In a year of sickness and death, civic unrest due to systemic racism, and refugees looking for a place of welcome, the harvest of societal brokenness is plentiful, but the workers are few. In response to this scarcity, Jesus encourages us to “[a]sk the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Matthew 9:38).
Every Christ-follower is invited to serve their neighbor, but God calls a small and mighty band of Christians to permanently leverage their singleness for kingdom work. For the first 1500 years of the church, many Christians prayerfully asked the Lord whether he was calling them to Christian marriage or to vocational singleness for the sake of the kingdom. What if Christians today once again discerned this question with God? And what if some or even many of them accepted a call to committed singleness and lived that calling to help heal their communities with undivided attention?
In Matthew 19, the disciples respond to Christ’s high standard of marital faithfulness by joking that it would be better never to marry. To their surprise, Jesus responds that some Christians are called to “live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom.” He lifts up celibacy from being a curse of the few to a normative and honorable calling. He ends his teaching with an invitation: “The one who can accept this should accept it” (v. 12). In other words, Jesus institutes vocational singleness as a lifetime calling to address the plentiful harvest of societal brokenness.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul confirms this new teaching, sharing a practical preference for celibacy to do kingdom work married couples raising kids often do not have the time or financial freedom to do. The “unmarried man,” he writes, “is concerned about the Lord’s affairs…in undivided devotion to the Lord” (vvs. 32-35). Even Reformation-era critics of Catholic celibacy recognized that celibate people had a greater availability for kingdom work. John Calvin, a vocal critic of vocational singleness, recognized this practical benefit in his commentaries on 1 Corinthians 7: “Now the point of the whole argument is this—celibacy is better than marriage because there is more freedom in celibacy, so that men can serve God more easily.”
“The ‘gift-ness’ of being single for Paul,” writes Timothy Keller in The Meaning of Marriage, “lay in the freedom it gave him to concentrate on ministry in ways that a married man could not. … He not only found an ability to live a life of service to God and others in that situation, he discovered (and capitalized on) the unique features of single life (such as time flexibility) to minister with very great effectiveness.”
The strong consensus of Scripture and Reformed thinkers past and present is that Jesus and Paul modeled and spoke of a lifetime calling to leverage their availability in singleness to do more kingdom work.
Unfortunately, some church leaders teach their congregants (directly or indirectly) to assume they will get married while neglecting the Bible’s teachings about discernment. Some Christian young adults chase the idol of romance and default to marriage while ignoring the Bible’s teaching about divorce and child rearing. Others continue in involuntary singleness without leveraging it for the kingdom. Yet even in the Catholic church where celibacy is celebrated, less than 1 percent of Catholics accept a call to permanently give up dating, romance, marriage, and sex for the sake of single-minded kingdom work. There are too few workers for the harvest.
How can our churches raise up more kingdom workers to heal our communities with undivided attention? Our churches need to become places where young adults genuinely discern whether God is calling them to vocational singleness or Christian marriage.
From a young age, parents, teachers, and other leaders can teach our children about the possibilities of both Christian marriage and vocational singleness, building anticipation for a future when they will ask God for his preference. Pastors can equip teenagers with a healthy theology of both vocations and a capacity for general Christian discernment. Then when Christians begin deliberately discerning in their early 20s, pastors can offer four suggestions for wise discernment:
First, seek God’s preference, even if it’s not our preference. Most of the celibate Protestants and Catholics I know still experienced a healthy desire for marriage, sex, and children before committing to singleness for the Lord, so those desires aren’t an indication of God’s preference. As Proverbs 16:9 tells us, sometimes God’s preference doesn’t match ours. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says God gives the gift of vocational singleness to some and the gift of marriage to others, pointing to our practical circumstances and our personal mission as evidence for our calling. Sometimes, God has a preference for which gift he wants to give us, and he wants to communicate that to us.
Second, leave the limbo of uncommitted singleness. There’s a big difference between waiting for marriage and accepting a call to permanently give up the prospect of dating, romance, sex, marriage, and children for the sake of the kingdom. Like renting an apartment, many singles might find themselves less committed to their churches or specific ministries because they need to be prepared to reorganize their lives around a future marriage. Plus, the two passages where Jesus and Paul encourage Christians to consider celibacy aren’t commending temporary singleness—they’re commending committed, lifetime singleness. Still, some will genuinely discern for years or decades without clarity from God. Even in temporary singleness, Christians can delete their dating apps, set down their phones, and intentionally use their availability to serve their neighbors.
Third, receive God’s necessary gift of vocational singleness or Christian marriage. In light of the Fall, polyamory and sex without commitment come naturally to us. Celibacy and faithful monogamy do not. None of us inherently have what we need to do either vocation well. When we step fully into either vocational singleness or Christian marriage, we will receive God’s bountiful gift to thrive in our vocation.
Finally, build a family that lasts. God has created each of us in his image to enjoy intimacy in the context of human family—even those called to vocational singleness. Yet celibate Christians struggle to find a permanent, lived-in experience of family that consistently meets their intimacy needs and empowers their kingdom work. Those called to vocational singleness can find committed family by continuing to live with biological family, moving into the home of an unrelated nuclear family, or creating an intentional Christian community of singles and/or marrieds.
To that end, I’ve helped establish an ecumenically Christian brotherhood where men called to vocational singleness can live together permanently, called the Nashville Family of Brothers. We practice shared rhythms of daily prayer and confession, weekly meals, monthly worship, and regular vacations and holidays. Plus, we invest in the mission and community of our local churches, leverage our 9-to-5 jobs for the sake of the kingdom, and enjoy fellowship with parents and their kids in our churches and neighborhood.
What if Christians embraced this renewed practice of discernment? What if every Christian young adult open-handedly offered this question to God and received his wise gift with gratitude? Imagine the impact of tenfold Christians embracing vocational singleness and healing our communities in ways parents often do not have the time or financial freedom to do. Imagine many times more celibate Christians leveraging their kingdom availability to serve as nurses at free clinics, teachers in low-income schools, and pastors radically available to go wherever the gospel is needed.
Discernment between singleness and marriage won’t heal all of the wounds of 2020, but it could lead to more Christians accepting a call to vocational singleness and addressing the plentiful harvest of brokenness in our communities with single-minded devotion.
Pieter Valk is a licensed professional counselor, the director of EQUIP (equipyourcommunity.org), and cofounder of the Nashville Family of Brothers (familyofbrothers.org), an ecumenically Christian brotherhood for men called to vocational singleness.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.