The Forgotten Gift
by John W. Thompson
When Jesus called men and women to be his disciples, he did not hesitate to challenge them with hard sayings. His expectations for discipleship could not be met by routine religiosity or easy lip service. (Witness the Sermon on the Mount.) Even men and women already disposed toward him were at times amazed by what he called them to. Moreover, Jesus was very serious about the matter of commitment; he did not want mere profession, no matter how extravagant. He wanted follow through, a genuine yielding of the will. And so he would try to dissuade his followers from impulsively responding to a call that they were not yet prepared to live out. He always counselled counting the cost. Beyond this, what he required was not always a simple command, neatly cut and dried: he also required deep personal searching to see what one could give, and an encouragement to personal sacrifice, willingly given. It is somewhat disquieting for someone wishing to be truly generous in spirit with his Lord to realize that there is no ceiling to this voluntary and progressive sacrifice (what might be called the way of the cross, Matthew 16:24–26); there are no limits other than those imposed by nature or counselled by a pastoral prudence.
Though not popular and in some circles hardly discussed, these principles still apply. The Spirit of Jesus still moves men and women to such sacrifice; and the hard sayings of the gospel remain there for each generation, for each disciple. They often make us uncomfortable, at least to the degree that we hear them. And if honesty or the Spirit’s prompting won’t let us easily ignore them, we develop elaborate schemes, some psychological and some theological, to shield ourselves. For instance, we may dismiss Jesus’ hard sayings as “peripheral” to his true mission, or we may relegate specific applications to the shadowy realm of questionable practices and accretions from the early Church. Yes, we have many methods to render these hard sayings and disturbing counsels sufficiently inapplicable or removed from ourselves.
But we lose something by such maneuvers. The discomfort which these hard sayings sometimes create, like pain in our bodies, can be meant as a type of warning. And when we resort to anesthetizing the discomfort, before we have even had the chance to face it, we do ourselves and our potential for spiritual growth a disservice. For sometimes Jesus’ hard sayings uncover malfunctions, immaturity, and selfishness. In our attempts to kill the pain we may rather be cutting ourselves off from healing or a calling to a higher purpose and blessing.
One of these hard sayings of Jesus, also found in Paul’s teachings, concerns celibacy. Please note: this is a separate issue from mandatory clerical celibacy in the Roman Catholic church (which is not a biblical issue). Celibacy should also be distinguished from a mere preference for remaining single, lacking any real commitment or purposeful lifestyle. I am referring here to a commitment to an unmarried state (oftentimes in community), for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, (see the biblical counsel given in Matthew 19:12 and 1 Corinthians 7).
Celibacy is a relatively more familiar category for Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. Unfortunately, for all the biblical earnestness of some of our Protestant brethren, they tend to allow the gospel to be muffled here, ignoring a wonderful gift. There are some signs of a growing openness in Protestant circles, however, as shown by the appearance of an occasional book that deals with the subject (such as Money, Sex, and Power: The Challenge of the Disciplined Life, by Richard J. Foster); and occasional articles, such as “Remonking the Church” and “Singleness: Beyond the Stiff Upper Lip” in the August 12, 1988 and January 13, 1989 issues of Christianity Today. Nevertheless, in general there is within Protestantism a whole arsenal of defenses against celibacy. Behind these defenses lie inconsistencies, misconceptions, and historical baggage, not to mention a basic reluctance to address the issue at all.
I write from experience. Though I come from an Evangelical Christian background, I am committed to a celibate life in a religious community. And I have run up against a strange defensiveness from fellow Protestants more than once. I have been very disappointed to see strong Christians in the ironic position of justifying their refusal to use a badly needed tool, for fear of taint by what is to them unfamiliar and exotic. So please let me offer this apologia and put in a word in favor of this “forgotten gift.”
Celibacy & the Call to Discipleship
The New Testament commends celibacy as a way of promoting “undivided devotion to the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:35); deepening the Christian’s commitment to discipleship; and better attaining and serving the Kingdom (Matthew 19:12). In the words of Christ, some—those who could accept it—would voluntarily “make themselves eunuches for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Now may I point out that Jesus’ choice of the word eunuch was deliberate: becoming a eunuch is something quite irreversible. He did not say “remain unmarried,” which he could have said easily enough. The loaded word “eunuch” implies a real commitment, not something to be taken back later. This should not surprise us. We know from his other teachings that Jesus took commitment very seriously: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). Jesus, of course, recognized that not all would be able to comply with this, as he indicated in his cryptic remark, “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it” (implying that there would be those who would not receive it). This qualification, however, may be too quickly seized upon by some who may be more than a little afraid that they just might be able to “receive” the celibate life if they carefully examined themselves. Have no fear: Christ does not impose this; he merely counsels it for those who are able to receive it.
Christ’s commendation of celibacy has traditionally been linked with two of his other teachings—about possessions (cf. Luke 12:33) and about obedience (cf. John 13:20)—to form the “evangelical (meaning ‘derived from the Gospel’) counsels.” This commitment to poverty, chastity, and obedience, as they are usually called, forms the basis of the monastic or “religious” lifestyle, and represents a response to Christ’s call to discipleship that, for all its failures, has been a frequent source of renewal in the Church.
The Apostle Paul further develops the concept of celibacy and thus upholds the same high standard of discipleship. Jesus had talked about “carrying your cross daily”; in 1 Corinthians 7 St. Paul talks about not taking advantage of your rights and privileges because of pressing needs. One of these privileges that some might be willing to relinquish is marriage.
St. Paul’s preference is clear. “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: it is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am.” (1 Cor. 7:8, NIV) Several paragraphs later he explains why:
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife—and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord. (7:32–35, NIV)
For many Christians living in an indulgent society, these remarks (like so many comments by St. Paul) seem unnecessary and unpalatable. We are either a bit embarrassed by them, or they are just so far out that they seem irrelevant. (By the way, when was the last time you heard an Evangelical preacher preach or teach with clarity and unction on this part of the full counsel of God?) Please realize that the real issue here is discipleship, not just celibacy per se. Under the influence of the American cult of individualism, we have so redefined discipleship that it can no longer sustain the commitment necessary to a life of holy celibacy. (With so many “Christian” marriages ending in divorce, one may also wonder how many have the commitment necessary for married life.) To be sure, there may be some for whom the celibate lifestyle holds a certain romantic attraction (if you will pardon the phrase), but even this is very different from the real commitment to sacrifice and service which is called for in a life of celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
The “Gift” of Celibacy
Of the many misconceptions which surround celibacy, none is more serious than the popular notion of what it means to have a “gift of celibacy”: namely, that there are certain people who are, and others who are not, oriented in that direction. The way this translates out in practice is that unless an unmarried person definitely knows that he or she has the gift (i.e., that he or she is oriented to sexual abstinence), that person is free from the need to wrestle with the issue. According to this logic, only sexual defectives and psychological castrati have “the gift.” The assumption of Matthew 19:12, however, is that those who respond to Christ’s call to celibacy are capable of a healthy sexual life: the text contrasts them with those with a sexual dysfunction, congenital or otherwise.
Furthermore, there is an essential misunderstanding here of the thrust of discipleship. (It may be more helpful to speak of a “call to celibacy” than of a “gift of celibacy.”) The fact of the matter is that just because someone is attracted to members of the opposite sex is no indication in itself that a person does or does not have the ability to remain celibate. Just because a Christian finds that it is painful to struggle with an issue does not mean that he or she should take the first opportunity to avoid the struggle.
There is more at stake here, however, than merely the opportunity for Christian disciples to commit themselves to a biblically-warranted lifestyle for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, however worthwhile the ministry. For a willing and virtuous celibacy is also a sign against the confused hedonism of a sex-crazed age. It requires an inner health, spiritual and sexual, a coming to an inner peace and integration. Where this is perfected it becomes an important statement, as a matter of fact, that sexual abstinence is not synonymous with sexual frustration. On the contrary, in a life of holy celibacy there is opportunity not simply to suppress (as is so often imagined by the uninformed) but to channel one’s sexual nature for a higher purpose.
Now it must be clearly understood that this is no ascetical, pleasure-hating obsession. Nor is it a disguised misogyny or its feminine counterpart, and it certainly does not arise from an attitude that despises marriage, or family life, or children. In fact, the maturely developed celibate vocation can provide a sign to the married and unmarried alike that the way to full human development lies not in license but in commitment, self-control, and the value of human integrity. Christ calls us all to come to terms with our own sexuality and spirituality—and we must do this on a very deep level, one that reaches to the core of our personal identity. We must recognize that the function of our sexuality is not restricted to pleasure, or companionship, or even reproduction; it is tied in at an even deeper level with our very personhood. Dedicated Christians who have made this “gift” their own can, as much by example as by word, do much to restore a proper understanding of sexuality in an age that abounds with so many confusing perspectives.
Recovering the Forgotten Gift
We have laundered and sanitized the hard sayings of Jesus for long enough. It is time to stop reacting against real or imagined abuses in “other” churches and to begin to listen, once again, to the undiluted hard sayings of Jesus from the Scriptures. It is time to give up the vague, individualistic notions of discipleship that have misled our young people into thinking of the abundant life in a too materialistic and narcissistic way—as another exercise in self-fulfillment.
And as we begin to pursue a truer form of discipleship, let us not be afraid to allow a place for those who wish to follow our Lord in the way of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. Let us allow our young men and women to hear the all of the gospel and respond to it, not merely on the basis of what is convenient, but on the basis of the sacrifice to which our Lord himself calls his beloved. Much to our surprise, we may, with the Apostle John, find that Christ’s “hard sayings” are not so burdensome after all. •
John Thompson is a librarian and professor at Waynesburg University, Waynesburg, Pennsylvania