Voluntary Or Not, Celibacy Is A Gift

Sunrise view taken by the STS-109 crew aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. NASA Identifier: sts109-345-032

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.

Ron has written about these verses before, and I preached a sermon on this text last year. Here is my interpretation of what is going on here:

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.

12 thoughts on “Voluntary Or Not, Celibacy Is A Gift

  1. So much to appreciate in this post. This is something I have been thinking about for quite some time. I don’t believe that having the gift of singleness/celibacy is always accompanied by a desire for that gift. I also don’t believe that the gift always includes a lower sex drive or an increased emotional ability to be ok alone. When reading the early monastics it is clear that they experienced both loneliness and sexual temptation.
    As I read the New Testament, it also seems clear that Christians sometimes struggle to accept their gifts. For instance in 1 Corinthians 12:12-30 Paul warns believers not to value one part of the Body over another. Eyes, hands, ears must all play the part God has given them and not seek to play someone else’s role. Apparently Timothy needed to be encouraged put aside his timidity and act on the gift he had been given (2 Tim 1:6).
    Our subjective perception of giftedness does not always correspond with God’s actual gifting. God’s gifts may not always feel right to us, but they are always good, and they always benefit the body of Christ.

  2. Good points. Even so, celibacy has generally been something more than abstinence from sex. Even if it is a gift, what role is a celibate Christian to play in a church context, such as an evangelical church context, where celibacy itself may be deemed to be sinful.

    Tim Bayly, one of the longtime leaders of the “biblical manhood” movement, recently wrote on his blog (in apparent reference to Wes) that: “Sex is a calling from God and is foundational to Christian discipleship, so the man who says he’s a celibate effeminate is a rebel against God.” While Reformed evangelical pastors may not state their beliefs with such directness, one can certainly see such views running through the writings of many non-affirming Reformed evangelicals. And it certainly carries over to church practice. So, how does one react in a church context that believes that your gift is a sin, and believes that you need to marry someone of the opposite sex and start getting it on for fear that your soul may be in jeopardy?

    • Let them be an educator and advocate for celibacy. Tim hardly speaks for all evangelicals but he’s got a hard case to make, much like those who pedal some version of a prosperity gospel, when you have Paul’s writings and the example Jesus himself has set.

      • It’s hard to be an educator for something when you’re threatened with excommunication. In many ways, the “side B” crowd plays right into the “side A” hands when it threatens even celibate gay people with church discipline. This is why I’m deeply suspicious of the notion that Romans 1 is the issue. If it were, there would be no reason to threaten celibate gay Christians with excommunication, or, in the case of the SBC, to publish an entire book detailing how it’s a sin even to claim to have anything other than a heterosexual orientation.

  3. Hi Jayhuck,

    I’m wondering if you are a parent… I am a mother and I try to gift my daughter with many good things that she doesn’t see as gifts but instead she sees as impositions and sources of distress. When I limit her sugar intake. When I limit her time with the iPad. When I require of her time for learning math or reading. All of these are viewed by her as burdens. She will turn 10 in October. I pray that she will come to appreciate all of these in time as she matures. In a very similar way God, our Father, offers us ways to grow in holiness. These are always gifts whether we are able to recognized them as such or we are still too spiritually immature to see through the burden (the cross) of the gift.

  4. Pingback: “Celibacy, Self-Acceptance, And the Extra Inkling”: I’m at First Things | Spiritual Friendship

  5. Iv been celibate for some months now and I think it is amazing. At first I thought it would be very difficult and it was. I learned that it is all about your mind set. So after reading your post I havent really looked at it as a complete gift and now I do. Thank you

  6. Pingback: Unchosen Gay Celibacy? | Spiritual Friendship

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