As we’ve made it possible for a human life to begin without sex, society has increasingly seen it as impossible to enjoy a human life without sex. The basic premise of Hollywood comedies like The 40 Year Old Virgin and 40 Days and Nights demonstrates this – the first chronicles a man’s increasingly desperate attempts to have sex for the first time; in the second another younger man struggles to last just 40 days and nights without it. So, for many in our world today, to call people to more than 40 days and nights without sex, to more than 40 years, in fact to potentially a whole lifetime without it, sounds totally implausible, even comical.
And yet, that is God’s clear call to all Christians who remain unmarried – including a virgin like me in my 40s. And the pity I receive, and the pity I often feel, as a result is often overwhelming. Sometimes the implication is almost that I’m not quite human because I have yet to experience such a basic human right and experience as sexual intercourse.
But as Thomas Schmidt observes: ‘It is only an aberration of our own sorry generation to equate the absence of sexual gratification with the absence of full personhood, the denial of being or the deprivation of joy.' 1 Previous generations had different attitudes to celibacy. The single-minded bachelors that used to prop up most British institutions, the devoted spinsters who spent their lives caring for elderly relatives, used to be admired not pitied. But now such lives are mocked and avoided and talk of celibacy or chastity produces the giggles that talk of sex would have before. Christopher Ash asks: ‘When did we last see a successful movie which portrayed a contented bachelor or spinster?’. 2 I never have.
When did you last see a successful movie which portrayed a contented bachelor or spinster?
And, tragically the church can become just as sex-obsessed as society around it. As the world has idolised sex in almost any context, the Church has idolised it within marriage. So, keen Christians too often rush into marriage in their early 20s so that they can have sex. The danger of this is they may then discover that desire is almost all they have in common with the person they have now committed themselves to for life. Early marriage has become the panacea for Christians struggling with sexual temptation leaving far too many people shocked to find that temptation is still there when they return from their honeymoon.
As a result, the Church needs to ignore the giggles and start rehabilitating the concepts of celibacy (or singleness) and chastity (or sexual self-control). We need to articulate the benefits of a celibate life for some and to encourage chastity for all. Or, to put it another way, we need to start reading our Bibles again.
It is hard to see how the Bible could be any more positive about the celibate life.
For it is hard to see how the Bible could be any more positive about the celibate life. Its central character, Jesus Christ, was single and yet, is held up as the only perfect human being ever to have lived. In Jesus you see life to the full – and his was a human life without sex.
And then, of course, there is the example and teaching of the apostle Paul. Would he have been able to make any of his missionary journeys if he had a wife to care for? Would he have been such an effective pastor of churches and mentor to young church leaders if he had his own young family? He clearly expresses the benefits for the gospel of his celibate life in 1 Corinthians 7 and we need to start promoting similar thinking in our churches today.
We need to listen to both Jesus and Paul when it comes to the subject of chastity. Jesus’ high standards of sexual self-control could not be made clearer in Matthew 5, and Paul encourages it again and again in letters written to churches in cities where chastity was valued as little as it is in many cities today. All Christians are required to be sexually self-controlled, and the need for it both outside and inside marriage needs to be stressed again and again in a world in which we are all too often encouraged just to follow our feelings.
Love is not just communicated by the sex one has had, but by the sex one hasn't had.
We also need to remind ourselves that our sexualities can be valued by self-control as much as by sexual intercourse. Love is not just communicated by the sex one has had, but by the sex one hasn’t had. This is true of the wife who says no to a colleague’s sexual advances on a business trip – out of love for her God and her husband. It is true of the newly converted same-sex attracted woman who stops sleeping with her same-sex partner soon after becoming a Christian – out of her new love for Jesus. It is also true of the same-sex attracted man who remains a virgin until his dying day – out of his love for God too.
And the power of our sexual feelings can, amazingly enough, be valued most when they are most painfully experienced. John Piper reminds us that the ‘...the ultimate reason (not the only one) why we are sexual is to make God more deeply knowable. The language and imagery of sexuality are the most graphic and most powerful that the Bible uses to describe the relationship between God and his people – both positively (when we are faithful) and negatively (when we are not).’ 3 It’s his passionate love for his people, so passionate that it is described in sexual terms, recorded in passages like Ezekiel 16 that most deeply communicates God’s love for me. If I were not a sexual being, I would not get them (and so him) at all.
So, life without sex for a Christian should never involve an unhealthy repression or denial of their sexuality – any attempt to act as if it didn’t exist. It is a God-given gift to be valued and expressed in the ways he’s outlined. That will mean lots of sex for some, and none for others – but both are different ways of appreciating an incredible part of what it is to be a human being, created in the image of God.
But doesn’t the lack of sex for some mean lives of lonely celibacy for them with both no partner, and no children, to share themselves with? All human beings long for intimate, self-giving relationships with others, and lives without sex would seem to deny them the satisfaction of this very basic need.
Such thinking (far too common in our churches where the nuclear family can be the only focus of attention) is not biblical. In our Bibles, friendship is all about self-disclosure and self-sacrifice (see David and Jonathan and the book of Proverbs) and the church family is the New Testament’s central community focus – not a Mum, Dad and 2.4 children. Tim Chester is provocative but correct when he writes: ‘I shocked someone recently by asking them to name one occasion on which Jesus speaks positively about families. Every time Jesus talks about families, he sees them as competing for loyalty to him and his community.’ 4 Have a read of the end of Matthew 12 if you don’t believe him.
To deny someone sex is not to condemn them to a life without intimacy and full of loneliness.
So, to deny someone sex is not to condemn them to a life without intimacy and full of loneliness. Loneliness will never be entirely absent (it is not absent in the most successful marriages and nuclear families) but intimacy can be there in close friendships and your church family. Barry Danylak rightly maintains that ‘Christian singleness is not a denial of the underlying principle of Genesis 2:18, that it is not good to be alone. Neither Jesus nor Paul as single men was devoid of relationships. On the contrary their relationships flourished in both number and depth by the freedom and flexibility their singleness afforded them.’ 5 As a single man, I might not enjoy sexual intimacy with anyone but I suspect that I often enjoy greater appropriate intimacy with more people than most of my married friends – they are sometimes the people with the greater intimacy deficit. Lauren Winner poignantly records a friend’s comment: ‘Lying in bed at night next to someone you once promised to love and knowing there is no way to bridge the gulf between you...That is the most crushing loneliness of all.’ 6 I might not be so badly off living life without sex after all.
- Thomas Schmidt, Straight and Narrow? (IVP 1995), p.168.
- Christopher Ash, Married for God (IVP 1999), p.41.
- John Piper, Sex and the Supremacy of Christ (Crossway 2007), p.26.
- Tim Chester, Busy Christian's Guide to Busyness (IVP 2008), p.53.
- Barry Danylak, Redeeming Singleness (Crossway 2010), p.215.
- Lauren Winner, Still (HarperOne 2012), p.57.