What does the Bible say about celibacy?

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Question: What does the Bible say about celibacy? Is it greater than marriage? What did Jesus and Paul teach on the subject?

Answer:  I believe your general conclusion is correct. Both Jesus and the Apostle Paul regarded celibacy as a higher calling than marriage.  But this begs another question - WHY are some called of God to stay celibate while others are not? 

There are many men of faith in the Bible who married. Some of these include  Abraham, David, Noah, Isaiah, Peter, Job, Moses, Joseph and many others.  Scriptures seems to indicate that those who choose not (for whatever reason) to marry include Daniel, John the Baptist, Elijah and (it goes without saying) Jesus Christ.

Part of the difference between those who serve and are married and those who live lives of celibacy is due to each person's sex drive.  God knows humans really well (he did make us) and will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we are able to endure (1Corinthians 10:13).  Paul was aware of this, so although in 1Corinthians 7 he places the celibate state as being spiritually superior to the married state, he made it crystal clear it wasn't a sin to marry (1Corinthians 7:27-28). 

According to Paul, it is not a sin to marry nor is the sex act itself within marriage a sin (1Corinthians 7:1-7). This last verse, as well as verse 2, helps explain why Paul said the married state wasn't a sin, but it was a lower spiritual state than celibacy.  Interestingly enough, Jesus gave similar reasoning to the disciples when they questioned His condemnation of easy divorce laws.

"For there are eunuchs who were born thus from their mother's womb . . . and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake.  He who is able to accept it, let him accept it."  (Matthew 19:12) 

Paul, in 1Corinthians 7, merely makes it clear that yes, indeed, those who aren't able to receive it (this teaching) aren't sinning when they marry to avoid burning with passion  (1Corinthians 7:8-9).

 
 
 
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In some of the verses you cited (1Corinthians 7:32-35), Paul explains his reasoning behind encouraging celibacy, in that married people are more divided in their interests in serving God compared to the devoted celibate single man or woman.  In verse 26, he mentions the "present distress" as a reason not to marry, but that can't be deemed as a universally applicable reason that applies to all Christians at all times, but rather it applied in particular to the Corinthians who receive this letter roughly around 55 A.D.  He still pointed out that he wished to spare people worldly troubles resulting from becoming married, however (verse 28), which is a universally applicable point.  Jesus also did warn that those women who are pregnant or have to nurse children during the great tribulation to come would wish they didn't have those burdens then (Matthew 24:19), which is at a distinct time in history to come.  Perhaps one way to look at this comparison would be to compare people giving different amounts of  money to charity:  If two men with equal incomes, equal wealth, and equal family responsibilities gave different amounts to the poor, such as 10% versus 15%, the latter has been more righteous, assuming he maintains an equally good attitude about his giving.  But the one giving 10% can't be deemed a sinner (compare 2Corinthians 9:6-9).

It's necessary also in this area when the married state is compared to the celibate state to avoid thinking the married people are sinning, especially if they simply have trouble controlling their natural sex drives lawfully.  A single man burning with passion, even if he isn't actually having sex with women (Matthew 5:27-28), sins badly, but a married man and woman making love to each other don't sin at all.  So the problem with the married state stems much more from all the special care and attention that a wife or husband needs from the other partner, as well as their children, if they have any, which takes away from time that could be used for serving God directly, not from the physical sex act itself.  But marriage shouldn't be looked down upon. 

God also uses analogies and parables to explain spiritual concepts to us earth-bound men and women, which compare material things to spiritual things so the latter are more understandable.  At least some anthropomorphisms (attributing human characteristics to non-human creatures and beings) are in this class as well, although if the Book of Revelation's description of heavenly scenes are taken at all literally, the "God is shaped like a cloud" view has to be discarded regardless of how much scholarly research over the centuries can be cited to back it. 

God is a family, in that the Godhead is presently composed of the Father and Son, which I believe is a real relationship, but it's on a higher plane than our own family relationships.  Similarly, as you pointed out, God said He was married to Israel, and Christ will marry the church.  The use of these terms constitutes what's been called "analogical predication," that the same word "Father" for God doesn't have quite the same meaning as "father" as applied to a man, but there's still some similarity.  When these terms are used in Scripture, their meaning is neither identical or the same (univocal) nor is their meaning totally different (equivocal), such as when "cape" is used to refer to a piece of clothing and to a geographical feature (i.e., "the Cape of Good Hope" in South Africa). 

I think part of the explanation for the use of "marriage" in Scripture when it concerns God's own relationship with people, such as His condemnation of Judah and Israel's adulterous unfaithfulness in serving other gods besides Him (Jeremiah 3:6-13), is to make God's feelings and thoughts more clear to us humans. 

In conclusion, according to the Bible, celibacy is a higher calling than being married.

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What does the Bible say about celibacy?