During the Protestant Reformation, the great thinkers of that era like Luther and Calvin harshly criticized the mandated celibacy that was imposed on priests in the Catholic church while extolling the goods of marriage. Perhaps an unintentional consequence of this critique is that within the Protestant tradition, singleness and celibacy have often been denigrated or viewed as being lesser than marriage.
In my own experience of growing up in the church, I can recall dozens of sermons being preached on marriage but never once do I remember hearing a sermon on what it means to be single, how to serve the Lord in your singleness, or to have celibacy elevated as a legitimate calling or vocation in life. No doubt this is in part due to Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7:2, which says, “But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband,” and 1 Corinthians 7:8-9, which states, “To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” The vast majority of people, especially in our oversexualized culture, feel sexual desires strongly enough that remaining single for too long, let alone for a lifetime, seems unrealistic or unwise. Thus, we have our current situation where singleness is often treated like a disease for which marriage is a cure. Out of a right desire to avoid sexual immorality, we elevate marriage without ever addressing celibacy and singleness.
Yet, this is not how Jesus or Paul talked about singleness and celibacy. In fact, both of them, being single themselves, extolled its virtues. Two passages in particular are often referenced when talking about singleness: Matthew 19:12 and 1 Corinthians 7. It is worth exploring these passages in some detail to glean what they have to say about this important topic.
Jesus and Celibacy in Matthew 19:12
Matthew 19:12 is one of the few passages in the New Testament where celibacy is mentioned. In the broader context of Matthew 19:3-12, Jesus is discussing divorce with the Pharisees. He affirms the sanctity of marriage in its male-female aspect as well as the union formed by one flesh, making reference back to Genesis 2. He also commands very strict limitations on divorce, to which the disciples reply, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus, responding back, says in Matthew 19:11-12,
Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.
There are two primary exegetical challenges that arise from this passage. The first challenge is what Jesus was referring to when he said “this saying.” The second issue is to discern which group of people Jesus was referring to when he mentioned “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”
There are three possible referents to “this saying.” It could refer to his discourse with the Pharisees (vv. 3-9, especially v. 9), the disciples’ previous statement (v. 10), or to his own statement which follows (v. 12). Of these options, verse 12 is the least likely referent, as the grammatical structure of the Greek (τὸν λόγον τοῦτον) almost always refers backward when λογον and τουτον are paired together like this. This leaves the first two options as most likely.
Of these two remaining options, there is limited internal evidence that would clearly demonstrate which is the correct referent. Some such as Grant Osborne and Clinton Arnold note that the “closer antecedent” is what the disciples say in verse 10 and would favor that as the correct referent. Others such as R. T. France assert that Jesus was rejecting what the disciples were saying in order to reemphasize his hard saying on divorce in verse 9. When viewed this way, Francis Moloney suggests that a parallel structure can be observed between Matthew 19:9-12 and Matthew 19:23-26 in the way in which Jesus reacts to his disciples. However, if Jesus is referring back to his own statement about divorce, then the question arises as to why he seems to limit its force or application through his words (“Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given,” (v.11) and “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (v.12)). It would seem more appropriate that based on the force he gave this commandment to the Pharisees, he would want to apply his teaching on divorce to everyone rather than to only those who can accept it or those to whom it is given.
Secondly, there remains the challenge of how to interpret “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” in verse 12. If the referent to verse 11 is Christ’s teaching on divorce in verse 9, then, as Quentin Quesnell argues, “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs” refers to men who live a celibate life after having divorced their wives. While such an interpretation is possible, Craig L. Blomberg contends that such an interpretation is excessively narrow. It is more likely that these eunuchs are those who choose to live like eunuchs and remain celibate.
Thus, while there is not conclusive evidence, it is more probable that Jesus’ statement in verse 11 is in reference to his disciples’ remarks about it being better not to marry. This would mean that the third group of eunuchs mentioned can be more broadly interpreted as anyone who has the gift of celibacy or remains single for the purpose of serving God.
Several things are worthy of reflection concerning celibacy from this passage. First, the very mention of celibate individuals from the lips of Christ is of great comfort to those who face this as a daily reality. Not only does he affirm the existence of such persons but also affirms their purpose of being single “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (v.12).
Second, Jesus also upholds that not everyone is able to fulfill such a calling. Both at the beginning and at the end of his remarks to his disciples, Jesus says that only some will be able to “receive” this calling.
Lastly, it is also worth pointing out that Jesus himself fits into the third category of eunuchs. Jesus was celibate, as was John the Baptist, Paul, and many other church leaders. Jesus was the perfect example of what it meant to be truly human. Yet, he did not enter into marriage. Thus, one not need be married in order to live a full and complete life here on earth. This should cause all Christians to view singleness and celibacy on equal footing with marriage as worthy vocations.
Paul and Celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7
While 1 Corinthians 7 provides the most extensive treatment of celibacy in the Bible, Paul did not write this chapter to be a treatise on marriage, sex, and singleness. Instead, he was writing in response to specific situations in the Corinthian church. Starting in chapter 7 and throughout the rest of the letter (7:1, 7:25, 8:1, 12:1, 16:1, 16:12), Paul begins to address specific issues that, presumably, the Corinthian church had written about to him. Unfortunately, without the letter that the Corinthians themselves wrote, much speculation has ensued over the meaning of these passages since we only have one side of the conversation. Nonetheless, by examining the passage in greater detail, much can be learned concerning the cultural context and Paul’s eschatology which significantly influenced his statements about celibacy and marriage.
One major issue addressed was marriage, and specifically, sex within marriage (vv. 1-5). Verse 1 reads, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: ‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.'” This phrase is indicative of the influence of the Stoic-Cynic debate concerning marriage. In fact, the opening statement that Paul was referencing is similar to what Cynic authors had also made. The consequence of this debate was leading to sexual asceticism in the Corinthian church. In light of Hellenistic dualism that viewed the body and the world as evil and passing away, some wished to do away with marriage and sex altogether. This was representative of what Gordon Fee calls a “spiritualized eschatology.” As a result, Paul affirms that those who are married should not deny sexual relations to each other except perhaps by mutual consent for a short time (v. 5).
In addition, we begin to see the main thrust of Paul’s message in this chapter—to “remain in the status you were at the time of your call,” or as Paul words it in verse 17 that one should “lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him.” In verses 6-9, Paul urges those who are unmarried or widowed to remain single. Similarly, if you are married, remain married (vv. 10-16); if you are circumcised or uncircumcised, do not seek to change that (vv. 18-20); if you are a slave, don’t be concerned about it (although in contrast to the other circumstances he mentions, he does urge slaves to gain their freedom if they are able); likewise, if you are free, don’t seek to become a slave (vv. 21-24). This pattern is again observed in verse 27 with marriage and verse 40 with widows.
Why is Paul so adamant about remaining in your current station of life? Part of the answer lies in Paul’s eschatology. Paul speaks of the “present distress,” (v. 26) and “the appointed time,” (v. 29) and that “the present form of this world is passing away” (v. 31). Robert Nash notes that the time in which Paul was writing “saw numerous natural disasters, famine, social unrest, and disruptions in international relations, including threats to Rome’s tenuous relationship with its most feared enemy, the Parthians.” In light of such things, it would not have been unusual to think that the world might end or that Christ might come again. In such circumstances, what really mattered was not whether you were married or unmarried, but that you are serving the Lord with an undivided heart (7:35). It is for this reason why Paul appears to favor celibacy as opposed to marriage, since someone who is married has their interests divided (v. 33-34) but someone who is single can be focused on only what the Lord desires (v. 32).
Another reason Paul stresses remaining in your current station is because Paul wants to dispel the false claims made by the ascetics in Corinth, namely that by seeking divorce to be single or that by becoming circumcised, that this would enhance your relationship or standing with God. Since, in Christ, we are no longer divided by things such as marital status or circumcision, “any attempt to change one’s status in order to enhance one’s standing with God is to ascribe to it more importance than it merits.”
In the midst of all this, Paul is very pastoral. Even though he is urgent in his tone, he also makes considerations based on the “already, not yet” aspect consistent with Paul’s eschatology. He does not make absolute statements regarding whether someone should be celibate or married. Though he may prefer celibacy for himself and for those who are single, he readily acknowledges the sexual desires we all face and the need for marriage (vv. 9, 36).
Unlike most of Paul’s other writings, he readily distinguishes between what is from the Lord and what is his own opinion (vv. 6, 10, 12, 25, 40). This is because he is offering pastoral advice to a congregation facing certain challenges and circumstances with the goal not of “laying any restraint” on the Corinthian church but “to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord” (v. 35). Therefore, when application is made to our current context from this passage, Paul’s goals ought to be our goals.
There are several things that can be learned regarding celibacy from this passage. First, similar to what Jesus had said in Matthew, not everyone is able live out the call to celibacy. In fact, it would seem that very few can. Most people today burn with passion in such a way that marriage would be better suited to their needs and the needs of the church.
Second, similar to Christ, Paul holds celibacy in high honor, even superior to marriage if one were to take verse 38 at face value. However, this is not an ontological claim about the nature of marriage and celibacy themselves but is said with regard to the advantages that singleness offers during the eschaton. In fact, we can observe from Paul’s other letters that he holds marriage in very high esteem (see Ephesians 5:22-33), even appearing to assume in one of his letters that church leaders would be married (see 1 Timothy 3:2). Both marriage and celibacy are affirmed as gifts (charisma) by Paul (1 Corinthians 7:7), the same word used later in 1 Corinthians 12:4 to describe other various gifts of the Spirit.
Lastly, as Jesus also acknowledged, Paul also asserts that the gift of celibacy is given for service to God. Paul lists several of the practical benefits that celibate individuals have over married individuals, most importantly being an “undivided devotion” (v. 35) to “the things of the Lord,” (v. 32) as well as understanding in “how to please the Lord” (v.32) and “how to be holy in body and spirit” (v. 34).
Of astounding significance is Paul’s assertion that such people could be “happier” than their married counterparts (v. 40). Nothing flies in the face of our modern culture’s narrative regarding singleness more than this. Our culture asserts that any single person who has never had sex has not truly lived the fullness of life. However, Christians must refute this narrative with the simple fact that Jesus (and Paul) was single and lived more in the fullness of life than anyone who has ever had sex.
In both Matthew 19:12 and 1 Corinthians 7, the same three principles emerge regarding celibacy. First, celibacy is equal to marriage as a vocation. Jesus and Paul were both celibate vocationally, yet acknowledged the goods that marriage offers. Second, celibacy is a gift that some have the capacity to live out and other do not. Most people, because of their sexual desires, cannot accept a celibate lifestyle and are better served and sanctified by being in a marriage. Third, celibacy is given for the purpose of service to God. Celibacy cannot be viewed simply as an abstention from sex, but ought to draw all singles into a lifestyle of undivided service to God and to others.
While I concede that the vast majority of people can and should get married, we cannot and should not avoid preaching and teaching on the goods of singleness and celibacy. There is a growing number of single individuals in the church, especially as our culture advises people to delay marriage (a wrong impulse in most cases, I would add). Regardless, singles in the church need to be taught how to steward their singleness well, how to use it to serve Christ, how the Spirit uses singleness to sanctify the individual (especially in the area of self-control). Those, like myself, for whom celibacy seems like a very realistic vocation in life, need the life-giving truths that Scripture teaches on singleness and celibacy.
 No commentator surveyed for this paper believed, as did Origin, that this referred to those who literally castrated themselves. See note in Osborne, Matthew, ed. Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2010), 707.
 Nil Guillemette, “Is Celibacy Better?,” Landas 10, no. 1 (1996): 16.