The Gift of Celibacy

[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 EricksonJeremy 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.

9 thoughts on “The Gift of Celibacy

  1. Pingback: Celibacy and Healing | Spiritual Friendship

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  3. Jeremy you write: “Some people want to be married, but haven’t found the right Christian spouse whose calling is compatible.”

    I think this illustrates one of the fundamental problems at hand. This notion of marriage is fairly new–the idea that marriage is based on preference of partner. This has contributed to people marrying late or not at all as they look for the “right” person. In the meantime we have rampant non-marital sex happening while people look for the “compatible” spouse because they don’t actually have the self-control to remain single and yet aren’t marrying because they are basing marriage on preference.

    Many of the same conservatives who fight so hard to “protect marriage” don’t realize they are contributing to a systematic problem because they are already operating under an entirely new definition of marriage that is based on preference. This is particularly true of Protestants who emphasize the unitive purpose of marriage and are more willing to separate it from procreation. But even Catholics by and large look for the “right” spouse.

    As long as marriage is based on individual preference, I don’t see how we will ever address the problem of chastity for gay or straight.

    • Karen, that’s a very good point. Our culture does have a historically unusual view of marriage, and I’m sure it does impact our understanding of chastity in many ways. It shouldn’t be all about personal preference, even though our culture often makes it about personal preference.

      I do want to point out, though, that I did mention a couple issues beyond personal preference that can get in the way of marriage. I do know some Christian women who only have non-Christian men interested in them, and hold out for a Christian man even if he never comes. This does fall under Paul’s instruction about not being yoked to unbelievers. I’ve heard that males are leaving the church at higher rates than females, and a lot of churches already have more women than men, so this particular difficulty is only going to affect more people in the coming years. This is a difficult burden, and to say “you should just get married” doesn’t do much good.

      There is also something to be said about calling. I don’t mean general ideas about “compatibility,” but rather things like where one potential spouse is called to overseas missions and the other has a calling that conflicts with that. Any potential couple in that situation has to use wisdom, and could quite validly decide that the pursuit of marriage conflicts with the call of God they have already discerned.

      The big point I’m trying to get across in this post is that for some people, “just get married” is actually not an option we are given when we take the whole context of Scripture into account. It seems to me that to take Paul’s advice as covering literally every case is to use it as a prooftext, and he must be referring to situations where getting married makes sense and doesn’t conflict with other biblical commands. Thus, we need to do more thinking about the people both gay and straight who are in other situations.

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