Defining Celibacy, Revisited

In one of our very first posts on this blog, we took some time to define celibacy. We offered a working definition of celibacy that centers on vulnerability, hospitality, shared spiritual life, and commitment. Not surprisingly, many commenters have been pushing back against our definition of celibacy for months, offering some variant of 1) those characteristics are/can be true of anyone living a Christian life or 2) non-celibate people certainly display those characteristics as well. It’s tricky for us to say how our practice of these values as celibate people is distinct from how non-celibate people can practice these same values. We share a strong disapproval of stereotypes of celibate vocations, and we’re concerned about doing the same thing if we were to discuss how these values manifest themselves in non-celibate relationships. We don’t see ourselves as qualified to tell married people (or even other celibate people) how they live or should live the four characteristics in our definition. Nonetheless, it’s worth revisiting how we define celibacy in response to some of the comments we’ve received.

To begin, it’s important to note that we understand both celibacy and marriage as vocations people enter into as adults. Part of living into one’s vocation is maturing in how one participates in the world. We’re sure many readers can bear witness to how marriage forced them, or others they know, to grow up in some profound ways. We believe that making a commitment to a celibate vocation also spurs a person towards maturity. Since both vocations provide a sort of proving ground for becoming an adult, we shouldn’t be entirely surprised that they challenge people to exercise certain values. If you flip through the New Testament, you’ll find a lot of different lists of what values increase when a person commits himself or herself to Christ. Vulnerabilityhospitalitycommunity, and commitment happen to be the four words we’ve chosen to call out relative to our experience of the celibate vocation.

Arguably, one of the most famous lists in Scriptures is found in Galatians 5 where Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (We took this list from the ESV, and the wording of your preferred translation might differ.) We would be hard pressed to think of any Christian we know who does not display these fruits of the Spirit to some degree. In all honesty, we’ve seen again and again that the children in our parish frequently do the best job at displaying these fruits. Neither one of us has any predisposition for searching out ways our fellow Christians fail to display the fruits of the Spirit. We’re much more prone to ask ourselves the question, “How can we cultivate good spiritual fruit?”

We think making a commitment to one’s vocation involves making a decided choice to cultivate spiritual fruit in specific ways. For us, our celibate vocation has challenged us to commit to the practices of being vulnerable, extending radical hospitality, forging a shared spiritual life, and opting into this way of life with 100% of ourselves. We learned about these practices by prayerfully observing as other people have lived celibacy. Many of these people are monastics who live in communities of various sizes. We don’t regard ourselves as having any particular authority on celibacy, and we are still discerning our vocation as a community of two. Individually and corporately, we have seen how the practices that define our celibate vocation have borne good spiritual fruit. For example, praying together about how to support Sarah’s health has helped Lindsey experience peace even in some exceptionally trying times. Sharing our thoughts vulnerably with one another and building a shared spiritual life has encouraged Sarah to exercise greater faithfulness in talking with God throughout the day. Because we share so vulnerably with one another, we know each other’s weaknesses and can challenge the other to choose the way of Christ in a much wider range of circumstances than ever before.

What strikes us as we consider the uniqueness of our way of life is that each practice connects with every other practice. These values are a package deal. With God’s help, we try to keep them going strong 100% of the time. As humans, we fall short of that goal often. Nonetheless, our eyes remain fixed on this particular path. But drawing a clear line that divides our celibate vocation from every other non-celibate person is next to impossible. Throughout time, there have been billions of married people sorting their values in ways that makes sense to them. It would be rather presumptuous for us to assert, “There has never been a married person who would describe vulnerability, hospitality, a shared spiritual life, and commitment as core values of a marriage.” We’ve never tried to make a claim that all celibates live one way and that all married people live in a wholly distinct way. There are places of unavoidable overlap in values that may manifest differently in individual couples. For instance, we know many married couples who regard welcoming children into their family as an essential aspect of their vocation. Welcoming children is a form of radical hospitality even if our friends rarely would use the word “hospitality” when describing why they are so committed to welcoming children. We do our best to avoid celibate triumphalism. It would be wrong to highlight how a monastic community in Guatemala runs an orphanage and overlook an untold number of married couples called to practice a similar ministry. We’re also entirely averse to writing anything on this blog that amounts to “We’re awesome because we do x, y, and z.” It’s difficult to say what God has called us to because of the way the tasks fit uniquely within our celibate vocation rather than because we’re better Christians for doing them.

The spiritual life rarely has neatly defined limits even as Western society has collectively howled for divisions and separations between “opposites.” Offering a working definition of something does not necessarily mean rendering it wholly distinct from all other things — even things in seemingly opposite categories. If you want to make Lindsey super irritated, try asserting that STEM disciplines are completely separate from the liberal arts disciplines. We have spilt so much ink since the Enlightenment trying to establish clear categories of difference. However, there is value in recognizing BOTH/AND constructions. Both men and women are people and bear God’s image. Both clergy and laity have important roles in the life of the Church. Both celibacy and marriage are vocations. We all live in the tension of being both sinner and saint. Recognizing the commonalities between things previously regarded as disparate deepens our appreciation of a world created by a God who is limitless, mysterious, beyond definition.

Our definition of celibacy fits snugly into the place of both/and. If how we live our vocation inspires non-celibate people to be more vulnerable, to practice more hospitality, to steward a communal spiritual life, and to consider making authentic commitments to one another, then perhaps it is bearing some good fruit. More to the point, as celibate people living in the world, we’re constantly inspired by non-celibates who make these values work amidst the craziness of life. If we recognize ways that our life looks different from other people’s lives, those differences likely stem from the fact that everyone is different. God isn’t up there in heaven shouting down to us clearly if some values are inborn and others need to be cultivated within our vocation. Truth be told, we can all grow towards Christ. And as long as we fix our eyes on Christ and pattern our lives after His example, we should be rejoicing that our lives look similar.

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5 thoughts on “Defining Celibacy, Revisited

  1. Hey Lindsey and Sarah,

    There’s something I’ve been wondering whilst reading this (thank you for a well-thought -through and articulate post!)

    You write about celibacy and marriage as two Christian vocations that have some things in common but are also distinct from one another. Elsewhere I have gotten the impression that you hold a traditional view of marriage (that it is a predominately heterosexual vocation).

    But I can’t remember you writing about other types of partnership as vocations… for example, is a non-celibate gay partnership also a type of vocation? Can it equally be a place where ‘vulnerability, hospitality, a shared spiritual life, and commitment’ are core spiritual values?

    Does this come under a marriage-type vocation or is it seperate? Is it a vocation at all?

    • Hi Charlotte. Sorry it has taken us a while to reply. Very busy week on our end! The truth is, we don’t feel qualified to write very much about non-celibate couples in terms of vocation — regardless of their sexual orientation. We’ve been hesitant to reference anything about marriage and non-celibate partnership in any of our posts because those ways of life are not ours, and we try to be careful not to make assumptions about other ways of life. Certainly a non-celibate gay partnership can embody hospitality, vulnerability, commitment, and a shared spiritual life. We would be interested in discussing with others about their views on what makes a celibate partnership different from a non-celibate partnership. For us, it’s difficult to state with certainty that x, y, and z are differences when we know that human experiences are so diverse. As for determining what is or is not a vocation, we generally feel that conversation is best held between individuals/couples and their spiritual directors. We have absolutely no business telling other people that they are or aren’t living a vocation.

      • Thank you for replying!

        I think I just find it interesting that you often refer to marriage and celibacy as vocations… Which they certainly are of course, but don’t often refer to non celibate partnership (I don’t know if that’s the best term for my relationship, but that’s ok) as such. I know that marriage and celibacy have both been traditionally considered as (opposing) vocations by many Christian denominations, and I sometimes wonder if part of the difficulty churches have in talking about LGBT relationships is that there is not a tradition of understanding these as vocational (often very much the opposite – as sinful distractions that can bring no good thing into the world)

        As for Hannelie and I, we come from a Christian tradition that doesn’t use the term ‘vocation’ much although it does hold to a traditional view of marriage and believes marriage is a blessing and part of God’s plan for people.

        We understand ourselves as a partnership of equals. I think even this is hard for some to understand – people want to know which of us is ‘the man’ or ‘the strong one’. This always makes me laugh because I think ideally in any relationship there should be a balance of power and complementary roles (not in the old gendered sense but as individuals).

        Sorry I’m waffling, I just really want to find a language for all that we are together that isn’t about ‘being lesbians’ (I don’t even define as such

        • Hi Charlotte, one of the things that we try to do is respect how different people choose words. We’re certainly not interested in being the language police. Sometimes finding that a word doesn’t seem to fit well is an important part of discovering what God has planned for particular people. As we’ve been writing this blog, we’ve noted that there are a number of people in same-sex partnerships who do describe their relationship principally as a marriage. Our views on vocation are necessarily shaped by our Christian tradition, and we do hope that readers would feel empowered to search their own Christian traditions to discern how their tradition might be able to speak to their unique circumstances.

  2. I like this post, but I was always taught that the “fruit” of the Spirit was one fruit, instead of “fruits.” This delineation is small, but it is different from the gifts of the Spirit, where one only one or two are given to Christians to help build the body of Christ. Every Christian has or can have each part of the fruit in their lives. We are called to have love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self control in our lives. God helps us to show all of these things in the world around us. It’s just another interesting way to look at Galatians 5

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