"Doctrines of Demons"?

by James Akin

Toward the end of his career as an evangelist, the apostle Paul wrote, "Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by giving heed to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, through the pretensions of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth" (1 Tim. 4:1-3).

This is a favorite passage of many anti-Catholics because they find in it a prophecy that Catholics have "departed from the faith by giving heed to . . . doctrines of demons." "After all," these anti-Catholics say, "the Catholic Church forbids priests to marry and commands the faithful to abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent. This means Catholics have accepted doctrines of demons and have abandoned the true faith, just as Paul predicted." Were these practices what Paul had in mind?

Forbidding marriage?

To the first charge: Does the Catholic Church forbid marriage? Not at all. It forbids marriage to no one.

The charge could hardly be more absurd since the Catholic Church regards marriage as a sacrament. In the Catholic view, marriage is a great blessing; it is simply not for everyone. Some may renounce marriage for purposes of religion. Christ himself indicated this when he said that some "have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 19:12).

(In context, Christ may mean those who have refused to remarry lest they commit adultery (see Matt. 19:9-11), but the principle applies in other contexts as well. Some people, for the sake of the kingdom, refuse to marry and raise a family.)

This was a practice even in the Old Testament. God told the prophet Jeremiah not to take a wife and have children (Jer. 16:1-4) since doing so would be inconsistent with the turbulent ministry to which God was calling him. In Jeremiah we find a parallel to a modern priest, a man who refrains from marrying and having a family in order to free himself to fulfill the demands of ministry.

This was not a pattern restricted to the Old Testament. Paul counsels people to refrain from marrying. He says, "It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. . . . I say this by way of concession, not of command. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is well for them to remain single as I do. . . . I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord, but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.

"And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit, but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. . . . [H]e who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do better" (1 Cor. 7:1-2, 6-9, 32-35, 38).

Paul regards marriage as an option, but not always the preferable one, since married people have divided interests that hinder them from being wholeheartedly devoted to the Lord. In 2 Timothy 2:3-4 he applies this insight directly to full-time ministers. He tells his apprentice Timothy, "Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier on service gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to satisfy the one who enlisted him." Timothy is told that he must share in suffering by not participating in "civilian pursuits," such as marrying and having a family, in order to pursue his calling as a soldier of Jesus Christ and a full-time minister of the gospel.

Elsewhere in Paul we find the idea of a vow of celibacy which commits a person to a life of continence. In 1 Timothy 5 Paul says, "Honor widows who are real widows. . . . She who is a real widow, and is left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day. . . . Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and she must be well attested for her good deeds, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, relieved the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way. But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when they grow wanton against Christ they desire to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge" (1 Tim. 5:3, 5, 9-12).

Paul here describes an order of widows, supported by the Church, who are known for prayer, relief for the sick, devotion to doing good, and their pledge of celibacy. This order has the same underlying principles as a modern order of nuns, a group of women who have taken vows to lead a celibate life of serving God. There is even biblical precedent for orders of contemplative nuns. They follow the example of Anna, the prophetess who "did not depart from the Temple, worshipping with fasting and prayer night and day" (Luke 2:37).

Is the organization of widows Paul provided for just a loose association of women who could enter or leave the roll of widows at their discretion? No. Paul says not to enroll younger widows because, being subject to "youthful passions" (2 Tim. 2:22), they desire to marry and "incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge." When they were enrolled on the list of widows, they took a pledge not to marry. Before this they were free to marry, but on entering the roll they committed to live as "unmarried women... anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit" (1 Cor. 7:34).

The New Testament tells of a vow of celibacy--a formal commitment to lead the single life--and Paul incorporates it into his regulations for the order of proto-nuns he discusses in 1 Timothy 5. Ironically, this vow of celibacy is mentioned in 1 Timothy 5, just a chapter after the "doctrines of demons" passage in 1 Timothy 4!

Further proof that the Catholic practice of ministerial celibacy is not what Paul is discussing in 1 Timothy 4:1-3 is that the people who are forbidding marriage in that passage are teaching it as a doctrine, but Catholics regard priestly celibacy only as a discipline. Catholics freely admit that nothing in the Bible or apostolic Tradition requires ministers to be celibate; it is simply a good idea, as Paul indicates. The Catholic Church's requirement that its (Western rite) ministers take Paul's advice and be celibate is in principle like a Protestant denomination's requirement that its ministers have a seminary degree--something Protestants do not because they think the Bible requires it, but because it is a good idea.

Only the Latin or Western rite (the largest rite in the Church) requires celibacy. The other (Eastern) rites of the Church do not require celibacy and have married priests. Even the Latin rite makes exceptions to its policy: If a married minister from a denomination such as Lutheranism or Anglicanism becomes Catholic, he may be allowed to be ordained as a priest.

The Latin rite could, should the pope become convinced that it is necessary, rescind the discipline of celibacy, but it is not likely that this will occur in the near future (contrary to the view of some, the current priest shortage in the developed world is not caused by the celibacy requirement, for even the eastern rites, which do not require celibacy, suffer from it), for great good has come to the Church as a result of the policy (a fact anti-Catholics never mention).

(There have even been benefits the apostle Paul does not discuss, such as preventing a caste-system developing in Europe during the middle ages by the creation of a priestly class in which the father's occupation was passed on from father to son, as was the practice in medieval society in general. Because of celibacy, priests did not pass on their positions, and the priesthood was open to men of every class. There were even popes who started life as the sons of peasants.)

In any event, the Catholic Church forbids no one to marry, although the Church does say, in the Latin rite, that a man volunteering to be ordained also is expected to volunteer to remain celibate. And if he wants to marry? Then he can do so, without pursuing the priestly vocation.

"Abstinence from foods"

Do Catholics "enjoin abstinence from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving"? Again, no. A Catholic is free to eat any food he wishes, for Christ "declared all foods clean" (Mark 7:19). Catholics firmly believe Paul's teaching that "everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for then it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer" (1 Tim. 4:4-5).

Why then do Catholics refrain from eating meat on certain Fridays? The reason is simple: It is a devotion that the Catholic family has established to commemorate the crucifixion of Christ. Imagine a father who tells his family they will eat special foods in commemoration of what Jesus did for man, as the Israelites had special foods. No non-Catholic would fault a father for instituting such a practice. Yet this is all the Catholic Church has done.

The Church is a great family, and its leaders--those who fill the role of its earthly parents or shepherds--have set up the special devotion of not eating meat on the day we commemorate the Lord's passion. As a substitute Catholics usually eat fish on these Fridays, the fish being an ancient symbol of Christ. This is a way of remembering and honoring Christ for what he did for us so long ago. Abstaining from meat is an inconvenience, a small personal sacrifice that helps direct our minds and hearts to that all-important sacrifice of Calvary.

It would be wrong for a Catholic to violate this devotion without sufficient cause, just as it would be wrong for a child to disobey the family rules established by his parents (Col. 3:20, Eph. 6:1). A person under authority is free to disobey only when the authority requires something fundamentally wrong or when there are sufficiently grave circumstances. To disobey flagrantly is to resist God, for there is no authority which has not been instituted by God (Rom. 13:1-2), a principle that applied even to the pagan Roman government which Paul was discussing.

Devotional abstention from certain foods is definitely biblical. In Daniel 10:3 we read, "I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks." As a special discipline and a symbol of mourning, the prophet Daniel refused to eat any choice foods. Catholics today refrain from eating meat on the Fridays of Lent as a symbol of mourning over what Christ suffered for our sins.

The Bible even contains precedents for cutting out all foods on occasion. This is the biblical discipline of fasting. Christ said that his followers would fast once he was taken away from them (Matt. 9:15), and he gave regulations concerning how people are to fast (Matt. 6:16-18).

As was the case with priestly celibacy, Catholics refrain occasionally from eating meat only as a matter of discipline, not as a point of doctrine. There is nothing wrong with eating meat, as evidenced by the fact Catholics can eat it the remainder of the week. When we abstain from meat, we abstain from something good, not from something evil.

The apostle Paul was not talking about Catholics when he warned about those who forbid marriage and forbid eating certain foods. So who was he talking about? The answer remains somewhat speculative, but Paul apparently had in mind ascetics who taught that marriage and certain foods were fundamentally evil. Several movements in Church history have promoted these teachings, the two most notable examples being the Manicheans and the Albigensians. They viewed matter as intrinsically evil and consequently held a dim view of physical pleasures, including indulging in certain foods. Far from embracing this teaching, the Catholic Church regarded these groups as heresies and their doctrines as "doctrines of demons."