This sermon is part of the sermon series "Project Hazmat: Handling Today's Tough Topics". See series.
The Story behind the sermon (an interview with Stewart Ruch III)
Preaching Today.com: Why did you choose to preach on "celibacy" and not "singleness"?
Stewart Ruch III: Well, that's a string that leads to a big sweater. I wanted to talk about a larger issue than just human marriage or singleness. I wanted to talk about the very goal of human personhood. God in Christ wants to marry humanity. He chose spiritual marriage, the great marriage of our souls with God, as a kind of beatific vision, the end goal of all of our personhood. Marriage with God is a dramatic biblical metaphor for God's relationship with his people.
The concept of "singleness" can't do justice to this. For one thing, no one is autonomous or truly "single." When we really realize this, we begin to see that every person is profoundly connected, and has the ultimate destiny of absolute communion with God.
Often, the problem in the church is that "singles" get left behind. We subtly communicate that marriage and raising a family is the "big deal" of Christianity. That's incomplete. Celibacy, just like marriage, points us towards the real big deal—the marriage of God in Christ with humanity. A celibate Christian can be a sign of living faithfully into that marriage. Celibacy is a far more rounded, nuanced, positive word to say what our theology calls us into. I call those embracing this lifestyle "celibate" because they're actually being called to live in full marriage with God as a picture of what we're all going to be when there's no giving and taking of marriage in heaven.
That more rounded definition is helpful. With that in mind, tell us why you think celibacy can be a "gift."
First, I think there are two different kinds of gifts here. In my sermon on celibacy I made a distinction between the circumstantial gift and the kind of gift that comes from a vow of celibacy. With the breakdown of so many relationships in our culture, we have a high number of celibates/singles. But many of them are actually circumstantial celibates. They're not choosing it, they don't necessarily want it, they probably won't remain in that state for the rest of their lives, but there they are anyway—at least for now.
The circumstantial gift is a kind of word of knowledge or understanding from the Holy Spirit. It's reorienting your heart to understand that your celibate state is not a curse. In fact, it can be a way in which we live out a profound communion with God. Even a circumstantial celibate needs that kind of gift to understand their relationship to God, even though they may marry someday.
A call to celibacy is a gift as well. We don't have a lot of biblical teaching on it, but in the life of Paul and others in the early church there are examples of those called to lifelong celibacy as a gift from the Lord. One reason is to live fully in marriage to God in Christ. Pragmatically, it is a gift of being able to give up one's life for others outside of an immediate family. There's a particular ability to live as a called celibate in a way that having a family simply doesn't allow for. We need celibates who understand that one of their great gifts is they can give up the gift of self for somebody who has nobody else to give to them. That's extremely important when we think about evangelism, compassion, or intimate church community.
That's powerful. But it's also a sensitive topic. Did you get any pushback from your church family after you preached on the topic of celibacy?
Yes. It's a sensitive, personal issue for many people. Some of our church members didn't like the term. I don't blame them. The word "celibacy" is a little bulky. It has bad modern connotations, especially in regards to the Roman Catholic Church.
But the point I was trying to make is that language doesn't just define; it stirs up. I'm trying to stir something up with language to say to unmarried Christians and the people around them, Okay, maybe you're not celibate in the traditional sense, but you're also not single. You're something more than that.
You can reject "celibacy" if it doesn't work for you, and look for a better word. But I want you to reject "single" as well. The church has deeper things to say than that. We're going to think of all Christians as being in deep, connected relationships—not just the married ones. We're going to pastor you positively, not let you slip through cracks into a catch-all "singles' ministry." And we're going to do it because of your God-given gift.
Looking back, what do you wish you could have added to your sermon?
I would want to articulate with even greater clarity the marriage of God in Christ with humanity. That's the number one marriage. That's the primordial marriage. That's the telos marriage. That's where everything is going.
In my theology, the celibate is truly and profoundly entering into that state ahead of the rest of us who are called into the state of sacramental marriage. And the fact of the matter is we're all going the direction of the celibate in marriage with Jesus and with God and Christ. We're all going that direction because there will be no giving and taking in marriage; they're not going our direction, for those of us who are sacramentally married. There is a level of spiritual leadership in the celibate calling that the married doesn't have. Of course, in no way am I denigrating sacramental marriage either, because there's a particular calling there, and a leadership aspect there too.
It seems like traditional evangelicalism puts a tremendous emphasis on marriage and family. Is that appropriate?
Yes, and that's okay, even important. But it's lopsided. We rarely give celibates a chance to lead in an exemplary way related to their lifestyle. We need to give more attention to them, to give them leadership that affirms and understands and communicates the power of a celibate life stage or call.
As our culture's views of marriage shift, how does that impact the need for a strong theology of celibacy?
Let's take a step back for some context before I address that directly. Both church and secular culture have promoted the well intentioned myth that the most blissful or natural human status is with a spouse. The church has rarely presented the reality that there is fulfillment outside of that.
To be sure, the Christian story revolves around a marriage relationship. But it's marriage of God and humanity. The church got turned around and made so much of our story about human family. Modern secular culture picked up on that, just changing our definitions for their own needs. And in the middle of it all, we lost the real plot within the story of Holy Scripture.
So getting to the original question: if human beings can't really be fulfilled without a spouse or a life partner, if celibacy is some kind of cultural oddity—a waiting room or a failure—then of course marriage is going to be redefined, premarital sex will be idolized, and so forth. If it isn't, someone will be denied their humanity. But it's all based on a faulty premise.
What makes humans truly human is union with God, not union with another human.
What practical pointers can you give someone wanting to preach on this topic?
Talk with unmarried Christians in your congreagation. I had three to five intentional conversations with celibates at Church of the Resurrection. That was incredibly helpful. Do your groundwork and listen.
Read up on a strong theology of the body. Read the Catholic theologian Christopher West who has some great material on the biblical theology of celibacy. I especially recommend chapter 5 in his book Theology of the Body for Beginners. And many evangelicals could learn a lot from Pope John Paul II's thinking on this topic. You're not going to agree with everything you read from these two authors, but you'll begin thinking for your flock in a way you haven't thought before.
Also, spend some time collaborating with others. Bring in other pastoral perspectives to round yourself out and to keep yourself grounded. My wife's input was hugely helpful here. We processed through this together, and did a lot of thinking about our marriage, our friends who are single, and how we interact in our church.
Ultimately, be willing to challenge your own understanding of marriage in our faith and culture. Even at its best, sacramental human marriage is a slim shadow of God's marriage with the church. And celibates lead us in our anticipation of that eternal joy.
Several years ago I read a book that grabbed me and stirred my heart. So I did what I often do when I read a book I really like: I thought, Who can I share this book with? I went out and bought a second copy of the book, and I thought, I want to give this book to my mentor. He thanked me. But about a week later a most unusual thing happened. I found the book set in a place where I would be sure to find it. This was a clear message: I don't want this gift. I thought, He must have thought I was loaning it to him, until I remembered that I had written a page-long note to him on the title page. Did he think I gave it to him to repudiate his teaching or thinking? I'll never know why that gift was rejected and returned. But it's a very powerful thing to reject a gift.
I wonder how many of you who are called to the single life, the celibate life, have returned that gift. Perhaps you didn't understand it was a gift. Perhaps you just didn't want it. But Scripture teaches that the purpose of our lives is to imitate God. In Ephesians 5:1 Paul boldly says, "Be imitators of God." He explains what that means in the next verse: "Walk in love as Christ loved us." The purpose of our lives is to become people who miraculously and supernaturally love like Christ loves. In our life journeys as Christians, we can become like Jesus. There are two ways that we can live the imitative life: the married life and the celibate life. And both of these are gifts.
Celibacy is a gift
Marriage is commonly viewed as a gift. You'll hear newly married people say, "Oh, my husband's such a gift." "Oh, my wife's such a gift." But it's rare to hear a celibate person say, "Oh, my celibacy is such a gift." Rarely will you hear it elucidated, "It's a gift from God so that I might live the imitative life." A gift, in a necessary play on words, is a present. A gift has to do with the presence of something or someone. But so often celibacy seems like an absence. Usually, celibacy is defined by what's not there. "I'm celibate because I don't have a husband." "I'm celibate because I don't have a wife." "My life is marked by a sense of lack, not a sense of fullness."
Generally speaking, the American culture is not going to help you move out of that perspective. Our culture has an underpinning of performance. Celibates are viewed as those who haven't succeeded. There's a problem with them. There's a flaw. There's a reason for the absence in their lives. And I'm not sure the evangelical church, the conservative Protestant church, is much different in its perspective. Many people in the evangelical church look at the celibate life and think, It's so sad, so incomplete. But that's not the teaching of Scripture. That is not the practice we see throughout the traditions of the church.
In Scripture, celibacy is understood very clearly and very explicitly as a gift given for life in Christ. When I define celibacy, I don't use the word single. As a matter of fact, I chaff at that word biblically and theologically, because no person is single. No person is living in a vacuum. All persons come, as we are taught in Genesis, from Adam. All persons are made for life with God and life with one another. No, the celibate is someone called to the chaste or virginal imitative life in and of the Lord.
Celibates have all kinds of backgrounds and ways in which they've come to the celibate gift. There are those who are post-high-school adults, young adults, college students. Those of you who aren't married, which is most of you, there's a celibate calling on your life. The widow and the widower are called to the celibate life. The divorced are called to celibacy. Some have a life-long celibate calling. Some make holy vows within different traditions of the church. Others just have an agreement with God: "This is what I feel like I'm called to for the rest of my life, and I set my compass in that direction." And there are those who have a circumstantial celibate life, a seasonal celibate life—"I'm celibate right now, but I feel a healthy desire to be married."
Regardless of the particularities of your celibacy, you're not living in the introduction of the novel of your life. You're not in the preamble, the section you have to move through to get to the real meat of your story. You're not waiting for the story to start if you're living a celibate life now. You haven't fallen into it by happenstance. You are in the gift of God. God has called you to it. It's a vocation and a calling, and you are empowered to live this imitative life in Christ. You're not waiting for the story to start.
The gift of celibacy has three scriptural components to it:
The gift of singular devotion for the Lord
The gift of singular mission for the kingdom
The gift of iconic ministry for the church
Look with me in 1 Corinthians 7. When Paul wrote this letter, there was a tension in the church of Corinth. There were those who wanted to live the spiritual life, the life in the Spirit. Some were well-intentioned; some were not so well-intentioned. Leaders in Corinth were wondering, Who's spiritual and who isn't? A spiritual elitism arose when leaders decided who got to be in the inner circle and who was in the outer circle. Here they approach the issue of marriage and celibacy in an attempt to discern which state is greater.
A betrothal was like engagement in our current society, though with a greater commitment moving toward marriage. Betrothal, not unlike engagement, was an in-between state. The betrothed person was on their way to marriage, but still officially, and in reality, celibate. So the Corinthians were asking the question, What about the betrothed? If it's more spiritual not to be married, they should not marry. So Paul begins this section with, "Now, concerning the betrothed …" He's trying to answer the question regarding the spiritual calling of marriage and the spiritual calling of celibacy.
First Corinthians 7:7 is an interpretive umbrella that rides over Paul's teaching in verse 25. Paul says, "Now some have one gift and some have another. Both are given a gift in the Lord." Some have the gift of marriage. Some have the gift of celibacy. Both are gifts. Both are necessary. There is an advantage, he says, to the calling of the celibate. They have a gift of singular devotion for the Lord. They're given a gift of focus. Look at verses 32-34:
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord …. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman she's anxious about the worldly things, how to please her husband.
This stems from Jesus' teaching in Matthew 19: celibacy is a vocation and gift in itself. Several scriptural historians say there really wasn't a clear understanding of celibacy in the Hebraic way. Even in the Old Testament, you don't see the call to celibacy lifted up and explained and clarified. Indeed, marriage was the pathway to living your life in God. But Jesus breaks that wide open in Matthew 19, and Paul is elaborating on that. Paul is saying, "There are two gifts: celibacy and marriage." Celibacy is a radically new gift. And Paul is saying that celibates can focus their lives not on the one they're called to be one with, but can focus singularly on the Lord. You can devote more time and more emotional and spiritual energy focused on living your life in the Lord.
The gift of singular devotion for the Lord
Celibacy is a gift. Whenever we hear about gifts in the New Testament, it always has echoes of the great gift given at the feast of Pentecost, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. You were not called to celibacy without the power of the Holy Spirit—or without the gift of faith, hope, and love. You don't go into the gift of celibacy unequipped or unprepared. No, Paul says it's a gift of living in the Lord, of putting your roots deep within him. You can never know the Lord too much. You can never come too close to life in the Lord.
There are many examples of this singular devotion to the Lord. Of course, Christ himself was celibate. Now in Christ we get a "both-and." He is celibate, yet Ephesians 5 says he's married to the church. It's a mystery. Paul lived a celibate life. In the 20th century we see many Christian celibates who live full, engaged lives. C. S. Lewis, who thought he was a life-long celibate, became a seasonal celibate and married at the end of his life. Edith Stein was an important woman and thinker and philosopher and nun, a convert from Judaism in the 20th century. John Stott was an Anglican priest and leader.
Paul wants to be clear that as you live your life in the Lord and in the power of the gift of the Holy Spirit, you have everything you need to imitate Christ as a celibate. Your life is not defined by absence. Your life is defined by presence.
As a matter of fact, celibate brothers and sisters, there are things you can do in your life with the Lord that a married person cannot do. There are ministries and callings and ways of living life that you've been given that those who are called to the joys and challenges and trials of marriage cannot live.
There's a temptation to refuse the gift. And you have the freedom to do so. There's a heart refusal. The emotions of the heart are always seeking a way out of the celibate life, always thinking, always hoping. You reject the gift by imagining that you're not celibate, that just around the corner is that special relationship, that special man, that special woman. Somehow, someway, you're going to get out of this celibate life. It can become unhealthy. It's very healthy to desire a husband or wife. But it's unhealthy to obsessively desire to marry.
Accompanying the heart refusal is a bodily refusal—refusal with your sexuality to receive the gift of celibacy. There are two ways to imitate Christ: marriage and celibacy. And there are two ways to live out your sexuality: marriage and celibacy. The design of our bodies as men or as women point us to the reality that we're made for something other. Our bodies are made for something outside of us. But there's a particular dynamism in the college years and the college community where you see yourselves in a "Never Never Land," gray area. You're not yet married, but not necessarily celibate. So your sexual life reflects that in between stage. You're not going to do everything, because perhaps you're a conservative Christian student, But you're going to do a lot. That stems from a lack of understanding of the gift you've been given as a celibate.
You're called to virginity, to the virginal life. And you must not let culture and society convince you that the virginal life is a naïve or disconnected life. Within Christendom, the virginal life is an engaged life. It's a life that can lead to immense wisdom and understanding, the kind of holy streetwise you need to be to live your life in Christ. It's not a season of experimentation where you can try this and that sexually and figure things out. This is the season of celibacy when you're called to live a virginal life for the Lord in fullness and joy and engagement. This isn't a season to free yourself from repression and from rigid church rules. No, you're called to honor your brothers, women, to honor your sisters, men.
It grieves the Lord when you don't treat your bodies like a temple of the Holy Spirit. Maybe you don't fully understand this. Perhaps you've imbibed the water that's coming out of the cultural faucet so long that you aren't clear on this. It's possible you went to a Christian school or were part of a Christian youth group and you aren't clear on this. Never in Holy Scripture, never in the traditions of the church, have there been calls for celibates to engage sexually with each other. Is there appropriate romantic expression between men and women as they date? Yes. But I've never had anybody come to me on their wedding day and say, "I wish I'd done more sexually." Never.
Here's one thought about how we understand celibacy as a gift. You may need some kind of concrete item that you regularly interact with that reminds you of your celibate vocation and calling. For the married people in our culture, it's a ring. I know some parents give purity rings to their adolescents. Perhaps you need a ring on your finger that reminds you of your celibacy. Perhaps it's a necklace or a painting. It should be a concrete expression that reminds you that you didn't just fall into this, and you're not just living in a gray existence. You're celibate, you're called to celibacy, and it's a gift from the Lord.
The gift of singular mission for the kingdom
But there's more. One celibate at this church said to me, "Celibacy has to be more than just being able to have a longer quiet time." Just having a longer quiet time is not enough motivation to live a celibate life. Singular devotion is important, but Jesus is really clear that when he inaugurates the office of celibacy, when he sets this reality into place and speaks authoritatively, he does so not just for the purpose of devotion but also for the purpose of mission. He talks about a gift of singular mission for the kingdom.
In Matthew 19:11, the disciples react to Jesus' teaching on marriage and divorce. They say to him in verse 10: "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it's better not to marry." And he says to them, "Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given." So there are some who are called to the gift of marriage, but Jesus is very clear that not everyone is called to marriage. You don't have to get married. Jesus says marriage is a great calling, but it's one with trial and challenge. "That which God has joined together, let man not put asunder." But not everyone is called to this gift. Jesus says, "There are eunuchs from birth, and those that were made eunuchs by man. And there are also those who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this [gift] receive it."
When we hear eunuch we think, first and foremost, of castration. But our Lord is not saying you should castrate yourself. Eunuchs were those who were castrated, but they were also the head of the king. The eunuch was that one who understood the heart of the king, worked closely with the king, and executed the mission of the king. Jesus is saying there are those who will be eunuchs for the kingdom. There are those who will not engage sexually in marriage but will be able to live a chaste, virginal sexuality, and they will do so for the kingdom of God. Celibacy that is made to imitate Christ will make no sense without the mission of giving your life away for others. Having longer quiet times is not enough. Part of celibacy in the Christian understanding is to give your life away. It's self donation.
Christopher West, a Catholic thinker who's done some wonderful thinking on sexuality in the contemporary context, says, "Our sexuality calls us to give ourselves away in life-giving love." The celibate person doesn't reject this call. He just lives it in a different way. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a little bit closer to our own tradition as Anglicans, lived a celibate life. He was engaged to be married. He was betrothed but never married and was executed in Nazi Germany before his marriage. He lived 40 years as a celibate. He says, "The essence of celibacy, the essence of chastity, is not the suppressing of lust but the total orientation of one's life toward a goal." Celibacy is not detachment. It is profound and full engagement.
There are many within this community who are living engaged and full celibate lives. If you don't know what that looks like, come to our women's ministry, come to our men's ministry. Get engaged. You will find role models in this church of people who deeply understand these realities. We couldn't build this church without our celibates.
The temptation, in light of this mission calling, is not necessarily to reject the gift but to remake the gift. It's to take it and exchange it in some way. "I've got the gift, but I'd like to reform it. I'd like to remake it. I'd like to make this gift in my own image." The great temptation here is to live not for mission but for self actualization, to say, "I've got a little bit more time and I may have more financial resources. Why not invest them in myself and in my desire for a full life and what I determine is a full life." Self actualization overcomes self donation. But the truth of the Christian way is that self donation leads to an actualization of the true self. This is a calling of receiving profoundly from the Lord in singular devotion and giving in a singular mission for the sake of the kingdom.
This is not a place to hide. If you have issues with the opposite gender, and living a celibate life is a way to never have to deal with the opposite gender, then you need a healing in your soul to bless women if you're a man, to bless men if you're a woman. You're still a spiritual father. You're still a spiritual mother. One of our celibates put it this way: "I believe that I cannot fully embrace all the goodness of the celibate life until I can truly acknowledge how good it would have been to get married." The opposite is true as well—the married person should imagine how good it would have been to have been celibate, had God called you to celibacy.
The gift of iconic ministry for the church
Finally, there's a gift of iconic ministry for the church. In 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, we have a poetic interlude on Paul's part. Poetry is one of the ways to understand what is happening here. We're moving into a profound mystery. We take off our shoes at this point. We're walking on sacred ground here. Some things are implicit in the Scriptures, made more explicit by the early church. Let's look at this little poetic interlude:
This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, those who buy as though they had no goods, those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
What is Paul saying? Didn't he say in Ephesians 5 that a man is to love his wife and give up his life for her? Yet now he's saying to live as if you have no wife. Here's what he's saying: live for the Lord first. Whether you are married or you are celibate, live for the Lord first. Care about him first above all things. This is a dynamism that occurs between what theologians call "the already-and-not-yet." The "already" is that Jesus is already resurrected. Jesus is already present in his body and in his sacraments. Jesus is here. And yet he's not yet fully here. We come into a season like Advent where we wait for him and we expect his return, and he hasn't fully come back, and there is still evil and disease and death. We're caught between this "already" where the realities of the supernatural with signs and wonders are here and present, and the "not yet." And that "already-and-not-yet" gets concretized in celibate and married people.
Married people are an icon. They're a picture, a portrayal of the "already." In marriage you see the "already" reality that Jesus loves the church and has given up his life for the church on the holy cross. Married people live that out. They're an icon of that. The church needs them to reflect that reality.
But in celibates we get an icon of the "not yet." If marriage is the sacramental dance, in celibacy we have a divine dance showing us that, ultimately, all of our fulfillment will be found in God and God alone. The reality of this world is fading away, and we don't live by sight but by faith. And the celibates are the ones who have the courage and the calling to live that kind of immediacy. You're living that closeness with the Lord and that singular focus on the Lord that all of us will one day live.
We're not going to a particular marriage in heaven. Jesus says in Matthew 20:22 that there will come a day when the Resurrection fully occurs and Jesus returns. There's not going to be any giving and taking in marriage. There will be one marriage—the people of God with God himself. And we're all heading in that direction. But, celibates, you live that icon now. We who are married need you to live that icon. We need you to live out and conquer the reality that we must not idolize our children or our wives or our husbands, but that we're all going the same place—ultimate life in Christ together. It has to be concretized. It can't just be in our heads. And we actually share that tension now in the church.
Do you see the stakes if you reject this gift? Celibates remind us that we must expect more of heaven and less of earth. But there are temptations to reject the gift, to remake it, and to resent it at times, because the spectrum of loneliness is always right there. The celibate life, like the married life, requires great sacrifice in the arena of loneliness. Those who are married with children have their sacrifices. They have their crosses to bear. Celibates have theirs, too. We must form a cross-based solidarity where we bless each other.
Celibates, thank you. Thank you for living this icon of the "not yet." The rest of us, thank you. Thank you for the sacrifices you make of living this icon of the "already." Bless one another and care for one another.
Those who are celibate for the sake of the kingdom of God and the work of the church, those who are married need you. And marrieds, the celibates need your marriages.
"Imitate God," Paul says. "Walk in love as Jesus loved us and gave himself for us, an offering, a sacrifice to God."
Stewart Ruch III is the rector of the Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois and the bishop of the Midwest Diocese for the Anglican Church in North America.