Outside discussions about gay and lesbian people, I’ve found that most Protestants tend to have a very low view of celibacy. This manifests itself in a number of ways. For example, single seminary graduates often find that it can be difficult to become a pastor in an evangelical church without being married. Lack of marriage can be viewed with suspicion, as an indication that people are likely to fall to sexual sin. Some even argue that failure to marry is a sinful shirking of adult responsibility.
Underlying much of this attitude is the belief that for the vast majority of people, celibacy is either impossible or cannot be fulfilling. For example, many Protestants blame the Catholic sex abuse scandal on the requirement that priests remain unmarried, and this is taken as a cautionary tale against an expectation of celibacy. Many Protestants see celibate living as a needless source of loneliness, and as the sort of thing that can be viewed as a form of punishment. On the other hand, they see marriage as the universal solution to the problems of loneliness and sexual temptation.
This relates to the increasing movement of Protestant communities in the direction of viewing marriage as a legitimate vocation for same-sex couples. It is becoming increasingly well-known that there are people with a stable, enduring pattern of attraction to people of the same sex, without corresponding attractions to people of the opposite sex. There are a number of such people who blog here on Spiritual Friendship (although I’m not actually one of them). For such people, marriage to someone of the opposite sex can bring significant issues and is not always advisable.
Many Protestants find the idea that these people could need to remain celibate to be unthinkable. I don’t doubt this was a major reason that many supported the ex-gay movement’s idea that people could develop feelings for the opposite sex. This was a way to “solve the problem of gay people” within a framework that allowed them to continue to see marriage as the universal solution to loneliness and sexual temptation.
However, this approach has been falling apart for some time now. It has become increasingly clear that some of the claims of ex-gay organizations were less than honest, and that putting hope in orientation change is, for many, a false hope.
This reality is forcing the Protestant world to deal with the uncomfortable tension between typical views of celibacy and the traditional understanding of marriage as being only between a man and a woman. If celibacy is punishment—cruel or impossible to expect of people—how can there be people whose only desired sexual relationship is off-limits? I think that the move to see same-sex marriage as a legitimate Christian vocation is often an attempt to escape this tension without having to question the prevailing view of celibacy.
But is this the right way to resolve that tension? Or could it be our view of celibacy that is the real problem?
I think it’s important to examine the source of our beliefs. For example, I often hear the claim that views affirming same-sex marriage as a Christian vocation are simply the result of following our culture. However, I find it interesting how similar the Protestant view of celibacy I described is to the view of wider American culture. The only real difference I see is that the Protestant world expects sexual intimacy to occur within one particular, lifelong romantic relationship, rather than to romantic relationships as a broad category. I think that our broader culture idolizes romantic relationships, and we often respond by turning God’s good gift of marriage into an idol. Are we following our culture’s leading with too little thought?
Historically speaking, Protestant criticism of celibacy dates as far back as the Reformation itself. Several of the early Protestant Reformers such as Luther criticized the Catholic mandate that priests be celibate. While as a Protestant I agree that this requirement went beyond Scripture and was unjustified, I think the Reformers often swung too far in the opposite direction. This is not to say that all Protestant thinking on celibacy has been universally negative. For example, several respected single missionaries and leaders such as Lottie Moon, Amy Carmichael, and John Stott have spoken positively of their celibacy. Popular Reformed pastor John Piper also gave an excellent sermon on singleness. However, negative views of celibacy have been common throughout Protestant history and continue strongly today.
But what does Scripture actually teach? Many Protestants claim that their negative view of celibacy comes from the Bible. However, I’m not so sure they’re following what the text actually says. I’ll summarize my biggest concerns.
The biggest concern I see is the way that the direct teaching of Scripture too often seems to be either ignored or worked around. For example, both Jesus (Matthew 19:10-11) and Paul (1 Corinthians 7:37-38) teach that, when feasible, it is better for the unmarried to remain unmarried. I don’t get the sense that most Protestants actually believe this teaching, and that concerns me.
One common attempt I see to escape this teaching is to point to Paul’s reference to the “present distress” in 1 Corinthians 7:26 and to similar themes in verses 29-31. The basic argument is that Paul only suggested celibacy due to his particular context, and that his words shouldn’t be applied more broadly. I see at least three problems with this approach. First, this reasoning only addresses the teaching of Paul, and not the teaching of Christ. Second, its presence in the structure of Paul’s argument seems to be embedded in the discussion of the betrothed in particular (verses 25-38), and may not even be relevant to Paul’s own teaching earlier in the chapter. Third, this argument ignores the more detailed reasoning Paul provides in verses 32-35, and Paul’s further reasoning is just as applicable today as it was then.
Relatedly, Protestants often neglect to grapple with the reality that celibacy requires a significant amount of self-control, even for those gifted with it (1 Corinthians 7:8-9), and that it sometimes results from factors other than personal choice (Matthew 19:12). When people argue that those who desire marriage are universally called to marriage, that people really called to celibacy will not deal with sexual temptation, or that celibacy must be a voluntary calling, they flatly contradict what the text actually says. For those of us who view Scripture as authoritative, this is a big problem.
A more legitimate point of concern from Scripture is Paul’s acknowledgment that marriage is a proper alternative to “burning with passion” (1 Corinthians 7:9). Paul points to marriage as his typical advice. However, I’m not sure that it’s responsible to read this as an absolute promise that God’s provision will always come in the form of marriage. Based on the context within the passage, I think Paul’s reasoning was directed at those who already had the immediate option of marrying. Because Scripture is clear that marriage is not inherently sinful, it makes sense that Paul proposes it as an alternative to something that actually is (Matthew 5:28).
When marriage is a live option, proposing marriage as an alternative to lust does not require any pastoral creativity. However, many people (and not just gay people) do not have marriage as a readily available option. In such cases, we’re going to need more thinking. I think we Protestants need to acknowledge the reality of involuntary celibacy so that we can start thinking through the hard questions that result. Our call to love our fellow believers and to pursue holiness requires no less.