Rev. Koole is pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan.
O for godly pastors.
It was the apostle Peter, no less (are you listening, Rome?), who wrote,
Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, … not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being examples to the flock.
How the church needs godly pastors who can function as examples to the flock, especially to its youth (John 21:15), and in particular in the area of sexual purity and faithfulness in marriage.
Today, headlines are awash with scandal that involves leaders of the church—gross, sexual scandal. In particular it is Rome that finds itself in the spotlight (or should we say ‘the headlights’?) once again, due to the fornicating, defiled behavior of her priests. This is not to say that Protestant clergy are free from such scandal. Not only is fornication not unknown amongst such, but consider the prevalence of divorce and remarriage even amongst the clergy. Almost as common as with the parishioners. An example indeed. But of what kind!
Scandalous though the recent revelations of Rome’s priests’ vile sexual abuses have proved to be, both in the prevalence of the cases, and in the systematic cover-up practiced for years, what Rome has permitted her priests to engage in is nothing new. This widespread sexual immorality among Rome’s clergy, so well known and documented in the Middle Ages, was one of the factors that contributed greatly to the Reformation and the call to a wholesale reform. Monasteries were notorious for their sexual immorality. Parents often feared sending their sons and daughters unattended to make confession to many a priest alone. The question arose amongst the pious, “How can such pastors teach us holiness, when they are the worst of the lot! Lord, deliver us from Rome.”
What the present-day scandal has brought under close scrutiny, of course, is Rome’s doctrine of celibacy. For the last millennium Rome has imposed the vow of celibacy, namely, a vow to abstain from marriage, on its priests (as well as on its monks and nuns). For Rome’s priests, celibacy is not an option, but a matter of Canon Law. This is part of what Rome considers to be their special vocation before God.
However, as the late Loraine Boettner astutely points out in his book Roman Catholicism,
[Celibacy] is not to be confused with the vow of chastity, which is also taken by the members of these groups, and which means abstention from sexual relations.
According to Canon Law the vow of celibacy is broken if the priest marries, but not if he engages in sexual relations. Pardon for sexual relations can be had easily (sic!) at any time by confession to any fellow-priest. But absolution for any priest who marries can be obtained only from the pope, with accompanying severe penalties. And to obtain such pardon it is required that he forsake his wife (p. 298).
This is the face of Rome. Rome is more troubled and ‘scandalized’ by clergy who are married than by those who only have to confess to sexual immoralities again and again.
The Reformers were well aware of the realities of human nature, especially what in its fallen condition it is susceptible to, and to what enormities imposed-celibacy would and does lead. Calvin in his Institutes, in the section dealing with church discipline, and then with Rome’s lamentable laxity when it came to her licentious clergy, writes,
In one thing they (i.e., the papists) are more than rigid and inexorable—in not permitting priests to marry. It is scarcely necessary to remark with what impunity whoredom prevails among them, and how, trusting to their vile celibacy, they have become callous to all kinds of iniquity. The prohibition, however, clearly shows how pestiferous all traditions are, since this one has not only deprived the Church of fit and honest pastors, but has introduced a fearful sink [swamp] of iniquity, and plunged many souls into the gulf of despair. Certainly, when marriage was interdicted [forbidden with threats] to priests, it was done with impious tyranny, not only contrary to the word of God, but contrary to all justice (Institutes, IV, xii, 23).
What Calvin charges Rome with here as a consequence of her unbiblical law of celibacy is not mean-spirited and unfounded. Former priests, converted out of Catholicism, verify these very things. L. H. Lehmann wrote,
Had it (i.e., celibacy) not been imposed to serve the ends of the papal power, but left to free, voluntary choice, priestly celibacy might have been a real service. Instead it has been made the cause of scandal and shame to the Christian church. Forced as it is by human and not divine law, it has perverted any good that otherwise might come from it….
But the real evil consequent upon forced clerical celibacy is its enervating effect upon the bodily and mental faculties. It saps all the vigor of manhood from those who must employ the continual force of mind and will against the natural bodily urge. Its victims have to confess that, far from freeing them from the sexual urge, it actually breeds a very ferment of impurity in the mind….
It is almost impossible for the laity to understand to what extent Roman Catholic priests fail to live up to the celibate state imposed upon them… (The Soul of a Priest, pp. 120-4).
Well, maybe it once was, but no more. Emmett McLoughlin, another converted priest, having described the loneliness that imposed celibacy inflicts upon the priest, adds this condemning testimony:
No priest who has heard priests’ confessions and has any respect for the truth will deny that sexual affairs are extremely common among the clergy. The principle concern of the hierarchy seems to be that priests should keep such cases quiet (sic!) and refrain from marriage….
The number who rebel against the frustration and unnaturalness of this form of life is far greater than anyone realizes (People’s Padre, pp. 93, 94).
God’s wisdom spoken in the very beginning, and then repeated more than once in the New Testament, rings so true. “It is not good that man should be alone….”
It is worth noting in this connection that although Rome argues that celibacy for the clergy is in accordance with the ancient fathers, the fact is that throughout the entire first millennium of New Testament church history the clergy (which is to say, the priests) were for the most part free to marry and raise families. It was not until A.D. 1079, under the heavy hand of Pope Gregory VII, that the celibacy of the priesthood was made a matter of church law, and was imposed with rigor.
Rome claimed celibacy was necessary in the interests of true holiness, thereby enabling a man to be wholly committed to one bride and one bride only, namely, Christ’s church. In fact, coming as no surprise, Rome was motivated by something far less ideal, namely, by the twin devils of power and greed (i.e., in the interests of retaining property that would otherwise have gone to the priest’s family). Writes Boettner,
It is easy to see why the pope and the hierarchy are so insistent on enforcing the law of celibacy against the priests, monks, and nuns…. In the first place it gives the pope and his prelates a higher degree of control over the priests and nuns, so that, not having wives or husbands or families which must be consulted in making their plans, they are more responsive to the orders of the hierarchy and can be transferred more readily from one parish to another or to different points around the world. And secondly, property owned by the priest, which in some cases is quite considerable, and which if they were married would go to their families, either automatically falls to the church or likely will be left to it by choice in much larger proportion. Thus the pope has secured for himself an army readily available to carry out his commands (Roman Catholicism, p. 308).
In addition, the Reformers were well aware that Rome’s insistence on celibacy for its clergy sprang from an ancient heresy from which Rome never properly freed itself, the heresy of Manichaeism, which posits a dualism in the whole of life, an unbridgeable gulf between things spiritual and things material and physical. The things spiritual are inherently holy, but the things physical are “carnal,” and hence of a lower order and inherently corrupt. It is under this latter category that marriage, and sex, fall.
Rome, to be sure, has categorized marriage as a sacrament. Conveniently so! Being a sacrament means that marriage in all its facets and with all its intimate secrets and details is under the strict control of Rome’s clergy. But it is virginity that is to be exalted and venerated. Holiness of the genuine and highest order was to be found only in celibacy and, hence, the denial of one’s sexual desires in every regard. What does this imply about marriage? It is reserved for those of a lower order of spirituality, for those who cannot master and contain their “burnings,” which is to say, their lust. Sacrament or not, in Rome’s scheme of things marriage is but a necessary evil permitted those who cannot “contain.”
With this two-tiered system of holiness the Reformers would have nothing to do. Essentially their answer to Rome was the same as that of the Lord Jesus to Simon Peter on the rooftop in Joppa in the vision of the unclean animals, “What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common (i.e., vulgar!—KK)” (Acts 10:15).
The Reformers’ perspective is captured nicely by Calvin in his Institutes in the same section mentioned above (Book IV, xii), where he writes,
They (i.e., the papists) object that there ought to be some distinguishing mark between the clergy and the people; as if the Lord had not provided the ornaments (i.e., pastoral virtues) in which priests ought to excel…. Paul enumerates marriage among the qualities of a bishop; [whereas] those men declare that, in the ecclesiastical order, marriage is an intolerable vice; and, indeed, not content with this general vituperation, they term it, in their canons, the uncleanness and pollution of the flesh…. Let every one consider with himself from what forge these things have come. Christ deigns so to honor marriage as to make it an image of his sacred union with the Church. What greater eulogy could be pronounced on the dignity of marriage? How, then, dare they the effrontery to give the name of unclean and polluted to that which furnishes a bright representation of the spiritual grace of Christ? (sect. 24).
Over against Rome’s flimsy assertion that Simon Peter and the apostles never married, seeing it is evident from scripture that Paul did not, the Reformers could marshal a host of scriptures. For instance Luke 4:38 (which speaks of Christ healing Simon’s mother-in-law), and I Corinthians 9:5 (where Paul speaks of having the freedom to lead about “…a wife, as well as other apostles [do]”).
Of special weight in this whole matter is Hebrews 13:4: “Marriage is honorable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.” Commenting on this passage Calvin writes:
By saying ‘among all,’ I understand him to mean that there is no order of men prohibited from marriage…. It was necessary to express this distinctly to meet the superstition, the seeds of which Satan was already [back then] secretly sowing, that marriage is a profane thing, or certainly far removed from Christian perfection. Those false spirits, of which Paul prophesied, soon made their appearance and prohibited marriage. Therefore in case anyone foolishly imagines that marriage is allowed to the commonalty of men but that those who are prominent in the Church ought to abstain from it (emphasis mine—kk), the apostle removes every exception, and … he asserts that it is worthy of honour. It is more than remarkable that those who introduced into the world the prohibition of marriage were not frightened by this express declaration except that it was necessary to give rein to Satan in order to punish the ingratitude of those who refused to hear God (Torrance edition, p. 206).
It would not be improper on this subject to let the good Doctor, Martin Luther, have the last word, as was his custom in most matters anyway. In his treatise An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, commenting on I Timothy 3and Titus 1, both of which list the qualifications of bishops (those who are to rule the church), requiring that they should be “…blameless, the husband of one wife,” Luther writes:
So then we clearly learn from the Apostle that it should be the custom for every town to choose out of the congregation a learned and pious citizen, entrust to him the office of the ministry, and support him at the expense of the community, leaving him free choice to marry or not. He should have with him several priests or deacons, who might also be married or not, as they chose, to help him rule the people of the community by means of preaching and the sacraments, as is still the practice in the Greek Church…. [The] Roman See interfered, out of sheer wantonness, and made a universal commandment forbidding priests to marry. This was done at the bidding of the devil, as St. Paul declares in
I Timothy 4,
“There shall come teachers who bring doctrines of devils, and forbid to marry.” From this has arisen so much untold misery, occasion was given for the withdrawal of the Greek Church, and division, sin, shame, and scandal were increased without end—things which are the result of everything the devil does.
…I would speak only of the ministry which God has instituted and which is to rule a congregation by means of preaching and sacraments, whose incumbents are to live and be at home among the people. Such ministers should be granted liberty by a Christian council to marry, for the avoidance of temptation and sin. For since God has not bound them, no one else ought to bind them or can bind them, even though he were an angel from heaven, still less if he be only a pope: and everything that the canon law decrees to the contrary is mere fable and idle talk (II, 14, pp. 66, 67).
Notice, ministers marry not only to avoid temptation and sin, but also that they might “live and be at home among the people.” To be sure, Paul never married. But neither did he settle down in a congregation. How important for an exemplary home, a well ordered home, a home wherein is a warm welcome to the whole congregation, is a pastor’s wife, and a happily married man. To rephrase the Scottish poet, “She would frae mony a blunder free us.” Just ask Luther what his Kate meant to him and his work. Good friend, how much time do you have!