Tuesday, May 07, 2019

Is there a gift of celibacy?

1. There's an entrenched tradition that I assume originates in Roman Catholicism and carries over into Protestant theology, according to which some Christian men and women have a "gift of celibacy". The prooftext is 1 Cor 7:7. Perhaps that's correct, but there's the danger that when we think we know what a passage means, we stop asking questions. Or rather, we think there are no questions to ask. 

Indeed, it's customary to posit a gift of celibacy and leave it at that, with very little explanation of what a gift of celibacy actually amounts to. They don't bother to delve into that. Has anyone ever actually met a Christian with the "gift of celibacy"? Or is that an idealized abstraction based on the received interpretation? 

One thing a gift of celibacy might mean is that some Christian men (and women) lack any heterosexual libido. Or, if not quite devoid, have a very low libido. As if the man suffered from a severe testosterone deficit. 

Is that what Paul means? Possibly. That, however, would be highly abnormal, and I wonder if Paul is saying that physical abnormality qualifies some men for full-time ministry. Seems odd that something that unnatural and anomalous would be a prerequisite for full-time ministry. 

Is it the supernatural equivalent of chemical castration? Possibly. However, Scripture doesn't generally treat an unnatural misfortune as a necessary qualification for serving God. 

In addition, the human sex drive isn't just physical but psychological. It includes memory, imagination, anticipation, and longing for a special kind of companionship (spouse and kids). Is there a gift of celibacy that erases all that from the psychological makeup of some Christians? Did Paul think he was a freak? 

2. The traditional interpretation hinges on a single word–charisma–which is usually rendered "gift". Is that reliable? In 1 Corinthians, Paul uses charisma as an umbrella term to cover a variety of phenomena. Are such disparate examples reducible to a one core idea? Is he using the same word for stylistic unity? Should we define the examples by the word or define the word by the examples?

3. Rom 11:29 provides an instructive comparison. When Paul refers to "gifts" and "calling", are those meant to be distinct concepts, or do they function as rough synonyms? That passage is assumed to refer back to Rom 9:4-5. What's the allocation? Are some of those items gifts while other items are vocations? Are all those items both gifts and vocations? 

If we distinguish between the meaning of words and the meaning of concepts, the concept of a divinely impose duty captures the basic idea. Israel had (has?) a divine calling, with corresponding obligations. The ideas of gift and calling merge in mission or commission. 

4. Rather than approaching the question from a philological standpoint, suppose we approach it from a biographical standpoint. We know from Acts and Galatians that God singled out Paul to perform a particular mission. A mission which will entail great personal hardship and sacrifice. Similar in that respect to the vocation of OT prophets who had a thankless ministry. 

5. In addition, Paul discusses the Christian obligation, as circumstances demand, to forswear what's in your best self-interest for the benefit and common good of others. All told, I'm inclined to think that what Paul is talking about is not a "gift of celibacy" but the fact that on occasion, celibacy is an onerous necessity. Sexually, they are wired the same way as normal men and women, but God has put them in a situation where they are obligated to tough it out, despite the personal strain. Again, that's comparable to the sacrificial mission of some OT prophets. 

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