CELIBACY and SINGLENESS
Celebrating and Supporting the Lifestyle and Gifts of Celibacy and Singleness
By: Cameron Shepherd Beyenberg
Identity and Isolation
On June 26, 2015 the Supreme Court of the United States of America (SCOTUS) decided with a 5-4 split decision that same-sex couples can legally and civilly marry in each state throughout the nation. While this decision stimulated a celebration amidst the LGBTQ community, it has prompted a dramatic reaction from the Church in America as well. For those denominations and congregations that have not sided with this ruling, the conversation has been difficult to say the least. Some have written articles of warning to the Church declaring that if they do not make the right steps, same-sex couples will attack them with lawsuits.1 Others have written ways to explain that although these congregations and religious bodies who do not believe in same-sex marriage are safe, that the decision is a spiritual attack on the American Church.2
With all of this stated the foundation of the conversation seems to be faulty and missing key factors that can aid to a healthier, Biblical, and Christ-centered/Missio Dei perspective. First and foremost, as a Christian, my identity is rooted in Christ: in His birth, life, teachings, actions, death, resurrection, ascension, and promises. As a child of the Most High King, I recognize that there are certain attributes in this world that contribute to how I can be described. These attributes can be descriptive, such as the reddish brown hair on my head, the tattoos on my arms, my style of clothing, the job I work, the games I play, the food I eat, or essentially, the things I do. There are other descriptions that comprise how one can ‘identify’ me according to certain terminology: male, pastor, white, skinny, etc. Some would even go as far to identify me through the emotions I feel, or the desires and attractions I have for people or things.
For example, the American Psychological Association (APA) has defined sexual orientation as:
an enduring pattern of emotional, romantic, and/or sexual attraction. It also includes a person’s self-identification and sense of who they are based on those attractions, as well as their community of supports. It is important to note that sexual orientation is distinct from other components of sex and gender, such as biological sex, gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female), and social gender role (norms that define feminine and masculine behavior). What is most important in this definition is that sexual orientation is not simply a trait, but should be defined in terms of relationships with others.3
According to the APA, it is clear that there is an identity based upon sexual attraction and desire. It is also clear that within this definition, identity is relinquished to emotions and attractions. Both sets of moods or feelings, which can be shifted at any time due to circumstances, influence, or support, are the basis for identification and belonging.
However, in the revelation of God’s love for the world and in the acceptance of His great love through the sacrificing atonement of Christ Jesus of Nazareth, when one receives the invitation of love, one is also saying ‘yes’ to the journey of relationship with God. In this relationship, one acknowledges Christ as both Lord and Savior, receives His love through receiving the grace of God that forgives the penalty of sin, and is adopted into the family of God as a child, and therefore an heir (Rom. 8:15-17, Gal. 4:1-7). In this movement into eternal life,one is identified not based upon what they have done, what job they work, or what house they live in, but rather by the work that Christ has done, is doing, and will do.
With this stated, we recognize a new identity that has been found in Christ alone, an identity that matches the creational intentions of God: to love us. Our calling, identity, purpose, destiny, etc. is wrapped up in being loved by God, loving God in return, loving neighbor and self, and making disciples as Christ commanded us to. Nowhere in the Biblical narrative are Christians identified as sexual desires, but rather they are written to as the Beloved, Children, etc. In this manner, it is primarily difficult to assert an identification of a person based upon a sexual preference. This is not only an argument against a homosexual, lesbian, gay, or bi-sexual identity, but also against a heterosexual identity. As Christians, our identity is in Christ, for we are not sexual desires.
Secondly, as a Christian, I long to love God, love people, and make disciples as I partner and serve in the Free Methodist Church. I agree doctrinally and in reflective, worshipful, and balanced practice of their orthodoxy. In this manner, the Free Methodist Church (FMC) has stated that they hold marriage to be the union of one man and one woman according to Scripture. The FMC believes that only in the covenant before God and state does sexual intimacy find its proper setting. Not only this, but because of the FMC’s Scriptural, theological, and orthodox perspective on marriage, the marriage between members of the same sex is not supported or allowed.4
Within the FMC’s doctrinal writings, The Book of Discipline, there is a large section devoted to marriage, the support of married couples, healing for troubled marriages, divorces, healing from divorce and remarriage. However, with the latest ruling from the SCOTUS, and the renewed statement on the FMC’s view of marriage (between one man and one woman) from General Conference 2015, there seems to be an open place for dialogue concerning those brothers and sisters who are asserting their identity within their sexuality, or feel as if they have been born with such desires that they cannot live differently.
If the FMC, as well as other denominations, assert marriage by definition to be between one man and one woman, then there also needs to be help and recognition for those choosing to live in the lifestyles and gifts of singleness and celibacy. We cannot continue to limit support and encouragement to those who are married when we live in a culture in which 27% of American adults never marry—the largest percentage in the past 60 years, according to the latest U.S. Census (2010). Among those ages 25 to 29, the never-marrieds increased from 27% in 1986 to 47% in 2009.5
With such a heavy influence upon individual Christians and Americans to marry and uphold the values of family, there is no doubt a discouragement toward many who have chosen to be single or given themselves to the Lord through vows of celibacy. This is hindering those who are single in the Church with feelings of brokenness, being incomplete, or being disqualified from ministry because of their lack of a spouse. Not only this, but many men, and more frequently women, are looked down upon for not choosing to abide by the systems and supported statuses of the Church and culture. I would argue that valuing marriage over singleness and celibacy relegates women to a role less than what they were created to be. Rather than empowering single women to lead in ministry and institutions, they are expected to marry, stay at home as mother, and be the subservient wife who supports her husband’s calling. By encouraging singles and celibates in the Church we are empowering every person to live out God’s creational intentions in their life.
Scripture and the Call of Love
Following the SCOTUS ruling in June 2015, one of the Supreme Court Justices, Anthony Kennedy, commented on the decision with interesting remarks. He stated, “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than they once were. Their (same-sex couples) hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.”6
Although there are certainly examples of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family within the union of marriage, I would argue that the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family are found in the Triune God alone. Does marriage point to God? Absolutely. Can singleness as well? Absolutely. This is the defining issue for the Church as we move forward, not in reaction, but in loving response, and proactive creativity. If we cannot respond in love, truth, and grace by providing a location of family, encouragement, and support of the health and lifestyle of singles/celibates, we may be preaching a message of oppression rather than liberation.
Within the Biblical narrative there are most assuredly accounts, messages, and encouragements for marriage. I am by no means trying to downgrade the blessed covenant of marriage. I am married and firmly believe that within marriage I am able to receive God’s love, love God, love neighbor, love self, and make disciples to the best of my ability. However, this is not the same for every child of God. For many in the Church, a lifestyle of singleness and celibacy has been their choice of receiving and giving love, yet without the proper support and family encouragement, their calling is hindered and our united mission in God is divided.
In the Scriptural narrative, Jesus describes marriage, singleness, and celibacy (Matthew 19). He starts with the Genesis account by describing one man and one woman coming together to join as ‘one flesh.’ He declares that humanity should not pull apart what God has placed together. He continues to declare that divorce was never supposed to be an outcome of marriage and that no person should remarry unless sexual infidelity has occurred.
Following Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ question, Jesus’ disciples ask if it is better for them not to marry. Jesus responds to them by saying that this is a hard teaching to accept, but for those that can accept, they should. Not only this, but the chapter is concluded with Jesus encouraging the disciples to leave behind everything, including their nuclear family. This is both damaging to the contemporary view of marriage and family, and yet exemplifies a manner in which marriage and family is Christ centered, and equal to that of celibacy.
Christ Jesus expands this understanding of family in His response to the Sadducees in Matthew 22. He provokes an understanding of living fully in the resurrection and does so as He corrects the Sadducees’ perception on the resurrection, and further demonstrates that people do not marry in the resurrection. Ultimately, this eschatological picture is fully illustrated through an analogy of Christ Jesus returning as the Lamb for the Bride of the Lamb in Revelation 19. Family is no longer just seen as the husband, wife, 2.5 kids, dog, and American Dream, but rather family is associated with the larger Kingdom adoption and unified goal of loving God, loving people, and making disciples.
Paul continues in this thought on marriage and singleness using similar language in 1 Corinthians 7 in which he instructs the Corinthian congregations to pursue the Lord first through singleness and celibacy, but if they do not have that gift or live that kind of life, then they ought to marry. This is counter to our understanding of relationship in the Church where the value of marriage is far above and beyond the value of singleness and celibacy. However, Paul stresses, like Jesus, that marriage and singleness are both valued and necessary for the Church to live out their calling. He writes in 1 Cor. 7:17, “Nevertheless, each person should live the kind of life that the Lord assigned when He called each one.”
Empowering Singles and Couples
Within this perspective of singleness, celibacy, and marriage, we recognize a Church that celebrates, supports, and encourages each person to live out what God has called them: to be loved, to love, and to make disciples. In confidence and certainty, we can empower the single young adult female just as much as the married middle-aged mother. We can equip the celibate 53 year old, just as much as the newlywed pastoral couple. Not only can we do this, but we ought to, as a demonstration of God’s gracious gifting, calling, purpose, destiny, and design in each person.
Jenell Williams Paris wrote a wonderful book on this entire conversation titled The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex is Too Important to Define Who We Are. Within the book, she writes a chapter on the topic of singleness, celibacy, and chastity. She scribes,
It’s important—and, within many churches, certainly countercultural—to understand why Christians often choose against chastity. It’s not always that they’re choosing a bad thing (sexual hedonism) over a good thing (morality). Sometimes they might be choosing a good thing that is real (a sexual relationship outside of marriage) over a good thing that doesn’t even exist (a well-supported and relationally rich celibate life in the Church.) Or, if they already feel judged to hell because of their sexual orientation or their sexual past, they might just be giving up on trying to meet the impossible standards set by other Christians.7
All too often, we as the Church try to box God, people, and options into more comfortable and less messy lifestyles. Maybe in the midst of what some may refer to as moral crisis, there is rather opportunity for the Church to be exactly what the Father has gathered us to be: family. Although family is messy, it is best choice in this season.
Such people as theologian priest Henri Nouwen or prophetic evangelist Lonnie Frisbee had open struggles with their lifestyles of singleness, celibacy, and homosexual attraction. My question is: if the Church did not celebrate and empower their lives, would we have been impacted by the grace, love, and voice of God through them both? Especially with regards to Nouwen, if we chose as the Church to disregard his singleness for the ‘higher valued’ married couple of theologians, would as many people know Jesus today as could have without him? Or as for Frisbee, where would the Vineyard Church be today if we chose to value him based upon his struggles with sexual desire?
In this manner, a recent interview with Pastor Annette Kakimoto revealed some interesting and hope-filled responses. Pastor Annette is a single, third generation Japanese, female pastor that serves in Southern California. She called this a triple bind in ministry: being a woman, being influenced with her cultural upbringing, and being single. She has found ministry both freeing and difficult in being a single, female pastor because she is very aware of sexuality and gender, especially in being careful with whom she meets and how she meets with them. Even when we met in a public setting in-between our locations, she asked for me to bring another party as to make the meeting more than one male and one female.
Although she felt more discriminated against being a female pastor, I could sense that there was also a disadvantage in her being single as a pastor. Can you sense it? Imagine walking a mile in Annette’s shoes. Would couples ask a single, female pastor for premarital or marriage counseling? (Side note: After meeting with her, I certainly would have loved to have gone through some counseling with Annette!) Or even in my describing Annette, I am spending more time speaking about her gender and her marital status rather than focusing on her identity in Christ. The reality is that she is not opposed to marriage, or that she is avoiding it, but rather Annette is pursuing her Savior as He leads, and she is completely content in her identity rooted in Christ Jesus.
Celebrating and Supporting Singleness and Celibacy
With all of this stated, the greater question presented is this: when and how will the Free Methodist Church celebrate and support the lifestyles of singleness and celibacy? As the familiar phrase goes, “There’s a time and place for everything,” and I would like to suggest both times and places for the celebration and support of singleness and celibacy within the Church.
The time is now. The conversation is timely as the Church navigates the conversation of defining marriage. There has always been the calling for people to choose singleness and celibacy, but it has become more difficult to pursue this calling in our hyper-sexualized culture, and our neglecting of these gifted statuses in the Church. There is an opportunity for a pivotal ministry of reconciliation, life, and Kingdom family to expand.
But how can this be done? I believe this is answered with another question. If the option for those identifying as their sexual desires is a lifetime of singleness and celibacy, like Supreme Court Justice Kennedy pointed to, there seems to be a sentence of loneliness and voiceless solitude in unqualified status. However, with the narrative of Scripture and the words of Jesus pointing toward a celebration and support of singleness, we arrive at a face-off of what is truth concerning marital status in our culture, but more importantly, the Kingdom. Not only does this play into the vision of how people are valued, but it plays into the reality of how we value them.
This is the question that needs to be asked: if we are asking for people to choose singleness and celibacy, then who will be the family to these singles when they are sick and need to be taken care of? Who will be the family to those living as celibate when a family member passes away and they need aid through emotional, spiritual, psychological, or even financial support? Who will be the family that celebrates their vows to the Lord of remaining single and celibate as a lifestyle of holiness that expresses worship, praise, and obedient service to the King of kings? Or even for the non-believer that is single, who will be the family that welcomes, includes, and embraces them based upon their identity in Christ rather than their marital status?
The answer: the Church. It is time for the Church to support and love our singles as much as our married couples. It is time for the Church to raise the bar of encouragement for those choosing celibacy as much as they pour into married couples through counseling before, during, and sometimes after marriages. I would argue that the Church is that family to support, love, and encourage. They are the gathered and called out children of God, created with intentional and purposeful creative ways of loving all people as they have been loved.
Community, Curriculum, Communication
Below are suggestions of creative ways in which those in the Church who are single or celibate can be embraced, equipped, and empowered in community, through curriculum, and in honorable communication. Community is the first manner in which we can celebrate and support singles and celibates in the Church. As I chatted with Pastor Annette, her main theme in her responses was focused on celebrating her identity in the Lord, not her marital status. As the Church, we are called to guide, support, and celebrate the choice of the believer in their path of 6 best receiving and giving God’s love. For some, this means marriage, for others this means a season of singleness, and for those who have received and are responding to the gift, celibacy. The key to this is through a dynamic community that is not focused on moving people forward from one season (singleness) to the next (marriage), but rather that is focused on giving the people of God a sense of their personhood and identity in Christ Jesus. I believe that once we begin to value and equip our singles and celibates to live as Christ has called them, we will begin to see a great shift in the Church and in our world.
Not only would community events for all promote an equal valuing of the people of God, but also curriculum for all. Some examples of curriculum and opportunity are in celibacy and singleness counseling which can mirror the reflective, prayerful, and traditional manners of marriage counseling. Celibacy and singleness vow ceremonies can mirror the traditional manners of weddings. Conferences in which singles and married couples are able to journey together in dialogue, prayer, and worshipful reflection can mirror the countless marriage seminars in the world. Opportunities for single parents can be provided just as much as for coupled parents. Single and celibate clergy and laity can be acknowledged for years in their covenants before the Lord just as anniversaries are celebrated for married clergy and laity. As we value all people equally in the Church, we will see more creative strategies in which we can embrace, empower, and support.
There is a curriculum that has been developed by Sharon and Terry Hargrave rooted in contextual therapy that they have termed as “Restoration Therapy” and more specifically, “MarriageStrong”.9 It is an incredible program that helps couples to see places of pain and their reactions to this pain as they look into the contexts of family of origin, friends, and mentors. They then assess their pains and reactions, and develop a way to declare the truth and new responses in order to essentially reprogram their minds to respond from truth, love, and trust.
There are many couples that have gone through this course and have had their lives and marriages impacted for the better. Now imagine if we, as the Church, focused our attention not only on those marriages, but on singles and celibates in helping them to walk in healthy relationships before marriages. Imagine if this curriculum was taught to singles and celibates, not in hopes of getting them out of their singleness, but rather to help them better develop sustainable and healthy relationships regardless of marital status.
The Hargraves have created a curriculum that was developed from many conversations that they had at different conferences and congregations in which various singles and unmarrieds would approach them asking about the development and teaching of a curriculum for people in their position and marital status. Therefore, they developed “RelateStrong” which walks through the contextual therapy approach of understanding pains and reactions, and discovering ways to declare the truth and implement new responses rooted in those truths. The beauty of this curriculum is that it mirrors the powerful teachings of “MarriageStrong”, yet it has been developed for those who may be single, unmarried, divorced, widowed, or celibate. Programs such as “RelateStrong” and “MarriageStrong” should be offered in many congregations in hopes of valuing the stages of life and relationships that all people are in.
This even trickles into the curriculum taught within youth and young adult groups. The reality is that the indoctrination of the necessity of marriage, the nuclear family, and the American Dream comes from various locations, with the Church being one of them. In youth programs within the Church, perhaps the leadership should be connecting with parents on TV shows, language, activities, etc. that the students and families engage in. This should include connecting with students on media influences, school influences, and other avenues of engagement in systems that value one lifestyle over the other. Curriculum that can be taught should be focused on preaching identity in Christ as foundational and practical theology, rather than telling the students what to do. Further, development of better co-ed and gender specific small group times for students to learn from and dialogue with each other would be beneficial in giving support to both the lifestyles of singleness and marriage. And finally, planning events that do not promote one lifestyle over the other, including movies, games, etc. that point toward a value on marriage or singleness will prove to give language, thought, and encouragement to students to think and pray about this matter.
Finally, honorable communication is vital to a movement forward in supporting the singles and celibates of our Church. The pulpit is a great place of influence in the Church. It is a place in which people are inspired, challenged, encouraged, and ultimately empowered through the preaching of the Word to hear, read, and live out the Scriptural lifestyle. If we are preaching a message that values marriage more than singleness and celibacy, we may not be preaching the same message that Jesus and His apostles were. If we do not preach the holistic Gospel that reveals people are made complete in God alone, not marriage or being single, we may not be preaching the Gospel at all. My hope is that we would be challenged to recognize identity in Christ, to be prayerful in how we not only preach, but how we live out our preaching, and ultimately, how the Church can become more unified as a family caring for and empowering every member.
In the end, we are in a time in which many things are changing, in which many are finding their identity in work, relationship statuses, and sexuality. At this time, the Church cannot back away from engagement with all people, but rather the Church needs to enter deep dialogue with one another in order to better love and celebrate those who are single, married, divorced, widowed, etc. Our goal is not to just engage one group of people, or to only reach people during certain life stages, but rather to empower them regardless of grouping, age, or marital status. As Pastor Annette stated in our interview, “I don’t find the issue being in my singleness or not having a husband, for being single isn’t an issue. I find my personhood in Christ, and for me, that’s enough.” This should be our goal: to give room for all to find their personhood in Christ Jesus, and for that to truly be enough.
If we are to see a movement forward in this conversation with many who are identifying through sexuality, marital status, and life stage, we need to be creative, prayerful, and reflective as we celebrate and empower all people the way our Lord does. Coming back to our friend Henri Nouwen, he writes in Reaching Out about the concept of hospitality and the pastoral necessity of being hospitable to the people of God. Nouwen posits,
Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.10
In this manner, I believe the FMC can begin to assess and create loving and grace-filled strategies that are hospitable, leading to a world, Church, and Kingdom that is filled with children of the Most High King who are not identified by their sexual desires or valued for their relationship statuses, but who are rather confident in their calling in Christ because of their support, love, encouragement, and provision from their family members in Christ’s Church. Amen.
1 http://www.charismanews.com/opinion/the-pulse/50317-5-things-churches-should-do- immediately-to-protect-themselves
4 The Book of Discipline 2011, Paragraph 3311.
7 Paris, Jenell Williams. The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are. Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Books, 2011.
8 Hargrave, Terry D., and Franz Pfitzer. Restoration Therapy: Understanding and Guiding Healing in Marriage and Family Therapy. New York: Routledge, 2011.
10 Nouwen, Henri J.M. Reaching Out: the Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. Garden City, NY: Image, 1986.