A case for celibacy

(Post 2 of 5 in a series on Human Sexuality)


Following United Methodist General Conference 2019, several members of my congregation started asking me if I could make a presentation about my own beliefs on human sexuality. I’ve always been pretty open about believing that the Gospel is fully inclusive, but after the church’s relationship with LGBTQ+ people got so much press, traditionalist and progressive folks alike were interested in my perspective. So I’m going to break it into five fairly long blog posts and dump them here.

Some Pharisees came to him. In order to test him, they said, “Does the Law allow a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”

Jesus answered, “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the creator made them male and female? And God said, ‘Because of this a man should leave his father and mother and be joined together with his wife, and the two will be one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, humans must not pull apart what God has put together.”

The Pharisees said to him, “Then why did Moses command us to give a divorce certificate and divorce her?

Jesus replied, “Moses allowed you to divorce your wives because your hearts are unyielding. But it wasn’t that way from the beginning. I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

His disciples said to him, “If that’s the way things are between a man and his wife, then it’s better not to marry.”

He replied, “Not everybody can accept this teaching, but only those who have received the ability to accept it.For there are eunuchs who have been eunuchs from birth. And there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by other people. And there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs because of the kingdom of heaven. Those who can accept it should accept it.”

Matthew 19:3-12 (CEB)

In this passage, Jesus is criticizing the Pharisees using strict biblical interpretation to allow for divorce for trivial reasons. He posits an extremely high standard: anyone who is divorced for any reason other than adultery commits adultery themselves if they remarry.

This is clearly a higher standard than the disciples are used to; as they pipe up at this point by saying “if you’re that way, Jesus, it’s probably better for people simply to not marry at all!” 

Rather than saying, “don’t be ridiculous, Peter,” per his custom, Jesus instead tells the disciples that they’re right. In saying “not everybody can accept this teaching,” Jesus creates space for people to realize that their own experience of marriage and human relationship falls short of goals this lofty. But he goes on to say that people who “can accept” celibacy for the sake of building the Kingdom of God should do so. 

It’s important to remember that the dominant understanding of the Christian faith in the early church was that Jesus is coming back to reign and rule in this Kingdom of God he kept talking about, and that he’ll be doing that soon. There was a profound sense of urgency to the work and worship of the apostles and all the early disciples of Jesus Christ. We know that many of the apostles and other early Christians were martyred, and we also know that many of them chose not to marry. The decision not to marry, as we’ll see when we dig into Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in a moment, was largely based in a desire not to be slowed down in the work of spreading the Gospel. 

 I wish all people were like me, but each has a particular gift from God: one has this gift, and another has that one. 

I’m telling those who are single and widows that it’s good for them to stay single like me.  But if they can’t control themselves, they should get married, because it’s better to marry than to burn with passion. 

1 Corinthians 7:7-9

(it’s worth reading the entire chapter of 1 Cor. 7)

This passage has been used as the justification for celibacy for clergy in the Roman Catholic Church, and it has also been used in defense of the traditional view of marriage in many protestant churches. Because Paul makes a provision here in which he claims celibacy as a way of living in the world that is pleasing to God, and helpful in the mission of building the Kingdom. But celibacy, both to Paul and to Jesus, is clearly a choice and a gift. And it’s a choice that is not the right choice for everyone, because as Paul says, it’s better to be married than to burn with passion. 

I am a better person, leader, Christian, and pastor because of my relationship with my wife. She supports me in more ways than I could ever imagine, she’s my best friend, and my partner in building a life we share and love. I am confident in telling you that I do not have the gift of celibacy. I am a better person and Christian because of my spouse. 

I know that many of you have found incredible hope, love, and support in your spouses. I’ve met with couples who have only been able to survive difficult situations because of their faith in Jesus and their support for each other. I’ve met with widows and widowers who talk about the love and support their spouse provided them, about the joy their family has brought them, and how their faith has been shaped deeply by their husband or wife. 

The way I read both Jesus and Paul in these passages, the primary purpose of a relationship is not procreation. If procreation was the primary reason for marriages, celibacy would not be lifted up in this way. Rather, Paul seems to be asking the individual members of the church in Corinth, “Will you be better equipped to follow Christ as a single person or as a married person? If you should be married, get married.” 

One of the assumptions I’m making  relates directly to this point, so I’ll share it now: I am convinced that people do not chose their sexual orientation. I am convinced of this by my relationships with queer people who tell men they knew from the time they were small children that they were gay. 

I’m convinced of this by the fact that medical science again and again demonstrates that there are significant genetic components linked to same-sex attraction.

I’m convinced of this through reading I have done about the damage done through organizations that attempt so-called reparative therapy, it’s lack of success, and the fact that organizations like Exodus International have ceased attempting the procedure. People do not choose to be gay any more than I chose to be straight. 

So the logic I’m positing here is this: if sexual orientation is not a choice, and if most straight people are not called to celibacy, should we assume that most LGBTQ people are? 

People who are not called to celibacy but try to live as celibate suffer from a lack of fulfillment, loneliness, depression, anxiety, and more at an extremely high rate. To ask people who do not have a true calling to celibacy to remain celibate stands against the scriptural warning from Paul presented in Corinthians. 

The ultimate calling of a Christian person is not marriage or celibacy. Both of these ways of being in the world are good, and both are important, but they are both in service to our ultimate calling: to better know Jesus Christ, to lead lives in service to him, and to put our hope in life abundant and eternal today AND forever. 

How we determine whose lives and actions fit within this paradigm will be the focus of our next section.

Series Navigator

Part 1: My Quadrilateral

Part 2: A Case for Celibacy

Part 3: Who am I to deny the spirit?

Part 4: Love over law

Part 5: Unity in Christ

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