Saturday, July 22, 2006

More on Celibacy

Thanks to Jake for pointing out that the link to MacArthur's teaching on 1 Corinthians 7 was incomplete. Following are the links to the rest of the series:

1 Corinthians 7:8-16
1 Corinthians 7:17-24
1 Corinthians 7:25-31
1 Corinthians 7:32-40

I think you'll see from the full series that the verse explaining why every man should have his own wife and every woman her own husband ("since there is so much immorality," v. 2) is at least as strong as the reason young virgins should remain that way.

One look at our culture is weighty confirmation that the immorality problem remains.

Also, a word about gortexgrrl's exegesis. This is the first I have heard about the word idios in the context of 1 Corinthians 7. I have previously only heard the Greek word charisma. Not being a biblical scholar myself, I tend to defer to trustworthy experts or tools. For the sake of clarity and accuracy, it would help to know the origins of your interpretation on this one.

I did do a quick search in a Greek Lexicon for the word gift. There are nine versions in the New Testament. Though none of them are idios.

Finally, a word about the question of whether a gift of celibacy equals the cessation, or at least significant lessening, of sexual desire. It's incomplete to read 1 Corinthians 7 without also studying what Jesus said in Matthew 19. It seems to me that His choice of the word eunuch is so graphic as to be significant. If being celibate was not dependent on some lessening of the sex drive, why use a word that means "to castrate or neuter a man." He's talking about being cut off (literally or figuratively) from the sex drive.

This is a reminder that we all drift toward proof-texting -- it's just easy to stop searching the Scriptures and be satisfied when we find a passage that proves our point. What's needed is the full counsel of God's revealed Word.


At 12:59 PM, Blogger Tidy Bowl said...

There seems to be an argument here about celibacy: Is it a gift or not? I'm not a scholar, but I can speak from my own experience.

I fell in love once, or at least as close to love as my 23-year-old human body can know. (I suppose it would just be called "eros" in the Greek.) I felt sure that this guy (I'll call him Sam) was the one for me. We went out 2-3 times each week for over 2 years, and Sam acted like he felt the same way I did. They say love is blind, and I was certainly blind. I saw Sam in church, and based on what I'd seen, I believed he was a strong Christian and everything I was looking for in a husband.

During my last semester in college, I began to consider a call to missions, but struggled desperately with my human desire to stay in the US, close to Sam.

By the grace of God, Sam's "true colors" came out before I did anything foolish. One week shortly before my graduation, Sam didn't call me. No explanation, nothing. He hasn't called me since. About two months after that incident, he asked one of his co-workers to marry him. They will be married in four months.

To me, celibacy is more than just refraining from intercourse. It's a lifestyle. Because of that lifestyle, I have been in very, very few situations that could be defined as compromising. Today, I am so thankful that God has given me the self-control to come this far, and has prevented me from saying or doing anything foolish.

Now, I am following God's call into missions - as a single female. I don't believe I will be single forever, but I know that at this time in my life, God has called me to singleness. And for me, that is a gift.

Truly, we could debate the Greek interpretation all day. What did Paul mean when he said this or that? But what I've learned is that it is not celibacy or marriage that is a gift. Life is a gift. Whether we are celibate or married, that is a gift that we should take joy in. I love being single and celibate. But if I should one day be married, I will love that too. Life is a blessing from God that I do not deserve, and every day I thank him for that gift.

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. ~Philippians 4:11

At 10:25 AM, Blogger Elena said...

tidy bowl: Perhaps it would be better to say not that you are "called" to singleness right now but that you are single---that's your reality---and God has called you to serve Him in a particular way (for you right now it is missions, via whatever it one-on-one witnessing, sports, medicine, ESL, or what-have-you) in this time in your life. And that in your time of being single God has enabled you to be celibate and to dedicate that celibacy to Him. That working in you is the gift, I'd say.

{aside: Yes, yes, folks, you can call it "semantics" all you if semantics is a small thing. But I believe that the terminology we use and the composition of said terminology often reveal our attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions about matters.}

to any and all:
Anyhooz... it seems to me that we are using the word gift to mean one of two connotations and that the connotations oft are mixed in the writer's/reader's mind:
(1) Gift = a blessing one is given, of which one is the steward, to make good use of
(2) Gift = talent/capacity/ability/aptitude "wired" into the person at birth or at spiritual rebirth
I don't think they are exactly are the same thing and work the same way. Not sure I as yet can explain the difference...but it seems to me that one could have been given a gift (blessing), which is celibacy, for a temporary time... and another could have been given THE gift of celibacy (having little or no sexual desire) in order to serve God in a special way.

I wonder if it would help were the church to construct ways to advance the kingdom and deepen the "followship" of disciples, utilizing celibates. Other than the priesthood, that is... (Hoo-boy, is that another can o' worms!)

Hmm... what ministries in the kingdom, by nature require the servant to be celibate...? And I don't mean those vocations that some denominations have decided should require celibacy (ahem, the priesthood). I mean, we had Bible preservation come out of the Celtic monasteries... and some amazing writings come out of monsteries and nunneries. But do we really need folks to be retreating from the world in great numbers?

Again, it seems that the special callings which are given to a handful of folks out of the entire family of God, are the callings which necessitate lifelong celibacy. Thus, it seems that only a handful truly are called to be lifelong celibates. Or do I have my logic fallacied up here? ;o)

Really... what special purposes does celibacy serve? Other than the obvious answers...

Seems like a good research topic!

At 7:16 PM, Blogger gortexgrrl said...

Elena, you said:

"it seems to me that one could have been given a gift (blessing), which is celibacy, for a temporary time... and another could have been given THE gift of celibacy (having little or no sexual desire) in order to serve God in a special way."

I like what you said to tidy bowl, which sounds like the first part of your postulation: that God has enabled (her) to be celibate and to dedicate that celibacy to Him. That working in (her) is the gift." Because I do believe that God can strengthen (different than "gifting" us to be abstinent for a time, perhaps even a lifetime (ie. single Christians who make it to life's end obediently chaste, even if it was hard for them). As you say, better to say you ARE single now, rather than "called".

But as for the second part of your postulation, I don't believe that God "gifts" anyone with celibacy by substracting sexual desire. I would wager that the celibates that God has used most probably struggled a great deal with sexual temptation, some successfully, many not. Great leaders often have a strong libido that goes with their strong persona. Lowered libido is very often associated with something being biologically or psychologically amiss, like a disability. I suppose God could use that disability like any other to his advantage, just has he has used someone like Joni Earicksson (quadriplegic evangelist), but even then, I have problems with some of her writings that suggests that it was perhaps God's plan that she would be injured "so that He could get the attention of a stubborn little kid". Disabled people have been put off Christianity by that kind of message! Abilities and disabilities are mysteries, as far as God's intentions to "gift" us goes. We seek guidance and strength from the Holy Spirit, use what we've got, and give Him the glory, even if we don't always know exactly what was Him (and what was us, others, and "other"). I personally believe we can do that without having to call everything a gift, because it sets people up to be phony.

As for the special purposes served by celibacy, I don't think there are any. God has initiated no such vows. And I think there have been so many consequences (ie. Catholic school abuse scandals) that outweigh the benefits as a widespread practice for church leadership. If God has a special mission for someone and they reach the end of their life not having married, even then how is anyone to know that person had "the gift" of celibacy or singleness, as if that was God's intention? Maybe they struggled with it, maybe they faltered at times, or maybe they had chances to marry that they decided against, with or without regret.

As much as I respect those who choose not to marry for the sake of a special mission, I do have a hard time with those who claim to have been called to celibacy by God or say they have the "gift of singleness". Gillis Triplett, an African American evangelist in Atlanta says that those who make this claim "mislead others down a road of unnecessary prolonged agony and personal and spiritual confusion." It just seems like one of those things "no man should boast".

At 9:13 PM, Blogger Firinnteine said...

Elena -- that was a post after my own heart.

"...the terminology we use and the composition of said terminology often reveal our attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions about matters."


A most intriguing question you raise; and thank you for retaining at least the possibility of celibacy being a gift in both senses (although I'm open to the arguments, which I expect to ensue, that it is only the first, and not the second, kind of gift).

I'm afraid, with all due respect, that your logical argument requires some work; first we must determine that there are in fact gifts which require celibacy (or are aided by it to such an extent that it would, as a general rule, glorify God for those given those tasks to commit themselves to unmarried lives). Then we must ascertain that these are as relatively few as you assert (I fully expect them to be, if we prove they exist, but one thing at a time). If these things are demonstrated, then we can start drawing conclusions. :)

Finally, as a general comment, I'd like to challenge the "retreating from the world" characterization of the monastic movement; in some cases that was true, but in a great many the facts were quite simply and clearly otherwise. Copying texts was a fairly withdrawn occupation, as was writing massive compendiums of theology -- although I think those are not unworthy tasks. Clearing fields for local villages or raising children left on the doorstep by parents unable to care for them, not to mention acting as safe havens for travelers and caring for the sick, less so. (Yes, granted, there was all sorts of abuses at various points and in various places, and reform was continually necessary. When has this not been the case in the Church?)

At 10:18 PM, Blogger gortexgrrl said...


Thank you for being the first person to engage me in a discussion of "idios"! I haven't heard much back from anyone on this, leaving me feeling like a bit of an "idios idiot"!! (btw- the word "idiot" is originally French, meaning "peculiar one", "peculiar" as in "idiosyncratic"!).

To be honest, I discovered this on my own, while looking up 1Cor7:7 in the original Greek via the online Blue Letter Bible. As you have also found, there's not much out there about "idios", in the context of "charisma", as it is written in 1Cor7. Even Gordon Fee's commentary on 1Cor (the one used by Maken in her footnotes), doesn't even mention the word! Perhaps because it has often been translated into English as "own", which seems like such a pithy, insignificant word. But when you consider idios and it's roots that go into so many other words that indicate "idiosyncratic", "peculiar" or "particular", it is significant indeed. I ran it by a Greek friend, who indeed asserts that idios means more "particular" than "own" (interestingly, the Greek Orthodox Church doesn't seem to have the same issues about celibacy/singleness as the Catholics and the Protestant evangelicals!)

I recently took a look at "The Spiritual Formation Bible", of which Eugene Peterson (one of the editors of The Message, that uses the phrase "the gift of singleness" in the second half of 1Cor7:7..UGH!--I'm planning to write him about it) is an editor and it seems that they have translated idios to mean particular, the passage reflecting uniqueness and mystery of that gifting, rather than assuming it's about singleness or celibacy. The NRSV and the NAB seem to say "particular" now, too. I'm very curious about how and why these changes have come about, and hope they continue.

Also, about "charisma": It is used quite a number of times in the bible, and not necessarily in the context of "spiritual gift". Correctly translated, it means "grace gift" or "free gift", something that is freely given without being earned. The Greeks of that time (and today, as well, at least poetically) would refer to almost anything naturally occurring as being "of God", likewise, a talent, ability or natural inclination that had any kind of advantageous feature could be considered "charisma". Hence, we say charming people have "charisma", and most likely look at that quality as something they didn't earn!

So we have to be careful when reading "charisma" in the Bible that we don't assume it means some kind of "spiritual gift" per se. Carolyn McCulley also issues a similar caution (with references) in "Esteeming the Gift", a chapter of her book "Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye", although I don't agree with other things said in that Chapter about "the gift of singleness".

As for Matthew 19, that is indeed a very difficult passage and there has always been a lot of disagreement about what Jesus meant. Origen certainly took that passage literally (although I think he later regretted it! It's a good thing he didn't also gouge his eye out or cut off his hand!)

Maybe Jesus was throwing down a hypothetical challenge, as if to say "how far would you go? Would you do go this far for me?" Or maybe he was metaphorically making the point that to choose a celibate lifestyle would be like living as a eunuch (awfully hard work doing that with testes, lest anyone think it would be "better not to marry", as per verse 10). Or to make a statement that such a sacrifice should happen voluntarily (made themselves eunuchs) and only for those who can handle it (hear it). It's a shocking statement to make, and indeed there were literal eunuchs back then, so maybe he did mean it literally (there are a few seemingly bizarre things Jesus said that most of us would prefer to avoid and not think about, cursing the fig tree being one them, and Matt 19:12 being another). So many maybes, so many mysteries!

But as far as having sexual desire removed by God (what many, including Debbie Maken, consider to be "the gift" of celibacy from God), there's no support for that in this passage. Those who are born that way (as well as those who are made that way by men) are mentioned separately from those who make themselves that way -- despite their seemingly good potential for successful celibacy, those born that way (made that way by God? There are no references to God as eunuch-maker!) aren't even mentioned as candidates! It's about the third kind: those who choose that path "for the Kingdom". And nowhere is the concept of "gift" mentioned.

Your point is well taken about prooftexting, Candice. I think that includes resisting the inclination to read more into a passage than is really there, and that's my criticism of how scholars and clergy alike have boldly dealt with these passages. As much as we're supposed to defer to the expert tools, many of the commentaries seem incomplete (which is fine, if they don't carry on, drawing conclusions that aren't valid).

Too often we fall back on "traditional" readings of a passage, when perhaps, some traditions are not as well substantiated as we might think. As Steve pointed out today, there are a lot of books that have come out about singleness in the past few decades that assume that if you are single, you have the "gift of singleness". The careers of these Christian singleness pundits are at stake, and I think there will be a lot of resistance to retract those rogue doctrines. Even worse in the Catholic Church, where the "gift of celibacy" debate has gone on for years.

It's amazing to think that these two controversies hinge solely on two passages!

At 2:47 PM, Blogger Elena said...

Such good discussions, folks! Hot chai, anyone? I'm brewing myself a cup.

OK... on to replies... :o)

gortexgrrl: I guess I was saying it was in the realm of possibility. As to the probability, I think you're right. It doesn't happen often.

firinntienne: I think you and I are saying the same things... I was writing stream of consciousness, not as a Logic professor would instruct me to do. Yes, you are right---we must discover first if any vocations exist that require celibacy (not merely are aided by it).

Thank you so much for reminding us that monasteries and abbeys were more for than just retreating from the world! I haven't researched the topic...just going on what I remember. And I've probably been exposed to the topic via literature and PBS programs than more than through actual research. Good points, firinn!

To all readers/commentors: Am I off track by inferring that we are all in agreement that too often only a handful of Kingdom activities have been highlighted in preachings and teachings? We need determinedly Christ-following people in ALL jobs/tasks/careers (OK, minus the crime-based careers!)...
And really... Human life is about living. The gospel is for us... life is not for the gospel. I mean, much is done for the sake of people hearing the gospel and receiving it and accepting it. But all of life is not just preaching and witnessing. Am I making sense?

*sips hot chai*

At 2:48 PM, Blogger Firinnteine said...

For the sake of clarity, could we define which issues about celibacy/singleness do Evangelicals and Catholics have but Eastern Orthodox do not? They have monasticism; priests who are ordained when unmarried must stay unmarried, just as priests ordained when married remain married, but may not ordinarily remarry if their wife dies. Bishops are always celibate, invariably drawn from monastic communities. This is the pattern throughout the Eastern Orthodox Church (as well as the Eastern-Rite Catholics... there are married Catholic priests).

I like Tradition; for instance, its categorical condemnation of Origen's actions in castrating himself. Also things like the doctrine of the Trinity, which is quite Scriptural but by no means as clear as one might like (the Arians believed they were teaching the right interpretation of the Bible, too). And, say, our knowledge of which books (e.g. I Corinthians) are Biblical canon, written by actual apostles and eyewitnesses, and which (Gospel of Thomas and other much-later texts) are not.

And I am far from defending the idea that those who are single necessarily have a "gift of singleness" -- that's nonsense (not to mention a clear departure from Tradition). ;)

At 4:59 PM, Blogger gortexgrrl said...

"For the sake of clarity, could we define which issues about celibacy/singleness do Evangelicals and Catholics have but Eastern Orthodox do not?" What I meant is that the Eastern Orthodox seem to talk more in terms of celibacy as a VOW, than a GIFT. Nor are they "called to celibacy": they are called to the priesthood (and as you've said, if they don't marry by the time they are ordained they don't get to-- they must tough it out single and celibate, with God's help, as their tradition would have it.

I like tradition too, but I also think there is some value in revisiting traditions from time to time, looking at their origins and outcomes to see if they have outlived their purposes.

At 10:09 AM, Blogger Mike Theemling said...

There is a lot here to unpack, and kudos to the posters in this thread (seemingly all women) who have dug deeper into the text and tried to contextualize it.

Let's start with this proposed postulate which everyone seems to agree on: The Bible text is not ALWAYS literal. When John the Baptist said, "(Look!), the Lamb of God" obviously Jesus didn't look like one. Similarly, when Jesus said, "You must eat my body and drink my blood" those around him wondered why He was talking cannibalism. (I am aware that there are grey areas where different Christian denominations have contrary views to the "literacy" of a text [transubstantiation is probably the most renown].

Now we tackle the problem of celibacy and/or as a "gift". Ultimately, I believe that at the core of it the real question is, "What is God's will for my life in this area?" Let's see, there are 3 categories that I can think of regarding all humans:
- They have a normal to strong sex drive and wish to fulfill it
- They have a minimal to no sex drive yet still wish to fulfill it (and/or have a greater sex drive)
- They have either category of sex drives and don't wish to fulfill it.

Most people (I'd speculate like 99% of all human beings) fall into the first category. Let's deal with these folks first. For them, they have 3 choices in life for fulfilling this desire:
- Sex within marriage to another person
- Sex outside of marriage to another person
- Sexual gratification through other means such as masturbation, voyuerism, pornography, etc.

The Bible is clear that first method is fine (in fact encouraged), the second is verboten, and the third (esp. masturbation) can be very controversial. That's for another discussion.

Obviously, one who can't release his desires often becomes frustrated. The question is, "Is this situation a 'gift' from God or not"? From the person's point of view, probably not. From God's point of view, maybe it is or maybe it isn't. Perhaps God is preventing him/her from getting married for some other divine purpose. Sadly, we rarely know what this is. However, maybe it ISN'T God's desire to have that person stay single but has allowed the free will of men and demons to prevent marriage in this fallen world. Biblical examples show both cases (The story of Lazarus for the former and the story of Job for the latter).

However, both Jesus and Paul seem to hint at what God's will is with the caveat, "but if you don't do this that's ok too; just be aware what you are diving into". From Jesus' words in Matthew, He says that those who fall in the 99% category of sexual desire would best be off marrying. Paul echoes this that it is better to marry "than to burn with passion" (and guys especially are quite flammable).

Likewise, both Jesus and Paul imply that those who don't fall into category A or do but still want to try and live with the struggle ought not to puruse marriage so strongly.

Regarding monks/priests/nuns/etc. I understand where they are coming from. However, I think that there is and has been a danger of denying sexual gratification to the point of ascetism ("taste not, touch not, handle not") which has marred the Christian church and created practical problems as well (e.g. the priest abuse scandals).

Conclusion: In my opinion the "gift" that Paul was referring to himself was the fact he didn't have to deal with this inner struggle that many others deal with who want to devote more to the Kingdom. The "gift of celibacy" could easily be a "gift of eros" where one desires sexual fulfilment and is not frustrated by it.

Those who do fall into either category of struggles, I would hesitate in calling either situation a "gift" from God just as I would hesitate calling any tragedy that befell someone as "God's will". Maybe it is a gift, maybe it isn't. But the important part is that you don't view either desire as "wrong" and its pursuit is by no means sinful so long as it is done in a godly manner.

Suffice it to say for myself that I fall into the 99% category of people, and for whatever or not...I am where I am. Hopefully that will change someday soon, but if it does not, "His grace is sufficient for me".

At 10:44 AM, Blogger gortexgrrl said...

Brilliantly put, Mike!!! That about sums it up.

At 4:49 PM, Blogger Firinnteine said...

Who's a woman? :-P

At 8:50 PM, Blogger Jake said...

All right, now that the MCAT is over, I'm free to read and comment on blogs again. :)

As I feared, MacArthur's reading of verse 32 on in a pro-marriage way is weak. He stresses that an unmarried person has only a potential to be concerned about the affairs of the Lord and not the things of this world, but that's not in the text--it says a married woman IS concerned about the things of the world and an unmarried woman IS concerned about the affairs of the Lord. I wish a different, pro-marriage interpretation of this passage would wash over the evangelical world and change everyone's minds, but because we Christians often imitate what the world does without even realizing it, or for supposedly "Christian" reasons, I don't feel that that's likely. It's pretty clear that Paul personally felt that people who were unmarried should remain so, so that they could be completely devoted to God. And as long as 1) the secular world keeps delaying marriage, and 2) we evangelicals maintain our view that personal piety and a one-on-one relationship with Jesus is the essence of Christianity, rather than a greater community in which some people's role may be more indirect, and thus being completely devoted to God is seen as the highest good--and the Bible seems to back up the idea that it can be better achieved by a celibate person--we are going to continue to see Christians dodging marriage.


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