I still remember the time when I made the choice to live life as a celibate man. I was a teenager and I had been a Christian since childhood. When I reached adolescence, I started to develop sexual and romantic attraction – something that I don’t think overly surprised me – and that attraction was towards other guys – something that did rather surprise me!
By my mid-teens, I was realising that my experience of sexuality seemed to be fairly static and so I’d have to work out how it fitted with my commitment to follow Jesus. Through a season of thinking, studying and praying, I came to the conclusion that what I had been taught God says is indeed what he says: sex and marriage are to be reserved for life-long unions of a man and a woman.
Marriage to a woman wasn’t something that held much appeal to me, and so I made the choice that I would remain single and celibate. I remember it feeling quite straightforward. There were times when it felt more painful – usually when I developed feelings for a guy I knew – but I’d made my decision; I wanted to faithfully follow Jesus, and for me that meant being single and celibate.
As far as I was aware at the time, I was making a choice; I was deciding how I was going to live my life. But I’ve since learnt that that’s not how everyone would understand my experience. Some hearing my story would feel very worried for me. To them, I’m a victim, a victim of something terrible, something that could be deemed abusive: a victim of enforced celibacy.
What is enforced celibacy?
Enforced celibacy is a concept sometimes invoked by Christians who believe that same-sex marriage is acceptable to God. The basic idea is that since people like me are celibate due to our belief that same-sex relationships are sinful, we have not made a free choice to be celibate; we have been forced into celibacy because we believe it is our only option.
The forced nature of celibacy is deemed to be even more prominent if we believe that there would be negative consequences if we entered into a same-sex relationship. As one author puts it:
‘It is not possible to freely choose abstinence when the “alternative” offered is not only eternal damnation but also rejection by friends and family, the Church more widely and often entire support networks.’1
To make a choice in such a context, they say, is not really to make a choice at all. It is to be all but forced into a situation we wouldn’t otherwise choose.
Two other claims are often made about enforced celibacy. One is that it contradicts Christian teaching about celibacy – both biblical and historical. The biblical view of celibacy, supported by church history, it is claimed, is as a gift given to a few to make celibacy possible. Those who don’t have the gift should not be denied the chance to marry or be forced into celibacy. On this view, celibacy is a special calling and callings must be freely chosen.
A second claim is that enforced celibacy is dangerous. Since it asks people who don’t have the gift of celibacy to be celibate, it will inevitably be bad for their wellbeing. As an unhealthy, unchosen repression of sexuality, it can even lead to terrible outcomes such as suicide and sexual abuse.
Evaluating the concept of enforced celibacy
So, when I made a choice to be celibate as a teenager, was I deceived? Was what I thought was a choice actually something forced on me? Am I a victim of enforced celibacy? I’m not convinced that is so because I think there are some fairly significant problems with the concept.
A false understanding of choice
At the heart of the idea of enforced celibacy, there is a false understanding of how choice works.
The claim is made that I can’t make a free choice to be celibate if I believe the alternative option has negative outcomes – eternal damnation or rejection by my church community. A choice can only be real if it is between equally good options.
But this clearly isn’t true, and it’s not hard to think of examples that disprove it. If I was faced with two pills – one harmless and one highly poisonous – my choice to swallow the harmless one is still my choice, even if the alternative option would have a negative outcome.
Negative outcomes to one or more options don’t negate the real element of choice in a decision; they simply make one option much wiser than another. Knowing the outcomes of different options isn’t a bad thing that stops true choice; it’s a good thing that allows us to choose wisely.
Jesus never forces us into anything, but he does call us to be obedient to his ways in all areas of life.
Bringing this back to Christian belief, there are lots of situations in which Christians make the choice to live a certain way because we believe the alternative would have bad outcomes. The concept of enforced celibacy makes a powerful, emotive criticism of one outworking of Christian faithfulness while not also doing the same for other examples. Why do we not also talk of ‘enforced monogamy’ and ‘enforced chastity’ for those who are married? Why do we not talk of ‘enforced honesty’, ‘enforced generosity’, ‘enforced care for the vulnerable’ and more? Jesus never forces us into anything, but he does call us to be obedient to his ways in all areas of life.
And perhaps most importantly, no Christian who believes in anything like the biblical gospel can claim that a negative outcome to an alternative option renders a choice invalid and enforced. When we choose to trust in Jesus, we do so knowing that the alternative option has very negative outcomes, the worst possible outcomes. No one who claims to be a Christian and to have trusted in Jesus for salvation can claim that a choice is not a real choice when the outcome of the alternative option is negative. The very logic of enforced celibacy is undermined by the Christian gospel.
A false understanding of the gift of celibacy
Another problem with concept of enforced celibacy is the understanding of the gift of celibacy/singleness on which it relies.
Proponents of the concept, support the ‘superpower’ view of the gift of celibacy: the gift is a supernatural empowerment to endure an otherwise awful and impossible situation. This view is a complete misunderstanding of the gift of singleness.
In the Bible, the gift of singleness/celibacy is the state of being single, not a superpower to endure the state of being single. We can see this in 1 Corinthians 7:7 – Paul implies that both singleness and marriage are gifts, with each of us having one or the other. This can only make sense if it is the state of being single or married which is the gift. Otherwise, there would be some people caught in the middle – single people without the gift.2
The gift of singleness is the state of being single, not a superpower to endure it.
Jesus implies the same. When he talks about people who don’t get married, two out of the three types of people about which he talks are single because of circumstance, not choice. And yet, Jesus still says that they are among ‘those to whom it has been given’ to receive his teaching on marriage and singleness (Matthew 19:11). These aren’t people who have received a superpower; they are just people whose life circumstances mean they are single. The gift of singleness is the state of being single, not a superpower to endure it.
And despite the claim of some, this understanding of the gift has been the dominant view throughout church history. The idea of the gift as a superpower was not introduced until the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. As Dani Treweek has shown, it is only a selective and surface level reading of pre-Reformation authors that can support the superpower understanding.3
It is not the case, therefore, that you can be forced into the awful situation of being single and not having the gift of singleness. The state of being single is the gift; anyone who is single is experiencing the gift of singleness, regardless of whether that singleness is chosen out of personal preference or is a result of circumstances.
Gifts aren’t usually freely chosen; the giver chooses the gift, not the recipient.
There also seems to be a peculiar understanding of gift and calling in the thinking of proponents of the concept of enforced celibacy. There is the claim that celibacy is a gift but also the claim that to be the biblical concept of celibacy, it must be freely chosen. However, gifts aren’t usually freely chosen; the giver chooses the gift, not the recipient. Similarly, the claim is sometimes made that biblical celibacy is a calling and therefore must be freely chosen. But surely callings are received, not chosen. And why can’t a calling be received through circumstances such as my own?
On multiple levels, the concept of enforced celibacy has a false understanding of the gift of celibacy.
A false understanding of the effect of celibacy
Those who talk about enforced celibacy also often have a false understanding of the effects of celibacy.
The claim is made that celibacy is bad for an individual’s mental health if they haven’t received the gift of celibacy. However, there is no good quality evidence to back up this claim. The matter of LGBTQ+ mental health, and the related topic of suicidality, is complex, but there is no evidence that traditional Christian teaching or celibacy, in and of themselves, cause mental health problems (as explored in this article and this podcast) or contribute to suicidality. And there is research – though admittedly not of the strongest quality – showing positive wellbeing among celibate people.
It is doubtless true, however, that celibacy can be made harder when other factors – such as close friendship – are not in place. Where there are ways in which celibate singleness is difficult for those seeking to live it out, we need to ask whether there are things we are called to do as Christians and as churches to help make it a plausible way of living life.
The biblical call to steward our desires rightly is not the same as repression.
Another claim sometimes made is that unhealthy repression of sexuality in celibacy will lead, in some cases, to a wrong use of sexuality, for example in sexual abuse. However, the idea that celibacy has to be an unhealthy repression of sexuality should be challenged. No doubt repression is unhealthy, but the biblical call to steward our desires rightly is not the same as repression. And the claim that celibacy leads to sexual abuse is not backed up by the evidence. While the sex abuse scandal among Catholic priests is sometimes presented as proof, there is no convincing evidence that this is driven, or even aggravated, by celibacy. In fact, what evidence there is, suggests that the celibate lifestyle of Catholic priests has not contributed to the rate of sexual abuse among clergy.
A final common misunderstanding about celibacy that often lies behind the concept of enforced celibacy is the idea that celibacy equals loneliness. This is an unsurprising assumption in a cultural context that sees sex and romance as the only real forms of intimacy, and it’s motivated by a good concern for people’s wellbeing – aware of the great many negative impacts of loneliness.4 But it’s also not true. Or at least it doesn’t have to be, and it shouldn’t be for anyone seeking to follow Jesus in the context of church community. If we heed the Bible’s call to live out a high view of friendship (e.g. John 15:23-27) and to live out our identity as family (e.g. Mark 3:31-35), no follower of Jesus, whether single or married, should have to be lonely. In fact, many of us find that celibacy is one of the things that allows us to have a broader and richer relational life than some of our married friends.
Am I a victim of enforced celibacy?
So, I am not a victim of enforced celibacy. In fact, the whole concept of enforced celibacy is confused and unhelpful.
In light of the circumstances in which I have found myself, I have chosen to be celibate as an act of faithfulness to Jesus. Just as every Christian must make decisions, sometimes in light of circumstances out of our control, to deny ourselves in order to faithfully follow Jesus. What I am doing is not unusual. It is the normal Christian life. And as I deny myself and take up my cross, as I lay down my life in obedience to Jesus, in return I receive true life in him (Mark 8:35).
- Charlie Bell, Queer Holiness: The Gift of LGBTQI People to the Church (Darton, Longman and Todd, 2022), p68.
- Some make the claim that 1 Corinthians 7:9 undermines this understanding of the gift, but a more careful look at the verse disproves this claim. See Dani Treweek, ‘Marriage: God’s Solution to Sexual Temptation?’.
- See these excellent blogs: Dani Treweek, ‘Getting Historical About the Gift (Part 2)’ and ‘Reforming the Gift (Part 3)’, That GirlBoss Theologian.
- ‘Health Impact’, Campaign to End Loneliness.