The Alternative to Waiting
Link and Zelda were so very in love. They spent pretty much all their time together, and their friends would give them the “blech” face for cuteness basically 24/7. Of course, having grown up in church and being committed to the Christian life, they had no intention of compromising their purity. But as time went on, marriage only seemed more and more distant, and they grew increasingly unsettled about waiting and waiting until the time came to become sexually active. Eventually, after much prayer, soul-searching, and Scriptural study, they came to a confident conclusion. It was time to stop waiting.
What just happened here? Did I tell a story in which the protagonists take up premarital sex because it is good? Absolutely not. Link and Zelda did stop waiting for sex, but I have played a completely unfair sleight of hand by manipulating the word “waiting” for the sake of click-bait. See, “waiting” for something implies that you actually intend to have it at some point. This is not what Link and Zelda decided. They instead pledged themselves to celibacy. No plans for sex equals not waiting for sex.
What, then, was the point of all these shenanigans? To bring attention to a drastically underappreciated Christian lifestyle, one which was lived and commended by both Jesus and Paul, namely celibacy.
General Stuff on Celibacy in Christianity
[Before you read all my post, you should make sure to read Clark’s post on this same topic. We don’t say exactly the same things, but I still find him enlightening.]
In American society, and to a lesser extent in American Christianity, celibacy isn’t exactly held up as a serious lifestyle choice. I would say than in mainstream thought you will probably receive far much more support if you come out as gay, transgendered, or even a polygamist than if you are publicly committed to celibacy. Even in the Christian sphere, the basic thought is “If you can’t seem to find someone to marry (which is totally the best, and abundant sex in marriage is awesome, and that’s basically the only lifestyle we’ll ever talk about), then God has given you the gift (you know, like a consolation prize) of being single.” Even if you do remain single, a great deal of people in church don’t seriously expect you to remain celibate, though they’ll certainly say you should be.
[fquote align=”right”]You will probably receive far much more support if you come out as gay, transgendered, or even a polygamist than if you are publicly committed to celibacy.[/fquote]
All this is quite the shame. The celibate life, while not my own path, has great potential for the Christian life. Indeed, throughout the history of the church it has been held up as extremely admirable and, by many people, superior to marriage. This was especially the case for the early church fathers*. Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean that they were right, but any position held so widely throughout Christian history is worth considering.
Having set the stage for the discussion, I would like to address the Scriptures relevant to this issue. Consider what Jesus and Paul said on this issue.
The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. I say this as a concession, not as a command. I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.
What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
1 Corinthians 7:1-2, 6-9, 27-35
These are all quite interesting words. So what do we learn from this? I’ll try to break up the main points I gather.
- Celibacy is a gift from God. If you have the ability to remain celibate, to never marry or have sex, you are blessed by God. Jesus said that only those whom celibacy has been given can accept it, and Paul mentioned celibacy as a gift some have, though not all. So it is truly a gift, a blessing, not just a consolation prize like it is so often treated. Like all gifts, celibacy should be held in esteem, received with thanksgiving, and even desired.
- Celibacy is not easy. Jesus and Paul make it clear that not everyone is strong enough to live a celibate life. Jesus said that “not everyone can accept this word,” and Paul recognizes that not all can control themselves outside of marriage. But, as we all know, no good thing comes too easily.
- Celibacy seems to be expected of those who can maintain it. This is a more controversial point, but I think it is clear enough. If you are able to commit to celibacy, Jesus says you should, and Paul encourages you to keep on in that path.
- Celibacy is not a commandment. Jesus acknowledges that not all can be celibate, and so they are not commanded to be. Paul specifically says that it is not a sin to marry, and that if you cannot control your passions, you actually should get married.
- Celibacy provides a practical spiritual advantage over marriage. Jesus speaks of those who live as eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom, and Paul teaches clearly that those who remain unmarried have the advantage of singular devotion to God, unhindered by the additional responsibilities and concerns to which marriage obligates you. Marriage is good, but you cannot take the same risks and liberties in God’s service when you have a family to consider that you can when you serve unyoked.
I think the points which are most difficult to properly understand are the third and the last. For example, who is truly considered as being able to maintain celibate? Is everyone able? If so, is everyone expected to strive for celibacy? Jesus explicitly denies that all can take up the celibate life, so I would say that not everyone is expected to do so. So how do you know if you can? Well, I would say that those who go through life without sexual desire (asexuals), a desire to raise children, or a need for stable companionship from the opposite sex are quite obvious candidates. Alas, this is a very short list. Those with strong self-control and willpower, though, may be able to join their ranks. Beyond that, the call is tough. Just being able to master your sex drive may not always be enough. You must also be able to live without children, or a constant life companion, and if you strongly desire these things, you may still need to be married.
[fquote align=”left”]Those who go through life without sexual desire, a desire to raise children, or a need for stable companionship from the opposite sex are quite obvious candidates for a celibate commitment.[/fquote]
The other issue is the spiritual advantage. Does not marriage provide a spiritual advantage? After all, Paul speaks of marriage as a mysterious picture of Christ and the Church. Nonetheless, Jesus and Paul express a wish for the benefit of the believer that they remain celibate if possible. Why? Well, to be frank (and to follow what Jesus and Paul said), marriage brings hardship. I mean, yes, marriage is amazing and lovely, and there is so much to gain from it, but the added responsibilities and stress which come with marriage are a price that can take a toll on your ability to serve God. It is harder to lose your life for the Gospel when you have a wife and children depending on your life, and it is harder to put yourself in the risk of persecution when that brings your family into it as well.
The Uses of Championing Celibacy
There is another dimension to celibacy, and that is exerting the power of self-control for the kingdom of God in direct opposition to the kingdoms of this world. Celibacy says “no” to the demands of the world and the flesh. See, in our society, you do not truly have sexual freedom. Despite the promises of the sexual revolution, we now have less control of our bodies than ever before. How so? We are obligated to share them. In America today, you have two options: get married or be sexually active outside of marriage. If you do not conform, you are branded a weirdo, or a prude, or in the closet, or sexually incompetent. So you must share your body with at least one other person to be given respect, and you are not free to reserve it, whether for preference or a higher purpose, if you wish. The kingdoms of this world demand your body. Celibacy, then, stands as an act of defiance against the misdirected, mislabeled sexual autonomy promoted by this evil generation.
[fquote align=”right”]Celibacy says “no” to the demands of the world and the flesh.[/fquote]
One final consideration on celibacy is that it can actually touch one of the most sex-interested groups of people—youth—in a better way. Right now most youth events and gatherings which involve the topic of sex have exactly one thing to say: hold on until you get married, and then have yourself an awesome time. The way they often go about this is actually pandering to their sex drives, feeding their thoughts on the topic just by talking about it all the time and building it up for the future. So I posit that preaching celibacy as a viable, serious, and even joyful alternative to simply waiting on marriage can have its benefits here. I fear we actually don’t expect teenagers to take their faith seriously enough to renounce sex and marriage for Christ, but we ought to encourage them to make such a commitment. Moreover, our waiting-oriented culture can be alienating to two high undervalued groups of people, namely asexuals (no sex drive) and demisexuals (who have sexual desire only with an emotional connection). There are more people like these than you would expect, and they can sit amongst youth groups without having ever experienced sexual desires, pressured to fit in just because that’s how it is. They’re also repeatedly told the joys of sex and marriage, even though they may well have the ability to devote themselves to the celibate life, “married” only to Christ. They will probably also feel quite weird and uncomfortable with themselves if they have no desire for sex while the entire youth group culture they live in is permeated with the assumption that all of them do. Preaching the virtues of the celibate Christian life can certainly empower them and help them have a regarded place among their peers. This also applies, for that matter, to people who simply do not seem to be able to find their “special someone.” They can devote themselves to a higher call without feeling like losers.
To sum up my points, celibacy is a very noble and spiritual commitment available to believers. It enables us to renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil, subjugating physical passions and cultural demands to the pursuit of Christ. Scripture presents it as a unique and high calling, a gift from God, to be desire and to be pursued by those who can hold it. Presenting it for the virtue and viable alternative to marriage which it truly is offers much spiritual promise to people who would otherwise be conflicted, neglected, or even compromised. And I’m terrible at conclusions, so I will abruptly end here.
P.S. On Celibacy and True Love
One thing which you may be wondering based on my beginning to this post: “Are people who are in love really likely to be candidates for celibacy?” To that my answer is yes. Despite the mandates of the American perspective on love, sex, and marriage even in the church, you do not have to marry someone you love, or have sex with them. Sometimes all you really need is to stay close. I can almost guarantee you that there are many people completely in love who would do best to restrain their passions and keep their relationship entirely celibate.
[Final reminder: If you haven’t read Clark’s post on this topic, you should.]
*Here are two representative quotes from early Christian teachers on celibacy and marriage.
In short, there is no place at all where we read that nuptials are prohibited; of course on the ground that they are “a good thing.” What, however, is better than this “good,” we learn from the apostle, who permits marrying indeed, but prefers abstinence; the former on account of the insidiousnesses of temptations, the latter on account of the straits of the times.
If then “he who is married cares for the things of the world”, and a Bishop ought not to care for the things of the world, why does he say the husband of one wife? Some indeed think that he says this with reference to one who remains free from a wife. But if otherwise, he that hath a wife may be as though he had none. For that liberty was then properly granted, as suited to the nature of the circumstances then existing. And it is very possible, if a man will, so to regulate his conduct. For as riches make it difficult to enter into the kingdom of Heaven, yet rich men have often entered in, so it is with marriage.