Celibacy: a response I

By Derek Olsen

A while back, George Clifford wrote a piece posted on the Daily Episcopalian at the Episcopal Cafe that tried to look at sex and relationships in the Episcopal Church from a progressive viewpoint. It started by discussing the history of Christian understandings of marriage, and the thesis statement that guided its unfolding was this: “In general, the Biblical witness about marriage appears to progress toward monogamy.”

As the piece unfolded, I became more uncomfortable with it because I believe that it began the argument on faulty premises. That is, it began from modern cultural assumptions and retrojected them upon first century culture, considering only the evidence that fit the initial paradigm. Therefore the issues addressed were fundamentally marriage and divorce.

My response was to remind the author and readers that wrapping human sexuality into categories of marriage and divorce is anachronistic in general and in particular does not reflect some key strands within the New Testament and early church witness that present celibacy as a superior alternative to marriage.

Fr. Clifford has now written another piece asking if celibacy is the preferred Christian option. Towards the beginning of the new piece he notes:

Christians have too often accepted celibacy as normative sexual behavior for Christians as illustrated by some of the comments on my Thoughts on Marriage.

Since the main comments against his thesis there were from myself and some of my comrades, I’m assuming that he is referring to my objections. Given his response, though, he seems to have missed the point. For that I apologize–I should have stated my view more clearly although Fr. John-Julian and another commenter hit exactly on my point:

The major point being made by Derek and others here is, as Fr. John-Julian notes, arguments around marriage have been “contaminated by current culture” to the point where nobody even notices what the words on the page say anymore – and where all sorts of excuses are made to avoid “the plain sense of Scripture” when it’s inconvenient for those who use the argument against others.

I’ve added the bolding for emphasis. However, to defend myself and my argument, I shall take up Fr. Clifford’s new piece, examine its arguments, and respond with a rebuttal.

I have two major disagreements with Fr. Clifford’s new piece. The first is the suggestion, based on a reading of Elaine Pagels, that there is no “real Christianity” and that thus “an individual must chart her or his own spiritual path.” In my opinion, this sets the discussion off on entirely the wrong foot, and tragically and unnecessarily suggests that no early historical evidence is normative in wrestling with current theological issues. The second notion with which I disagree is that I am making the argument that celibacy should be enjoined upon all; this is neither my point nor my belief—and my two daughters are evidence that it is not my practice either. The arguments that Fr. Clifford puts forth against celibacy fail to address the fundamental point: Christian logic on sexuality—not necessarily practice, but logic—must begin with celibacy. Furthermore, I will argue that a theology of sexuality that begins with celibacy remaining more contiguous with first century thought presents a stronger argument in support of same-sex marriage than those that pass over celibacy in silence.

First, I’ll admit that I haven’t read the Pagels’s book to which Fr. Clifford refers—Adam, Eve, and the Serpent—but the argument he reproduces is quite familiar to me from other works by Pagels and similar teachers. The two fundamental problems that they face are that 1) proof of discontinuity does not thereby indicate a lack of continuity: just because disagreements existed concerning who Jesus was, what he taught, and what should be believed about him does not mean that there were not communities that shared fundamental agreements about these topics, and 2) the Episcopal Church in basing ourselves on the canon of Scripture, the historic creeds, and the apostolic succession/Historic Episcopate (cf. pp. 877-879 in your BCP) align ourselves with the teachings of Irenaeus who declared these three marks to be characteristic of his faith communities and those in communion with it. Yes, there was diversity—but we affirm that we are part of one particular group. Therefore for us, the teachings and practices of this group are normative despite what others may or may not have done.

Given this continuity, I reject the notion of Pagels promoted by Fr. Clifford that there is no “real Christianity” and will respond that I’m not concerned with its reality (whatever that means) but with its historical continuity.

There are standards. There are principles of interpretation. There are historical examples from which we may learn. And, as Irenaeus states that he was taught by the martyred Bishop Polycarp, and as the exchanges between the Bishops Ignatius and Polycarp share a common character, and as Polycarp learned the faith at the feet of the Apostle John, I’ll continue to assert that this faith of Irenaeus with which we claim continuity is the apostolic faith. (For the record, here’s the version of the creed or “rule of faith” that Irenaeus handed on.)

Second, Fr. Clifford is wrong to assume that modern discussions of human sexuality that are rooted in the Scriptures can simply remove celibacy from theological discussion. Fr. Clifford writes, “The totality of the scriptural witness is similarly conflicted about whether celibacy or marriage is the preferred option for Christians.” I agree—there is discussion around the issue. Therefore we must tackle it if we wish to render a faithful account of the biblical witness and rightly understand our own theologies as proceeding from the Scriptures in a meaningful way.

Fr. Clifford’s first point is that sexuality is an intrinsic part of who we are as human animals, and that Scripture speaks about these drives in a variety of ways. I agree on both points, but would state that the teachings of Jesus in the gospels are more ambiguous than Fr. Clifford acknowledges. In addition to Jesus’ statement that the resurrected will be like angels, neither married nor given in marriage, that true disciples must hate their families and forsake wives and children, Matthew’s account also commends those who are able to become “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:10-12). Note still the ambiguity; not marrying is upheld–and is qualified. Not all may receive it, and the reward for embracing celibacy is not made clear. Furthermore it’s odd that this bit appears in Matthew; when forsaking relations comes up, Luke typically includes “wives” while Matthew does not, suggesting that Matthew typically, holds a more “pro-marriage” stance than Luke. In short, the evidence is conflicted. On the whole, though, I’d suggest that Jesus’ words and example promote celibacy over a simplistic family-values portrait. But that’s not the end of the story by a long stretch.

Fr. Clifford’s second point is that 1 Cor 7:9 and 1 Tim 5:14 are misogynistic as they refer to women rather than men and participate in a denigration of the physical over the spiritual. First, I’d recommend a look at 1 Cor 7:8. Yes, Paul refers to the widows here but also to the “unmarried” (grammatically masculine) and suggests that both these groups remain just as he himself is. I fail to see the misogyny, nor do I see how he is counseling men and women differently here. 1 Tim 5 as a whole is concerned with order in the community and verses 3-16 specifically address widows. No, widowers are not discussed—because something other than sex is foremost here: survival. What Paul is discussing here is how women in the community without male support and without a male income should survive. Should they remarry for the sake of physical sustenance or should the church help them live on their own? I’d agree that verses 11-15 paint an unflattering picture of younger widows and Paul, agreeing with the assessment of humans as sexual beings, recommends that they marry rather than causing scandal with their behavior. To dismiss this as misogyny and an unequal treatment ignores the cultural circumstances that require the community to offer assistance to those who need it most.

Nowhere in these verses do I find a preference for the spiritual over the physical. That topic is worth a discussion—but I don’t see it in these verses.

Fr. Clifford’s third point is that Paul does not understand the value or emotional rewards of marriage as he sees it as suffering, rather than joy or fulfillment. This may be a fair point, but it does not address the point Paul is actually making in 1 Cor 7:28b-35. Paul, who believed the end of time imminent, wanted his congregation focused on the final goal, ready and attentive to the commands of the Lord rather than invested and distracted in the cares of a household.

Fr. Clifford’s fourth point is that both celibacy and sexuality are gifts of God. I would agree—but I take issue with the way that the gifts are structured. Being either male or female is one kind of gift. Being either straight or gay is another kind of gift. Being celibate is yet a third. None of these are mutually exclusive yet somehow in Fr. Clifford’s construction they become so. I am male and straight and non-celibate and am gifted by all three—but I recognize these as distinct. I would separate these gifts out as gifts of biology, gifts of orientation, and gifts of behavior; celibates are gifted by both biology and orientation, but make the choice—and are aided by the grace—not to express the prior two gifts through sexual actions. Does that somehow mean that these gifts have thereby gone to waste? Is gender or sex or orientation simply about sexual acts or is there more to our biology and orientation than what we do with our genitals? Fr. Clifford seems to have fallen into the trap that if we are not acting upon our sexuality we are somehow lesser for it.

Let me be clear. I have not been gifted with celibacy. I do not believe that most people have been gifted with celibacy. In most situations where celibacy is imposed on a class of people it invites corruption and vice. Paul is quite clear—repeating himself twice in 1 Cor 7 (vv. 28, 36)—that marriage is not a sin. However, he is equally clear that it is better to remain unmarried. The Jesus traditions while also ambiguous, contain a strong thread that also privilege but do not command celibacy. Throughout the centuries Christians have acted upon these Scriptural recommendations choosing lives of prayer and dedication to the needs of others—and we are their beneficiaries. And so I insist that the logic of Christianity sexuality must begin with celibacy, giving it the place that the New Testament accords it. Where Fr. Clifford may be confused, though, is that I do not therefore commend the practice of celibacy to any not called to it. Our logic must begin with celibacy but it is not necessarily normative for our practice.

Why then am I so insistent upon it?

Because it breaks us out of our culturally conditioned modes of thought regarding marriage, family, and sexuality and gives us a chance to reorient along theological lines. Our default thinking on sexuality establishes heterosexual marriage as normative; Scripture moves in other directions. Furthermore, Paul’s celibacy argument establishes a firm foundation for reflection upon interpersonal relationship in the language of virtue and vice. Rather than focusing on genital or procreative acts as central to nature of marital relationships, it foregrounds the cultivation of mutuality and Christian love. In short, it is possible—beginning with celibacy as an ideal—that leads us to an understanding of human sexuality far closer to the Scriptural witness than those that begin with the presuppositions of our culture. I shall present a picture of what this looks like in Part II.

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.

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