What do you think of when you hear the word "celibacy"?
In a recent series about sexual ethics, we explored the problems caused in evangelical communities by an insufficient theology for celibate vocations. Those communities very often implicitly affirm and sometimes explicitly declare that a state of “not marriage” is a kind of “second-best,” lonely and unhappy state of Christian discipleship. Sometimes folks in other traditions talk up the celibate vocation as a kind of idealized, super-spiritual state. Both are wrong. And do you know what? Lies are bad for you.
If a celibate vocation exists at all, it cannot (as a gift of God) be simply the absence of a good, but must be a positive good in itself. Just as marriage is a way of life to which we are called for the love and service of God and other people, so is celibacy a way of life to which we are called for the love and service of God and other people.
A.W. Richard Sipe defines it as
“a freely chosen, dynamic state, usually vowed, that involved an honest and sustained attempt to live without direct sexual gratification in order to serve others productively for a spiritual motive” (Celibacy: A Way of Loving, Living, and Serving, Liguori, MO: Triumph Books, 1994, 40).First, note that the absence of celibacy is that of “sexual gratification” and one-flesh union. It is not the absence of deep relationships or even of “family life” in a community. I’ll come back to this point.
What celibacy emphatically does not offer is protection from the uncertainty, pain, and exhilaration that will come with living in friendship with other people. The lifestyle is a way of positive “redirection,” and never meant to be the “destruction of sexual instinct” (Sipe, Celibacy, 41). Being in relationship with other people, and learning to love well and accept their love in return is always a full-time job and a universal call, whether one is married or celibate.
I’ll reiterate. Celibacy is not the aimless absence of relationships or even of sexual gratification. Abstinence is different from Holy Celibacy, because holy celibacy is for God and for others. (Actually the same could be said of being merely “partnered” – what is commonly called “married” and living in a state of Holy Matrimony.) Celibacy requires conscious planning and discipline, cultivation and community support, just like marriage. Godly celibacy is never a path of fear and hiding from sexuality or relationships, or a life of selfishness and self-centeredness. It is a positive way of blessing, hallowing and consecrating the flesh.
I'm posting this as a "talking point," and I'd enjoy your opinions. Do these notions seem provocative to you? What has "celibacy" meant in your own faith community, and your own journey?
I look forward to interacting in the comments, and I've got several more posts on this in the queue, so check back. Next: Celibacy as “Space for God”