I am often tempted to view my celibacy only in terms of lack, defined by the absence of sexual expression and a nuclear family. I've posted this quote before, but notice again how Wes Hill frames the issue:
“Notice the dichotomy: single and lonely, or partnered and able to experience love. But what if those aren’t our only choices? What if that’s a false dichotomy?… What if choosing sexual abstinence doesn’t automatically equate to choosing isolation and repression?”
The New York Times recently published an online piece focusing on ways in which the American family is changing. Tucked toward the bottom of the article, below blended families, same-sex marriages, and cohabitating couples, is a fascinating section that profiles what researchers are calling “voluntary kin.” These are people who simply chose to be related, often involving families inviting single people to become full-fledged family members.
The article states, “Anthropologists have traditionally used the term ‘fictive kin’ to separate such relationships from ‘true’ kinship based on blood or law, but many researchers have recently pushed back against that distinction, arguing that self-constructed families are no less real or meaningful than conventional ones.”
My heart rejoices to hear of such categories being constructed in our modern society. After all, if non-Christians are embracing these types of voluntary relational ties, how much more should the family of Christ!
The idea of familial bonds between believers is all over the New Testament. Jesus promises that those who forsake biological family for his sake will receive a multitude of spiritual kin in this life (Mark 10:29-30). Paul calls Timothy his true child in the faith (1 Tim. 1:2), and often speaks of the spiritual reality that Christians are brothers and sisters in Christ (Rom. 12:10).
My sincere hope is that we as the church would think of ways to reflect this spiritual kinship in our voluntary kinship here on earth. I can testify personally to the life-giving nature of these types of bonds. In addition to my family-by-blood, I have been welcomed as a full member by two other families. My membership is not merely ceremonial. I have lived with them for seasons. I go on vacation with them, and attend their family gatherings. The friendships that I share with my voluntary siblings are deep and committed, and I am “Uncle Nick” to their children. Just recently, I attended my voluntary little brother’s basketball awards ceremony and helped plan and prepare for my voluntary sister’s engagement party. In short, I have been blessed with voluntary kin that, for me, makes celibacy easier.
These relationships are ultimately about Jesus. These relationships help me to look toward Christ to ultimately fulfill my relational longings through his people, the church. When we act in these ways, we magnify Christ. He is the one that binds us together in unity and familial love (Eph. 4:15-16). When we love each other as kin, we testify to the fact that Jesus has joined us in ways that run deeper than blood. In Christ, our unity transcends demographic differences.
Yet sadly, as I look at the church at large, I find that my experience is the exception, not the norm. What might happen if the family of God began to dream of creative and life giving ways to live out our spiritual kinship? For starters, married couples and families might consider investing in a single person or two, inviting them into homes and blessing them with familial love. And single folks might ponder reaching out to a family or married couple, thinking of ways to build a deep relationship through sacrificial service.
Gerard Manley Hopkins says it poetically:
“Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”