Moving Beyond the Celibacy Mandate

Time and time again, we’ve described both marriage and celibacy as mature vocations entered into by adults. We started this blog discussing why celibacy needed to be defined by its positive attributes rather than by an absence of sexual relations. Later we asked many married people to tell us how they define marriage. We’ve encouraged the practice of letting celibate people define celibacy and married people define marriage. But, the challenge is that the Church needs a way to speak to all vocations so that individual Christians can discern their paths illumined by the light of Christ. We want to spend some time in this post discussing how churches can discuss vocations in a way where God, through the Holy Spirit, can draw people towards the fullness of life in Christ.

As a first key observation, both marriage and celibacy communicate the same central truth: the nature of the kingdom of God—it is in our midst and we are active participants. When churches help young people focus their sights on the kingdom of God, churches can help everyone discern his or her vocation. Every Christian shares the same starting line on the way to finding his or her vocation: seeking first the kingdom of God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells his disciples, “Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given unto you as well.” Keeping the kingdom of God at the center sets our eyes towards the time where all things are reconciled towards God and challenges each and every one of us to do our part in manifesting God’s kingdom through our lives.

What’s unfortunate is that when it comes to LGBT issues, many Christian traditions teaching a more conservative sexual ethic have seemingly lost the mystery of the kingdom of God, focusing instead on a legalistic, “always do this, but don’t ever do that,” form of sexual morality as a way to strive for righteousness. The emphasis on sexual morality can manifest as the straightforward yet often unhelpful, “Don’t have sex outside of a heterosexual marriage” where this moral prescription represents the sum total of vocational guidance given to young Christians in these traditions. In such an environment, many LGBT people can feel ostracized by a seeming mandate to avoid sexual intimacy lest they lose any hope of inheriting the kingdom of God. Newsflash: by virtue of our baptism, all Christians have a solid inheritance. This does not mean that receiving the sacrament of baptism means a person will, for all of his or her life thereafter, be “good to go.” Rather, the point is our baptism invites us to participate in the kingdom of God. Our churches would do well to affirm (and reaffirm and reaffirm again) the power of the baptismal mystery as a way to unite ourselves fully to Christ, so that all Christians can set themselves to the work of showing the kingdom of God to the world.

In many ways, encouraging young people to pursue the kingdom of God is harder than exhorting young people to save sex for marriage. When young people listen for God’s direction, the Holy Spirit might lead them towards vocations where, gasp, they do not enter into marriages. It’s a lot easier for churches to put teenagers on an assembly line where all go through an identical set of rites of passage that culminate in a big wedding than it is for churches to trust that the Holy Spirit’s voice can still be heard above the clamor of raging hormones. In the midst of all the noise associated with becoming an adult in our society, churches should encourage teenagers to orient their ears to the still small voice where God can begin to show every person his or her unique call to manifest the kingdom.

Churches would do well to showcase regularly a belief that all vocations are needed and important. If a congregation thinks about every eighteen-year-old kid it has sent out into the world, then that congregation will realize all of these kids have individual stories. There will be people from that congregation that have done awesome things to serve the kingdom of God who have never married. Part of the allure of the celibate vocation is that there is an unlimited number of potential life stories that align with celibacy. Faithful Christians who never marry are not freaks; they are people who are able to love and serve the world differently than married people. The stories of celibate people should not be relegated to designated times of Celibate Appreciation (i.e. an annual Vocations Week). And it’s okay to let a congregation know if a really cool and inspiring person in your Christian tradition lived a celibate way of life. Catholic and Orthodox Christians have a calendar chockfull of celibate saints, and you still see people marrying regularly in those traditions.

A huge part of discerning one’s vocation is learning how to look honestly at yourself. Discerning vocation requires investigating your authentic desires and noting where they might be different from those of other people you know. As LGBT Christians ourselves, we regard realizing our statuses as LGBT people as a key part of coming to see who we are as individuals. However, in far too many churches, this uniqueness of person is met with a directive about the uniqueness of vocation. We know countless LGBT people who, in the instant they first disclosed their sexual orientations or gender identities, were told immediately, “You have to be celibate.” or “You cannot have sex.” Spiritual advice for LGBT people tends to come in the form of either you have to or you cannot.

What if all priests, pastors, and ministers started approaching situations that involve discussion of sexuality differently? What if spiritual directors left off the specific directives in favor of viewing LGBT Christians as people trying to discern where God is calling them? When spiritual directors start handing down restrictive directives, these spiritual directors are communicating that either they do not trust God to guide an LGBT person or they do not trust the person to listen to God. As we have said many times, LGBT people are people first and foremost. What would happen if spiritual directors started trusting LGBT people as much as they trust straight, cisgender people?

When a person does decide to start exploring a celibate vocation, we want to see congregations willing to support that individual. A vocation is not a cross to bear. A vocation is a pathway to an abundant life. When a person is sharing, “I don’t know if I can continue or even begin in a celibate vocation,” it’s good to come alongside him or her and say, “I know the issue of vocation can be really tough sometimes. I’m here for you. I’m praying for you. How can I help you see more of the kingdom of God in your circumstances right now?” Seeking God’s kingdom unites all Christians regardless of their vocations and enables us to support one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. By encouraging all people to seek first the kingdom, churches do not need to prescribe celibacy mandates. As Christians look for the kingdom of God, the Holy Spirit will guide and direct those called to celibacy to a number of diverse ways of living celibate vocations.

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10 thoughts on “Moving Beyond the Celibacy Mandate

  1. Sexual customs and beliefs today that were uncommon 100 years ago, were common in ancient history. This suggests that the sexual challenges that Christians face today are similar to the challenges that were faced by our Christian brethren in ancient history. The early Christians dealt with these sexual challenges via the practice of asceticism. If we understand what this asceticism was about, we may have a roadmap for negotiating the way through our challenges of today.

    • Hi Rick, thanks for reading and for your comment here. From my perspective, I am wont to see that all humans across all eras have a reasonably shared experience of sexuality. Even though one can argue that sexual mores have shifted over time, I think that people ask essentially the same questions when navigating sexuality. I’m less inclined to view asceticism as the only way people have resolved these questions even as I acknowledge that asceticism is very much at the heart of writings by big thinkers like Augustine and a hallmark of hagiographies of people like Mary of Egypt. My own experience has encouraged me to see vocations as something distinct from the mortification of the flesh, but I appreciate other Christians can benefit from using asceticism more exclusively to sort questions of sexuality. -Lindsey

      • Hello Lindsey,
        Vocation is indeed distinct from the mortification of the flesh. All vocation entails the calling to a special form of spiritual friendship. The development of ascetical practice (speaking only generally, and not referring to any particular practice or person) arose from an understanding of the nature of spiritual friendship with the Lord, and the obstacles and challenges that we face in the ascent to that friendship. As Jesus tells us in John 6:63, just after the announcement of his eucharist, “the spirit is life, the flesh profits us nothing.” Or Paul (1 Corinthians 9:27) on the idea of mortification; or the Lord, enjoining us to “take up the cross” (Matthew 10:38).

        The Church fathers taught us that asceticism was not a sufficient condition for spiritual friendship, but they did teach that it was a necessary condition for spiritual friendship, and this seems reasonable to see asceticism as simply one necessary form of liberation, that allows one to go to the next level of friendship. It was and still is recognized as the first step in the tripartite ascent of the soul to God, “the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive.”

        As I understand it, the purgative stage is not optional, but necessary in order to be open to illumination. But I think purgation can also be understood simply as detachment or indifference to physical desires. If we are interested in divine illumination we must become increasingly indifferent to the desires of our body, personal friendships, and other worldly attachments that compete with the spirit for attention and appeasement, and become wholly interested in the will of God. This is not to hate the body, or reject all pleasure as evil, rather, it is a state of ‘holy indifference.’ Such indifference is ordinarily achieved via ascetical practice, but it might be arrived at in another way. Irrespective of which path that one takes to acquire this indifference to the body, it would always entail an increasing indifference to sexuality and/or sexual desire, along with indifference to foods, clothes, etc.. Such an indifference we pray for, and in some, it may arise spontaneously as a gift from God. Without it, however, we can’t make it to the next stage of illumination.

        • Hi Rick. Lindsey probably isn’t going to get the chance to reply today, so I’ll just say something quickly. Those are some insightful comments on asceticism. I think it’s important to say, though, that neither Lindsey nor I understands the personal commitment we have to celibacy through the lens of asceticism. Other celibates do understand their celibacy in this way, and we respect that. I think what Lindsey was trying to say is that we understand our practice of celibacy more as saying yes to a call than as praying for indifference toward desire. -Sarah

          • Thank you Sarah.
            I too think that the practice of celibacy is much much more than simply praying for indifference to bodily desires. Celibacy is saying yes to a call, as you say. Ultimately it is about spiritual friendship and union with the Lord. But I cannot be best friends with the Lord and give Him attention as long as I am giving attention to my fleshy desires. Mortification is simply a step, but a necessary step along the path to spiritual friendship.

  2. What a wonderful, coherent vision you’ve laid out of how we Christians, especially LGBT, might cherish vocation. Nail it to the church door. 🙂 This makes sense to me, tying together some of the themes you’ve been developing. Thanks for that. I do have a question. Have you encountered any version of this framework in the spiritual direction you’ve received, or is this a DIY response to the whole of what you have been hearing that wasn’t working?

    • Hi Kacy, I think I’ve been regularly synthesizing bits and pieces of this framework because I am trying to apply it to my life as an LGBT Christian. The idea that both marriage and celibacy reflect the Kingdom of God is completely taken from articulations of these vocations in Christian traditions that affirm both. However, looking at how individuals might work on realizing the Kingdom of God came a bit more directly from my experience in more Evangelical traditions that did not pressure young people to marry right away. -Lindsey

  3. Pingback: Desire, sex, vocation | Res Studiorum et Ludorum

  4. Thanks for this. We do so much pre marital counseling- why not celibacy counseling? Why not vocational counseling? We could ask everyone to enter into a discernment and preparation process. By having counseling only available to those preparing for marriage we are communicating a vocational pyramid.

    • Hi Corey, thanks for your comment! We’re prone to agree about vocational counseling. We’d also be interested to see how churches support people entering a celibate vocation. For our thoughts on what topics should be at the core of a pre-celibacy counseling course, please check out our post on Defining Celibacy:

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