Adultery: An Exploration of Love and Marriage

by Robert and Mollie Brow

Appendix D

Why Did Both Jesus and Paul Commend Celibacy?

The word celibacy has often suggested a vow to remain unmarried for religious reasons. In this chapter we will use a much wider definition. Someone is celibate who for any reason is not currently enjoying what most people imagine must be normal sexual intercourse. By our definition a large proportion of people are celibate at various periods in their life.

 Jesus mentioned some reasons why people of his day were celibate. "There are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." [Matthew 19:11,12] Some people are celibate for genetic or physiological reasons which give them no desire for intercourse with the opposite sex. In Jesus' middle eastern world there was the horror of young men being castrated for service in the royal harem.

 In our day there is the pain of enforced celibacy for those who cannot find an acceptable partner for marriage. Others have no desire or opportunity for a new relationship after being widowed or divorced. Where the man is away in the navy, or on overseas military service, or in some kinds of business, both he and his wife have to be celibate for months on end.

 There are periods of celibacy even in the most normal of marriages due to pregnancy, sickness, grieving, exhaustion, travel or pressures of various kinds. And when things go wrong sex is often avoided until happy communication is reestablished. The worst scenario is when celibacy is enforced on a partner due to boredom, emotional involvement in another person, or to punish or make a point. But by then, as we saw in Chapter 5, the invisible line of marriage adulteration has already been crossed.

 Jesus recommended one kind of voluntary celibacy "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." [Matthew 19:12] And Paul the apostle explained his preference for celibacy in similar terms. "The married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband." [1 Corinthians 7:8, 25-28, 32-38.] We have no doubt there is value in celibacy for some kinds of secular work and some kinds of Christian service. There are also times of war and terrible confusion when it might be wiser not to get married. Paul for example was writing in the shadow of an "impending crisis." [1 Corinthians 7:26] All Paul's letters were written against the background of the turmoil that culminated in the siege and destruction of Jerusalem within twenty years.

 Unfortunately by failing to make a proper distinction between legal and voluntary celibacy churches were trapped into gross inconsistency. The Roman Catholic church for example requires celibacy for its priests. But if a priest or bishop has sexual intercourse discretely, he can be absolved and continue his ministry. By our definition in Appendix C a priest living with his housekeeper is not living in voluntary celibacy but in a common law marriage. What seems inconsistent is that he can be forgiven for sexual irregularity by his church, but if he ever contracts a legal marriage, he is immediately dismissed from the priesthood.

 We might note how Protestants were caught in equally disastrous moral confusion. In Chapter 4 we saw how churches misused Jesus' words about divorce to demand a cruel celibacy for all divorced persons. A Christian who had been divorced for whatever reasons was condemned either to celibacy for life or to condemnation for adultery.

 Having expressed our distaste for the attempts of our churches to define celibacy by legal enactments and guilt, we rejoice in the Christian vision of either a freely chosen celibacy or a commitment to faithfulness in marriage. In the mediaeval church there was the idea that a priest or monk or nun was following a higher vision of celibacy by being married to Christ. We prefer to say that there is one very high vision of the Christian life which can be pursued at any time in either the celibate or the married mode.

 If there is a genuine commitment to either celibacy or total faithfulness to one person in marriage there is a very interesting byproduct. Having settled our commitment, we are then freed to love and enjoy all other persons. Christians are to "love one another with mutual affection." [Romans 12:10] At the least this means that married and unmarried persons will have a circle of friends of both sexes whom they love very deeply. All we need to make clear is that, however much we enjoy and feel close to other persons, sexual intercourse is not part of our vision. For those who learn to live this way there is the pure pleasure of social contact with many attractive persons. And in the chapter on lust we saw that finding others attractive is not sin unless we engage our will to become adulterous.

 [Note: For two very helpful Roman Catholic approaches to this kind of celibacy see Donald Georgen, The Sexual Celibate, (New York: Doubleday, l979) and Janie Gustafson, Celibate Passion, (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).]

 We also observe the opposite result if a person is not totally committed to either celibacy or total faithfulness to one person. Instead of loving and enjoying persons for what they are, physical attraction quickly introduces another agenda. We might compare the difference between going out to enjoy the countryside for what it is, and going out with a gun with a view to killing any birds or animals that might appear. The two experiences are quite different in quality.

 It is easy to see this at a party, say in one of the Arabian Gulf states where large numbers of men and women are away for long periods from their partner. The behavior of the happily married and voluntarily celibate persons is exactly the same. They can be warm and friendly and loving with all, but at a certain point they can be seen to refuse the adulteration of their vision. Others easily slide into a series of adulterous and unsatisfactory relationships.

 We should also remind ourselves of the final outcome. Many people believe death is the end. The unstated assumption is that those who are denied sexual joy are not only cruelly deprived in this life, but there is nothing to enjoy hereafter To avoid this fate marriage should be enjoyed if possible, but any other opportunity for sexual fulfillment must be grabbed before it is too late. If a marriage is adulterated, or sex is sordid and unsatisfactory, the only hope is that another relationship might offer something better. Those who think in such ways may grant that a Christian vision would be beautiful and comforting, but it is beyond the reach of what they can believe. The vision of sex and marriage which we have adopted is in the light of the resurrection. Married and presently celibate persons who share that faith look forward to the resurrection of their bodies. The resurrection of our bodies is important because after death we have no desire to be disembodied spirits. And annihilation, or the loss of our personality in some monistic absolute, only appeals to those who hate the excitement and joy of life.

 There is no way to conceive of loving God or anyone else without a body. Which is why in the New Testament our heaven is pictured as a place of walking, and eating. It includes the enjoyment of a totally loving relationship with an innumerable multitude of people of all cultures and races who bring their national glory into the city of God. [Revelation 21:22-22:6] The logic of this hope is clear. If God is indeed loving, and wants the very best for his children, then the joys of this life will not be cruelly terminated when we die. C.S.Lewis often said that the most exquisite experiences of glory in this world are only little foretastes of the fullness of glory in the resurrection. At their best the joys of sexual encounter will point to a perfection of love which is infinitely more in depth, and height, and unbelievable extent. [1 Corinthians 2:9, Revelation 21:2-26]

 In an argument with Jesus, the Sadducees referred to the Old Testament obligation to father an heir for the childless widow of one's brother. If a woman had been taken in turn by seven brothers to perform this duty, whose wife would she be in the resurrection? From our modern point of view most women would brand such a heroic effort to provide heirs for their husband's dead brother as grossly adulterous. What is significant for our purposes in this chapter is that in answering the Sadducee question Jesus did not discuss the obligation according to the Old Testament law. What he explained was that "in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven." He evidently viewed marriage as pointing to a far greater eternal purpose.

 [Matthew 22:23-30, Mark 12:18-25, Luke 20:27-35. The Sadducee argument was based on Deuteronomy 25:5-6] In the vision that the early Christians learned from Jesus married persons, together with all voluntarily and involuntarily celibate persons, will find themselves loving each other perfectly in the City of God. In this life we should recognize and feel for those with frustrated heterosexual and homosexual orientations, those who are cruelly widowed, divorced, and unable to marry, those who have had bad sexual experiences, been raped or sexually abused.

 But happily married persons have no business suggesting that in God's eyes they are privileged and others are missing out on God's purpose to work everything out for good. [Romans 8:28] In the resurrection there will be no possibility of marriage adulteration or limitation or frustration because "there will be no marriage or giving in marriage." This does not mean that our love for the partner of our choice will be less. Rather we imagine our limited loving will be taken up into the far greater loving of a totally loving God.

 We have noted that in this world any marriage is bound to have some exclusivity. Sexual joy is quickly adulterated outside the limitations of a mutual commitment. But in heaven there will be no need of exclusive relationships. Nobody is going to be able to say "This person belongs to me and doesn't belong to anyone else." We will love each other, and that includes all the millions from all nations who will be there, far more beautifully and intimately than the most perfect sexual union here on earth. In such a vision the joys of marriage are not the highest good in themselves. Both marriage and celibacy are God given means to grasp and enter into the perfect loving of heaven. We do not have to rush into a series of unsatisfactory relationships before it is too late.

 Finally we might wonder why the constraints and limitations of marriage are necessary if God has a heaven in mind where we will all love each other to the full? A practical answer is that the exclusive commitment of marriage is needed to provide a home and family for the children. But why bother with such a commitment if there is birth control, and there are no children, or they have grown and are flying happily on their own? We prefer to think in terms of the freedom to love. Nobody can love everyone in the world, and deep friendships are impossible beyond a very limited circle of those we have the leisure to enjoy. It is admittedly possible to have casual sex with a large number of persons in a lifetime. [See Appendix B] But to our minds joy is much wider than sex, and the special joy and freedom of marriage is a byproduct of a long term mutuality and commitment. One cannot grow a garden by pulling up the plants before they flower.

 Some assure us that it is possible to find joy in a series of marriages, love affairs, and divorces. We do not need to condemn them for pursuing whatever temporary love they can find. But we have already seen how divorce is an adulteration of what most people hoped for in a permanent marriage relationship. And if a genuine love and mutuality can be enjoyed in a long term marriage without the need to adulterate it, why settle for less?

 If heaven is indeed the full flowering of love, then any love on earth can only be a foretaste. For those who are celibate for a time the longing for a perfection of love can be affirmed as the outcome that God has in mind. In either case a clear grasp of our long term vision gives a meaning to the joy and the pain of the present.