” I suppose therefore that this is good for the present distress, I say, that it is good for a man so to be.” 1 Corinthians 7:26.
Paul’s “present distress” has been used to discount this section of his letter to the Corinthians. Some think that since there a calamity of some type being inflected on the people – whether famine, disease, earthquake, etc. – that Paul was writing for people who were undergoing circumstances that we can’t relate to. This distress is often interpreted to be no more than a disclaimer that reads, “This is all my opinion. So don’t take anything too serious.” But how should we take it? I don’t think we should take one inch off of it that we don’t give the rest of the Bible. All of Paul’s words are the inspired word of God. Yes, we are living in a time when the Bible strikes a sharp contrast to surrounding culture. And I’m sure many people who are reading it for the first time are looking for “outs” and disclaimers and reasons why it doesn’t apply to their lives. But this is not one of them. Paul could have considered the present distress to be the period of time he was living in and waiting for the second advent of Christ. We are in the same distress, living in a time between ages. The distress is spreading the good news around the world and making as many children of God as possible, with the knowledge of what happens to people who perish without accepting Christ. Do you think Paul’s distress could have been any worse that Christians are experiencing in 21st century America? Paul spent time in prison for expressing his religious beliefs. People in America have too, like Kim Davis. Christians are being targeted and executed all over the world by terrorists and other extremists. The gunman in a recent shooting at a campus in Oregon shot only those students who said they were Christians. If we exhumed Paul from the grave and took him on a guided tour through our big cities and halls of government, what would be his assessment? Would he think it was a walk in the park? I tend to think he would consider our circumstances quite a distress.
Apostle Paul wrote the majority of the New Testament. By our standards today, he was beyond a genius. God could have chosen anyone to write the epistles. He could have created anyone to play the role of Paul. He did. He made Paul. He could have transported Shakespeare back in time. He didn’t. Paul was a humble man who didn’t want to appear superior or authoritative. He was not writing his letters on an iPad from the comfort of a beach side condo. He was in prison. I don’t think we should use his humility as an excuse to bypass sections of the Bible that do not fit our times or make us uncomfortable. We should use it as a reason to take him more seriously.
Many people think celibate life is what single people do when they can’t find someone to marry. After a certain age, it becomes a consolation prize, God’s second best, a life of irresponsibility and extended adolescence. Some consider it just a lack of a sex drive and fear of “manning up.” Others see it as a tragedy, a wasted life, a dry seed. When it’s a woman, it’s even more of a tragedy. With her fertile years slipping by, she wonders why God has forgotten her. Church members try to set her up with every breathing animal that has testosterone. They put her on the prayer list and assure her that God will bring the answer to her prayers in due time. They tell her to focus on God and, if she prays enough and is holy enough, God will send her a knight in shining armor. The problem is that God never promised anyone a marriage. As a matter of fact, he instructs us to do just the opposite. “But as God hath distributed to every man, as the Lord hath called every one, so let him walk. And so ordain I in all churches.” 1 Cor 7:17. In other words, if we have never married when we come to Christ, looking for a spouse should not be a priority in our lives. We walk with faith in Christ alone. In these few verses, Paul is very succinctly telling us that divisions and classes do not matter to God at all. He nails this standard of equality home in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” I think it would be fair to surmise that there is neither married nor unmarried. “All one in Christ Jesus” effectively trumps and nullifies the “be fruitful and multiply” mandate of the Old Testament. It erases all the divisions that we read about from Genesis to Malachi in the Old Testament. If we accept our statuses when we become Christians, it should include the unmarried state as well. A story of someone looking for a spouse does not even appear in the New Testament. A list of qualifications for a spouse does not appear. Contrast that with the sex saturated society we have today. Think about the one birth that really matters. It was supernatural. I realize many people dismiss Paul’s words as “just his opinion.” But I have always considered the entire Bible, including every letter Paul wrote, to be the inspired word of God. Paul wasn’t just any man. He had the gift of celibacy and wrote about these subjects as a celibate man, not as a married preacher speculating about exceptions to the “marriage mandate” rule. He was living the life. He had the insight to write on these subjects. He also wrote the majority of the New Testament. His “disclaimer” only shows his humbleness and acknowledgement that it was Christ who gave him such inspiration. Of course, Paul goes on to say that it’s not wrong to want to marry and it’s not wrong to not want to marry. But our marital state does not matter in the long run. In heaven there will be no marriages, no male and female, no young and old. So if you find yourself panicking about your single state, let these verses put things into perspective for you.
But as God has distributed to every man. Those may be the most painful eight words in the Bible. Turning our focus from ourselves and comfortable family pews and focusing on God alone is not easy. We see what the world has and we want it. We want to fit in. We want our lives to be chillin’, drama free, and without fear. That’s not possible if you pick up the cross of Christ. In my opinion, living a life of faithful celibacy is just as, and probably more, difficult as living a life of faithful marriage. So the marriage equality debate going on in the country today shouldn’t be about heterosexual marriage vs. homosexual marriage. It should be about respecting those who have been called to celibacy just as much as those called to marriage. Right now, the table is tilted toward marriage and family. That has to change.
The Wedding Ceremony of Andrea Kastner and Thomas Morton by Thomas Thorspecken
The good old American wedding. It’s as comfortable as applie pie. So steeped in tradition we accept it as God’s word. Wedding dates, wedding planners, wedding rehearsals, rehearsal dinners, invitations, announcements, wedding ceremonies, wedding vows, engagement rings, wedding rings, legal witnesses, marriage licenses, preachers, money for the preachers, wedding cakes, bridesmaids’ luncheons, buttercream icing, buffets, entrances, preludes, interludes, processionals, recessionals, receptions, wedding dresses, tuxedos, ball gowns, veils, headpieces, open stocks, bridal registries, place settings, bridal showers, what to toss, flowers, garter belts, trains, corsages, boutonnieres, cascades, fillers, freeze-dried petals, pomanders, English garden arrangements, Tuscan arrangements, beveled edges, deckled edges, embossed, engraved, suits, proofs, sets, albums, escorts, place cards, overlays, pickups, sweetheart tables, first dances, honeymoons, best men, bridesmaids’ dresses, maids of honor, grooms, grooms’ mothers, ushers, wedding songs, ring-bearers, flower girls, father’s left arm, wedding parties, formal photographs, guest books, rose ceremonies, thresholds, frogs, spiders, black cats, rice tosses, stag parties, toasts, tin cans, five sugar-coated almonds, candlesticks, thirteen coins.
The problem is, none of it is in the Bible. There is absolutely no description of a wedding ceremony in scripture. And there is nothing about weddings that make them innately biblical. No vows. No marriage licenses. No punch. Did you just did dizzy? If weddings are considered spiritual events on the same order with births and deaths, at what point during the wedding does God say, “Okay, you can have sex and become one flesh now”? Does a preacher become a stand-in for God when he asks, “do you take this woman/man to be your wife/husband?” Protestant churches would have you believe that. So if marriages don’t start with wedding ceremonies, when do they start? Maybe we should consult the Bible. Take a look at Ephesians 5:30-32:
“For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.
For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.
This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.”
I cannot think of a more dignified and accurate metaphor for the sexual union than a man and woman becoming “one flesh.” Leave it to the genius of Apostle Paul and his way with words. Am I saying we’ve had it wrong all these years? Yes I am. The church slipped off the tracks when marriages became separated from sex with pomp and circumstance and assumed it could take on the role of God and unite two people forever. Of course, all of this was done to allow and legalize divorce. The church can’t do that. A preacher can’t do that. A thousand bowls of coconut-pineapple punch can’t do that. Even more sobering is the fact that man’s vocabulary can’t superimpose itself on top of God’s vocabulary. A classic example is “premarital sex.” If all sex before marriage is premarital, what do you call sex after marriage? Postmarital? Does all that bad sex before marriage suddenly become good when a preacher says, “You may now kiss the bride” in front of two witnesses and a gaggle of onlookers? Most churches will tell you it does because they routinely marry “cohabitating partners.” I just don’t think so. Does that mean there are millions of people walking around today who are married through fornication and don’t know it? I’m afraid so. God’s word and commandments are so far removed from today’s reality that they’ve become unrecognizable. The church didn’t defend them and the congregants tossed them out the window in favor of comfort and pleasure. Instead of conforming our lives to God’s word, we have conformed God’s word to fit our lives.
Notice what Paul says in verse 32. I think it’s one of the most overlooked passages in the Bible. In very plain language, he is telling us that marriage is a mystery we will not understand on this earth. Could it be that sex actually bonds a man and woman beyond our comprehension so that they are more “one flesh?” than we even realize? Could sex chemically change our bodies permanently so that a man does become one with a prostitute when he has sex with her? Those are uncomfortable questions. And the world today doesn’t want the discomfort of a mystery. Every answer is in the palm of our hands. Just Google it. Is there anything science cannot explain? It tries. But, “The foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1:25).”
32 But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord. 33 But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. 1 Corinthians 7:32-33.
What would your friends think if you told them you didn’t have a care in this world? They’d probably think you were a lazy slacker. But Apostle Paul said just that. How many “likes” do you think that would get him on his Facebook page? He is responding here to a letter he received from the church at Corinth. I think this letter brought up many areas where they were confused. But the main question was: Is it better to marry or remain unmarried and is it even possible to choose celibacy just as one chooses marriage? Isn’t it interesting that we are still debating the same issues today? We’re still debating what marriage even is. With that in mind, look at verse 32. First, notice that Paul recommended the unmarried and celibate life himself. Why? On top of providing more people with undivided devotion to Christ, it may be because he liked the idea of more celibate friends. I can relate to that very, very well. He also lived in a marriage and sex worship society. Few people were choosing to live without marriage. Therefore, few people were concerned about the Lord’s affairs. Few understood that what they did with their sexuality determined what route their hearts would take – permanently. Few understood that celibacy was an honorable option.
We have to remember too Paul’s definition of “cares.” He would rather have his followers in Corinth be “without carefulness” because he understood that choosing sex and marriage linked us to God’s creation (world) and that choosing no sex and celibacy linked us to God’s creation called heaven – because there are no marriages in heaven. Contrary to what theologians believe today, there is nothing innately evil about this world. I’ve always wondered why the idea of celibacy is so divisive. Every time the subject comes up, people think they have to take sides. It’s like we’re still debating Matthew 19 and Jesus’s explanation of eunuchs. I’ve noticed that if I mention the word celibacy, especially around preachers, they automatically assume I’m making disparaging remarks about marriage. They assume that I’m putting myself on some “holier than thou” level of existence. “Wait a second now John. There’s nothing wrong with marriage.” If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard that, I’d be a millionaire. Why is that? I think it’s because many church leaders have reverted back to Mosaic law and believe everything in the world is evil, especially sex. They think every intention in a man’s heart is evil. In 1978, Margaret Clarkson even remarked that: “Singleness is a result of sin in this world – one of a host of evils in which we all share.” Calvinism has taken a strong hold on churches today. On top of that, many Protestants today are still fighting the Protestant Reformation. They still think they are at war against the Catholic Church and celibate priests.
There have been many theologians through the years (including Charles Spurgeon) who have interpreted Paul’s “without carefulness” no further than singles waiting on marriage and the absence of sexual responsibilities to a wife and raising children. That is a grave error. If that were the case, then the gift of celibacy Paul recommends would go no further than what a person did or did not do in a bedroom. Yes, a life without sex is part of celibacy. But there is a whole lot more to “without carefulness” than “Single and Feeling Good.” Just as there is a whole lot more to caring for the things of the world than worrying about the next time you will have sex with your husband or wife. I think this mindset came about because of the popular belief in the separation of the body from the soul. This theology is a hallmark of Calvinism and “reformed” thinkers. Paul is clearly telling us here with the open-ended word “careth” that our bodies and souls are divinely connected. Thomas Merton wrote a book titled “No Man is an Island.” In 1 Cor 7:32, Paul is saying that no sex is an island without consequences. Paul is not describing what a married person should do or what an unmarried person should do. These verses are not instructions. They are reality. He is telling us how the Holy Spirit operates in the world, not what an ideal world should look like. “The word “careth” in verse 32 is a verb, not an adjective or noun. He isn’t saying, “husbands should be concerned about . . . ” or “single people are free to do . . . ” And he certainly isn’t saying that all people with the gift of celibacy are called to serve in some church-sanctioned, publically identified, nonprofit, tax exempt “ministry” or to set up a tent in a third world country. I realize many authors have contributed to this way of thinking, including William Isley who saw celibacy as a “charism appropriate for missionaries.” One of John Piper’s blog followers recently asked him what’s the point was in getting married if that meant she now served the world and not God. He tried to explain what Paul meant by things of the Lord: “He has in mind a focused, more formal, official ministry effort of evangelism and nurture.” I don’t agree with that. I read nothing about a formal suit and tie ministry in the words of Paul. Actually, complete devotion to the Lord requires no specific activity. It sounds as if Piper is trying to overhaul the Protestant’s miserable track record of dishonoring celibates by making them all out to be Billy Grahams. How quaint. He went on to make these disparaging remarks about Apostle Paul and 1 Cor 7:
“Does he really want us to think that the effort to please the Lord is only possible in singleness and that in marriage all the dynamics are different? We don’t please the Lord there, we please each other there. He can’t mean that because he said it is not a sin to marry and it would be a sin to marry if we didn’t try to please the Lord while we were married. That is what sin means is not pleasing the Lord . . . Those are very striking, strange depictions of how to live.”
Yes, that’s exactly what he means. This is another classic example of why married men are not qualified to give advice about celibacy. The reason Paul sounds so striking and strange today is because he defines marriage based on a one-flesh union through sexual intercourse. We define marriage based on courthouses, legal contracts, wedding vows, and a string of cans tied to the bumper of a car. Likewise, Paul’s definition of singleness is based on virginity – not the absence of a marriage license or wedding rings. Given those dynamics, the differences between the married and unmarried are that striking. Very striking indeed. I think Mr. Piper’s thoughts on the subject are fairly typical for a 21st century Calvinist Baptist Preacher. They don’t even know what celibacy is any more. They wouldn’t know Paul if he knocked on their church doors. If we enjoin our bodies back to our spirits, we’ll understand how what we do with our sexuality determines what road our hearts take, the road of human reproduction or the road of spiritual reproduction. The concerns of the world still take a backseat to the concerns of the Lord.
So where does marriage licenses and wedding vows fit in? They really don’t. Man’s world is an ever-changing maze of legalese, formalities, and courthouses. God’s world is made up of natural laws that are as true today as they were 2000 years ago. We can attach any definition to any word. But our words don’t matter. Only the word of God does. He’s much more in control than we think he is. Spouses who live under one roof have to listen to each other. Compromises have to be made. They don’t have a choice. Their chemistries have been merged into one vessel. The same thing happens when a person with the celibate gift is united with Christ. They have no choice but to respond to God and they respond in different ways. Some remain at his feet – like Mary of Bethany, some enter monasteries and continue lives of prayer, some reach out to young people by encouraging sexual purity, some hit the streets of inner cities, some take care of animals and endangered species, etc. Some even choose to be hobos for the kingdom of heaven and travel the globe with no job or steady source of income, etc. I think of my friend Meg Hunter-Kilmer.
There will always be Marthas yelling from the kitchen, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” I’m sure Martha thought Mary didn’t have a care in the world. We have to remember though that Martha yelled out of ignorance. Either she did not know what Mary was doing or didn’t understand the importance of it. Mary could have been with Jesus simply because she didn’t want to leave him alone and with no one to talk to. A sensitivity based on social order and dinner schedules would not be able to do that. Only a celibate like Mary could have understood how important this moment was in time. Likewise, there are many moments today that only those with the gift of celibacy understand and have insight on while those who are married and have families, busy in their kitchens and garages, and maintaining the rhythms of life do not. When they complain, remember what Jesus told Martha: “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:41-42. He could have been a bit more harsh and told her “Martha, you chose marriage and a family over me and with that comes the responsibility of feeding those in your house. There’s nothing wrong with that. But Mary chose to be fully devoted to me. She can stay right here at my side as long as she wants to. You can’t take that away from her. She makes me comfortable. She makes me laugh. Likewise, she can’t take away what you are about to put on the table for us to eat. We would all starve.” So when someone is complaining about you not settling down with a husband and having children and asking if you have a boyfriend, remember what Christ said: It will not be taken away from you. When someone is complaining about you not manning up with a wife and becoming a responsible and trustworthy man, remember what Christ said: It will not be taken away from you. No one can take our lamps. The world is still upset about many things. It defines maturity based on the number of sexual partners. Those bowing at the altar of sex are very uncomfortable with the idea of someone renouncing married life. At the time of the reformation, celibacy was under attack because it was associated with the rules of the Catholic Church, which is ironic because such a charisma can only be freely chosen. Today celibacy is under attack because it is associated with homosexuality and same sex marriage. In eternity, it will be the norm.
So, is there a difference between the concerns of a married person and a single person? Probably not. A person can hop from bed to bed and still claim legal single status. Plus, singles are just in a holding pattern waiting for marriage. Much is written for them. They are lonely, bitter, can’t find themselves, and blame God for their misfortune. This is the dichotomy the world operates under. And sadly, it is the world the church has settled for. But is there a difference between a married person and a virgin? Yes. It’s in the Bible. Take a look at verse 34 in 1 Corinthians 7:
“There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband.”
You won’t find these verses mentioned in too many self help books. The only time virginity sells is when it is discussed in relation to waiting on marriage, or waiting on Boaz. This is fine and good. But it’s not half the picture. Notice how Paul interchanges “virgin” and “unmarried woman.” He uses the same language when talking about men in verses 25 and 26. Think about that. A man who had lived a celibate life understood the profound effect of a eexual relationship. He knew it far beyond a few minutes of pleasure. That it affects a person’s soul. That it guides what their heart cares about. It’s interesting too that “there is difference” in verse 34 is singular. I think this indicates that there are many differences rather a singular difference and that there are too many differences to allow the use of the pleural “differences.” Because using the pleural would lead to questions about what the differences are. That’s not possible because the cares are so different from person to person; just as the cares in marriages can’t be true for every couple.
Much has been written about the gift of celibacy allowing extra time and freedom to do the will of God, freedom from sexual need, liberation from family responsibility, freedom to love all people, ability to take more risks, etc. While all of those may be true, they don’t begin to adequately explain the difference between a wife and a virgin. Paul is not talking about the situational circumstances of a person not holding a marriage license, which didn’t even exist at the time he wrote this letter. He is talking about how every cell of a virgin is realigned to Christ’s needs. I’m tempted to use the word genetic because that comes very close to describing the celibate charism Fr. Thomas DuBay described in his book “And You Are Christ’s: The Charism of Virginity and the Celibate Life. Just as brain chemistry (i.e., oxytocin) bonds a man and woman’s cares when they have sex, I believe people who have the gift of celibacy have brain chemistry that bonds their cares permanently to Christ. But don’t look for that discovery on the cover of Science magazine. What do you care about?
The ruins of the Bagrati Cathedral, pre-restoration, painted by Aleksandr Fyodorovich Peters
Those of us who grew up in church know that marriage is supposed to be a sacred covenant between a man and woman. Married people’s identities are wrapped up in commitment. They’re committed to each other, to their children, to their family, to their school, to their church, etc. And of course today with the same sex marriage controversy, the family values flag is held up higher and higher to represent the highest form of Christian values. But where do singles get their identity? What commitments have they made? What affirms their adulthood? What responsibilities have they been given? After college and beyond, I’m afraid singles get their identify from the same place married people do – from the county clerk’s office in the local courthouse. Indeed, the absence of a marriage license is what defines a single in today’s church culture. It’s the epitome of political correctness. However, people called to celibacy are the epitome of political incorrectness. They cannot be defined by something they do not have. They have been given a special charisma, a spiritual gift that is just as important as all the others in the workings of the Holy Spirit. Instead of being contained in seasons, it survives through eternity. And the gift of celibacy usually comes with other special abilities. It’s not just an empty vacuum floating around spreading sprinkles of love and contentment. Even though I’m not a Catholic priest and haven’t taken vows, my consecrated celibacy is just as much a commitment to Christ as a couple’s commitment to each other in marriage.
Consecrated virginity is the oldest recognized form of consecrated life in the Catholic Church. It’s much older than their religious orders. It was discontinued in the Middle Ages because of the rise of monastic communities. But it was revived again in the 1950s with Vatican II. I find it ironic that women who are members of the Catholic Church’s Order of Consecrated Virgins today do not live in a cloistered community, but out in the real world. They do not wear habits or veils and do not refer to themselves as sisters. So if Martin Luther were alive today, what would he be protesting against? He wouldn’t find them in a monastery. He couldn’t find them in churches. He couldn’t identify them on the streets. And if the Catholic Church believes all their priests have the gift of celibacy and are not forcing it on anybody else, what are Protestants protesting today? The idea of not marrying and having sex? That seems weird. If they are protesting extended adolescence and delayed marriage, then their theology is not grounded in the Bible. Martin Luther eventually left the monastery and got married. But one man cannot undo what God ordained. Does that sound like marriage language? It’s supposed to. What was a spiritual gift 2000 years ago is just as much a spiritual gift today. Unless a church has identified members with the supernatural gift of celibacy, they need to leave open its door every time they discuss the vague issue of “singleness,” especially if they refer to 1 Corinthians 7; even more so if they might have a member who is discerning a call to celibacy. I’m not aware of a church that has done this. Maybe it’s time they should. I dare think what would happen if churches expended as much energy on building up lifestyles that are biblical as they do on battling lifestyles that are evil. What would happen if they found out there were singles who lived holy lives outside traditional seasons of singleness of marriage? Who are doing what Martin Luther could not do? It would probably blow their minds. Look at it this way: I don’t argue with my spouse all the time.
My friend Justin Campbell, who blogs at More Than Don’t Have Sex, recently wrote a post about how celibacy is not a season. I completely agree. We should not use the word single as a catch-all for everyone who is not married. And this should be especially true for churches. Yes, single requires no thought. Don’t have a marriage license? That’s simple. You’re single. Single is easy. Comfortable. It’s politically correct, right? Everybody wants to be married, don’t they? The answer to that is no. That’s what makes sex the idol it is today. Our society makes room for nothing else but marriage. Young people who have the potential to live fulfilling lives of celibacy get no encouragement or counseling and end up drawn into the homosexual lifestyle. I’ve seen this firsthand. Yes, you can point to Paul in the Bible and go back to the Old Testament and read about Jeremiah. But their witness has all but disappeared from the face of the earth. The younger generation today have to see it to believe it. What they get in the church instead is another seminar on marriage and another sermon on the glories of children, with maybe a story about Lottie Moon thrown in every few years.
So churches, the fact that you don’t know who we are and don’t have a tidy label for us is not our fault. It’s yours. You have spent years decrying the evils of celibacy and linking it to homosexuality. You have spent years telling guys to man-up and telling girls to stay pure and procreate. In doing so, you threw all celibates under the bus, including Christ himself. You are the ones who need to grow up. You need to get your language together and be consistent. I’m as much a “single” as a husband is just a guy who is having state sanctioned sex. That’s right. Since my identity is just a pitiful old man who hasn’t found the right woman to turn him on, I consider marriage licenses no more sacred than a fishing license. There are a few exceptions, of course, like Justin Campbell who accurately points out:
“Paul essentially says that there are those who should get married and those who shouldn’t. He says some have one gift and others another gift. But the gift he is talking about is not the gift of singleness, he is talking about the gift of celibacy.”
Yes indeed, there are single people waiting on a mate. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. In time though, that waiting could term into long term celibacy. It’s an important thing to discern, but I don’t think there are any age deadlines. And married people are not going to be able to help with that. What is critical is leading a chaste life. That way, you’re prepared if you say yes to marriage or yes to celibacy. It’s really a requirement for both lifestyles. I’ll never forget the day I met an elderly man in the grocery store. He was in a wheelchair and I was trying to help him get a carton of milk. He asked me where I went to church and if I was married. When I told him I thought the Lord had called me to single life, he said: “Really? Well, I am too. Yes I divorced my third wife last year I’ve been as content as all get out.”
I think the main thing people miss about 1 Corinthians 7 is that Paul is not describing a person’s present circumstances or pondering the merits of married life vs. single life. He isn’t hanging “singles” signs on Sunday School doors. He is describing the reality of the only two lifestyle choices God gives to every Christian – marriage and celibacy. Given by him and freely accepted by us. Marriage can’t be urged by parents at an early age because they’re afraid their children are going to fornicate. Marrying a particular person can’t be seen as a last resort because there are no other prospects. Marriage can’t be assumed the norm by youth pastors when they could have a student with the disposition to celibacy. Likewise, celibacy can’t be forced on priests who do not have that gift. I have several Catholic friends who have accepted the call to celibacy. I support them. Most everything I have read on the subject has been written by Catholic writers. The Protestants remain mute on the subject, like they have for the last 500 years.
I find it ironic that Protestants have forgotten that their entire identity is wrapped up in protesting celibacy. The only celibacy Christians of the 16th century knew anything about was institutionalized in the Catholic Church and expressed through vows taken by priests, monks, nuns, and other religious. Protestants today don’t even know what they are protesting about. They can’t fathom a commitment to something so radical as never marrying. It’s even more ironic that Martin Luther himself, the leader of the Protestant reformation, was a monk at one time and acknowledged those with the celibate gift:
“The third category consists of those spiritually rich and exalted persons, bridled by the grace of God, who . . . voluntarily remain celibate . . . Such persons are rare, not one in a thousand, for they are a special miracle of God. No one should venture on such a life unless he be especially called by God, like Jeremiah [16:2], or unless he finds God’s grace to be so powerful within him that the divine injunction, “Be fruitful and multiply,” has no place in him. (p. 21)”
Celibacy is a long term committment, not a season of short-term singleness. Those who have said no to marriage and have consecrated their lives to the service of Christ are committed for life. Even though we may never see it reflected in church ministry groups, there is more difference between the lives of married people and consecrated celibates than between male and female human beings. My unique committment to Christ is not just for a season. Are people committed to each other in marriage for a season? More importantly, is the only meaning marriage has in the 21st century derived from the county courthouse or does it have any more sacred meaning? If its meaning goes beyond a state-sanctioned marriage license, does the meaning of singleness go beyond the absence of such a license? Does it go beyond “extended adolescence?” Does it go beyond seasons of waiting? If sex can be consecrated to God in marriage, can chastity be consecrated to God in celibacy? I think it can. And I hope this encourages others who feel they have no identity in the church. Even though our biblical identities may have been lost with time, out witnesses continues to endure.
The Procession of the Ethiopian Eunuch by Julian Van Dyke
The King James Version of the description of the third type of eunuch in Matthew 19:12 reads “. . . made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.” However, I’ve always felt this translation was inadequate because it leaves open the question of how they were made. “Made themselves eunuchs” does not explain Christ’s use of the eunuch metaphor to a society that still defines such a person on the basis of a surgical procedure and missing anatomy. Indeed, there are accounts of people who took his words too seriously. One such person was Origines Adamantius who was born c. A.D. 186 in Alexandria. He castrated himself and thus was denied the priesthood. However, the New American Bible interprets this verse as “some are incapable of marriage . . . because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven,” which I feel is a much better translation. It makes it clear that not entering into marriage, and thus a sexual relationship, is how eunuchs made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven.
But why would anyone renounce sexual intercourse when it is morally acceptable within the bounds of marriage? When it’s easily obtained on any street corner and cheaper than a burger and fries? Apparently Paul had received similar questions from the new believers at Corinth. I think it’s possible that the words of Christ and instructions from Paul got misinterpreted into something totally different than they intended. Sort of like the game “telephone” where a message gets passed around a room, only to become unbelievably distorted when it circles the entire group. In the case of human sexuality, man has a tendency to twist language to fit his desires. Even with Paul’s clarification in 1 Corinthians 7, we still have the same misinterpretations today. Most research on the subject of eunuchism leads to an eastern oriental perspective that sees celibacy as an unconscionable evil, an emasculated male posing as a threat to all of mankind. And outside its linkage with homosexuality, that is the same convoluted perspective we have today of one of the most mysterious spiritual gifts. It might help to know that all of the things being renounced are not inherently bad, but are better for those called to this lifestyle.
Celibacy renounces the world order we know (anachoresis). It represents the separation of all believers from the traditions, customs, expectations, and social stereotypes of this world. It is an extreme response to the presence of Christ, a response that cannot be realized in a one-flesh union between a man and woman. Those who embrace the life say yes to platonic expressions of love in friendship and no to romantic expressions of love in marriage. By pointing to a world passing away, the eschatological urgency at the heart of Advent is made a visible reality. Celibacy renounces the natural for the supernatural. It is a supernatural-enabled advent awaiting the return of Christ, an exception to every expectation, and a reminder that the Christian life is not about comfort.
Celibacy renounces marriage and prepares believers for a heaven where there are no husbands, wives, sons, daughters, or grandchildren. It serves as a brief glimpse into an eternity where the social mores and unstable unions of today will give way to a perfect union with Christ. Thus, celibacy cannot be understood solely as a response to the failure of marriages. Celibacy is not reactionary. It is visionary. It respects faithful marriages. By rejecting the temporary for the eternal, it actually brings into focus the marriage between Christ and the church, the separation of the church from the world, and our complete dependency on him.
Celibacy renounces sexual relationships. At the same time it does not deny God’s creation of sex or our sexuality. It stands in stark contrast to a culture that believes sex is as important as food and water. Celibacy takes sex off the dinner table and puts it in a Christ-centered eternal perspective. It says no to insatiable human appetites and leaves more room for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It affirms the goodness of sex, but renounces the belief that all human relationships must be based on sex.
Celibacy renounces human reproduction and heralds a kingdom of heavenly bodies that do not age. It renounces the “be fruitful and multiply” command in Genesis 2 because human life does not need to be established and Israel’s armies no longer have to be replenished, thus explaining the seeming contradiction with Paul’s “good not to touch a woman” in 1 Corinthians 7. As Clement of Alexandria noted, Jesus taught monogamy for the sake of begetting children and oversight of the household and celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God. Note that the eunuch described in Matthew 19 and the unmarried woman described in 1 Corinthians 7 are one in the same. So eunuchs are not just men. Women are also included in the Bible’s definition. At the same time, it reinforces the link between marriage, sex, and reproduction because it defines the only alternative to a nuclear family.
Celibacy renounces the modern construct of time by validating the wait for Christ’s return and the wait for a spouse. Thus, it underscores the importance of salvation before marriage. Celibacy amalgamates seasons and cycles into into a continuum of eternity. If every tick of a clock is measured against eternity, what is a minute? What is a year? Celibacy takes out time zones and ushers in Eternal Standard Time.
Celibacy renounces the temporary and superficial nature of sex, especially when it is used outside of the will of God. Because they have not been joined in one flesh with a spouse, celibates are able to devote all of themselves to eternal projects. The sexually unjoined (or unbonded) nature of their body chemistry orients their passions to Christ’s concerns. However, celibacy does not renounce the goodness of marriage. Rather, it acts as a counterweight and confirms the difficulty in living a faithful marriage. Some of the disciples balked at the idea of such a marital commitment: “The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.” They preferred the idea of temporary arrangements, not the permanent commitment that marriage requires. However, Jesus answered: “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given (Matthew 19:10-11). The Greek word for “can” is dunamai, which is a verb and literally means “is able.” It is also dunamis, a noun from which we get the English word dynamite. The word denotes a miraculous (supernatural) power or ability that resides in a person, like the nitroglycerin found in dynamite. So celibacy is a gift that enables a person to live a chaste life without sex. Matthew 19 strongly suggests that eunuchism can be used as a metaphor for celibacy, both of which contrast strongly to the temporary nature of husbands and wives in marriage. Since sex is not a requirement for survival, like food and water, celibacy is not part of traditional social asceticism that aims for a higher spiritual existence through self-denial and penance. Hence, it can’t be compared to fasting, sleep deprivation, self-flagellation, etc. Though it may be a common belief, self-denial is not necessary to control sexual desire. The celibate sublimates it to eternal passions, such as ending female infanticide. A solitary life testifies that there is a world coming worth sacrificing human pleasure for.
Celibacy renounces mankind’s knowledge and affirms the superiority of God’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 3:19). It represents the infinite mystery of God’s creation and man’s limited insight into all fields of discipline – including astronomy, chemistry, physics, biology, engineering, mathematics, etc. It reminds our mortal brains that there are things we are not supposed to understand.
Celibacy renounces sexual immorality and serves as a remnant of God’s creational design that followed Christ’s death and resurrection. Contrary to popular thought, it has nothing to do with same sex “marriage.” “Those who are born eunuchs” in Matthew 19 refers to those who are born with genetic abnormalities (whether it be sexual organs, hormones, physical anomalies, etc.). It does not refer to homosexuality. Being born a eunuch specifically indicates that the person is born not just without interest in the opposite sex, but also without any interest in sex of any kind – heterosexual or homosexual. This lack of interest in the opposite sex means no marriage. Celibacy reminds us that self-control is possible in a world of homosexuality, pornography, adultery, fornication, etc.
Celibacy renounces marriage and family idolatry and supersedes the Mosaic command to multiply with Christ’s command to make disciples of men. It reminds nuclear families that a marriage license does not represent the pinnacle of Christian values and that the family is not the foundational institution of human society. It renounces legalism, church constitutions and bylaws, civil servants and preacher pronouncements, probate judges and courthouses. Celibacy flies in the face of marriage-mandaters and other contemporary Pharisees who think the solution to sexual immorality is for everybody to get married as soon as possible – or else they will not be able to control their lust. Because it defines marriage as more than just legitimate sex, it recognizes another class of human existence other than fornicators and non-fornicators.
Celibacy renounces the barrenness of eunuchs and guarantees the inheritance of their spiritual children in the Kingdom of God, an inheritance better than biological sons and daughters. It ensures the survival of their lineage forever (Isaiah 56:3-5). It renounces their humiliation, objectification as sex slaves, impurity, and ambiguous gender and social identity in early Jewish and Grego-Roman history. There are ten different ways to refer to an eunuch in Latin. Soon there will be one. Even after the passage of two millennia, celibates today honor those who came before them and regard them as a class higher than guardians of harems or concubines. Christ coming as a eunuch affirms their pari passu relationship with marriage.
Paul on Marriage and Celibacy: The Hellenistic Background of 1 Corinthians 7 by Will Deming