“I want you to be free from anxieties” (1 Cor. 7:32)
We appreciate these words of the apostle Paul. We want to be free from anxieties, and we want the same for others. So we speak against what we believe will harm and anything that seems cruel. But the surprise is that Paul immediately commends remaining unmarried and thus celibate:
The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. . . . I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and secure your undivided devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor. 7:32–35)
There’s anxiety each way, of course. We will never be free of it. But Paul seems to think there’s a sense in which marriage can multiply it. Not that marriage is without joys, but that there is something in being undivided in devotion to Christ that lessens some of these tensions in life. We tend to think the opposite today. We see celibacy as all cost and no gain.
We tend to think the opposite today. We see celibacy as all cost and no gain.
And so Christians who still maintain the biblical sexual ethic of heterosexual marriage being the only appropriate context for sexual activity are often accused of cruelty at this very point. To insist on sex-free singleness for those who are unmarried is seen as unfair and deeply damaging.
Considering three truths will help us identify how we may be thinking wrongly about celibacy:
1. Celibacy is cruel if romantic fulfillment is the meaning of life.
The message is all around us. I can watch any combination of movies and shows on a long-haul flight, and they’ll all tell me the same thing: I need a significant other in order to really live. Without this, I’m experiencing a diminished form of life. I’m incomplete, unwhole, just a fragment.
There is a grain of truth to this. We are not designed to be alone. We’re made for relationship and community. But the implication is that the only real way to experience relationship is romantically. Other forms of relationship are, by definition, inadequate. Friendship might be nice, but romance is essential.
But romance is not in itself able to bring the deep sense of fulfillment and meaning we know our lives need. No other flawed human can possibly hope to make us whole. To expect it is to impose a burden that nobody is designed to bear—or to leave us open to manipulation and disappointment.
Romance is not in itself able to bring the deep sense of fulfillment and meaning we know our lives need.
But romance is meant to point to where fulfillment is found. Currently, I’m staying with some friends who live in another region and have been going for daily walks in the nearby countryside. At one point, my route crosses a significant expanse of farmland. In the patchwork of the different fields, it would be very easy to take a wrong turn. So there are regular signposts along the way so that you know where to go. This is unfamiliar countryside to me, but I’ve yet to get lost.
A somewhat (to our ears) cryptic comment of Jesus is the clue to all this. In the gospel accounts, Jesus refers to himself in several different ways––the Christ, the Son of Man, the Son of God, the Redeemer. But he also calls himself the bridegroom. He’s come not just to effect a transaction between people and God. Being the bridegroom means he’s come to win and to woo. Being the bridegroom means he can be to us what none of us can be to one another.
The fact is, we have been made for someone. There is a true soulmate. We do need to be swept off our feet to be fulfilled. But the only one in whom all this is found is Jesus.
To think our romantic involvements can deliver this would be like me coming to one of those signposts and thinking I must have finished my walk.
The signpost is not the destination. Unbelief denies the existence of the destination and makes the signpost itself the only reality. Romantic fulfillment in the here and now becomes our only hope. And if signposts are what our romantic relationships ultimately are, then celibacy isn’t cruelty. Unbelief is.
2. Celibacy is cruel if marriage is the only form of intimacy.
A Christian leader recently said to me that believing singleness is the only godly alternative to heterosexual marriage was “dooming people to live a life without love.”
I’m sure there are many elegant and insightful responses, but what came to mind was this: “If the only way to experience love in your church is to be married, then your church really stinks.”
Think about it. Is celibacy a life without love? What about those who can’t marry simply because they never meet the right person, or for whom some physical condition makes marriage unlikely or even impossible? What about the person widowed young who never finds someone else? Is the church’s message to all long-term singles that their life will now forever be loveless? And do we then wonder why the rates of suicidal ideation are so horrifically high among sexually confused young people? Unless everything goes your way romantically, you’ll have a “life without love”––it’s an ideology that comes with a body count.
One of the liberating and transforming realities we see in the Bible is that God is love. God himself isn’t just in the love business, trying to catch up with Western culture. He is love. Love finds true definition and glory only in relation to him. And his Word shows us human love is not found only in the singularity of romantic coupledom.
Marriage is not the only answer to being alone. Meaningful love and intimacy are meant to be found in a variety of human relationships. To assume intimacy is intrinsically and fundamentally sexual is peculiarly Western and recent. It is also unbiblical. Scripture is replete with examples of deeply rich but non-sexual intimacy: Ruth and Naomi, David and Jonathan, Jesus and John. As I heard Rebecca McLaughlin recently point out, when Jesus wants to show us the greatest expression of love, it’s friendship he reaches for, not marriage (John 15:13).
3. Celibacy is cruel unless Jesus is truly divine.
Jesus never married, or dated, or had sex. And yet this was the most complete and fully human person who ever walked the earth. He was the true image of God (Col. 1:15) that all of us have failed to be. So if we think of singleness as a cruel diminishment of our humanity, we end up saying that Jesus was subhuman—that his humanity was incomplete and lacking. It is not for nothing that John warns us, “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist” (1 John 4:2–3).
We may not realize it, but by making so much of romantic and sexual fulfillment, we are making too little of Jesus’s humanity, and straying into one of the earliest heresies of them all—denying that Jesus was fully human. If romantic fulfillment is what really makes us human, we deny that Jesus Christ has fully come in the flesh. If a romantic partner is my salvation, then Jesus isn’t.
Inviting people into a life with Jesus isn’t cruel, but acting like a full life can be had without him certainly is.