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Who are the ones forbidding marriage in 1 Timothy 4:3?

forbidding marriage

First Timothy 4:3 is connected with preceding verses in describing a group of false teachers prevalent in the first century. The depiction unfolds as follows:

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.
(1 Timothy 4:1‭–5)

The identity of these false teachers is implicit in the passage, perhaps because Paul expected Timothy to know who they are. They are only characterized as “hypocritical liars” from whom come deceptive teachings fueled by deceiving spirits that will lead some people from the faith. Alongside their forbidding of marriage, they also advocate abstinence from certain foods. Both instructions reflect ascetic practices, and it is clear why the teachings are deceptive. Ascetic rules “have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Colossians 2:23). Paul labels such rules “human commands and teachings” (Colossians 2:22).

The injunction against marriage and certain types of food aligns with Gnostic doctrines, so it is probable that Paul was referring to Gnostic teachers. Gnosticism flourished in the first three centuries AD, and because many Gnostics claimed to be Christians, the heresy might have caused confusion.

Christianity and Gnosticism diverge on several fronts, one of which is the forbidding of marriage. Influenced by philosophers like Plato, Gnostics adopt a dualistic perspective in which the physical world is inherently evil, with only the spiritual world being virtuous. As marriage and sexuality are part of the physical world, some sects forbid them. Conversely, Christianity regards both the physical and spiritual realms as inherently good. While tainted by sin and death, creation remains fundamentally good. Although Paul remained unmarried and extolled celibacy as a valid choice, Christianity honors marriage and does not forbid it. Furthermore, while the Israelites adhered to dietary restrictions for the purpose of distinguishing themselves from other nations, this practice ended after Jesus declared all food to be clean (Mark 7:19). Now, dietary choices are determined by personal conviction (Romans 14:1–4).

While there is no consensus that Gnostics are the false teachers that forbade marriage, it remains likely they are the ones Paul had in mind. We can learn a lot about the nature of false teaching from the warnings of Scripture. False teachings often have the appearance of truth and may even seem wise, but they are at best “teachings of men” (Colossians 2:22) and at worst “doctrines of demons” (1 Timothy 4:1, AMP).

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Who are the ones forbidding marriage in 1 Timothy 4:3?
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This page last updated: May 6, 2024