Celibacy and Young People in Today’s Messianic Movement


I am very concerned about the wide number of Messianic men and women I see in their twenties and thirties (and even forties) who are unmarried. What are they going to do if they are unable to find a spouse?

On the whole, today’s Messianic people—with various roots in both Judaism and evangelical Protestantism—do not know what to do with the wide number of young men and women in their twenties, thirties, and forties who are unmarried often for legitimate reasons beyond their control. Many, for whatever reason, will either subconsciously or even consciously, conflate spiritual maturity and marital status—meaning that the ideal spiritual setting for someone is being married with several children. When a young man or woman approaches his or her late twenties unmarried, then it is often thought that such an individual is probably spiritually deficient, and likely also selfish and self-serving.

In a relatively new and small faith community such as the Messianic movement, we should recognize that with our size being what it is, that it will be difficult for many young men and women to find a suitable spouse—at least for an elongated season. Rather than eschewing such people as being spiritually immature or unfit for service within the Kingdom of God, a review of the legitimate and blessed Biblical option of celibacy, should be in order.

When reviewing a selection of theological resources, it is true that many of the Bible examiners of the past half-century have not known what to do with celibate singleness. The short IDB entry only says, “Celibacy is unknown in the Bible, with the possible exception of Paul” (I Cor. 7:8).”[1] ABD is somewhat better, as it has the more neutral, “Votive abstention from marriage and sexual relations—unknown unless alluded to in Matt 19:12.”[2]

Within the Jewish theological tradition, it can be easily seen how celibate singleness has been something greatly frowned upon. A dictum in the Talmud records, “Said R. Hanilai, ‘Any man who has no wife lives without joy, blessing, goodness:’ Joy: ‘and you shall rejoice, you and your house’ (Deu. 14:26). Blessing: ‘to cause a blessing to rest on your house’ (Eze. 44:30). Goodness: ‘it is not good that man should be alone’ (Gen. 2:18)” (b.Yevamot 62b).[3] Obviously, these statements reflect certain interpretations of Tanach passages, which imply that a person (particularly a male) who lives without a spouse is probably unhappy and likely personally incomplete. The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion notably has an entry on “Celibacy,” recording the historical Jewish view of not only the married state being ideal for all people, but also the views of how unmarried persons were not permitted to serve in various leadership capacities within the community:

“The idea that a person ought not to marry is entirely foreign to Judaism. The opening phrase in the major code of matrimonial law leaves no doubt as to the obligation to marry and raise children: ‘Every man is obliged to marry in order to fulfill the duty of procreation, and whoever is not engaged in propagating the race is accounted as if he shed blood, diminishing the divine image and causing his presence to depart from Israel’ (Shulḥan ‘Arukh, Even ha-‘Ezer 1.1). Only one exception to this rule is recognized by the Talmud, and that is the case of an individual such as Ben ‘Azzai whose ‘soul was bound up with the Torah and is constantly occupied with it’ (Maimonides, Laws of Marriage 15.3). Not only is matrimony regarded as the ideal state of existence, but an unmarried person is debarred from high religious and judicial office. Both high priests and judges in capital cases must be married, and single men are, in principle, unfit to act as synagogue readers (Yoma’ 1.1; San. 36b; Shulḥan ‘Arukh, Oraḥ Ḥayyim 53.9). No Jewish moralist has ever encouraged celibacy, and in this respect, there is a marked difference between Jewish values and those of Christianity.”[4]

It is safe to say that many of the sentiments recorded above, match much of the thinking of a wide number of people within today’s broad Messianic movement: unmarried people are deficient when compared to married people.

The Tanach or Old Testament includes a number of examples of those who were celibate their whole lives, such as Nazirite vows taken for life (Judges 13:5, 7; 16:17). The Prophet Jeremiah was specifically called by God to be unmarried and childless (Jeremiah 16:1-2).[5] The Jewish philosopher Philo expressed the opinion that upon being made leader of Israel, that Moses did not have sexual relations with his wife, in order to be fully committed to service:

“But, in the first place, before assuming that office, it was necessary for him to purify not only his soul but also his body, so that it should be connected with and defiled by no passion, but should be pure from everything which is of a mortal nature, from all meat and drink, and from all connection with women. And this last thing, indeed, he had despised for a long time, and almost from the first moment that he began to prophesy and to feel a divine inspiration, thinking that it was proper that he should at all times be ready to give his whole attention to the commands of God” (Life of Moses 2.68-69).[6]

It probably goes too far to suggest that Adam and Eve were celibate only until their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and that they only had sexual relations to produce children. This is a view stated in the Pseudepigrapha: “And Adam named his wife Eve. They had no son until the first jubilee but after this he knew her” (Jubilees 3:34-35).[7]

Christianity has been more favorable than not, to heterosexual men and women choosing—or as may be required by life circumstances—to be celibate. Varied views in the emerging Christianity of the Second-Fourth Centuries C.E. were quite favorable to celibacy,[8] often as a means for men and women to live a life almost completely dedicated to God’s service. Historically, this has manifested in Roman Catholic priests and nuns making vows of celibacy before being consecrated to their respective offices, but also with the idea predominating much Christian thought that sexual intercourse is only intended for procreation and not for the legitimate pleasure of a husband and wife. The Protestant tradition has rightfully made corrections to much of this, as Protestant ministers today are indeed permitted to marry, and sexual intercourse is rightly viewed as involving more than just procreation. “The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century vigorously rejected enforced celibacy of the clergy in favor of a return to apostolic freedom” (Baker’s Dictionary of Theology).[9] Yet, while appropriate corrections have been made by Protestantism to Catholic error, the issue of celibate singleness for individuals at large—and most especially clergy—is not one often approached with a great deal of fairness or maturity, with single people not tending to be treated with full acceptance and equity by their married peers.

There are certainly perspective issues to be weighed from verses like Genesis 1:28 and 2:18. The first commands, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Genesis 1:28, NASU). With God having made man and woman (Genesis 1:26-27), this is properly interpreted as being a general direction to humankind in general, that they might reproduce via children, and subdue Planet Earth. This is not a specific direction to all men and women to have children, especially as there are men who are impotent and women who are barren. The second statement, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him” (Genesis 2:18, NASU), indeed involves how Adam, the first man, needed a mate in Eve, the first woman. The statement “It is not good for the man to be alone” can be commonly interpreted as a general statement regarding all people, although contextually it involves the loneliness of Adam as the sole human being on Planet Earth requiring another human for companionship. It should go without saying that in the Twenty-First Century, on a planet of over seven billion people, that no man or woman has any reason to feel “alone.”

Within the Torah, it is witnessed that Levitical priests could not have crushed testicles (Leviticus 21:20-21), and that those males who were castrated could not enter into the Tabernacle (Deuteronomy 23:1). While sometimes approached from the perspective of God frowning on the unmarried and childless, castration was something commonly practiced by various Ancient Near Eastern cults, hence possibly making eunuchs entering into God’s Tabernacle a way of introducing paganism. Castration of a male’s sexual organs is quantitatively different than a man or woman choosing to be unmarried or living a single and celibate life because of circumstances. It cannot go overlooked, though, how in the future eschaton eunuchs are among the formerly disfranchised persons who are welcome into God’s House (Isaiah 56:3-5). Surely if those who had their sexual organs removed can be welcome, then single men and women who are committed to a life of abstinence should be even more welcome.

Generally speaking, evangelical theologians have approached the issue of celibate singleness as being something widely or greatly frowned upon in the period of the Tanach or Old Testament, but something more permitted and allowable in the period of the Apostolic Writings or New Testament. As the entry for “Celibacy” in ISBE records,

“It OT times marriage was almost universal and celibacy was considered abnormal. For the Israelites as well as other ancient peoples the propagation of the family name was of supreme importance, and thus the desire for sons was the dominant factor…In the NT we find a somewhat different attitude toward marriage from the general stance of the OT….Here we find notable examples of celibacy: John the Baptist, the apostle Paul, and Jesus Himself.”[10]

One of the most perplexing words of Yeshua the Messiah, expounding upon all of the possible avenues of what it could mean to be a “eunuch,”[11] is seen in Matthew 19:12: “For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by men; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. He who is able to accept this, let him accept it” (NASU). Many of those who would be regarded as eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven, are not those who actually had their sexual organs altered or removed, but instead those who would be committed to a life of celibate singleness. As such, Lattimore offers a unique and appreciable rendering of Matthew 19:12: “For there are sexless men who have been so from their mother’s womb, and there are sexless men who have been made sexless by other men, and there are sexless men who have made themselves sexless for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let him who can accept, accept.”

The most significant instruction regarding celibate singleness, surrounds the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:7-9. For sure, a figure like Paul considered heterosexual marriage between one man and one woman to be a God-ordained and God-blessed state (1 Corinthians 9:5), and hardly some sort of sin (1 Corinthians 7:28). What is confronted in 1 Timothy 4:1-4 about a prohibition to marry, was rooted within an inappropriate asceticism, where eating meat and having sexual relations were connected to a false teaching which advocated that the resurrection had taken place (2 Timothy 2:18).[12] Contrary to this, the celibacy spoken of by the Apostle Paul, per his own ministry, was something very different for the sake “of the present distress” (1 Corinthians 7:26, NASU)—an indication that while celibate singleness is a “gift” (1 Corinthians 7:7), it is often forced upon men and women because of life circumstances:

“Yet I would that all people were even as I myself am. However, each has his own gift from God, one in this manner, and another in that. But I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they do not have self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to burn” (1 Corinthians 7:7-9, PME).

A most pronounced example of what many consider to be celibacy, involves the 144,000 sealed servants from the Twelve Tribes of Israel, as Revelation 14:4 states, “These are the ones who have not been defiled with women, for they have kept themselves chaste. These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes. These have been purchased from among men as first fruits to God and to the Lamb” (NASU). The clause parthenoi gar eisin is more specifically, “for they are virgins” (ESV), taken by Brown and Comfort to indeed be, “celibates for they are.”[13] Of course, there is some possible maneuvering regarding the males among the 144,000[14] and the requirement that they not be defiled with females—as an indication that such individuals never fell prey to sexual sin, and per the chance that they might be married, they were virgins at the time. The operative statement is being “defiled with women,” whereas proper sexuality between a man and a woman within the context of marriage is not something defiling per Hebrews 13:4: “Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (NASU). Still, there is a high probability that the considerable majority of the 144,000 will be celibate and single—a likely consequence of avoiding the perversions present in the years leading up to the Messiah’s return.

Even with celibate singleness a state which is held in Holy Scripture to be one of high regard, alongside of heterosexual monogamy, many of today’s evangelical Christian complementarian theologians greatly frown on it. Noting some of the views on 1 Timothy 3:2 (which this writer believes is situation-specific to Timothy in Ephesus, and not universal for all times and places) in their book God’s Design for Man and Woman, and how the overseer was to be “the husband of one wife,” Andreas J. Köstenberger and Margaret E. Köstenberger have to concede, although certainly begrudgingly,

“…Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 acknowledges the gift of celibacy and notes that it enables a believer who chooses to remain unmarried to serve in a more unencumbered manner than those who must fulfill their marital and familial obligations. For this and other reasons, it’s highly unlikely that Paul, by stipulating that candidates for the office of elder be mias gynaikos andra, seeks to exclude unmarried men from serving in this capacity. It’s an indication of the implausibility of this interpretation that very few interpreters actually take this view today. Single men are therefore potentially to serve as church leaders.”[15]

While complementarians are well known for their discrimination (in spite of Biblical examples) against women for serving as leaders and teachers within the Body of Messiah—in the Köstenbergers saying that “Single men are therefore potentially to serve as church leaders” (emphasis mine), complementarians tend to likewise be discriminatory (in spite of Biblical examples—including Yeshua the Messiah) against single men serving as teachers and leaders in the Body of Messiah.

In much of contemporary evangelicalism, real problems erupt in church settings, when it is believed not so subtly how the young family of a husband and wife in their mid-to-late thirties, with their two or three small children is more godly and spiritual than the celibate single man or woman in his or her mid-to-late thirties—when it is known that the husband and/or wife was once involved in promiscuity and other high sins prior to marriage. Such a single man or single woman, in contrast, may indeed be a person who has been committed to sexual purity since being a teenager. Such persons who are unmarried are often unmarried because of life circumstances, beyond those of the economics of marriage, their education, or their jobs. Such persons who are unmarried are often unmarried because a potential husband or wife has not entered into their lives, and they have no other Biblical option but to be celibate.

There are various leaders and teachers within today’s Messianic movement, who will admit to having had many sexual liaisons prior to marriage (as well as other sins, such as drug addiction). And, for whatever reason or reasons, because they are married now, they are perceived as somehow being more spiritual and mature than the unmarried man or woman striving to maintain sexual purity, often in a celibacy forced upon them by life circumstances. Sadly, our faith community can very much fall into the complementarian error of believing that the married state is superior, rather than co-equal, to celibate singleness.

The marriage option is not always available for young people in the Body of Messiah, in the early Twenty-First Century. This especially involves young men or young women who are a part of the Messianic movement, who if going to be married, should indeed have a husband or wife with compatible beliefs and values. While some might say that such young men and young women need to “pray harder” for a spouse to arrive into their lives—what if God has other plans for these people, and at the very least, that an elongated season of celibate singleness awaits them? What legitimate service can such young men and young women offer to the Body of Messiah—specifically for contributing to aspects of our theology and spirituality that those who have immediately preceded us were unable to do, because of marital responsibilities?

There is little doubting that as the return of Israel’s Messiah draws nearer, that there are going to be more and not less, young men and young women in today’s Messianic movement, who will need to be committed to a life of celibate singleness. Much of this is lamentably because of the sexual sins and perversions which are on the increase in society. And, as obvious as it may be: celibate singleness is the only legitimate alternative to heterosexual monogamy. (Homosexual marriage is no option!) What surely does need to be changed—especially as there is a slowly emergent Messianic egalitarianism on the rise—is for people in our faith community to begin to see heterosexual monogamy and celibate singleness as co-equal and mutually blessed by God. Single people can serve and lead God’s people the same as married people. Darlene Fozard Weaver correctly directs in the Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, “Celibacy challenges social hierarchies grounded on marriage and kinship. It permits more egalitarian and inclusive access to religious distinction and leadership. Celibacy points to the transformation of human relations in the kingdom of God (Matt 23:30 pars.).”[16] Yeshua Himself did issue the difficult word,

“The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection” (Luke 20:34-36, TNIV).

There will be those, as the age to come draws near, who will not marry, and be similar to those who participate in the resurrection of the dead. The needs of the Body of Messiah as the Lord’s return draws closer, are going to be very stressful and significant. With more Messianic young men and young women going to probably be single and celibate, our faith community at large has the responsibility not to dismiss them as being an inconvenience we do not quite know what to do with, but rather to embrace them as being faithful to the Biblical ethos of maintaining sexual purity and holiness. They need to be encouraged to rechannel the energies that others have used to be a spouse and parent, into the interests of the Kingdom of God and salvation history.


NOTES

[1] “Celibacy,” in IDB, 1:546.

[2] “Celibacy,” in ABD, 1:879.

[3] The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary.

[4] Daniel Sinclair, “Celibacy,” in R.J. Zwi Werblowsky and Geoffrey Widoger, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 151.

[5] “The word of the LORD also came to me saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for yourself nor have sons or daughters in this place’” (Jeremiah 16:1-2, NASU).

[6] Philo Judaeus: The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged, trans. C.D. Yonge (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), 497.

[7] O.S. Wintermute, trans., “Jubilees,” in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1985), pp 60-61.

[8] David W. Bercot, ed., A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1998), pp 88-90.

[9] Donald G. Davis, “Celibacy,” in Everett F. Harrison, ed., Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), pp 112-113.

[10] Celibacy,” in ISBE, 1:627.

[11] Grk. noun eunouchos; “a castrated male person, eunuch,” “a human male who, without a physical operation, is by nature incapable of begetting children, impotent male,” and “a human male who abstains fr. marriage, without being impotent, a celibate” (BDAG, 409).

[12] Consult the author’s commentary The Pastoral Epistles for the Practical Messianic.

[13] Brown and Comfort, 886.

[14] While controversial for certain, this writer is of the personal opinion that there will be various females among the 144,000 sealed from the Twelve Tribes of Israel.

[15] Andreas J. Köstenberger and Margaret E. Köstenberger, God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 220.

[16] Darlene Fozard Weaver, “Celibacy,” in Joel B. Green, ed. et. al., Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 126.