I’m pretty sure this is the call on our lives from no less than Jesus, the world’s most famous single person.
I’m compelled by the idea that Jesus was probably celibate, but that it would have been for a purpose, and that it might have been hard to bear sometimes. We get a sense of his frustration, resignation and loneliness on occasion (“remove this cup;” “the son of man has nowhere to lay his head”). We also know the full, abundant life he modeled and preached.
Jesus was fully in relationship with many. He had intimate friendships, and he was dedicated to his work. If his celibacy was hard, he was not overly anxious about it; he leaned into the other parts of his life.
Jesus was different and his path was likely puzzling to those around him, even as it puzzles us still today.
Can single Christians find hope in this, courage and sustenance here? As fully human, fully sexual, fully incarnate beings, who just happen not to be with anybody, single Christians can yet do good, saving work in the world.
Singles can yet have intimate relationships. No one need be defined by relationship status, or remake themselves to fit into existing social structures and roles. We can be like Jesus. Maybe celibate, maybe not. It’s really no one’s business but ours and God’s.
Part of figuring out how to live into the creative life of God is figuring out how to live into being yourself, and choosing the spiritual practices and disciplines that support your own discipleship. One of the most unfair things the Christian tradition has foisted on singles is the expectation that they would remain celibate — that is, refraining from sexual relationships.
American Christians sometimes conflate celibacy and chastity, too, which is a problem. Chastity is a virtue, related to temperance — it’s about moderating our indulgences and exercising restraint. We’re all called to exercise chastity in a variety of ways, though the details will vary given our individual situations.
In the official teaching of the Catholic Church and some other churches, however, chastity requires restraining oneself from indulging in sexual relationships outside of the bounds (and bonds) of marriage. That is, chastity for singles means celibacy — no sex.
There might be other norms for chastity. Maybe our marital state isn’t the primary norm. I’d argue that we can be chaste — faithful — in unmarried sexual relationships if we exercise restraint: if we refrain from having sex that isn’t mutually pleasurable and affirming, that doesn’t respect the autonomy and sacred worth of ourselves and our partners.
There are those who feel that they are called to seasons of celibacy, or even years of celibacy, and if answering that call is life-giving and purposeful, then they should take it up as a spiritual discipline. But no call can be forced on an unwilling person, especially not if they find themselves single only by virtue of circumstance.
Plenty of women and men love sex, and need it — we need bodily pleasure, remember — and the abundant life for them will involve seeking out relationships of mutual pleasure. Chastity, or just sex, requires that whether we are married or unmarried, our sex lives restrain our egos, restrain our desire for physical pleasure when pursuing it would bring harm to self or other.
I offer the example of Jesus not because I think he was likely celibate, but rather because his life demonstrates what it might mean to be both different and beloved, chaste but never cut off. Jesus was forever referring to those who have eyes to see, and he saw people in ways that others didn’t. He saw them through the eyes of love, whoever they were. He loved them as they were, regardless of what society thought of them.
We’re called to see that way, too: to see and nurture the possibilities for life and love that are constantly unfolding all around us. We’re called to see ourselves this way: beloved, no matter (or perhaps because of) our refusal to conform to society’s expectations about sex, love and relationships.
Straight, gay, bi, trans, intersex: we are beloved, and do God and ourselves a disservice if we are conformed.
Bromleigh McCleneghan is a pastor at Union Church of Hinsdale in Illinois. This is an excerpt from “Good Christian Sex: Why Chastity Isn’t the Only Option — and Other Things the Bible Says About Sex,” her new book from HarperOne.