Friday, July 21, 2006

Unpacking Celibacy

It's great to see such a lively and engaging discussion going on among our faithful blog community. Thank you for taking the time to think deeply about these important issues and for contributing thoughtful comments. It's too bad you don't all live in the same city -- these conversations would be even better, I suspect, over coffee.

Now for the recent debate about what Paul really meant in 1 Corinthians 7. It's not surprising to see so many opinions on this passage. It's one that remains hotly debated. And why shouldn't it? There's a lot at stake based on how you interpret what he wrote.

I'd like to recommend the transcript of a CD set that we listened to recently by John MacArthur. This well-respected Bible scholar provides the valuable service of explaining what it was Paul was reacting to (1 Corinthians 7:1 begins, "Now concerning the things about which you wrote ..."). The church at Corinth had rasied some questions and concerns to which Paul was responding. That's helpful to know when trying to make sense of what's better, celibacy or marriage. And what's the gift. And who should stay single. And what being single is for. These are important things to know given the state of our culture when it comes to marriage.

Even though I hold strong opinions on these matters, I'm prayerful that God will continue to broaden my understanding of what's true. The goal, afterall, is His perspective. MacArthur's teachings are a part of that process.


At 1:53 PM, Blogger Elena said...

Ooh, like a mini Na conference... Would be fun... Let's have it in Nashville! ;o) We have multiple coffeehouses from which to choose.

At 2:33 PM, Blogger Tidy Bowl said...

Singleness has been quite a journey for me, personally. I've struggled with my singleness, prayed for a mate, and desired more. In the end, God has proven Himself to be more valuable than all that, and has given me a contentment and joy that I had never before imagined. Following God has led me down paths I never before expected to walk down. By the grace of God, I will soon have the priviledge of moving to Africa to share His word. I am so proud to be able to say His power is made perfect in my weaknesses.

At 3:42 PM, Blogger Firinnteine said...

Provided they offer chai as well, I'm all for it....

At 5:11 PM, Blogger Elena said...

ooh, nummy, nummy! Oh, yes...chai is in the offering...or is that offing? Would you like your chai hot or iced?

*goes to brew some Indian Spice by Harney & Sons*

{Hmm...are C & S gonna kick us outta here for going OT? Hope not!}

At 9:40 PM, Blogger Jake said...

It's nice to know that there's material out there countering the notion that 1 Corinthians 1-7 is opposed to marriage. Yes, it's true that Paul was responding to specific concerns of the Corinthians with attention to "the present distress." Consider, however, vv. 32-34:

But I want you to be free from concern. One who is unmarried is concerned about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and his interests are divided. The woman who is unmarried, and the virgin, is concerned about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit; but one who is married is concerned about the things of the world, how she may please her husband.

In my experience, these verses weigh much more heavily than 1-7 on those who are resistant to getting married. As opposed to vv. 1-7, they appear to state quite clearly that, regardless of concerns specific to one time and place, one can be more devoted to God if one remains unmarried, and surely that is better for a Christian. MacArthur barely touches on them here. What are we to do with them? Can they be read in a pro-marriage way?

(Note: I ask not as someone promoting the idea of remaining single, but rather as a man who wants to get married and is concerned that Christian young women are reading these verses and thinking that being holy in both body and spirit sounds a heck of a lot better than being concerned about the things of this world & how she may please her husband, and thus concluding that they shouldn't get married.

At 2:07 AM, Blogger gortexgrrl said...

With all due respect to the venerable John McA, he has provided a moderate, well-reasoned interpretation of 1Cor7...right up until verse 7, which he uses to claim that celibacy and singleness are gifts. They may be good (for some) but they are NOT GIFTS.

He uses the KJV, which reads: "I would that all men were even as I myself, but every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, another after that." Aside from the fact that we don't know whether Paul is referring to singleness or celibacy in the first half of the verse (Gordon Fee), the word "proper" doesn't really convey Paul's meaning. Greek word used in earliest text is IDIOS, which is the root of the English word "idiosyncratic".

Now, why all the fuss about IDIOS? Paul was talking about something idiosyncratic, not something either/or. Your thumbprint is idiosyncratic, there’s none other like it. The rh factor of your blood is NOT idiosyncratic: you’re either positive or negative. Also, Marital status is not idiosyncratic: you’re either married or you’re not. The “idios charisma” (idiosyncratic grace gift, not necessarily a "spiritual gift") Paul was referring to was neither singleness nor marriage: he was talking about his own preference and relating that with an aside about the uniqueness of our gifts from God.

Paul reinforces his point about uniqueness using a Greek expression still common today: “hos men houto de hos houto”, translated closely in the NASB as “one after this manner, and another after that.” It’s a figure of speech! “This” and “that” are non-specific: “this” does not mean marriage and “that” does not mean “singleness”, or vice versa, as the Living Translation, The Message and other modern translations have concluded!

Nor can we really assume that Paul was claiming to have some special "gift of celibacy": whatever was his gift that allowed him to proceed on such a perilous mission alone, he probably didn’t quite understand it himself. Certainly, there’s no biblical evidence to suggest that God took away his sexual desires, as MacArthur suggests (but plenty that suggests he struggled with something of a fleshly nature, and some scholars believe he may have been married at some point in his life), nor has this happened to anyone else. However Paul may have been gifted, he was gifted in his own particular way.

And so what does this mean? THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS “THE GIFT OF SINGLENESS” OR “THE GIFT OF CELIBACY”. The Bible almost always talks about marriage and singleness in terms of PERSONAL VOLITION: a man "finds a wife" in Proverbs 18:22, or "takes a wife" in 1Cor9:5 and 1Thess4:4, "made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven" in Matthew 19:12.

Singleness and celibacy may be good for those who are inclined (for whatever reason) to have those preferences and choose them voluntarily. God may also bless and strengthen those who live with unwanted celibacy/ singleness. But there is little support for the notion that God "calls" or "gifts" anyone (with the exception of Jeremiah, limited to a particular place) to be single and celibate.

Consider the problems created by the myth of the gift of celibacy: the abuse scandals with priests in the RC church, the numerous accounts of both not only Catholics but Protestants as well that have so much guilt and shame around sexuality. No wonder, when you look at how far back it goes: to Augustine and St. Jerome, who felt that the only redeeming feature about sex was that it produced more virgins.

Ellen Varughese in "The Freedom to Marry" speculates that even in the Protestant churches "there are still vestiges of the idea of celibacy as a higher calling" at work that lead people to believe that celibacy is a more holy state than "fleshly" matrimony, creating a "permission denying" spirit about marriage. In other posts, I have shown how "the gift of singleness" does the same thing.

Unfortunately, "the gift of singleness" has become a slogan that seems to have been created by mid 20th century modern bibles, perhaps to mitigate the problems created by "the gift of celibacy", but all it's done is sway one set of problems for another. To get rid of these problems, may have to convince church leaders to stop calling singleness and celibacy gifts, a tall order, when you consider than even the big guns like John MacArthur have done it.

At 4:18 PM, Blogger Firinnteine said...

Can a personal preference really be characterized as a "charisma"? My Greek is limited (and was actually classical, not Koine), but that sounds somewhat implausible to me...

Why does the fact that you're either married or not mean it can't be a personal gift of grace, or that you can't be given grace for that particular state? Surely God's gifts are given to me personally, even if others (even millions of others) have some of those same gifts.

The idea of the "gift of celibacy" is a darn sight older than Augustine and Jerome.... But the Apostolic Constitutions are clear that marriage is a good and God-glorifying thing, and that no one is to condemn it or look down on those who are married -- which seems to be more or less what Paul is saying. That doesn't mean that being celibate can't be good, too (while I'm not an especially big fan of MacArthur, I think he's right on that, so far as it goes...).

At 4:25 PM, Blogger Firinnteine said...

Hot chai, please -- nice and creamy. :)

At 3:49 PM, Blogger gortexgrrl said...

"Can a personal preference really be characterized as a "charisma"?"

I'm not saying that his "personal preference" is a "charisma". More conversely, I would say that because of whatever his idiosyncratic grace gift (whatever that might be- he doesn't name it, perhaps because he himself can't describe it, or the all particular qualities that go with it), he preferred being as he was at that point in time. For all we know, he might have been referring to some kind of stamina or ability to endure loneliness and frustration, or introversion or something that made him more passionate for his mission at the time (not nec. ALWAYS) than the love for a wife. Nevertheless, he does not put a name to it, so I think we should respect the mystery of the passage and not assume that he is identifying celibacy (or singleness, for that matter!) as "the gift". SOLA SCRIPTURA!

"Why does the fact that you're either married or not mean it can't be a personal gift of grace, or that you can't be given grace for that particular state?" I'm not saying it can't be, theoretically, I suppose in the grand scheme of things that could be possible since anything is possible with God (so's wearing white, but we don't wonder if that's what God wants us to do, or gifted us to do-- how would we know?). I'm just saying, quite simply, that's not quite what THIS passage says.

"Surely God's gifts are given to me personally, even if others (even millions of others) have some of those same gifts." Sure, but what is idiosyncratic is how those gifts come together to make you, YOU.

"The idea of the "gift of celibacy" is a darn sight older than Augustine and Jerome"...and so is the controversy and confusion surrounding "the gift of celibacy".

"But the Apostolic Constitutions are clear that marriage is a good and God-glorifying thing, and that no one is to condemn it or look down on those who are married -- which seems to be more or less what Paul is saying. That doesn't mean that being celibate can't be good, too". Of course singleness and celibacy can be good, if you have the innate makeup to endure whatever it may entail (esp. sexual abstinence).

BTW- for those who are not married, certainly celibacy (or abstinence, if you will) IS required as per the scriptures. Whether we like it or not. Are "gifted" or good at it or not. For as long as we are single, we must remain celibate to be obedient to the word of the Lord.

At 9:22 PM, Blogger Firinnteine said...

I like the connection between celibacy and obedience; because, really, that's the reason any Christian would be celibate (abstain from sexual activity) -- obedience to the commands and direction of God. Whether that means right now, because I am unmarried, or for a lifetime, because God calls me to a particular work in which I can best serve by remaining unmarried, the goal is to serve my Lord.

For the Christian, both celibacy and marriage must be acts of obedience.

At 4:57 AM, Blogger knit_tgz said...

Dear gortexgrrl and dear all:

Allow me to respectfully disagree, as a Catholic. (An European Catholic, if you want to know. Also, English is not my mother tongue, so forgive me for any mistake).

It is not true that the Catholic Church teaches that celibacy is a higher calling, "more holy", than matrimony. In fact, in our sacraments, besides the initiation ones (baptism, chrism and eucharist) and the sacraments of the cure (reconciliation and the unction of the infirm), we have the two sacraments of Ordination and Matrimony. Equally holy sacraments. A sacrament is, for us, the visible sign of an important invisible reality. Matrimony is a holy calling, as holy as ordination. If it were not holy, it would not be a sacrament. Augustine and Jerome, and several other saints, were great believers, but not everything they write is considered a correct Church teaching. (I don't know if it is your case, but sometimes people confuse our belief that Scripture and Tradition are sources of what we belief and think we believe that everything written by a saint, a priest or even a pope, is a truth of faith. We do not believe that.)

Of course, shame associated with sexuality (not the "good shame", pudor, which leads to modesty and respect, but the "bad shame", which leads to guilt) is a distortion of what should be. The sexual union is a God-given symbol of the union of Christ and the Church, so we don't have to be careful with sex because it is dirty (it is not), but because it is a prefiguration of something holy.

As an aside, I don't believe the abuse scandals with priests are problems created by the "myth of celibacy". These problems arise from the human tendency to sin, and from the existence of pedophiles and efebophiles. Here in Europe, we have had several pedophilia scandals, not with priests, but with very rich, famous people. Is it because our priests are not celibate? No. I can tell you I know a lot of celibate priests and nuns (and laypersons) who live fulfilling lives and are virgins.

As another aside, I agree that the "eunuch" passage in the Gospel hints at the existence of some people who receive from God special gifts to live a celibate life. Like some people receive special gifts to live married life (we must not forget that God gave us, the ones called to marriage, a lot of gifts which we sometimes decide to stifle). I don't believe it is clear-cut, though.

At 12:34 PM, Blogger gortexgrrl said...


Thank you for the update on where the Catholic teaching stands today on the holiness of matrimony in relation to ordination. What I meant to say was that despite everyone's best efforts, there are "vestiges" of celibacy as a higher calling than matrimony that remain here and there in the consciousness of Catholic and Protestant culture. Your distinction between scripture and tradition is a very good one. But traditions die hard, which means that there are still many people who struggle with shame and sexuality.

Maybe the abuse scandals in the priesthood haven't been as much an issue in Europe as they have been over here. But we do have some evidence that celibacy may be a stumbling block. A USCCB study reported that 10% of the priests ordained in 1970 were accused of sexual abuse at some point in their careers. Also, of those abuse charges 80% involved young boys, consistent with estimates that about 50% of Catholics priests have a homosexual orientation (whereas the overwhelming majority of sex abuse charges against Protestant clergy, mostly married men, tend to involve females).

I'm not saying that celibacy causes homosexuality, or that all who are drawn to it are gay, because obviously a good number are not. Just that we cannot simply shrug off these differences some general human tendency to sin. When it comes to preventing temptation among our leadership, we need to consider the conditions where sin in most likely and least likely to occur.

As for whether or not celibacy is a gift, see my post following Candice's article "More on Celibacy".

At 3:00 PM, Blogger Firinnteine said...

Even if celibacy were a higher gift (I'm not arguing that it is), what difference would that make? Paul says that some are gifted to be apostles, some prophets, some with gifts of healing, some with administration, some for interpretation of tongues -- and then he says that some gifts are "higher" than others (I Corinthians 12). But this doesn't mean that every part of the body isn't essential, just because the eye seems to have a more important job than the foot, or vice versa. Please, people, don't get caught in the modern obsession with equality (more pervasive and dangerous than the widespread false teaching on singleness). It's not about being as good as someone else. I intend to get married, which I guess would put me lower if there were a difference in equality -- but I believe that is what God is calling me to do. If He calls me to celibacy, then of course I'll do that. It's not about being having a higher or better calling than other people; it's about obeying God.

knit_tgz -- thanks. I often find myself arguing against common misunderstandings of Catholic teaching, but it's always nice when an actual Roman Catholic weighs in. :)


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