This question comes from Daniel:
I'm curious of your thoughts on a question I wrestled with recently. In seminary, I read the book "The End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are", a progressive book written by Christian anthropologist Jenell Williams Paris. Among many topics she discusses in her book, she wrote about the importance in creating a welcoming environment (even promoting and inviting this environment) in the church for people who would like to remain unmarried for their lives. Here is a quote from the book: "Celibacy should be an invitation, not a punishment. In order for it to be an invitation worth responding to, however, Christian communities must cultivate plausibility structures for sexual holiness in which long-term celibacy becomes not just moral, but also plausible and practical. When they practice it and support it, Christians keep the possibility (and the plausibility) of celibacy alive, both for our own communities and for the surrounding societies" (Paris, 131). Considering this, along with Matthew 19:10-12, and 1 Corinthians 7:8-9, how do you think Christian communities should (or shouldn't?) conduct a welcoming environment that promotes and endorses long-term celibacy, and well as life-time "singleness".
Thank you for your question Daniel, as this is one that is personally near and dear to my heart as I spent a decade as a celibate Christian and wrestled with the question of whether I wished to remain that way for the rest of my life (in view of the passages like the ones you mentioned).
To answer this question honestly, I think we must first recognize some assumptions. For generations in America (and throughout much of the world) marriage and family have been the norm, and even the societal expectation. And in the church, this culture was and is perhaps in even greater magnitude (I even had a major Christian ministry and publisher want to direct a piece of my writing to indicate that marriage and family was the desired Christian outcome over singleness, to which I cannot agree).
Catholic doctrines of celibacy aside, as Paris seems to assert (I haven’t read the book yet), the Western Protestant church has not provided an environment (much less a welcoming one) for Christians to search out their marital calling from the Lord. It has seemed to me more of an environment that if you are not married by a certain stage in life, then something must be wrong with you. And while this is diminishing in popularity in the secular culture as the institution of marriage is losing footing amongst the youth, it seems alive and well in Christian culture.
I think one of the best ways to systemically change this view of singleness and celibacy in the church is to simply start by talking about it more. To talk about both the joys and privileges of being single in the Lord (1 Cor 7:32-35), as well as honestly talk about the joys, privileges, risks and challenges of sex as Christians (both inside and outside of marriage). One thing I have found in my ministerial work, is that far too many single (and married) Christians have far too low a view of sex and sexuality in the Lord, and many singles are gullible, thinking that marital sex in the Lord is both easy and will fix all of their self-control issues. It is not, and it does not. Modern media has lied to us in a most severe fashion.
Another way that the church can bring what I believe is a more balanced biblical view on singleness and marriage (see my sermon on the topic here), is to give greater public attention, priority, and authority to those that are single in the church. Having more single people in full-time pastoral and ministerial leadership is indicative of this as well. Personally talking to Christians that are single and encouraging them in their singleness and celibacy, to be open to God leading them in whatever direction he desires, is also needed.
While I grant that many, if not most, in the church will find themselves lead by the Lord to be married (as I was), I am afraid that far too many Christians aren’t even asking the question as to whether God would be leading them to seasonal, or lifelong singleness and celibacy. We must find ways, publicly and privately to help create environments for people to do just that.