One benefit of cultivating a celibate vocation is that we get to know other people who live celibacy. It can be reasonably challenging to find celibates until one figures out where to look for them. Unfortunately, it’s rare to see celibacy discussed much, if at all, in the majority of Christian traditions outside the question of whether LGBT people should be celibate. Some argue that LGBT people do not have any opportunity to discern their vocations because so many Christian traditions seem to present celibacy as the default option. We’ve seen these types of conversations ourselves, so we have no doubts that some churches give LGBT people unfunded mandates to be celibate without providing any practical support. Additionally, we believe that many who criticize “celibacy as a default” overlook how conversations about sexual ethics in some traditions emphasize marriage as the default vocation for all people.
Consider the ways Christians are taught about sexual ethics. Many denominations exhort people to “save sex until marriage” and believe that “true love waits.” We know several LGBT Christians with relatively progressive sexual ethics in terms of same-sex marriage who are completely committed to waiting until they are married to have sex. Justin Lee, the executive director of the Gay Christian Network, articulates his convictions that sex should be reserved for marriage. Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian, has defended his commitment to stay abstinent until his wedding day. So many people define a Christian sexual ethic as not having sex outside of the marriage covenant. But by presenting sexual ethics solely in this manner, many traditions unwittingly overlook how Christians cultivate chastity by learning to steward their bodies responsibly.
We have engaged in conversations where people argue that sexual ethics should focus primarily on the choices humans make about when and with whom to have sex. We agree resolutely that the choice to have sex is deeply personal. Whether any other person on the planet is having sex is none of our business. However, emphasizing the permissibility of sex as the primary issue makes an assumption that every person is looking for an opportunity to have sex.
Celibacy is not a new idea within Christianity. Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and some other Christian traditions have well developed views on the marital vocation, celibate vocations, and the discernment process. The two of us have had different levels of experience with a range of other Christian traditions and have discovered that celibacy is rarely discussed, except in the context of spiritual gifts. Lindsey has seen spiritual gift inventories that ask people questions about their levels of sexual desire in an effort to discern the gift of celibacy. Often, these inventories posit that only asexual people or those with very low sex drives have been gifted with celibacy. We’re left asking, “What happens when any person who does not fit this description wants to explore the possibilities of celibacy?”
Experience has shown us that many Christians tend to diminish the presence people exploring celibacy. If someone visits a new congregation alone, greeters will ask the visitor if he or she is married and has children. Newly engaged friends can tell all their single friends not to worry because, “Eventually, your day will come.” Singles ministries provide people with ample time to mix and mingle. Conversations at church frequently check in on how someone’s children are doing. When you comment that you’re not married, some people go so far as to shoot you a pitiful glance before quickly exiting the conversation. In Lindsey’s former Christian tradition, Lindsey frequently heard other people laughing and ridiculing the idea that anyone would have the “gift of celibacy.” They would ask jokingly, “How is it even possible that a person has such a low level of sexual desire?” and imply that Paul must have been crazy if he suggested not wanting sex was a spiritual gift.
Within some Christian traditions, an LGBT person who indicates that he or she might be considering celibacy frequently receives a hostile reception. Celibacy is treated as a code word for internalized homophobia, self-hatred, self-loathing, religious oppression, patriarchy, absurd self-denial, or sexual deviancy. In the last two weeks alone on the internet, we’ve seen significant evidence of this hostility. One author suggested that people pursuing celibacy “will almost always end up having sex on the DL anyway, and that leads to higher rates of HIV transmission” and lead lives that are analogous to cutting fruits and vegetables out of their diets. Another author said that encouraging celibacy is linked to any number of negative health outcomes including “depression, anxiety, self-destructive behavior, sexual dysfunction, avoidance of intimacy, loss of faith and spirituality, and the reinforcement of internalized homophobia and self-hatred, to name a few.” A recent internet meme portrays a celibate person as experiencing intense desires for sex only to say, “No! I mustn’t!” Another recent article runs through a list of passages, which we’ve termed the other clobber passages, to make an argument that celibacy is rare, difficult, and a “nearly impossible vocation.” These assertions, while disappointing, are far from surprising as we’ve encountered similar sentiments when we’ve visited Open and Affirming congregations.
The net consequence of these discussions is that it’s incredibly easy for people to get the message that marriage is the default vocation for all. Marriage becomes a rite of passage to adulthood, and being unmarried is a stigma in some faith communities. When people within a Christian tradition argue that the celibate vocation is incredibly rare, they are making an argument that essentially says, “99.99% of people marry. There might be a very small number of people gifted with celibacy, but the chances that you might be one of this minority are slim. So there’s no real reason to consider the possibility.” We believe that the Church as a whole is impoverished when Christians never anticipate meeting a person with a celibate vocation.
We understand why people want to affirm that some are gifted with celibacy and emphasize that this gift may be rare. Paul clearly references the gift of celibacy in the Scriptures. But of equal importance is that people have diverse reasons for entering celibate vocations. These reasons include, but are not limited to, having a passion to love and serve the world differently than a married person, developing an affinity for a particular monastic community, not perceiving a call towards parenthood, deciding one’s spirituality is more focused on God when one is not pursuing a marriage relationship, enjoying one’s life as it is without marital obligations, or sensing that one has the gift of celibacy. It’s also not terribly uncommon for people to embrace the celibate vocation out of obedience: they sense that God is asking them to commit to celibacy for reasons they do not understand, they respect their Christian tradition’s teachings on marriage and realize that they are not keen on embracing a marital vocation, or they want to remain faithful to their sexual ethics despite an extended season of involuntary celibacy. The exact reasons why people have embraced celibacy are between them and their spiritual advisors unless they choose to share with others.
When people acknowledge and affirm a broader set of reasons to embrace celibate vocations, it becomes more obvious that God is not asking every person to enter a martial relationship. Vocational discernment becomes prayerfully seeking answers to the questions, “God, what would You have me do as I seek to love You more? Who have You created to me to be? How can I more fully image Christ’s likeness to everyone I meet?”
Christians need to stop mocking the gift of celibacy by suggesting that living the celibate vocation requires superhuman strength and a nearly complete absence of sexual desire. When celibacy is presented in this way, it becomes an inhuman way of life to the point of being seen as inhumane. However, celibacy is an entirely human vocation. Real men and women have borne witness to the kingdom of God for centuries through myriad celibate vocations. Christians would benefit from getting to know real people who live celibacy — some of whom might be in their midst without their awareness. Why did they embrace celibacy? How did celibacy provide a way for them to learn to love themselves, their neighbors, and God? What gifts did they share with the world as they embraced their vocations fully?
(Stay tuned for more profiles of real celibates!)
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