Is the sexual union of husband and wife part of God’s intention for mankind? (Reflections on Gregory of Nyssa #2)

In the second in a series of reflections on the sermons of Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century theologian and one of the so-called ‘Three Cappadocians,’ we consider whether — in Gregory’s view and that of others in the fourth century — the sexual union of husband and wife is part of God’s intention for mankind.

You can find a brief account of the life of Gregory of Nyssa in my first article here.

Sermon #2 on the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven”

In Gregory’s second sermon on the Lord’s Prayer,[1] in which he considers the phrase “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9), there is a curious passage about the relations between a husband and wife. Alluding to Moses’ consecration of the people of Israel to prepare them for hearing the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:14-15) — a consecration which was performed by their washing their clothes with water and by abstaining from conjugal relations for three days — he writes,

“[The Lord Jesus Christ] proclaims as a law chastity not only from the lawful intercourse between husband and wife, but that springing from a nature entangled in material passions, and thus leads us to God through prayer. For this is the force of His words, that we should learn by them not to pronounce certain sounds and syllables, but the meaning of the ascent to God which is accomplished through a sublime way of life.”

Gregory of Nyssa, Sermon #2 on the Lord’s Prayer

The water He [= the Lord Jesus Christ] gives us for sprinkling does not come from alien streams, but wells up in ourselves, whether we understand by it the fountains of tears streaming from our eyes, or the pure conscience of the heart that admits no impurity coming from evil; He proclaims as a law chastity not only from the lawful intercourse between husband and wife, but that springing from a nature entangled in material passions, and thus leads us to God through prayer. For this is the force of His words, that we should learn by them not to pronounce certain sounds and syllables, but the meaning of the ascent to God which is accomplished through a sublime way of life.[2]

We see in this short excerpt the tendency to spiritualize the Scriptures, which was such a common mode of exposition in the fourth century. It is a long interpretative jump to get from the water by which the Israelites washed their clothes to the “fountains of tears streaming from our eyes,” yet Gregory makes this jump quite happily, and as if no further explanation is required.

According to Gregory’s sermon here, intercourse between husband and wife is “lawful,” which is an important observation to make. By the word ‘lawful,’ Gregory doesn’t mean that the sexual union of a husband and wife is permitted under Roman law — a fact which is perfectly obvious. Rather he is using the biblical concept of something being ‘lawful,’ the idea that it is in agreement with God’s revealed law. Often in the Bible this idea is referring to the Law of Moses, the laws revealed to Israel through Moses in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. But here, by a natural extension, Gregory is using the term to describe what is permissible for Christians under God’s new covenant made through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“At the same time as Gregory pronounces the sexual union of a husband and wife ‘lawful’ in this biblical sense, there is at least here the suggestion that a husband and wife should abstain from such lawful intercourse.”

And yet, at the same time as he pronounces the sexual union of a husband and wife ‘lawful’ in this biblical sense, there is at least here the suggestion that a husband and wife should abstain from such lawful intercourse in order to be more devoted by God through prayer.

I say ‘suggestion,’ because we should remember the background of Exodus 19:14-15. Gregory may simply be making a comparison between the three days’ abstinence from sexual union whereby Moses consecrated the people, and the higher calling of Christians to be free from what he calls “material passions.”

It is therefore not necessarily a call for sexual abstinence on the part of Christian husbands and wives.

The spirit of the age: celibacy and abstinence

When we look at Gregory of Nyssa, we are of course in an age in which clerical celibacy and/or abstinence (i.e., for ordained ministers in the Church) was becoming the norm.

“It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry, and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this shall be deprived of the honour of the clerical office.”

Council of Elvira (c. 305 A.D.)

Today in the Roman Catholic Church, only an unmarried man may be consecrated bishop or ordained as a priest (with certain exceptions in the latter case).[3] Eastern Catholic Churches generally follow a less rigorous rule, allowing married men to be ordained as priests (but not consecrated as bishops).[4]

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, married men may be ordained as priests, but again may not be consecrated as bishops.[5]

All of this restriction and limitation of clerical orders really started in the fourth century, and although it didn’t happen overnight — and has not been uniformly applied over the centuries — we can see it emerging as the norm from many, many texts of that time.

Our earliest source for it is the Council of Elvira, c. A.D. 305, in Canon 33 of which it is stated:—

It is decided that marriage be altogether prohibited to bishops, priests, and deacons, or to all clerics placed in the ministry, and that they keep away from their wives and not beget children; whoever does this shall be deprived of the honour of the clerical office.[6]

This Council is not considered an Ecumenical Council and therefore its decrees were not considered binding on the Church.

“At the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, a decree mandating clerical celibacy was proposed, but rejected.”

Interestingly, at the Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, a decree mandating clerical celibacy — and complete sexual abstinence for clergy who were already married — was proposed by Bishop Hosius of Cordova, but rejected by the Council. Egyptian bishop Paphnutius argued that imposing such a requirement on the clergy would be too rigorous. Those clergy already married should continue to be faithful to their wives, he argued, and those who were unmarried should be allowed to decide personally whether to be celibate.[7]

In spite of this, the tide continued to move gradually towards a celibate clergy. Thus, Ambrose bishop of Milan (A.D. 374—397), in a passage which is curiously reminiscent of the argument by Gregory of Nyssa which we quoted above, writes:—

“In some out-of-the-way places, when [some men] enter on the ministry, or even when they become priests, they have begotten children.”

Ambrose of Milan, ‘On the Duties of the Clergy,’ Book I, ch. 50, §258

But you know that the ministerial office must be kept pure and unspotted, and must not be defiled by conjugal intercourse; you know this, I say, who have received the gifts of the sacred ministry, with pure bodies, and unspoilt modesty, and without ever having enjoyed conjugal intercourse. I am mentioning this, because in some out-of-the-way places, when they enter on the ministry, or even when they become priests, they have begotten children. They defend this on the ground of old custom, when, as it happened, the sacrifice was offered up at long intervals. However, even the people had to be purified two or three days beforehand, so as to come clean to the sacrifice, as we read in the Old Testament [Exodus 19:10,14-15]. They even used to wash their clothes. If such regard was paid in what was only the figure, how much ought it to be shown in the reality! Learn then, Priest and Levite, what it means to wash your clothes. You must have a pure body with which to offer up the sacraments.[8]

What this quotation shows is that, by the last quarter of the fourth century the practice of clerical celibacy, and that married clergy should abstain from sexual intercourse, was already well established.[9]

What does the New Testament say about clerical celibacy?

“In the New Testament one was not ‘ordained’ into the clerical orders: if one had a special calling, e.g., to be a church overseer, elder or deacon, or a travelling evangelist, then one would be set apart for the work by the laying-on of hands.”

Firstly, we must note that the question of ‘clerical celibacy’ isn’t directly applicable to the New Testament, since the New Testament knows no hard and fast distinction between ‘the clergy’ and ‘the laity’ as developed in later times.

In the New Testament one was not ‘ordained’ into the clerical orders: if one had a special calling, e.g., to be a church overseer, elder or deacon (note the absence of the word ‘priest’), or a travelling evangelist, and so on, then one would be set apart for the work by the laying-on of hands (see 1 Tim. 4:14; 2 Tim. 1:6; Acts 13:3). People were called to, and consecrated for, particular ministries; but there was no clear demarcation between ‘clergy’ and ‘laity.’

Having set forth that important proviso, what does the New Testament say about the celibacy of ministers?

Firstly, the New Testament sees the life of celibacy, or abstinence, from sexual relations as a high calling. The Lord himself says this to his disciples in Matthew’s Gospel:—

“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.’”

Matthew 19:10-11

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.”
Matthew 19:10-12[10]

The Apostle Paul, himself an unmarried man, in a long discussion on marriage and singleness which is well worth meditating on, writes:—

So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgement she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
1 Corinthians 7:38-40[11]

It is clear, then, that the life of decided celibacy/abstinence so that one can be better devoted to serving the Lord, is a high and valued calling in the New Testament. The Lord himself and the apostle Paul are our models of this calling.

“In the New Testament, neither celibacy in ‘ministry’ nor abstinence from sexual intercourse after being set apart for ‘ministry’ is mandated. To be celibate is a personal calling from the Lord, given to some and not to others.”

But! that is precisely what it is: a calling. “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.”

And so in the New Testament, neither celibacy in ‘ministry’ nor abstinence from sexual intercourse after being set apart for ‘ministry’ is mandated. To be celibate is a personal calling from the Lord, given to some and not to others. Indeed, Paul himself in the same discussion counsels against being over-rigorous about this (1 Cor. 7:2-5).

The Apostle Peter himself was married (Mark 1:29-31), and several decades after this Paul writes:—

This is my defence to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas [= Peter]?
1 Corinthians 9:3-5[12]

So then, it is clear that there was no requirement of celibacy in New Testament times placed upon those in some specially consecrated ‘ministry.’

Indeed, we have examples long after the New Testament of married Christian ministers. The North African presbyter Tertullian (c. 155 — c. 240 A.D.), for example, wrote a treatise “to his wife”.

There really is no evidence of mandated clerical celibacy in the Christian Church prior to the fourth century.

So then: Is the sexual union of man and wife part of God’s intention for mankind? — Absolutely! And is it part of God’s intention even for Christians, even for those in special ‘ministry’ in the Church? — Absolutely!

 

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 reflections in this series are based on Gregory’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer and on the Beatitudes, which can be found in Ancient Christian Writers No. 18: St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer; The Beatitudes (tr. Hilda C. Graef). © 1954 Rev. Johannes Quasten and Rev. Joseph C. Plumpe. Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ.

You can read Gregory of Nyssa’s Second Sermon on the Lord’s Prayer online in another translation at https://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Articles_files/GregoryNyssa-Homily2%20Lords%20Prayer.html.

 

 

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Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

 


[1] Ancient Christian Writers No. 18: St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer; The Beatitudes (tr. Hilda C. Graef). © 1954 Rev. Johannes Quasten and Rev. Joseph C. Plumpe. Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ: pp.35-44

[2] Ibid., p.36

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clerical_celibacy_(Catholic_Church)

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clerical_celibacy

[5] Ibid.

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clerical_celibacy_(Catholic_Church)#Historical_origins

[7] https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/religion-and-philosophy/apologetics/celibacy-in-the-priesthood.html; http://orthodoxchurchfathers.com/fathers/npnf214/npnf2125.htm

[8] Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series II, Vol. X: Ambrose: Selected Works and Letters. ‘On the Duties of the Clergy,’ Book I, ch. 50, §258. http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf210.iv.i.ii.l.html. Note: In this quotation I have slightly adapted the language to make it easier for the modern reader.

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clerical_celibacy_(Catholic_Church)#Historical_origins

[10] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+19%3A10-12&version=ESVUK

[11] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+7%3A38-40&version=ESVUK

[12] https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Corinthians+9%3A3-5&version=ESVUK

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