In all the talk about alternative life-styles, both the secular and religious communities have overlooked one alternative. It is one of two and a half choices offered to the non-Christian and one of two choices offered to the Christian. Yet it is rarely presented as a serious alternative or taken as such. What I am talking about is Celibacy, remaining single.
Society has made the terms “marriage” and “erotic love” synonymous with “happiness.” Books, magazines, television, movies, commercials, and songs all proclaim the message: “You’re nobody till somebody loves you.” No one ever asks, “Will you marry?” It is assumed that everyone will marry unless some sort of unfortunate circumstances dictate otherwise. We will all marry unless forced to remain single. “Celibacy”—even the word itself seems strange, abnormal. It sounds medieval and regressive, certainly not contemporary and fun.
The non-Christian community has chosen to broaden its alternative in this area by offering what I consider to be only half a choice: erotic love without commitment, or what is known as “living together.” It’s not much of an alternative. There is no duty to be loving, or understanding, or kind, or more concerned with giving than getting. If a partner has lost his desirability, he is to be discarded; in the machine age, trade-ins can be a part of every area of life.
Failure to present celibacy as a real alternative has had some undesirable consequences. First, for the most part those who do not marry consider themselves failures. Those around them also consider them failures. The unmarried wear the brand of rejection. Many “adjust”; those who don’t limp through life as a living warning to others of the serious consequences of not marrying. And so celibacy itself is stigmatized by crippled lives, when the real offender is the pressure-packed environment that over-emphasizes marriage and erotic love.
Two major myths support the anti-celibacy pattern and make it potent—the Myth of Fulfillment and the Myth of Normality. The Myth of Fulfillment is communicated most extensively by the mass media. Whether written, spoken, or sung, the message is repeated again and again: “You will never be really happy or fulfilled until you have found the right person to love.” The Myth of Normality is communicated most extensively by individuals—the people you meet every day. It is communicated in their eyes, in their words, in their tone of voice: “Normal, well-adjusted people get married.” The prospects of failing to find Fulfillment and failing to be Normal play a large part in making celibacy so dreaded.
The obsession to attract, to date, to woo and win strikes even the grade-schooler. By the teen-age years, the obsession is well established. And of course, people with an obsession are an easy target for salesmen: just pander to that obsession and there is almost always a sale. What is spent is not only money; it is also time and energy and vision. For in all this emphasis on finding and attracting “the right one,” adolescents are learning that it is not how kind or courageous or truthful they are that matters; what counts is how attractive they are to potential marriage partners. Unfortunately, there is the further tendency for them to think that relationships with friends, relatives, other Christians, even with God, are not important. How pitifully few of the influences upon us in our world encourage the view that how attractive one is in God’s sight matters much more than how attractive one is to the opposite sex.
Not all adolescents adopt the value system pushed at them. But those who do not are swimming against a strong current. Only the hardy succeed.
The obsession with erotic love pushes into marriage people who are not ready or able to assume its responsibilities and privileges. They may lack the discipline required to put someone else’s welfare above their own. They may lack the financial resources to sustain married life. They may be too involved in getting training or an education or in earning a living to give the marriage the time and attention it needs to become a stable, growing relationship. They may decide to give up the opportunity to develop their talents and interests, for the sake of the marriage, and then place the blame for the resulting guilt and discontent on the marriage itself. Many marriages fail because of these strains. Others endure but bear permanent scars.
Marriage has much goodness and richness to give, but not the kind people are led to expect from it. Many do not understand that to find fulfillment and meaning in marriage they must bring them to the marriage. They do not understand because they have come to believe that marriage and erotic love are what they were made for, and that when they find what they were made for, they will find happiness.
When marriage does not give people the fulfillment and meaning they expect, many think they have made a mistake and have not chosen the “right” person. They have been led to believe that some kind of chemistry is the key to a happy marriage and the fulfillment of their desires. Therefore they do not direct their attention and energy to the hard work and sacrifice necessary if the marriage is to provide the goodness and fullness it is capable of giving. Instead, they either bemoan their unhappy fate and become disillusioned with marriage, or look for someone else—someone who will create the right chemistry. Experience constantly refutes that hope, but some people never listen to experience; they have learned to rely on slogans. The few voices of warning are only a whisper in the surrounding roar.
All these false expectations lead to lost potential. People waste time and energy trying to live up to a false value system, or trying to adjust to the belief that they are not normal and cannot find fulfillment. They waste time and energy they need to become the sort of people they ought to be (kind, courageous, honest, loving)—the sort of people who can find meaning and fulfillment in life. The individual himself suffers from this loss of potential; those he lives with and works with suffer from the loss of potential; society as a whole suffers from the loss of potential; and if he is a Christian, Christendom suffers from the loss of potential.
So far my emphasis has been on the problems, misery, and loss of potential caused by the failure to consider celibacy as a serious alternative. But the point is not of much value unless celibacy itself has something positive and rich and fulfilling to offer. That is where First Corinthians 7 comes in. In that passage, the Apostle Paul presents a compelling argument for celibacy.
Paul considers celibacy not only as good but as better than marriage (vs. 8, 37, 38, 40). He tells why in verses 32 through 35. Celibacy will help Christians live the sort of life they ought to live, he says—one of undistracted devotion to God. It is for their own benefit that he encourages celibacy.
Celibacy should not be confused with monasticism, with which it has often been associated. Celibacy in no way implies withdrawal from people or a life of seclusion. In fact, one of the positive attractions of celibacy is that because the single person has fewer continuing responsibilities, he is freer to give to those around him who need his love and help. Instead of a life of limited contacts, celibacy can offer a life of increased involvement with people who need time, attention, and love—people in emotional or physical distress or people who suffer from partial social ostracism such as the handicapped, the elderly, and the mentally retarded. I do not believe that First Corinthians 7 is a call to seclusion. Rather, it seems to be a call to intensified involvement (and in Paul’s case, that meant increased involvement with people as well as with the Lord).
Paul indicates that celibacy does require a certain amount of self-control (vs. 1–9, 36, 37), but the modern environment amplifies that difficulty. Some of our problems with the concept of celibacy are our own fault, for we tend to receive, accept, and repeat “love and marriage” propaganda without considering the other side.
Paul says that the celibate life is desirable because it promotes undistracted devotion to God, bypassing the natural tendency toward a division of interests inherent in marriage. A person has to think about conforming to certain earthly standards if another person is directly dependent upon him (vs. 33 and 34). This puts a limitation on freedom of action, thought, and purpose. So although marriage tends to eliminate some temptations (vs. 1–9), it creates other temptations and distractions.
Notice, however, that Paul is careful to say that celibacy is not for everyone. Although he considers it the better state (v. 38) and believes people would probably be happier in it (v. 40), he realizes that personal needs (vs. 1–9) or needs of others (vs. 36–38) may necessitate marriage. But it is clear that marriage, as such, ought not to be a goal for the Christian. Marriage is proper and good, but it is not a goal.
It is not a goal because the Christian has another goal on which his attention is to be entirely focused. Reaching that other goal is the only pathway to fulfillment, meaning, and normality (being what one was meant to be). That goal Paul mentions in another letter: “The prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” The richness and fulfillment that celibacy offers can be found only in that context. Just as marriage is not to be a Christian’s goal, neither is celibacy; either can be a help or a hindrance to achieving the real goal. But celibacy is a real alternative, and it is time that it was again presented as such.
Find hope and historical insight. For a limited time, explore 60+ years of CT archives for free!
- Daily devotions from Timothy Dalrymple during this pandemic.
- Hundreds of theology and spiritual formation classics from Philip Yancey, Elisabeth Elliot, John Stott, and more.
- Thought journalism that inspires you to think more deeply about your faith.
- View the complete archive.
- Join now and get print issues access to archive PDFs.