Sunday, October 29, 2006

After the Foley Follies, The Catholic Temperature Rises

Yet another case of a teen molested by a priest. Only this time it was a Republican in high public office who was molested as boy. The priest of course has been banned from ministerial duties but this hardly addresses the larger question. Is there something indemic to the Catholic approach to priesthood that is fundamentally flawed? My answer to this question is yes.

The requirement (not merely the option) of a celibate priesthood is unBiblical. At a minimum it should be optional at best. It's time for the Catholic Church to have a more Biblical approach to persons in ministry. Even the OT priests were not celibate! This is simply a relic of pre-medieval and medieval asceticism. And behind that earlier asceticism is unfortunately an inadequate theology of the goodness of human sexuality. And yet today's paper informs us that Catholic bishops are about to meet and provide new guidelines for ministering to gay persons. This may well be helpful, but the Catholic priestly hierarchy really needs to put their own sexual house in order before telling priests how to minister to gays appropriately. They need to look deep into their own souls and ask--- What is wrong with us? Here is the link to today's story--

What would a healthy approach to these sorts of issues of human sexuality look like that neither endorses sexual sin and calls it good on the one end of the spectrum nor endorses unBiblical forms of asceticism on the other? My answer to this is several fold, and it starts with 1 Cor. 7, and its frequent mis-interpretation.

Throughout 1 Corinthians Paul has been dealing with problems in the Corinthian Church. 1 Cor 7 is no different, and clearly enough what is happening in 1 Cor.7.1 is that Paul is quoting some views that Corinthians have about human sexuality, and he is critiquing and qualifying them in various ways. Notice how the verse starts--
"Now concerning the things about which you wrote 'It is good for a man not to touch a woman.'"

The 'you' here is not Paul, but rather the person's who wrote to him. Someone or someones in Corinth held an extremely ascetical view about male-female relationships. It is possible that the term 'touch' here is a euphemism for 'have sexual contact with' just as we use the euphemism 'sleep with' to mean roughly the same thing.

Notice Paul's response--- at a minimum, because of sexual sin "each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband". The word 'each' will later be qualified by Paul's discussion of the fact that there are some people (a minority) that have the gift of being able to remain continent and single. But the drift of the argument is clear enough that Paul thinks this is a minority of persons. This is one reason why he starts with the bold assertion "that each one of you should have...." Now notice the context. The context is sin-saturated Corinth. Paul was a good pastor, and he knew the temptations in Corinth were as grave as they are in our own sex-saturated environment. Were Paul here today I have little doubt he would be telling Catholic priests to get married right, left and center UNLESS they were one of those rare persons whom God had blessed with the gift of celibacy in singleness. We would have a lot less messes in the church today, especially the Catholic Church which is the only large denomination that requires celibacy of its ministers, if the celibacy requirement was dropped altogether.

Secondly, notice 1 Cor. 7.4-- Here Paul says something radical. He not only says that the wife's body belongs to the husband (which was the conventional wisdom of the day) startling every man he wrote to in that patriarchal culture with the sexual double standard he says that the husband's body belings exclusively to his wife. No messing around with call girls (called 'companions' back then) prostitutes, or other men's wives. Paul is balancing the ledger, and the eqality he is building into the marriage relationship stands out from the norm in the larger culture. Paul was not just another endorser of the old patriarchal status quo.

Thirdly, notice 1 Cor. 7.5-6-- "Don't deprive each other of sexual relationships except during a time of prayer, but after that come back together again". Paul, far from being in the least bit ascetical is encouraging a robust and repeated sexual sharing as normal for a Christian couple. And his standard for ministers was no different than his standard for everyone else he was writing to in Corinth. This was advice for all Christians there. Notice in 1 Cor. 9.5 he says that he has the right to have a wife and travel with her just as Peter and the Lord's brothers do. So much for the notion that the first 'Pope' was celibate. But back to 1 Cor. 7.

Sometimes 1 Cor. 7.6 has been totally twisted out of its context. The context makes reasonably clear that the exception or Pauline concession is not to HAVE sex, but rather to abstain from sex for the period of prayer. He is not conceding sex, he is conceding abstinence for a brief period of prayer time. That's all.

But what of 1 Cor. 7.7? Here we get to the nub of the matter. Paul does indeed wish that more people had the gift of celibacy so they could devote themselves wholly and solely to Christ and his ministry. But he recognizes that that is not everyone's 'charisma'. The Greek word 'charisma' from which the English word comes does not mean what it means in English. It means a 'grace gift' a gift from God.

What Paul says is that Christians should not ever make decisions about sexual relationships or abstaining from them on the basis of what they think or feel is 'natural'. Grace trumps nature when it comes to these issues. And so for Paul it requires a special gift of God's grace to remain faithful in marriage and it also requires a special gift of God's grace to remain celibate in singleness. Nothing is said here about natural inclinations and the like. Christians should make decisions about such matters on the basis of what God has given them the grace to do and be. And Paul recognizes that only a few like himself have been given the grace gift of remaining celibate in singleness throughout the rest of his life.

If the Catholic church could only listen to and live by this one Scripture when it come to requirments for the priesthood, things would not have gotten so out of hand in a sex saturated culture. There are many wonderful talent persons in the Catholic church whom God is calling to ministry, but has not gifted to be celibate. And since the church allows already for married priests, if their call to ministry comes after their marriage vows, its time to fix the rest of this flawed system.

I am under no illusions that this will solve all of the sexual problems in the Catholic Church, and I am also well aware that we Protestants have just as many problems as well, but for different reasons. We have not listened to the 1 Cor. 7.4-6 portion of this teaching well enough. Infidelity is rampant because marriages are not being nurtured as they should be.

There is an old saying of Chaucer from the Nun's Priest's Tale--- "if Gold rusts what then will iron do?" How in the world could either Catholic or Protestant clergy expect their parishoners to behave, or to have a good and healthy theology of human sexuality if we do not model it as well as teach it? We truly need to get our own house in order. We need to pluck the plank out of our own eyes. Jesus told us a long time ago that there were only two legitimate sexual options-- celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage (Mt. 19.1-12). Whether we are happy about this or not it means the sexual sharing is limited in the Bible to monogamous heterosexual marriage relationships. That's all. And if we cannot handle that, then we must pray for the grace gift of continence which God gives to some and not to others, and God does not decide this issue on the basis of whether he has also called the person into ministry.

Its time for the whole church to stop sending mixed messages like "Sex is dirty and unholy, save it for the one you really love and marry". The message needs to be "sex is a beautiful and precious gift of God. There is nothing remotely unholy about it. Indeed it is such a precious gift that it should indeed be saved for the context of unconditional love and an unlimited life time commitment." Unfortunately, however this great truth about human intimacy is one even much of the church and even too much of the clergy can't handle as things now stand. So what shall we do about this malaise? Inquiring minds want to know.

If you want to read more about the Pauline sexual ethic, pick up my Conflict and Coommunity in Corinth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996) and read the relevant bits.


Bill Barnwell said...

I agree with your theology of sexuality expounded on here, and wish more churches presented a balanced view of sexuality, but a few things:

1. I don't know if celibacy is actually the major contributing factor to this molestation crisis. In college my friends and I would all relate to each other about the difficulty of living the celibate life and waiting till marriage. None of us though, to my knowlege, were fantasizing about 12 year old boys or whatever. With the molestation crisis, apparently the majority of these fallen priests were not secretly dating and/or enganging in sexual activities with adult females on the side--instead abuse is taking place against underage boys. I agree that the celibacy requirement is not Biblical, and I certainly don't think that it is helping the Catholic priest situation, but I don't think it is the prime cause. There is some subculture within Catholic clerical ranks (Yes, I know it goes on with Protestants too, but it's looking way more widespread with North American Catholics) that is much more prone to this type of behavior. I'm not sure exactly what the prime motivations and causes are, but I'm doubting celibacy was the main problem.

2. The other extreme can be found in Evangelical ranks. Too often in my circles, marriage and family is made into an idol, singles are isolated, and more than a few young people see marriage as the solution to all their problems. How we treat our clergy, at least in my denomination and similar denominations is exactly the opposite in regards to singleness. With us, being a single minister is not generally favored, and most congregations would much prefer a married pastor with a couple cute little kids running around. Being single and childless (or even married and childless to an extent) makes a minister much less "marketable" in many Protestant circles.

3. Of course, many conservative Protestants aren't very balanced in their approach to sexuality either. In speaking out against sexual sin, sex is too often presented as dirty or bad. I got really tired of the mixed messages myself--"Don't have sex, it's wrong, bad, icky, etc...but it's so beautiful in marriage!" I wish there was more honest and Biblically consistent literature on this subject from all angles.

Matt Purmort said...


A very good post, I have known a few wonderful Christian Catholics who have often wondered if they were called to the priesthood but could not reconcile it with their God given desire for marriage. I think if the church would change this stance they would atract a lot more healthy and whole men for the ministry.


samlcarr said...

An excellent post - would that our teaching and practice were more solidly biblical. In the protestant churches marriage is rarely "for life" and our praxis is sadly as far away from biblical principles as the Catholics are in their own way.

On another tack, giving any individual too much power over others is also a major contributory factor to abuse. It often begins with the abuse of power.

Terry Hamblin said...

It used to be said in Ireland that all the children of the village called the priest 'Father' except his own children who called him 'uncle'. This simply points to the fact that in rural communities priests soved the celibacy problem by taking an unofficial 'wife'.

I suspect that the whole celibacy issue began with an expectation of the Lord's imminent return and later. when the church became a secular power, became a device against the founding of dynasties.

I'm not sure whether the abolition of celibacy would get rid of the problem of child abuse.

I have seen statistics suggesting that the abuse of young boys is much commoner than the abuse of young girls, though whether there is an element of propaganda in this, I am not sure. Certainly the Foley affair has released an anti-gay backlash. Are homosexuals more likely to be paedophiles? The two conditions are certainly confused in the mind of the public.

Although there are suggestions that both paedophilia and homosexuality are genetically hard-wired, I suspect that both are examples of arrested sexual development, to which a warped attitude towards sex within society as a whole contributes.

I certainly endorse your diagnosis of the church's responsibilty here and also your remedy for both priest and people: " is a beautiful and precious gift of God. There is nothing remotely unholy about it. Indeed it is such a precious gift that it should indeed be saved for the context of unconditional love and an unlimited life time commitment."

Ben Witherington said...

It is certainly true that sexual abuse is often a power issue, where there is a power inequity between two people. If there is an age inequity as well (i.e. one is young), the danger is multiplied several fold.

Chris Whisonant said...

I put the following quote out at my website in April 2005:

"The bishops have forbidden marriage and burdened the godly estate of priests with perpetual celibacy... With this, they have given the occasion for all kinds of horrible, enormous, innumerable sins of unchastity. They are still stuck in these things."

Some people could read that and think that it's from a 21st Century American speaking of the pedophile priests we seem to have more of than other countries. However, that quote is from:

Article 11 of Martin Luther's The Schmalkald Articles from 1538!

Dave said...

Some more theories that have some out in the past feew years on this topic:
1) Some might enter the priesthood hoping that it would be a place that would "cure" them, only to find that you can't run away from your problems.

2) Even if homsexuality & pedophilia are in now way related, there is a gay sub-culture for many in the preisthood.

3) The abstinence itself creates some sort of repressed emotions & feelings that are acted out in a disturbing way. Essntially these priests are told over and over about how bad sex is, and how bad it is especially for priests. Surely that's going to cause some mental illness issues for some...

4) The RC church is hurting for new priests. They don't have many to choose from, so they take what they can get...

Whatever the cause, the continued cover-up, has been a black-eye for the church. Perhaps, if these Bishops had children of their own, and they were able to fear for their own children's safety, they would have taken corrective actions from the beginning, instead of turning a bind-eye to these abuses.

During a time when the Roman Catholic church does very little to support marriage, they readily grant divorces (they call them annulments), I am not surprised at the latest scandals to come of the local RC parishes.

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Chris:

Great quote from Luther---! My point exactly. Next you will be telling us about that ex-nun Katie von Bora (Luther's wife):)


ClydeG said...

I remember in Bible college how my buddies and I would boldly talk about our desire to remain single, so we could be totally devoted to the work of the Lord. Yet on Friday night when we were allowed to visit the girls dorm, we were all there in force. Ben your right, celibacy is a spiritual gift for a select few. Thanks for the article.

Clyde G

Gordon Hackman said...

Dr. Witherington,

Could you please clarify for me where in the 1 Cor 7 passage Paul suggests that only a few have been given the gift of celibacy? I can definitely see how Paul is saying that God has given to each person a different gift, but I confess that I don't see anything in the passage that qualifies the gift to just a few.

Also, how does this passage from the beginning of the chapter fit in with the latter part of the chapter, especially verses 25-35, where Paul seems to expand on his argument for remaining single.

I'm not trying to be cantankerous by asking these questions, but I am concerned, as there is currently a movement underway in some parts of conservative evangelicalism to label adult singleness as sinful and out of God's will. I am concerned that some of what you have said here plays into that kind of mindset. One of the things they especially push is this idea that the "gift of celibacy" is only for a select few, who they claim are those called to some kind of heroic Christian service that precludes marriage. Everyone else is under an obligation to seek marriage or else be out of God's will. This is definitely not my view, but I could be induced to reconsider my position if someone whose opinions I respect, such as yourself, were to convincingly argue otherwise. In an earlier entry on this blog (back in 2005) you defended the legitimacy of adult Christian singles and I want to know how you mesh your view there with your views on 1 Cor 7 as presented here.

Thanks for your time,
Gordon Hackman

jean said...

Preach it, brother!

Rainsborough said...

A sexual morality might do more to articulate and defend the centrality of the child in any well constructed sexuality than does Paul’s. And it might inquire whether the development of reliable means of contraception make for an important difference in what is permissible and desirable in sexual conduct, especially the conduct of those who remain children’s primary caretakers. Why not rely on our own understanding of the centrality of proper care for children and of the weakening of the link between sex and parenthood? Why should scripture predominate in the justifying of sexual conduct?

But anyway, is anti-ascetic and egalitarian sexual morality soundly based on scripture? Sociologically inclined historians expect to find millenarianism coupled with asceticism. The connection makes intuitive sense: if the world as we know is disappearing, aren’t ordinary mundane concerns (even or especially sex) devalued and best put aside for the moment?

One might determine that somehow Paul didn’t quite mean what he seems to have said in I Thessalonians 4:16-17 and elsewhere. But still, a millenarian cast of mind might somehow shape one’s moral views, and plausibly in an ascetic direction. If as late as Tertullian some Christians still expected an imminent coming, it’s plausible that Paul did likewise and formed his morality accordingly.

Further, how do we know from the Greek [I’ve no right to ask, having no Greek and not having read Witherington’s study of I Corinthians—but I won’t let mere excellent reasons shut me up] that so many translators have erred in attributing I Cor. 7:1’s finding kalos in not touching women to Paul? Is it certain that this notion is only that a few of the Corinthians? Isn’t it pretty clear that Paul rank-orders celibacy, marital sex, and extramarital sex one-two-three? Celibacy is kalos, it would seem, and a superior ideal. That would be some grounds for the Church’s rule of celibacy, would it not?

The grounds lie in the authority of Paul and of scripture. But I entirely agree that this rank-ordering is unsound in theory and in practice, that indeed it surely sours relationships between men and women, and when those men and women have children, it shortchanges them as well. So much the worse for the authorities.

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Gordon and Rainsborough good posts by both of you.

The Greek is quite clear it reads "Now concerning what you wrote..." this is the precise formula that precedes a quotation. So the statement 'It is good for a man not to....." cannot be attributed to St. Paul no matter what old stodgy translations may suggest to the modern English reader. The NT wasn't written in English, and these crucial points can't be adjudicated or judged without the original language.

This same caution applies to what Paul says next. And once more the Greek is clear "every man should have his own woman" and vice versa is quite emphatic. It means that Paul not only recognizes that most of his audience is married, but this is also what he expects will be the norm in his Christian community, especially "because of porneia"-- sexual sin.

This provides no comfort nor any warrant for those who want to say that singles are sinning by remaining single. That would seem to assume that the Genesis mandate is encumbant on Christians (i.e. be fruitful and multiple... leave and cleave), but in fact clearly enough it is not. Jesus makes this perfectly clear in Mt. 19--- there are two legitimate options, celibacy in singleness and fidelity in marriage.

Paul says nothing about being single is for the "few, the proud the brave". He doesn't quantify this matter in any way. In fact, he says that he wishes more were like himself, and notice how he counsels the engaged couple later in the chapter, but he realizes that one must have the 'grace gift' to be this way.

As for eschatology and how it effects Paul's thinking and Jesus' and their ethics that's too big a subject for here--- see my book Jesus, Paul and the End of the World.

But three things I will leave you with: 1) Paul's robust eschatology does not in anyway cause him to say that all should be either celibate or even remain chaste in marriage. Paul was no ascetic at all. Indeed, he was a former Pharisee with a fulsome creation theology; 2) Paul's thinking is nothing like modern millenarian ascetical thinking-- that's an anachronistic comparison to say the least. He is a first century Jew, and by no means like Simon Stylites or other ascetical atheletes of the medieval Christian tradition. 3) No one who tells married couples to 'get it on' at all times, except during a season of prayer has any hangups about sexual intercourse in marriage. Its time for us to stop re-envisioning Paul through the lens of later Christian asceticism.


Gordon Hackman said...

Dr. Witherington,

Thanks for your answer to my query.


Bill Barnwell said...

If Christians today have the legitimate option of remaining single so they can better serve the Lord, does this in some way extend to married Christian couples who choose not to have children for this very reason? This is not the objective of my wife and I, but I do know some Christian couples that do not want to have children to focus more on their careers and/or ministries.

Are they being selfish by not wanting to have children? Would it be better for them to have children and perhaps not be ideal parents? Should ALL married Christian couples view having kids as a responsibility? To what extent is the "be fruitful and multiply" command binding on people today living in a very populated world? Interesting post and subsequent discussion.

Todd Gwennap said...

Dr. Witherington,

My name is Todd Gwennap. I am a first-year M.Div student at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO. I am from Asheville, NC and I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May 2005. My Greek in Exegesis course has been utilizing your socio-rhetorical commentary on 1st and 2nd Corinthians, and I have been thoroughly enjoying it. I thought I would email you because I have been reading your blog this past week, and I realized that we hail from the same region (Western North Carolina, born and raised) and share an alma mater (basketball season starts on Wednesday!). I am also hoping to pursue doctoral work eventually in New Testament interpretation. I was amused by the biographical similarities of our lives and interested in the fact that you have had success in the field I hope to pursue as a pastor-scholar. I wanted to contact you and see if you had any words of advice for an aspiring New Testament scholar (if you get a few minutes)? Thank you!

Todd Gwennap

David Johnson said...

Do you think that the law of priestly celibacy in the RCC is being maintained by the church, to any degree at all, so that they have some justification for their continued aversion to homosexuality? In Protestant circles, where the Bible is generally held to be the final authority, one can appeal to the Bible itself for what I believe must be seen as the only sufficient/compelling argument against homosexuality. But in the tradition-oriented RCC, no such "final appeal" can be made. What do you think?

Ben Witherington said...

More good questions and points/ First of all to Todd--- 'Go Heels!' Todd you are welcome to contact me at and we can talk about further studies in NT. You may or may not know that next fall Asbury begins its own PhD program in Biblical Studies.

As for Bill, Bill I don't think be fruitful and multiple is 'required' of any Christian couple. What I think is we need to get on with adopting the millions of orphans from around the world who have no homes, including the crack babies-- that would be ministry. Not having or adopting children just to be part of the jet set or live lives of conspicuous consumption is not Biblical either, but if you are genuinely doing it to serve the Lord that's fine, as do many folks who get married late in life, or after losing a spouse.

And as for the RC David, I can't really say, but you are right that canon law often has more clout for them than the Bible, however the Bible is perfectly clear that same sex sexual relationships of any kind are just as prohibited as adultery.

And to Ransborough, 1 Thess. 4 is about not invading someone else's marriage.


Ben W.

Curious Presbyterian said...

Why is this post and the comments following it fixated on the perceived shortcomings of Catholicism when there are Protestant, and evangelical, sex abuse scandals being reported "week in, week out"?

Bob Bliss said...

There is an article in the Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism on the strategies Paul employed in 1Corinthians.

I'm on B-Greek's list and Carl Conrad posted the link about an article in the journal on Genitive Absolutes. I had just read this post of yours when I received Conrad's email. I haven't read it but thought you might like to if you don't already know about it.

I have been a fan of your work for yours and read your blog almost daily. Thanks for your insights.

Steve said...

Dr. Witherington,
Thank you for your blog and for your words of wisdom. I came across your blog at the start of the summer
and this is my first posting. I am
Eastern Orthodox and,as you know,
our priests are allowed to marry. In
the Orthodox church we do have some
priests who have charism of Celibacy. Our Bishops are drawn from
either the ranks of celibate clergy
or clergy who have also been called
to a monastic life. From time to time we may get a bishop who was
married as a priest and who spouse
has since passed from this life to
the next.

The Church, both East and West, needs to examine the vocational
call to the ministry and understand
what is asking of those who feel the call. At the same time we need
to nurture those individuals who are
called so that they have a healthy
esteem and understanding of themselves as sexual beings made in
the image of God. I have seen individuals struggle with celibacy
knowing that they have no community
to support them and, at the same time, I have witnessed marriages of
ordained clergy fall apart because
of the stress of ministry or the
lack of respect given to young couples who have entered into God's
service. Allowing Catholic priests
to marry would be great but it is
going to trade one set of problems
for another. I am studying for
ordinate as deacon in the Orthodox
Church. Being single and praying about the right helpmate I think about this issue all the time. We
need to be very prayerful and thoughtful regarding how we deal with this. But we need to do it now!

Thanks so much.

Alison said...

I'm single but I don't have the gift of celibacy. Resisting these natural emotions and needs is killing me. Literally, I think. It's not like most of us have any choice in the matter. I really feel for priests.

Rainsborough said... The federal government has taken it upon itself to promote celibacy among certain citizens in their twenties. (At the same time, it seems in certain ways to discourage reliance on contraception.)

Is this policy Pauline? Is it advisable, all things considered? Does the answer to the first question largely decide the answer to the second?

Ben Witherington said...

Thank you so much for sharing. We welcome your voice here, and I am thankful the orthodox church has a more Biblical policy, which might in part explain why they have less sexual scandals percentage wise than Catholics or Protestants for that matter.

Curious Presbyterian... the reason we are talking about the Catholic is for the very good reason that the initial blog was based on the NY times article on this subject. We can talk about Protestants in hot water when that surfaces.. and of course it will.


Parker said...

I have to agree with Dr. Witherington, I think the forced celibacy IS part of the problem with the RC sex scandals. Consider Paul's words in Colossians 2 concerning the asceticsm being promoted there: "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch... These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh." Although there is the appearance of piety - it is really of no value, or worse yet, the "doctrine of demons," as mandatory celibacy is called in 1 Timothy 4.

Curious Presbyterian said...

"Curious Presbyterian... the reason we are talking about the Catholic is for the very good reason that the initial blog was based on the NY times article on this subject. We can talk about Protestants in hot water when that surfaces.. and of course it will.
Blessings, Ben"

Ben, we don't have to wait until it "surfaces" as Protestant/ fundamentalist/ evangelical sexual abuse, especially by evangelical Protestant clergy, is being reported all the time. Just today, Jerry Falwell called high-profile allegations that a former pastor of a prominent independent Baptist church molested and raped numerous children over the course of decades a "bump in the road." Here's the url for the Ethics Daily report:

Also, whether this is what you intended or not, your blog post has been interpreted as saying that priestly celibacy leads to sexual abuse. But this needs to be established, not just assumed. Where is the evidence that celibate priests sexually abuse any more than anyone else? Judging by the sheer number of Protestant clerics and pastors being reported in the media for sexual abuse, this certainly doesn't seem to be the case.

Jeffinoh said...

I suppose it would be impolite to list the members of the Wilmore community who have acted with or been accused of sexual impropriety and have kept it under wraps until forced to come forward. There have been several high-profile examples over the years, and truthfully they don't get talked about much. I know of one prominent and much-loved Wilmore figure whose exploits were covered up by two seminary administrators and who passed on to eternity without having his sin exposed publicly. It's hard for me to think of those situations and not get hung up on the hypocrisy of it. And I've tried not to do so, because I have truly loved Wilmore and the Asbury institutions. My opinion is that the Holiness emphasis on perfection provides an ideal environment for sexual scandal. For all we say about the beauty of sex, there's still a great deal of shame attached to it. People hide and lie and even become more bold and illicit when expected to be perfect. Perhaps not so different from the Catholic requirement of celibacy. I agree with Concerned Presbyterian that it's easy to point out the speck in others' institutional eyes than deal openly with the log in our own.

Robbie F. Castleman said...

Ben, Breck and I both enjoy your blog site and exchanges. I'd like to recommend an "honest" book concerning sexuality and etc. to Bill Barnwell who asked for "more honest and Biblically consistent literature on this subject". Happens to be my book, __True Love in a World of False Hope__(IVPress) which is a practical theology of sexuality in which I try to "unstain-glass" sex and get at much of what you say here. Bottom line, before the fall, God said it wasn't good for us to be alone. And God has not changed his mind. My best to you, Robbie

Jeffinoh said...

I don't know if the comments about Wilmore misbehavior were too close to home or if this thread has just died a natural death. I'd be interested, though, in peoples' thoughts on the relation between Christian Perfection in the Holiness movement and sexual misconduct. I've raised that issue on conservative Methodist blogs in the last few years (as specific scandals came to light)and have never had anyone respond. I realize that sexual misconduct can happen anywhere -- but having been immersed in a more liberal church environment/denomination for a dozen years or so, I've not witnessed it here like I did in Wilmore. At least I haven't seen the cover-ups and excuses. To me, it almost seems like personal morality has become a god in Holiness communities, and imperfect people are overwhelmed by the requirements of Christian perfection. So I'm not surprised anymore to hear about high-profile Holiness people who have been exposed for years-long sexual misbehavior while conducting their ministries. I wonder how people live with the hypocricy of that, though, and I wonder if a more honest/human view of sexuality would help the situation. The Christians I hang with now don't seem so pre-occupied with personal morality, though most are very moral people. They tend to drink and smoke (ick) and use expletives while focusing their ministries on justice and mercy. And ultimately, I think sexual conduct relates more closely to those than it does to personal morality.

Anyway, just wonderin'. :-)

Dave said...

Perhaps there is confusion over where "holiness / perfection" comes from.
Maybe too many poeple are trying to be perfect on their own in order to please God, instead of letting God work through them.
The pride & self-satisfaction that some have with their holy living is something that Wesley cautioned about.

Ben Finger said...

I would disagree that celibacy is of a gifting nature verses a conscious choice. Yes there maybe those science deams as asexual in that they have little to no desire for sexual experience, however there are those who do choose this lifestyle even though they have sexual urges. An individual may choose to live this lifestyle and funnel the energy of the sexual into a different positive venue. Just as pain can be a greater motivator for a spiritual life so can channeling our desires and urges into constructive forms be also. And yes desires are appropriate to be rechanneled. Some individuals are prone towards fits of anger or some individuals are prone to being obsessive, however both of these things which are natural to them can be channeled into a different venue to produce wonderful life giving work.

More so giving up sexual pleasure may also be given to God as a love offering in so many different ways. One particular way and which I believe is one of the key center to celibacy is that a life of celibacy confesses that God is our great fulfillment. We allow God to fill our sacred core that is within. This perplexes the world as it seems to perplex many protestants who are not familiar with celibacy.

The celibate lives a good and very important role in our community of believers. The celibate individual lives as a witness to the goodness of God as being the one who sustains and substains us. The celibate individual via their life declares that God is enough. The celibate individual is a living witness of truth that we are intended and meant to find our fulfillment via relationship with God. The celibate answers the question of where do we find our ultimate fulfillment. It is not with our wives or children. It is not with our acknowledgments and rewards. It is not with the person that gives us the most physical gratification. It is a declaration that our ultimate fulfillment is found in God in relationship with him above everything else.

So I reiterate: The person who elects to live the life of the celibate serves as a great witness to those in need of relationships. We are not and never were designed to be alone. We have always been and forever will be designed to be in relationship. The life of the celibate is a sign of hope given to the world. They proclaim they have found the peace within by allowing God to infill their sacred core. They likewise are not hermits for they may welcome the fellowship with others to rejoice in the places God has designed us to love and another.

And there is some much more I could write on celibacy.

But finale notes:
#1 Celibate individuals are not freaks. Just like single individuals are not freaks in our congregations. These individuals are important and should be a part of every Christian community.
#2 We choose ultimately where and what we do with our lives. What we do sexually is still and will always be our choice. Celibacy is just like the choice to whether to live a straight or gay lifestyle. You ultimately choose to live it out. You don't have to participate in it but you can. We can participate in any of these 3 lifestyles. But we don't have to. Celibacy and the straight lifestyle are to valid ifestyles we can live. Both have advantages and disadvantages. it is something that should be prayed over , thought over, and chosen wisely.

There is nothing wrong with celibacy and we should not continue to treat those who are celibate as if it is a curse or a heavy burden. No its something to rejoice in and be glad.

Chris said...

Dr. Witherington,

I just wanted to make some comments on this statement you made:

"And since the church allows already for married priests, if their call to ministry comes after their marriage vows, its time to fix the rest of this flawed system."

The Catholic Church, as a rule, does not allow married priests to be ordained after they take their vows. The only exceptions to this are after a man's wife passes away, after a valid annulment (sometimes), and if a man converts to Catholicism from another faith such as the Russian Orthodox or Anglicanism that is "in communion" with the Catholic Church. In fact the third category is the only situation I know of where there are actually married Catholic priests (who wear wedding rings and have children). The other type of ordained clergy in the Catholic Church is the Permanent Deacon. This seems to fit more along the lines of the above quote. A Permanent Deacon can be ordained a Deacon after he is married. However, if the Deacon is unmarried when he seeks ordination he must remain single and celibate.

Maybe I misinterpreted what you said, but I wanted to make this clarification. I do totally agree that the Catholic priesthood is a flawed system. The shortage of priests is causing a HUGE problem for the church in every area from availability of the sacraments to pastoral care.

I enjoy reading your blog and I am looking forward to starting classes at Asbury in June.