Thursday, January 19, 2006

Obstacles to a Theology of Celibacy

2 Epiphany
1 Hilary

As long as our communities do see celibacy as some kind of second-best thing, rather than an equivalent expression of sexuality with its own unique gifts and challenges (like marriage), we are left saying that “single people” are indeed “damned” to celibacy. Note that “single” is not a word I have used or will use in this discussion, because none of us are called to be single. We are baptized to be deeply involved in God’s new community. Biological family units are only subsets of that community; they aren’t meant to serve as relational boundary lines.

One thing that this does make really clear is the foolishness of singles ministry: the horror is that they see the problem but present the wrong solution: the life of the community is meant to flow from and provide support for the whole people of God in a diversity of vocations, and that the nuclear, "natural" (or blood) family is not a primary unit in the church. As Ben Witherington and others like to remind us periodically, the family is taken into the life of God in the Church and redeemed. In the same way that the presence of family relationships are not meant to ultimately define one's place in the community any more than their absence. To endorse “singleness” rather than celibacy is self-defeating.

So while I don't like how churches teach so much and write so many books on "how to have a happy and godly marriage" - I think they'd do better to ground people constantly on their identity together in Christ and as the Church - it means that we need to explore and discuss and teach both how to live as married people, and how to live as celibates. And of course, since it is the Roman Catholic Church that has maintained celibacy as a valid vocation, they have much to teach us.


lizcreech said...

Here here kyle!! I agree with you 100%

Ben Finger said...

Hey Kyle I what are your thoughts on virginity and celibacy. Often time in church writing they are associated hand and hand. How would you respond to an individual who has fallen short and had some sort of sexual encounter outside of marriage whom contemplates celibacy? Just a question to get you going on. Maybe we can chalk it up to what some evangelicals call "born-again virgins" or "twice as good as new virgins" or something. Your thoughts.

--Ben F.

katie said...

I find your thoughts on singles ministry really compelling. Compelling enough to ask for some clarification. Are you taking issue with the church seperating people into groups of any kind
is it just the implications of the married vs. single distinction that are harmful in your opinion? (If you've already blogged about this ... feel free to redirect me :)

+ Alan said...

Well, I'm not Kyle but I'll bite there Ben. I'd say obviously it would be preferable that one remain a virgin if one is not going to marry - whether called to "holy celibacy" or not. Sexual relations aren't designed for those who aren't married - therefore, when they are entered into outside that state, they will harm us. Of course they could harm us inside that state I suppose, but that's another issue.

If one is called to a life of celibacy, it would stand to reason that it would be even more "advantageous" to remain a virgin - no extra memory distractions to deal with - that's only in the practical arena. Of course if someone has already engaged in sexual activity of some sort and later discerns a vocation to celibacy, I don't see where that would preclude them being so. Realistically, it might, as I hinted at before, cause them to have certain mental distractions that they might not otherwise have had. The lingering effects of "sin" I suppose. It's worth saying to someone - even though I happen to believe we can be healed of such damage.

Jamie Arpin-Ricci said...

Well said. I think you'd find Scot McKnight's recent posts at (or the comments about them) relevant to this.

Jamie Arpin-Ricci

Kyle said...

Thanks, Liz!

Ben, I don't really have anything to say aside from or in addition to Father Alan's response. I have little time for "keepin it clean for Jesus" or whatever. Worrying about being able to say, "ooh, I'm a virgin" has more to do with pride than purity, in my opinion.

Katie, thanks for your interest. Note that "singles ministry" in the post above is linked; my basic arguments about it are there.

Jamie, I read your recent posts on homosexuality, and appreciated them. I brought up some similar discussions in October here in case you're interested. I'll check out McKnight's post.

Cheers, everybody.


naak said...

Chiming in late here but I thought I would say a thing or two. Now this might sound kind of odd, being that I'm a Baptist, but for some time I had accepted the reality that God might want me to be a “single person” and remain a celibate. Now that doesn’t mean that I have chosen celibacy; and I don't hold to the tradition, which the Roman Catholic Church does, that men of my calling, the ministry of the Word, must remain a “single person.” But I do understand that God has a will for me, which may include marriage and it may not, that I do not know. Now, as I said earlier, I was okay with the thought of being a “single person” for the rest of my life. It might in many ways make my calling easier so that I can be totally devoted to the teaching and shepherding of God’s flock. But many men whom I have deep respect for are men whom have chosen to marry and bring up a family.

Now why I say this is because you say that you don't like how churches have “singles” ministries. Yes, I can understand why some of these might upset you, as they seem to be simply a middle ground for people waiting to get married, when it may be their decision to remain celibate. My church doesn’t have much of a ministry for “single people” apart from our Sunday school class and Wednesday night Bible study. It is geared toward the singles of our church that are some what young such as me and starting with high school graduates. And, it has been a long time tradition, though it isn't written, that when you marry you move on to a married couple’s class.

Now this bothers me because: first of all I don't want to leave my mentor, the one how has discipled me more then any other. But honestly this is a stupid claim for me as I don't plan on attending that church when I get older as I hope that God has given me one in which I am a minister. Secondly, I wouldn’t want to leave the group of people of that class as they have been my peers and the ones whom I have grown in Christ with, as well as the ones who have held me accountable. Thirdly, I don't want to have to rebuild those relationships, mentorship and accountability, with other people.

Here is the problem with my complaint. Most people, after marrying, want to develop relationships with people who are more like them, meaning married. I have a cousin with a wonderful wife who is now in a struggle because they don't really have any friends. She, his wife is not from Sparta, and most of his friendships from his youth have fallen away due to geographical and social reasons. Most of the married people at the church they are presently attending have children so they aren’t able to hang out with them as much as they, a young couple, would like, and they find it difficult hanging out with single people. It is kind of the same as when people are courting, whether in high school, college, or career, they tend to enjoy being around people who are doing the same; so that no tension is there.

So even though I personally don't like the idea of “singles” ministry because it may be possible that they will be “single” forever, I don't know of any profitable way of doing away with it while maintaining unity in the church. But at the same time, as some men and women in my church whom are much older then I, but not elderly, who do not have wives/husbands are kind of left out and don't find the kind of fellowship, mentoring, or accountability they deserve.

So I have a challenge for you…come up with a profitable way of dealing with this problem with the issues that I have stated above. Sorry so long, but I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

a brother in the faith

Jody said...

Does anyone else find it ironic that contemporary Christianity (protestantism in particular) has reveresed the bias for celibacy? Always the pendulum....

Kyle said...


I appreciate your comments, but I'm not sure exactly what you're asking; let me see if I'm reading you right.

Are you saying that this practice of having singles ministry or separating singles from married people in the social and teaching life of the congregation does anything for unity? I disagree.

In a word, such a position states, "it's difficult for married people and single people to get along, so let's make sure we don't try in the congregation."

That initial assumption is just unfounded. (I also consider it to be an assumption of the religious culture, not your assumption. I don't hear you arguing that.) I can tell you about my experience: of my closest friends, some are "single," another is my age and married, another is older and is married and has 4 kids (hell, I just lived with them for a month!) and another is a middle-aged celibate. We might socialize in different ways, but we still socialize with one another in our mixed groups, and we learn to adapt to things.

My advice to anybody is to go make friends. If your new friends have kids, adapt. If they don't, adapt. We adapt to one another in answering the call to live our lives together in a creative and redemptive way. That's just how it works.

I simply wouldn't get involved with a church that segregates married and single people in its social outlets.

Also, I've elaborated on that before here.

Jody, that is weird. I think if we were healthy, we wouldn't be going about trying to label one more "spiritual" than the other, anyway.

#Debi said...

I overheard two people from my former church talking yesterday. One said something about having worked in singles ministry so long that it was hard for her to switch gears. The guy replied (and I'm not making this up), "Yeah, but we got them all married off..." Just thought you'd love to hear that...