Folly of a Celibate Life Without the Special Gift

Folly of a Celibate Life Without the Special Gift

John Calvin,
Commentary on Matthew 19:10-12.

10 His disciples say unto him, If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry. 11 But he said unto them, All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. 12 For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it. (Matthew 19:10-12)

10. His disciples say to him. As if it were a hard condition for husbands to be so bound to their wives, that, so long as they remain chaste, they are compelled to endure every thing rather than leave them, the disciples, roused by this answer of Christ, reply, that it is better to want wives than to submit to a knot of this kind. But why do they not, on the other hand, consider how hard is the bondage of wives, but because, devoted to themselves and their own convenience, they are driven by the feeling of the flesh to disregard others, and to think only of what is advantageous for themselves? Meanwhile, it is a display of base ingratitude that, from the dread or dislike of a single inconvenience, they reject a wonderful gift of God. It is better, according to them, to avoid marriage than to bind one’s self by the bond of living always together. But if God has ordained marriage for the general advantage of mankind, though it may be attended by some things that are disagreeable, it is not on that account to be despised. Let us therefore learn not to be delicate and saucy, but to use with reverence the gifts of God, even if there be something in them that does not please us. Above all, let us guard against this wickedness in reference to holy marriage; for, in consequence of its being attended by many annoyances, Satan has always endeavored to make it an object of hatred and detestation, in order to withdraw men from it. And Jerome has given too manifest a proof of a malicious and wicked disposition, in not only loading with calumnies that sacred and divinely appointed condition of life, but in collecting as many terms of reproach (λοιδορίας) as he could from profane authors, in order to take away its respectability. But let us recollect that whatever annoyances belong to marriage are accidental, for they arise out of the depravity of man. Let us remember that, since our nature was corrupted, marriage began to be a medicine, and therefore we need not wonder if it have a bitter taste mixed with its sweetness. But we must see how our Lord confutes this folly.

11. All are not capable of receiving this saying. By this he means, that the choice is not placed in our hands, as if we were to deliberate on a matter submitted to us. If any man thinks it advantageous for him to want [i.e. lack] a wife, and, without making any inquiry, lays upon himself an obligation to celibacy, he is widely mistaken. God, who has declared it to be good that a man should have a woman to be his helper, will punish the contempt of his own appointment; for mortals take too much on themselves, when they endeavor to exempt themselves from the heavenly calling. But Christ proves that it is not free to all to make what choice they please, because the gift of continence is a special gift; for when he says that all are not capable of receiving it, but those to whom it is given, he plainly shows that it was not given to all. And this reproves the pride of those who do not hesitate to claim for themselves what Christ so manifestly refuses to them.

12. For there are eunuchs. Christ distinguishes three kinds of eunuchs: [1.] Those who are so by nature, or [2.] who have been castrated by men, are debarred from marriage by this defect, for they are not men. [3.] He says that there are other eunuchs, who have castrated themselves, that they may be more at liberty to serve God; and these he exempts from the obligation to marry. Hence it follows, that all others who avoid marriage fight against God with sacrilegious hardihood, after the manner of the giants. When Papists urge the word castrate (εὐνούχισαν), as if at their own pleasure men might lay themselves under obligation to continence, it is too frivolous. For Christ has already declared, that God gives it to whom he chooses; and, a little afterwards, we shall find him maintaining, that it is folly in any man to choose to live unmarried, when he has not received this special gift. This castration, therefore, is not left to free will; but the plain meaning is, while some men are by nature fit to marry, though they abstain, they do not tempt God, because God grants them exemption.

For the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Many foolishly explain this as meaning, in order to deserve eternal life; as if celibacy contained within itself some meritorious service, as the Papists imagine that it is an angelical state. But Christ meant nothing more than that persons unmarried ought to have this for their object, that, being freed from all cares, they may apply themselves more readily to the duties of piety. It is, therefore, a foolish imagination, that celibacy is a virtue; for it is not in itself more pleasing to God than fasting, and is not entitled to be reckoned among the duties which he requires from us, but ought to have a reference to another object. Nay more, Christ expressly intended to declare that, though a man be pure from fornication, yet his celibacy is not approved by God, if he only consults his own ease and comfort, but that he is excused on this single ground, that he aims at a free and unrestrained meditation on the heavenly life. In short, Christ teaches us, that it is not enough, if unmarried men live chastely, unless they abstain from having wives, for the express purpose of devoting themselves to better employments (in order to be more free for being employed in better things for the glory of God).

He that can receive it, let him receive it. By this conclusion Christ warns them, that the use of marriage is not to be despised, unless we intend, with blind rashness, to rush headlong to destruction: for it became necessary to restrain the disciples, whom he saw acting inconsiderately and without judgment. But the warning is useful to all; for, in selecting a manner of life, few consider what has been given to them, but men rush forward, without discrimination, in whatever direction inconsiderate zeal prompts them. And I wish that the warning had been attended to in past times; but men’s ears are stopped by I know not what enchantments of Satan, so that, contrary to nature, and, as it were, in spite of God, those whom God called to marriage have bound themselves by the cord of perpetual virginity. Next came the deadly cord of a vow, by which wretched souls were bound, so that they never rose out of the ditch.


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