Sunday, 5 June 2011

Celibacy and virginity in biblical and patristic writings

This is the latest post in a series on issues of gender and sexuality in the New Testament and the Fathers.

The main themes to be found in the sources can be summarised as follows:

- It is better to be celibate than to be married.  This notion can be traced back to St Paul and before him to Jesus, both of whom appear to have been unmarried.

- Marriage is not wrong, or is at least the lesser of the two evils compared with sexual immorality, but it represents a concession as an outlet for sexual desire and it can bring problems and distract one from God. 

- There will be no sexual activity in the next life.


1 Corinthians 7.1-11

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: "It is well for a man not to touch a woman.".... I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain unmarried as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry.


1 Corinthians 7.25-40

Now concerning virgins... I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none.... The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband.... If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly towards his fiancée, if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry. But if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée, he will do well. So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better. A wife is bound as long as her husband lives. But if the husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my judgement she is more blessed if she remains as she is.


Mark 12.24-25

Jesus said to them, "Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven."


Matthew 19.12

[Jesus said:] "For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven."


St Jerome, Against Jovinian

“It is good,” [St Paul] says, “for a man not to touch a woman.” If it is good not to touch a woman, it is bad to touch one.... But if it be bad and the evil is pardoned, the reason for the concession is to prevent worse evil.... The reason why it is better to marry is that it is worse to burn. Let burning lust be absent, and [St Paul] will not say it is better to marry.... I suspect the goodness of that thing which is forced into the position of being only the lesser of two evils. What I want is not a smaller evil, but a thing absolutely good.... But if anyone considers that his virgin, that is, his flesh, is wanton and boiling with lust, and cannot be bridled, and he must do one of two things, either take a wife or fall, let him do what he will, he does not sin if he marry.... The difference, then, between marriage and virginity is as great as that between not sinning and doing well; nay rather, to speak less harshly, as great as between good and better....

Why then, you will say, were the organs of generation created, and why were we so fashioned by the all-wise creator, that we burn for one another, and long for naturalintercourse?... I shall briefly reply: Are we never then to forego lust, for fear that we may have members of this kind for nothing?... [W]hat harm does it do me if another man lies with my wife?... But what does the Apostle mean by exhorting to continence, if continence be contrary to nature?... Our Lord and Saviour... what necessity was there for Him to be born with members which He was not going to use?

The substance of our resurrection bodies will certainly be the same as now, though of higher glory.... “In the resurrection of the dead they will neither marry nor be given in marriage, but will be like the angels.” What others will hereafter be in heaven, that virgins begin to be on earth. If likeness to the angels is promised us (and there is no difference of sex among the angels)... though we rise from the dead in our own sex, we shall not perform the functions of sex....

All the virtues of the Spirit are supported and protected by continence, which is as it were their solid foundation and crowning point.... “And they that are of Christ have crucified their flesh with the passions and the lusts thereof. If we live by the Spirit, by the Spirit let us also walk.” Why do we who with Christ have crucified our flesh and its passions and desires again desire to do the things of the flesh? “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth unto his own flesh, shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth unto the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap eternal life.” I think that he who has a wife, so long as he reverts to the practice in question, that Satan may not tempt him, is sowing to the flesh and not to the Spirit. And he who sows to the flesh (the words are not mine, but the Apostle’s) reaps corruption. All I say now is, that as mere virginity without other works does not save, so all works without virginity, purity, continence, chastity, are imperfect....

For the Church does not condemn marriage, but makes it subordinate; nor does she reject it, but regulates it; for she knows, as was said before, that [2 Tim. 2.20-21] in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and earthenware; and that some are to honour, some to dishonour; and that whoever cleanses himself will be a vessel of honour, necessary, prepared for every good work.


St Augustine, On the Good of Marriage

Thus also this mortal begetting, on account of which marriage takes place, shall be destroyed: but freedom from all sexual intercourse is both angelic exercise here, and continues for ever....

[I]t is good to marry, because it is good to beget children, to be a mother of a family: but it is better not to marry, because it is better not to stand in need of this work.... [W]e gather, that, in the first times of the human race, chiefly for the propagation of the People of God... it was the duty of the Saints to use this good of marriage, not as to be sought for its own sake, but necessary for the sake of something else: but now, whereas, in order to enter upon holy and pure fellowship, there is on all sides from out all nations an overflowing fullness of spiritual kindred, even they who wish to contract marriage only for the sake of children, are to be admonished, that they use rather the larger good of continence....

For what Christian men of our time being free from the marriage bond, having power to contain from all sexual intercourse, seeing it to be now "a time," as it is written, "not of embracing, but of abstaining from embrace," would not choose rather to keep virginal or widowed continence, than... to endure tribulation of the flesh, without which marriages cannot be...?


Pope St Gregory I, Pastoral Rule

[Fornicators] are therefore to be admonished that, if they suffer from the storms of temptation with risk to their safety, they should seek the port of wedlock. For it is written, "It is better to marry than to burn" [1 Corinthians 7.9]....

Those who are unacquainted with the sins of the flesh are therefore to be admonished both to know that virginity surpasses wedlock, and yet not to exalt themselves above the wedded: to the end that, while they put virginity first, and themselves last, they may both keep to that which they esteem as best, and also keep guard over themselves in not vainly exalting themselves.