Given the fact that a number of Christians have adopted the idea that a person can have a gay identity, and yet live a full Christian life, just so long as he or she is committed to celibacy, it is time for us to go back and review some basics. There are many areas of human endeavor where an apparently slight error at the start lands you in some very weird territory later on, and human sexuality is most certainly one of those areas.
One of the more striking things about Wesley Hill’s book Spiritual Friendship is how it demonstrated that he is trapped (as he thinks) in a condition of celibacy without having been given the gift of celibacy. He needs to be with someone, and because of his theological commitments when it comes to bedtime he can’t be with someone of the same sex—in that way. So he is trying to thread the needle, coming up with a jury-rigged friendship system that will meet his emotional need without breaking any scriptural rule. But it won’t meet his need and, the world being what it is, this approach will soon enough be demanding that the scriptural rule be broken—if not by Hill, then certainly by others in his train.
Joe Sobran once put his finger on the problem. “What is peculiar in our own time is not that homosexuality has become important, but that it has become so self-important” (Subtracting Christianity, p. 304). But this requires development.
If I may, I would like to fill up this brief section with some basic distinctions, and go on later to discuss and apply them. Failure to maintain these distinctions has caused—and will continue to cause—no end of confusion. At this stage of the game, I will content myself with simple assertions, and try to fill in a case for them later as I go.
If a monk has taken a vow of celibacy, he has vowed to remain unmarried. If he has sexual relations with a woman after taking this vow, he has sinned against chastity, but has not broken his vow of celibacy. He is still unmarried. In short, celibacy and chastity are not the same thing.
We also have to distinguish between the gift of celibacy, to be discussed below, and the condition of celibacy. That condition may be voluntary and self-imposed, or it may be involuntary, imposed in effect by others.
An example of the latter would be the recent appearance of the incels—the involuntary celibates. These are the gents who are deeply angered over the fact that none of the girls will give them a tumble, and so in retaliation they go out and shoot up some establishment or other. You can read more about the rise of a violent wing of the incels here.
Voluntary celibates may do it for reasons of religious dedication (for life in a monastery or nunnery) or they may do it because they are sick to death of the club scene and want to take a break (for a season). Or they might be motivated for a different kind of religious reason—as we have seen with the thinking behind the Revoice conference. Those whose sexual desires seem to them to be limited to members of the same sex, but who also believe Scripture prohibits marriage between two men or two women, are necessarily locked into a form of involuntary celibacy. More on this below.
In the strict sense, chastity is purity. In the strict sense, celibacy may or may not be pure. Which leads to another point, to be developed shortly, which is that the condition of singleness is not the same thing as the gift of celibacy.
Too Persnickety About Language?
Now I know that I being something of a language curmudgeon in all of this, but I think these distinctions are important. I know that our language in its current state lumps chastity and celibacy into something that simply means “not having sex right now.” But remember the lesson from Orwell—“the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
Sobran again: “If you want to distinguish between the innocent and the guilty, you define crimes precisely. If, however, you merely want to maximize the number of convictions, increase the power of accusers, and create an atmosphere of dread, you define crimes as loosely as possible” (Subtracting Christianity, p. 363).
And you may depend upon it—a society that has trouble with the binary concept of male and female, is certainly going to have trouble distinguishing justice from injustice, a fair trial from a railroad job, and a group exhortation from a lynching.
Yet One More Distinction:
In Christian circles, as we continue to ape the patterns of the world, Christian young people are marrying later and later, just like the unbelievers are. In response to this, a number of Bible teachers have begun to emphasize the “gift of singleness.” But there is no gift of singleness in this sense. If someone is unmarried, and would very much like to be married (and/or needs to be married), this is an affliction, not a gift. Of course, like all afflictions (said the Calvinist), we must trust God in and through it, and we must lean toward the good that we know He is going to bring out of it (Rom. 8:28). And He will bring good out of it.
But at the same time we must distinguish between the joy that God gives us in the midst of a hard providence, and the joy that He gives us in the form of a gracious providence. All of it is from the hand of God, but there is still an important distinction between the honor of being dishonored (Acts 5:41), and the honor of being simply honored (Rom. 12:10).
The condition of being single is the same thing as the condition of being celibate, i.e. being without a partner. But because the world pressures everyone to marry later, take your time, and because the church is emphasizing what they call the gift of singleness, this troublesome trend lands way more people in the condition of being single than are gifted with the ability to be single.
Let the Westminster Confession tell you about it.
“No man may vow to do anything forbidden in the Word of God, or what would hinder any duty therein commanded, or which is not in his own power, and for the performance whereof he hath no promise or ability from God. In which respect, Popish monastical vows of perpetual single life, professed poverty, and regular obedience, are so far from being degrees of higher perfection, that they are superstitious and sinful snares, in which no Christian may entangle himself (WCF 22.7).
A man or woman who has the gift of celibacy knows it. If such a person turns down the married life (for the sake of frontier mission work, say), he may do so faithfully because he has decided on something that is within his own power, and his past life indicates that he has ability in this regard from God.
One time I was visiting with a young, unmarried man who suggested that he thought it was possible that he had the gift of celibacy. In response, I asked him if he ever used porn. Not surprisingly, he was somewhat taken aback, but said that yes, that had been a problem. And so I said that it was clear that he did not have the gift of celibacy, and that he needed to get married.
F-Words and F-Bombs
The world has been working industriously to mainstream the f-word. By doing this they can pretend that they are highly-sexed—because they can talk a crude game, we are invited to infer that they are the party commandos.
But the link between porn use and impotence is clear. It even has its own name now—pornography-induced-erectile-dysfunction (PIED). Porn-users, addicted to skin flicks, ironically have no skin in the game. When it comes to sex, as Taleb might say, they are all tawk. This is an old pattern. When any creaturely pleasure is idolized, the law of diminishing returns will at some point set in. The glutton no longer enjoys food, the wino no longer takes pleasure from wine, and so on. This is certainly true of our culture—with sex on the brain, consumed with lust, the older entente cordiale between the sexes is now in shambles.
If Christian men start to repent of their effeminacy, one of the first things that will happen is that they will need to marry a lot sooner than they are marrying now. They will have turned away from the two-dimensional sexual world that porn offers—kind of like some weird nicoderm patch—and they will find a real woman out in the real world, and they will find a bunch of real witnesses who will come to a real church, in which church they will promise in front of a real minister to devote themselves to a lifetime of real sex.
And so, by way of contrast, I would like to introduce you to some real f-words. They are words like fruitfulness, fertility, fecundity, feminine, and female. Are you aghast yet? These are not simply f-words. As an old-timey preacher might say, “Brethren, these are f-bombs.”
A Look at the Text:
The apostle Paul teaches that a married man is distracted by his duties to his spouse. He has many responsibilities.
“But I would have you without carefulness. He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife. There is difference also between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit: but she that is married careth for the things of the world, how she may please her husband. And this I speak for your own profit; not that I may cast a snare upon you, but for that which is comely, and that ye may attend upon the Lord without distraction” (1 Cor. 7:32–35).
Now what happens if a man without the gift of celibacy reads these words, misunderstands them, and as a consequence places himself in a condition of celibacy. What happens then? Because he is confusing things (gift and condition), he finds himself far more distracted than he would have been if married. If married (because he does not have the gift of celibacy), he is distracted by his sexual duties and responsibilities. But if that same man is unmarried (still without the gift of celibacy), he is distracted by a host of sexual irresponsibilities. The thing that is a distraction is the fact that he is in a sexual world without a gift of easy sexual continence. All Christians are called to a life of chastity, but when some has the gift of celibacy, this is not a hardship. If it is a hardship, then the person concerned does not have the gift.
In short, if a man is gifted by God for it, then the unmarried state really is a distraction-free world. But if he is not so gifted, it is nothing of the kind.
Paul wishes that all men had his liberty in this. But he recognized that it was a matter of God’s sovereign apportionment of gifts.
“For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that. I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, It is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn” (1 Cor. 7:7–9).
There is much more to be said on all of this, but I am over 2,000 words as it is. Ah, well. Another day.