What happened to celibacy in the Protestant church? As a new believer, when I first read the New Testament I quickly understood that marriage shouldn’t be prioritized by Christians. Paul writes:
Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion…
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 7:8-9, 32-35)
Now, there’s nothing wrong with marrying, celibacy is just better. “He who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.” (v. 38) Now, some would argue that Paul’s words doesn’t apply to us today, since he may have spoken about a context of persecution or, as some argue, a false perception of that Jesus would come back any minute, based primarily on verse 29.
But persecution isn’t mentioned – and we should always be careful with building a Christianity that is unpersecuted since that tends to be very lame and unbiblical – and isn’t Jesus’ second coming even more immanent now than it was then? Furthermore, Paul’s reasoning about the celibate being undivided to the Lord is not dependent on either persecution or Christ’s return.
Historically, celibacy has been very important in the Christian church, being a cornerstone of the monastic movement’s devotion to prayer and godly work as well as to Catholic priesthood. And while there are problems with mandatory celibacy for both monastics and pastoral leaders – especially since it prohibits married people from enjoying monk life and serving the church as pastors – the other extreme that large parts of the Protestant movement has fallen into is to abandon celibacy almost completely. In the charismatic movement, which I’m a part of, it’s hardly ever mentioned; instead marriage is the norm, except for homosexuals I guess. For heterosexuals, limitless sex is allowed as long as the pastor blesses one’s union first.
My favourite church, the Jesus Army in the UK, values celibacy as a Biblical practice for being undivided to God. On their Undivided blog, they bring much inspiration and encouragement to single Christians who want to remain unmarried. Some people, Christians and non-Christians alike, have found this really weird, but it’s all biblical and in my opinion very important for the Kingdom of God.