Hey, single Christian. Your celibacy isn't extraordinary.
So here’s the thing. Single Christian, your celibacy is totally ordinary.
Yep. You heard me. We are utterly unexceptional. Unremarkable even.
Of course, our celibacy is also uniquely meaningful. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves shall we? We’ll get to that in the next post in this series. (Pssst. I'm watching you! Don't skip ahead!) For now though let’s just focus on how very, very not extraordinary you (and I) are.
When celibacy became "cool"
Not so long ago the concept of "celibacy" predominantly conjured up dark hallways winding through shadowy monasteries in remote places. It spoke of dark-robed priests and grey-garbed nuns whose enigmatic alienness was somehow both alluring and disconcerting. It brought to mind either a starkly ascetic and commendably humble existence, or alternatively (and horrifically) a façade used to cover up some of the worst evil imaginable.
Whatever it was, “celibacy” was most definitely not cool. Until, suddenly, it was.
Today the word increasingly conjures up images of soy lattes and farm to table cafes. It speaks readily of energetic millennials in skinny jeans whose enigmatic twitter profiles are somehow both perplexing (especially to those of us of an *ahem* older generation) and appealing. It brings to mind a wonderful appreciation for aesthetics, an enviable aptitude for social media, and an effervescent youthfulness.
Whatever it is, “celibacy” is most definitely now cool. Or at least it’s cooler than it was.
And that's not necessarily a bad thing! (And yes, I’m aware that in using the term “cool” to describe what is “cool” I am only revealing how anachronistically “uncool” I truly am.)
Even those outside the Christian community are (slowly) beginning to develop a renewed appreciation for the celibate life (especially as it increasingly differentiated from the horrific, appalling and abusive “celibacy” of those who used it to mask great evil). Many a secular person is now able to look upon a Christian friend who has declared themselves to be celibate and think:
“If that’s your chosen identity, then good for you. Sure, I don’t get it. But that's not the point. You do you”.
How celibacy became "exceptional"
Of course, as any good marketer will tell you, when you’re in the middle of a rebrand you want to simultaneously embrace the new, while giving a nod to the old. Some level of continuity is vital. When it comes to contemporary celibacy's image over-haul, that continuity has been located in its “vocational” character.
The catholic priest makes a lifelong vow to celibacy. The contemporary evangelical Christian usually speaks of their celibacy as being a life"call". Just as in the past, celibacy today is not a passing phase or a temporary endeavour. Such is thought to belong to celibacy's cousin, abstinence. Rather, it tends to be something you have embraced as a personal “vocation” . Celibacy, we are told, is for those who have, for any number of reasons, discerned it as a specific, individual and personal "call".
[Sidenote from the author: We're going to come back to the concept of "vocation", and especially "vocational singleness" in a later blog post. For the moment, I'll let the immortalised words of Inigo Montoya speak for themselves]
And so, within the context of a sex-obsessed world, celibacy is increasingly depicted as somewhat of an exceptional Christian lifestyle. There is an aura of set-apartness and remarkableness about it. We admire those who have embarked on such a life. We Christians regard their commitment to not have sex (ever?!?!) as somewhat extraordinary, perhaps even phenomenal. "They" are not like the rest.
Of course it’s not that the celibate evangelical angles for themselves to be viewed in such a fashion. Typically that is far from the case. And yet, within a world that sees sex as central to human identity, we can’t help but elevate celibacy’s atypicality, its costliness, its wonderful strangeness. As we do so—as we uniquely colour in the picture of contemporary celibacy with golds and silvers and otherworldly tones—we increasingly emphasise the celibate person’s extraordinariness and exceptionality... and by implication, encourage them to do the same.
Why celibacy is actually "ordinary"
But this is a mistake. Why? Well because a life of celibacy—a life without sex—is not a life of extraordinary commitment. It’s not a life of remarkable giftedness. It’s not a life of phenomenal sacrifice. It’s simply a life of grace-enabled, godly obedience.
When we peel away all the cultural trappings of celibacy and look at it theologically—that is, through God’s eyes—what we find is that the celibate life is simply the life God calls each and every one of us to, for however many years of our lives we happen to spend unmarried (or are unmarried again). Why then do we classify such a life of godly obedience as being something truly exceptional?
When we remove all the cultural expectations and look at the celibate person theologically—that is, through God’s eyes—what we find is someone who is simply committed to honouring God’s broad purposes for sex, and so who authentically expresses their sexuality by not having sex outside of those purposes. Why then do we talk about the choice not to sin against our creator in this way as being a life of noble "sacrifice"?
When we remove all the cultural lingo and look at the celibate life theologically—that is, through God’s eyes—what we find is that celibacy is the “vocation” of every unmarried person for however long they are unmarried. And this is true whether they be never-married, divorced, or widowed; whether they be attracted to people of the opposite sex, the same sex, or nobody at all. Why then do we conclude that celibacy is the domain of just a select few, specially empowered Christians?
Put simply, the celibate life is (part of) what it means for the single person to be taught by the grace of God to—
...say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. Titus 2:12-14
The unmarried Christian who is celibate is, by the literal grace of God, eager to do what is good. But that does not make them extraordinary. Indeed, they are no more extraordinary than the married person who, by the same grace of God, is likewise eager to do what is good in their situation. In this sense, both the celibate single person and the sexually-active married person are both very, very ordinary.
And the reason for their ordinariness is because all extraordinariness belongs entirely and absolutely and magnificently to Jesus. He has achieved the remarkable, so that we might now live the wonderfully ordinary life that humanity was created to enjoy from the very beginning—that is, to be the people of God, living in right relationship with him and with each other, and eager to do what is good,
And so, we ought not imagine the Christian celibate as modern-day hero. That honour belongs to Jesus alone.
We ought not imagine the Christian celibate to be making the ultimate sacrifice. That cost was paid by Jesus alone.
We ought not imagine the Christian celibate to be an exceptionable person. That describes Jesus alone.
Living a celibate life is a lot of things (such as complicated, exciting, difficult, surprising, sorrowful, joyful), but it isn’t extraordinary. It isn’t remarkable. It isn’t phenomenal. It’s the wonderfully ordinary life of one who has been redeemed, forgiven and purified by an exceptionally extraordinary saviour.
So no, single Christian. Your celibacy isn't extraordinary.
But chin up! While it may be very ordinary, it is incredibly, uniquely and magnificently meaningful. Click here to find out why.