[This is the second in a series of three posts on celibacy. The first was What Does Genesis 2:18 Really Teach?]
I’m frustrated with a lot of the way many Christians talk about “the gift of celibacy.” There are some unbiblical ideas that often creep in, and I think we’re missing some big pastoral issues. Given that I’m bisexual rather than gay and still pretty young, I’m not talking so much about my own experience as that of others (both gay and straight) whose experience is being ignored.
I don’t see how “the gift of celibacy” entails not dealing with sexual temptation or with loneliness. Paul never says that in 1 Corinthians 7 – he just says that he can maintain self-control, which is not at all the same thing. We recognize that being given the gift of marriage doesn’t make everything easy. Marriage comes with a lot of difficulties, and there’s a lot of focus on how to help married people deal with them. When celibacy comes with difficulties, it often seems our only focus is on getting people married. Few people seem to take seriously the idea that someone with a healthy sex drive could be called to celibacy. Our surrounding culture is deeply opposed to celibacy, and many Christians tacitly or explicitly agree with this attitude. In Protestantism, some of these attitudes stem back to the Reformation, despite the Bible’s clear teaching that celibacy is a higher calling than marriage. (This is not to say that all Protestants dismiss the Bible’s teaching on celibacy. For example, John Stott was himself celibate for his entire life but was a respected leader. However, anti-celibacy attitudes are common within Protestant culture.)
I do think, especially given what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7, that marriage is clearly in many circumstances an appropriate way to respond to sexual temptation. However, we have to be aware that sometimes living by God’s commands requires not having sex despite the presence of such temptation. Some people want to be married, but haven’t found the right Christian spouse whose calling is compatible. Some people are married but can’t have sex for reasons of health or circumstance. We need to acknowledge the difficulty, and we can’t just accept not having an answer when they have difficulties being faithful to Christian teaching.
There’s also the whole issue of people who are exclusively gay. A lot of Christian counsel is for everyone to get married to someone of the opposite sex. (Joshua Gonnerman has addressed some issues with promoting this message in “Homosexuality and false hope.”) I do want to acknowledge that I know several same-sex attracted people who are genuinely in love with their opposite-sex spouses and are honoring God in their marriages. However, such marriages can also be dangerous, particularly if the non-straight spouse hides his or her sexuality until after the wedding. This kind of dishonesty undermines the intimacy and openness that is essential to marital union. Another potential difficulty is that sex within the marriage might be difficult and/or infrequent and might not provide the relief of sexual urges that Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 7.
This raises two points to be considered in pastoral care for people who are exclusively gay or lesbian. First, marriage to an opposite-sex spouse may not be a helpful way to deal with sexual temptation. And second, the focus on marriage as the solution for these Christians, like the similar focus for other single Christians with pastoral difficulties, often stems from a lack of appreciation of celibacy as a legitimate vocation and as a way of responding to and honoring God’s call.
At the same time, sexual struggles are a real problem for everyone. Pornography use, for example, is an epidemic among nearly all males my age, regardless of orientation, and is a problem for many females as well. If celibacy is to be a viable pastoral option, we need to think about how to support single men and women in overcoming struggles with sexual sin. I won’t pretend to have answers for these issues, but I think we need to do a lot more wrestling with them. We must start by acknowledging reality rather than offering advice that is nice in theory but not feasible in practice.
Jeremy Erickson is a Ph.D. student in Computer Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He previously studied Mathematics and Computer Science at Taylor University in Upland, IN.