Singleness Lessons I Learned from the Early Church – The history of Christian celibacy is more complicated than we’d like to think by Dani Treweek
by Dani Treweek
December 2, 2021
Lately, Christians have cast their minds and social media musings back to the early church on the topics of singleness and sexuality. Much of the conversation centers on past spiritual practices of celibacy and claims about what early church leaders taught about singleness.
Some suggest that early church leaders enthusiastically ‘tore down’ the centrality of marriage within the church. Others argue that the way we understand the (so-called) “gift of singleness” today is a direct inheritance from apostles and the church’s earliest centuries.
As a history nerd, practical theologian, and never-married Christian woman, I may not agree with every supposition, but I’m delighted by the revitalized discussion about how we can see ancient ideas about singleness in a new light.
After all, church history is our history, and this ancient era is ripe with fascinating insights (and quite a few conundrums) about singleness—many of which are still relevant to discussions on faith and church life today.
The lessons we can learn from the ancient church about singleness are many and mighty, but they are neither simple nor straightforward.
In fact, early church leaders do not offer us a singular narrative about being single. …
…We must keep in mind that the early church era spanned almost 500 years and multiple continents. In that time and space, there was a great diversity of thought on being unmarried as a Christian.
There was lots of agreement, but there was also strong disagreement.
For instance, consider the response to the fourth-century ex-monk Jovinian, who dared to suggest that “virgins, widows, and married women, who have been once passed through the laver of Christ … are of equal merit.”
This affirmation of Christians’ shared equality in Christ, regardless of their marital status, eventually contributed to Jovinian being declared a heretic at multiple early church synods during his lifetime.
…In the recent evangelical re-popularisation of the term “celibacy,” contemporary discussions often define celibacy as a distinct, lifelong, and perhaps formalized commitment to a particular kind of singleness.
Some who make this claim consider celibacy a direct inheritance of ancient historical practice. And yet in its original context the word celibate, from the Latin term caelebs, simply meant “unmarried”—which is the functional equivalent of our term single.
…Not only were the earliest expressions of the unmarried Christian life much more varied, but some of them were also considered theologically problematic.
…We must recognise that the present cultural context of singleness is remarkably different from that of the early church.
For example, today’s Christian singles have a degree of personal autonomy in their decisions about why, who, and when to marry.
Such marital independence would have been unimaginable for our ancient counterparts. To them, marriage was essentially a social construct and economic necessity—often initiated by their elders or family members, whether they liked the arrangement or not.
In fact, most unmarried Christians in the earliest centuries were not ‘never-married’ virgin adults, but rather widowed husbands and wives.
In other words, long-term celibate status largely emerged out of previous marriage!
…While we might be tempted to draw a straight line between singleness now and then, there is far more discontinuity than continuity.
…And when it comes to “the gift of singleness,” (Link): there often wasn’t a single standard interpretation. Even when and where there was, we still need to be convinced from the Word of God that both ancient and modern readers truly got it right.
Read the rest of that piece on (Link): Christianity Today here
(Link):Singleness Is Not a Gift
(Link): “Who is my mother and who are my brothers?” – one of the most excellent Christian rebuttals I have seen against the Christian idolatry of marriage and natalism, and in support of adult singleness and celibacy – from CBE’s site