The concept of nuns as understood in the Catholic tradition has sparked much debate among Christians as to whether it is biblical. Let’s take a comprehensive look at what the Bible says that may relate to this topic.
What is a nun?
In the Catholic tradition, a nun is a woman who has taken solemn religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in a cloistered contemplative order. They devote their lives to prayer, penance, and service to the church. Though similar in some ways to monks, nuns live contemplative cloistered lives dedicated to spiritual growth within the walls of a monastery. They do not have public ministries as some other religious sisters who are not cloistered might.
Celibacy and singleness
One key component of being a nun is the vow of celibacy. Complete abstinence from marriage and sexual relations is viewed as allowing one to be more fully devoted to God. What does the Bible have to say about deliberate singleness and celibacy?
In 1 Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul addresses the benefits of singleness: “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— and his interests are divided…An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband.” (1 Cor. 7:32-34)
Paul highlights how remaining unmarried can allow one to be more singularly focused on the work of the Lord. He emphasizes that this is his opinion, not a command, and that each person has their own gift from God – for some marriage, and for others singleness (1 Cor. 7:6-7).
Later in the chapter he notes, “I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that. Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.” (1 Cor. 7:7-8). Here Paul affirms the value of celibacy for ministry while recognizing it as a special gift from God, not mandated for all.
In Matthew 19:12, Jesus spoke of those who have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, saying, “and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” Again, this affirms that some are uniquely called by God to a life of singleness, though not commanded of all believers.
The unique opportunity for undivided spiritual devotion is a biblical reason for celibacy. The Catholic tradition applies this to nuns who devote themselves wholly to prayer and spiritual growth.
Another central aspect of the nun’s vocation is the community lifestyle within a monastery. Is there any biblical precedent for this?
In the New Testament, we see the importance of fellow believers living in close community. In Acts 2:42-47, the early church is described as regularly gathering, learning together, sharing resources, praying, and living in proximity to each other. Acts 4:32 says, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” This paints a picture of the church united in community.
Paul also speaks of the interdependent communal nature of the body of Christ. In Romans 12:4-5 he says, “Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” Here he emphasizes unity, mutual care, and diversity within the church body.
While specific examples of monastic communities are not seen in Scripture, there does seem to be a precedent for faithfully living in close Christian fellowship. Nuns take this to a focused life of spiritual growth and service to Christ.
Poverty and service
Also central to the nun’s vocation are the vows of poverty and service. By taking a vow of poverty, nuns renounce personal possessions and income to fully depend on God’s provision through the monastery. Their lives are devoted to prayer, contemplation, and serving others in various capacities.
There are examples in the New Testament of believers embracing poverty and giving sacrificially to help others. In Acts 2, believers “sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” (Acts 2:45). Likewise, Acts 4 highlights how “there were no needy persons among them” because those with assets sold them and shared proceeds with all who were in need (Acts 4:34).
The apostle Paul also commends churches who gave generously despite their own poverty, like the Macedonians who “urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people” and “gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability” (2 Cor. 8:4). Paul says their sacrificial giving overflowed in joy and generosity, trusting the Lord to provide.
Additionally, Jesus and the apostles emphasize servant ministry towards others as central to the Christian faith (Matt. 20:26, Gal. 5:13, Eph. 6:7). Nuns emulate these principles through lives devoted to prayer, simplicity, and service to Christ.
Obedience and devotion
As part of their vows, nuns pledge obedience to superiors and to the rules of their religious order. This is seen as following Christ’s example of humble submission to the will of the Father.
There are scriptural principles regarding obedience that relate to this. believers are exhorted to “obey your leaders and submit to them” (Heb. 13:17) and to “submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority” (1 Pet. 2:13). Jesus himself modeled obedience by humbly submitting even to the point of death on a cross (Phil. 2:8).
The Bible also emphasizes sacrificial devotion to God as an act of worship and love. Christ said “anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37). Paul exhorts believers to offer themselves as “living sacrifices” to God (Rom. 12:1). The ultimate model is Christ who exemplified perfect obedience, humility, and devotion to God (Phil. 2:5-8).
Thus scriptural principles of obedience, humility, sacrifice and devotion relate to a nun’s choice to submit to the authority of the church and their vows in order to focus wholly on Christ.
Seclusion versus public ministry
A distinctive aspect of nuns, in contrast to some other religious sisters, is the cloistered contemplative life within a monastery. This level of seclusion and separation from public ministry is one area without a clear biblical precedent.
Jesus sent his disciples out to preach, teach, and minister to the sick and needy (Matt. 10:7-8, Matt. 28:19-20). The New Testament highlights apostles like Paul traveling to spread the gospel and start churches (Acts 13:4, Acts 14:21). There is emphasis on using one’s gifts to publicly build up fellow believers (1 Cor. 12:7, 1 Pet. 4:10).
At the same time, there are examples like Anna the prophetess who “never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying” (Luke 2:37). And Paul does note that unmarried men and women can be more singularly focused on pleasing the Lord (1 Cor. 7:32-35). Though not exactly equivalent, these suggest God may call some to spiritual devotion apart from public ministry.
The Bible does not directly address the monastic seclusion of nuns from broader society. There is precedent for both spiritual devotion and public ministry as ways of serving the Lord.
In summary, the Bible affirms celibacy, community, poverty, service, obedience and sacrifice as ways for some to pursue an undivided devotion to Christ. There are scriptural precedents that relate to central aspects of a nun’s vocation. However, the complete cloistered and monastic life of a nun is not explicitly modeled in scripture. There is room for debate as to how directly it aligns with biblical principles and examples.
Ultimately, Catholics see nuns as examples of radical commitment to follow Christ through lives of prayer, simplicity and service within the church. Other Christians may be hesitant about such a structured religious vocation. There are good faith arguments on both sides about whether this accurately reflects biblical teaching or goes beyond it.
As with many doctrinal debates, there are elements that align with biblical principles, but also areas of disagreement between denominations. There is wisdom in approaching this issue with grace, intellectual humility and respect for those with differing interpretations. The common ground is that both viewpoints aim to honor Christ and apply scriptural teaching on how to faithfully follow Him in every aspect of life.