Where Are All the Celibates?

Talking about marriage, dating, sex, gender, relationships, or human nudity will inevitably lead to the account of Eve’s creation in Genesis 2.  The reasoning usually proceeds—very reasonably, I think—that the institution of marriage is founded by God at the presentation of Eve to Adam by God, and so the things that scripture says about Adam and Eve’s marriage at that founding applies to the whole of marriage normatively.  John Piper uses the passage this way in a sermon on the commitment of marriage, as does Matt Chandler in his church’s talk on homosexuality.  I incline to agree with these pastors and the greatest part of the church’s tradition on this matter and am very content to do so.

Doing so does expose a problem to the interpreter, however.  If the Genesis 2 account is normative for the experience of a person with regard to marriage, then marriage exists to solve a problem: “It is not good for the man to be alone; I shall create for him a suitable helper.”  Because it was not good for the lone human to stay that way, so God founded marriage.  

In what way was it not good for Adam to be alone?  A clue to the answer may lie in the relationship between what Adam was doing prior to having Eve and his response to finally seeing her.  After God comes to his conclusion about the status of Adam’s isolation, Adam explores creation and finds that he is utterly unique in the entire world.  He has no peer, nothing in which he can see a true commonality, nor a reflection of himself.  It makes sense that he celebrates Eve by saying, “This at last, is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”  His elation is founded in a kind of expectation of having, by the natural course, a partner who is like him.  He expects her and desires her.  A normative interpretation of Genesis 2 suggests that, for everyone functioning in the divine design for marriage, marriage should address the problem of their isolation and should thus be anticipated because of that isolation.

So far, so good.  As this stands, it could not very certainly be contradicted.  Sure, it may not perfectly describe every person’s or even every Christian’s experience with marriage, but scripture will and must always trump our own experiences.  In a fallen world, with broken hearts surrounded by fallen flesh, this kind of discrepancy should never leave us worried, even if it does leave us repentant.  The problem arises a few thousand years later when the Holy Spirit inspires Paul to write in his first letter to the Corinthian church,


“I wish that all were as I myself am [that is, single].  But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.  To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.  But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry.  For it is better to marry than to burn with passion,” (1 Corinthians 7:7-9).

The apostle seems to clearly suggest that there are individuals for whom there is no Genesis 2-like problem of isolation.  In fact, these individuals seem common enough in the early church that Paul writes concerning them at length when asked about sex and marriage.  If we take Paul at face value, then we must conclude that at least some people don’t experience Adam’s problem.

If we intend to continue to apply Genesis 2 to our lives then we must resolve this tension.  In doing so, I think we may also discover why the modern American church finds so few individuals who are content to work God’s righteousness in the world so actively and vigorously through celibate singleness.  There are a few possible solutions.

The first is that the Genesis account is is not normative in a broad sense about the whole story of the coming together of humans, but only the story of marriage where it happens to be relevant.  This interpretation has an advantage of being the simplest way to resolve the matter.  It is a quick shrugging away of the problem altogether.  In doing so, though, it creates a wave of implications for other doctrines.  It seems to suggest that what we see of Adam and Eve could only be relevant to a marriage, but Paul seems to suggest that those details are more generalizable, since he does so in 2 Timothy 2. He claims, “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness.  I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.  For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”  

Whatever we think Paul is saying here, he’s saying it on the basis of Adam and Eve’s relationship being applicable in a direct and normal way to everyone.  Since it would be odd for all the parts of their marriage to apply to the world except the impetus for that marriage, this suggests that this isn’t the solution.

Another solution is that our supernatural union with Christ creates a special solution to the problem for some, allowing them, due to their union with Christ, who never leaves them, to live in rejection of the passionate desire for unity that would otherwise be painful to them.  This makes sense of Paul referring to the ability to live life without marriage as a solution to the problem as, “from God.”  This seems directly plausible in 1 Corinthians, but not in Genesis 2.  Where is the Christian who has closer fellowship with God than Adam did?  Yet Adam anticipated having a helper that was like himself, suggesting that even in Edenic perfection, Adam contained in him the desire for connection to Eve, held in a passion for companionship that some Christians, according to Paul, are able to transcend.  So this also fails as a possibility.

To discover the solution, let’s look at where Paul imagines celibate Christians to be found.  A little further down the chapter in verses 32—35 he writes,


“The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord.  But the married man is anxious about worldy things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.  And the unmarried or bethrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit.  But the married woman in anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.  I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”

What is the life of a person able to use their gift of celibacy?  Serving the Lord undividedly.  In what context does a Christian serve God?  The church.  The answer to how a person may be gifted with celibacy in opposition to the problem of their passion for marriage has to be settled in the church.

Read the account of the lifestyle of the church in Acts.  


“And all who believed were together and had all things in common.  And they were selling their possession and belongings distributing the proceeds to all as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:44—46).

This isn’t an account of people who live their lives at a distance from one another.  They didn’t come together twice on Sundays and once again on Wednesdays.  They were constantly together, managing their affairs together and eating their meals with each other.  They were intimate together, intimate in a way that could resolve the deep-seated needs for connection that we face.  Enough to solve Adam’s problem.  

I think the answer to the interaction of Genesis 2 and 1 Corinthians 7 is that the church’s intimate together-ness is meant to be so satisfying and engaging that it gives God-gifted individuals with the ability to enjoy that fellowship so much that they don’t need marriage as the solution to the problem of needing connection.  Because the church solves it.

This is attractive for a few reasons.  First, it makes sense of why Paul connects celibacy to a special emphasis on a concern for the things of the Lord.  The way that the gift of celibacy is activated is through intense connection with the church, which should always be about the business of God.  At the same time, it explains why it feels like there are so few people gifted with celibacy in our modern churches.  Just like a gift of teaching needs to be honed and refined through experience and knowledge, so too the gift of celibacy needs to be empowered by close interpersonal connections in a church actively devoted to living together.

So, what does this mean for us?  We need to rebel against the distance that American society imposes upon our churches.  There’s a certain business-of-the-day attitude that creeps in between members of the body of Christ and routinizes our interactions.  Coming together to worship and learn about God is an event for a lot of Americans, not a lifestyle.  We certainly don’t do the things depicted in Acts 2.  We don’t actively seek to provide for each other in the church.  

I can’t think of a time I was invited by a non-family member in a church to dinner at their home, nor having ever invited someone to mine.  We don’t ask deep awkward questions because that’s the job of the pastoral staff.  All that is a shame because we don’t become intimate with our neighbors and friends at events, but through sharing our lives.  If we refuse to share our lives, we can’t expect to be providing the connection and intimacy required for people who are gifted with celibacy to actually be using their gifts.  So of course there aren’t many celibate Christians in our churches.  A church that holds each other at arms distance can’t solve the problem of needing to come together.

As we seek to apply and understand what the Bible says to us about coming together, we must keep in mind the role that the church plays in that process, both for those who marry and those who don’t.  The only way that the church can play that role successfully is by allowing itself to come together with such love and adoration for Christ that every person is pulled together.  We can’t be afraid to make actual contact with our brothers and sisters.

Logan Hurley is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Lexington, KY and senior at the University of Kentucky where he studies Communication, Arab & Islamic Studies, and Philosophy.  He desires to attend seminary in Fall 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @loganmhurley.


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