Celibacy is like a dirty word in our culture – something to be ashamed of. Celibacy is seen as a rather old-fashioned word, but has a rich and honoured tradition of describing those who choose not to marry – and therefore not to have sex – for the sake of their faith.
People don't know how to react when I say I'm celibate (but responses range from embarrassed silence to pity, to disbelief, to thinking that there must be something seriously wrong with me, to being intrigued or impressed). It may be misunderstood in our culture, but celibacy is liberating, demanding, exhilarating and, above all, a gift from God.
Part of the problem is that our society equates intimacy with sex and treats sex as a right. The logic goes something like this:
Premise 1 - Everyone has the right to express love and experience intimacy.
Premise 2 - Sexual relationships are the only context in which to express love and experience intimacy.
Premise 3 - Denying the legitimacy of certain types of sexual relationship means denying some people the right to express love and experience intimacy.
Conclusion - Therefore, all sexual relationships must be permissible because to deny any would be to deny certain people love and that would be cruel and morally wrong.
I believe that this is problematic as it's based on false assumptions. Firstly, there are many non-sexual but nevertheless intimate relationships: mother, father, brother, sister, close friend, mentor, teammate, and so on. Secondly, we are all loved unconditionally by God, and it is only this love that can satisfy our deepest longings for intimacy. God has made us for intimate relationship with him and with others, and so none of us need be lonely. The Bible even uses the imagery of a body to express how interdependent we are to be (1 Corinthians 12). Whether we're married or single, we belong to each other and are to value each other as equals.
In a world that treats you as though there's something wrong with you if you're not having sex (and particularly if you've never had sex), the Church has an opportunity to be genuinely counter-cultural, to explore life-sharing friendships and depths of community to combat the superficiality and loneliness that so many experience.
So, let's embrace and celebrate celibacy and singleness in our churches and beyond. Let's worship God for his purity and holiness, and thank him for the gifts of celibacy, friendship, and community. Let's celebrate that how loved we feel doesn't need to depend on our sexual encounters. Let's delight in the fact that Jesus and the Apostle Paul were both gloriously single and celibate. Let's remember that for all of us – whether single or married – the priority is to pursue intimacy with the Lord.
Some questions to ponder
For married people
- Do you ever refer to your spouse as your 'other half' implying that single people are incomplete?
- If you're a Christian parent, are your expectations and hopes for your children that they'll get married and give you grandchildren, or would you be genuinely happy for your children if God granted them a life of singleness and celibacy?
- Do you make marriage into an idol? Are you open about the difficulties in your marriage, and do you invite single people to share their wisdom, to pray for you, and to serve in your family?
For church leaders
- Are single people involved in every area of the life of your church including youth work, prayer ministry, leadership, preaching and teaching?
- When sex is taught about in church, is it mainly about the ethics of marriage, sex outside marriage, adultery, and homosexuality, or is it set in the context of a biblical vision of community and radical, committed friendship?
- When we teach about abstinence, do we present its benefits in terms of marriage ('true love waits – it'll be better for your marriage if you've stayed pure’) or do we celebrate abstinence as a reward in itself?
- Are all our celebrations in church centred around nuclear family (engagements, weddings, births, christening / dedication / baptism), or do we have ways of celebrating the single people in our church?
- How can we explicitly and intentionally value single people of all ages and life stages in our formal and informal church life?
For all of us
- Do you refer to people as 'still single' as if it's a transitory phase on the way to the ideal of marriage?
- Do you value and appreciate the (often wider) skills and experiences of single people who have often had to cope with everything from long-distance driving in the middle of the night to buying a house completely alone?
- Do you think of single people as somehow not quite grown up, or do you appreciate the life-experience and wisdom of your single friends?
- Do you ever use the phrase 'He's a real family man' as a shorthand for saying that he's responsible, dependable, and loving (in contrast to bachelors who, by implication, are not)?
- How might our definitions of ‘family’ be expanded to include single people who are godparents, aunties, uncles, brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters?
- How can we support committed, celibate relationships and encourage long-term companionship and community?