Wes Hill has just written a wonderful (favorite I’ve ever read?) reflection on “the long defeat” of the Christian life, and how that intersects with the call to celibacy outside of a marriage between a man and a woman. Please read it!
As I was taking it in, another thought struck me, one that I and others have written about before, but came into sharper focus as I read Wes’ words. It has to do with the charisma, or gift, of celibacy. I have heard this gift used as an argument against the traditional sexual ethic. The case, as fairly as I can put it, goes something like this: throughout church history celibacy has been a voluntary state chosen in conjunction with a call from God. But to “mandate” celibacy for all gay Christians removes it from the realm of voluntary and places it in the realm of requirement. And requiring celibacy for those who have not discerned the gift of celibacy for themselves is cruel and outside the heart of God.
This would be an appropriate place to discuss the calling to a mixed-orientation marriage (MOM), but that is for a different post. As I was reading Wes’ piece, it struck me that neither Jesus nor the Apostle Paul speak of the gift of celibacy as strictly voluntary. Rather, both affirm the notion that if you are in a state of celibacy, regardless of the circumstances that led you there, it is to be viewed as a beautiful gift from God.
The first text to consider here is Matthew 19. Here, Jesus has just presented a hard teaching on marriage and divorce, and his disciples respond in verse 10 with, “If such is the case, it is BETTER not to marry.” And amazingly, Jesus agrees with them. He says in verse 11, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.” So Jesus is saying that it is given to some to marry, and it is given to others to remain celibate. And for those who are celibate, it is better for them than marriage. In other words, it is a gift.
Now, to whom is this gift of celibacy given? Jesus continues in verse 12, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”
A eunuch in Jesus’ day was basically any person who for whatever reason was forced into celibacy, either by birth defect, impotency, or external means such as castration, which was common among royal servants who were responsible for the harem of a King. But Jesus’ emphasis here is not on the physical organs, but rather on those people who are celibate, and by extension not married. So when he says Eunuch, he is talking about a celibate person. And he gives two broad categories of celibacy: involuntary and voluntary.
First he mentions eunuchs who have been so from birth, either by birth defect or impotency, and then eunuchs who have been made so by men, either by castration or perhaps accident. In both of those cases, the celibate person did not have a choice in the matter. It is simply their reality that whatever specific circumstance has led to their celibacy, it is part of their life and beyond their control. They probably didn’t choose it.
And then, he mentions another category of celibacy. He says in vs. 12, second half, “And there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Now it is not likely that Jesus is talking about self-mutilation here. Much more likely, he is simply referring to people who have decided to remain single and celibate voluntarily. So those are the two different categories; those who are involuntarily celibate and those who are voluntarily celibate.
Finally, he ends verse 12 by saying again, “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it”. I think he is directly applying the categories he just mentioned, and saying that these are two different groups who can receive the saying that it is better not to marry. In others words, Jesus is saying, “Whether you chose celibacy voluntarily or it was chosen for you, receive it as a good gift.”
So for Jesus, celibacy need not be strictly voluntary for it to be a good gift. Indeed, for many, it may not be voluntary. But for all who find themselves in such a state, it is good, indeed BETTER for them than marriage itself.
The Apostle Paul agrees. In 1 Corinthians 7:7, Paul says, “I wish that all were as I myself am (that is, celibate). But each has his own gift (charisma) from God, one of one kind and one of another.” He then goes on in verses 8-9 to describe the two gifts he has in mind: marriage and celibacy. But notice who Paul identifies as possessing the gifts of marriage and celibacy. The one who is celibate has the gift of celibacy, and the one who is married has the gift of marriage. In other words, the state of celibacy is spoken of as the gift itself. Therefore, everyone who is celibate in Christ at any given moment possesses the gift of celibacy, regardless of whether it is voluntary or not.
The reality is that in the Christian life, there may be circumstances which prevent a person from getting married. I think of a good friend of mine who has desired marriage her whole life but has not found it. I think of those who were married and then divorced, but because of their churches teachings on divorce and remarriage, a second union is not possible. I think of those like myself who have no attraction to the opposite sex, but rather an exclusive orientation toward the same sex.
In all of those things, might it not be possible that God, our loving Father and the one who knows what is best for his children, is using life circumstances as a calling to a positive vocation? Is it not possible, indeed probable, that God is using sexual orientations, past relationships, or current singleness to call many in the church into the beautiful gift of celibacy? After all, is our God not a God who uses means to accomplish his purposes? Indeed, Paul’s thorn in his flesh was intentionally used by God for a purpose beyond Paul’s experience, a calling to display God’s power in weakness (1 Corinthians 12:7-10). Perhaps all of these circumstances ARE a positive calling.
No matter what the situation may be, one thing is clear: celibacy remains a gift. As Wes has so beautifully reflected, this does not mean easy. Every gift has it’s own set of trials, it’s own way of drawing us into the life and death of our Savior. But it is a gift nonetheless. My hope is that the church would actually view it that way, as a gift to be enjoyed for the glory of God, a place where devotion to the Lord and to others can thrive, where sacrificial love can point outward toward those who need it most. This is the biblical vision of celibacy.
Voluntary or not, celibacy is a gift from God.