Marriage, Human Sexuality, and the Body: Celibacy and Singleness for the Kingdom (Part VIII)

This is part eight in this blog series on the Theology of the Body.

In Matthew 19:3-12 Jesus amazes the disciples by saying that even in the face of human brokenness and sin, God’s original design for marriage remains intact. Indeed, the force of Jesus’ teaching is so great that the disciples say something which is almost modern in its tone, “if this is true, perhaps it is best not to marry” (Matt. 19:10). Jesus’ reply places before us the theme for this article; namely, the sacred and high calling of singleness and celibacy.
In reference to singleness and celibacy Jesus says, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given” (Matt. 19:11). This clearly implies that there is a secondary gift which, although few receive it, runs parallel with marriage; namely the sacred gift of singleness and celibacy. Now, the word “singleness” is not the language of the New Testament; that is a modern term. If by single we mean a state of autonomous solitude, then we are not capturing a biblical view of what we call singleness. If, by single, we mean “single minded focus” or “exclusivity of intent” or the “undivided life” then we are moving much closer to the biblical vision. Jesus points to a sacred state which our Lord himself – and the Apostle Paul, among others, were called to. This state is where a man or woman chooses (or is chosen) to not enter into the state of marriage for the sake of the kingdom.
To capture Jesus’ point we must recall what Jesus said in Mark 12:25. There, in the context of a dispute with the Sadducees (who denied the bodily resurrection) Jesus teaches that in the resurrection “they neither marry, nor are given in marriage.” This is an eschatological statement with enormous ramifications. It demonstrates that marriage, as important as it is, is not an end in itself. Marriage, is, after all, an image, a type, a pointer. It is an image, as we have said, of the Trinity, an image of self-donation, an image of covenant faithfulness or hesed; an outward image of a deeper spiritual truth. This means that marriage points to something beyond itself. St. Paul himself confirms this in Ephesians 5. He explores this world of self-donation in marriage; the wife submitting as an act of self-donation beautifully mirrored by the husband’s act of self-donation in laying down his life for his wife resulting in the two subjects becoming “one flesh” recalling the language of Genesis, “the two shall become one flesh.”
But, at the apex of that passage, right after the reference to one flesh, Paul says something interesting which reflects the Mark 12:25 passage. He says, “this mystery is profound, but I am referring to … ,” and you except him to say the mystery of marriage or something like that. Instead, he says, this mystery is profound, but “I am speaking of Christ and the church.” All of these texts indicate that marriage is not an end in itself, but a pointer to and, indeed, an imaging of—a reflection of—Christ and the church. That is the eschatological reality to which we are all moving; namely Christ and His church, the eternal state of our being brought into full fellowship and communion with the Triune God. In the eschaton there will be no marriage, because there will be no need for a pointer, we will all be engulfed into the very presence of the Triune God. There is no need for an earthly mirror when we stand before Him in His heavenly glory.
We live in the “already-not yet” tension of the kingdom. That means that the rule and reign of God is already breaking in, but it has not yet been fully realized. So we live in this tension between the present age and the age to come. Now, some people have a particular sensitivity to the eschatological reality regarding marriage, i.e. some have the gift in this age of that which will be shared by all of us in the age to come; namely, the fleshly typology of marriage is lost in the fuller reality of the Bride of Christ married to Christ Himself, namely, the church. In that case, a call to singleness and celibacy is a temporal anticipation of the future resurrected life. This is the “gift” to which Jesus refers to in our text. If you have the sacred gift of singleness and celibacy, then you have been called to live in the present age in such a way that you are already embodying the eschatological reality of the marriage supper of the lamb which fully and joyfully unites Christ and his church. In the eschatological sense we are all in our own way mirroring that future marriage. Most of us are called to mirror it through the sacrament of marriage. Others have the higher calling of mirroring it in the present as they are already, as it were, married to Christ through their devotion to the church of Jesus Christ. If you are called to singleness, it is not because you are in the state of solitude, but because you have already discovered that even deeper communion to which even marriage only points to as a shadow of that which is to come. This is why Paul goes so far as to say that the person who chooses marriage does well, but the one with the gift of celibacy and singleness does better in the sense that he or she actually embodies an even fuller realization of the in-breaking kingdom.
Clearly, this is a divine gift and it is never meant to put singleness at war with marriage. This is not a zero sum game where the only way we can honor marriage is to denigrate singleness, or by honoring the celibate life we somehow disparage marriage. Indeed, John Paul II says that “the renunciation of the married state by those called to singleness is actually heightened when we are aware of not only what we are choosing, but what we are renouncing.” The church has struggled with this partly because of some of the writings of Augustine and the challenge of Manicheanism. But, these negative attitudes towards marriage were rooted in falsely equating sexual activity with the sin nature or a non-Christian view of the body—both Gnostic tendencies. However, these views actually cloud the earthly witness which both marriage and celibacy are meant to mirror, namely, the marriage of Christ and His Church.
We should also acknowledge that the choice is not merely between marriage and a life calling to celibacy and singleness or, if you prefer “the single focused life.” There is the temporary state of celibacy which everyone experiences. Many of you, perhaps, do not feel called whatsoever to the celibate life, but, you are not yet in the married state. This is the state of temporary celibacy. It is also found even within marriage, where St. Paul says in I Cor. 7:5 that a husband and a wife by mutual agreement may enter into a period whereby they refrain from all sexual activity in order to focus on prayer and fasting. So, we see that though the calling of lifetime celibacy is an extraordinary and high calling for a special group; the experience of singleness and celibacy is universal. So, for example, you may not particularly sense that you are called to live out the eschatological realities of being married only to Christ in this life, but yet you find yourself temporarily in the single state. This is a special window of time when we can at least capture a tiny glimpse of the eschatological life by focusing single mindedly on the kingdom in the present, even as we put our own future into God’s hands. Even within marriage, as noted, we may enter into periods of temporary celibacy.
So, we see that marriage and celibacy are not two separate things but one thing. Both mirror and anticipate the same reality. Both states are deeply intertwined with the other. In the Christian vision, all those called to singleness can only come into the world through marriage and the single and celibate state prefigures the time when we will all be engulfed in the real marriage; namely, the mystery of Christ and His Church. Those called to marriage all experience a temporary state of singleness and celibacy both before and, at times, during marriage, and we are all moving inexorably to that day when there will be neither marriage nor giving in marriage. So marriage and celibacy are deep mysteries which are deeply entwined. I hope you are beginning to see how deeply the contemporary church has been co-opted by the culture’s war between singles and married, the war of the genders, and the quick sand of autonomous solitude. Because all relationships have become sexualized, deep and beautiful same sex friendships have become eroded. There is so much that we must recover in our day.
If I might draw from Homer and the wisdom of Greek mythology in reference to the Straits of Messina and the rocky shoal of Scylla and the six headed monster of Charybdis: It is this mysterious anticipation of future realities which keeps both states (marriage and celibacy) from being destroyed by the Scylla of solitude and the Charybdis of autonomy.
Perhaps, drawing again from Homer’s Odyssey, you may recall that Odysseus and Jason planned a strategy to resist the effects of the deadly allure of the Sirens. It involved strapping Odysseus to the mast of his ship and plugging his ears with wax. But the sound of the Sirens was too great and it penetrated the wax and only through great agony did Odysseus pass the strait. Jason, on the hand, heeded the advice of Princes Medea, who suggested that Orpheus, the Greek God of Music might counter the song of the Sirens with an even more compelling song, the music of heaven.
This is our task today. We must not be captivated by the song of this age which only knows the inward gaze, the war of the genders, the zero sum game between marriage and singleness, the autonomous self, and thinking that Christians are only against things. We must tell a bigger story, we must cast a larger narrative; we must sing a better song. We live in a highly sexualized culture and I can think of fewer gifts to this world than those specially called men and women who have the gift of celibacy. I actually rejoice in the birth in recent years of the Protestant monasteries: Taize in France, Jesus Abbey in S. Korea, St. Bridget of Kildare, the first Methodist monastery, etc. There are now over 100 Protestant monastic groups which have arisen as a part of the neo-monastic movement. So, let us honor those called to the celibate life. Let us also honor those who build beautiful Christian marriages, for both states image that one great marriage to which we are all moving: Christ and His Church. For in your authentically Christian lives—both celibate and married—we hear an even more compelling song, the song of the eschaton; the song of the transitory nature of this life; the song of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb; the song of the future bodily resurrection; the song of the New Creation which is being joyfully embodied in anticipation of the future reality and promise of our eternal communion with the Triune God.


Please fill out the form below if you would like to provide feedback to Dr. Tennent concerning this blog entry.