Burn with Passion

In 2002, the Spotlight investigative journalism team of the Boston Globe broke the first in a series of news stories that shook the very foundations of Boston. The articles, which were the result of months of research, interviews, and determined sleuthing, revealed that for decades the Catholic Church in Boston had knowingly been covering up sexual abuse of minors by hundreds of priests. In Spotlight, the 2015 Best Picture-winning film dramatizing the journalists’ work to uncover the story, psychotherapist Richard Sipe gives a probably explanation for the culture of sexual secrecy that allowed such behavior to be swept under the rug for so long. “I think if you really want to understand the crisis,” he explains, “you have to start with the celibacy requirement. That was my first major finding. Only 50% of the clergy are celibate. Now, most of them are having sex with other adults. But the fact remains that this creates a culture of secrecy that tolerates and even protects pedophiles.”

With hundreds of sexual abuse scandals over the past several decades, the question of clergy celibacy is more pressing than ever. Proponents of allowing Catholic priests to marry argue that doing so would decrease sexual secrecy and repression and allow priests to be less emotionally isolated. The Catholic church has also seen a shortage of men willing to go into the priesthood when faced with the prospect of a lifetime without marriage or children.

Proponents of celibacy for clergy point to Paul’s teachings on celibacy and marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. In this passage, Paul lays out guidance for unmarried, married, divorced, and widowed believers, explaining how they should relate to their spouses, how they should handle sexual desire, and whether they should marry if they are currently unmarried. Paul – who was unmarried himself for his entire life – strongly affirms the value of celibacy (or lifelong sexual abstinence) and argues that celibacy is a better and more spiritually enlightening path than marriage, even though Christian marriage is not sinful.

“An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs – how he can please the Lord,” Paul writes. “But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world – how he can please his wife – and his interests are divided” (1 Corinthians 7:32-33 NIV). Nevertheless, he admits, it is also bad for Christians to burn with passion or turn to sexual immorality and promiscuity to satisfy their desires, and “if anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married” (7:36 NIV).

In light of Paul’s words about burning with passion or turning to sexual immorality, however, the Catholic sex abuse scandals suggest that perhaps celibacy should be considered a special calling – like choosing to become a monk or a nun living apart from the world in holy orders – and not a job requirement.

Most people who read the Bible are familiar with the story of Genesis 1-2, where we see the first married couple spoken of in scripture. God describes this union as a good thing - a benefit to the human race. From the union of husband and wife come not only the relationship of marriage, but the relationships of fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, siblings, cousins, friends, neighbors, co-workers, employers, employees, and indeed society as a whole. Marriage in the Bible is a good thing. But if this is the case, shouldn't Paul's statements in 1 Corinthians 7 seem strange and out of place?

Not quite. In his teaching on divorce, Jesus addresses some interesting issues related to singleness and celibacy. In Matthew 19:12, Jesus mentions that there are people who choose not to get married "for the kingdom of Heaven." (NLT) And in another place, Jesus makes an interesting remark about how marriage won't exist in the way we know it now in the Kingdom of God:

Jesus replied, “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God. For when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. In this respect they will be like the angels in heaven. Matthew 22:29-30 NLT

Talk Back:

  • Read Matthew 22:23-33. What is the point of this conversation? Do you think Jesus' statements here mean that from the point of view of eternity, marriage is only temporary?

  • Read Ephesians 5:21-33. What is the relationship of the whole church to Christ? Will meeting our creator face to face fulfill all human desire for intimacy? Compare this passage to 1 Corinthians 13:8-13. How do these passages relate to our current topic?

  • 1 Corinthians 7 is a very complex passage. Read it through with a spiritual friend or mentor you trust - perhaps someone who is already married. What does this passage say to you?

  • In 1 Corinthians 7, the scriptures give us instructions not to do certain things - such as seeking marriage when you are unmarried - and then advises that if we do these things we have been warned against, we are not sinning. This seems a little strange, doesn't it? Note how in 7:8-12, Paul makes a distinction between his own words and those of the Lord. But isn't the whole of scripture the word of God? How do you make sense of this?

  • Many people try to create formulas for finding a mate by making allegorical interpretations of Old Testament stories where someone gets married. Ruth (see Ruth 1-4), Jacob (see Genesis 29), are often taken as examples of how God expects people to find a spouse. Do you think this is legitimate? Why or why not?

  • Do you believe God has a romantic soulmate for every person who ever lived? Read Romans 7:2-3, 1 Corinthians 7:8-9, 1 Timothy 5:14, and then watch our video on Soulmates:

  • What do you think of the concept of Holy Orders? Why do some denominations have them and others don’t?

  • Some people argue that LGBTQ+ people’s non-heteronormative attractions are not sinful, but acting on them is. They recommend celibacy for those people. Is it fair to ask people to give up something that heterosexuals claim is a crucial part of life?

  • What is the difference between celibacy and abstinence?


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