A report released last year by Olive Tree Media found that 29% of Australians interviewed considered the church’s stance on homosexuality to “completely block” their ability to engage with Christianity. A further 15% found it a “significant block”. This means that nearly 50% of interviewees found the church’s views on homosexuality a serious impediment to their ability to engage with the Christian message.
While it is not surprising that Christian ethics are different to those held by the rest of a secular society, these figures should cause churches some alarm. Hopefully, statistics like these will prompt churches to address any homophobia which may exist, and to come up with new ways of engaging gay communities. But perhaps they might also prompt churches to reconsider something a little less obvious – their teaching on celibacy.
A gay convert in most churches is told to either get straight or live celibate. And so it is worth asking what our churches teach about celibacy. Would the gay follower of Jesus called to celibacy by their church perceive in that church’s culture and practices that celibacy is highly esteemed? Would they hear this message proclaimed: celibacy is a blessed, even the most blessed relational vocation? I suspect not.
If we are to believe our own Scriptures, a celibate life should be a thing of honour. Jesus was celibate, as was the apostle Paul who wrote in 1 Cor 7 that “he who marries does right, but he who does not marry does even better.” And as Shane Claiborne writes, no one looks at Mother Teresa and thinks, “‘Man, too bad she didn’t find her husband.’”
Marcy Hintz in an article for Christianity Today wrote that the church tends to have either a “passive or palliative approach to singleness.” Celibacy, she suggests, is not celebrated as a worthy vocation, but is seen, at best, as an unfortunate thing that happens to you, or at worst a terrible illness you should try to get rid of.
Many modern churches have bought into the lack of value celibacy is given in broader Western society, and are guilty of what Scott Bessenecker has called “the worship of family and the white picket fence”, to such an extent that celibacy is far from being perceived as “better” than marriage; it is almost unthinkable.
What would it look like if we took scriptural instruction and the example of the Christian tradition seriously, and returned celibacy to a place of honour in our churches?
A church that truly valued celibacy would be careful about its use of language, and instead of the term “single” which denotes a lack of choice, would perhaps choose to use the term “celibate” which suggests vocation.
This church would have celibate as well as married leaders, and young people might be seriously encouraged to consider committing to celibate lives of service.
But perhaps most importantly, a church that took celibacy seriously would have structures and patterns of community life that made celibate life in a couple-centrist culture practically, economically and emotionally feasible.
I asked a gay Christian friend what he thought of the choice offered by evangelicals of marriage or celibacy. He paused for a long time and then said quietly, “It’s such a big ask.” How hard is it that we give people a choice between marriage —shiny, glorified and celebrated—and celibacy—tatty, undervalued and unattractive?
At the moment it seems to me that we offer all single Christians, but especially gay ones, far too little. A re-valuing of celibacy is not only plainly Biblical, but it would help the church to both welcome and offer an honoured way of life to people with different sexualities. The church desperately needs to return celibacy to its rightful place of honour.
Kate Wilscox is a freelance writer based in Sydney. Read more at katewilcox.net
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