Q&A With David: Matt. 19:3-12 and Celibacy

November 6th, 2010 § 1 comment

I was recently asked a question that I felt was blog-worthy. So I’m introducing a new feature: Q&A With David. It should be pretty self explanatory. I have no idea if I’ll ever get asked another question that I feel is blog-worthy (or that I feel like I can answer helpfully). So this may be a very short-lived feature. We’ll see.

Today, I’ll be responding to Blind Irish Pirate. In reference to Matthew 19:3-12, she said, “I feel that people are taking this verse out of context when they use it to talk about how celibacy is spiritually more pure than marriage,” and asked me to discuss it. BIP, I’m happy to oblige. (By the way, why are you a Blind Irish Pirate?)

I’ll start by unpacking what’s going on in this dialogue to show what the disciples are objecting to. We’ll see that this is not an argument for celibacy so much as it is an incredible misunderstanding of what is good in marriage. (And I’ll use John Piper to back me up.) Just as so many in our day cannot conceive of a happy lifelong commitment, so also the disciples could not see that as an ideal for marriage. Let’s begin by reading the passage.

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

The Pharisees have come to Jesus, asking him whether divorces is acceptable or not. He answers not with his own opinion, but by first quoting scripture to them, and then offering an interpretation of that scripture. He quotes Genesis, and then states the implication: Marriage is a thing made by God. Man should not undo what God has done.

The Pharisees didn’t come to Jesus because they wanted to know the answer. They wanted to trap him. So they came back with another piece of scripture. They quote Deuteronomy 24, asking why Moses would allow for divorce if marriage is a permanent institution made by God.

The next statement is the key for this passage. The following verses are just applications and interpretations of this principle. Marriage (with a few key exceptions) is a life-long commitment any breach of which is a sin.

“Well, then,” say the disciples, “it’s better not to marry!” What are they upset about? They’re protesting the permanence of marriage! It’s inconceivable to them that such permanence is a good thing. It’s odious to them! If that’s what marriage is, they say, then “it is better not to marry!”

Were this an argument for celibacy, we would assume that the disciples remained celibate. We know this isn’t the case from I Cor 9:5. (Hey, Catholics, your first pope wasn’t celibate. It’s in the Bible.) I don’t think that’s what’s going on here at all. What we have is a knee jerk reaction to an idea of marriage. From the disciples perspective, from their culture, a committed marriage looked awful and unhappy. It would be better not to marry than to have that!

John Piper begins his book This Momentary Marriage with a comment on this passage. (Free PDF available here. Sermon series it was based on here, messages a bit out of order.) Here is an extended quote from the beginning of the first chapter:

There never has been a generation whose general view of marriage is high enough. The chasm between the biblical vision of mar- riage and the common human vision is now, and has always been, gargantuan. Some cultures in history respect the importance and the permanence of marriage more than others. Some, like our own, have such low, casual, take-it-or-leave-it attitudes toward marriage as to make the biblical vision seem ludicrous to most people.

That was the case in Jesus’ day as well. But ours is worse. When Jesus gave a glimpse of the magnificent view of marriage that God willed for his people, the disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matt. 19:10). In other words, Christ’s vision of the meaning of marriage was so enormously different from the disciples’, they could not even imagine it to be a good thing. That such a vision could be good news was simply outside their categories.

If that was the case then—in the sober, Jewish world in which they lived—how much more will the magnificence of marriage in the mind of God seem unintelligible in a modern Western culture, where the main idol is self; and its main doctrine is autonomy; and its central act of worship is being entertained; and its three main shrines are the television, the Internet, and the cinema; and its most sacred genuflection is the uninhibited act of sexual intercourse. Such a culture will find the glory of marriage in the mind of Jesus virtually incomprehensible. Jesus would probably say to us today, when he had finished opening the mystery for us, the same thing he said in his own day: “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given… Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matt. 19:11–12).

Whether you agree with Piper’s exegesis, he is implying that what is difficult to accept is not the statements about celibacy (although that has its own difficulties, to be sure), but the permanence of the marriage and even the goodness of that permanence. That’s what they had trouble accepting.

Of course, there are those who, for the several reasons given in the text, will be celibate. This is a good thing. There’s no need to qualify that statement: celibacy is a good thing with many benefits. But marriage is also a good thing. To say that celibacy and marriage are both good things is not a contradiction. (That’s a very important statement, can I say it again? “To say that celibacy and marriage are both good things is NOT A CONTRADICTION!” Thank you.)

This isn’t fundamentally a passage about celibacy. It’s a passage about marriage. It necessarily deals with the opposite state, but it’s about what marriage is supposed to be. It is instituted by God. The preacher doesn’t in himself make a marriage. The ceremony in itself doesn’t make a marriage. The state license in itself doesn’t make a marriage. God makes it. Let not man undo what God has done.

In our culture, as in theirs, this was a hard saying. Not everyone can receive it. “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.”

§ One Response to Q&A With David: Matt. 19:3-12 and Celibacy

  • Darn tootin’. The question was raised because I am reading “Committed” by Elizabeth Gilbert (the one behind the East, Pray, Love craze), which is exploring marriage from the skeptical standpoint. She took it upon herself, at one point, to talk about Christianity and the history of marriage before Christ, during Christ and after Christ. Talk about taking things out of context. Or, as the Curly Haired Husband said, “It’s like someone hear Martin Luther King Jr. say, ‘I have a dream’ and then making a pact to not drink Nyquil.”

    I believe she quoted the text in which the disciples said to not marry and used it for her own means, very clearly taking it out of context.

    Thanks for the lesson of the day. :)

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