Author: Ron Graham
What God Says About Celibacy
—Of the unmarried, married, widowed, and divorced
Celibacy is an honourable and respectable state, no less admirable than marriage. Of course like marriage, celibacy comes with its own set of problems and disadvantages, and also like marriage, a set of benefits and advantages. In this lesson we are look at celibacy among the unmarried, the married, the widowed, and the divorced.
1 Celibacy of the Unmarried
God requires an unmarried person to remain celibate, or in other words to practice total chastity, until married. Celibacy may be defined as abstaining from any sexual union. God condemns those who have "given themselves over to sexual immorality and have gone after strange flesh" (Jude 1:7). To an unmarried person, any flesh except one's own is strange flesh, and all such flesh is out of bounds for sexual union with one's own flesh.
God has many good reasons for taking this hard line. The lack of celibacy and chastity among the unmarried contributes to sexually transmitted diseases; children being born out of wedlock; confusion of genealogy; and the consequent breakdown of social structure. People should be able to recognize that sex is like fire. It is very destructive unless properly and strictly contained.
Virginity is highly respected in the Bible. God chose a virgin to be the mother of his Son (Matthew 1:18-23). Those who have never yet been married should ensure that when they do enter into marriage, they will do so as a virgin. This is an honourable thing. To “lose your virginity” is a foolish thing unless and until you do it in consummating your marriage.
There is no requirement in the Bible for a person to undertake permanent celibacy voluntarily. Whilst God intends people to undertake marriage permanently, until death severs the union (1Corinthians 7:39), he does not require anybody to undertake lifelong celibacy. Of course circumstances may impose permanent celibacy upon a person.
2 Celibacy of the Married
Celibacy in marriage may seem a contradiction of terms, however many married people practice celibacy for one reason or another. A few obvious reasons are...
- They don't like or want sex, but they cherish their companionship.
- A disease, disability, or mental condition prevents them having intercourse.
- They are parted long term by business, or war, or estrangement.
Because they are married they must “be faithful” to each other by being celibate while these circumstances last, which may be a very long time.
Paul heads his list of "the works of the flesh" with "adultery, fornication, uncleaness, licentiousness..." (Galatians 5:19). Married couples who don't have sex with each other ought not to have sex with anyone else. If they do, they are adulterers, immoral and licentious.
The Bible does not recommend voluntary celibacy of the married, nor does it forbid it (1Corinthians 7:1-6). No married couples are required by God to practice voluntary celibacy. Of course for reasons mentioned above, celibacy may be forced upon a married person.
3 Celibacy of the Widowed
Marriage is a lifetime commitment. That is to say, it should last until the union is severed by death. When one becomes a widow or widower, one is no longer married or bound to the one who has died (1Corinthians 7:39). However, many widowed persons feel happier remaining unmarried (1Corinthians 7:40). There is no obligation on a widow or widower either to get married or to remain unmarried. The one who chooses celibacy is neither more nor less moral than the one who chooses to remarry.
Society may impose, by law or custom, a waiting period before a widow or widower can get married again. Bereavement and the grieving process, by its own nature, may take quite some time. Each widow or widower can decide how long the period of celibacy should last.
People are prone to state their opinions on whether widowed persons should remain so, or whether they should be married off. James says, "Pure and undefiled religion before God is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble and to keep oneself unspotted from the world" (James 1:27). How better to visit an orphan in his trouble than to become his parent if one is in a position to do so. Likewise, how better to visit a widow in her trouble than to become her husband if she so desires and one is in a position to do so. People who frown upon the widowed getting married should think about their attitude.
4 Celibacy of the Divorced
You may have assumed that divorce achieves dissolution of a marriage. According to Jesus, that is not so. He says, "Everyone who divorces his wife, except on account of fornication, makes her commit adultery, and who ever shall marry her who has been divorced commits adultery" (Matthew 5:31-32). In similar statements Jesus makes it clear that if a man divorces his wife, or a wife divorces her husband, adultery is committed by whichever one of them enters another marriage. Not only does that divorced person commit adultery in consummating another marriage, but so does the one with whom it is consummated (Matthew 19:9, Mark 10:11-12, Luke 16:18).
This is a clear indication that God views a marriage as still in effect, even after a divorce. If there were no marriage anymore, the divorced man and woman would no longer be husband and wife. Therefore one would not be able to commit adultery against the other. But Jesus shows that there will be adultery in a remarriage after divorce, except where there was already adultery that led to the divorce.
What are the implications? It often happens that a couple get divorced but neither has committed adultery. In such cases the marriage still exists and the couple should remain celibate with a view to reconciliation. To marry another will mean committing adultery. God hates divorce (Malachi 2:16), but he also hates adultery and anyone knowing these things, who goes ahead and wilfully commits adultery, should have "a fearful expectation of judgment and fiery indignation" (Hebrews 10:26-31).