By Derek Olsen
What does a Christian theology of sexuality look like if we begin—as did St Paul and arguably Jesus as well—with an ideal of celibacy? The first major change from our common cultural way of understanding sexuality is that if celibacy is the ideal, than an argument must be made for any and all kinds of sexual relationships. They cannot simply be assumed.
At the heart of the Christian understanding of celibacy is the notion of chastity. Like the rest of the virtues, chastity is not just about what we do with one part of ourselves (certain physical bits in this case). Rather the virtues are whole-body habits that integrate our bodies, minds, wills, and spirits. Chastity is about fidelity, faithfulness, and about our inward dispositions and orientations as well as what we do with our bodies. Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter in his challenging words in the Sermon on the Mount: “But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt 5:28). The virtue is a holy habit that we must continually nurture and grow into—few if any of us are ever born having it, even those who dedicate themselves to celibacy. Jesus certainly sets the bar high but in doing so gives us a goal towards which we strive, and reminds us of the need for the inner disposition.
Where should our fidelity be directed? Scripture roots it in God. God is our source and the great Bridegroom of the Church. The metaphor of Israel as the bride of God is found numerous places within the Old Testament. Idolatry and adultery were frequently conflated—and with good reason. Scholars have long debated the presence of and evidence for cultic prostitution in the religion of Israel’s neighbors and—as far as I know—the jury remains out; what is clear from the biblical texts themselves, though, is a long prophetic tradition of portraying participation in the worship of other gods as the personified Israel forsaking her true husband and running after other men.
The New Testament picks up this concept and shifts it based on its new experiences of God in Christ. Christ is the Bridegroom, and the Church is the chaste Bride whose attentions should be directed towards her husband. Throughout the Synoptic Gospels there are a number of references to weddings and bridegrooms and they persistently point to Jesus to the degree that Matthew scholar Ulrich Luz speaks of a bride-mysticism. John’s gospel takes this a step further, locating Jesus’ first miracle at a wedding asserting, in my view, that the ministry and work of Jesus is to be understood as the continuous feast that is the marriage banquet of the Lamb—a point portrayed more explicitly at the end of the Johannine Book of Revelation.
Coming from a solely Scriptural perspective, then, Christian chastity and Christian fidelity are preeminently focused on God. In Matthew’s call to become a eunuch for the kingdom of God, in Paul’s call in 1 Cor 7 to the unmarried to remain that way, in his functional description of “real widows” in 1 Tim 5, the emphasis is placed on a forsaking of human sexual relations so that the dedicated Christian’s energies may be focused, not on pleasing and catering to the needs of other humans, but may remain focused solely upon God:
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord. (1 Cor 7:32-35)
Thus, the practice of Christian celibacy is directed by the logic of intimacy and fidelity to God. It is not driven by a denigration of the physical or a suppression of the flesh to exalt the spirit, but is rooted in a freedom to seek after God and the things of God. The Christian soul is the bride that cleaves to Christ and seeks to please him only, faithfully. In some sense, sexual purity is not even the central point as much as the attention and focus given to God rather than to a family.
Just as Scripture presents this bride-mysticism as a model of relating to God, it also recognizes the complications, especially those connected to sexual purity. Both Matthew and Paul are clear that the celibate call is not for all and cannot be for all. While Matthew does not delve into the logic of it, Paul does:
But because of cases of sexual immorality (porneias), each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (1 Cor 7:2)
But if they are not practicing self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion. (1 Cor 7:9)
If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancee (lit.: virgin), if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry. (1 Cor 7:36)
Sexual immorality (porneia) is a problem for Paul and frequently appears on his vice lists. The primary meaning of this word for Paul—drawing on its use in the Greek translation of the Old Testament—seems to be infidelity. His advice, then, is that if our complete focus cannot be for God alone, then it should be directed singly to one other person. Marriage becomes an acceptable diversion of attention in order that vice should be suppressed—particularly porneia but by its nature sin breeds sin (lying and exploitation being not uncommon attending vices).
But contrary to marriage remaining simply a lesser option for the weak, Paul finds further spiritual value in it. Ephesians 5:21-33 must be read as a whole; its thesis is verse 21 (Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.) and the rest of the passage describes what this looks like in the context of Christian marriage. The focus is on mutuality and a growth in Christian love and virtue. Paul would prefer that all who are able remain single as he is, able to focus their full attentions on Christ. But if, for the restraint of sin and immorality that is not possible, marriage itself can become a vehicle for spiritual growth where the partners find in one another icons of Christ and the Church leading to Paul’s great summation: “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:32). Note the focus. It is not on production or procreation—reasons often advanced as the purpose of Christian marriage—rather it is the relationship itself and the formative properties of love, care, and respect nurtured by mutuality and self-giving.
[I do realize that these verses have been used in the past to assert male dominance over women but I believe this is a twisting of both the passage’s meaning and Paul’s intent. I believe that Paul was intending to portray mutuality as completely as he could (and in terms far exceeding those of his culture) and that his language of love and care makes this evident.]
To summarize, then, Christian souls should be focused on God with as much of their attention as they can give. If the exercise of natural sexual urges interferes with this, then monogamous relationships should be formed. When these relationships function as they should, then they can become icons of the love, care, and mutuality that exist between Christ and the Church. They too can be a path for formation into the mind of Christ and growth in grace.
But now we leave the realm of the exegetical and the intellectual and enter the practical, considering in light of these exegetical conclusions what Christian practice ought to be.
Incarnationally, Christian sexuality is a very messy thing. Like most anything incarnational. We find ideals of celibacy perverted to horrible ends. We find the language and appearance of celibacy used to harbor some relationships that are illict and some that are downright evil and destructive. Furthermore, we find exactly the same things cloaked under the language and appearance of Christian marriage as well. Paul presents us with high and lofty expectations. We respond in typical human fashion with weakness, disobedience, and betrayal. We—celibate, single, or married—are sinners in need of grace but also in need of direction. And this is where Paul can help us.
Drawing on his language and logic that begins with celibacy and moves to interpersonal relationships, we see a strong thread throughout. The Pauline path is the restraint of vice and the cultivation of virtue as centered around practices and habits of fidelity. As Christian communities, we need to consider the self-same questions with which Paul wrestles in 1 Cor 5-7, namely, what are the practices of fidelity that minimize vice and its flourishing and that maximize Christian virtue oriented by the fundamental principles of fidelity, mutuality, and Christian love?
Now, I’m not a “progressive” by nature. I inhabit the moderate to conservative end of the spectrum on most issues, including those involving human sexuality. I’m the sort who argues strongly for a “celibate when single, monogamous when married” position—and follow it myself. But after coming at the issue of Christian relationships from this angle, and relating it to the lives of Christians I know, I found myself painted into a corner. If the heart of Christian chastity and fidelity is directed to God through monogamy, if Christian marriage exists to restrain vice and cultivate virtue for the sake of the community as well as the individual, is the Church following its own logic and cultivating virtue to the best of its abilities by cutting queer Christians off from a community-supported path of fidelity and monogamy? Could I in good conscience advocate for “celibate when single, monogamous when married” when marriage—or any state analogous to it—is not an option for all mature Christians?
After some hard searching, I find myself convinced by my reading of Paul that same-sex marriage is incumbent upon the Christian community for the restraint of vice and for the flourishing of our common virtue. If we wish to reduce sexual immorality, do we deny a portion of our community a legitimate outlet for their created sexual urges in the form of faithful relationships based on mutuality, respect, and—above all—fidelity? (Feel free to dispose of the red herrings of promoting polygamy, pederasty, or bestiality as none of these cultivate the virtues of which I speak.) If we wish to encourage fidelity and chastity, why would we prevent some of our members who seek such fidelity and chastity from being encouraged in that state by the community?
Thus, I would ask George Clifford and any others who might seek to denigrate the Christian promotion of celibacy to first stop and consider the logic that Paul puts forth. Neither Paul, nor Matthew, nor my reading of the Scriptures makes celibacy incumbent upon all. While celibacy may be the ideal, it is not and should not be the normative practice for any not called to it. And yet it should not be cast aside as old, outdated, or psychologically dangerous. I would ask, rather, that we consider what it does teach and how our communities can be the stronger for it.
Derek Olsen is in the final stretch of completing a Ph.D. in New Testament at Emory University. He has taught seminary courses in biblical studies, preaching, and liturgics; he currently resides in Maryland. His reflections on life, liturgical spirituality, and being a Gen-X/Y dad appear at Haligweorc.