Christians often think and talk about the challenge of celibate singleness in terms of not-having-sex. But for a lot of unmarried Christians—especially for those who feel called to lifelong celibacy—not-having-sex is just the tip of an iceberg of much more significant challenges. In our 21st-century Western culture, saying no to sexual relationship (in marriage or otherwise) usually also means saying no to lifelong commitment with another human being. It usually means saying no to the dependability and familiarity of living in a family unit, saying no to the legal benefits of sharing healthcare plans and tax returns, saying no to having a default person who will travel with you and fall asleep on the couch next to you and be your plus-one at weddings.
Saying no to all these things can feel especially heavy for Christians whose sense of calling to celibacy is closely related to their sexual orientation. Having little or no attraction to a potential opposite-sex partner is a factor worth considering in remaining unmarried[i]; and many gay, lesbian, queer, and asexual people are celibate for precisely this reason. But the absence of sexual attraction to the opposite sex doesn’t mean gay, lesbian, queer, and asexual people are disinterested in the kind of committed companionship our culture typically associates with marriage. Because of this, LGBTQ+ people who pursue celibacy often feel burdened by the relational implications of their celibacy.
The most pressing pastoral question facing celibate Christians is typically not, “How can I avoid having sex?” Far more often, it sounds more like, “How can I create and foster meaningful relational intimacy outside of marriage? Can I say no to sex without also saying no to mutual committed love?”
One proposed response to this question—a response becoming increasingly visible among celibate LGBTQ+ people in particular—is the idea of celibate partnership.
I’d love to give you a definition of celibate partnership, but I can’t.[ii] Not an exact one, anyway. Some people who are in the kinds of relationships I would describe as “celibate partnerships” use other terms to describe their relationships: perhaps “covenanted friendship,” or “queerplatonic partnership,” or “chaste coupling,” or “adelphopoiesis.” Meanwhile, people who do describe themselves as celibate partners understand their relationships in a variety of ways. There’s no Celibate Partners’ Handbook outlining a single set of rules and boundaries (much to the chagrin of some celibate partners I’ve talked with).
Most of the time, a celibate partnership is a lifelong non-sexual commitment between two same-sex friends from different families who live in the same home and function as a single household. (Because such relationships are designed to provide access to a level of relational intimacy that our culture typically associates with marriage, these relationships are sometimes described—usually pejoratively—as “marriage without the sex.”) But the definition I’ve just offered isn’t universal. Some celibate partners don’t live in the same home. Some aren’t the same sex. Some see their commitment as ideally lifelong but not necessarily so. And they have different visions of what it means to share a household: for example, some share bank accounts and pool all their resources, while others keep their finances almost entirely separate.
In addition to these factors, there are plenty of other ways celibate partnerships can differ. Some avoid romance within their relationship; others embrace non-sexual romance.[iii] Some have entered a civil marriage (or are open to entering one in the future) for purposes like shared healthcare, tax benefits, and hospital visitation; others aren’t inclined to cross that line. Some are physically affectionate in ways that include cuddling, kissing, and holding hands; others never go beyond sitting close together on the couch. Some are closely connected to a broader Christian community and seek support and accountability within that community; others haven’t been able to find (or are less interested in finding) that kind of support and accountability. Some are comfortable comparing their relationship to a sexless marriage; others categorically and vehemently reject that comparison.
Along all these points of difference, there are important questions to be asked about ethics and wisdom. Are any of the behaviors I’ve just described categorically sinful? What about behaviors that might not be sinful but are still unwise for Christians to pursue? Are there any behaviors that might be unwise or sinful for some people while being morally neutral or even beneficial for others? In this paper, we won’t deny the value of all these questions—but we’ll focus our attention on listening and understanding what people are currently doing, so that we have the knowledge we need to approach these questions with care. We’ll hear from people who have wrestled with these questions in their own lives, and we’ll hear how the broad framework of “celibate partnership” includes people who have answered these questions differently from one another.
There are also people pursuing forms of committed friendships that don’t quite fit what I would call a “celibate partnership” model but involve some of the same features. For instance, some people develop chosen family units of more than two members (usually singles) who live together as siblings. (Even among two-person celibate partnerships, some are open to the idea of adding a third or fourth member to their relationship, while others want to limit their primary commitment to just one other partner.) Some married couples enter into a lifelong committed friendship with a single celibate person who becomes part of the family unit. Some committed friendships with only two people include at least one member actively seeking an opposite-sex marriage, anticipating that any future spouse will join their existing family. And of those whose relationships don’t fit a two-person celibate partnership model, some are enthusiastically in favor of celibate partnerships as well, whereas others are more skeptical and have intentionally avoided the celibate partnership model in their own committed friendship.
In short, there is very little all these relationships have in common except: (A) they don’t consider their relationship to be a marriage in the eyes of God, and (B) they are pursuing meaningful non-sexual commitment.
I originally set out to write a paper evaluating the merits of celibate partnerships, offering ethical and pastoral perspectives on the viability of these relationships for Christ-followers. But as soon as I began talking with people in celibate partnerships and other forms of non-marital committed friendships, I realized that no singular evaluation of “the merits” could do justice to the variety and complexity that exists within these relationships. So instead, I’ve written a paper that offers something more preliminary—and also, I think, something far more valuable to readers. Instead of trying to evaluate celibate partnerships and other committed friendships, weighing their viability or their wisdom, the purpose of this paper is simply to listen and understand the variety of experiences and approaches that exists among them. It’s only once we’ve listened and understood that we’ll be able to address our subsequent questions about ethics and wisdom in a relevant and useful way.
You can find the entire paper available for free download as Paper #16 at this link.
[i] Or so Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 7 would seem to imply.
[ii] Given the complexity of the language used in this conversation, we’ll dedicate an entire section to language below.
[iii] We’ll wrestle below with the nebulous concept of romance and its connection to (or disconnection from) sexual activity.