As a socially awkward and introverted teenager, I was ecstatic when I found “belonging” in a thriving high school youth group in the San Francisco Bay Area. I grew in confidence and leadership in this Biblically centered environment and received so many good gifts from God. But as with everything in life, these good gifts came in a mixed bag. Once I established a circle of supportive and fun female relationships, I discovered that it was kind of “a thing” to start a Hope Chest: a chest full of household items that would be joyfully unpacked WHEN one got married and established her own household. It was our idea of a good time to visit department stores, making decisions about our future dish patterns and household color schemes and planning purchases for our chests!
Yearly we anticipated the upcoming sex and dating teaching series in youth group. We eagerly sat on the edge of our seats as we listened to the speaker tell us that sex is awesome beyond imagination in marriage. Our interpretation of the message was this: “Get married so you can experience life’s highest good with God’s stamp of approval!” And many of us did get married young and quickly as this seemed the best strategy for “following the rules” and at the same time satisfying what seemed to us to be our deepest longings and desires.
Interestingly enough, I don’t remember ever hearing a talk on the beauty of the single and celibate life. In fact, I’m not sure 45 years later that I have ever heard a talk in a Protestant context extolling the incredible possibilities of a single and celibate life. As I think about it, I find it strange that we hungrily study Jesus’ life in detail but seem to ignore the fact that He lived a life of abundance, joy and meaning as a single celibate male. Is that really humanly possible?
Lauren Winner, in a 2011 Christianity Today article Solitary Refinement, comments, “There is very little space in today’s evangelical churches for discerning a call to singleness. Catholics- at least Catholics who believe they are called not just to celibacy but also to religious orders – have something positive to do…” Instead of casting a vision for a meaningful and satisfying life for our single friends who choose celibacy in our church community, we shove them into the corner room in a Single’s ministry and hope they find their soul mates so they can be happy like us married people!
How did the Protestant church arrive at this position? Susan Mobley from Concordia University, in an article entitled The Reformation and the Reform of Marriage concluded, “In the Reformation Protestants abolished the religious ideal of celibacy and replaced it with an elevated view of marriage.” Further light is shed on the origins of our attitudes in Jeremy Erickson’s article Protestant Opposition to Celibacy where he states, “Historically speaking, Protestant criticism of celibacy dates as far back as the Reformation itself. Several of the early Protestant Reformers such as Luther criticized the Catholic mandate that priests be celibate. While as a Protestant I agree that this requirement went beyond Scripture and was unjustified, I think the Reformers often swung too far in the opposite direction.”
It seems to me that unwittingly we’ve allowed ourselves as Christ Followers to be sucked in to the same conviction that our culture now assumes to be truth: sex is an essential element to human flourishing. Because marriage is the proper context for sex Biblically, the popular Christian perspective believes marriage to be, at some level of our consciousness a prerequisite for a satisfying and fulfilling life. As a result, our focus in our church communities tends to center on fortifying marriages that are failing because they cannot support this expectation.
If that’s not problematic enough, strangely we have also fallen in step with the belief that sex is an animal impulse that cannot realistically be denied. To encourage anyone to live a celibate life consistently with Biblical teaching is to inflict cruel and unusual punishment on our single friends who are Christ followers. Jeremy Erickson observes additional fall out from this assumption, “Lack of marriage can be viewed with suspicion, as an indication that people are likely to fall to sexual sin. Some even argue that failure to marry is a sinful shirking of adult responsibility. Underlying much of this attitude is the belief that for the vast majority of people, celibacy is either impossible or cannot be fulfilling…. Many Protestants see celibate living as a needless source of loneliness, and as the sort of thing that can be viewed as a form of punishment. On the other hand, they see marriage as the universal solution to the problems of loneliness and sexual temptation.” I think we, if we’re honest, recognize these statements as a reflection of our unexamined, unspoken and perhaps unrecognized beliefs.
This failure to realize the error in taking on the attitudes of our culture and Christianizing them, is taking us down a road that leads to confusion and destructive choices that our kids will face. The reality of the situation is explained by Katelyn Beaty in Same-Sex Marriage and the Single Christian; “marriage- and with it, sexual fulfillment and companionship and the possibility of children- is not a guarantee in this life, far less a fundamental right. Rather, it is a gift and a vocation, given to many but not all, it seems. And with all the dust in the air about prolonged adolescence and man-boys and women outpacing men in schools and the workforce, marriage is no longer the shoo-in it was for most Christian women of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation. That includes me.” Our kids will face singleness at one point in their lives or another. How will they navigate their single seasons if we don’t rethink?
This thoughtless approach urgently needs to be addressed! Our response to the challenge of re-envisioning a life of flourishing apart from sex and marriage has huge implications for our kids. We MUST answer the questions:
Is marriage the solution for loneliness and companionship?
Is marriage the antidote for lust?
Can one live a singe celibate life without being miserable?
Is there beauty in a single and celibate life? If so, what is it?
Can one encourage a friend to follow Jesus in a single celibate lifestyle and still be considered a loving compassionate person?
Is there a way to enjoy loving friendships without entering into a sexual relationship?
Do we need to make radical changes in our church communities in order to be family to our single and celibate friends?
We explore these questions in THE conversation Workshop! We’d love to have the opportunity to bring the workshop to you! Listen to our podcasts and stay tuned for more blogs to come as we consider the way forward together!