Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Sex in the Church: A Glossary

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?


Garrett said...

This post is just a test of my maturity, right?

I think you should also, for sake of completeness, elaborate upon the precise definitions of a sacramental marriage and how, in current practice, they are a very small subset of civil marriage.

Anonymous said...

This stuff seemed to be left out of my "True Love Waits" DiscipleNow weekends growing up :)

Anonymous said...

I believe its Lauren Winner who argues that since God defines what sex is, a physical and spiritual union in marriage. That any activity outside of this confine, while carrying characteristics that are "sexual" is not truly sex. However, the church prefers cultural and biological definitions in which we try to win the arguement on secular terms and wind up losing. eg the preacher who says "Don't have sex until you are married." This statement assumes the culture's definition of sex is the one to use.

Rev. Honesty said...

Good post. I appreciate the important distinctions.

We can't begin to talk about sex in the Church unless we are clear on our terms.