A few days ago, I received a letter from a prisoner who had read a short piece I wrote for Christianity Today on the need to affirm the value of celibacy in today’s evangelical church. This man, who is 52 years old, entered prison at 19. He became a Christian at 21. In his letter he told me how much he resonated with my discussion of celibacy, and I was struck by his tone. Rather than expressing frustration with his years of enforced celibacy, this man talked about the necessity of focusing on godliness rather than being consumed by the desire for another person. He recognized the importance of marriage, but he concluded by saying that his time in prison had taught him the value of living “a fulfilled celibate life in Christ.”
This is a message we don’t often hear in today’s society. When my co-author, Bonnie Field, and I wrote our book Singled Out, which provides the framework for the ideas I discuss in the article in Christianity Today, we were struck by how few Christians singles could imagine celibacy as a fulfilling way to live. They might acknowledge that a few monks and nuns who had received celibacy as a special gift might be able to resist sexual temptation and focus on God, but the consensus was that for “normal” singles, celibacy was too much to ask. They would try very hard to abstain before marriage, but they couldn’t be expected to live the rest of their lives without the blessings of marriage and sex.
But what happens when the expected spouse doesn’t arrive according to our timeframe or at all? For many older singles, this leads to a crisis in faith as they begin to wonder, “If God really loves me, why doesn’t he give me this desire of my heart?” Unfortunately, many of the discussions of singleness in the evangelical church avoid this issue by simply assuring singles that their spouse will come if only they have enough faith. In our book, Bonnie and I approach the issue from an entirely different perspective: what if God’s purpose for our lives is not bound up in whether we are married or not but rather in how we glorify him in whatever state we are placed?
We begin to explore this issue by investigating various messages that singles receive from both the secular world and the evangelical world that make it difficult to be single: messages that tell Christians singles that it is impossible to resist sexual temptation; that sex is necessary for full intellectual, emotional, and spiritual maturity; and that marriage is essential for a happy life. Then, we turn to scripture, the early church, and contemporary Christian thinkers to evaluate the truth of these messages. What we find is that throughout history Christians have had a difficult time seeing both marriage and singleness as important and valid ways of serving God, often giving one precedence over the other. The reality is, however, that scripture affirms both, suggesting that our focus should not be on obsessing over whether marriage or celibacy is a better way to serve God but rather on actually serving God in whatever state he has called us.
The following excerpt from Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today’s Church (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2009) comes toward the end of our study as we pull together many of the concepts that we have been exploring:
…Surely, scripture reminds us again and again that our loyalty to Christ supersedes all other loyalties even those as good as loyalty to marriage and family. Why, then, can’t we see both marriage and celibacy as valid ways of serving God for the limited time that we are here on earth? What would it mean, for instance, to radically reconceive our ideas of celibacy to empower Christian singles to live our lives fully for God without remaining in stunted adolescence, searching obsessively for a spouse, or wallowing in depression and self-pity? Think of the transformations that could take place if we as singles embraced our freedoms and began to participate fully in the work of the church. Think of the powerful witness that these freedoms could be for unchurched singles who might be more willing to seek out a church community where they would feel valued as children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. How might we begin to see celibacy in a new light?
Placing Marriage in Perspective
One of the first steps in this process must be placing marriage in a proper perspective. While we acknowledge that today’s secular society may not value the family as much as it should and we recognize that the church should be a haven for families to provide the support that they need,
marriage cannot be the sole focus of the church. As we have discussed in previous chapters, many evangelical leaders who speak to singles hold out marriage as if it were the Holy Grail. Marriage is our ticket into maturity as a Christian, full membership in the body of Christ, and ultimate happiness. The assumption often is that Christian singles cannot experience life fully until we are married, but is marriage really the perfect solution for every ill a single Christian might experience?
Let’s begin with a discussion of Christian maturity. We have probably all observed Christian singles who refuse to grow up and choose rather to live as immature adolescents until they find a spouse. Is this a danger that Christian singles may fall prey to? Certainly. Immaturity, however, is not limited to singles. Immaturity is a human condition: one that we must all confront as we work to develop into the Christians that God wants us to be. Do the responsibilities of a spouse and children help many individuals to grow more mature? Yes. But so may the responsibilities of negotiating a job, a mortgage, an illness, or any other reality of life without any support from a spouse. The difference is not necessarily the outward trappings of life but how we approach the challenges that God allows us to experience. In The Sacrament of Love: The Nuptial Mystery in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition, orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov addresses just this issue, remarking, “Trying to prove the superiority of one state over the other [marriage or celibacy] is . . . useless: it is an abstract, because impersonal, process. The renunciation at work in both cases is as good as the positive content that the human being brings to it: the intensity of the love of God.”[i] What transforms us into mature Christians are not the externals of marriage or singleness but rather the work that we allow God to do within our hearts. Marriage cannot be the answer to spiritual maturity.
Marriage also cannot be the ultimate cure for loneliness as so many try to suggest that it is. Do many singles feel lonely on a Friday night as they sit watching bad reality television while seemingly the rest of the world is contentedly communing with their families or experiencing
blissfully romantic dates? Yes. But so do many married men and women who discover, often to their surprise, that their spouses do not fulfill all of their deepest needs. In their essay, “From Conduct to Character—A Guide for Sexual Adventure,” Stanley Hauerwas and Allen Verhey refer to what they term “‘Hauerwas’s law’: ‘You always marry the wrong person.’”[ii] Rather than supporting the romantic ideal that marriage will live up to the intense, fairy tale excitement that is so often portrayed in literature, movies, television, and music, they remind their readers that “the adventure of marriage is learning to love the person to whom you are married.”[iii] And often that process is a difficult one of realizing that a spouse may never understand the deepest feelings or yearnings of your heart. Only God will ever truly know the deepest recesses of each of our hearts, so, ultimately, each of us will remain, to one extent or another, lonely in this world as we come to recognize again and again that only in eternity with Christ will we ever feel completely known and loved. As Ronald Rolheiser declares, “We are always in some way frustrated, in some way sleeping alone, whether we are having sex or not.”[iv] Marriage may be an image of Christ’s love for his church, but it cannot fulfill our deepest longings completely.
Neither does it always contain the amazing, transcendent sexual experiences promised to many teenage abstinence pledgers. While the leaders of many abstinence campaigns often highlight the glories of sex that will automatically be theirs if they just wait until marriage, the reality is that,
as Hauerwas and Verhey remark, “Sex is as frequently messy and boring as it is spiritually fulfilling.”[v] In many cases, the church has simply accepted the world’s construction of love as demonstrated solely by a passionate, emotional connection, which is revealed through intensely erotic sexual encounters. In Real Sex, Lauren Winner reminds her readers, “Married sex is a given. It is solemnized and marked in ritual. It is established. It is governed by vows. It becomes a ritual in itself; it becomes a routine.”[vi] The idea of marital sex as routine is one that many Christians and most non-Christians would reject. Doesn’t routinized sex demonstrate that there are problems in the marriage? Perhaps the problem lies not in the routine sex but rather in the overly romanticized view of sex that many Christians have come to accept. Rather than seeing sex as part of the covenant of marriage that will go through various stages and transformations in the course of the marriage, many mistakenly believe that if they aren’t reveling in a sex life that is as exciting as the couple in the latest romantic movie something must be wrong. Sexual satisfaction becomes the barometer for every other aspect of life, and we come to believe that sex is the solution for all of our issues of intimacy and community. Theologian Marva Dawn provides an interesting perspective on this issue, declaring, “It seems to me that much of the sexual behavior in U.S. society today is grounded in the failure to distinguish between our profound needs for support on the level of social sexuality [building nurturing non-romantic relationships with people of both sexes] and the attraction of exciting genital stimulation.”[vii] Have we overemphasized sex to such an extent that we expect a good sex life to resolve all of our other issues? At times, we do, and as Dawn suggests this overvaluing of sex leads many to inappropriately seek for support in sexual activity. Speaking particularly about sex, Hauerwas and Verhey argue that if we told the truth, “extravagant expectations could be lowered, the possibility and plausibility of saying ‘no’ could be nurtured as well as commanded, and the harm of unfulfilled expectations lowered.”[viii] And this applies not only to truth about the sexual act but also to marriage as a whole. Marriage and sex are blessings given by God, but by overemphasizing them, we place huge pressures on Christian married couples to live up to these unrealistic expectations, encourage individuals to use sex as a means of trying to find fulfillment for other aspects of their lives, and leave singles feeling like second-class citizens who will never be fully functioning humans, let alone Christians, if they don’t get married.
Acknowledging the Complexities of the Single Life
In addition to placing sex and marriage in perspective, we also need to acknowledge the complexities of life for contemporary Christian singles. Too often Christian singles are defined simply as teenagers who need to be encouraged to abstain until their perfect partner comes along. Older singles in particular need much more complex discussions to help us confront the confusing realities of our lives. Simply glancing through the chapter titles of Camerin Courtney and Todd Hertz’s book The UnGuide to Dating provides a glimpse of just how complex this world is. Today’s older Christian singles must confront “The Dating Drought,” “Men in the Church: O Brother, Where are Thou?” “Changing Gender Roles,” “Dating Non-Christians,” “Internet Dating,” “Matchmaking,” “Sexual Temptation,” “Body Image,” “Biological Clock,” and “Intergender Friendships.”[ix] These older Christian singles cannot be satisfied with the simple, romantic tale of just trusting God until he brings Prince or Princess Charming to the door. Many of us have already had to encounter the idea that God may not have this partner in store for us. In addition, the world of the church may also become more difficult for us to navigate as we begin to realize just how far our singleness sets us apart from the rest of the congregation.
Perhaps one of the first steps in acknowledging these complexities for singles lies in reformulating our ideas of celibacy. For most, celibacy is an antiquated word associated solely with the Catholic Church: priests, nuns, and monks take vows of celibacy, but it certainly has no part in contemporary Protestant society. Even those such as Stanley Grenz who have a much more nuanced view of singleness than most do not necessarily define celibacy in a way that acknowledges the complex realities of today’s older singles. In Sexual Ethics, Grenz divides singleness into four categories: “youth and early adult,” “unchosen,” “willed celibate,” and
“postmarriage.”[x] Many older Christian singles today are caught between the “unchosen” and “willed celibate” categories. We have remained single, waiting for the right partner, but may now be beginning to realize that this partner may not actually arrive. We don’t necessarily feel called to celibacy in the traditional sense of that calling, but we also do not want to live the rest of our lives focused solely on looking for a spouse. The problem is that there is too large a distinction between these two categories. We need an intermediate category here to bridge the gap.
According to Grenz, “An individual can never be celibate in a de facto manner, that is, simply because he or she is not yet married or was previously married. Rather, the celibate person has chosen the single life as the best option for the fulfillment of a personal calling.”[xi] For many older Christian singles this is a problematic definition, for it seemingly offers us only two alternatives: to be dissatisfied and frustrated with our single state or to make an official vow of celibacy, similar to that embraced by the Catholic Church, as a means of fulfilling some radical calling in which marriage would be a hindrance. In her book Get Married Candice Watters gives some very specific examples of how she believes this type of celibacy should (or should not) manifest itself in the evangelical church. She writes, “If you’re going on a missions trip once a year, volunteering at church twice a week, and holding down a traditional job, and on top of it all, dating the cute new guy in your singles group, you’re not following the celibate job description.”[xii] So what does constitute the celibate job description? Watters asserts that a celibate life should aspire to Paul’s level of devotion as expressed in 2 Corinthians 6:3–10:
. . . giving no cause for offense in anything, so that the ministry will not be discredited, but in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger, in purity, in knowledge, in patience, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in genuine love, in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and the left, by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things.[xiii]
While Watters is correct that we all should strive for this level of devotion, whether we are single or married, it is problematic to assume that there are only two options—get married or be persecuted as a celibate witness for God. The reality of our world is that Christian devotion does
not usually lead to torture and imprisonment, even for those who serve in full-time overseas missions. While it certainly can and does for some, this is not the norm, and defining celibacy by this standard implies that unless you are actively experiencing persecution as a celibate warrior
for God, you must be married.
What we need is another category: those who are committed to celibacy until God reveals a different plan for them. Laura Smit is one of the few to present this idea. In her discussion of Paul’s view of singleness in I Corinthians, she remarks,
It does seem . . . that singleness must be the default choice for a Christian, given the clear preference for singleness expressed in this text and in Jesus’ teachings. In other words, the burden of proof is on the decision to marry, not the decision to remain single. Christians should assume that they will be single unless and until they have a godly reason to marry. Christians should never marry out of insecurity, fear, a desire to escape the parental home, a need for affirmation, or a search for financial stability. Christians
should only marry those who enhance their ability to live Christlike lives, those able to be true partners in Christian service, those who give them a vision of the image of God and the glory of Christ.[xiv]
This type of celibacy does not necessarily require an official vow or a special vocation for which singleness is essential. Instead, it is a powerful recognition of the truth that Paul expresses in Philippians 4:11: “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.”
By thinking of celibacy in this way, perhaps we can begin to move away from the terms “gift of singleness” or “gift of celibacy” that are so frustrating to many singles. As Lauren Winner remarks, “Perhaps we ought not fixate on the call to lifelong singleness. Some people, of course, are called to lifelong singleness, but more of us are called to singleness for a spell . . . Often, our task is to discern a call to singleness for right now, and that’s not so difficult. If you are single right now, you are called, right now, to be single—called to live a single life as robustly, and gospel-conformingly, as you possibly can.”[xv] By defining celibacy in these terms—being called by God to live chaste lives as strong, single Christians for as long as he desires us to fulfill this role—perhaps we can begin to affirm the many older Christian singles who have decided to accept the challenge of Philippians 4:11. (203–9)
[i] Evdokimov, from The Sacrament of Love: The Nuptial Mystery in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition. In Theology and Sexuality: Classic and Contemporary Readings, edited by Eugene R. Rodgers Jr. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002. 186.
[ii] Hauerwas and Verhey, “From Conduct to Character: A Guide to Sexual Adventure,” in Christian Perspectives on Sexuality and Gender, edited by Elizabeth Stuart and Adrian Thatcher. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996. 180.
[iv] Rolheiser, Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality. New York: Doubleday, 1999. 204
[v] Hauerwas and Verhey, “From Conduct to Character,” 180.
[vi] Winner, Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2005. 119.
[vii] Dawn, Sexual Character: Beyond Technique to Intimacy. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993. 9.
[viii] Hauerwas and Verhey, “From Conduct to Character,” 180.
[ix] Courtney and Hertz, The UnGuide to Dating: a He Said/She Said on Relationships. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.
[x] Grenz, Sexual Ethics: A Biblical Perspective. Dallas: Word. 160–63.
[xi] Ibid., 174.
[xii] Watters, Get Married: What Women Can Do To Help It Happen. Chicago: Moody, 2008. 34.
[xiv] Smit, Loves Me, Loves Me Not: The Ethics of Unrequited Love. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005. 77.
[xv] Winner, Real Sex, 139.