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Mythbusting Celibacy #1 | All Just a Little bit of History Repeating?

This post is the first of a deep dive series into contemporary discussions about Christian "celibacy", particularly as a distinct or even alternative way of speaking about Christian "singleness". Subscribe now to make sure you don’t miss the other posts in this series.


Talking Terms

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a blog post must be in want of a suitable quote from The Princess Bride. And what better than the most celebrated of them all?

While it’s inconceivable (#seewhatIdidthere) that Inigo Montoya had “celibacy” in mind, his immortal phrase could not be a more fitting introduction to our series, because even as the word “celibacy” increasingly dominates contemporary Christian discussions about the unmarried life, confusion abounds when it comes to what it actually means. The reality is that one person’s definition of celibacy can be very different to the next person’s definition, and this without either of them actually realising it.

A recent episode from a longstanding current affairs show here in Australia is the perfect demonstration of just this. In their fascinating episode on celibacy, SBS Insight interviewed a range of individuals (Christian and non-Christian) who described themselves (or, at one point, would have described themselves) as celibate. The show starts off in a fairly unsurprising way. We meet 24 year old Simon who is a Christian and has decided to remain unmarried and therefore celibate (i.e., sexually abstinent) for life.

However, as we are introduced to the other guests it soon becomes clear that the show is working to a rather broad definition of what celibacy means. We meet Wynona who is a married mother who suffers from crippling endometriosis. The awful physical and mental effects of her condition means that she and her husband are no longer able to even kiss, let alone be sexually intimate with each other. We meet 35 year old Kate who is asexual, doesn’t experience sexual attraction, has no libido but also hasn’t entirely closed the door to having sex within future relationships. We meet middle-aged Michael who is currently in the midst of a season of celibacy (one of several in his lifetime) after a young adulthood spent in what he describes as “soulless” sexual activity. Michael has been in a committed romantic relationship with someone during his current season of celibacy. We meet Amarantha who decided to stop having sex for a year to see how it would impact upon the success of her dating life, while also allowing her to refocus her energies on herself. And finally, we meet Carmen whose horrific story of sexual imprisonment led to a number of periods of celibacy in her life following her (quite extraordinary) rescue.

All of the guest’s stories are compelling. Some are intriguing. Others are tragic. But every one of these guest plots their “celibacy” somewhere along what turns out to be a rather extensive definitional spectrum. If nothing else the show demonstrates that what the 21st Century Western world means by “celibacy” is far from straightforward.

Christian Celibacy?

But what about for us Christians? Surely there is far less ambiguity in our thinking about what it means to be celibate?

Well actually no, not really. Certainly, we might be less inclined to treat celibacy as something seasonal which one might repeatedly step into or out of as both inclination and opportunity permits. But many Christians are nevertheless still talking at cross purposes on this matter, and most of the confusion has to do with a reasonably recent but nevertheless rapidly growing distinction between “singleness” and “celibacy”.

I’m an unmarried Christian woman who has never been sexually active and who is (by the grace of God) committed to remaining sexually abstinent for so long as I remain unmarried. I'm definitely open to the possibility of marrying in the future. Although, if I am being honest, I do not really anticipate it either. And so, while I prefer to use the word “single” to describe myself, I would also be comfortable to use "celibacy" in relation to my own situation (though I do use the word sparingly, for reasons which will become clear throughout this series).

But an increasing number of other Christians would disagree with me there. For many of my brothers and sisters, it is only those Christians who have said no to the possibility of marriage—and who are therefore committed to sexual abstinence for life—who are rightly to be described as celibate. For example, according to Focus on the Family:

Singleness is circumstantial. It happens to people for all kinds of reasons: not being able to find a mate, death of a spouse, difficult family situations, medical or financial difficulties. The list goes on and on. Celibacy, on the other hand, is a vocation. It’s a rare gift that God grants only to a few special individuals (see Matthew 19:10-12; 1 Corinthians 7:7) [1]

Similarly, a 2020 Christianity Today article argues:

There’s a big difference between waiting for marriage and accepting a call to permanently give up the prospect of dating, romance, sex, marriage, and children for the sake of the kingdom. […] Plus, the two passages where Jesus and Paul encourage Christians to consider celibacy aren’t commending temporary singleness—they’re commending committed, lifetime singleness. [2]

We’ll spend some time looking at the two passages mentioned in both of these quotes in future posts. But for now, I hope you can see the sense in which an increasingly prominent distinction is being drawn between Christian “celibacy” and Christian “singleness”. The former is typically depicted as a settled, called, committed and focused “vocation” (a word we shall also return to later in this series). The latter is typically depicted as an unsettled, uncalled, uncommitted and unfocused “situation”. By implication, the former is more legitimate, valuable and dignified, while the latter is seen as more representative of a failure to launch, a fear of commitment, an unfortunate reality or perhaps an apathy towards spiritual maturity. One social media commentator incisively summarises the difference like this:

‘I feel like “singleness” describes a circumstance, while “celibacy” describes a life trajectory and way of orienting our loves and passions’. [3]

In this series we’re going to do a deep dive on this understanding of "celibacy" (as opposed to "singleness"). We’ll explore its theological commitments, its biblical support and its pastoral implications at some length. In doing so I hope to explain to you why I am increasingly concerned about the sense in which discussions about "celibacy" are becoming prescriptive of, or even replacing Christian discussions about "singleness" more generally. But for the moment, we’re going to start with an exploration of the historical significance of the celibacy discussion.

Celibacy and the Christian Past

The increasingly popular definition of Christian celibacy—as a committed and lifelong way of orienting the unmarried life towards God, which is different to ordinary singleness—is often framed as the rediscovery of a longstanding but forgotten Christian tradition. What is on view is the rekindling of a continuous Christian conviction from the time of Jesus, through the early church, into the Middle Ages, until it was interrupted and lost during the Reformation (at which time monasteries and nunneries were dissolved and the celibate priest was replaced by the married parson). At a time when what is old is becoming new again and when nostalgia is firmly lodged within both the mind’s imagination and the heart’s longing, the idea of reawakening something which has been lost to the annals of time is both compelling and exciting.

However, there is a problem.

You see, this narrative of celibacy relies on the idea that there was an unequivocal, continuous, unambiguous tradition from the earliest days of the church... a tradition which did not simply celebrate lifelong celibacy (which it did, read on), but of lifelong singleness which was intentionally distinct from the circumstantial single life.

But, well, there isn’t.

The reality is that the social and cultural context of the early church and the contemporary church are vastly different—and this not the least when it comes to questions of marriage and (what we today call) singleness.

The degree of agency and freedom with which we approach the question of marriage today is historically unprecedented. Finding ourselves in the position to consider whether we will or will not marry, who we will or will not marry, when we will or will not marry and how long we will or will not stay married for is a remarkably recent and, it must be said, Western phenomena (and so also one which would be largely unfamiliar to the vast majority of people alive elsewhere in the world today).

As a result, any distinction between lifelong celibacy and circumstantial singleness is exceptionally recent, and certainly nothing that would have made any sense whatsoever to our earliest Christian ancestors. As Historian Peter Brown writes, for the early church:

...all discussions of sexual renunciation took place in the light of an unspoken timetable, laid down, within the household by the old for the young. [4]

That is, like their pagan peers, young Christians of that era had very little agency in their marital decisions. Marriage was not a matter of personal choice based primarily on romantic impulse and physical attraction. Rather it was a social necessity, arranged by your elders for the sake of serving your broader family’s social and economic well-being. You either did as was expected of you by marrying according to that plan or you didn’t, and so almost inevitably committed yourself to remaining an unmarried dependent upon your family for life. It was the very rare individual—and by that I mean man because in the cultural context of the time daughters had almost no agency to make their own decisions about marriage—normally from a socially elite and financially wealthy family who was even in the position to consider taking that second path.

But either way, the decision was very binary. You made the decision to marry according to the wishes, and often for the sake of your parents, or you did not marry at all. There was no in-between of “circumstantial singleness” by which to compare and contrast the lifelong celibate Christian. In fact, as Brown goes on to write:

It was therefore only on the death of a spouse that any Christian man or woman could contemplate continence [i.e., unmarried sexual celibacy] as a personal choice. [5]

In other words, it was generally only the widow and widower who had any real agency in their future marital decisions, including whether they would marry (again) or not.

And so, no. There was no early tradition by which genuine Christian celibacy was marked out as different to the circumstantially single Christian life. And if we need further evidence of this then we need look no further than the very question of what the word “celibacy” actually meant at the time of the early church.

Talking Terms (Again)

In the midst of all the early church father's copious writings about virginity and sexual continence, some of them also wrote specifically about “celibacy”. For example, around A.D. 200, Clement of Alexandria wrote that:

Both celibacy and marriage have their own different forms of service and ministry to the Lord. [6]

However (to channel the heroic Inigo Montoya yet again) that word didn't actually mean what we think it meant. We read “celibacy” in that quote and typically think of the formalised, consecrated, set-apart or institutionalised life of a figure like a monk, nun or priest (even though monasteries as we know them didn’t develop till centuries later and most church leaders at the time Clement were writing were married). But—and here is the clincher—that wasn’t their definition of the word.

The word we translate into English today as celibacy/celibate came from the Latin word caelebs, which simply meant “unmarried”. Yes. That’s right. In the early church, the word “celibate” was the functional equivalent of our word “single”. It wasn't invested with a whole lot of other theological baggage or pastoral expectations (the early church fathers tended to use words like "virginity" and "continence" when discussing all that). It simply meant that someone was not married.

And so, when Clement spoke about celibacy being a form of service to the Lord, he just meant that being unmarried was a form of service to the Lord. He wasn’t making a distinction between the truly celibate Christians who were set apart from circumstantially single Christians (because, as above, there was no such latter group). He was merely referring to the simple reality of being unmarried.

Celibacy, Now and Then

Our contemporary conception of “celibacy” as referring to a formalised, institutionalised, called or consecrated form of the unmarried life which is distinctly oriented towards God in a way that the ordinary single Christian life isn’t, well it is just that – our conception.

What is more, the historical development of what we imagine to be “celibacy” did not spring forth as an unambiguous or uncomplicated practice. Rather it developed over a period of centuries as a result of complex cultural factors concerning marriage within the Christian community, alongside important theological shifts, some of which were actually quite problematic and even considered heretical at the time. The settled picture we have of the set-apart Christian celibate at prayer in the monastery, chanting in the cloister or serving as priest at the altar is one which began to be firmly formulated around the middle of the first millennium and cemented during the Middle Ages. But even then, there was no hard and fast distinction between this group of unmarried Christians and swathes of uncommitted and circumstantially single counterparts—because, once again, there was no significant population of the latter until contemporary times.

Yes, celibacy (i.e., being unmarried) has always been a feature of the Christian community.

Yes, celibacy (i.e., being unmarried) was, historically speaking, usually lifelong in character.

Yes, the early and medieval church revered the unmarried Christian life in ways that we don’t today.

Yes, there are a bunch of important lessons to be learnt about Christian singleness in the present from our brothers and sisters of the past.

But there is no timeless and unequivocal historical model of real, genuine and authentic Christian celibacy which set itself apart from ordinary or circumstantial singleness, that is just waiting to be recaptured in the present.

Instead, there was dynamically developing (and, mind you, not always helpful or biblical) cultural expressions of the unmarried life which looked different depending on who you were, and where and when you lived.

That unmarried Christians might exercise personal agency by either committing to lifelong singleness or alternatively existing for some time in the ambiguity of waiting to see if marriage might yet be in God’s plans for them is largely unique to our time and place. This means we need to carefully, faithfully and patiently navigate the questions this new phenomena raises within the Church today. But the prima facie claim that the “celibacy” of Jesus, Paul and the Early Church Fathers was somehow more legitimate than the “circumstantial singleness” of many Christians today fails to take into account the dynamic nature of history. It arrogantly imposes our present context and questions upon the past, and assumes that those who lived in that past were dealing with the same context and questions as we are. They were not.

Of course, this is not to say that the past has no relevance to us today at all. Far from it! Church history is our history. It is an invaluable resource for us to draw upon. But we need to do so responsibly and humbly, which means navigating both continuity and discontinuity between now and then. This is especially the case when it comes to the question of celibacy, and what we actually mean by it. The contemporary notion that authentic “Christian celibacy” rightly only ever referred to those few who have committed to it for life—as distinct from those who haven’t—needs to be theologically argued for rather than asserted without historical nuance.

In this post we’ve shown that the argument from history is far more ambiguous and less reliable than many readily assume—even on something as simple as definitional terms. In our next few posts we’ll turn to the two key biblical passages which are generally used to provide theological support for this notion of authentic celibacy, as distinct from ordinary singleness.

And we're going to kick off by tackling the big one: 1 Corinthians 7:7 and the "gift of singleness". Subscribe now to be notified when it drops.


[1] "The Apostle Paul on Marriage and Singleness", Focus on the Family, [2] Pieter Valk, "The Case for Vocational Singleness"

[3] @HolyWandering, Twitter, 7 July, 2021. [4] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Twentieth - Anniversary Edition ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 148. [5] Brown, Body and Society, 149. [6] Clement of Alexandria, Miscellanies, Book III ch.12

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