Celibate Bishops (Pastors)
According to the teaching of Scripture, the pastor or minister (also called the overseer) in the churches was a person who not only pleased God but also was responsible in his position. The essence of ministry of the Lord’s disciples in the early Church was reflected in the spiritual care and concern for the entire life and work of the first century Christian community, including both individuals and the church as a whole. The apostle Paul says this regarding the role of church elders:
“Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears.”
The apostle Peter exhorts the elders in the first century churches:
“The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly; nor as being lords over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock; and when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away.”
Peter was the same apostle who received this very exhortation from the Lord Himself after His glorious resurrection. In fact, Christ gave this in response to Peter’s answer of His question: “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He answered Peter three times with these words:
“Feed My lambs… Tend My sheep… Feed My sheep.”
What is absolutely certain is that not every Christian is qualified to lead a local Christian church. According to the teachings of the Holy Scripture, Christ has endowed His believers with different spiritual gifts, which are used by the Lord in the building of Christ’s body – the Church:
“Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers…”
“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”
Therefore, the pastor must be chosen by God and qualified to carry out the great responsibilities of this office. Paul explains that the qualifications of a potential pastor that should already be evident in his Christian life:
“And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth.”
However, two special texts related to pastoral ministry in the church are found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. We can clearly see the difference between early Christian apostolic teachings and religious practices that are found in the Orthodox Church today.
“This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of an elder, he desires a good work. An elder then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”
“For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you— if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. For an elder must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.”
Amongst other virtues as defined by the God-inspired teaching of the apostle Paul, the elder (“bishop”) must also be married (“the husband of one wife”). The reason for demanding this qualification is beyond just giving a man a trial to see if he is capable of being the shepherd of God’s flock, but indeed, the apostle Paul expects the elder to have proven his ability in managing a congregation similar to that of his own family. Furthermore, an elder is to be married because of the nature of his ministry, which often involves contact with many believers and unbelieving people (including women of all types, including married, divorced, and widows, per 1 Corinthians 7:2-5). We have already clearly recognized that celibacy among men in the monasteries can lead to various sexual perversions and temptations that are difficult to resist. The apostle Paul went so far as to encourage marriage for the majority “because of [the risk of] sexual immorality.” Overseers in the Church must be married by the clear teaching of God’s most excellent Word. Even the Orthodox bishop Georgi Popovic acknowledged Paul’s teaching on the qualifications for ministry regarding the need for them to marry:
“From the time of the apostles until more than three hundred years later, bishops were lay ministers and had wives. We see that by the first Nicene Council, the church father St. Gregory the Theologian of Nazianzus, lived openly in marriage and raised sons and daughters. Such was also the case with brother Basil the Great, St Spiridon, and many others. Paul the apostle publicly teaches that bishops, elders, and deacons must be married. He drives the point home by saying: ‘if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?’ Beyond doubt, the first pastors and bishops were married men. Bishop does not mean anything other than an overseer supervisor, and there was no such position as an archbishop that ruled over bishops. But then when the monks began to multiply and receive eminence as high priests, little by little they introduced the custom that a bishop must be a monk, against the public teaching of the Apostles, whose doctrine, justice, and common sense made clear that a monk could never be a monk. A monk is destined to live in the desert, not in the cities and among men and women. Such a man formed of flesh and blood as God created him, if he does not marry, will find himself in great turmoil.”
Who could have given a better answer to the question about his views on qualifications for a Bishop than from a monk among people living in such an environment, a celibate Bishop? Georgi Popovic was exactly that person. He said that anyone who lived in his circumstances and trying to serve in the real world suffers “turmoil” (which means great misery, that is, trouble because of his celibacy). Moreover, the position represented by the archbishop of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the eighteenth century is entirely consistent with the Bible. This position is identical to the teaching that Christians faithful to God and His Word have always maintained. A bishop cannot be a monk. This practice (along with many others in Eastern Orthodoxy) was introduced a few hundred years after Christ and the apostles who taught about it quite differently.
The fact that during the first centuries of Christianity, bishops were married men, and that only later were rules for monastic hierarchies formed, is confirmed by the Orthodox historian Eusebius Popovic. Here is how he describes the changes to the qualifications for the office of bishop:
“As monks acquired more power within the church, positions of the highest ecclesiastical prestige gradually fell into the hands of highly respected monks. Clergy who were married were gradually suppressed by these monks. As a result of the monks’ suppression, others became more reluctant to assume positions as elders and deacons… However, monks also assumed seats of power at the Church Councils. Soon, the seats of episcopal power in the Eastern Church were occupied almost exclusively by the monks. Initially, it was common for bishops to marry. Yet, by the fifth century, it was a rarity to find a bishop who was married. In the year 410, Synesius of Cyrene was nominated as bishop of Ptolemais. At first, he hesitated to accept the position because he was married and did not want to part with his wife. He still accepted the position and kept his wife. With this exception, history makes no further reference to bishops living in marriage… Finally, during the reign of Justinian I (527-565), bishops were expressly prohibited from being married. Indeed, the majority of bishops in the Eastern Church were monks.”
This account by Popovic explains that until the sixth century, some bishops in the Eastern Church were married, although married bishops became increasingly rare even in the fifth century. In contrast, the churches in Britain, Ireland, and Scotland had married church leaders until the seventh century due to their isolation from the rest of Europe and the end of Roman rule over these islands. As for the rest of the continent, the possibility of marriage was revoked much earlier, not only for bishops, but also for elders and deacons:
“On the other hand, the Western Church at the Council of Elvira (Eliberis) in 306 prohibited bishops, elders, and deacons from being married. Marriage was also banned for monks toward the end of the fourth century (in the year 385). The Roman Pope Siricius (384-398) reaffirmed the prohibition on marriage in line with the Council of Elvira. Pope Leo I (440-461) extended the ban on marriage to subdeacons in 450. Thus celibacy became mandatory throughout the Western Church.”
It is obvious that in the Ecumenical Church, first in the West, then in the East, bishops were prohibited to marry without any basis from the Bible. (The Western Church also banned other members of the clergy from marriage.) In contrast, the apostles predicted that a time would come in the future (relative to when they lived) when false doctrine within the Church would emerge and prohibit marriage:
“Now the Spirit expressly says that in latter times some will depart from the faith, giving heed to deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their own conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry…”
The Holy Spirit through the Scriptures teaches that some people within the Church will depart from the faith into apostasy. This apostasy stems from their adoption of “doctrines of demons” under the influence of “deceiving spirits”. We have already seen that Greek pagan philosophy has wielded a dominating influence over monastic life and its belief in the spiritual superiority of celibacy.
Thus, we see the very situation about which the apostles by inspiration of the Holy Spirit were warning us. Clearly, Neoplatonism and Gnosticism do not conform to God’s teaching. On the contrary, such philosophies have nothing in common with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Thus, they belong to “doctrines of demons”. The prohibition of marriage for church ministers, the very people whom the Lord has commanded to marry and have families, bears the fingerprints of no one other than the enemy of the Church of Christ, in other words, Satan.