What is clear to me is that we as a Church who pride ourselves on being biblical & faithful to the truth, cannot continue the same path we are currently traveling without doing harm to both. Forced celibacy inevitably leads to a heresy far worse than what most conservative churches fear about homosexuality: it leads to the belief that it is by works, and not Christ’s Grace, by which we are saved… and even worse, God’s grace transforms into a curse.
This article attempts to confront an issue within my own Protestant denomination, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which also affects countless other denominations. Though I speak primarily to and from my own denominational perspective, I hope that some of the insights I give here can be used by others for their own contexts.
Let me start out, like the Psalmist do when speaking of God, by praising the church I come from first before I complain about aspects of it that I wish could change.
In 2015, the official Seminary of the Seventh-day Adventist Church produced a statement on homosexuality which finally, for the first time, accepted and acknowledged that many of those who are Gay, were possibly born as such.
Moreover, the Seminary affirmed that the state of being Gay as a sexual orientation is not a sin.
And that means, quite consequentially, that it is truly possible to be both Gay and Christian.
This statement and affirmation was not objected to in the years since (in spite of many opportunities to do so) by any church entities and as such, should be understood that until otherwise done, is currently a reflection of official Adventist teaching.
While that may sound like a small step, especially in comparison to the rest of the world and scientific community, for a conservative leaning church, that is quite a radical move.
Why? Because it means that the church must now explain how the Gay community fit within the structure of the world and church, rather than simply dismissing the issue because “we believe they chose this.”
So I am thankful for my church having chosen to wrestle with the issue rather than dismiss it.
Unfortunately, the Seminary proposed a solution for the issue at the same time which took it a step backward: it argued that Gay Christians must remain celibate in order to please God.
While homosexuality is a distortion of the Edenic ideal, “there is no condemnation” for homosexually oriented persons as long as they “are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1) and do not harbor or act upon their orientation and propensities… [Some] may have to wrestle with such tendencies all their lives.
The idea behind this seems to be an attempt to allow for the scientific fact that some people are born Gay, while maintaining that fact in balance with biblical injunctions that seem to prohibit all homosexual relationships.
What this is proposing then is that an individual who is born Gay and cannot find the opposite sex attractive, must relinquish any ability to have romantic love if he wishes to be saved. In short: celibacy.
The only problem: celibacy causes more problems than it solves!
DOES CELIBACY CONTRADICT THE BIBLE?
One of the problems with the argument supporting celibacy is the simple fact that logically, it contradicts the Bible’s testimony.
First, in the inaugurating story of Adam and Eve, Scripture is clear that Marriage (life-long companionship/union) was given to humans because “it is not good for the human (adam) to be alone” (Gen. 2:18).
This is, first and foremost, the reason why Marriage is given and becomes the norm for human life according to the Bible. It is only after this need and requirement is fulfilled that God mentions anything later (after the Fall) about pro-creation (Gen. 1:28).
The way Genesis is organized, it can only be understood to specify that the command to pro-create came after Eve’s creation, since Gen 1 states that both Adam and Eve had been created when God gave his initiative.
Notice too, that although childbearing is mentioned as a previous expectation and not a new idea when God gives judgment to Eve after the Fall (Gen. 3:15-16), the story tells us that Eve did not get pregnant until after they left Eden (Gen. 4:1).
So how long were they in Eden? There’s no record given, but the implication in the Bible seems to suggest a rather long time. When Jesus was living in the first century, the Jews popularly believed they had been in the Garden for possibly years.
So consider the following: why, if Marriage was primarily intended for childbearing, were Adam and Eve spending so much time prior to their Fall not pro-creating? Since sex is a gift of marriage and Adam and Eve are (with or without a ceremony) “married,” it cannot be assumed (without bad theology) that they were not having sex as a couple in the Garden.
This means that sexuality, for the first human couple, according to Genesis, took priority over childbearing. Companionship, what God said in Gen. 2:18 was the motivation for marriage, is of a higher priority than the command of Gen. 1:28. One takes precedence over the other, something Paul himself notes and clarifies in 1 Cor. 7:3-5 when he warns that sexuality must not be deprived but childbearing should be withheld due to the times he believed they lived in.
However, we need not debate whether this is an accurate assessment of marriage. Thankfully for us, Jesus confirmed this was the case in the Gospels.
In Matthew 19:10-12, Jesus specifically says something that should, theoretically, give any Christian pause.
His disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given.12 For 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. Let anyone accept this who can.” (NRSV)
As a note for those who may think they know or do not, a Eunuch is an individual who lacks a sexual desire. In ancient times, this could be a term which referred to a slave who had his genitals cut off, allowing him to serve young ladies without fear from the slave owners that he would make advances on them.
The term Eunuch can also mean though someone who is celibate (who acts like the Eunuch’s of old), but can even mean in some instances: an individual whose sexuality is not active in the normal way one would imagine it would be (which leaves a lot more wiggle room for interpretation.
Thus, with that notation out of the way, we can notice two things from Jesus’ statement in Matt. 19:
- Not everyone can understand or even accept this truth as true (which means any understanding of this text that is not controversial is not accurate).
- Eunuchs, or individuals without a normal sex drive, are sometimes born that way and others can become like them.
So let’s be clear: the shocking part about Jesus’ three part statement is the first clause and the third (the second was well-known, since it referred to slaves).
THOSE WHO BECOME EUNUCHS
Let’s start backwards with the last part first.
As regards the third point of Jesus, that some can make themselves Eunuchs (or celibate), Jesus affirms that celibacy has a role in the church, but that it is an individual choice. Notice also that the only Eunuch who does so “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” is one who does so because they chose to.
Those who are forced to become one and those who are born as such do not have their status as Eunuchs tied to the Church or Heaven (it’s simply a matter of biology or circumstance).
This means that Jesus affirms that celibacy must be a choice decided by the individual who chooses such.
Again, Paul speaks many years later in 1 Corinthians 7:7, confirming that this understanding of Jesus was understood by the earliest Christians:
I wish that all were as I myself am [celibate, like a Eunuch]. But each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind. (NRSV)
Here is an important point that Paul notes: celibacy is a gift. What he means is that it benefits him in a tangible way.
Moreover, Paul is clear that not everyone can have this gift.
And this soon creates a problem.
Paul specifically outlines that celibacy cannot be a gift if an individual still “burns with passion” (1 Cor. 7:9). In this case, Paul warns that celibacy is not a gift and should be avoided.
Why? Because Paul mentions that not everyone has self-control (1 Cor. 7:5,9).
In other words, not everyone has a choice as to their sexual feelings (or sexuality).
In summary: if someone “burns with passion” and does not marry, forcing themselves to become celibate (in spite of lacking the gift for doing so), Paul would not consider this a blessing, but the opposite, a curse.
THOSE WHO ARE BORN EUNUCHS
Now let us examine the first part of Jesus’ statement in Matthew 19:12, examining those who are born Eunuchs.
The passage in Matthew 19 is clear about three things:
- Those who are born this way were not chosen by God to have been so for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.
- Those who are born this way have no choice, because they were born this way.
- Their birth in this way is neither praised nor condemned as abnormal, but simply said to be a difficult fact to accept.
As the Seminary at Andrews University said, reflecting on this:
While this passage does not explicitly refer to homosexuality, it does reveal that the Bible recognizes that some sexual departure from the norm can be inherited.
Given these facts, it is important to recognize the following consequences of recognizing the above (and other verses explored):
- Jesus and Paul explicitly deny that marriage is always God’s intention for human beings.
- Jesus and Paul deny that everyone has a choice in how they understand their sexuality.
- Jesus clarifies that unless someone can choose to become celibate, it is not specifically intended by God for service to the Church.
- Paul further clarifies that unless someone has a gift for celibacy (a lack of sexual drive), celibacy should be avoided and not chosen.
THE ADVENTIST CHURCH’S POSITION ON CELIBACY IS WRONG
So then, we run into a rather large problem as a result of this.
The Adventist church’s current position, as outlined by its Seminary, to recap again, is to argue that:
- People can be born Gay.
- People who are born Gay and are Christian, must, without desiring it or choosing it (because they have no choice if they want salvation), must become celibate in order to be pleasing to God.
While that may sound good in theory (accept homosexuality as not sinful but medical, but maintain biblical authority to deny acceptability to their relationships which are seen as sinful), the truth is that such a procedure, as seen above, directly and incontrovertibly appears to contradict the Bible…
… which is, ironically, exactly what that sort of position was supposed to avoid doing in the first place!
SALVATION BY WORKS?
Another problem with the idea of celibacy, and a particularly terrible one, is the fact that it inevitably leads to a heresy far worse than what most conservative churches fear about homosexuality: it leads to the belief that it is by works, and not Christ’s Grace, by which we are saved.
If you are born a certain way, having no choice about it, and you are told that the only way to be saved (let alone to be given membership in a church) is to deny your sexual urges and live in penance for something you never chose, then guess what: you’ve created a new problem worthy of raising Luther’s own ire.
Is Christ’s gift only a true gift for some? Do others have to first do something in order to receive it?
This isn’t like a bad habit in which one can say that as someone gives their heart to God, they are transformed into his image and naturally obey him. This is not like that at all.
Instead, here we have a scenario in which someone can never change, but only live constantly in shame and pain in order to receive the gift.
In truth, within this perspective, God’s Grace transforms into a Curse which they must bear as a sexual burden for all of their life.
Did Jesus’ words of comfort that his “yoke” or “burden” was light and easy only apply to some?
Does any of this at all sound like the Christian Gospel, regardless of what apprehensions many Christian readers may have about all of these issues?
ELLEN WHITE WAS AGAINST CELIBACY
As pointed out, the Bible does not provide room for allowing us to force celibacy onto anyone, and the very idea of a forced celibacy is wrong because theologically it leads to a heresy.
Funny enough, Ellen White (one of the three founders of the Adventist church) also agreed on this.
Jesus did not enforce celibacy upon any class of men. He came not to destroy the sacred relationship of marriage, but to exalt it and restore it to its original sanctity. He looks with pleasure upon the family relationship where sacred and unselfish love bears sway. (Ms126-1903)
In her earlier years, in November of 1850, White had described any message of forced, required or unchosen celibacy as “the powers of darkness” which she said “God wants his people to rise and get the victory over.”¹
THE ADVENTIST CHURCH AGREES IT’S WRONG
In what is a surprising reversal, the Adventist World Church voted recently a statement on Transgender Christians in April of 2017 which, surprisingly, called celibacy one of many “biblically inappropriate lifestyle choices.”
It appears that most have overlooked this reference.
Here are the two consequential parts of the statement:
… the desire to change or live as a person of another gender may result in biblically inappropriate lifestyle choices. Gender dysphoria may, for instance, result in cross-dressing, sex reassignment surgery, and the desire to have a marital relationship with a person of the same biological sex. On the other hand, transgender people may suffer silently, living a celibate life or being married to a spouse of the opposite sex.
… Although gender dysphoria is not intrinsically sinful, it may result in sinful choices.
Ignoring the first disparaging remarks, the second trifecta in the first statement proves fascinating.²
Among the number of “biblically inappropriate lifestyle choices” is listed celibacy (specifically, celibacy due to secret suffering).
It’s not only said to be inappropriate, but even implied to be possibly sinful.
This is important, because whether the entire voting body intended to reverse the previous (and recent) position on celibacy, or whether it forgot the Andrews statement, it did.
It also didn’t.
A DANGEROUS CATCH 22
The church actually contradicts itself even within its own 2017 statement.
Later, that same statement says the following:
… the Church strongly cautions transgender people against sex reassignment surgery and against marriage, if they have undergone such a procedure.
Two things to note from this: celibacy is promoted, yet not enforced.
So while it seemingly contradicts itself by promoting something it deemed “biblically inappropriate,” it also appears to point out the fact that the church has reversed from its former position. Instead of requiring celibacy, it only “strongly cautions” for it (which clearly, does not carry the same weight).
Likewise, it is fascinating to notice as well that in the earlier statement, “being married to a spouse of the opposite sex” was also deemed inappropriate, along with celibacy.
Take a moment to consider that previous fact: if a transgender individual marries someone of the opposite sex (as the church promotes one should), they are warned that they are potentially/likely sinning (by doing the correct thing).
So in short, the Adventist Church has created for itself a dangerous Catch 22 scenario.
It simultaneously is telling members that…
- To be celibate (because of private suffering) is to live a biblically inappropriate lifestyle
- If transgender, to marry anyone (even the “correct” sex) could be wrong.
In other words, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.
Or, are you? Again, notice that the statement said that it “strongly cautions” against transgender marriage and sex reassignment surgery, it did not say that it forbid it.
And that brings us to the problem: the Seventh-day Adventist church has walked itself into a ditch of its own creation.
The statement on transgender relations is indecisive and contradictive because its clear that the Adventist Church is unsure what to do.
It can’t require forced celibacy because its un-biblical in this context to do so (a curse, rather than a gift). It also goes against our founding tradition as a denomination as evidenced by Ellen White’s strong warnings against such a teaching.
But it also can’t support “biblical” marriage to the opposite sex because they know that if someone does not find the opposite sex attractive or if they are transgender and see themselves as the same sex as the one they are marrying, they are entering what they see as an “unbiblical marriage.”
Which leaves the church in its current position: hopelessly at odds with its own self.
THIS SOUNDS FAMILIAR: THE CASE OF ACTS 15
This sort of situation reminds me of the first church council, recorded in Acts 15. The church, based in Jerusalem, declared that Circumcision was not required to be a follower of Jesus. It was a monumental shift in interpreting the Old Testament scriptural commands.
Yet, not all was great.
While removing the requirement for circumcision, they enforced the command that Christians were forbidden to eat any meat that had been blessed at pagan festivals (the time when the meat was cheapest).
Paul ended up rejecting this view as essentially “superstition” and said the church leaders were “weaker brothers” because they had enforced such a rule (cf. Romans 14).
As such, Acts 15 represents a huge step forward for the church and a step backward at the same time, showing that the Church usually gets something wrong each time it gets something right.
Similarly, I see the Adventist Church’s affirmation of the biological reality of homosexuality as a right step forward, but its ideas about celibacy as an anti-biblical step backward.
While I recognize the dilemma that the Adventist church currently faces, namely how to accept the reality of naturally occurring homosexuality and the seeming biblical injunctions regarding homosexual acts, I can say (and I hope others can agree upon review of this analysis) that the solution of celibacy does not solve anything, but rather, appears to cause the very thing it hopes to avoid: contradicting the directives of scripture.
What this requires from us is a recognition that the reason that we have found the wrong solution is because we are not yet prepared to come up with right solution.
Perhaps it is better (for the time being), in light of the clear confusion that surrounds this, that instead of laying restrictions on Christians which only “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:3), but which were merely the uninformed opinion of those “who are weak in faith” (Rom. 14:1), we should instead be careful to keep in mind the advice of Pres. Wilson while discussing the statement on Transgender Relations:
“The last thing we want to do is chase people away from Christ and the Church. We want them to come to the foot of the cross and His changing grace.”
Instead of laying restrictions on how to keep people from joining the church (a very odd notion to begin with), perhaps we should be welcoming them (not only to walk inside the building once a week, but to follow God to wherever he leads them) and allowing Christ and the Holy Spirit to work on all our hearts in the way God ultimately and wisely chooses to do so.
Some may find this article hard to swallow because I have not proposed a solution. I have no alternative to give. Some may see me as having merely taken down the temporary wall and leaving the church aimless.
I am afraid that as much as I wish I had the answer, the only one that comes to my mind is a simple one: Imitate Christ. He is always our aim and I can hope to do no better.
Better that we take the position that we currently do not know something, then to take the wrong position and destroy peoples lives (a far worse heresy than anything else since it means we are distorting both the Gospel and God’s very character).
I can only share what is obvious to me… and what is clear to me is that we as a Church who pride ourselves on being biblical and faithful to the truth, cannot continue the same path we are currently traveling without doing harm to both.