Tuesday, May 1, 2018

The Gift of Celibacy

Although I am personally happily married and do not have the gift of celibacy, I want to highlight singleness, since it is not very popular in today's culture, and yet it is found in Scripture. These days it seems like married life is promoted as the best possible way of life. Things are geared toward couples, and romance is the subject of many movies and books, as well as a target for the advertising campaigns of businesses. It is as if singleness were a bad thing or at least second best. There is even pressure for single people to get married in some cultures, or at least an expectation that they should do so.

Even in the church we see this mentality that favors married life and people who are married. Events may be geared toward couples or toward singles who are seeking to be married. Even when the Church is considering someone as a potential pastor, they may have rules in place that require him to be married as one of the necessary qualifications. While Scripture teaches us that it is wrong to forbid people to marry, it is not wrong or somehow less than God's best for anyone to remain single. I am not at all diminishing the gift of marriage and children, because I think they are wonderful, but I want to focus in this post on what the Scriptures say about celibacy.

God's High Standard for Marriage
When Jesus spoke of the high standard for marriage and the rare exception for divorce, teaching that God requires married couples to remain together for life, it sparked a reaction among His disciples, who probably could not see how most people would be able to achieve that standard.

In that passage, some Pharisees had asked the Lord if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason, and Jesus had asked them what Moses said. They replied that Moses commanded them to issue a certificate of divorce. But Jesus replied that Moses only allowed that because their hearts were hard, but that this was not God's will from the beginning.

"Jesus replied, 'Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.'” (Mt 19:8-9, NIV).

The disciples, as I said, were amazed to learn that this was God's high and holy standard for marriage. "The disciples said to him, 'If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.'" (Mt 19:10, NIV). They thought that it would be better for people not to marry, since they knew how challenging it can be to maintain a healthy, harmonious marriage, and how common it is for couples to divorce. Apparently they realized that many people were not staying married and felt it would be best, in light of what Jesus said, for people not to get married in the first place.

Listen to the Lord's response to their assumption. "Jesus replied, '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.'” (Mt 19:11-12, NIV).

Jesus first made it clear that not everyone can accept the notion proposed by His disciples that it would be better for people to remain celibate. He said that only those who have received their celibacy from God can do so, and He gave examples of such people.

Three Kinds of Celibacy
There are essentially three kinds of celibacy. First there are those who are born that way. These are people who are either born without a desire to be married or are created by God to be single. This could include those rather unusual cases in which people are born without healthy reproductive organs. It could also include people who are better suited to be single. But the point is that they were actually born that way. Marriage is either something they are not interested in or are incapable of doing. He called them eunuchs.

Then there are those who have been made into eunuchs by others. This would include people who have had certain reproductive organs removed, as in the case of a man who has been castrated, typically early enough in life for it to have major hormonal consequences. In Bible days there were men who were made to be eunuchs in order to serve in the king's courts in certain roles that required them to be single. One example would be a eunuch in charge of the king's harem (Esther 2:15). It was pretty typical for kings and queens to have eunuchs serving in their courts. One example is in 2 Kings 9:32, where two or three eunuchs threw Queen Jezebel out the window to her death at Jehu's request.

A third type of eunuch that Jesus mentioned is the kind who has made a personal decision to remain celibate for the sake of the kingdom. He said, "there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." In my opinion there may be far more of this third type than there are of the first two types of celibate people. The Lord did not forbid anyone to marry, but said that there is a kind of self-imposed celibacy that one can choose in order to better serve God. In fact, He actually encouraged this by saying, "The one who can accept this should accept it."

Therefore, while He acknowledged that not everyone can accept this, He did say that the one who could accept celibacy for the kingdom should accept it. He was certainly not expecting all people to be able to remain celibate, since for some people it would simply not be a wise decision, but He seemed to indicate that this is actually His preference for His disciples, who are able to accept it, to remain celibate. After all, He Himself was celibate for the sake of the kingdom, so He led by example.

Celibates in Scripture
In addition to the Lord Jesus Himself, there are others in Scripture that were single. One is the apostle Paul. Some people believe he may have actually been married at one time, but somehow either through the death of his wife or divorce he ended up single again. They probably assume this because of the way he was able to teach so well on marriage as if he himself had personal experience with it, and also perhaps it is because it would have been most likely for a Pharisee in those days, such as he was, to be married rather than single. According to Matthew Henry, "The Jews, more than any people, valued themselves on their early marriages and their numerous offspring." We don't have any proof that Paul was ever married, so it is certainly not necessary to believe that he was, and it is fine if you want to assume he was always single.

However, we do know for certain from Scripture that Paul was not married during the part of his life after he became a follower of Christ. We could assume that he made a personal choice not to marry. But even if he had ever been married before coming to Christ, and his wife either died or the marriage ended in divorce, there is no record of him being married, and he spoke of himself as an unmarried man, so it seems reasonable to assume that he chose of his own free will to remain single afterward as either a widower or a divorced person. The less likely possibility, in my opinion, is that he had never been married and when he came to Christ he made a commitment to celibacy for the sake of the kingdom. No matter which scenario you assume to be true of him (having once been married or never having been married), Scripture makes it clear that he had chosen for the sake of the kingdom not to marry, once he became a follower of Christ (1 Cor 7:7-8).

Besides Paul, others that seemed to be celibate in Scripture include his missionary traveling companion and fellow apostle Barnabas, as well as Silas. Then, of course, there is the Ethiopian eunuch, who came to Christ through Philip's ministry, who was an important official in charge of all the treasury of the queen of the Ethiopians (Ac 8:26-40).

Another example of a eunuch in Scripture is the prophet Jeremiah. The Lord specifically spoke to him not to marry or have children (Jer 16:2), because of the desperate times he was living in. It also seems that the prophets Elijah, Elisha, and John the Baptist were celibate. There is no biblical record of any of them having a wife or children. The same is true of the prophet Daniel, as well as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. He and the three Hebrews were all appointed to the king's personal service in the royal courts of Babylon, and may have actually been made into eunuchs for that very purpose (Dan 1:5-7).

Scriptural Teaching on Celibacy
Paul taught about celibacy himself. He said:

"Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman. But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband.” (1 Cor 7:1-2, NIV).

Here Paul said that abstinence is good, but that both singles and couples should avoid sexual immorality. While he recognized that some people need to be married in order to avoid sexual immorality, he taught that married men should only have sexual relations with their own wives and women with their own husbands. But for single people, unless they get married, abstinence is the only way to remain pure, and Paul preferred that for himself and others.

He said, "I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that." (1 Cor 7:7, NIV). Here we see that though he wished the Corinthians were single like he was, he realized that while some people have the gift of celibacy, others don't.

He said, "Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this." (1 Cor 7:25-28, NIV).

Paul explicitly taught single men not to look for a wife, because those who marry will face many troubles in life, and he wanted to spare people from that.

He wrote: "I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.  (1 Cor 7:32-35, NIV).

From this passage we learn that Paul wanted the Corinthians to be free from concern, so they could focus on pleasing the Lord. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs -- how he can please the Lord. So is an unmarried woman or virgin. Her aim is to be wholly devoted to Jesus bodily and spiritually. Paul's desire for the Corinthians was that they may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord, and that is God's desire for each one of us.

I do want to point out that Paul was clear that it was not a sin to marry, and he never forbade anyone to marry. In no way did he want to restrict anyone. In fact, he taught elsewhere in his epistle to Timothy that it was wrong to forbid people to marry. He wrote: "But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth." (1 Tim 4:1-3).

Paul also taught that while a widow is free to marry a believer, she would be actually happier if she remains single. He wrote: "A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God." (1 Cor 7:39-40).

On the other hand, he recognized the needs of younger widows to remarry, since they have been married before and once again find themselves single. He said, "So I counsel younger widows to marry, to have children, to manage their homes and to give the enemy no opportunity for slander." (1 Tim 5:14, NIV).  Part of his reason for counseling younger widows to marry is to avoid giving the enemy an opportunity. He understood that if someone felt the need to be married, and did not have the gift of celibacy, but after being married for a time they lost their spouse and ended up single again, the best thing for such a person may be to get married again so as not to give opportunity to the enemy.

Therefore, from these passages, we can see that Paul had a strong preference for celibacy over marriage, whenever possible. Yet he was not rigid about singleness, nor did he require it of everyone.

There is a beautiful verse in the book of Revelation about those who remain virgins, which is specifically speaking of men that follow Jesus. "These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they remained virgins. They follow the Lamb wherever he goes. They were purchased from among mankind and offered as firstfruits to God and the Lamb." (Rev 14:4, NIV)

Remaining a virgin for the Lord is an honorable decision for one to make. God places great value on that. For those who do so, they can truly claim the promise of Isaiah that says, "For your Maker is your husband-- the LORD Almighty is his name-- the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth." (Is 54:5, NIV).

A Special Promise for Eunuchs
The Lord has given a special promise to eunuchs through the prophet Isaiah. He said, "Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, 'The LORD will surely separate me from His people.' Nor let the eunuch say, 'Behold, I am a dry tree.' For thus says the LORD, 'To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths, And choose what pleases Me, And hold fast My covenant, To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial, And a name better than that of sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off.'" (Isa 56:3-5).

I believe that those who are eunuchs, as well as bachelors who choose to live like eunuchs, can claim this promise for themselves. If they keep His sabbaths, choose what pleases the Lord, and hold fast to His covenant, to them He will give a memorial within His walls and in His house, and a name that is better than having sons and daughters. Whereas normally if a man does not have sons, he has no one to carry on his family name, and he may consider his name to be cut off. But the Lord has promised these eunuchs who meet these conditions that He will give them an everlasting name that will endure throughout eternity and never be cut off.

In my opinion, women who choose a life of celibacy for Jesus can claim this promise given to eunuchs. If a woman is led to remain single, then she may also be led by the Spirit to see how this passage applies to her and to claim the promise for her self.

I don't necessarily advise anyone to make vows of celibacy. I think one can decide before the Lord to remain single for the sake of the kingdom without making any kind of vow to do so. One could simply decide that unless the Lord shows him otherwise, he is going to assume he is called to a life of singleness for the kingdom. He could proceed with pursuing the plans and purposes that God has for him without any regard for marriage, unless the Lord would speak to him to become married one day. This applies to both men and women.

Putting it All Together
The Lord Jesus, who Himself was celibate, taught that those who can accept celibacy for the sake of the kingdom should do so, and the apostle Paul essentially said the same. Paul taught abstinence for singles and believed it was best not to marry, in order to spare people of troubles associated with marriage, and to enable them to serve the Lord in undivided devotion, but he did allow for the fact that not everyone has the gift of celibacy as he did. He did not forbid people to marry, nor did he require marriage of anyone, including those in ministry. I hope that this message has served to encourage those who may be considering a life of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom.

Attribution notice: Most Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® NIV®, where noted.

If you enjoyed this post, you may also like Covenant Prayer, Led by the Spirit - Part I, Led by the Spirit - Part II, Walking in the Perfect Will of God, Avoid Becoming a Corrupted ChristianSins That Will Keep You From Heaven, Holy Living in a Perverted World, Accountable, correctable, and teachable, Restored Truth, The Ways of Life, and the other posts on the home page. You may also access my complete blog directory at "Writing for the Master."

Do You Want to Know Him?
If you want to know Jesus personally, you can. It all begins when you repent and believe in Jesus.  Do you know what God's Word, the Bible says?

“Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” (Mar 1:14b-15).  He preached that we must repent and believe.

Please see my explanation of this in my post called "Do You Want to Know Jesus?"

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