Archive for May, 2009

Celibacy

Posted: May 19, 2009 in Uncategorized

Celibacy is such an old fashioned word. It brings to mind medieval monks and nuns and young Catholic boys anxiously wondering if they have a “vocation” or not.

But I think the concept is very relevant for contemporary Evangelicals. The reason is the unprecedented raise in the age of marriage in our society (see census data here). This is forcing Christian young people who are sexually mature into a quandary – either embrace celibacy or violate the sexual ethics of their faith.

For a few there is a third option of early marriage but as Christian Smith points out (in his excellent book Soul Searching) there is little support in our society for those who marry in their teens or early twenties. Much of this is due to the fact that we expect married couples to be financially independent but to get to that place requires increasing amounts of schooling and work experience and people are often in their late twenties or thirties before they can reasonably expect some measure of financial stability. Some social scientist refer to this time period as “emerging adulthood.” There are other factors as well that prevent emerging adults from marring including a lack of maturity that comes from being sheltered from the world. And sometimes well intentioned parental pressure to delay marriage. But of course humans continue to become sexually mature at the same age (or younger ages).

Our society has responded to this phenomena with the “hook-up” culture of casual sex celebrated in the media. But for a Christian pre-marital sexual experimentation often leaves them alienated from their faith. I think it is not an accident that this same emerging adulthood phase is a time when many leave the church.

I don’t pretend to have all (or any of the) answers to this. I do think acknowledging the situation and talking about celibacy as a spiritually valid, even preferred state is a start. But it should be emphasized (less the church does even more damage) that it is not preferred b/c it is easy or fun. For most it is not. But that like the suffering Paul discusses in Romans 5 it leads to character and ultimately to placing our hope in God alone and this is a very valuable thing. There also needs to be some way for those who fall to find forgiveness and restoration without diminishing the gravity of sin. I think we also need to think seriously about encouraging young people to marry and finding ways to support them so that they can still pursue the schooling and training necessary for obtaining good jobs.

I think it is strange that although the Medieval church celebrated celibacy and the blessed Virgin that option was only taken by a few – most people married young. Today the church celebrates marriage and celibacy is framed negatively as a time of waiting (true love waits!) but many more people find themselves faced with a prolonged period of celibacy.

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The church I attend is located in a neighborhood with a large Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgendered community. A member of our church has started a ministry, the Marin Foundation, to help Evangelicals connect with the GLBT community. Last night a group of leaders from our church met at our pastor’s home to begin discussing Andy Marin’s new book.

At the heart of our conversation was what can our church do to bring the gospel into this setting. Here are some of my thoughts:

1. We need to be a church that teaches and practices repentance. If we say that homosexuality is one of many sins then we need to make sure our practice makes that clear. If sexual sin is the only sin we talk about members of the community might justly feel we are out to get them. On the other hand if we are to find common ground with the GLBT community it is as sinners in desperate need of a savior. I think a great place to start is to repent over our contribution to the economic crisis or our society’s practice of torture. Demonstrating that we take (all) sin seriously is a vital first step.

2. I think we need to teaching Biblical sexuality that goes beyond the dos and don’ts but explains the context of those rules. Why were we created as sexual being? Why were we created with gender? What does it mean to be a man or woman? A great place to start is looking at the marriage/adultery metaphors that are consistently used in the OT and NT to explain God’s relationship to his chosen people (see this book for a helpful discussion of that). We need to understand that sexuality is very important and sexual sins are especially significant. Further, I think we all need to be reminded that the main point of sex is not simply pleasure but that it has a higher purpose and we are not free to do whatever we want with it.

It may seem uncomfortable to talk about this in the presence of GLBT people but I think it makes it more crucial that as believers we are well informed of what we believe and that the non-believers in our community hear a fully developed case for what we believe and why not just slogans and proof texts. We do them no favors by ignoring the issue – esp. as they are likely aware of the prohibitions but less aware of the context.

3. We (desperately) need to talk about and celebrate celibacy. Our cultures (unfortunate!) practice of delaying marriage and forcing celibacy (or apostasy) on many more young people than the church ever did in the past makes this a very important topic for people in their 20s and 30s though that is probably a different post.

In Marin’s book he at times contrast the celibacy expected of Christians with same sex attraction with the “traditional” Christian expectation of marriage and family. But of course celibacy is traditionally the preferred Christian expression of sexuality – it was the practice of Christ and clearly taught as preferred practice by Paul. This is challenging teaching and forces us to consider what it means to deny ourselves, to store treasures in heaven and not on earth, and to be living sacrifices. But I think we have a lot to gain (including greater fidelity to scripture) to find ways of celebrating celibacy as a lifestyle for all types of people and not treating the unmarried as inferior. As my wife says there are a lot of single heterosexual people, some of whom may deeply desire marriage but have not been given a Christian spouse, also around us who would benefit by greater recognition of the value of their station in life.

4. Finally, I think if our Church is going to start to connect with the GLBT community in our neighborhood we need to champion justice for the marginalized. In my experience many GLBT members are very sensitive to the plight of marginalized people in the community, probably due to their own feelings of being on the margins of society. I think they are likely to be deeply suspicious of a ministry designed to attract GLBT people to church (as Andy says they don’t want to be our project) but if we continue forward with initiatives like our community care clinic or helping make our community more sustainable and invite help from our community with these projects I think we will demonstrate the gospel to members of the GLBT community who may be unwilling or unable to hear it.

There is a lot more that could be said about our discussion and the book we are discussing. It is a hard book to recommend b/c although at times it is helpful but in other places I think it reflects and reinforces precisely what is wrong with Evangelical faith and practice in our country. Specifically being selective and sloppy in using scripture and treating religion as primarily therapeutic and more about us than about God.