By George Clifford
Elaine Pagels in her book, Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, insightfully observed that people who study Christianity’s origins are usually searching for the “real Christianity.” Instead, she noted, these searchers discover multiple early Christianities. Then unable to identify the one “real Christianity,” an individual must chart her or his own spiritual path.
Sexuality is integral to human identity and therefore an inescapable element of spirituality. Many of the debates about whether celibacy or marriage is the preferred Christian option illustrate Pagels’ observation, both sides claiming their arguments rest upon Scripture interpreted through the lens of primitive Christian practices. Based on such flawed analyses, Christians have too often accepted celibacy as normative sexual behavior for Christians as illustrated by some of the comments on my Thoughts on Marriage: Part I and Part II posted here in January. According to this view, only people unable to remain celibate should marry.
Human sexuality has acquired sufficient importance for contemporary ecclesial and moral controversies that reexamining the issues pertinent to the celibacy versus marriage debate may yield some clarity by highlighting differences and agreements. To keep this essay to a reasonable length, I intentionally ignore other questions about sexuality and sexual behavior that Christianity faces. These unaddressed questions include: identifying a heuristic for determining which sexual behaviors are appropriate within and without monogamous bonds; articulating the theological purpose(s) of sexual behavior; and assessing the import, if any, of in vitro fertilization and other non-traditional reproduction methods on sexual intimacy and moral standards.
Humans are inherently sexual beings, both from a biological and a biblical perspective. Humans, like most other animals, have a sexualized reproductive drive. The urge to reproduce, evolutionary biologists contend, drives all other behavior in a living organism. Freud correctly saw sex permeating every nook and cranny of human existence. From a biological perspective, intercourse, not celibacy, characterizes life. Concomitantly, humans’ long gestation and extended childhood help to explain the human tendency toward monogamy.
The strength of the human sexual drive is a constant theme in scripture, often negative but occasionally positive. David famously lusts after Bathsheba, for example. Conversely, the positive approach to sexuality generally receives less attention but is rooted in the creation myth in which God concludes that man being alone is not good and thus creates woman as man’s companion. The Song of Solomon celebrates physical love between a man and a woman, perhaps using that relationship as a metaphor to describe God's love for humans.
The totality of the scriptural witness is similarly conflicted about whether celibacy or marriage is the preferred option for Christians. A brief and incomplete look at sex in the New Testament can clarify the conflict. First, one can read the gospel record of Jesus either way. On the one hand, Jesus graces a wedding with his presence and first miracle, deprecates divorce (or bans it, depending upon one’s interpretation), and affirms the goodness of the body through his enjoyment of food and drink as well as his healing ministry. On the other hand, Jesus teaches that in the resurrection humans do not marry, implying that perhaps sexuality may end with death or find a new form of expression in the resurrection. Jesus also exhorts his disciples to value loyalty to God's kingdom more than family, from which some Christians infer that celibacy is better than marriage (Luke 20:34-36). Gregory of Nyssa echoed this theme, writing that a Christian should abandon marriage for God's kingdom.
Incidentally, Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene has intrigued generations of artists and authors, most recently receiving tremendous attention thanks to Dan Brown’s blockbuster, The Da Vinci Code. Was the relationship sexual or platonic? Before answering that question, remember that sexuality touches many aspects of human existence and behavior, a concept far broader than Bill Clinton’s facile, self-serving, and narrow definition of sex as intercourse. Did the fully human Jesus experience electrifying moments of attraction and pleasure in Mary’s presence? Did Mary find herself strangely warmed by Jesus? If so, how far toward intercourse did their relationship progress?
Second, reading I Corinthians and I Timothy in support of a preferential option for celibacy seems as misguided as interpreting the New Testament in support of an exclusively male priesthood. The mixed advice offered women differs from the advice given to men: 1 Timothy 5:14 advises that young widows are to remarry, 1 Corinthians 7:9 limits that to widows aflame with passion, and neither letter says anything about widowers remarrying. These conflicting, misogynistic passages lack the clarity of Paul’s declaration that in Christ there is neither male nor female, on which we base arguments for equal treatment of men and women.
The underlying assumption of these passages is that the flesh exists in tension with the spirit, a theme some exegetes contend runs throughout Paul’s writings. That theme contradicts modern biology’s understanding of humans as physical beings, the ancient Hebrew belief that humans are physical beings, and the Anglican emphasis on incarnation that underscores the fundamental unity of a human. Dichotomizing spirit and flesh may function as a useful metaphor but not as an accurate description of a human being. A human is his or her body; the body is the human.
Third, in 1 Corinthians 7:28 Paul advises people not to marry because he would spare them the suffering he associated with marriage. That view has also led many Christians to perceive celibacy as the preferred option. However, not all married persons experience substantial suffering in their marriage. Many find the companionship of married life far more valuable and enduring than any transitory suffering associated with their marriage (cf. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
Fourth, 1 Corinthians 7:7 implies that celibacy is a gift from God. Being male is a gift from God. Being female is a gift from God. Being straight is a gift from God. Being gay is a gift from God. None of those gifts is superior to any of the others – they are all simply gifts from God. So it is with celibacy, a gift from God. Many find the complexities of relationships that Paul wishes for us to avoid the most rewarding aspect of life.
Paul’s apparent antagonism to close relationships, whether the relationship is sexual or platonic and regardless of the gender orientations involved, seems more indicative of Paul’s personal issues than revelatory of the God who is love, the God whose love our relationships model and reveal. For example, Bishop Spong in Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism suggested that the Apostle Paul’s mysterious thorn in the flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7) was Paul knowing he was gay. If so, then we must interpret Paul’s views about sexuality against the backdrop of his internal conflict between his gender orientation and the Christianity of his day. Thankfully, Christians have begun to discover that sexual orientation is God's gift, whether one is gay or straight, a gift that the Church should celebrate rather than deny or punish. Many persons receive gifts of both monogamy and celibacy, each in different seasons of his or her life.
The historic priority Christians have given to celibacy over marriage has partially contributed to sad distortions of the goodness of sex and life. For many years, the Roman Catholic Church taught that sex was evil, even with one’s spouse; the only moral excuse for intercourse was procreation. The Church viewed physical desire for or enjoyment of one’s spouse as sinful lust. The Christian rejection of sex is a component of a broader Christian rejection of the present world in favor of heaven, something for which Marx rightly criticized Christianity. Today, some Christians ironically (hypocritically?) level the same criticism at Islamicist suicide bombers who prefer paradise to earthly existence.
Theological and ecclesial conversations about sex and sexuality would do well to stop presuming that celibacy is the preferential Christian option and instead view both celibacy and monogamous relationships as equal good gifts from the one God, who created us as sexual beings and said, “That is good.”
The Rev. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.