I’m digging a little deeper into the discussion of celibacy here, focusing on the question of love and intimacy in a celibate person’s life. I’ve found that intimacy is one of the biggest impasses that many people have when it comes to being celibate, but it doesn’t need to be. Hopefully this post begins to address that concern. Please comment or send me a private e-mail through the contact page — I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! And as always, please subscribe to follow future posts!
When you’re a single, Christian woman committed to a traditional sexual ethic, sooner or later you reach an impasse: either get hitched to a guy or be single and lonely for the rest of your life. The predicament is hard enough when you’re straight. But as a lesbian, I found my situation to be far worse. I saw myself stuck between a rock and a hard place, and I couldn’t see any way out.
I couldn’t imagine marrying a guy. Just thinking about it made me sick to my stomach. But neither could I imagine being single. I couldn’t imagine lacking the relational intimacy that comes from sharing a life with somebody else. And while I’d read plenty of Christian articles on the blessings and benefits of singleness, I saw them as little more than lackluster appeasement. A half-hearted attempt to make single people satisfied with a way of life that isn’t satisfying at all.
I had bought into the modern hierarchy of relationships, with marriage sitting at the top. Unless I got married, I could never experience the greatest expression of love between people. I could be miserably married or miserably alone. A catch-22. And there was nothing I could do about it. Or so I thought.
Fortunately, God’s vision for human flourishing looks very different.
Marriage Is Not As Important As People Think
As bits and pieces of Freud have eeked their way into the church over the century, many people have come to believe that they desperately need a romantic partner in order to experience true love. Christians being among them.
So ingrained has this mindset become that most people take it for granted. As if it were an axiomatic truth. You’ll even hear Christians say things like, “The most important earthly relationship is marriage,” not as an assertion to prove but rather as an a priori assumption, upon which other arguments are built.
Consequently, as the surrounding culture has slowly transformed the romantic partner into a person’s most important source of relational intimacy, so too has the church altered its understanding of the marital spouse. No longer is marriage an esteemed relationship among many. Instead, it has become the most important source of love in a person’s life, second only to Christ.
However, you won’t find any place in scripture that legitimizes the modern hierarchy of relationships. And you certainly won’t find any verse supporting the notion that marriage is the greatest earthly relationship. Such ideas are entirely man-made, the bastard product of sexual idolatry coupled with Christian mores.
Being Gay In a Straight-Christian World
Ironically enough, the Christian obsession with marriage and family, often perceived as a defense against the immorality and promiscuity of society, adds nothing more than fuel to a burning fire.
Let’s be real. It’s unfair to treat marriage like the greatest form of love on earth, second only to Christ, but deny people its intimacy. It’s like promising your kid he’ll get a fidget spinner for his 13th birthday but changing your mind after puberty (and owning a fidget spinner is an absolute “necessity” in kid world). We’ve been raising entire generations to think that marriage is a given — unless you’re a loser. Who can really blame a gay believer for wanting what countless believers expect out of life?
Put simply, in little more than a century, the church has provided its full cooperation in the transformation of marriage from a sacrament to a civil right. And we wonder why gay people feel entitled to it. Everyone feels entitled to it.
After all, if the greatest source of love on earth, second to Christ, is found through marriage alone, then why would anyone be satisfied with anything less? By elevating marriage to such an extent, we simultaneously cheapen every other relationship, and life without marriage looks inferior.
In God’s World, Spouses Don’t Come First
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:12-13
I’ve spoken to countless people who can’t imagine loving anyone as much as their spouse. “My wife knows me better than anyone,” they say, or, “Nothing compares to our love for each other.” In fact, if you do start to love someone as much as your partner, then you’re “cheating emotionally.” It’s actually a bad thing.
But Jesus never said, “love your spouse, as I have loved you.” He said, “love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12-13). Jesus commanded us to love each other, spouse or not, with a kind of love that has no equal, the very kind he gave to us. This means that your partner doesn’t get first dibs. There’s no such thing as first dibs.
Put another way: prizing romantic love above other forms of love is nothing more than a sign of idolatry. Making babies with another person doesn’t make them any more important than a brother or sister in Christ, with whom you are called to make spiritual children. In fact, Paul indicates that the family of God should come first, and it’s for this very reason that he encourages members of the church to remain “betrothed,” not married (1 Cor. 7:38). He foresaw the very thing that we struggle with today — putting your spouse before the bride of Christ.
The reality is that it’s easier to have one person to love and other people to “hang out” or “grab a drink” or do a little “fellowship” with now and again. But this “marriage-first” formula does nothing but create loneliness and shallow community, putting undo pressure on the marriage and making community next to impossible.
The “Marriage-First” Mentality Is a Liability to Christian Community
“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.” – 1 Cor. 7:32b-34a
Now it goes without saying that marriage is a precious relationship. Through it, we see the mysterious union of the sexes and the miraculous creation of new life as a result. Scripture accords it a great amount of honor, and we ought to uphold that honor as a church.
But the church’s recognition of marriage shouldn’t come at the expense of other relationships, all of which are equally valuable and equally vital to a healthy community. Unfortunately, many Christians put so much stock in their current or future spouse that other relationships take second-fiddle.
And herein lies the source of the problem. Celibacy looks impossible because we’ve lost the ability to give true love to more than just one person. We’ve lost a biblical vision for Christian community.
In a world where marriage monopolizes the greatest degree of earthly love, community is bound to suffer. Instead of sharing love within a multitude of relationships, people hoard the very best of it, giving it to one person alone (or perhaps one person + kids). In a world where spouse and family are the most important relationships, who would forgo getting married and having kids? In such a world, forgoing marriage is the same as pledging yourself to be lonely. To be single.
But this kind of world is not the real world. It’s not God’s world.
The Celibate Life is the Better Life
“So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.” – 1 Cor. 7:38
Paul wouldn’t describe the celibate life as “better” (1 Cor. 7:38) if it meant losing the most profound expression of love between people. Forgoing sex has nothing to do with forgoing love because the celibate life is not a life without intimacy. Celibacy is not singleness.
Instead, choosing celibacy is choosing to embrace a life without the constraints of marriage but with all the benefits of deep, intimate relationships. A world where John could rest against the bosom of Jesus, not because they were secretly twisting the sheets but because they were intimate friends (John 13:23). A world where David’s love for Jonathan “surpassed the love of women” (2 Sam. 1:26), not because they were having sex but because they were closer than sexual partners. A world where your friends are as likely candidates for a soulmate as your spouse (1 Sam. 18:1; Deut. 13:6). A world where celibacy isn’t just feasible but actually better (1 Cor. 7:38).
In God’s world, marriage doesn’t have a monopoly on intimacy. Sexual partners don’t get first dibs on love. The celibate life is better because it provides a net gain. You keep your kindred spirits but let go of marital constraints, expressing a truth our culture has forgotten. That you don’t need sex to find love.
Thinking About Celibacy: Some Questions for Discussion
So what are your thoughts? Do you have any friendships in your life that you cherish as much as or more than a romantic partner? What impact do these types of intimate relationships have on your life? How do you think the church can foster this type of community?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please comment or send me a private e-mail through the contact page, and I will definitely respond!
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