This past weekend I had a good friend from Ohio and his family stay at my place for the March for Life. He is Presbyterian, but they are committed pro-lifers and devout Christians. At one point we were talking about deacons in the Catholic Church and the difference between transitional deacons and permanent deacons. This then led to a discussion of the requirement of celibacy for priests and bishops (and transitional deacons) in the Catholic Church. Of course, this passage from 1 Timothy came up:
The saying is sure: If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task.
Now a bishop must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, sensible, dignified, hospitable, an apt teacher, no drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, and no lover of money. He must manage his own household well, keeping his children submissive and respectful in every way; for if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how can he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may be puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil; moreover he must be well thought of by outsiders, or he may fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
Deacons likewise must be serious, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for gain; they must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then if they prove themselves blameless let them serve as deacons. The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things. Let deacons be the husband of one wife, and let them manage their children and their households well; for those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.
(1 Timothy 3:1-13 emphasis added)
My Presbyterian friend interprets this passage to mean that a pastor or other person in church leadership must have a wife and children in order to be eligible for his position. Only when a man has proven to be able to “manage his own household” can he be trusted to manage church affairs. Of course, this interpretation clashes with the Roman Catholic practice of only ordaining unmarried men to the priesthood and episcopacy. So is the Church in violation of Scripture? I thought today, the feast of Sts. Timothy and Titus, would be a good time to address this issue.
Before getting to the point at hand, note that Paul does not mention priests in this passage. Why is that? A background of the leadership structure of the 1st century Church is helpful. During Paul’s time, there were three categories of leaders in the Church – apostle, bishop (or “overseer”) and deacon.
The office of apostle was reserved only for those people who had seen the risen Lord directly and had a special mission to tell others about it. This office, by its very nature, could only exist temporarily in the Church, for once all those who had directly witnessed the Risen Christ had died, there was no pool of qualified applicants available. Paul, obviously, was an apostle.
Bishops were appointed by the apostles to lead local churches. Their primary job was to pass on the Faith handed on by the apostles and to be the head of the local church. When a bishop died, another was appointed to take his place (and was ordained by other nearby bishops).
Deacons were appointed by their local bishops to help serve their local church. These men would assist at Mass and would help the poor in the area.
Note that there are no priests in this structure. The simple reason for this is that there was no need for them yet. Local churches were small enough that one bishop could celebrate the Mass which everyone could attend. Basically a bishop was both a bishop and a pastor. Over time, the churches grew and grew and eventually (although no one knows exactly when), men were needed who were not bishops but could celebrate the Mass when a bishop was not available. Eventually these men would become vital parts of the hierarchy, although their requirement for celibacy would differ between East and West. I think everyone would agree, however, that Paul’s advice to Timothy would apply to priests as well as bishops and deacons.
But back to the point at hand. Did bishops (and deacons) have to be married, according to Paul?
First – and most important – Paul himself was not married. If a bishop was required to be married in order to be qualified for church leadership, how could an apostle like Paul – who was higher in the hierarchy than a bishop – be qualified as an unmarried man? Tradition also holds that John the apostle was unmarried (as well as many of the other apostles), so clearly being married was not a requirement for being a leader in the Church.
Secondly, very, very early in tradition (so early we don’t know when it started), bishops were assumed to be celibate. Although you find some married bishops in the 3rd and 4th centuries, most evidence suggests that they practiced complete continence after their episcopal consecration. If Paul demanded that all bishops be married, why did the Church so quickly require her bishops to be unmarried (or at least completely celibate)? We have no evidence that there was any serious debate about this issue at the time, so clearly no Christians believed Paul was making such an argument. Did they just all have a huge blind spot, or perhaps did Paul not mean that all bishops must be married?
Finally, there is the example of Jesus himself. If being married and having kids is so important to church leadership, why didn’t Jesus get married and have children? After all, he is the true head of the Church, and all church leaders are to imitate him in their ministry.
Ultimately what Paul is saying in this passage is that no one should be appointed to church leadership who has not led a publicly upstanding lifestyle up to this point. If a man being considered for the office of bishop is married, then he had better have a solid marriage and good children. If he is not married, then his life up to now must similarly be upstanding and virtuous. Picking someone who has not proven that he can manage his household – whether that household contains one member or ten – is a recipe for disaster. Let us pray that the Church continues to abide by Paul’s advice and only selects such men for the offices of bishop, priest and deacon.
Sts. Timothy and Titus, pray for us!