Marriage and Celibacy: Battle-hardened and War-torn

One of the drawbacks of having marriage marched off to the frontline to do battle is that it comes back changed. Oh, how we struggle to understand returned service women and men. They leave in order to defend freedom and return changed in some way, perhaps hardened by the battles they fought.

Soldiers are different after war, and so is marriage.

The traditional Christian view of marriage has undergone a similar kind of hardening in recent times, having battled various attempts that have been made to reformulate it. The question has been whether the long-standing biblical tradition of marriage, comprising one man and one woman, continues to have any purchase in society, and even the church. Christians have—thus far, at least, for the most part—been uncompromising on faithful heterosexual marriage: their defensive stance against the opposition­.

The Christian concept of celibacy has been similarly shaped. In recent years the main context within which Christians have spoken about celibacy has been within this same debate: celibacy, we have insisted, is the proper path for people who experience same sex attraction, because they cannot on biblical grounds marry another person of the same sex. True as this is, it ought not to be the only thing, or even the main thing, that we have to say about celibacy. When it is, we run the risk of diminishing our notion of celibacy to something thin, reduced and ragged, like an amputee limping back from the battlefield.

Marriage celibacy have returned battled-hardened, stiffened in the defence of the biblically grounded heterosexual constitution of marriage.

All present indications would suggest that the current battles within culture over the morality of sex and the definition of marriage are far from over: barring a miracle, it is likely that the war will drag on for a good while yet. But even in war time—perhaps especially in war time—it is important that we keep alive the larger vision of freedom and beauty and truth that we are fighting to preserve.

Marriage exists not just to be defined and defended; and for disciples of the Lord Jesus celibacy means much more than just a commandment prohibiting fornication, a waiting-room for marriage, or a chastity vow for the same sex attracted. And both of these states—along with every other part of life, the universe and everything—are to be understood by Christians in light of a vision that is bigger and richer than either the family-values mantra of the conservatives or the hedonistic individualism of the libertarians.

Alongside and in the midst of all the polemics, we need to keep talking about (and showing in our lives) how the gospel of the Lord Jesus and the good purposes of God for his creation make for a glorious and beautiful understanding of both marriage and celibacy and how, in turn, both married life and celibacy can serve the gospel-centred purposes of God for his people and his world. If we don’t, then both of these doctrines, along with the realities they point to, may end up becoming ironic casualties of the battles fought to defend them.  

Image: Pennsylvania National Guard (via flickr)