The Protestant Celibacy Problem

A couple of years ago I was asked by a campus pastor at a local Catholic University if I would be willing to sit on a panel about vocation and represent the unmarried people who don’t feel called to celibacy.  I said yes and was excited by the opportunity.

Now this is sort of funny but I was the only protestant in the room and perhaps the least educated.  Ha!  I was for sure the least educated person on the panel which included: the president of the university and his wife (married vocation – and they had been married for decades), a nun, a Jesuit Priest and a priest whose job it was to help students who felt they might be called to celibate ministry (becoming a priest or nun) discern that.

We went around and shared about our vocation/place in life.  A lot of questions from the audience were centered around how you can figure out what you are supposed to do. Everyone on the panel was great – I was in very solid company and would gladly share a stage with any of them, any time.

But the person who stood out the most (and not just because we kept agreeing with each other) was the priest.  This guy was unbelievably smart.  He also had ways of explaining the call to full time celibate ministry that I had never really heard articulated before.

What he and I both immediately hit on is that the first decision you have to make is to follow Jesus.  There is no close second.

The way he said it was great.  He said essentially, “The first vow we all have to make is to Jesus – to be committed to Him.  Then we can make a second vow – either to God to be in celibate ministry or to God and to another person.”

As I listened to this guy speak and essentially lead our time, I found myself over and over thinking a couple of things.

1. The students that go to see this guy are super fortunate.  I don’t believe he would lead them to do anything out of an agenda.  The man wanted to help people find their calling – whatever that was.  I truly believe he would be one of the wisest people they could ever consult.

2. If you’re a protestant or lay person who feels called to celibacy, you are screwed.  Because there is absolutely no help available.  I mean zero.  None.  Nada. Nothing.  Not even a whiff.  You get the idea.

Look I know that not every priest is like this, far from it.  Not even every priest in his sort of position is like him.  I get that.  But at least there’s a chance.  At least there is some sort of process.  There’s some sort of guidance.

The problem starts with the fact that nowhere growing up in the protestant church will you hear that there is even an option of celibacy.  You might now and then hear someone mention it as they skip over it in the passages in Matthew 19 and 1st Corinthians 7 on the way to talk about marriage.  Or worse they might misinterpret Paul and say that the singleness he’s talking about is seasonal.

So we start with almost no base knowledge at best and wrong information at worst.  But if by some miracle you actually feel sort of called to it or have a conversation with a wise believer who teaches you something about it, there is no one to help you discern it.

Now if you are dating someone, we’ve got counsel out the wazoo.  I mean we can counsel you how to date (or how to “court”).***  There is premarital counseling and about million books to choose from.  Heck now-adays you can even go to pre-engagement counseling. If you’re married there is of course marital counseling – heck it’s pretty much a badge of honor in the church to have been to that counselor.  Marriage is hard after all.

However if you are questioning your call to celibacy – good luck.  There’s no pre-celibacy counseling.  Unless of course you are struggling with same sex attraction – then we are all about it.

If somehow, on your own, you figure it out and begin to live that way, there’s no counseling or support for that either.  Name the last time you heard someone honor a person who made that choice.  Yeah I can’t think of a time either.  So figure it out on your own, then do it alone.  The thing is, the call to celibacy is not a call to being alone.  But that is the way we’ve set it up.

Not only does this keep people from entering this vocation, it also could keep someone from marriage. If you don’t have a clear vision of the call to celibacy and what it is, how can you decide if you are called to it or not?  If there are no models of it or no honoring of it – why would anyone even consider it?

Both marriage and celibacy demonstrate different things about the kingdom.  Part of the reason we are losing on the marriage front is that we have completely punted on the celibacy front.****  Hear me clearly Protestant leader friends – You can not have a true theology of marriage without a right, well thought out, robust theology of celibacy.

Most of us aren’t called to this.  But that doesn’t mean we should ignore the vocation or those who are (or might be) called to it.

The bottom line is we need to stop reacting to our culture, take a breath, and start at the beginning.


***We offer very little to either sex about how to get a date, what is attractive or effective for finding a spouse.  You are more likely to hear about waiting for the one and what not to do while waiting, than about how to go get a spouse.

****For an interesting read on the cost of this check out my internet friend John’s recent post.  It’s an interesting take.

15 thoughts on “The Protestant Celibacy Problem

  1. I’m glad to hear that you had a good experience at the Catholic university.

    I’m a Catholic and single, and I don’t feel called to permanent celibacy, but if I did it wouldn’t be weird. In the Catholic tradition there are the celibate options not only of ordination for men and the convent for women, but of something called consecrated virginity. As far as I know, this is when a woman (I’m not sure about men) makes vows of permanent celibacy to the local bishop, but does not become a nun in so doing. They continue to live their lives and work in their jobs.

    I have friends around my age (24) who are permanently celibate because they are Numeraries in Opus Dei. They aren’t consecrated virgins, but they felt called to give their lives to the work of Opus Dei by living in community with one another as lay celibates. They have normal jobs in finance, law etc.

    I don’t really understand much about all of this, and there are many traditions and laws surrounding the various types of celibacy, but it’s certainly possible.

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  3. Great article Justin. The priest is absolutely right – The first vow has to be to Christ. Because celibacy is not possible without him. I’ve never considered it about rules or nos, but saying yes to him. It is unfortunate that the Protestants offer no help in discerning the call or faithfully living out the call to celibacy. And, as you mentioned, they’ve fallen prey to linking it exclusively to the same sex marriage debate and I’m afraid that will dull their insight even more.

  4. This is such an excellent post, man. I as a celibate 24 year-old virgin, this means a lot to me. I basically do have to walk this out, since there isn’t a vocation for a celibate. I am still trying to figure out whether or not I am called to be a celibate man for the rest of my life, but I would still like to explore it further to see if it is something that is feasible for sure. I think that would be great to know more about for me. I just don’t know anybody that’s celibate unless they are Catholic or Orthodox. They affirm celibacy up.

  5. What a great post, Justin! I made a comment to a good friend who is also a pastor: “I’m certainly learning a lot about the shift in culture from when I was a young single, and so much of what I see just makes me sad. I’m thinking of some sort of [blog]post re. “50 Shades of Grey.” I’ve not read the book, nor do I intend to. I don’t intend to see the movie, either. There is enough to see online and enough quotes floating around the internet to show it for what it is – a total perversion of relationship that God intends for intimacy, certainly body, but also soul and spirit. What can I say. Sometimes I feel like I’m in the deep end of the swimming pool because my experience is far below my knowledge – – – thankfully so!”

    He replied: “Our culture has gone off the cliff, especially in our handling of our sexuality. When you think of sexual desire simply as another bodily function like eating, why not indulge with whoever you want? It is and will be a lonely walk for those living under clear biblical teaching.”

    Thank God for friends like that. As an older single woman, I know very well about having to pioneer my way through the path of celibacy with no mentorship, no real encouragement from the church beyond “just don’t.” Thank God for blogs such as yours which bring encouragement.

    Mary Haight

  6. As a 35-year old Catholic man who is at least celibate up to this point*, I understand entirely what you’re talking about here. I’m glad to have access to the theology of celibacy as it’s been more fully developed in Catholic dogma (as Julia explains, women outside of conventional religious institutes may become consecrated virgins, while there are other secular institutes that men or women may consecrate vows to – I’m actually a lay member of the Dominican Order myself, involving non-avowed promises of ‘chastity in my state of life,’ but have not taken vows that would make me a religious in the order.

    (*I don’t know whether I’ll end up marrying. I’ve always felt compelled to be a husband and father, despite decades of suggestions that I would make a good priest. Over the past decade, the health of my elderly father and late mother have put me in the category – per the Catechism – of “§2231. Some forgo marriage in order to care for their parents or brothers and sisters, to give themselves more completely to a profession, or to serve other honorable ends. They can contribute greatly to the good of the human family.” While I, ironically enough, have been informed that a local group of nuns who’ve I’ve known since childhood is praying for my discernment, I’m oddly in a sort of limbo while caring for my father – yet remaining chaste and celibate in service of §2231’s point until that time when I can work on either actively pursuing marriage or opting in the end for some vows/orders.)

    Nevertheless, I think that Christianity in general needs more enunciation of celibacy in the community. In the Catholic and Orthodox churches, as I’ve mentioned, there are a number of celibates outside of orders; likewise, those Protestant celibates (who you’ve discussed need the support of theological support that we at least get on this side of the Tiber) would be outside of established ordered convents & monasteries. Even among Catholics, it’s still weird for many married folks to interact with singles who aren’t planning on marriage (and, honestly, I get odd reactions from married guys in church who learn that I’m still a deliberate virgin at 35 – it takes effort, after all), so there needs to be an understanding that we aren’t just ‘monks without a habit’ as I’ve seen it joked (being a secular tertiary myself, and so on good rapport with the consecrated religious around me doesn’t help that viewpoint). You’ve made it clear here that the Church as a whole (I mean all denominations) have different issues integrating singles into the modern “pro-family” zeitgeist, and differentiating celibate-for-the-kingdom in the pews versus the ‘anti-family’ swinging-single seculars who they contend with outside the church walls is something to be learned if singles-seeking-marriage is already such a tough demographic to involve themselves with. It’s a tough nut to crack, and I wish and pray for the best for my Protestant brethren – both for the sake of the individuals involved looking for peace and community, as well as for the fact that I honestly think that learning from each other like this is the best step to bringing us all back together as Christians into One Church one day in whatever form it ends up (one which is going to include an understanding of celibacy as society comes to term with singles in a post-industrial age).

    • I understand that you get odd reactions. I get those mostly from people at work, but then they don’t live for Christ. I mostly get weird reactions from people when they hear that I’m a virgin. I’ve yet to get it from people at church, however. Thankful for the support there. It honestly is such a sad state when our congregations think a virgin at adulthood is such a weird thing. I’m sorrowful for that. I think of someone like you at 35 and say that I am glad to hear there are others who are also celibate too. I’m 24 and a celibate virgin, and I know I am not typical. Let’s be atypical man!

  7. I second all the previous comments about appreciating the options available for celibacy among Catholics. Justin, I’d be interested in hearing more about how you think a Protestant theology of celibacy would fit into current Protestant sexual morality. For example, do you think a celibate Protestant pastor would be good for his (or her, I guess) congregation? Would it have to involve living in community (which it does for many Catholic celibates)?

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  13. Thanks for this post. I’m a little late to the game and am part of a growing community in Nashville of men who experience SSA and believe in the traditional sexual ethics of Christianity. We are searching for the truth about celibacy and doing family well in the body of Christ. We are also all protestants, and one catholic, and so we feel we are plowing new ground and having to figure this out for ourselves.

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