Some of the most painful conversations I’ve had in the past couple of years have been with Side-A friends. We have so much in common which makes our differences seem to fall that much harder and heavier. The pain and hurt is the pain and hurt of family — the pain and hurt of those we want to understand, or by whom we want to be understood, but that understanding evades.
A while ago I met up for drinks with an acquaintance who is a Side-A Christian. We held a lot in common — wounds from belonging to churches were the relationship is more that of abusive and manipulative parents than the tender, nurturing, protective presence the Church is called to be. We both have a heart for others who are wounded and weary. We share in the desire for the Church to be a place of holy refuge and healing. And yet we painfully disagree on how we are called to live our lives before God as it relates to our sexuality. At one point in our conversation I found myself stumbling quite badly as I tried to answer for my own calling to celibacy when I heard: “The way you live doesn’t make you more holy than me. You can’t earn your salvation.”
It’s a line of thinking I’ve heard and/or read that is leveled at Side-B Christians from time to time — that we are pursuing lives of celibacy in an attempt to appease God, to make God love us. It is the sort of pathologizing that is reductionistic and does violence to our own unique stories. I didn’t know how to respond. Fumbling for words, I tried to say that I know I’m not better, that I know I can’t earn my salvation. I know that I cannot make myself more holy, more righteous, or more deserving of God’s grace. (In fact, anyone who knows the particularities of my existence would laugh at the suggestion!) If my attempts — most commonly, and at their best, half-hearted — at celibacy are the source of my hope then I am most to be pitied.
While the words stung and fell over the conversation with the weight of an accusation, I think there is also a warning in them that would be wise for me, and others like me, to heed. But those words of warning give way, ultimately, to words of hope and consolation for those who grow weary under the weight of their calling.
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The Reformed tradition, of which I am a part, helpfully articulates our moral life as a life lived in response to the grace of God. We live out our lives in gratitude, in grateful response, to who God is and what God has done for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our doing and striving as we work out our salvation in fear and trembling is called forth in us in the power of the Holy Spirit by the love the Father has given in Jesus. We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
We do not bear our crosses to save ourselves, to earn our way to heaven, to hopefully balance the scales of judgment in our favor in the end. We do not take up machetes to be pioneers and blaze trails of obedience. Instead we follow down the path Christ has already trod, beckoned in love by the voice of our Beloved. In the love of Jesus, I am set free to love God and to love my neighbor. And therefore we are stripped of any notion of moral superiority, any pretensions of the Christian life being a self-improvement project, a life of works righteousness, a way of earning the love of God. The vocation of celibacy is one of the ways, alongside others, Christians are called to live our their lives in response to God.
As Peter Brown recounts in The Body & Society, in the early centuries of the Church there was a sexual hierarchy that taught celibacy to be the better vocation to marriage. There was an over-realized eschatology at work here—to forego marriage and sex was to escape our mortality and to usher in the kingdom of God. The sacrifice of those who were celibate would earn them a greater reward in the eschaton. At its worst this is a form of works-righteousness and at its best it made celibacy morally superior, only for those super spiritual types that could really hack it (it seems to me that the opposite is true now in much of Protestantism—marriage is the higher, morally superior calling).
While we would do well to recover the early Church’s clear emphasis on the legitimacy of celibacy, celibacy is not some heroic form of self-sacrifice, not some Promethean venture for the super-spiritual only. Rather, it is one calling, alongside others, in which we live out our days before God in habits and patterns of fitting faithfulness.
Jovinian, a fourth century monk, argued that there was no hierarchy, rejecting the superiority of celibacy. For Jovinian, the waters of baptism were the great equalizer. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, disapprovingly called this denial of the spiritual pecking order a “peasants’ hue and cry.” John Henry Newman, a Roman Catholic Priest and Cardinal, would later write that Jovinian, and a few others, were the “Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, of the fourth century” — and he didn’t mean that in a good way.
But I think Jovinian was right. The Reformers, in their rejection of the superiority of celibacy, were right. And as those of us called to celibacy in firmly Protestant circles push back against the proverbial pendulum that swung too far, introducing a new hierarchy — elevating marriage, denigrating celibacy — we would do well to resist the dangers of moral superiority and spiritual heroism. Better to cling to Jesus than to pin our hopes on ourselves.
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Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. These are some of the first words I ever learned to sing in Sunday School, some of the first words I remember ever learning. Jesus loves me, this I know. My calling to celibacy is not me holding on, white-knuckled, to a faint hope that God might take notice of me if I act heroically enough. No, it is the submission of trusting love that is elicited from me by the love of Another, by the love of God in Christ.
If you are reading this, maybe you feel weary. Your grip is slipping. You don’t know if you can make it down this path God has called you. Maybe it is celibacy. Maybe it is another calling. You’re holding on but you don’t know how much longer. Jesus loves you, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
Better to cling to Jesus, yes. But even better to be reminded that it is Jesus who clings to us. For our grip will slip, it will grow weak and fail us. And when it does we find ourselves held not by our own strength, but held in the strong grip of a loving God.
Jesus love me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. And Jesus loves you. He loves you. You don’t have to earn his favor, his love. That is the stunning truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If it were any different, it wouldn’t be the gospel, it wouldn’t be good news. For we’d be thrown back on ourselves. But we are not. You are not alone. Though it is the fruit of the Spirit at work in us, moral purity is not the gospel. Celibacy is not the gospel. The saving, healing, redeeming love of Jesus is.