Dr. Wesley Hill is a noted author and the Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA. Dr. Hill spoke as our Speaker in Residence this weekend at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville on two topics: “The Redemption of Our Bodies: Finding Sexual Wholeness in Christ” and "How Singleness Points to the Kingdom: St. Paul's Surprising Affirmation of Celibate Life." As a New Testament scholar, Dr. Hill’s dialogues were loaded with Scriptural references for discussion, but I was most interested in his personal story as a gay celibate.
In 2008, my second marriage had dissolved in divorce and I found myself alone, without any family. After much prayer and Scripture study I had a decision to make about my sexuality. As a heterosexual it seemed that society’s expectation was that I would soon remarry or at least begin sexual relationships outside of a marriage relationship. In 2009, someone I had assumed to be a close Christian friend counseled me that it wasn’t normal to not have a significant other (with whom I was having sex) and suggested I needed to be in therapy. I was even more surprised at my 2010 annual well-woman exam to have my female GYN doctor suggest that not having sex for two years was “abnormal” and that I needed to get over the divorce and move on with therapy if necessary.
As I contemplated the advice of “friends” and strangers, I landed where Dr. Hill stated: there is nothing wrong with being single and not having sexual relations, in fact, St. Paul seems to exalt the single life in 1 Corinthians 7:7.
But in thinking back to my early post-College experiences in Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist churches in the 1970’s and 80’s, the single life was anything but exalted. Singles groups were designed to introduce eligible Christians to each other so they could marry, or in some church groups, the singles were eager to explore their early sexuality without benefit of marriage.
Dr. Hill makes a compelling case for the sanctity of singleness and the rebirth of Christian friendships between same sex and different sex individuals. It has only been within the last 100 years that male-male close but non-sexual friendships have fallen out of “norm”.
In a recent blog, Dr. Hill suggests three reasons that “celibacy is for the common good”:
First, celibacy makes it clear that marriage is a gift and a calling, not a right or a guarantee that we must demand or insist on. Further, celibacy needs to exist in the Church’s social life in order for marriage to be a matter of freedom rather than compulsion. Celibacy is the alternative if there is indeed more than one way to order one’s sexual life, one’s maleness or femaleness, to heaven.
Second, celibacy underscores the sacredness and dignity of marriage. When a celibate person voluntarily foregoes sexual intimacy, they are indirectly pointing to the fact that there is a place where sexual expression is appropriate and necessary. In a roundabout way, they are doing what Hebrews 13:4 commands: “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers.”
Third and finally, Hill suggested that celibacy is an important reminder that love isn’t reducible to what we do in bed or over a candlelit table for two. It is a reminder that love exceeds the boundaries of the nuclear family. Celibacy is not about a heroic feat of willpower. It’s about giving up one way of expressing love in order to be able to love widely, profligately, indiscriminately. It’s about foregoing a spouse in order to love a community. It’s about giving up the possibility of children in order to become a spiritual father or mother in the family called “church.” It’s about being a little less entangled in the life of the world in order to be a little more free to celebrate the coming kingdom of God, in which none of us will be married and all of us will be spiritual friends with everyone else in the new creation that God will usher in. In the words of Ronald Rolheiser, “Celibacy, if properly lived, can be an important way to keep alive, visible and in the flesh, that part of the incarnation which tells us that when one is speaking of love, the human heart is the central organ.”
Hill suggested elevating friendship above the level of "mutual interest that may sustain us for a couple years." Instead, he proposed inserting "a kind of given-ness to our friendships that means we can take them as genuine loves in their own right."
For the first-time in my church life, I have found incredible examples of unmarried Christians who are faithful to God in their calling to be single at my church in Nashville. Some have never been married, or have not been drawn to the right person. Others have been widowed or experienced divorce. But they are all living a godly life that is not defined by their marital status or their sexuality.
We are all, first and foremost, children of God.