Once again I have had a conversation about sexual ethics that goes something like this.
- I articulate a confessional Christian understanding of right sexual behavior, i.e., that marriage is meant to be between a man and a woman, and that those for whom marriage isn’t an appropriate option are called to celibacy.
- My conversation partner then tells me that celibacy is a fate worse than death and expresses outrage that I would condemn others to this terrible way of life.
- I reply that as a celibate person myself I am insulted by this way of characterizing my life, that celibacy is quite survivable, thank you, and that indeed the New Testament presents celibacy as the most honorable form of Christian life.
- We may go back and forth a bit about what the Bible really says, about whether celibacy is honorable or horrible, whether being celibate is the equivalent of living without love (it isn’t), etc. But eventually, this other person will say to me, as if it’s the clinching argument: “Yes, but you have a choice.” The implication is that I, as a heterosexual person, am free to choose whether to marry or not to marry, and that this somehow delegitimizes everything I’ve said about the value of celibacy for homosexual people, who have no choice.
Which makes me begin inwardly grinding my teeth in frustration. But by that point, the conversation is usually so emotionally charged that it’s difficult to make a clear argument.
So here’s the answer I ought to give at those moments. (I’m going to set aside for now the question of the extent to which any choice is ever free, and how the liberty of secondary causes interacts with God’s providential care. Save that for another time.)
First, yes, I have had a choice. Twice in my life I have been close to getting married, and each time I walked away because I became convinced that marriage would have been disobedient to God’s will. In each case, I was dating a man who was at best spiritually immature (in one case, perhaps not really a Christian at all). If I had been truly discerning and obedient, I wouldn’t have dated either of them in the first place, but I believed that I was in love, and yes, love can be blind. At least I saw the truth before I made the decision to get married. So yes, I had a choice – the same choice that confronts anyone for whom marriage would not be obedient. I could choose to obey or to disobey. I chose obedience, which is the same choice I ask other people to make.
Second, no, I haven’t had a choice. After those two early relationships, I fell seriously in love with a godly man, whom I wanted to marry. He didn’t want to marry me. That’s the nature of marriage: it needs to be chosen by two people, not just one. This is not a consumer decision, as if spouses could be ordered from a catalog to fit one’s timing and needs and desires. Most of the single people I know didn’t make a decision that they really, really wanted to be single. Singleness is the situation within which we find ourselves for a whole host of reasons, some of which have been under our control, some of which have not been; we’re called to be obedient within that situation. The Bible does not tell us that we only need to be chaste if we’re single by choice. Singleness that’s unchosen must still be obedient, and yes, like many single people of no-matter-what sexual orientation, I know about that.
Third, yes, I have had a choice. In the years since I wanted to be married, I have listened to God, and obeyed God, and come to a place of peace with God’s call on my life. I’ve been able by His grace to consent to the choice that God made for me, which is indeed a way of making a choice of my own. At this point in my life, I have come to be grateful that I didn’t get my way many years ago. I have surrendered. Again, this is the same choice I ask other people to make, though I recognize that it usually takes years and years to make it. Sometime the things we freely chose once are now the source of our pain, and sometimes the things we didn’t choose at all become the source of our blessing.
Fourth, since when are we only ethically responsible for situations that we’ve chosen? Most of life’s ethical challenges happen precisely in situations that no one would choose – situations of trial, of temptation, of pain, of hard choices. Should you be exempt from the commandment to be faithful to your spouse because his Alzheimer’s was not your choice? Should you be exempt from the commandment not to steal because your financial troubles were not your choice? Should you be exempt from the commandment not to kill because you didn’t choose to feel threatened or angry? Of course not. All of us are always dealing with a mix of things we have chosen and things we have not. God requires obedience in all of it.