Sometimes in the life of the church we need to reclaim a forgotten or dormant teaching. My sense is that now is such a time and that the teaching we need to dust off and put into practice is celibacy.
Celibacy is not a very popular idea. We Protestants see the Catholic Church overdoing it by not allowing priests to marry and we kind of recoil at the idea. Not marrying and not having children (and, let’s face it, not having sex) just seems weird to most of us. Perhaps this is why we’ve normalized marriage and ostracized celibates.
The strongest case for celibacy comes from the pages of the New Testament. Jesus did not marry. Neither did Paul. In fact, Paul encouraged the earliest believers to try and resist the urge to marry for the sake of the kingdom. He simply believed (and taught) that it was better not to marry. If we take the New Testament seriously, perhaps we should take celibacy more seriously. And by “take seriously” I mean teach that celibacy is the norm and marriage is the exception.
Why should the church reverse polarity on the marriage-celibacy issue? In addition to the unchanging witness of Scripture, I see three good reasons we in the church need to treat celibacy as more normal than marriage.
As a witness in the midst of a sex-saturated society.
Sex is everywhere these days. Sex has become a way of understanding and expressing oneself at the deepest level of identity. The norm is to have sex and lots of it. From college campuses to popular books and movies, sex is everywhere. In such a society, those who choose not to have sex are odd. And Christians are called to be odd. We hold to the peculiar teachings of our faith in such a way that causes us to stand out in a crowd and to stand up for a truly alternative way of living. If society’s message is “have lots of sex with lots of partners” the Christian alternative is not (primarily) “have sex with one person who is your spouse.” That is an option, but it’s not the first option for Christians. The first option is much, much odder: don’t have sex. While most Christians will likely get married, holding celibacy to be the norm in our teaching, preaching, and expectations will create a clear contrast between the way of the world and the Way.
As a way to remove family as an idol.
Most churches have not made sex into an idol, but many have made family into a thing of adoration, if not worship. Look at church marketing and mostly you will see a happy, smiling family: a demographically attractive couple with two or three well-adjusted children, all of whom are smiling with perfectly straight white teeth. I have yet to see that family in the Bible. Supporting families in living out the gospel in whole and healthy relationships is good, but making the family into the ideal for Christians is not good. Family becomes an idol when the church exists for the sake of families. Family becomes an idol when the message of the gospel becomes a means for attaining the ideal family (or just a better family). When we come to Jesus in order to get a family, we’ve got things way out of whack. Reasserting celibacy as a normal and valuable way of living can help put things into their proper order.
As a biblical means of welcoming those with same sex attraction.
I don’t really know if those who have an attraction to persons of the same gender were born that way or not. I don’t know if they can help it or not. There is a whole lot about that which I don’t know. But I do know that Scripture teaches us not to have sex with people of our gender and not to have sex with people we are not married to. For too long we have ostracized gay and lesbian Christians because we expect them to change an orientation (or drive, or urge, or preference, or whatever you’d like to call it). But those of us who are attracted to persons of the opposite sex don’t hold ourselves to the same standard.
Paul’s teaching on celibacy makes it clear that he expected people to want to have sex and to not do it – and that this lifestyle of celibacy was to be preferred over marrying in order to act on the desire to have sex. This kind of attitude toward sexual desire and sexual activity provides a way of relating to those with same sex attraction that is dignifying to them and faithful to Scripture. But we cannot pull out the celibacy card only when advising our gay and lesbian friends how to live a Christian life – it must be held up as a normal way for Christians to live, no matter one’s sexual orientation.
How can the church promote celibacy? Here are three ideas:
- A good start will be when we dedicate as much teaching, resources, curriculum, and counseling toward promoting and supporting celibacy as we do marriage.
- Another good move will be when we stop discriminating against single and celibate persons when hiring pastors and other ministry staff. A candidate’s singleness needs to be a conversation starter (in the same way we talk to candidates about their family), not a relationship ender.
- Finally, how about intentionally including those who are single and celibate in the community? Invite them into your home for Thanksgiving (or accept their invitation). The body of Christ (that is, the church) is the primary relationship for Christ-followers, not the family. So treat all members of the body better than family, even those awesome members who’ve chosen celibacy.
What do you think? Is celibacy all that I’m making it out to be? What’s been your experience? How does your church deal with issues of marriage and celibacy? What could you do better?