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 that’s another discussion. For the moment let’s just focus on how very, very not extraordinary you (and I) are.
When celibacy became “cool”
Not so long ago, the word “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 simultaneously alluring and yet a little 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, “celibacy” increasingly conjures up images of soy lattes and farm to table cafes. It speaks readily of energetic millennials in skinny jeans (or have they been replaced by high-waisted jeans now??), whose enigmatic Twitter profiles are simultaneously perplexing – especially to those of us of an *ahem* older generation – and yet somehow compelling. 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 this coolness is 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).
Indeed, even those outside the Christian community are slowly beginning to develop a renewed appreciation for the celibate life (especially as it is 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 overhaul, 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 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.
Just as an aside: when it comes to the way we Christians use the word “vocation” today, the immortalised words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride seem particularly apt: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means”. But that’s a discussion for another day.
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 as though the celibate evangelical typically angles to be viewed in such a fashion. And yet, within a world that sees sex as central, even foundational, to human identity, we can’t help but elevate celibacy’s atypicality, its costliness, its other-worldly strangeness.
As we do so – as we uniquely colour in the picture of contemporary celibacy with golds and silvers and otherworldly tones – we inevitably emphasise the celibate person’s extraordinariness and exceptionality... and by implication, we encourage them to do the same.
Why celibacy is actually very 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 spend unmarried again). So why do we classify this, a life of godly obedience, as being something truly exceptional?
When we then 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 chooses to express their sexuality by not having sex outside of those purposes. So why do we talk about the choice to 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. So why 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. He has done what is astonishing so that we may be the people of God, living in right relationship with him and each other, eager to do what is good,
And so no, we ought not imagine the Christian celibate as modern-day hero. That honour belongs to Jesus alone.
No, we ought not imagine the Christian celibate to be making the ultimate sacrifice. That cost was paid by Jesus alone.
No, we ought not imagine the Christian celibate to be an exceptional person. That describes Jesus alone.
Living a celibate life is a lot of things (such as complicated, exciting, difficult, surprising, sorrowful, joyful, and yes, uniquely meaningful), 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, remarkably, astonishingly extraordinary saviour.
The Rev Dr Dani Treweek is founder and chairwoman of Single Minded. You can hear her speak more on this topic at Single Minded’s Esteeming Faithful Celibacy webinar on May 13. See www.singleminded.community/sex for details.