Singled Out (Pt4)

On page 11 you write that the aim of Singled Out was to investigate what a positive evangelical discussion of celibacy would look like. In light of that aim, the distinctions you go on to make between the concepts of abstinence, chastity and celibacy are some of the most helpful and unique aspects of Singled Out. Could you explain what you see as the differences between those concepts and also why you think a focus on celibacy in particular is imperative to evangelical discussions on singleness?

As Bonnie and I talked about these issues and started to conceive of the book, we repeatedly discussed what terminology we would use. We wanted to make sure that we defined our terms very carefully. Inevitably, when someone mentions “celibacy” or “abstinence,” the hearer immediately has some kind of image in mind whether it consists of nuns and monks hiding away in a monastery or teenage girls flaunting their purity rings. We, too, had associations with the words that made us consider carefully how we would use them.

We decided to focus on “celibacy” rather than “abstinence” or “chastity” for several reasons. First, abstinence tends to imply that the individual refraining from sex is simply waiting for the right marriage partner to come along. The abstinence message is usually aimed at teenagers with the assumption that they just need to hold on for a few years until they get married. As older singles, we realized that this message was no longer sufficient to deal with the issues that we were experiencing. We had mastered waiting, but now we had to deal with the reality that we might never be married. The message of abstinence didn’t seem to take that into account. It also didn’t take into account adults who become single later in life through divorce or the death of a spouse. Other than reminding them to remain pure until they found another spouse, it really didn’t deal with their particular circumstances. We felt that “celibacy” with its focus on setting yourself apart to serve God allowed us to focus on the importance of developing a relationship with God rather than just waiting for a future spouse.

Second, we chose “celibacy” over “chastity” because chastity can be applied not only to singles but also to married couples. Anyone who refrains from inappropriate sexual conduct is chaste. Because we wanted to emphasize the unique challenges for Christian singles (which are quite different from the challenges that married couples face), we decided that celibacy would be a more appropriate term.

Third, we chose the term celibacy because we like that, historically, it has been connected with the idea of devoting yourself to serving God. We did, however, feel that in order to use this term we needed to reinvent it a little bit. Celibacy is usually seen as a life-long commitment made by nuns and monks who decide to remain single so that they may devote themselves entirely to serving God. Unless you receive a specific call, you are expected to marry. We began to wonder what it might look like to think about celibacy not as a specific call that compelled you to relinquish any hope of marrying but rather as a state of mind in which you would commit yourself to serving God for the time that you were single, whether that was for a few years or for the rest of your life. Celibacy defined in this way wouldn’t be a renunciation of the hope of marriage, but it would compel Christian singles to think more about their relationship with God than their desire for marriage.

By redefining celibacy in this way, we hope to change the focus of the discussion that surrounds singles from “what do I need to do to find a mate?” to “how am I serving God in the situation that He has placed me?” Unfortunately, singleness has often been used as an excuse for spiritual immaturity. We need to realize that singles have an important place in the church body and must be encouraged to use their gifts as singles rather than just put their gifts on hold until they marry.