What’s So Sexual About Celibacy?

by Ericka Stephens-Rennie

I just started Lisa Graham McMinn’s book, Sexuality and Holy Longing: Embracing Intimacy in a Broken World. I hope to post a full review when I finish the book, but wanted to comment on the concept of celibacy.

McMinn approaches the topic of sex from (what I’d call) a traditional Christian perspective. Namely, that sex within marriage is good, but sex outside of marriage is sin. McMinn acknowledges that adolescence is a time when young people begin to have feelings of sexual awakening. But more and more young people are waiting years to get married (the average age for women is 26.5, the average for men is 27.5)! So what to do about the fifteen plus years of awakened sexuality, minus an appropriate sexual outlet?


But McMinn’s concept of celibacy seems, frankly, lacking.

Before the return of our Creator, she notes, we will be unable to truly satisfy our longing for perfect relationship with others. “Sexuality,” states McMinn, “is more than sex; it is about experiencing the world through bodies that are male and female. The exploration of relational feelings, desires, and experiences is appropriate and healthy. “…We can celebrate a choice of refraining, for a time, from pairing up sexually or romantically with another. Dare I call this adolescent celibacy? (55)”

McMinn tries to transform the choice from “abstaining from sex” to “choosing to be celibate.” I suppose part of what McMinn wants to do is empower adolescents to frame their decision according to a conception of positive liberty (i.e. I am free and choose to…) instead of negative liberty (ie. I am free from…). I get that. But McMinn doesn’t develop this idea, doesn’t speak to many benefits of adolescent celibacy.

“Celibacy may close some doors, but primarily it is about opening others. To be celibate so that one can focus on attaining particular goals is an affirmation of personhood and calling. To be celibate so that one can establish deep and meaningful friendships with both sexes affirms personhood in others. Celibacy frees people to love widely, to serve lavishly, to focus on the needs of others. Celibacy ground friendship in mutual respect and warmth. For one who chooses celibacy, there is freedom t use touch to nurture and affirm friends without fear of compromising integrity, or the future relationships of those friends, or one’s on future marriage” (p 56).

Ok, what? I’m with her on the first bits – that celibacy can be an affirmation of personhood and calling. But how does celibacy allow one to establish deep friendships in a way that non-celibacy does not? Are friendships between non-celibate men and women not grounded in mutual respect and warmth? Can men and women who aren’t married not touch each other? (And what sorts of touch, exactly, can celibate people use without compromising integrity that non-celibate people can’t?)

How do “friendships, appreciating the company of the other sex, enjoying the beauty and sexual appeal of the other sex, affirming touch that is nonsexual or asexual” somehow “recognize and validate sexuality” (p 56)?

Sexual maturation comes as young as age 10, and marriage comes, on average, 17 years later. In those intervening 17 years the messaging about sex is everywhere. Let’s face it, our young people are soaked in a culture that is ambivalent (at best) to premarital sex. It’s on tv, it’s on billboards, it’s even on radio. It’s at school, it’s with friends, it’s at the mall.

Our faith communities don’t talk about it. Our families leave it to the schools. Our schools teach condom-on-banana mechanics and statistics.

It’s high time we, as people of faith, start to have conversations about this with each other. It’s high time we prayed, conversed with our God. It’s high time we, as people of faith, armed our young people with information. It’s high time, we, as people of faith, discipled our young people to own their faith.

Because, I think, if we hope to empower our young people to make redemptive choices about their sexual lives, then we’ve got to do better than this.

As I continue to read this book, I’d like to invite you to contribute to the discussion here. What do you think about the concept of “adolescent celibacy” or celibacy in general? I’d love to hear from single Christians who are engaging with their sexuality – how does that look in your life? What about the concept of saving sex until marriage – is that God’s plan or just one interpretation? And, finally, how do we work to keep our young people safe (and by that I particularly mean safe from STIs, and teen pregnancy) while at the same time supporting them and empowering them to make their own choices?

Ericka Stephens-Rennie

20 Responses to “What’s So Sexual About Celibacy?”

  1. nathan colquhoun

    Part of me doesn’t like the focus on sex, celibacy, abstinence because I feel like it takes away from where the conversation should really be centered around and that is around relationships. We seem to be more concerned with our children having proper sex etiquette than we are about how they invest and really truely give themselves to another person. Somehow we’ve managed to make it about what we do with our genitals instead of what we do with our hearts.

    Mind you, that doesn’t mean they aren’t connected at a very deep level. If we really want to take a biblical approach to the topic my guess is that it should be a lot more focused on how much we are willing to ‘die’ for our significant other rather than wondering if the time is right to finally be able to sleep with them.

    If a teenager wants to be celibate, all the power to him and I would support them of course. However, like you said, most aren’t and the odds are stacked against them. I would rather poor my time and energy investing in them to truely love someone than teach them when or when not to have sex. I’m sure that would follow.

    • Chantez J

      one of the major problems teenagers face….one of the bigest things they deal with is sex…sex outside of marriage often is what leads to a teen’s demise. i’ve seen it happen. it has destroyed lives, and relationships with God…if we dont help our next generations in this area, then they may fall astray. of course we do need to teach them proper relationships as well, and many other things that are in this area as well, but we shouldnt ‘set aside’ the topic of sex as you suggest

  2. Randy

    I am glad to see this discussion beginning. Hopefully it will go far beyond this blog. It is fundamentally important that Christians have these dicussions as more and more of the people who enter our ministries and churches will not have the assumed understanding of abstinence that some of us have had.

    I look to Laura Winner’s story continued sexual activity after conversion and before marriage (Girl Meets God) as a good example of most of the people we will deal with in the present and future. We increasinlgy need to learn how to embrace and include those who seek to belong among us as Christ followers while still learning about the ways that Christ-followers employ, and don’t employ, their bodies.
    Randy Gabrielse

  3. Vijay Kumar

    Celibacy is just not what people in the West presume it to be. The sexual abstinence amounts to hardly 10% of the job. 90% celibacy is practiced mentally. Observing absolute purity of thought is what Celibacy is all about! The day invocation of sensual thoughts stops forever… one practically reaches the end of celibacy.

    Physical celibacy is all about preserving the cosmic quota of energy month after month and transmuting it to more creative channels. Physical celibacy does not mean total abstinence. Householders are permitted a maximum of two sexual indulgences per month.

  4. Ericka

    Nathan – thanks for your comment. In part, I agree with you that the focus on sex and abstinence can be a distraction in that it can focus the discussion on only one factor in a relationship (the sex / no sex) instead of, more broadly, on the relationship itself.

    But shouldn’t we also think about how sex can be used to strengthen relationships? And, equally, shouldn’t we be concerned about how sex is used to tear relationships and, in the case of abuse, individual lives, apart?

    I think what you’re trying to say in the first paragraph, is that Christians can easily make this into a legalistic discussion about what is and is not permissible. Is that right? If so, I totally agree. And also think that legalism doesn’t get us to a place where we value relationships more. And it certainly doesn’t get us to a place of dialogue.

    You note that you would rather spend your time investing in young people and showing them how to love and be in relationship with others, rather than teach them when not to have sex. Let me first say that I agree with the first part, whole-heartedly – living and teaching right relationships is key. But I think the church and Christians do young people a disservice when they don’t talk about sex.

    Here’s where I’m uncertain. In my experience, churches in the past have approached sex with a hush hush, and don’t until you’re married attitude. That is both legalistic, and shuts down dialogue. I think we need to instead open up our churches and our relationships so that we can have open and honest conversations. But what does that mean – what does that look like in community? I don’t want to arrive together at the divine black line that thou-shalt-not-cross-until-marriage, but rather somehow enable young people determine boundaries.

  5. Ericka

    Randy – I agree that this is a discussion that should spread wider than the ER blog community. I also liked the content of Winner’s book “Real Sex” but, to be honest, struggled with some of the grammatical errors. Hopefully a new version with stronger editing will come out in the future.

  6. Nathan Colquhoun

    Ericka, yes you are right on. I didn’t mean to make it sound wrong to talk about sex, but basically what you said. Sex becomes about an act that should or should not happen based on a piece of paper signed by the government as opposed.

    I’ve always struggled with talking about this in the church, because people are so touchy about the subject. So I try to veer the conversation to committed relationships and show that even marriages with the signed pieces of paper don’t guarantee such commitment so why are we so dependent on that alone for the go ahead to be able to have sex.

    But you are right on in that sex should be talked about way more than it is. We need to talk about it openly, how great it is, how it can strengthen relationships will also talking about baggage and regret it could come with. So I don’t mean let’s not talk about it, but I do mean let’s not talk about it as if its this separate reality over here while relationships are something else over hear and start doing our part in bringing those two worlds together. The media and our culture separate sex from relationships completely and they barely have anything to do with each other anymore, so I think to talk about sex properly will incorporate a healthy view of dying to yourself and loving our neighbours.

  7. Ericka

    Nathan – I agree. Incidentally, I just stumbled over this Walter Wink quote. He summarizes quite well what I’m coming to believe:

    “The crux of the matter, it seems to me, is simply that the Bible has no sexual ethic. There is no Biblical sex ethic. Instead, it exhibits a variety of sexual mores, some of which changed over the thousand year span of biblical history. Mores are unreflective customs accepted by a given community. …The Bible knows only a love ethic, which is constantly being brought to bear on whatever sexual mores are dominant in any given country, or culture, or period.”

    He goes on to note this:

    “The very notion of a “sex ethic” reflects the materialism and splitness of modern life, in which we increasingly define our identity sexually. Sexuality cannot be separated off from the rest of life. No sex act is “ethical” in and of itself, without reference to the rest of a person’s life, the patterns of the culture, the special circumstances faced, and the will of God.”

    I totally agree.

  8. nathan colquhoun

    “No sex act is “ethical” in and of itself, without reference to the rest of a person’s life, the patterns of the culture, the special circumstances faced, and the will of God.”

    That is a beautiful line, thanks for that quote!!

    It may be hard though convincing the church that pre-marital sex really isn’t one of the ten commandments.

  9. Sue

    There is certainly no correlation between celibacy and “holiness”.

    Otherwise the most “holy” people would be children, old people who know longer have the energy for sexing, the crippled and the infirm, those who are just not interested for whatever reason, those locked up in jails, etc etc.

  10. LivingSexuality

    You’ve piqued my interest in Lisa Graham McMinn’s book, but the real gem here are the quotes from Walter Wink.

    Regarding your statement: “Our faith communities don’t talk about it. Our families leave it to the schools. Our schools teach condom-on-banana mechanics and statistics.”

    The first two sentences I totally agree with, but the third one I do have to take issue with. I am an advocate for better sex ed in our schools, and from what I have learned, the only thing that young people learn about condoms in abstinence-only sex ed is their failure rate.

    There are people and groups trying to get better sex ed curriculum in our schools, one that has a more holistic (and dare I say, realistic) approach.

    Because as much as parents and the church say they want to be the ones to talk to kids about sex, the truth is that they usually chicken out and leave kids to turn to their friends or the media for “information” — and I think we all know how “reliable” that info can be.

  11. LivingSexuality

    On a different note, as a clinical sexologist and as someone who works in a sex therapy office and deals with people’s sexual issues every day, I think it is important for the church to acknowledge that there are detrimental consequences to abstinence and celibacy. The church likes to scare young people by talking about all of the horrible things that will surely happen if they have premarital sex … but I have never heard Christians admitting that there are also negative effects remaining abstinent until marriage.

    I think I just got inspired to write a blog post about this…

    “The Harmful Effects of Celibacy”

  12. george

    Can someone tell me what the negative effects of remaining abstinent until marriage are?

    Also, if you don’t believe that God has very clearly communicated to us that only sex wihin a marriage between a man and a woman is permissible, (which He has) and that all other sexual activity is sin (which it is) how do you start coming up with what standard to use?


  13. Regina Fuller

    Celibacy and marriage are gifts from God. 1 Corinthians 7:7 NLT Celibate people and married people have different mind sets. Celibate people care about the things of the Lord and how they may please the Lord. Married people care about the things of the world and how they may please their spouse. 1 Cor. 7:32-34 KJV Celibate people tend to think about spiritual things, eternal things, a life beyond this one. Married people tend to think about worldly, carnal things, temporary things such as sex, money, house, car, etc.

    I am celibate and have been since 1992. My constant thoughts are of God and an eternity with Him. This world is not my home. My living in this world is temporary. The only thing that matters in this life is reaching as many people as possible with the gospel and seeing people saved before this life is over. Everything in this world is poisoned, our air, our water, our food, our world is toxic. How can anyone call this world home. The fashion of this world is passing away. 1 Cor. 7:31 KJV There is sickness, death, oppression, and hatred but not so of heaven. The most beautiful thing I can think of is Jesus Christ, His salvation and His return.

  14. Liz

    gosh ericka, you’re so great. thanks for bringing this up, you continue to challenge me to think about my own understanding of sex in Scripture, sex in tradition, and sex in the context of my own life. i’m glad you mentioned walter wink; we were talking about that article (i think it’s the same) at my house recently.

    i find it difficult to impossible to talk about sex in a christian community. hopefully our generation will make that better and easier for our kids, but i agree that the conversation has been killed entirely. even in circles which struggle fight against legalism and try to allow room for personal discernment on things like drinking or church attendance or whatever, sex is the black and white issue. wink talked about that in his article as well.

    hopefully you’ve brought up one of many conversations that will help us to find our way through open dialogue.

  15. Michael

    Or perhaps we’re using the wrong definitions, if we think the word sex has a meaning distinct from the word marriage. (That is, your number of marriages = your number of sexual partners.) John Howard Yoder had an interesting unfinished essay on the subject (http://theology.nd.edu/people/research/yoder-john/documents/ONEFLESHUNTILDEATH.pdf)

  16. Healthy Sexuality & Christian Community « Empire Remixed

    […] posted several weeks ago about Lisa Graham McMinn’s book, Sexuality and Holy Longing: Embracing […]

  17. Kofi Atta-Boateng

    I am 28 years of age and a pre-marital celibate. I was raised in a conservative Catholic environment and thought it was the best way to have an intimate relationship with my creator. During my pre-teen years, I really did not understand the meaning of abstinence. I just followed the orders of the Church!

    In middle school, after going through several spiritual and psychological revolutions, I realized that although the Catholic church has been championing abstinence and pre-marital celibacy since ages, its approach towards sex, abstincence and celibacy was not the best especially for most poor and developing countries in Africa and Asia.

    After several years of prayers seeking ‘Divine’ wisdom on the subject matter, I broke free from the Catholic canonical laws and started embarking on a true relationship with God without any strings set by man. The biggest challenge to my celibatic lifestyle became evident when I moved to settle in the US.

    Some of us may wonder why! The atmosphere here in the US is too sexually charged. In our colleges, workplaces, and theatres are packed with sex thoughts and scenes. Our entertainment and media have been infiltrated by sex. Everything here is about sex period! This is contrary to where I was raised (Ghana, Africa)

    At school, few people find it comfortable to be around me because I do not believe in pre-marital sex. I cannot build very strong yet sex-free relationship with ladies because the system has made it such that you have to be a pimp to be around girls. I cannot be close to my own male friends because it is seen as too gay! What kind of society is this?

    I usually get so frustrated that I feel like giving in and having sex while I prepare to face the spiritual consequences. However, I do believe God has a special place for me and that I have to go through all these difficulties so that my story will be more appealing to others who want to follow the pre-marital celibatic pathway to marriage.

    Because of some of the above-mentioned reasons, I have isolated myself from many although it is hurting me. I have been in a relationship with a lady who is also a pre-marital celibate for about a year and half yet few of my family know of it since society will automatically assume that you are having sex once you go into a relationship. It is absurdly amazing how her female friends keep on asking and pestering her day in and day out whether she was having sex with me. They simply cannot understand that there are some true pre-marital celibates on Earth! I am so pressured and sometimes feel like I am fighting a battle that cannot be won! I am planning to marry before I start medical school. Hopefully I will be 30 years of age and she will be 25 years.

    My greatest advice to those who are considering pre-marital celibacy is that there are un-ending blessings that come with it if you do it because of fear of God and respect for your future wife or husband but not because of dogmatic principles of any religion. Stay close to your family and friends who have similar vision since isolating yourself from society will make your situation so difficult. Pre-marital celibates are minorties among minorities be it race, religion or political ideology.

    I know that my creator is proud of me for being a pre-martital celibate despite my iniquities. Yes, although I am far from being righteous. I am pround of my accomplishment because it gives me the confidence to ask God for anything I want. I have a story to tell one day!

  18. Jennifer

    Thank you, Kofi. Your reply has given me consolation. I am 34 and a pre-marital celibate. I expect we face similar attitudes. My difficulty is with the following: ‘Stay close to your family and friends who have similar vision since isolating yourself from society will make your situation so difficult’. With the exception of my local Priest, I do not know anyone (including my closest family) who believes in the value of pre-marital celibacy ! My last relationship has just ended because of it (although we had discussed it) and I was so despondent this morning that I did a search to see if there were people in similar situations.


Leave a Reply