07 Aug Where Have All the Celibates Gone? The Crisis We Face
I’d like to spend the next few posts talking specifically about marriage, celibacy, and singleness. I don’t plan on doing a series, but I do want to zero-in on issues related to celibacy. Please feel free to comment! Or if you prefer something private, send me an e-mail through my contact page. And if you’re interested in keeping up, please subscribe!
Also, I want to just clarify that I’m not trying to tear down marriage in this blog post. What I’m trying to tear down is the unhealthy degree to which marriage is prioritized at the expense of celibacy. Hopefully this comes through, but if not, I want to make sure it’s clear! I think marriage is a beautiful relationship. I also think it needs to be put in its proper place.
Putting All Your Eggs in the Marital Basket
Right now we face a crisis in the church. The result of blind exaltation of concupiscent love in the form of marriage. The product of children raised to think, “When I get married…” instead of, “If I get married….”
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the relational condition of the church:
Single women turn 30 and wonder when their life will start.
Pressured by an atmosphere intoxicated by romance, people who shouldn’t get married nevertheless do get married, and we bemoan the rate of divorce in the church.
Even those who really should get married nevertheless prioritize their marriage over relationships with anyone else but God, and we wonder why loneliness continues to grow.
LGBT+ Christians see marital love elevated to the top of a man-made relational hierarchy, and we act surprised when they want to get married like everybody else.
The church’s alternative to “hookup culture” has created a flood of people rushing to get married and barely anyone trying to be celibate. All this, ironically, as marriage rates steadily decline among evangelicals.
The Shortage of Celibates is a Symptom of a Much Larger Problem
Shortages are never a good thing, whether it be a shortage of teachers, a drought, or something else. Communities suffer when they don’t get what they need. And this includes the church.
And the church is suffering. After a century of internalizing Freudian thought, the church has all but forgotten the rich history of celibacy that we nurtured for 1,500 years until the Protestant Reformation. Instead of responding to the cultural glorification of sex and romance with biblical truth, the church has invented its own version of the same mistake, glorifying marriage and the resultant biological family to a suffocating degree.
Now, we face a shortage of celibates in the church. A symptom of Christian communities becoming ever more focused upon the nuclear family at the expense of the very family that God has called us to prioritize: the spiritual family.
And it’s time for this to change.
God Calls Us to Prioritize Our Spiritual Family, Which Is Not the Same Thing as the Nuclear Family
“I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided… I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” – 1 Cor. 7:32-35
Prior to the coming of Christ, the family of God was biological. Marriage couldn’t possibly conflict with God’s purpose. Only Jewish people could be saved, and producing more of God’s chosen people required the marital union. You had to be born into a Jewish family, and you had to marry a Jewish person, and you had to have lots of Jewish babies in order to multiply the people of God.
But Jesus Christ brought about a paradigm-shifting change, permanently altering the family unit of God’s people. We are no longer “born of the flesh.” Instead, we are “born again” (John 3:3). No longer is the family of God biological. We are spiritual, and we are called to give birth to spiritual sons and daughters.
That’s why biblical authors could say things like, “I became your father in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (1 Cor. 4:14). They weren’t joking. Our gospel family is our true family. In the past, producing biological offspring was the only way to grow the Kingdom of God, whereas today, producing spiritual offspring is the only way.
Marriage is a Liability and Celibacy Is an Asset
Naturally, giving birth to spiritual sons and daughters requires faith, not marriage. So by demanding that we give attention to a romantic partner and biological offspring, marriage runs the risk of distracting us from our true, spiritual family.
As a result, it’s no wonder that Paul would encourage both men and women to embrace the single life (1 Cor. 7). Such advice would have been completely untenable before Jesus. But the family of God is different now. We are born of the Spirit and no longer by flesh and blood (John 3:5-8). “If you are Christ’s,” Paul declared, “then you are Abraham’s offspring” (Gal. 3:29).
In such a spiritual reality, celibacy is the more Kingdom-oriented option. We’ve got the family of God to nurture! Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 7 essentially amounted to this: “Get married if you really want to, but remember that there’s more important things to prioritize, and marriage will get in the way.”
Prioritizing Marriage and the Biological Family Above Our Spiritual Family Undermines the Work of God
If the Apostle Paul knew the number of resources the church dedicates to marriage every single year, he’d roll in his grave. The number of books alone could fill an entire library. Not to mention the number of sermons, bible studies, community groups, and social events — all devoted to being married, or getting married, or staying married, or improving your married life.
It’s too much.
Now don’t get me wrong. Marriage is a wonderful relationship. The Bible gives it a tremendous amount of honor. Not necessarily more honor to the point of elevation, but definitely honor. Nevertheless, in our New Testament reality, the Bible also recognizes marriage for what it truly is. A potential liability. A distraction.
And with the church dedicating so much of its resources to marriage, it’s hard to argue that it’s not a distraction. And a very big one.
Setting Our Priorities Straight, for Gay Christians and Straight Christians Alike
“Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.” – 1 Cor. 7:6-8
When it comes to LGBT+ issues, Christians forget something critical. We encourage gay people to pursue celibacy and nobody else. But in Scripture, Paul encouraged everyone to pursue celibacy, unless a person lacked the necessary self-control (1 Cor. 7:9). Yes, that’s right. Celibacy is preferable. For every Christian.
To clarify, I’m not saying that every Christian ought to be celibate. I’m saying that every Christian ought to recognize celibacy as a good worth pursuing and as a vocation better suited for God’s Kingdom.
Until we recognize the value of celibacy, not just for homosexual Christians but for everyone, it will remain a distasteful option for many (if not most) in the gay-Christian community. If we want celibacy to be a desirable vocation for the gay believer, it must become a desirable vocation for all believers.
Embracing the Celibate Vocation Will Benefit the Entire Church
By recognizing the value of celibacy, we take one step closer to acknowledging the true nature of God’s Kingdom on earth. And every believer benefits as a result:
Christian women who can’t find a husband will start living the life God has given them, instead of pining for a life they don’t have.
Christian men will learn the value of self-control, instead of rushing down the altar.
Fewer people who shouldn’t get married will make the mistake of getting married, avoiding divorce before it’s a possibility.
Married couples will realize that their spiritual family has equal priority, breathing life into the church community instead of prioritizing only each other.
LGBT+ Christians (and really everyone) will stop assuming that a married life is the only way to find love and intimacy.
I’m not calling for something radical. I’m simply calling for a return to an appreciation of the celibate life in Christianity. An appreciation that we cultivated for 1,500 years, lost in the Protestant Reformation, and have nearly destroyed in the wake of our poor response to Freudian psychology and the sexual revolution.
I’m saying it’s time we changed. I’m saying it’s time to recognize that the Christian family unit is a spiritual family unit and that celibacy is the natural byproduct. It’s time we honored the celibate vocation.
I’m curious. What are your thoughts about marriage, celibacy, and singleness? Do you feel called to celibacy? If so, what caused you to pursue the celibate life, and what have you learned from that pursuit? If not, in what ways do you think that an appreciation of celibacy is nevertheless valuable? Or maybe you disagree altogether. If that’s the case, I invite your pushback!