When evangelical Christians write about sex, they usually concentrate on the joys and difficulties of marriage. How can marriages be divorce-proofed? How can they be happy?
Yet today most people live a long period of adult life before marriage, and many never marry. Increasing divorce adds another large group to the single population. The elderly, who are growing in number, add still more. (A high proportion have lost a spouse.) All of these groups, in addition to a sizable group of people whose desires are primarily homosexual, call us to offer a view of sexuality that applies to singles just as much as to married people.
Equals In The Kingdom
God is in the process of redeeming the world through his Son, and his work applies equally to the single and the married. Their salvation is not in being married, nor in being single. It is a salvation that breaks into their circumstances, whatever they are, transforming them. Of course, single people experience God’s transforming power in a distinctive way. But it is not an inferior way. Our temptation ought to be, in fact, to call their way superior. (That was certainly the temptation of Paul, and many of the church fathers.) For the single person’s way is closer to that of Jesus, who is the pioneer of our salvation.
Imagine, if you can, patronizing Jesus as a single person. “Why haven’t you ever married?” he is asked. “You seem like such a nice person. I have a cousin in Bethsaida I’d really like you to meet.”
When I imagine such a ludicrous scene, I realize how Jesus transforms ordinary expectations. Matters that seem quite important become embarrassingly flimsy when we encounter him. Our dreams and ambitions, our worries and fears, are held up to his light, and most of them become quite transparent. “You are worried that you might end up miserably single? Come unto me, all you who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” He offers single people a far greater joy than that which marriage can provide. He calls them, as he calls married people, to follow him.
Radicals And Stewards
I owe a debt to my brother, William Stafford, for pointing out two great patterns of response to Jesus’ call to discipleship. One is the response of stewardship. The other is the response of radicalism.
If you give a steward a million dollars, he will invest it wisely and honestly, and use the profit for God’s kingdom. The radical will immediately give it all to the poor. The steward, if he is an accountant, will try to witness to God by being an honest and hard-working accountant. The radical may be an accountant, but his heart will be in what he does after work. The steward will serve on the city council; the radical will demonstrate outside the doors. The steward works with the conditions of life as he finds them; the radical seeks fundamental change. The steward sees the necessity of compromise; the radical sees the necessity of purity.
In sexuality, the response of stewardship is marriage. One thinks immediately of Martin Luther. He had spent most of his life as a monk, earnestly climbing rungs on the ladder to heaven. He concluded there was no ladder: God saves us without regard to our religious efforts. That included the whole monastic affair, and celibacy as part of it. Luther had practiced celibacy, yet concluded that celibacy could only be lived by “peculiar” persons, perhaps one in a thousand. Calvin had a better balanced view, more in accord with Scripture. But it is Luther’s ideas about sexuality that have become ours.
The steward knows that the business of caring for a spouse, raising children, and supporting a family will often make his life look very similar to that of his non-Christian neighbors. After all, encouraging your spouse, changing your baby’s diapers, and coaching your daughter’s soccer team are not distinctively Christian tasks. But the Christian steward intends to do these ordinary tasks prayerfully and selflessly. He hopes to be a better parent, spouse, nurturer, and provider because of his faith.
The steward’s response is completely familiar to most of us, since it has totally dominated Protestantism, and has come to almost equal prominence in Catholicism. In the Roman church, the celibate priesthood seems increasingly an anachronism. A great many American Catholics would gladly rid themselves of it.
Isn’T Jesus The Norm?
The steward assumes that marriage is the normal way to live; celibacy or singleness is a “peculiar” or unusual situation. But the radical answers this with a question: From where do we get our norms? From an observation of what is usual in the world as it exists? Or from the kingdom as it breaks into the world? Isn’t Jesus our norm? Aren’t we to follow in his steps?
The radical is not terribly interested in preserving and hallowing the world as it exists. He is focused on the coming kingdom. He sees the practical demands of ordinary life as an interference: he would rather serve God only. Not only is Jesus his model, so is Paul. In both he sees an active, dedicated life, in which no practical matter—finances, family needs, political realism—is allowed to interfere with the cause of God’s kingdom.
Celibacy is only one aspect of a life radically devoted to God. The radical may also, in imitation of Christ, favor a simple lifestyle, unencumbered by the responsibilities of possessions. He may eschew the right to defend himself, turning the other cheek. Often, he will give up his own individual freedom, choosing to work as part of a dedicated cadre. Thus, traditional monastic vows were “poverty, chastity, and obedience.”
For the radical, celibacy is not so much a sacrifice as an opportunity. He knows there will be no marriage in heaven, so he is prepared to be in that state already. Celibacy may have its difficulties, but such difficulties come when you live a dedicated, focused life.
While the steward’s response is very familiar to us, the radical’s response seems, well, peculiar. But that has not always been so. The radical response traces its roots to Jesus and the requirements he made for his disciples while they were with him. It grew to dominate Christianity in the years after Constantine. Indeed, for a thousand years it was considered the normal way to serve Jesus Christ best.
When Constantine stopped the persecution of Christians, he changed the way Christians thought about spiritual life. For the first centuries, martyrdom and suffering had been dominant themes. Now something far more dangerous than persecution invaded the church: the permissive, compromised attitudes of Rome. Seeking a deeper purity than they could find in their churches, some men and women went out into the desert. Anthony was one of these, a wealthy landowner who left all his possessions to pursue a life of prayer. None of these early radicals had any idea of starting a movement, but they caught the imagination of other Christians dissatisfied with the lackadaisical status quo. More and more men and women followed them into the desert to pray.
Experience taught that not everyone could be an Anthony. He lived in complete solitude, but most people found that the temptations of a life alone were too great. So monasteries were established—communes of people who lived simply, shared their few possessions, and kept certain standards of devotional life.
At the beginning this was a simple and informal attempt to live a thoroughly committed life. Such simplicity did not last. Over centuries monasteries grew large, sometimes wealthy and secure in their assertion of superior spirituality.
In the beginning, though, they must have shown an impressively genuine godliness. As the Roman empire became increasingly dissolute (under a Christian veneer), and was threatened by invasion, a life of Christian stewardship seemed more and more problematic. How could a person invest his life in the here and now when civilization showed signs of imminent destruction? The monks, because they had made a radical choice outside of the status quo, were able to live independently of the ups and downs of society. Everything was changing; they stayed the same.
Their radicalism was not pure, of course. An antimaterial, antisex, antifemale ideology seems to have infected the monks’ way of thinking from the very beginning, which possibly explains why, rather than going out into the world and preaching the gospel as Jesus and Paul had, they removed themselves from people out into the desert. (Later religious orders, however, such as the Franciscans and the Jesuits, were quite evangelistic.) The temptations of wealth and position and spiritual pride came, too. A monk might take a vow of poverty and then live in a palace. There was plenty of religious hypocrisy. Perhaps worst of all, monasticism developed a theory of salvation that seemed almost scientifically institutionalized. The grace of God no longer seemed necessary—or, more accurately, was simply taken for granted. This was the “ladder of angels” that Luther rejected.
By no means would I call for a return to monasticism. Yet I would find it strange if a response to God that was so appealing to centuries of Christians had nothing worthwhile in it. Radicalism continually reasserts itself under different disguises, particularly when the church grows fat or the times are unusually threatened. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, written during the years after Hitler came to power, promoted a form of radical discipleship. During the 1960s, some radicalism came back into American Protestantism. Christian communes were launched in which all members had to share alike and live a simple life, and in which obedience to the spiritual leaders of the group was considered an essential vow of membership. In some respects, too, the modern missionary movement is radical. Missionaries are usually expected (as pastors, for example, are not) to live simply and to obey their leaders in the mission society.
Strangely, though, the value of celibacy has not reasserted itself. We have a large population of singles who need to be celibate. Yet they feel this as a punishment. Is it possible they could see it, instead, as an opportunity?
A Special Calling?
There are objections to promoting positive celibacy. Some Christians say that celibacy is a special calling, given only to a few. It cannot be forced on someone. “Involuntary celibacy” is a contradiction in terms.
For example, Helmut Thielicke, writing to suggest tolerance of homosexual alliances, says that “Celibacy cannot be used as a counter-argument, because celibacy is based upon a special calling and, moreover, is an act of free will.”
It is difficult to see how this claim could be justified. The only passage in Scripture that might suggest celibacy is a special, voluntary calling would be Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, in which he says, in response to the disciples’ shock over the indissolubility of marriage, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
This saying is, commentators admit, somewhat enigmatic. If Jesus were saying that celibacy must be a special calling, he would apparently identify “this word” (which only those to whom it has been given can accept) with celibacy. That is how Geoffrey Bromiley takes it: “A gift is needed if a person separated from a former spouse is to live without remarrying.”
The trouble with this interpretation is that Jesus has not mentioned a word about life without remarriage. He has spoken about the purity of marriage, which cannot be broken for any reason. “This word” would seem to be the demand for a pure monogamy. Who can live with the absolute demands of Christian marriage? Only those to whom it has been given. But Jesus immediately speaks of another possibility: that of celibacy, which some have because of their birth, some because of their experiences, and some because of their choice to live for the kingdom of God.
One would not want to stake too much on an interpretation of this difficult passage. But Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7 seem crystal clear. Marriage and celibacy are equally a free choice. Paul gives no hint that marriage is normal, and celibacy an unusual “special” condition for those who are called to it. He personally favors one choice (celibacy), but he recognizes that another might be better. He does speak of “gifts,” but the implication is that either marriage or celibacy might be one’s gift. “I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that” (1 Cor. 7:7, NIV).
Paul’s judgment is that a person is best off staying in the situation in which he finds himself, single or married. These include conditions in which he clearly had no choice. “Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised.… Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so.… Now about virgins … I think that it is good for you to remain as you are. Are you married? Do not seek a divorce. Are you unmarried? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned” (7:18–27, NIV).
The only “special calling” Paul recognizes is the calling to be the Lord’s servant. A person can answer that call in any condition—circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free, married or single. Single people may marry if they wish—but they are equally free to stay single. All that matters is living obediently before God. He calls each one of us to be his own. That calling does not usually change our situation. It transforms it into a Christian vocation.
Not everyone who goes without sex is celibate in the sense that Paul would want him to be, for not everyone is entirely devoted to the Lord and answers Christ’s calling as a single person. But that such a calling would be entirely good for any single person—indeed, the best of all options—Paul obviously did not doubt. He certainly did not think he was recommending it to one in a thousand “peculiar” Corinthians.
Living Like A Blind Man
Paul’s recommendation is hard for us to reconcile with what we feel about single life. How could he recommend a way of life that is, for most people, so miserable? Even those who recommend celibacy under certain circumstances acknowledge its misery. For example, John White in Eros Defiled: “What has life to offer you if marriage and normal sexual relations will never be yours?… Are we implying by our question that you are worse off than other people? If so we must stop right here. You are worse off—in one way. So is a blind man or a deaf man.… You have a personal tragedy.… If you want to spend the rest of your life feeling bitter and sorry for yourself, you will have only yourself to blame for your suffering.”
A lot can be said for a stiff upper lip. We all certainly need one at times, and single people, oppressed by our society’s glorification of marriage, need one often. But is life without sex necessarily a crippled existence? Is single life at best like a blind person making do in spite of his handicap? Very clearly, Paul could not have imagined so. He wrote of the privations he experienced—poverty, beatings, shipwrecks—but he never included singleness. No doubt we are all affected by our experiences, and Paul’s experiences included meeting the risen Jesus. Can anyone imagine comparing Jesus’ life, single as it was, to that of a blind man or a deaf man? For that matter, should we pity a Saint Francis, a Mother Teresa, a C. S. Lewis (celibate for nearly all his life)? No doubt they had special abilities and unusual faith to live as they did. But at least they raise our hopes. Perhaps being single is not always a handicap.
Some point out that single people—particularly single males—are prone to violence and suicide in our society. They are right: being single is often difficult, painfully so. But is the difficulty intrinsic to singleness, or is it rooted in the powerfully antisingle feelings of our society? If single people were in a supportive environment, would they have the same difficulty?
Others say a single person’s misery has a basis in Scripture. At the foundation of the universe, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18). Adam needed a helpmate. God’s company was no substitute.
God’s goodness was not exhausted in Eden, however. The New Testament introduces better possibilities. Jesus will take us to Eden, but beyond Eden. He himself is the best evidence of where we are going. “It is not good for man to be alone.” Was Jesus’ life then “not good”?
Of course it was very good. And he is not, and has never been, alone. From the beginning, he was in fellowship with the Father. He calls us to a fellowship like that with each other. Jesus prayed just before his death, “I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.… I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.… May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20–24, NIV). Anyone experiencing such oneness with other believers is not really alone any longer. He has a true and eternal family.
Going without sex is not, per se, gracious or beautiful. A person who cannot marry and yet cannot accept his or her situation will feel the “not good” of being alone. Life in the kingdom, however, ought to transform that individual’s situation. Such a person is no longer alone, for he or she has become a member of a family. Making this real for single people should be as important for the church as its concern for strong marriages. Whether celibacy is for life, or for a short period, the need is the same.
Paul’s mention of slavery (1 Cor. 7:21–23) puts all this in an interesting, and realistic, light. Paul makes it clear that no one wants to be a slave: “If you can gain your freedom, do so.” We may feel the same about our sexual condition, married or single. Just as the slave ached for freedom, so a single person may ache for sexual intimacy, and a married person may ache to be released from a partner. But the coming of Jesus transforms ordinary judgments. “He who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men.” In marriage or in singleness, in stewardship or in radical singlemindedness, we can all serve Christ. That is genuine freedom.
Celibacy As A Sign
Not only does Salvation in Christ transform our sexuality, but our sexuality becomes a sign of the kingdom. The way we live as sexual creatures ought to witness that Jesus is Lord.
How can celibacy witness to anything besides misanthropy? Let Irene Kassorla’s Nice Girls Do, which spent 22 weeks on the New York Times list of best sellers, offer a contemporary view: “James Thurber once asked the question, ‘Is sex necessary?’ My immediate answer is an unqualified yes.… While one could certainly argue that it is possible to survive without sex … or walks in the park, or music, or laughter, or the other sweet extras of living that are not primary biological needs … WHY SHOULD YOU?”
Kassorla explains that when you try to repress your erotic sensuality, you inevitably repress all your emotions. She considers an active sex life to be an essential ingredient for a stable personality. “Too many women I’ve treated,” she says, “repress their normal sexual functioning.… Often a closer examination of their emotional profiles reveals that these sexually sterile women have rigid and peculiar personalities, as well.”
Note that this is not worlds away from John White’s comparison of celibacy to blindness or deafness. One may claim that a cripple can make the best of life within his limitations. But who would choose to be blind? And how can a disability be a sign of the kingdom?
The Joys Of Self-Control?
One answer has been given repeatedly over the centuries: a celibate person demonstrates self-control. By doing without something as attractive as sex, he demonstrates that his mind and spirit have gained control over the body’s appetites. Gandhi, for instance, gave up sleeping with his wife, but he would take a beautiful young woman to bed with him (but not have sex) in order to develop his own self-mastery.
In Jesus and his disciples, including Paul, there was no hint of such an asceticism. They were not celibate to prove their own mastery. They were celibate because their singleness enabled them to serve God in a way that would otherwise have been impossible. They lived with a singleness of purpose, a “single eye.” In Paul’s words, they showed “an undivided devotion to the Lord.”
Consider Jesus. It is impossible to imagine a more single-minded person than he. Throughout his ministry he knew his business exactly. He could not be dissuaded from his agenda by the concerns of the crowds, the criticisms of the Pharisees, or the fears and hopes of his disciples. He “set his face” as he went toward Jerusalem, to his own death (Luke 9:51). This picture of Jesus steadfastly choosing to give his life is the greatest sign of the kingdom; everywhere that the kingdom has been preached, the cross has been used as a shorthand symbol for that single-minded self-sacrifice.
But could Jesus have made these choices if he were married and had a family to care for? Perhaps he could, but certainly not so freely. Neither could Paul have dedicated his life in the same degree to planting churches if he had needed to share his concern with a wife and family.
A single person is not necessarily a sign of the kingdom when tangled in longings and a sense of loss. But a single person can demonstrate with a remarkable clarity that he knows the reason he was created: to love and serve God only, and her neighbor as herself. If that singleness of vision, that purity of heart, possesses a single and shows itself in purposeful service of others and in preoccupation with prayer and worship, then that person makes a radical statement with his or her life about the kingdom.
This is what the church can offer a single person, above all else. It is all very well to help single people plot strategies for meeting marriageable partners, but what does that have to do with the kingdom of God? If the strategies fail, is the single person’s life then condemned to failure? Of course not. It cannot be easy, in our society, to help a single person shift his or her gaze from the promise of sex and intimacy to the promise of a radical dedication to God’s kingdom. Even if a single person is willing to move in that direction, he or she will almost certainly feel depressed and lonely at times over what is felt to have been lost. Married people feel depressed and lonely too, of course, but perhaps less than singles, for marriage has the affirmation and support of our society.
Yet if anyone feels hesitant to speak to single people about such a difficult, radical path, he ought to go back to the New Testament and read again what Jesus promised to his disciples. They, too, were called to be witnesses of an invisible kingdom. They, too, were asked to give up family and friends, at least for a time. They were not called as disciples with promises of warmth and intimacy, however much they may (or may not) have experienced warmth and intimacy along the way. They were called to be servants of Jesus. They answered. They did not regret it.
Which Way Is Best?
There are two kinds of signs in our sexuality, each very different from the other, and in our history one has tended to dominate the other. For centuries celibacy was considered the main entrance to sexual salvation, with marriage a kind of back door for the rabble. Then, after the Reformation, marriage took over the front door, and single people were sent to the back. They became peculiar, crippled people; their best hope was to overcome their handicap.
Can the two signs coexist? Can we value them both? The early church did. Most of the apostles did their work in tandem with a believing wife; Paul, Barnabas, and Timothy apparently did theirs alone (1 Cor. 9:5). Paul recommended celibacy to the Corinthians, but to the Ephesians compared marriage to the love of Christ for the church. Jesus was celibate, yet he attended a wedding and blessed its celebration with a miracle. When Paul wrote to Timothy, he sanctioned a group of older women who had evidently taken a celibate vow, dedicating their lives to Christ’s ministry (1 Tim. 5:9–14); but he recommended that younger women not take such a vow, since they tended to change their minds and wish to marry.
Nowhere in Scripture is there any sign of preferring one form of sexual witness over another, except in Paul’s carefully hedged recommendation of celibacy to the Corinthians. Historians say the early centuries of the church show the same pattern: single people and married people in the church together, valuing each other’s gifts.
Today no one can doubt that we need all the witness to Christ we can muster, and that sexuality is an area where our witness is most vulnerable and under attack. Can we afford to let any of our gifts go unrecognized?
Excerpted from the new book The Sexual Christian (Christianity Today/Victor Books).
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