On Celibacy and Marriage

By Rod Hemphill

Question: Does abstaining from marriage and sexual relations make an individual more spiritual than if he/she was married? Is the opposite the case--does being married allow for more spiritual growth than remaining single?

Celibacy is not extolled as a virtue anywhere in the Bible. Neither is marriage considered in any way a detriment to spirituality. Nor is there any suggestion that there are such beings as super-saints –people who have attained a greater degree of spirituality than others can attain. Spirituality is a gift of God's grace –not a result of our doing something to cause it, merit it, or otherwise enable it, other than simply giving ourselves to God and allowing him to fill our lives with his Spirit. It is a matter of a person's openness to God, and this is not diluted by the fact that our God-created estate is one of flesh and blood. When the Bible speaks about being "of the world" or matters of "the flesh," it is not referring to one's physical frame, but of one's perspective: the worldly/fleshly-minded person's whole frame of reference is limited to the physical, and to satisfying its desires, and having no real hope/expectation beyond the limitations of the physical world. It is only in this understanding that the Bible pits the flesh against the spirit. But when flesh is understood to refer to the physical (rather than to a perspective limited to the physical), the Bible does not see the physical and spiritual as contrary to each other. God made both, and both are sanctified. And when a person is (to the best of his knowledge and ability) fully committed to the Lord, the fulfillment of his/her physical desires also becomes a spiritual experience instead of just the satisfaction of some biological urge. This is seen in noting the difference in sexual relations in two married couples, where with the one marriage is seen as a contract between two sexual partners (biological urge), whereas in the other, marriage is seen as a covenant of two soul-mates, and it is within the context of this continuous love-making that the act of sexual intercourse takes place. The spiritual intercourse of two soul-mates consummates the physical intercourse far beyond the satisfaction of any biological or emotional urge alone, however intense.

So even though some groups or individuals may consider celibacy as an indicator or enhancer of spirituality, this represents a misunderstanding of the purpose of celibacy as well as a misunderstanding of both spirituality and the sanctity of our physical nature. In fact, in contrast either to those pagan influences deriving from a Gnostic-like speculation that the spiritual is good and pure and anything physical is evil and corrupt, or to certain excesses of a puritanical morality, the Bible teaches that a person's body is the temple of the Lord! How can the Most Holy One inhabit a place that is to any degree corrupt or evil? But the biblical teaching is that the physical body is created whole and good, and that God's gift of salvation cleanses us of any sinfulness or corruption we may bring into it –that there is nothing inherently inferior, corrupt or evil to our bodies as compared to our spirits. God made both, and declared all aspects of his creation to be good.

In a word, the bottom line regarding marriage is found in Genesis 2:18, 23-24, namely, The Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone. I will make him a helper fit for him". . . Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. She shall be called woman because she was taken out of man." Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh. The wholesomeness, desirableness and expectation of marriage are celebrated everywhere throughout the Bible, and marriage is considered to be the normal situation. This is not to say, however, that those who take exception to it are in any way abnormal. Rather, the Bible gives examples of what is called a "vocational celibacy." This is when one believes himself to be called to some task or ministry in which it would not be wise to marry, either because to assume marital responsibilities and concerns would be a hindrance to the accomplishment of his mission, or because a determined commitment to the mission would result in a neglect of his family responsibilities. Even though there are some academically irresponsible "scholars" who speculate that Jesus might have been married, it is obvious that Jesus never married, and this is an example of vocational celibacy. So also the apostle Paul, who either never married, or at least was unmarried by the time of his conversion, indicates that it was his choice to remain unmarried (1 Corinthians 7:8), given the demands of his ministry. This was his personal choice, as he also indicates that he had a right to have a wife as the other apostles did (1 Corinthians 9:5). This is vocational celibacy, and there is nothing spiritual or unspiritual about it. It is purely a pragmatic choice.

Paul also counsels individuals caught in the uncertainties of turbulent times –especially the persecution of the church and the growing instances of Christians being martyred– to consider that marriage under those conditions might not be a good idea (1 Corinthians 7:25-28). But he also indicates that it is their choice and that they are faultless if they choose to marry.

In this 7th chapter of 1 Corinthians, everything in the chapter must be interpreted against the context of the whole chapter, because verses pulled out of their context are susceptible to being interpreted in a way that is a distortion of what Paul was actually saying. When Paul is discussing the intensity of sexual desire, he is acknowledging that this desire is the state of normalcy in human nature. It is part of God's creativity and intention for human beings. That is why denying or frustrating this desire is to go against that which is normal and intended, and provides Satan a point of temptation to be exploited (vs. 5). But there are individuals who are called to a service in the Lord which can be better served if one is not married, and to those the Lord gives a special gift (vs. 7) to enable them to live and work in an imposed state (abstinence) which is contrary to mankind's nature. This is not a matter of spirituality, but of God's enablement to fulfill a mission. The Biblical history is replete with examples of people whom God enabled to perform some particular ministry, but whose stories are told with both their accomplishments and their shortcomings, and we see in these stories that these heroes of faith were not spiritual giants any more than other people. Apart from their vocational enablement, they struggled and sometimes sinned just like everybody else. And sometimes that special gift is given not to enable a celibate vocation, but to enable a purely pragmatic consideration that marriage might be better deferred during certain times of social turmoil or persecution (vs. 25-38).

Moreover, the apostle Paul is the great theologian in explaining the functioning of spirituality and how it obtains in our present (physical) lives, and he does not consider the marital state to be a factor even to be considered in the pursuit of spirituality. And furthermore, Paul exhorts all believers, both married and unmarried, to be "filled with the Spirit" (Ephesians 5:18). That married persons are specifically included in this is indicated three verses later when Paul begins a description of spirit-filled marital relations.

Finally, the apostle Paul, writing in 1 Timothy 4:1-5 about those who attach a spiritual significance to acts one might do or not do for religious reasons, has this to say which touches on celibacy and the sanctity God places upon marriage:

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.


In the case of Matthew 19:3-12, Jesus is not advocating celibacy –even vocational celibacy. The background of this incident is that the two leading rabbis of the day had contradictory points of view regarding divorce. The more liberal rabbi taught that divorce for any reason was acceptable, whereas the other had a much more restricted teaching. So the Pharisees put the question to Jesus to see how he would handle it. Jesus first establishes that marriage is not just a sexual union, but the union of two souls, and that this union is ordained by God who created them. Therefore, even though the two may have come to marriage voluntarily, the union is sanctified by God and cannot be dissolved by man's arbitrary intervention. Secondly, regarding the question of Moses' teaching, Moses was faced with a situation in which some men decided to simply opt out of marriage for whatever reason, in a society in which there was no way for a respectable woman to take care of herself and her children if her husband abandoned her. To prevent this situation, Moses allowed divorce, which served to protect the woman somewhat by applying conditions to the dissolution of the marriage, and legally freeing her so that she could remarry. Since Jesus does not challenge the legitimacy of the Mosaic ruling, he seems to be saying that this is allowable as the lesser of two evils (abandonment vs. divorce), but that the original marriage, ordained by God, has not been nullified. Marital unions are permanent, and only death or adultery can break these unions.

The disciples know of marriages that turned sour, and see that a strict adherence to this teaching could trap a person in a failed and unhappy, perhaps miserable marriage. They suggest that it would be better for people to not marry in the first place –a wrong and unrealistic solution to a problem that is the result of living self-centered lives and failing to love God with one's whole, total being. In short, it is a situation to be expected when marriage is viewed as the legitimizing of sexual relations between two independent people, rather than the intimate life together of two persons who have sacrificed their independence to become bonded together as one. Jesus observes that not every person can live a celibate life. He does not suggest that even for the kingdom of heaven is this desirable –just that there are some who have made that choice. Such a choice would be a vocational celibacy. It should be observed that neither here nor at any other place in the Gospels does Jesus recommend celibacy as a spiritual enterprise. He presents one's relationship to God only in terms of the Great Commandment, and the vine analogy of John 15, and describes it with such parables as the Good Shepherd. But at no place is celibacy presented as having anything to do with the state of one's spirituality.

Other Articles by Rod:
The Danger of Christianity to Secularism
How to Take Over a County Without Firing a Shot
Seasons of Life
Essay On Terrorism's War Against Civilization