“a vow of celibacy..a single and lonely life..sexual frustration..it is not a natural state for a human to be in” – This is a tweet I read this morning. Whose words do you think they are? Do you think this is a Christian viewpoint or a secular view?
When I followed the link on the tweet it turned out to be the words of a barrister in a trial about sex abuse from this news article. I don’t know if the barrister is a Christian or not or what he was basing his view on but it got me thinking. Is this a viewpoint Christians should share? Here’s what he said in full:
[A]s a Catholic priest, [he] has taken a vow of celibacy, condemning himself to a single and lonely life filled with perhaps an underlying sexual frustration because, let’s face it, it is not a natural state for a human to be in.
Is he right? Is a vow of celibacy a sentence of loneliness and sexual frustration? And is it ‘not a natural state for a human to be in’?
Well I think this is often the view of the world. Think of the main indicators of culture. Most TV programmes and and films are about the search for a partner. Marriage may not always be seen as significant but sex and having someone to share life with certainly are. You’ll struggle to find a TV show or film which portrays happy singles, satisfied in their single state (I’m sure there are exceptions but they’re by far a minority). The same is true in music. The lyrics of the top artists are almost always about relationships and sex. Or think about the popularity of dating websites. Even advertising often revolves around sex and relationships. We live in a world where to not be in a relationship is weird. It’s seen as shameful and often probably as ‘not a natural state for a human to be in’.
Why is this? I think a lot of people would blame the sexual revolution of the 60s onwards. Once the significance of sex was diminished and it became more acceptable to talk about sex and to have sex outside of marriage people have become obsessed with the need to have sex. In part I think this has shaped secular views about singleness and relationships. But I think the main cause is the collapse of family and community. As the idea of close relationships with wider family and communities (whether they be faith based, social or geographical) has disappeared, people are desperately looking for love and somewhere to belong. That’s why the nuclear family and particularly relationships between two people have become so central. It’s all symptomatic of a wider shift in culture.
Where does the church fit into this? Well it’s impossible to speak for the whole church but I would suggest there has been a similar shift. Perhaps as a response to the break down of traditional family life, the idea of marriage and the nuclear family has been elevated in the church. This is probably also a response to shifts in attitudes to sex. Sex is everywhere and since we believe God has created it to be preserved for marriage, marriage becomes more important. The sooner you get married, the sooner you can be released from the frustrations of being celibate in a sex obsessed world (There’s some biblical precedent for this in 1 Cor. 7:3 etc but as we will see the same chapter has more to say on the matter) . In the church culture it’s seem as ’such a shame’ when someone is still single in their 30s and beyond and the assumption is that all single people are looking that one perfect person God has chosen for them. Save for the focus on marriage, the church largely shares the same attitude as the world on this. Singleness would equal loneliness and sexual frustration and is not natural for humans.
What about the Bible? What would God say in this situation? Without question God loves marriage and sex within in. It was part of his perfect creation (Gen. 2) and has always been significant for his people. However, in the New Testament we find some statements which stand in stark contrast to much of what we hear in the church today. In 1 Cor. 7 Paul says that he would actually prefer all to be single as he is and he says that both singleness and marriage are (equal) gifts from God (1 Cor. 7:6-7). He sees singleness as an opportunity to serve God (1 Cor. 7:32-35). Paul clearly believes that ‘in Christ’ singles can live happy, satisfied lives. It’s far from unnatural. The same can be seen in the life of Jesus. He stayed single – he was fully human. Again, it’s hard to say that singleness is an unnatural state. (For a brilliant study of the place of singleness in God’s plan check out ‘Redeeming Singleness‘ by Barry Danylak).
What’s gone wrong in the church then? We’ve failed to see how counter-cultural the message of the Gospel is on the topic of sex and relationships. The gospel says that Christ is sufficient for a satisfied life, single or not. The gospel calls for the creation of a community in which singles are not condemned to a life of loneliness (This is a huge issue for the modern church. In following the world’s focus on nuclear families we have lost the biblical vision on the church as a family. This is an area that we each need to look at in our own lives and teach clearly to those we lead). The power of the gospel to satisfy all our needs and free us from the power of sin (Rom. 6) mean singles aren’t destined to a life of sexual frustration. And it is perfectly clear from Scripture that living life as a single is not unnatural. What’s unnatural in Biblical terms is living life without God is. Rather than seeing how counter-cultural the message of the Gospel is we have been sucked into the secular view of relationships. The result of this is that singles are left living lives of loneliness. Biblical singleness can only function properly in the context of Biblical church.
Changing attitudes in the church has to start with the truth and has to start with individuals. We need to choose not to go along with the unsaid assumption that marriage is the end goal for all people and is the mission of all singles. To do such is unloving to those who feel God is calling them to a life of singleness, its unhelpful to them as they seek to live out their lives as God is leading them and is a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel. It’s time for us all to rethink…