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040 Rethinking Celibacy for the Single Christian

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What do you think of when you hear the word ‘celibacy’? Do you think of monks, nuns, robes and rosary beads? Do you consider it the forced lifestyle of the ‘dateless’, or a relic of yesteryear morality? According to Wheaton College professor Christine Colon, all of our understandings of celibacy need a makeover:

Celibacy isn’t just about sex.

And singleness isn’t a life stage to be endured until the real thing (marriage) happens.

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With Bonnie Field, Christine Colon is the author of Singled Out: Why Celibacy Must Be Reinvented in Today’s Church. In this Open House interview, part of a larger series called The Single Life (see below), Christine and I discuss how both the world and the Church have misunderstood what celibacy is all about: 

Society Gets it Wrong

When it comes to sexuality, mainstream culture tells the single person that:

  • They’re incomplete without a partner
  • Sex outside of marriage is normative, as sex is a biological imperative and restraining from it is damaging and repressive

And the consequence of these messages? Christian singles (and other singles) can feel like cultural oddities if they’re not sexually active.

Church Gets it Wrong

However, the Church can send confusing messages on sexuality too, telling the single person that:

  • Sexual temptation can’t be resisted so flee from it or get married
  • They need to be married to be happy
  • If they are called to be single God will remove their romantic desires

And the consequence? Christian singles can feel like failures since they don’t have a spouse or the ‘gift’ of celibacy (as their continuing romantic desires obviously prove).

Throughout the interview Christine re-frames celibacy as an attitude of total dedication to God and offers some wonderful tips on how the single life can be lived well and how the Church can support Christian singles in this season of life. This was a frank discussion on sex, singleness and relationships that I hope you find helpful whether you’re single or married.

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Your Response

What have you found hardest about the single life? How have you learned to live it well? Leave a comment now or call me using the ‘Send Voicemail’ button. Please also rate and share this podcast on iTunes to help others discover it.

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The Single Life Series

This interview was one of a 7-part series we ran on Open House called The Single Life. You might find the full series helpful too, so here it is. Click on each link to play the interview or right-click and choose ‘save target’ to download.

Part 1: Being A Contented Single

Sandra Cavallo, a 30-something single pastor and magazine columnist, gives insights on how to thrive as a single person.

Part 2: Being Single Again

Anne Hollonds, CEO of Relationships Australia, talks about the challenges of being single again. Some great advice for those who have experienced separation, divorce or the death of a spouse.

Part 3: Rethinking Celibacy for the Single Christian

Why celibacy is not about missing out or waiting around for marriage, but a chance to embrace God more fully.

Part 4: Single Parenting

Tips and advice for the single parent, with Deb Sorenson from Focus on the Family Australia.

Life 5: Sexual Purity

Dr Allan Meyer from Careforce Lifekeys lays the Biblical foundations of why sex should be reserved for marriage.

Part 6: Unrequited Love

You love someone and they don’t love you back. Laura Smit, author of Loves Me, Loves Me Not: The Ethics of Unrequited Love talks about why it happens, what to do about it and where God fits into it all.

Part 7: Marrying Well

Advice from authors Steve and Candice Watters on what you can do if you hope to one day be married. (Notice how this interview comes last!)

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  • jo

    Difficult things about the single life…where to start! It can be a strange experience being a single Christian!

    One of the things I’ve found hard about the single Christian life is dealing with other people’s overly simplistic formulas about what it takes to no longer be single. People holding to these ideas are often a bit too keen to share them. No doubt they are well meaning but real life doesn’t tend to follow the formulas and being given such formulas can make the journey more frustrating and lonely. Some examples of things some Christians say will get you a partner are:

    – being completely content- There is a bit of a logical flaw in using contentment as a tool to get something!
    – stopping looking- You also could miss them because you weren’t looking!
    – Loose weight/be more attractive- Nowhere near as easy as it sounds!
    – Being involved in more Christian activities, especially missions trips- Last year I went on two missions trips and was extensively involved in Christian activities to the point I’m not sure where I would have fitted more in. I’m still single. I didn’t do any of those things with the motive of finding a partner but if the formula was to work for anyone, I should have been a pretty good candidate!

    As for living it well, I think fasting is a particularly helpful discipline. I’ve read a few authors who bring it up in relation to sexual temptation but I think it is applicable to singleness in general.  Both fasting from food and attempting to live a holy single life are about learning to rely on God in the absence of a good thing you desire. Although for medical reasons I can’t fast food much any more, I still find it a helpful way to conceptualize my experience of singleness and chastity. Understanding singleness as like fasting, you can start to see the longings and pain of singleness as something that points you to trust in God and rely on his strength rather and as something that helps sanctify you rather than just random annoying pain. 

    • There’s so much wisdom in what you share Jo – wisdom that can only be gained by wrestling with something deeply with God. Thanks for sharing.

      And I did have to laugh at that logical fallacy of ‘contentment’ leading to the ‘fulfillment’ of a partner :).

  • Paul

    a) The equal hardest aspects of single life for me are:

    i) many people assuming a single person has time on his / her hands and thus watches lots of movies, does lots of ‘selfish stuff’ (rather than using the opportunity to actually serve people and be particularly fruitful in God’s kingdom) and

    ii) many people assuming a single person doesn’t have a well thought out, prayed about and mature understanding and perhaps even experience in raising children or living as a couple / family.

    b) what has helped me live out these best for BOTH are:

    i) kind, gracious people who don’t assume either of the above, and love, respect you as a single person, involving you in all aspects of their lives and are interested in your life in a mature, loving and fun way [Note – the ‘people doing the assuming’ above can be both family people or single people – though most often they are family people] and 

    ii) a focus on God’s undeserved grace towards me, that Jesus (a single man!) came to earth, was so much misunderstood, we as humanity rejected Him – yet because of His sacrifice on the cross, we can be called “children of God”! Oh what a joy and daily motivation to live life well and full!

    • Brilliant thoughts Paul, and no doubt helpful to others. Thanks for sharing.

  • Mon

    Interesting convo… I think the hardest thing is the nagging feeling that you have somehow discerned your state in life incorrectly, that maybe you missed your “calling” because you didn’t follow the promptings of the Spirit.But I think that we are provided with so much assistance to live the single life well. Some of the best in my (not so) humble opinion: (i) the witness of those who have chosen celibacy, particularly those who live it with enthusiasm and great joy; (ii) the incredible writings on the subject (I recommend JPII, who wrote volumes, and who reminds us our fundamental vocation is to love – how we do this is secondary); (iii) the countless ministry opportunities, which give us all the ability to live out the vocation to love; and (iv) having a deep appreciation for marriage, and learning from the example of married couples. Marriage requires a total gift of self for the love of another. It also requires chastity and dealing appropriately with sexual desires. I think realising that the married and single vocation are not that dissimilar, and that they are directed towards the same end, makes it easier to see that the single vocation is not subordinate to marriage – rather it is complementary.

    • I love these reflections, Mon. Perhaps they couldn’t have come without that deep wrestling one has to do when in placed in a position we’d rather not be in – in this case, singleness.

      Henri Nouwen’s book Clowning in Rome comes to mind, where he has a wonderful chapter on celibacy. He describes it as making ‘space’ for God and others in our lives, along thelines of the ‘vocation to love’ which you’ve talked about.

  • Lynne

    Having become single again quite suddenly, I realised a couple of years down the track that, with all the support I was given (by family, friends, pastors, Christian co-workers, counsellors), no-one had thought (or wanted) to ask how I was dealing with the sudden loss of sex in my life. God had, in fact, helped me a lot in coming to terms with it, but I felt so isolated not being able to talk about it or feel that anyone cared, or was even aware, of this being an issue in my life. Let’s not pretend or hide from this when people experience loss.
    The person I was finally able to share this with ended up being (to my surprise) my young adult daughter. I was hesitant, but shared with respect for the mature and godly woman she is, and with thanks for the deep friendship that has developed alongside our mother-daughter relationship. 

    • Thanks for being willing to raise this Lynne. As you’ve said, this is a real struggle that can’t be hid from. And I have to say, I don’t think we even explore the issue of sexual desire in the interview above on being ‘Single Again’. After you’re vulnerability in sharing this, that will change in the future.

      And the fact it was your grown daughter you could finally speak to about it is a lovely aspect to the story. All those years of your spiritual nurture paid off.

  • Lebelekani

    What then about a single christian woman who wants to have sex?

    • The key word in your question is the word ‘Christian’. Given that a Christian (whether woman, man, single or married) is one who seeks to follow Jesus above all else and in every aspect of life, the single Christian is called to follow Jesus’ call in the area of sexual practice too. 

      In the case of sex Jesus was quite demanding (one could argue even more demanding than the Old Testament) – see Matthew 5:27-32. And he lived out his own teaching (can you imagine Jesus being sexually active outside of a life-long, publically-affirmed marriage commitment?). 

      To be Christ-like then, as a single Christian, is to follow Jesus in a God-consumed celibate lifestyle, modelling to a sex-crazed culture another way of living.

      • Sheila

        Its ok for Sheridan Voysey to say this! He has a partner! So I guess that qualifies him to tell other people to do without sex?

        • Did you listen to this podcast interview, Sheila? What did you think of what Christine Colon (single) had to say?

          • Sheila

            Hi Sheridan thanks for replying. Have listened to Christine and much of what she says is helpful. I have a lot of issues surrounding singleness and pressures from society which seems to emphasise couples, children, sex -and if you feel ‘left out’ it gets very difficult. Especially when I lost my husband some time ago and miss him very much. Will discuss some of this when I meet you at a seminar Ive booked next year. Best wishes -Sheila

  • Vicki Nunn

    I’ve been celibate since I became a Christian 28 years ago. A few years back one of the local churches was holding a series of talks on family etc, and some of their singles asked, “What about single people?”

    I was a radio presenter on the local Christian radio and was approached about presenting a talk on evening on their behalf on singleness. This is a link to my talk: http://vicki-s.blogspot.com.au/2010/08/christian-singleness-is-it-curse-or.html

  • Best comeback line if someone says your problem as a single is that you’re ‘too fussy’: “And you weren’t?!” (Best used when partner is standing beside them) 😉

    • Sheila

      Certainly agree. There is a lot of pomposity coming from partnered people. When they become single again -they will find out what it is like.,!

  • Mary Haight

    The biggest challenge which has remained constant in changing circumstances and ages is always having to make decisions without benefit of sharing with one who has the same vested interest. I invite you to go to my blog, seasonedsingleness.com for more of my thoughts as a seasoned single. I talk about celibacy, faithfulness, aloneness, and the fact that many, like me, do not feel “called” to singleness, but am definitely called to faithfulness to Jesus Christ.