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Debunking the Notion of "Involuntary Celibacy"
A few days ago I tweeted some brief reflections on this transcript of a talk given by Pieter Valk. While there was some follow up discussion (including with Pieter himself) we all know that the format of twitter isn’t particularly conducive to nuanced and detailed engagement. So instead of trying to explain more about my initial critique in bite sized chunks, I thought I’d write about it here at a little more length and with a little more fluency.
Here’s the plan:
1. I’ll reflect back my (steel-manned) understanding of the logic of Pieter’s argument
2. I’ll note a range of the things I agree with him on
3. I’ll explain why I think the foundational premise of his argument is theologically flawed.
One thing to note: Pieter was speaking specifically about and primarily to Christians who would describe themselves as gay and holding to a traditional biblical sexual ethic. In my response I’ll largely be taking the convo to a broader level which is inclusive of these men and women, but not exclusive to them. This is not because I want to undervalue their significance or in any way disrespect them. I’d ask you to please take me at my word on that. Rather, it’s because I’m seeking to interact with the broader foundational theological ideas about singleness/celibacy, rather than focus on one specific demographic to which they apply.
The Argument’s Logic
I’d encourage you to read Pieter’s full argument for yourself so you can determine if I have reflected his logic correctly. Here is how I understand it:
Single Christians (and, in line with Pieter’s particular focus, gay Christians) can either be “involuntarily celibate” or “voluntarily celibate”
Involuntarily celibacy (henceforth, IC) is something you are “forced into” and it is neither functionally good nor spiritually sustainable. It is experienced as a type of unwanted singleness which an individual will instinctively and understandably seek to resist. It is fitting to call people who have been compelled into this situation “Christian incels”.
IC is dangerous because it can lead the individual towards bitterness, shame, giving into sexual sin and ultimately even falling away. The way to “save ourselves and those we love” from the dangers that being a Christian incel brings is by embracing our celibacy (i.e., voluntary celibacy - henceforth, VC) and learning to thrive in it for a lifetime.
However, in order to “save ourselves” from the dangers of IC we need to work out why IC is actually even a thing (i.e. before we can escape from it, we need to know why it exists). The reason someone is IC has nothing to do with themselves (i.e., they have not placed themselves in this situation). It’s because Christian leaders and churches have forced them into this untenable position. As a result, while IC can lead to internal dangers for the Christian incel (e.g. self-pity, bitterness, sexual sin etc), the reason it exists at all (and therefore the reason it can be dangerous in these ways) is entirely external. As Pieter writes:
Why do we resist our celibacy? […] In practice, functionally, in reality, vocational singleness is not good in most of our churches. And that’s not our fault—it’s not because gay celibate Christians aren’t trying hard enough…
Christian leaders have often taught poorly about vocational singleness, neglected to invite straight people to discern, failed to offer celibate people family, and pushed us into celibacy instead of giving us space and support to discern. All of this has made our celibacy unlivable…
So no, it’s not fair that an impractical celibacy has been forced on us. It makes sense that we haven’t wanted a celibacy that isn’t good.
So, Christian incels occupy a celibacy which is not good and is unliveable. They have been entirely forced into this situation by Christian leaders (and the church more generally). Even as they bear none of the responsibility for being in this place they have been left alone to navigate and bear the weight of the dangers that IC leads to. From the IC’s perspective, “resisting our celibacy with self-pity, resentment, and self-loathing makes sense”.
Because the potential dangers of IC are so significant, Christian incels urgently need to leave behind IC and step into VC. While they bear no responsibility for having found themselves in the position of IC, they do need to bear responsibility for leaving it behind, for two reasons
Because it is so dangerous (especially in tempting them to abandon a traditional sexual ethic and even God altogether)
Secondly because they can’t expect the Church to “make our celibacy good” (even though they should prioritise that).
So Christian incels need to stop waiting for their celibacy to become good and start making it good themselves. They need to enact something different. What is that?
Christian incels have to leave behind their context of IC and step into a new and different context of VC. This involves committing to celibacy for life (i.e. “vocational singleness” as Pieter defines it) rather than “wasting time and energy” by leaving the door open to one day no longer being single. The choice is between “embracing your celibacy [i.e., VC] versus spending a lifetime running away from it and choosing not to own it [i.e., IC]”.
The steps towards embracing your celibacy (VC) is via discernment. “Discernment can help us move from seeing our celibacy as involuntary to seeing our celibacy as chosen.” (Pieter then suggests five steps for discernment which I won’t outline here as it is secondary to the major line of logic of his full argument).
In conclusion “We can thrive together in our celibacy, if we will only embrace it.” That is Christian incels (and specifically Christian gay incels) can thrive in their celibacy by no longer occupying IC, but stepping into VC instead.
What I agree with
Pieter makes a bunch of comments and observations which I agree with.
I agree that, speaking generally, evangelical churches and Christian leaders of recent decades have held out an anaemic theology of singleness, an idolised theology of marriage and a very much underbaked theology of church as family. All of this poor theology has led to poor and even damaging pastoral practice. I agree that urgent change is required. I agree so much that I spent 5 years writing a PhD, founded a ministry, serve on the governing board of another ministry, and am writing a book, all of which are focused exactly on that. You can visit here and here to see all the ways in which I’ve personally been working towards resourcing churches with a more biblically nourishing theology and practice of singleness.
I agree that dwelling in feelings of isolation, self-pity, bitterness and so on can lead to unwise thinking and habits, which can see us immersed in besetting sin and then perhaps, tragically, to even falling away. I agree we need to warn and then plead each other away from that. I believe we need to pray to God that he would prevent this from happening in each others lives.
I agree that there are a lot of hurting Christians who are struggling in their singleness who need to be encouraged and discipled and built up and challenged to embrace God’s goodness for them in their singleness.
I agree that even though there is a lot of pastoral overlap between the situations of single Christians who do and don’t experience same-sex attraction, the latter are also compelled to navigate unique complexities, hurts and griefs.
So, there is a lot I agree with Pieter on.
What I don’t agree with
However, I don’t agree with the foundational theological premise which precedes all the applications I do agree with – namely that some Christians have been forced into “involuntary celibacy” by others and now occupy that space against their will and/or better judgement. The reason I do not agree with this is that I do not believe that involuntary celibacy can legitimately exist (either as a real life context or as a mere conception) within the framework of a Reformed biblical sexual ethic.
I believe it is oxymoronic. Here is why.
Pieter defines IC as a situation which (some) single Christians are forced into at the hands of others. That is, they have been “made into” Christian incels and now (unfortunately) occupy that space.
A biblical sexual ethic would say that God designed sexual union to serve the monogamous marriage of one man and one woman. God intends all who are not married to express their sexuality by choosing not to engage in sexual union with anyone (i.e. sexual continence). Therefore, if you are single, then God not only intends for you to be sexually “celibate” but he says this is:
a. for your best
b. loving of others and
c. glorying of him
This means that:
a. regardless of whether you love being celibate or struggle with being celibate;
b. regardless of whether you have chosen it for life or whether you have not;
c. regardless of whether you have been well supported in it or been poorly treated in it by others…
… if you are single then the celibacy you “occupy” right now is an objective blessing in your life. It is God’s good for you, so long as you remain single. Your singleness is also God’s sovereign will for you right here, right now.
There is no sense in which it is legitimate for us to ever describe God’s good and sovereign blessing upon us as something we have been forced into “involuntarily”. There is no sense in which any single Christian should be thinking of themselves as an “incel”.
Suggesting we have been forced into IC by others (i.e., church leaders) denies both God’s sovereignty in and over your singleness and God’s goodness at work in and through your celibacy. These two things are objective truths that exist independently of our subjective experience of our celibacy. In God’s sight there is no such thing as involuntary celibacy for his unmarried children. And there is no sense in which we should be giving any credence or legitimation to such a concept.
This means that…
If we resent our celibacy the answer is not to justify it to ourselves by saying “that’s because we’ve been forced into it involuntarily”. The answer is to ask “How do I trust that this is God’s good for me right now, even as it doesn’t feel good to me right now?”
If we resist our celibacy the answer is not “my resistance and sinfulness makes sense because I’ve been forced into this celibacy involuntarily”. The answer is to humble our hearts, minds and wills in relation to our singleness/celibacy and ask God to bring us into line with his heart, mind and will for our singleness/celibacy.
If we find ourselves tempted towards sexual sin as single Christians, then the answer is not to “save ourselves” by moving to a better type of celibacy. The answer is to prayerfully orient our wills towards righteousness. trust in the provision of the God’s grace by which we can actively pursue that righteousness and ask God to enable others to support and encourage us in this.
All of the things I agree with Pieter on still stand as pressing pastoral concerns (even as he and I share a significant difference on the framework by which we each consider singleness “legitimate” – perhaps a post for another time).
But I disagree with his foundational theological premise that there is room for the notion of “involuntary celibacy” (let alone Christian incels) within a Reformed, biblical, traditional sexual ethic.
It’s not involuntary celibacy which is theologically and pastorally dangerous. It’s the belief that involuntary celibacy is a thing for the Christian which is theologically and pastorally dangerous. It (unintentionally?) denies God’s sovereignty and his goodness. It also displaces the ultimate responsibility of our resistance to godly living in our singleness away from own disordered minds and corrupted hearts and primarily blames others for the fact that we struggle to recognise God’s sovereignty and his goodness.
If you are Christian, single and sexually continent then you should never ever be thinking of your celibacy as involuntary. Regardless of your circumstances, feelings and struggles (genuine and difficult as they all may be) your “celibacy” should always be voluntarily embraced and enacted as God’s good for you.