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The Gift of Celibacy – Its Meaning Today

If you mention the word “celibacy” on your local street corner today, you will probably not get a favorable response. It will more than likely spark a conversation about recent tabloid news involving sex scandals, homosexuality, or other negative publicity. Or, it may conjure up images of monasteries, cobblestone streets, and oil filled lamps. And if you mention the word “virginity” in today’s sex-crazed society, you can multiply that negative image ten-fold. Why? Because our society has an eroded sense of biblical sexual values as evidenced by the high rates of illicit sex, abortion, and divorce.

However, there are those who have heard and responded to the call of lifetime virginity. They do not all reside in monasteries or conform to one particular church or denomination. In fact, this unique gift (as all others) transcends all genders, ages, cultures, races and economic backgrounds. The celibate gift captures a person’s heart in such a manner that the idea of permanence is embraced wholeheartedly, just as in a Christian marriage. It is radical because it is in direct opposition to world standards, stands in stark contrast to our material and entertainment oriented society, and renounces self-gratification for a different calling. It is a purposefully chosen counter-cultural way of life.

An understanding of marriage is necessary in order to understand the celibate gift. In Apostle Paul’s writings, it is clear that a sexual union is what initiates a marriage—not a marriage license or marriage ceremony (“for it is better to marry than to burn with passion,” 1 Cor. 7:9). Obviously, a flame can be quenched with one drop of water, thereby creating a marital bond in God’s eyes. So it is clear from God’s Word that a past sexual history is not compatible with the celibate gift. In 1 Cor. 6:16, Paul states that: “Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who unites himself with the Lord is one with him in spirit.” So, in Biblical times, an unmarried person was a virgin, and this applied to both men and women (even though I will use the term “she” from here forward). There was no recognized state between virginity and marriage. It is reassuring that God’s words are eternal and do not change with the times.

The language used to describe the celibate gift presents a unique problem in today’s society. The term “celibate” is often used today to refer to someone who is abstaining from sex for a period of time or has recommitted to abstinence, and does not capture the essence of virginity. “Permanent virgin” is an accurate description, but generally leaves men out who have this calling, since society’s current use of language associates virginity with women. “Eunuchs for the kingdom” gets right to the heart of it, affirms the permanency of the calling, and is biblical—but it would probably have most people running for their dictionaries. So, I am using the terms “celibacy” and “virginity” to mean one and the same—having never engaged in sexual activity.

Characteristics of the Gift

The spiritual gift of virginity/celibacy is a freely chosen positive response to God to live your life without marriage and without sexual activity, devoted to the Lord in body and spirit. As Apostle Paul describes it in 1 Cor. 7:34: “An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband.” And, in I Cor. 7:7 Paul states: “I wish that all men were as I am. But each man has his own gift, another has that.” Paul is making it clear that he has this gift and affirms its validity.

A phrase in verse 34 is often overlooked. Paul did not say that the virgin would be “more inclined” to be concerned about the Lord’s affairs, he said she “is concerned”—a statement of fact. A person who has heard God’s call to virginity and has accepted that call knows of no other way to respond, just as a person who is in romantic relationship knows of no other way to respond except “yes” to marriage. Likewise, Paul did not say that a married woman is “more inclined” to be concerned about the affairs of this world. She is concerned. Concern about how to please her husband and provide for her family takes priority over everything else. Even though she can have a Christian marriage and family, she cannot be wholeheartedly concerned about the Lord’s affairs. Note also that Paul never used the phrase “more time” to explain the virgin’s devotion to the Lord, and never attributed free time on her hands to her concern for the Lord’s affairs.

Misconceptions

Some may think that the gift of celibacy is an ability to live alone in the world, or that it is just an ability to repress sexual drive, living a life of loneliness and misery. There are challenges that every celibate will face, just as in marriage. But the person with the celibate gift does not condemn Christian marriage, is not afraid of physical intimacy, is not antisocial, is not irresponsible, is not immature, is not naïve, and is not a “loner.” These are all stereotypes. The celibate lives a life of completeness and fulfillment that is just as real as the life of a married person. The sexual aspect of the gift becomes less and less of an issue as time passes. The celibate gift eventually becomes all encompassing, influencing every fiber of a person’s being, every emotional molecule.

There are some people who may try to rationalize the existence of the celibate based on world standards. This is not possible. The celibate gift is not a reward, not a punishment, not something that is earned, and is not something that can be learned. Those who have received the gift will probably have difficulty explaining their choice, just as most women would have difficulty explaining why they chose their particular husband.

Celibacy—Past, Present, and Future

The gift of celibacy points towards a new frontier, towards eternal life, towards the future when no man or woman will be given in marriage. As Mark 12:25 states: “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.” The mere existence of the celibate is a permanent reminder of things to come. Even though the celibate gift points towards a new frontier, it has been around since the beginning of time. Matthew 19:12 tells us that: “For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.” “Born that way” refers to those born with genetic anomalies who have absent or malformed sexual organs (or mental anomalies). “Made that way by men” refers to surgically created eunuchs, having historically served as guards for royal women and their jewels and as caretakers for ruling families. “Renounced marriage for the kingdom of heaven” refers directly to the gift of celibacy, someone who has freely chosen to forego sexual activity during their lifetime.

The fact that eunuchs were identified and were held in esteem as uniquely qualified for certain tasks is in direct contrast to our present society—a society where everybody has been there and done that and where inexperience is viewed as a liability. Our society places a high value on experience of all types. Inexperience is seen as a void, a negative trait. The celibate views sexual inexperience as complete fullness, as an integral part of the total gift. When a person first senses the calling to celibacy, I think there is a natural feeling of void—a holocaust of a person’s soul, so to speak. And, yes, I think there is a natural temporary feeling of pain and sorrow, that something has been lost. This is often made worse by holding on to cultural expectations, such as marriage and children. But what is received in turn is an inner strength and sense of purpose in this world. There is a profound sense of contentment and security, security in knowing that you are where God wants you to be, and security in knowing that there will be no regrets, no broken hearts.

The delivery of the gift, though, may not overwhelm your neighbors. There is no public ceremony to mark the occasion, except for certain orders in the Catholic church. There are no wedding showers to plan, no church to decorate, and no cake to bake. All of these are affairs of the married person, affairs of the world that are fading away. The celibate replaces all of these social traditions with higher expectations and delights in making arrangements for eternity’s sake. For most people, the celibate gift it is not an instant awareness, but rather a process. It involves spending time alone, opening up your heart, praying, and becoming acutely aware of God’s intentions for your life. And, just like in marriage, the bond grows stronger over time.

There have been other cultures in history with a rich celibate heritage where the institution of celibacy was held in equal value with the institution of marriage. In today’s culture, the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme to where family concerns have been elevated to the point of representing the pinnacle of Christian values.

Unfortunately, a middle ground that recognizes both set of values does not exist. Churches today are reinforcing this phenomenon. Even if a church identifies its congregation as being open to all, there are usually still strong underpinnings of the earth-bound nuclear family that do not recognize the existence of a state of being between “youth group” and “young couples class.” Most churches today also have “singles groups” which popularly refer to those who are in a holding state until marriage. I view all of this as a challenge for celibacy today.

In today’s society, the term “family” is being used synonymously with the term “Christian.” This is in direct contradiction to what the Bible plainly teaches. In Luke 18:29, Jesus states that: “No one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the Kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.” Churches today avoid the subject of celibacy and ride the bandwagon of family values with little regard for the celibate. I have never heard of a seminar, lecture, or retreat on the topic of Christian celibacy offered by any local church. And I’m certainly not aware of any “focus on the celibate” outreach. Realistically, though, I think this gift does affect only a few people, a minority so small that every church would not have the numbers to create special programs. I do think this could be done on a regional basis.

Acceptance

Acceptance was also an issue for celibates in the Bible. There is an account in the Bible of a brother and sister having difficulty in accepting their sister’s call to the affairs of the Lord. Luke 10: 38-42 tells the story of Jesus’ visit to the home of Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary. They lived in Bethany and this was apparently a convenient stop-over for Jesus and His disciples to get a bite to eat. Martha was in the kitchen preparing the eats, while Mary was at Jesus’ feet listening to His every word. Martha complained and said to Jesus: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

Martha represents marriage and family values which are temporary and include duty, competition, conformity, compartmentalization, self-fulfillment, pleasing her spouse, providing for her children, earth-bound communication, and other affairs of this world. They are legitimate Christian values. Jesus’ reply was: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Mary represents the celibate gift and its values which are eternal and include the unlimited affairs of the Lord. Her heart is tuned in to His desires, not the desires of a spouse or children. I believe when Jesus said that Mary had chosen what is better, He meant that she had chosen a superior way of life, but not that she was a superior person as valued by Christ. A married person’s heart is divided, a celibate person’s heart is totally devoted to Christ. Mary was there at His feet ready to jump at a second’s notice if He needed anything, no matter how trivial it may have seemed to the onlookers.

But how could Mary’s choice be taken away from her? Could it have been by jealousy on the part of those who did not share the gift, lack of understanding, a society whose value system revolved around family life and children, parents who were anxious to see their faces in grandchildren, a society that condoned sexual sin and perversion, a society that did not make a distinction between family values and celibate values? These forces are just as strong today. Martha complained while Jesus Himself was present in the room with all of His disciples. This should be a major reassurance for celibates today. Even though Jesus is not physically present today when we face those who do not understand, He is still just as alive and near as He was to Mary. When faced with distractors, the celibate can still hear Him say “you have chosen what is better.”

How to Know if One Has this Gift

1 Cor. 12:4 tells us that: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same spirit.” And 1 Cor. 12:11 states that: “All these are the work of one and the same spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.” The allocation of different gifts is a divine mystery. But I think there are some common factors that leads a person to the call and acceptance of this mysterious gift. A noncomforming disposition is one factor. Mary of Bethany was certainly noncomforming. I really don’t think Martha’s complaint came as a surprise to Mary. If Mary had been the conforming type, she would have already been back helping make the preparations during Jesus’ visit. She was ambivalent to what others may think. They may have all thought she was lazy and wasting time, but it did not bother her. She was also quick to put herself below the level of others—she was sitting at Jesus’ feet, not looking at His face across a boardroom table.

The celibate person also does not feel comfortable following the masses, generally dismisses cultural norms and expectations, and follows her heart at all cost. Nothing in this world seems to be totally satisfying and she is constantly glancing off to the horizon, meditating on things to come. She has a strong sense of discernment and can see the superficiality in superficial things. She also has a strong sense of identification, an identification that is not derived from a spouse, parents, job, and children. She does not require a husband for her sense of femininity. She also has an unusual capacity to love her neighbor, is more sensitive to other peoples’ needs, can communicate in a way that shows Jesus’ love, and responds with patience and kindness when the world does not understand. With this comes a very strong focusing ability, continual prayer, and awareness of God’s presence. An ability to rechannel energy is also important—a willingness to delve into projects wholeheartedly. I believe an appreciation of creation and beauty is also a common factor. Some of the greatest works of art have been created by celibates throughout history and are on display in monasteries around the world.

How could celibacy be presented as an acceptable option for young people today who are not yet married? Well, I’m not looking for a sign that reads “permanent virgins” or “eunuchs for the kingdom” to pop up on one of the doors in my local church. But I think churches could offer seminars or introductory classes on the gift of celibacy, especially to help those who are in the process of discerning. And, preferably, they should be hosted by people who are living the lifestyle and can represent the celibate gift as a a positive response to God.

Parents should be understanding if their children do not quite “fit in” with the crowd and are not married by a socially accepted age limit. They need to reassure their children that marriage is not for everyone, that there have been many others who have lived long and healthy lives without a sexual relationship, and that the celibate gift is just as vibrant today as it was a thousand years ago.

Summary

So, this unique gift has always existed, is not confined to monasteries, needs a lot more encouragement from Christian communities, is just as Biblically legitimate as Christian marriage, and is taken that seriously by the people who have accepted it. Churches today need to be more aware of their compartmentalization and the negative effect this can have on the discernment of this unique calling. The celibate takes comfort in knowing that social norms on this earth are fading and that her eternal mission cannot be diluted by labels. She does not need to proclaim her calling from a mountain top. Her eternal love knows her heart and that is sufficient.


John is a graduate of the University of Montevallo where he earned a Bachelor's degree in Business Management. He currently volunteers his time as a photographer for various nonprofit organizations including the National Audubon Society, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Geographic. He's working on a play and several musical compositions. Last year he founded Alabama's INSITE support group for bipolar disorder and depression. He also volunteers his time as a mentor in the local school system. His favorite composer is Franz Joseph Haydn, his favorite artist is Vincent Van Gogh, and his favorite author is Fr. Thomas Dubay. John is a lifetime celibate and lives in the Birmingham, AL area. 
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