The rhetoric of the culture wars has made it increasingly clear that many Christians and Christian denominations lack a theology of marriage. Just pick up the paper or turn on the television, and you can uncover all kinds of contradictory rationales as to how marriage ought or ought not be defined - and indeed, who should define it. I remember when George W. Bush announced to the nation that "marriage is a sacrament;" I wondered if he was making the statement in his capacity as the President of the United States, or as a United Methodist layman.
Amusingly, many Christians don't know how to talk about not having sex, either. With this in mind, I'm going to draw out the meaning of three distinct words that are often used interchangeably in Christian circles: abstinence, chastity and celibacy.
Abstinence is the state of refraining from sexual relations. Some people are abstinent by choice, and others by commitment - it's a very broad and general word. This is not the same as chastity or celibacy. Married people might practice abstinence during a period of fasting, or single people who are dating but not "hooking up" could be called abstinent. It's the answer to a yes or no question, and is not indicative of an overall lifestyle choice, while the other words are.
Chastity is a Christian virtue. Those who are chaste engage in sexual relationships only within the boundaries offered by a Christian moral vision. For married people, that means they only engage in sexual relations with one another. For those who are not married, this means not engaging in sexual congress at all. Chastity is a Christian obligation for all baptized persons, whether they are single or married.
Celibacy is a vowed state, as marriage is a vowed state. An unmarried Christian person who practices abstinence is not considered celibate - rather, they are chaste. Vowed or not, in a Christian context celibates are people who have closed the door to the possibility of marriage in response to a call from God. Therefore, while a chaste single Christian might go on a date, a celibate Christian would not. Celibacy and marriage are like bookends in the life of the Church. They are alternative states of life that are protected by vows to which Christians seek to be faithful.
Does that clear some things up?
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