Lately, Christians have taken their thoughts and reflections on social media back to the early church on the topics of celibacy and sexuality. Much of the conversation centers on past spiritual practices of celibacy and complaints on what early church leaders taught about celibacy.
Some to suggest that early church leaders enthusiastically “destroyed” the centrality of marriage within the church. Others Argue that the way we understand the (so-called) “gift of celibacy” today is a direct inheritance from the apostles and the early centuries of the Church.
As a history buff, practical theologian, and never-married Christian woman, I may not agree with all the assumptions, but I am delighted with the revitalized discussion of how we can see old ideas on celibacy in a new light. After all, the history of the Church is our history, and this ancient era is full of fascinating ideas (and a few puzzles) about celibacy, many of which are still relevant to discussions of faith and church life today.
The lessons we can learn from the ancient church about celibacy are many and powerful, but they are neither simple nor straightforward. In fact, the early church leaders do not give us a singular account of being single. However, when we examine the Christian history of celibacy on its own terms, the conversation turns out to be much more complex and interesting.
So what does it look like for us to approach this past honestly?
First, a proper historical methodology is to observe the details and nuances of the past, rather than painting it with large brushstrokes.
We must keep in mind that the era of the early church lasted almost 500 years and spanned several continents. At that time and in this space, there was a great diversity of thoughts about being single as a Christian. There was a lot of agreement, but there was also a strong disagreement.
For example, consider the response to the 4th century ex-monk Jovian, who dared to suggest that “virgins, widows, and married women, who once passed through the tub of Christ … are of equal merit”. This affirmation of the shared equality of Christians in Christ, regardless of their marital status, ultimately contributed to Jovian being declared a heretic at several synods of the early church during his lifetime.
It also inspired many and long critiques of patristic authors, such as the father of the early Church Jerome (who begged “the reader should not be disturbed if he is obliged to read Jovian’s foul-smelling garbage”) and even Augustine (who was grateful that the church “has opposed this monster in a very consistent and very forceful way” and has taken steps to Stop Jovien to “secretly spill poisons with all the power that the Lord has given me”).
Or consider that the celibate Christian life in the eastern sphere of the empire was characterized quite differently from that in the western sphere. For about half a millennium, each region has developed its own independent theological justifications and practical expressions of Christian celibacy.
These are just two examples of how the early church’s understanding of what we call celibacy today was genuinely complex rather than straightforward.
Second, engaging with the past depends on a firm commitment to understanding the dynamism of history..
In the recent evangelical repopularization of the term “celibacy,” contemporary discussions often define celibacy as a distinct, permanent, and perhaps formalized commitment to a particular type of celibacy.
Some who make this claim see celibacy as a direct legacy of an ancient historical practice. And yet, in its original context, the word single, from the Latin term caelebs, simply meant “celibate” – which is the functional equivalent of our term Single.
Moreover, before the eventual establishment of monastic communities (which we generally have in mind when we think of celibacy today), there was a wide range of celibate individuals which included itinerant teachers, inhabitants of the isolated desert, members of ascetic sects, celibate priests, maid servants, widows and widowers, and more.
Not only were the earliest expressions of the celibate Christian life much more varied, some of them were also seen as problematic theologically.
Take, for example, the Encratites, a second-century Christian sect that emphasized self-discipline by not eating meat, drinking wine, or, most importantly, having sex. A cornerstone of incratism was their utter rejection of marriage.
The movement was popular for a time, but at the beginning of the 3rd century, the first Fathers of the Church like Ireneaus and Clement of Alexandria actively opposed the Encratites. They argued that the ban on marriage (and sex within it) was heretical. As David Hunter Remarks in his book Marriage, celibacy and heresy in ancient Christianity, “Christian ‘orthodoxy’ now involved the acceptance of marriage and the repudiation of radical incratism.”
Embarrassing as it may be for us modern readers of history, there was simply no one-size-fits-all approach or singular practice of “celibacy” within the early church.
Third, engaging with the past requires careful navigation through historical continuity and discontinuity..
We must recognize that the current cultural context of celibacy is remarkably different from that of the early church. For example, Christian singles today have a degree of personal autonomy in their decisions about why, who, and when to get married. Such marital independence would have been unimaginable for our former counterparts. For them, marriage was primarily a social construct and an economic necessity, often initiated by their elders or family members, whether they liked the arrangement or not.
In fact, most unmarried Christians in the early centuries were not “never-married” virgin adults, but rather widowed husbands and wives. In other words, long-term single status largely stems from a previous marriage!
Even when more formalized practices of consecrated celibacy begin to develop, the choice to engage in such a life appears to be a rare and sometimes even self-indulgent luxury. Such a privilege was generally only available to the most socially and financially elite who could afford to turn their backs on the expectations of their families.
While we might be tempted to draw a straight line between oneness every now and then, there is much more discontinuity than continuity. Of course, this does not mean that the past cannot provide potential perspectives for the present.
But it does suggest that many of the questions that believers face today are not the same ones that our ancient Christian counterparts grappled with. And as responsible readers of the story, we must be careful not to arrogantly superimpose our current concerns on past practices.
Finally, engaging with the past on its own terms means that we need to be completely honest about our motives.
As we speak of Christian celibacy today, we need to be forthright, both with ourselves and with others, about our purpose by appealing to the past. Are we just hoping to find convenient historical allies to strengthen our pre-existing beliefs?
In their book, Theology as recovery, authors David Buschart and Kent Eilers call this faulty instinct entrenchment. This strategy is motivated by the desire to ultimately fortify the trenches we have already dug and in which we have firmly planted our feet and our flag.
Or, are we so disappointed with the celibacy situation in the church today that we want to wipe the slate completely and start over? In other words, should we deposit the past en bloc in the present? This is what Buschart and Eilers would call reprisals. He nostalgically views the past through rose-tinted glasses.
What are we supposed to do then? If we were not to use the past to cut off our present, nor to retransmit the past into our present, then what is history for us, especially when it comes to thinking about the uniqueness within life and Christian community?
Our motivation for understanding how our ancestors thought they were a celibate Christian in relation to God and others should be what historians call resourcing—which is the effort to study our history with a firm commitment to really understand it on its own terms. That is, we should see the past as a rich resource on which to draw to understand, live and celebrate celibacy in the present.
But just as important, this approach means a commitment to actively discern the history of the church according to another standard entirely– not based on human terms, but on terms that God himself has defined through Scripture.
Historical practices of monastic celibacy may have relevance to how we might think about “doing” Christian celibacy in the community today. Indeed, the writings of many early Church fathers elevated the value of celibacy in a way that strikes us as utterly wonderful (and foreign!) To us today.
But before we can appreciate the past as a resource for today, we must do hard Bible work. As we consider whether to adopt certain conclusions or seek to apply spiritual practices from the past, we must hold each perspective in the light of the Word of God.
First, we honor the teaching of the scriptures that the body of Christ, lived in our local church communities, is our primary source of family identity (1 Cor. 12: 12f). Likewise, we resist any general interpretation that the early Christians totally rejected the importance of marriage (because they did not).
Finally, we must seek to understand How? ‘Or’ What and Why the ancient believers thought as they did — and whether their conclusions are supported by the scriptures.
In many modern commentaries on the “gift of celibacy” (1 Cor. 7: 7), there are those who will argue for only one interpretation of a particular passage of Scripture as “the way it always has been”. But to be sincere in our efforts to treat history as an important resource, we must ensure that it was always or only interpreted this way.
And when it comes to the “gift of celibacy”, there was often no only one standard interpretation. Even when and where he was, we still have to be convinced by the Word of God that the ancient and modern readers are really right.
As historians, we know that history is a precious resource. Yet as Christians we ultimately only have one invaluable Resource. And ultimately, it is only through the prism of the scriptures, interpreted by the Spirit of God, that we can discern how and why the history of celibacy in the Church truly matters in our current context.