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Preaching on Celibacy: An interview with Stewart Ruch III

By preaching on celibacy you can challenge your single adults to live into their full calling in Christ.

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 realize this, we begin to see that every person is profoundly connected, and has the ultimate destiny of absolute communion with God.

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.

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 one's heart to understand that the celibate state is not a curse. In fact, it can be a way in which one lives out a profound communion with God. Even a circumstantial celibate needs that kind of gift to understand hiw or her relationship to God, even though marriage may be coming.

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 that they have the opportunity to give the gift of themeselves to others. 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. Because if everyone can't have it, 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 celibate, 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.

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.

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