The Christian faith has throughout history upheld one of two options for sexuality: marriage between a male and female or celibacy. While in the late 20th and early 21st century, this idea has been challenged, it remains true that the New Testament presents these two venues to live out one’s sex, by Jesus and then later outlined with more detail by the Apostle Paul. Christian and churches that seek to remain living by Jesus’ teaching on sex and marriage are left to live within two options. However, the way we come to arrive at those options may not have been as well understood.
For many people, they exist as caught in between the two options. While most Christians assume that marriage is something that they should do as part of the process of growing up, there are some of us who have considered celibacy. While Jesus describes celibacy as something that is gifted to a person is not entirely clear (Matthew 19.10-12), the Apostle Paul declares that it is better for a person to marry than to burn with passion (1 Cor. 7.9). This has often lead people to reduce the question as to whether one should marry or not to a singular question: do you desire sex? If so, you should marry. The assumption can be that celibacy is for those who are devoid of desire as if they have received a special gift to be celibate.
However, this isn’t what either Jesus or Paul actually says. Jesus didn’t refer to the gift of celibacy, but rather to gift of being able to accept the teaching that it is better to not marry than to do so. In his three fold discussions of eunuchs, the first two he refers to were made eunuchs not by choice but either by birth or by other people. However, the third type of eunuchs for God’s kingdom, Jesus does not speak of them being involuntarily made a eunuch. Rather, the verb εὐνούχισαν is active, describing the act of a person making themselves a eunuch. While Jesus certainly doesn’t advocate any form of castration, he does see the lifestyle of voluntary celibacy as something one does to oneself; it is not a gift that one receives. The best hint that Jesus gives is that it is connected to one process of learning and discipleship because Jesus refers to people receiving this teaching. Learning in the ancient world, particuarly when it comes to learning from esteemed wise figures, was not taken simply for the sake of head knowledge, but for the sake of forming one’s own character, behavior, and virtue by learning when and how to control their behavior and thinking. Thus, Jesus can be best be seen as saying that some people may came to live as a eunuch of the kingdom through discipleship.
Furthermore, a closer reading of Paul would show that Paul isn’t saying “if you have sexual desire, you must marry.” Rather, Paul reading is much more nuanced. Firstly, the condition he provides is the Greek verb πυρόω, which literally means to burn. Many commentaries will consider Paul’s usage as a metaphor for sexual desire. However, this fails to take into account the ancient view of desire and emotions. Our modern psychological of affect defines our emotions and desires based upon the conscious content of thinking and feeling. For instance, different experiences of desire may be seen as having various degrees of intensity, but otherwise less intense and more intense desire are considered the same thing. On the other hand, ancient accounts of affect were more defined by the consequences of such affective states, whether behavioral or cognitive. For instance, the Stoic doctrine of the passions were concern about emotions that made people think and act in irrational ways. Far from the modern caricature of a Stoic as emotionless, Stoics could experience what we today would refer to emotions, but they would feel they weren’t threats to rationality and would not call them passions. What defined the negative passions was not an inner state of consciousness and feeling, but the cognitive and behavioral consequences of irrational thinking and immoral behavior. So, when Paul refers to a person burning with fire, he is not referring to the existence of sexual desire in a person, but rather referring to a form of sexual desire that makes people close. To burn was to describe someone who was “in heat” and the pursuit and engagement of sexual behavior was almost inevitable.
Furthermore, Paul does not say “If you are on the cusp of engaging in sexual activity, you must marry.” Rather, he says it is preferable (κρεῖττον) to marry. Paul does not provide a declaratory decision about what one must do, but rather describes it is more advantageous to marry and to refrain from marriage. In a similar fashion, Paul later provides such an account as to why people should not marry (1 Cor. 7.28). Thus, Paul would still leave open the possibility of remaining celibate for even those burning with a passion. Paul is not pronouncing a command about marriage to those who burn, but commending it as something they should pursue. Why? Not because they experience sexual desire, but because they are not controlling themselves. The core fundamental question is whether a person has behavioral control of themselves in their desire, not the existence of any desire. However, it is still possible that someone who has not practiced self-control could learn to do so. Hence, Paul does not provide an absolute judgment on what people should do.
What undergirds Paul’s understanding of marriage is, like Jesus, also the concept of a gift (1 Cor. 7.7). However, the context makes clear: this isn’t the “gift of celibacy” but rather is a matter of self-control. (1 Cor. 7.5) For Paul, celibacy is a preferable option when one is able to exercise self-restraint upon ones’ sexual behaviors. In other words, celibacy is something given by God’s empowerment to have regulated oneself, to not act upon the temptations and drives that can dramatically alter the way you think and act. Much as Jesus hints at the willingness to live a celibate life comes through discipleship and brings about self-control, Paul also considers the advantage of celibacy to be conditioned upon self-control. In other words, through the process of Spiritual maturation, some persons would obtain the capacity to effectively self-regulate their sexual behaviors.
Thus, what has often been assumed to undergird the option of celibacy as being conditioned upon a gift for celibacy is not how Jesus and Paul understand it. Furthermore, the idea of a “gift for celibacy” is potentially harmful to a whole range of people who are caught in the middle. There are many people who would like to marry but are unable to do so. People who are gay and lesbian but committed to the Church’s historical sexual ethic are not able to marry. Then, there are heterosexual persons who do to a combination of undesirability to others, the lack of opportunities, and/or personal difficulties and traumas are unable to marry. I, for instance, due to a few threatening and a couple of traumatic experiences with women from later in college and afterward, find myself unable to even try to date; when I sense even a possibility of serious interest from another female, I can sometimes freeze, sometimes engage in avoidant behaviors, and can even feel incredibly nauseous and sick afterward, even if I am interested in that moment. As men’s chances to date correspond in part to their ability to pursue, people with trauma like mine don’t ever really get the chances to overcome the biological power of our traumas through experience. As much as I have wanted to fall in love, get married, and have a family, I am among those caught in the middle, whose struggles make me avoid opportunities and undesirable even when I don’t avoid.
People like us can experience extreme emotional pain, even as we are able to self-regulate ourselves from engaging in sexual activity and even substitute behaviors like pornography, we deal with incredible difficulties. Living in a society that valorizes romance and sex (but not necessarily marriage except as a symbol of societal recognition for non-heterosexuals) and being constantly reminded of how the benefits of close relationships, people caught in the middle are often times left with a deep sense of emptiness and feeling of being on the margins of life. Not to mention the way people respond to celibate persons. When I served as a pastor, I was routinely encouraged to date someone that well-meaning parishioners had in mind, but with the mindset that at the end of the day, places me as a person who had something wrong with me more globally rather than recognizing that I struggle to even form the earliest parts of emotional attachment. Neither society nor the church knows quite what to do with people who remain celibate. So, people who remain in the middle can deal with the emotional turmoil on both ends in the inability of relational dreams to become realized and the implicit social judgments that can arise.
Part of this problem arises from how we account for the instinct of sex that has influenced our society. Whether it is Freud’s reducing most everything down to sex or some simplistic evolutionary account that treat sex as singular, reproductive instinct to individual biological organisms. Freud’s view treat social interactions as ultimately definable to sexual behavior, reducing the role of non-sexual relationships. Simplistic evolutionary accounts considers everyone as having a sexual instinct for the sake of reproduction, as if every human organism reproduces to continue the species. As a consequence, we have been accustomed to regard sex as an essential part of being human, as if we are biologically fated to participate in sexual behavior. But I would suggest this misunderstands human nature and sex as a simplistic instinct.
The common trend in earlier psychology was to assume that specific behaviors and thoughts were reducible to a single mechanism that accounts for the whole range of behavior. Thus, when it came to sex, it was considered a singular instinct that was an essential part of what it means to be human. But the notion of a singular instinct is flawed, as what seems to be the case is that human motivation and behavior more so emerges from the overlap and various physiological and neurological states. Sex is one of those instances, evidence by the fact that people can experience deep ambivalence about sexual activity. On the one hand, a person may feel some desire for sex. However, because we are also physiologically protective of our own physical space and emotional well-being, for a person to actively engage in sexual behavior to occur, they would need to both feel desire and feel a degree of safety that inhibits the degree of physical and emotional self-protection. A primal feeling of vulnerability in either way can actively inhibit what the person might otherwise experience as sexual desire; they might feel ambivalent about sex or sexual desire might become entirely inhibited. The point is that there isn’t a single instinct responsible for human sexual desire, but rather it is more likely a composite of various, other physiological states.
Thus, I would hypothesize that it is more accurate to suggest that human have sexual potential that is regularly activated enough in enough people to reproduce. Seeking to be physically stimulated, desires for a close social connection, hopes for having a family can all be effective and cognitive “triggers” that can activate our sexual potential, which all happen regularly enough to ensure adequate reproduction. There are likely other, non-conscious neural and biological factors that can trigger sexual potential. However, what does not seem to be the case is that there is some singular sexual instinct that demands to be satisfied, but rather there are other motivational states and goals that active sexual potential so that we become motivated to engage in various forms of sexual behavior, from the early phases of dating to sexual intercourse. If correct, this means that sexual desire is largely conditioned to various specific physiological, affective, and cognitive states that are not inherently seeking to engage in sexual activity with another person, rather than it being a singular craving that should be satisfied. If this is the case, then the experience of sexual desire is not controlled simply by innate biological patterns but is also very adaptable and flexible to the patterns of cognitive and emotional experience and learning, including within our culture. I would go so far as to posit that sexual desire more so mirrors the cognitive and emotional ordering of society and people’s experiences within it.
The implications of such is this: the emotional intensity of sexual desire is more so a factor about what we value and think rather than simply the consequence of some instinct or instincts. I would posit there are three big factors that contribute to sexual desire: desires to be physically stimulated, desire to be emotionally connected to another person, and desire to create and generate something. Pleasure, bonding, and creating in the form of reproduction provides conditions for our desire for sexual activity. Some of these desires become fixated and persistent, if not sometimes taking on a degree of obsession, that regularly generates sexual desire. Then, there may be other motivations that can contribute
If this view is correct, then this would generate some suggestions when it comes to Christian discipleship and sex. Frequently, Christian responses to framing sexuality employ a combination of approaches that a) focus on managing and address sexual desire and identity and/or b) engage in what I refer to as “therapeutic archaeology” by trying to resolve the events of the person’s past, including frequently traumas. However, if sexual desire is conditioned more so upon other values, then the first route is self-defeating. Perhaps this is why we can find people trying to directly regulate and control their sexual desire find it a defeating experience; if sexual desire is a function of other desires, then addressing sexual desire doesn’t actually address the causes. Meanwhile the problem with the second option works on the assumption that you can reverse what happened and somehow to move towards some more pristine, better form of desire; it does not treat the present as what is most important, but addressing the past. However, especially when it comes to traumas and the way memories of fear are resistant to extinction, there is never any going back to the way things were beforehand. I myself have experienced the futility of both approaches in the past. Direct addressing of sexual desire was largely effective in keeping me from sexual activity, but it left me disturbed by the regular experience of it combined with the lack of dating opportunities to allow for marriage due to my trauma. However, trying to address my problems therapeutically with psychologist never really solved my hang-ups and struggles with dating that stopped anything from happening; all I was capable of doing was finding some other avenue of life in substitute for my inability to be someone else saw worth giving a chance.
But, if I am correct, this view of sex would prescribe a different way to address matters of sex in the Christian tradition: focus on the other values that are connected and generate sexual desire. For instance, I am a person who is highly desirous of emotional connection and for a family; I have found I experience the most thoughts about sex when I feel the worst pangs of loneliness. As a heterosexual male, which makes close relationships with both men and women hard due to gender conventions, and with trauma that makes it hard for me to regularly socialize in such a way that I become a person people actively seek to be around, the lack of emotional bonding and feelings of deep loneliness are near impossible to address aside from my family. Addressing problems of sexual desire would work more so in addressing the needs and struggles to bond. This doesn’t mean there is no place for managing sexual desire; this is indeed part of self-control. But managing sexual desire controls behavior rather than addresses conditions for desire. Therapeutic treatment of past traumas and other events has a place in a professional, therapeutic relationship to help people to understand and manage the problems their experiences present them, but these would not address the actual experience of sexual desire.
This overlaps with the views that I ascribe to Jesus and Paul, in that they both consider celibacy a gift that emerges from discipleship. The learning in the various other parts of life. If this is correct, then this provides a way for the people in the middle like me to be able to learn how to navigate the pain and sorrow of lost and unfulfillable dreams and begin to move towards a place towards spiritual contentment with celibacy. While it doesn’t rule out the possibility of those in the middle from ever marrying, and in fact in some cases where the barriers are not strong, perhaps going through hte process may allow for those barriers to pass. However, for some persons where the hang-ups, limitations, and lack of chances are pervasive, perhaps this way is more effective at allowing them to overcome the lifelong dilemmas they might be faced with. Perhaps in this way, the Church can find a better way to minister to people.