Where Have All the Celibates Gone? The Crisis We Face

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.

Celibacy is valuable. More Christians need to pursue the celibate life. Gay Christians shouldn't be the only ones.

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.

Young men prematurely rush down the aisle to take their vows, as if doing so will protect them from “sexual sin,” but the rate of porn addiction in the church is higher than ever.

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.

Some Questions

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!

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  • Dan Kight
    Posted at 12:51h, 07 August Reply

    Hi Bridget, as with this post and every other post I have read by you, I think you are hitting some incredibly important nails right on the head. Liv and I have been thinking through for some time what life on mission for Christ looks like as parents. Do the fundamental aspects of our calling change after we get married, or are we to continue being the hands and feet of Jesus to those in our community and continue sharing the good news of Christ, even though it is to a lesser extent as our lives are also beautifully encumbered with raising children? No! Life on mission for Christ as single people does not change in the most important ways.

    We are all called at every point in our lives to seek after opportunities to love our neighbors: to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, help the widows and orphans, help the poor, visit those in prison, share the Gospel, and disciple others. Far too many single and married Christians neglect these ways that we are called to learn how to love Christ and our neighbors. Instead, families are the examples used for showing how we love one another and take up our cross daily. Pastors often primarily speak to situations faced by families, children and parents rather than single people. How strange this is in light of Paul’s words! People think that their Christian calling becomes basically completely dedicated to raising Godly children, yet there is no Biblical support for this. Nonchristians often mirror modern Christians by pursuing physical comfort and dedicating their lives to their children. Though the following words of Jesus imply to me that such lives do not reflect him:

    ” 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers,[a] what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:46-48.

    All of this to say that I think that the modern understanding of living for Christ in love for God and our community is several lacking. Single people are most able to truly show the love of Christ in this world. Celibacy is absolutely a neglected spiritual gift as is single-ness for however long it lasts. Single people are the forgotten giant of the church. I think that Francis Chan and David Platt have written some great books describing what radical, healthy faith in Jesus looks like. Anyway, I have a lot more thoughts on how to help bring the church together in intimate, healthy community while focusing on living life on mission instead of modern complacency and being so inward focused, but this isnt the place for it. Thank you again so much for your thoughts Bridget!

    • Bridget Eileen
      Posted at 22:45h, 08 August Reply

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Daniel! I love what Francis Chan and David Platt have written. David Platt in particular really caused me to start thinking about my life priorities in a completely different way. Regarding what you said about singleness, I think it’s so true how strange it is that pastors/church leaders don’t dedicate more time to it. Especially as singleness is on the rise across Western culture, including within the church, now is the time to provide people with a robust theology surrounding singleness. Instead, so many single people that I meet seem completely devoid of any sort of biblical understanding of their singleness. When conversations do come up about singleness, they normally center (ironically) upon finding a partner.

      As you pointed out, I strongly believe that developing a stronger theology surrounding singleness and celibacy will do more than benefit singles and celibates. I believe that married couples have just as much to gain from the conversation. It shifts the focus away from earthly marriage as the central focus of one’s life to the family of God becoming the central focus and how a person’s marriage can participate in that family structure.

      And thanks again, I appreciated hearing your thoughts!

  • kevindegnan
    Posted at 03:05h, 08 August Reply

    Tim Keller:

    “Through all of life, in every event, and through every aspect of your life there always will be a ground note running of cosmic disappointment and you’re not going to lead a wise life until you know that. See Jacob goes to bed with the one, I finally got the one, the one thing, the one person who is going to make my life okay. But what we are told literally in the Hebrew says ‘but in the morning behold, it was Leah.” Now I love Leah and I’m protective of her and I love what we’re about to learn about her but let me tell you this, Leah represents something. Every time you get started into a relationship, every time you move into a marriage, every time you get a job, every time you get into a new project, into some new pursuit and you think this finally is going to make my life right, I want you to know, in the morning it’s always Leah. You go to bed with Rachel, in the morning it will always, always be Leah. And nobody put it better than C.S. Lewis who said “Most people if they really learned how to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something this world can never give them.” There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you but they never keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love or first think of some foreign country or first take up some subject that excites us, these are longings which no marriage, no travel, or no earning will ever satisfy. I’m not speaking of what would ordinarily be called unsuccessful marriages or trips or so on, I’m speaking of the very best possible ones. There is always something we have grasped at in that first moment of longing that just fades away in the reality. The spouse may be a good spouse, the scenery has been excellent, it’s turned out to be a good job, but IT, the thing that we thought was going to be in the centre of it, always evades us in the morning. It’s always Leah.”

  • Paige
    Posted at 04:38h, 08 August Reply

    I agree that the church emphasizes marriage to the point of making people who are single feel inferior, and I think you have a very good analysis of that imbalance. However, I don’t think this is because the church doesn’t value celibacy — celibacy is what single people, straight or LGBT, are encouraged to pursue. The problem is that it’s extremely difficult to be celibate as your 20s continue and beyond, for anyone who’s not asexual (I would argue that those who have the gift of celibacy are those who are asexual). People who hand-wave away the difficulties with “God will give you the strength (to be celibate)” (I’m not saying you’re doing this) are usually those who got married very young or don’t have much sexual desire themselves (it’s not that hard to wait until marriage if you get married at 20…).

    I agree that celibacy and/or singleness should not be viewed as inferior. But honestly I think this is product of the fact that most people want to have sex and celibacy is just a pit stop on the way to getting married (even if you are content with it for the time being). I also think there’s a world of difference between someone who voluntarily chooses to be celibate and someone who doesn’t want to abstain from sex, but has to (because they’re unmarried). I would argue that these are two different categories, and the latter should not be lumped in with the gift/calling of celibacy. I’m not sure how the latter case should be addressed, but I think the traditional understanding of celibacy doesn’t really fit there, and we somehow need to take into account the very different social context that young adults are living in now, with a much later age of marriage overall.

    • Lauren Melissa
      Posted at 08:20h, 08 August Reply

      Hi there! I think the latter stance (people who want to have sex but can’t because they’re unmarried) already have a category called abstinence.

    • Bridget Eileen
      Posted at 23:23h, 08 August Reply

      I completely agree with you that there are nuances to this conversation that shouldn’t be overlooked! There definitely is a big difference between someone who is called to celibacy as their life vocation and another person who is called to celibacy for a season. I think Lauren described the latter as fitting better with the word “abstinence.”

      However, I want to give some of these ideas more thought, because like you said, I think notions surrounding “abstinence” encourage the mindset that celibacy is just a pitstop on the way to getting married. I think it can potentially encourage people to view celibacy not as a calling in and of itself but as the equivalent of life’s waiting room. But that’s not the point of celibacy at all, whether it be your life calling or just a season! If I can make an analogy, for those who feel called to get married, we could liken marriage and celibacy to employment. There’s a big difference between someone who is unemployed and searching for a job and someone who has a stable job already and is looking to switch companies. If you’ve already got a job, then searching for new employment is no longer an act of desperation. It’s something that you can take your time to consider and even turn down. It’s the same way if you’re single and celibate. You’re already “employed.” You’ve already got a job to do even as you’re looking to switch. Single people need to start thinking of themselves in this way, not as “unemployed” and desperate for work, but as already working in a highly desirable field. Maybe you’ll take a new position when it comes, but it won’t mean that you didn’t have meaningful work already.

      But there are further nuances: celibacy is different for someone who wants to get married and will get married versus someone who wants to get married but won’t get married versus someone who doesn’t want to get married at all versus someone who is gay versus someone who is asexual etc etc etc. I would say that each of these people are called to celibacy but that each will nevertheless pursue a different sort of celibacy. Celibacy doesn’t look the same from one person to the next! But that, in my mind, only strengthens the need for more conversations around this topic.

      • StrengthOfHisMight
        Posted at 08:33h, 22 January Reply

        Amen, amen, amen! I love your analogy comparing different sorts of celibacy to seeking employment. Indeed, “Single people need to start thinking of themselves in this way, not as ‘unemployed’ and desperate for work, but as already working in a highly desirable field”!

    • StrengthOfHisMight
      Posted at 08:50h, 22 January Reply

      I don’t know if this is helpful as you think through these things, but Nick Roen has written, “For Jesus, celibacy need not be strictly voluntary for it to be a good gift.” The rest of his thoughts are available at Spiritual Friendship.

      • Bridget Eileen
        Posted at 20:28h, 22 January Reply

        That’s a great post you linked to. Thank you for sharing!

  • Lauren Melissa
    Posted at 08:22h, 08 August Reply

    I’m a celibate Christian, and I feel called to be this way because I naturally do not find other people sexually attractive, and if another person finds me sexually attractive and tries to pursue me in that way, I slowly begin to feel a wedge grow between me and that person. I often wonder what the church would be like if celibacy received equal amounts of pulpit time as marriage.

    • Bridget Eileen
      Posted at 23:29h, 08 August Reply

      That is a really great question and something that I wonder myself all the time. Personally, I believe that church community would grow and benefit tremendously by giving celibacy equal pulpit time. And there’s really no reason not to. According to statistics, singles now outnumber married people in the United States. Conversations about celibacy are needed now more than ever!

  • Blake
    Posted at 02:24h, 09 August Reply

    A stellar and timely essay, Bridget. Before I married, I seriously considered taking vows of celibacy, having begun to recover many of the early church teachings you mention here. However, I would risk correcting you on one point: in the view of the early church fathers and the biblical tradition, celibacy is not abstinence from marriage (anymore than singleness is abstinence from one’s sexual nature), but a marriage of another sort. Celibate Christians are married to the Church of Christ. They are spoken for, and all the biblical spiritual imagery pertaining to marriage applies also to their spiritual union as well. Only, instead of a biologically-complementary partner, their beloved is Christ. Moreover, much like biologically unions, these spiritual unions are fecund. That is why Paul refers to his disciples as his children (Gal. 4:19). In his observations of early Christian communities, Philo, the Jewish philosopher, was impressed that women would voluntarily lead lives of celibacy, thereby “begetting and nursing spiritual children.” Also like Christian marriages, these spiritual unions are faithful and monogamous (i.e., not idolatrous or polytheistic).

    Point being, Scripture does indeed elevate marriage, and that elevation is celibacy.

    • Bridget Eileen
      Posted at 23:45h, 08 August Reply

      You make an excellent point, Blake, that I think underscores the notion that celibates reflect the kind of life that all Christians will participate in when we finally sit down at the marriage supper of the lamb. I do think that I overlooked this and it’s something that I should revisit, as I think it adds a crucial layer of depth and understanding.

      I also love that you bring up fecundity. This is why passages like Isaiah 54:1 are so meaningful, where the Bible says, “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married.” The prophet Isaiah was not making some sort of prediction that all the barren women of the world would miraculously start having biological children. He was talking about the spiritual fecundity of those who are married to Christ!

    Posted at 08:01h, 03 November Reply

    Bridget, this is how I feel about being a celibate, single Christian. From my favorite cover band…

  • Nathan D.
    Posted at 20:44h, 14 March Reply

    Celibacy in the Church didn’t disappear with Protestantism; it’s just that you’re not in the right paradigm to see it.

    As an Orthodox Christian, I find much of what you say about celibacy not only affirming, but perfectly normal. My brother in law and sister in law are both monastics in Orthodox Christian monasteries, which has always been seen as a legitimate and God-inspired calling.

    • Bridget Eileen
      Posted at 15:55h, 24 March Reply

      That’s amazing and super interesting. So glad to hear of people following God’s call in this way.

  • Raina Nightingale
    Posted at 20:10h, 02 May Reply

    “I’m curious. What are your thoughts about marriage, celibacy, and singleness?”

    Is this an invitation to share a post I wrote on my own blog addressed to this question? https://enthralledbylove.com/2019/02/05/marriage-and-virginity-or-single-life-glorious-privilege/

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