope says so. If we believe in the infallibility of the ecumenical councils as Eastern Orthodoxy does, then bishops cannot be married because canon 12 of the Council of Trullo forbids such a practice.

But what all three of these groups have in common is a commitment to the truth of the Christian Scriptures. If we begin first by examining what the Bible has to say on this matter, the case for allowing clergy to be married is open and shut. Paul, as an apostle, says that he was allowed to be married in 1 Corinthians 9:5: “Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?” Paul assumed that many overseers in the church would be married given the requirement that an elder be a “one-woman man” who is sexually faithful to only one woman in his life (1 Tim 3:2). Many pastors had children as well (1 Tim 3:3-4). Sexual relations within marriage are not defiling, but holy in God’s sight (1 Cor 7:5; Heb 13:4). Paul warns of a day when false teachers would forbid others from marrying:

“Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Tim 4:1-3).

Not allowing others to marry and requiring people to abstain from certain foods is legalistic and demonic. Paul warns against this kind of man-made religion with its ascetic practices:

“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:20-23).

To demand of others that they remain unmarried goes beyond Scripture and elevates the tradition of man to the authority of God’s Word. We have no right to demand of others what is not taught in Scripture as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:6: “I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.” Since there is no biblical warrant for required celibacy, it must be rejected. A religion which forbids certain people from getting married binds the consciences of men to human tradition instead of God’s Word.

The primary argument from Scripture in favor of clerical celibacy is taken from Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 that singleness is better in many ways than marriage for the purpose of serving God. But Paul is talking about the entire church in this chapter, not just ministers of the gospel. If a person must be unmarried to become a pastor because of these verses, then all Christians should be unmarried. There is a world of difference between saying that singleness is better in many ways for the purpose of pastoring versus actually requiring that people be single to serve as pastors. The belief in clerical celibacy does not come from Scripture, but from a worldview that denigrates marriage and sexual relations within it as a necessary evil. May we never go beyond Scripture and identify something as sinful which the Bible never does.

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