Only in the post-Christian, therapeutic-deistic west could a Christian think he has sacrificed everything to follow Jesus simply because he can’t indulge his sexual proclivities. Only in the post-Christian, therapeutic-deistic west could a Christian think he is suffering for the gospel because his brethren won’t play Freudian identity games with him. Only in the post-Christian, therapeutic-deistic west could a Christian believe that being afflicted with “unnatural affections” constitutes a divine call to celibacy. Only in the post-Christian, therapeutic-deistic west could a Christian believe think he’s ill-treated if his brethren won’t acknowledge the supererogatory act of a Christian doing his mere duty in warring against indwelling sin.
You greatly delude yourself and err if you think that one thing is demanded from the layman and another from the monk; since the difference between them is in that whether one is married or not, while in everything else they have the same responsibilities … Because all must rise to the same height; and what has turned the world upside down is that we think only the monk must live rigorously, while the rest are allowed to live a life of indolence.1
For there are eunuchs who were born that way from their mother’s womb; and there are eunuchs who were made eunuchs by people; and there are also eunuchs who made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven.2
I was converted to faith in Christ, September 1988. At the time, I was Roman Catholic and thought of my conversion as being from lapsed to devout Roman Catholic. After my conversion, a dream I had as a child returned, the dream of becoming a Jesuit priest or a Benedictine monk. As is well known to Protestants, that sort of life (of which Presbyterians disapprove3) which Catholics refer to as “religious”, requires, among other things, a vow of life-long celibacy. I took about eighteen months contemplating whether God might be calling me to the religious life. As it concerns sex, or the lack thereof, since that is what most people think of when they think of celibacy, there was no doubt in my mind that living without it would not be a problem. And rather than just let that stand there, a brief personal testimony: Within less than an hour of losing my virginity, the thought popped into my head: That would have been worth saving for marriage. It is for good reasons that friends have heard me say, whenever the opportunity presents itself, “Virginity is under-rated.” One might think the realization would have induced me to chastity. One would be mistaken. My — despondent — attitude was, “What’s done is done forever, and you can’t unscramble eggs.”
If celibacy were just a matter of not having sex, there was, and remains, no doubt in my mind of being able to live without it. In fact, I was to some extent eager for that life. All I saw behind me were twenty three years of the greatest waste of life there could ever be, a life filled with “doing the will of the Gentiles…[walking] in lewdness, lusts, drunkenness, revelries, drinking parties, and…[a] flood of dissipation” (1 Peter 4.3, 4). Plus, most of what I saw when I looked in the mirror was damaged goods. (Yes, ladies, men can feel that way, too.) An “opposite” sort of life was very attractive, indeed. And I would have been a better priest, or monk, than the little boy who dreamed of it: the thirteen-year-old boy dreamed of the prestige associated with the religious life. The twenty-three-year-old me, relatively fresh out of the army, had a much better idea of the sort of sacrificial life the religious are called to live.
But the vow of celibacy is not a vow not to have sex. One surrenders far more than sex. Consequently, if I were still Roman Catholic, living the religious life, and charged with helping oblates discern a vocation to the religious life, after cautioning them about the severities of that life, 4 I believe I would caution them about celibacy as follows:
The life you are contemplating is a difficult one. You will labor like a hired hand, subject to the orders of your abbot, at whose whim you will drop whatever you are doing to render immediate, unhesitating obedience. You will scrub toilets and floors like a janitor, serve tables like a waiter, wait on guests like a bellhop. Your hands will grow calluses and your eyes will burn from study. And you will have nothing of which you can say, “This is mine.” There is very little about this life for your ego, and learning that may be the most painful lesson you ever receive. But, I warn you, that will be the easy part.
If there is anything within you that desires to hear the pitter-patter of little feet on a floor; if there is anything within you that desires to see a mucous smeared, glazed donut monster running towards you with out-stretched arms, screaming, “DADDY’S HOME!” at the end of the day; if there is anything in you that would love to sip “tea” with a little girl in a princess outfit, or to help her “accessorize” her dolls’ clothes; if there is anything within you that desires to run alongside a child learning to ride a bike, or ride along with a teenager learning to drive; if there is anything in you that desires any of these things, and more — the religious life is not for you. We are not talking about giving up sex, because if you could have these things — that is, if you could make babies — simply by gazing into the eyes of the woman you love and you would still want them, then the religious life is not for you. And all those things are good things to want. There is no shame in wanting them. And there is no greater holiness in leaving them behind. But make no mistake those are the things you truly leave behind. So I say to you again: If there is anything within you that desires those good, beautiful, even holy, things, then the religious life is not for you. Go, embrace all of those things, and enjoy them fully, to the glory of God.
I know that is good counsel, because it is the counsel I received.
Note that I did not refer to the celibate life, but rather to the religious life. One is not called to celibacy; one is called to a life of which celibacy is a component, due to the harshness of the lifestyle being adopted. Celibacy is, one might say, a practical matter. One can argue about whether celibacy is adopted because spouse and family impose too great a burden on the sort of service one wishes to offer the Lord Jesus Christ, or whether the sort of services one wishes to render imposes too great a burden upon spouses and children (see 1 Cor. 7.33). Regardless how that question is answered, celibacy is about surrendering the satisfaction of legitimate desires, for the sake of other pursuits; and because sex outside of the bonds of holy matrimony is not a legitimate desire, celibacy is not about giving up a sex life. Celibacy is about giving up the hope of the sort of love relationships that most humans yearn for, and that very few humans, tragically, ever experience, love relationships which are brought into existence through, and within the bounds of, holy matrimony. And it is these love relationships, not the sexual intercourse which creates them, that is surrendered in the embrace of the religious life. And this is why, in those Christian communions which provide for the “religious” life, that embrace is referred to as a vocation, a calling which requires divine aid, the ministry of the Holy Spirit. It is a calling which entails, as the Lord put it, making oneself a eunuch for the sake of the Kingdom (see Matthew 19.12) In other words, celibacy is not the call; celibacy is just a single component of living out the call. No one is called to celibacy.
1 Pros piston patera (To the faithful father) 3, 14, PG47, 372- 74. (PG = Patrologia Graeca)
2 Matthew 19.12.
3 “[M]onastical 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.” Westminster Confession of Faith, 22.7. (Note: Regular obedience means obedience to a monastic rule, under the authority of a superior.)
4 Consider for a single example, chapter 33 of Benedict’s Rule, on whether monks ought to have anything of their own: “This vice especially is to be cut out of the monastery by the roots. Let no one presume to give or receive anything without the Abbot’s leave, or to have anything as his own—anything whatever, whether book or tablets or pen or whatever it may be—since they are not permitted to have even their bodies or wills at their own disposal; but for all their necessities let them look to the Father of the monastery. And let it be unlawful to have anything which the Abbot has not given or allowed. Let all things be common to all, as it is written, and let no one say or assume that anything is his own. But if anyone is caught indulging in this most wicked vice, let him be admonished once and a second time. If he fails to amend, let him undergo punishment.”