“Eunuchs in the Kingdom”

Categories: Bulletin Articles, M. W. Bassford

As is true for all people, those of us who live in 21st-century America view reality through the lens of our culture.  Because of our setting, we have many preconceptions that we don’t examine because our society shares them.  We assume that X is how human beings think, and we don’t realize that many human beings in other times and places have not thought that way at all.

This is perhaps most obvious when it comes to our society’s view of sexuality.  To tens of millions of Americans, sexual autonomy is the preeminent value.  You are defined by your sexual inclinations. 

This does not make as much sense as we like to think it does.  Generally, we consider it odd when people define themselves by their appetites--what they like to eat, for instance.  When we’re at a party, and a new acquaintance announces, “I’m a vegetarian!”, we start edging away.  Self-identification by sexual appetite, on the other hand, is serious business!

For humankind, this is not typical.  All societies consider sex to be important, but rarely do they regard it as central to existence.  Traits that some Americans build their lives around were and are commonly ignored. 

For instance, before the advent of Western cultural hegemony, many languages didn’t have a word for “lesbian”.  When Paul condemns men having sex with men in 1 Corinthians 6:9, he has to invent one of the two words he uses to do so—again, because koiné Greek didn’t have an existing word for the concept.  The emphasis that we place on sexuality is cultural, not innate.

It is hardly surprising, then, when Americans have great difficulty with Biblical passages that limit sexual activity.  Recently, numerous writers have tried to narrow the scope of 1 Corinthians 6:9 (arguing that it’s about prostitution, for instance) or simply have rejected it entirely.  Likewise, even among brethren, Jesus’ teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage in Matthew 19:1-9 is widely ignored.

The textual justification for these positions is scant.  Instead, they are driven by our intuitions about fairness.  It strikes us as unjust to ask anyone to be celibate, particularly if (as with those who are attracted only to their own sex or are unscripturally divorced) said celibacy will be lifelong. 

This poses a significant interpretive hurdle for us.  In Matthew 19:12, Jesus discusses choosing to be a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.  For all the sense that makes to modern Americans, it might as well have been left in koiné Greek!

We must recognize, though, that such a view is based on our culture, not on some objective reality.  From Vestal Virgins to Buddhist monks, many people in many different societies have chosen to refrain from intimacy, sometimes for a limited time, sometimes forever.  Such societies regard celibacy as difficult but doable, particularly in pursuit of a higher goal, and that’s every bit as typical, perhaps more so, as the hypersexualization of our own.

There are many reasons why Christians might choose to be unmarried or be required to be so.  Maybe it’s not a path we would choose for ourselves, but neither is it the most awfulest horriblest thing ever to happen to anyone.  It is entirely possible for the celibate life to be rich and fulfilling, particularly when eternal life will be the reward.  Many throughout time would not have questioned this.  In our own time, let those who are able to accept this, accept it!