EcumenismEschatologyTheology & Spirituality

Sects Positions: Sex, Celibacy, and Marriage

In the last article in this series, we attempted to give an introduction and summary of the Mormon worldview through the doctrine of “eternal progression,” the age-long process through which we all move from intelligences to spirit children to mortal bodies to exalted Godhood in eternal marriage. It is within this final stage of eternal progression that we will be camping out in for a while, seeking to understand how “celestial marriage” functions within Mormon discourse on gender, sexuality, and procreation.1 Ultimately, I will be arguing that Mormonism denies what Jesus calls the “power of God” to reveal a new social structure in eternity without marriage, a power that results in a sex-positive, pro-celibacy, and pro-marriage theology of the present.

As we’ve said previous, the ultimate goal and purpose for humanity within Mormonism is to prove faithful and obedient to our Heavenly Father such that we can ultimately become just like Him, attaining Godhood in the celestial kingdom. The most essential piece to the puzzle of Godhood is “celestial marriage,” the sealing of husband and wife together for eternity. This is not merely a nice doctrine to cope with the death of a spouse, or an ingenious social structure to keep the family unit together, but a picture of eternity for faithful Mormons. This picture is painted most beautifully within the Mormon doctrine of “eternal lives,” the direct result of the inheritance of Godhood-or, “eternal life.” After the death of our mortal bodies and the eventual resurrection of the dead, those husbands and wives who were sealed in celestial marriage will again be able to unite in sex for the purpose of procreation (or “eternal increase,” or “a continuation of the seeds,” or “a continuation of the lives,” or “continuing posterity”2) throughout eternity. Joseph Smith describes a revelation he received from God describing this key facet of the eschaton,

“For strait is the gate, and narrow the way that leadeth unto the exaltation and continuation of the lives, and few there be that find it, because ye receive me not in the world neither do ye know me…. This is eternal lives—to know the only wise and true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent. I am he. Receive ye, therefore, my law. Broad is the gate, and wide the way that leadeth to the deaths ; and many there are that go in thereat, because they receive me not, neither do they abide in my law.”3

Marriage and subsequent procreation is thus real serious business to the life of Mormons, the narrow way to following Jesus and his gospel. It is not, contrary to Christian understanding, an optional practice, all must participate in the present to be exalted in the future. Notice, too, that those who do not enter into celestial marriage partake of “the deaths,” as their ability to procreate end outside of the heights of the celestial kingdom. One of the most peculiar practices of the LDS church involves their creation of “singles wards” and “family wards” (“ward” is the LDS term for church congregation). Mormons are thus placed into different church communities based upon their marital status, expecting that those within the singles wards will intermarry, enabling the couple to enter into a family ward. This, according to a Mormon friend I attended Sunday church services with, understandably creates serious pressure for those within the singles wards to get married, for one does not want to either remain in the singles ward or remain outside of the highest exaltation in the celestial kingdom.4 Mormon theologian Bruce McConkie fascinatingly proclaims the seriousness with which Mormons take marriage, “The most important things any member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ever does in this world are 1. To marry the right person, in the right place, by the right authority; and 2. To keep the covenant made in connection with this holy and perfect order of matrimony—thus assuring the obedient persons of an inheritance of exaltation in the celestial kingdom.”5

Richmond University Professor Terryl Givens argues that the doctrine of celestial marriage within the Mormon tradition reveals a better and more beautiful view of embodiment, gender distinction, and eternity than the Christian orthodox understanding. First, Givens interprets the Christian tradition as being anti-sex, homing in on Augustine of Hippo’s view of original sin as being passed on through procreation. Historic Christian theology, according to Givens, treats celibacy as “associated with a higher sexual standard,”6 releasing one from the sins of carnal lusts inherent in intercourse. According to Givens, Christian theology ultimately results in a negative view of human sexuality. Mormon theology, by contrast, upholds the commandment from God in Genesis to fill the earth, reveals the beauty of sexuality that will last for eternity, and views procreation and familial relationships as “co-participation with God.”7

Second, Givens argues that marriage is essential to becoming a whole human being, as humanity is incomplete without the union of husband and wife. Givens utilizes feminist philosopher Sylviane Agacinski who once wrote, “If humanity is mixed, and not single, all individuals are confronted with their own insufficiency and cannot fully claim to be full human beings…There is indeed a lack essential to every human being, which is neither the lack of a penis nor some other attribute of men, or women, but stems from being only male or only female.”8 Further, Givens argues, as Godhood is contained in both Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother, so must humanity mirror the duality of the perfection of God. By implication, celibacy would thus be a denial of the fullness of humanity and thus of Godhood, as McConkie summarizes, “celibacy is not of God.”9 For Givens, the Mormon view of marriage and sexuality reveals a beautiful union of the two genders that have existed as distinct from eternity past and to eternity future.

Over the course of the second half of this article, I want to highlight three areas in which the Mormon doctrine of celestial marriage presents an opportunity for historic Christian orthodoxy to clarify its practice and views on sex, celibacy, and marriage. I want us to see the Mormon view of celestial marriage, both theologically and sociologically, as the foil to the imagination that is to be cultivated in the life and mind of the Christian church. These three areas are the general state of celibacy all of us find ourselves in whether we end up married or not, the particular lives of celibate LGBTQ Christians as they relate to historic orthodox teaching on sexuality, and the theology of Christian marriage.

First, at the risk of stating the obvious, all of us, whether we decide to get married or not, live as celibate human beings without a sexual partner for a period of time in our lives. Both Christian and secular culture seem to have a very difficult time with the general state of celibacy and corresponding ever-present sexual drive within the human race. American Christian culture, especially in the evangelical circles I come from, generally sees the sexual drive as fundamentally something to be resisted, a negative aspect of humanity pre-marriage. Sex goes from something to avoid at all costs before marriage, to something that creates mind-blowing orgasms post-marriage (please see the article in the footnotes for a more extended discussion).10 This view of sex results in both 1) a purity culture that has the potential to treat non-virginal bodies as damaged goods and 2) a disappointment in the oft-difficult times of marital sex life. Further, there is also a sense that marriage and procreation are indicative of what it means to become an adult, resulting in a serious pressure to get married (a pressure that culturally has more emphasis on the woman needing to find herself a man). On the flipside, secular American culture sees the celibate body as fundamentally lacking sex, as evidenced by the barrage of sexual imagery everywhere we look, the privatized porn-culture for both men and women, the anti-virginity rhetoric of the media, etc etc etc.

Within both of these paradigms (and I don’t believe they are exhaustive of the American experience), we lack an imagination for a fulfilling celibate life. Our lives are either predicated on finding a spouse in order to have relational fulfillment, or on a fundamental lack of sexuality inherent in the celibate body. Exactly contrary to the Mormon doctrine of celestial marriage (a view that I believe falls within the purity culture and relational fulfillment narrative of the first paradigm), the apostle Paul presents celibacy as a possible life decision, with greater opportunities for ministry than those that are married. He writes to the church in Corinth, “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”11 Fascinatingly, this exhortation is made within a culture in which celibacy (particularly for women) was social suicide. What if, in contradistinction to secular culture and Mormon theology, the Christian culture had a robust vision of a fulfilling celibate life?

Wesley Hill, New Testament scholar, celibate gay Christian, and founder of, writes extensively on the intersection of Christian sexual ethics and the day-to-day lives of celibate Christians, particularly those who find themselves to be LGBTQ. He longs for the church to see celibacy as a vocation, a calling with distinct opportunities and gifts to be offered to the world. Celibacy is not to be seen as “not having sex,” but as a calling by God for the good of the world. Hill writes in a recent article, “Celibacy for the Common Good,”

“Celibacy is an important reminder that love isn’t reducible to what we do in bed or over a candlelit table for two. It is a reminder that love exceeds the boundaries of the nuclear family. Celibacy is not about a heroic feat of willpower. It’s about giving up one way of expressing love in order to be able to love widely, profligately, indiscriminately. It’s about foregoing a spouse in order to love a community. It’s about giving up the possibility of children in order to become a spiritual father or mother in the family called “church.” It’s about being a little less entangled in the life of the world in order to be a little more free to celebrate the coming kingdom of God, in which none of us will be married and all of us will be spiritual friends with everyone else in the new creation that God will usher in.”12

What if, for the sixteen year old high schooler wrapped up in the present porn-culture, the church was able to offer this imagination of celibacy as celebration of the coming kingdom? What if, for the LGBTQ Christian feeling called to a life of celibacy, the church was willing to reject the tide of American culture toward the insulation of the nuclear family (and homophobia) to the welcoming and nurturing of single people with open arms? What if, for the career driven person who doesn’t want children or a spouse, was able to see his/her situation as an opportunity to “love a community” with one’s job? What if, for the single person longing for marriage yet finding herself without a mate, she is able to see her situation (however temporary) as liberating for the opportunity to “love widely, profligately, indiscriminately?” The Mormon doctrine and practice of celestial marriage will ultimately fail these people, lacking an imagination and vocation for people who find themselves in these situations. Celestial marriage, for our purposes, thus functions as a critical call against Christian hypocrisy, calling Church practice to become in-line with the historic Christian sexual ethic.

Finally, the Mormon doctrine of celestial marriage is in direct contradiction with the beauty of marriage between Christ and his Church. In a particular scene in the book of Matthew, Jesus is presented with a band of Sadducees who attempt to confound Jesus with a situation in which a woman is sequentially married to seven different men, each of which died one after the other. The Sadducees, not believing in the resurrection, ask Jesus, “In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?” Jesus responds forcefully and eloquently, “You are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.”13 What is most relevant in this response by Jesus to the Sadducees’ question is not the fact that Mormons are wrong that sexuality will not exist for eternity, but Mormonism’s denial of the “power of God” to create a redeemed and renewed social order. Sex, procreation, and human marriage, Jesus and the scriptures proclaim, will one day give way to the marriage of Christ and his Church, a bridegroom and bride united for eternity (Rev. 21 and Eph. 5).

Thus, celibacy and marriage, as practices within the Christian church, together prefigure the mystery of this “power of God” to create a new social order in which there will be an eternal marriage not between husband and wife, but between Christ and his Church. Within this narrative and imaginative framework, celibacy is a vocation alongside of marriage to serve the Lord and His people. Those who are celibate, contrary to celestial marriage, are whole human beings themselves according to Christianity, complete with the callings, gifts, and opportunities to live a life pleasing to the Lord. Christian sexuality, contrary to the eternal procreation of Mormon eternity, is more than meets the eye, deeply symbolic in the eventual one-flesh union between the Incarnate God and His people. Together, the historic Christian practices of celibacy and marriage result in a worshipful and active church, longing for the return of Christ in which intimacy, communion, and a spiritual family will reign.

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George Aldhizer

George Aldhizer

Raised in North Carolina, George works as an accountant and lives in New York with his wife and son. His writing is animated by Abraham Kuyper’s exclamation, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

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