The Difference between Celibacy and Abstinence

Updated: Jan 10, 2020

In 2016, I made the decision to live a life of sexual purity (for real this time!) In my mind, this meant that the next time I had sex, it would be with my husband. I've always thought of this lifestyle choice as "celibacy" but apparently I've been wrong this whole time! I knew that there was a difference between celibacy and abstinence, but I was unknowingly ignorant of all of the details. And as it turns out, I'm not the only one. Most people are actually mistaken in their views on these concepts.

Initially, I thought being "abstinent" meant that someone wasn't necessarily waiting until marriage to have sex, but that they were just being selective about who they had sex with - refraining from casual sex and waiting to share that with someone they were in a serious relationship with. But according to the definitions of each, I've learned that I'm actually abstinent, and will not be touching celibacy with a 20-foot pole.

(This video is proof of my error in thought, however it still contains some good tips!)

An article by states the correct definitions for celibacy and abstinence.

Celibacy: Derived from the Latin word caelibatus, meaning “state of being unmarried”; a voluntary choice to remain unmarried or engage in any form of sexual activity, usually in order to fulfill a religious vow.

Abstinence is also called “continence” and is the often temporary, strict avoidance of all forms of sexual activity for any reason.

Monks and nuns live a life of celibacy, accepting it as a requirement to achieving enlightenment. The Catholic church didn't require it's priest to take a vow of celibacy for the first 1,000 years, but later made it a requirement. They forced the married priests at the time to choose between their marriage and priesthood, which led many of them to leave the church (as would I...)

Then, there are some who choose a life of celibacy for non-religious reasons. Some believe that feeding sexual urges distracts from pursuing other more important aspects of life, such as career advancement or education. There are others who may have had disappointing, damaging, or unfulfilling experiences in the past that have led them to permanently reject sex and marriage.

Conversely, abstinence is contingent upon a certain condition. Kind of like an "if - then" situation. If I get married, then abstinence goes bye-bye! That's more my speed! I couldn't believe I had been pledging allegiance to celibacy for almost 3 years!

As a Christian, I fully believe that what you say is what you see, so I immediately and verbally came out of agreement with my vows of celibacy and entered into agreement with abstinence. Hosea 4:6 says that people are punished for a lack of knowledge. So although God "knows our hearts" we still have to be intentional about making sure we are fully aware of the things we verbally come into agreement with.