Friday, October 4, 2013

Rethinking Celibacy

Unless you live under a rock, it has probably not escaped your notice that our culture is changing at lightening speed.  In the nineteen fifties sex outside of marriage was considered taboo (or, more accurately perhaps, a sin).  Today, sex is considered by many to be a normal part of any serious dating relationship.

And, like it or not, we live in a time when the definition of marriage is changing.  For many that observation immediately takes us to the issue of "gay marriage."  But, that's not what I am talking about at all.  I am really talking more about the absence of formal marriage.

"Living together" might have been the "hip" thing to do in the 60's and 70's, but today it is mainstream reality.  In fact, in the last couple of years I have been surprised to learn how often governmental laws and regulations encourage people to live together rather than opt for formal marriage.

For some it is because government assistance becomes less available (or unavailable) if a couple marries.  Others are incentivized away from marriage because of consequences that will take place due to a prior divorce.  Still others find tax advantages that make living together preferable to marriage.

Again, whatever our view of this cultural reality, we need to accept both the idea that times are changing, and that the changing times impact the church.  In the broadest sense, we need to ask ourselves how we are to treat and minister to people in our congregations who have embraced some shifting view of or about marriage.  However, that discussion is not really the point of this blog.

Rather, I have been thinking about how this cultural environment has impacted my own view of some things.  And, one of my views that has definitely been impacted, until recently, is my view of celibacy as a life decision.

 There are clearly verses in the Bible that can be read to suggest that a life decision of celibacy is the spiritually superior way to go.  For example, check out Mathew 19:

 10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
Matthew 19:10-12.
Or maybe you prefer 1 Corinthians 7:8, where the Apostle Paul said:

Now to the unmarried and the widows I say:  It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.

Now, before we go too far let me say three things:  (1) I realize there is context to consider in both of these verses; (2) I am not suggesting that Christians generally should consider living a celibate, unmarried life; and (3) I am not AT All suggesting that I myself might adopt a life of celibacy!

But, at the same time, for much of my Christian life (and certainly before I became serious about my faith) the idea of deciding to stay single and celibate for God, or the idea of a poverty vow for that matter, both seemed so alien to me -- indeed ridiculous!  But, lately I am not so sure.

The problem at the end of the day is simply this -- the greatest blessings in our lives often also have the greatest potential to distract us from God's purpose in our lives.  You see, when Jesus spoke of living like a eunuch "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven," I don't think He was talking about someone making a sacrifice to show how much he or she loves God.  Rather, I think He was talking about how much more we can do for the kingdom when we are focused exclusively on the kingdom -- or, by contrast, when we are not too entangled with earthly concerns.

The same concept certainly applies to money (and by extension material possessions).  This is precisely why Jesus warned us in no uncertain terms that we cannot serve two masters.

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money." 

Matthew 6:24

It is a radical thought, I know.  But, then again, we serve a radical God. 

Having said all this, I do not believe that either forced celibacy or forced poverty are good things.  When we sacrifice out of obligation rather than love it usually doesn't work out so well.  In fact, I suppose that is why after saying it was better to stay unmarried (like him) the Apostle Paul threw in this very important caveat:  "But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion."  1 Corinthians 7:9.  (that verse actually deserves an exclamation point!!)

While I am not advocating that we should all stay unmarried and sell everything we own, I do very much believe that each of us needs to search are own hearts from time to time in an effort to discover those things that stand between us  and our relationships with Him.  Are we too concerned with getting ahead?  Is our real focus in life preparing for retirement -- or for that matter preparing for the next vacation.  Has school become an idol for us -- education the real hallmark of success?

God wants us to love Him with everything we have.  If for some people that focus requires a life decision of celibacy or of poverty, I guess I am all for it.


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