The Church needs to see more Christians faithfully walking out lifetime singleness for the sake of the kingdom (AKA “celibacy”). That witness helps the Church grasp the hope of the gospel and begin living into the reality of the kingdom today. No witness to this hope is more moving than that of Christ himself.

Jesus and Paul teach that singleness for the kingdom preaches the gospel

Jesus

In Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus calls God’s people to a deeper commitment in marriage. His disciples respond by jokingly suggesting that if God’s standard is that high, it would be better to stay single.

To his disciples’ shock, Jesus responds by declaring that celibacy—seen as a curse by ancient people including the Jews—should be considered by the average Jew.

But [Jesus] said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it” (Matt. 19:11-12, ESV).

Marriage and progeny secured economic opportunities, provided physical protection, arranged for care later in life, and ensured one’s name would live on. To give these up was unthinkable.

But Jesus explained why giving up all of these things was worth it: Jesus was establishing a new order where there was even more to gain by living single “for the sake of the kingdom.”

Paul

Then, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul confirms the advent of this new kind of singleness for the Lord. Paul shares his preference for lifetime singleness for the sake of the kingdom four different times in verses 7, 32-35, 36-38, and 39-40.

I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another (1 Cor. 7:7).

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 (1 Cor. 7:32-35).

If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better (1 Cor. 7:36-38).

A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 7:39-40).

In verses 29-31, Paul encourages all Christians to live into the reality of the kingdom by recognizing that their marriages and their physical possessions are temporal.

This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:29-31).

He follows this up in verses 32-35 describing why he so prefers singleness for the Lord.

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 (1 Cor. 7:32-35).

The celibate person is freed from the idol of romance and is not burdened by pleasing others—instead, singles for the sake of the kingdom can offer undivided attention to God and His kingdom work.

A hopeful preview of the age to come

But Jesus and Paul don’t just talk about the benefits of singleness for the kingdom in this life. They highlight how this singleness for the Lord ought to (1) provide a preview of the age to come and (2) give hope to the Church today.

Those committed to lifetime celibacy preview a time when we will have perfect intimacy with God (Luke 20:34-36). Singles for the kingdom live into a reality where scarcity no longer forces us to toil for earthly gains, earn others’ love with beauty or wealth, or enter into exclusive legal contracts of romance to ensure we are not alone.

Instead, lifetime celibates devote their lives completely to the work of the kingdom and enjoy a 100-fold provision of family, intimacy, home, and spiritual offspring in this life and the next (Luke 18:28-30).

Now don’t get me wrong. Those committed to singleness for the sake of the kingdom are not superior to married Christians.

They don’t get a fast-pass to a deeper relationship with God. They don’t get a seat closer to the throne of God in heaven. They can’t fully avoid toil in this life, they still find themselves lonely, and they need committed companions just like the next person.

Plus, the work of Christian marriage to raise children continues to be an essential kingdom work in this age that should never be taken for granted.

But it remains true that lifetime singleness for the kingdom displays the gospel in ways marriage cannot.

Jesus is our ultimate model of singleness

Jesus (and Paul) didn’t just theorize about the beauty of singleness for the kingdom. Christ embodied it.

He became the ultimate preview for how we will all live in the age to come. He provided a symbol of devotion to kingdom work through singleness that all Christians can find hope in. And Jesus is the perfect model of lifetime singleness for the kingdom that celibates today can look to.

Jesus himself was celibate. He did not marry or have sex or have children. He was not romantic with anyone. So, without saying a word, Jesus is foreshadowing his fulfillment of the mandate to “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28) by marrying and having children. He is hinting at a new order where both celibacy and marriage are normative. It’s not an accident that Jesus was celibate. God specifically chose this, in part, so that Jesus could serve as a preview for how we will all live in heaven.

Moreover, Christ’s death and resurrection secure the hope of those who live single for the sake of the kingdom, and the hope of every Christian.

  • In John 1:13 and John 3:5-7, Jesus foreshadows a new covenant where you do not belong to Israel according to the flesh, but become a child of God through new birth.
  • Colossians 1:6 and 10 confirm that the fruit we are commanded to bear in light of Christ’s resurrection is not physical children but spiritual children.
  • Hebrews 8 reflects that Christ’s death establishes a new covenant where marriage is no longer necessary to fulfill God’s promises, because we join God’s family by Christ’s work on the cross, not by birth into a Jewish family.

Jesus has established a new order where our hope is found in our membership in the household of God—not the financial provision of our spouse or the legacy of our children—because Christ has torn down every barrier than separates us from the direct love and provision of God.

Unfortunately, the Church lacks a visible witness

Instead of teenagers admiring those who live single for the kingdom, and feeling torn between whether they’d rather God call them to marriage or celibacy, teens pray that they won’t be lonely forever like the single people in their churches.

Instead of married people gathering hope from the lives of singles for the kingdom in their church, and being challenged to live into Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31, married people pity their single friends.

Instead of lifetime celibates thriving in their singleness for the Lord, and delighting in God’s call for them, single people particularly struggle with loneliness and sin, sometimes leading them to lose their faith or hastily jump into marriage.

The Church groans in pain from our lack of the hope that singles for the kingdom are meant to provide.

Regaining hope and life

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

We can regain the hope found in the witness of singles for the kingdom and their example of living into the reality of the age to come.

Plus, in light of the mounting pain and brokenness in the world around us, imagine the benefit of a minority of Christians wholly committed to advancing the Kingdom through lifetime singleness.

As good sacramentalists, we recognize that God made us to experience a physical embodiment of the gospel. How much more attractive would the gospel be if a new generation of celibate lay leaders and pastors multiplied the rich discipleship found in our churches and came alongside nuclear families to help raise their children and strengthen their marriages?

What if this new generation of singles for the Lord led the Church in addressing wealth inequality, racial injustice, xenophobia, and mental illness in our country? How much more beautiful would our embodiment of the gospel become if we finally had enough laborers for the plentiful harvest?

To become churches where Christians are thriving in lifetime singleness for the Lord, we can take these three steps:

First, teach it.

We need to teach children in our churches about the rich theology of celibacy in Scripture. Every time we speak about marriage, we need to talk about celibacy. From a young age, we need to start sharing that both marriage and celibacy are beautiful possibilities.

As often as we talk about the beauty of being a father or a mother, we need to talk about heroes of the faith who were able to do kingdom work married people couldn’t because those heroes were single.

As children reach puberty and start to explore relationships with others, our argument for abstinence shouldn’t be based on “saving ourselves for marriage.” Instead, it should focus on pleasing God and God’s design for relationship, recognizing the possibilities of marriage and celibacy.

Second, discern it.

Help teens in your church discern whether they are called to celibacy or marriage. As we teach children and teens how to think theologically about their sexual stewardship and relational vocation, we need to also invite them to discern that with parents and mentors—in prayer and Scripture with the Holy Spirit.

Help teens develop their spiritual muscles to discern any question. Make sure they know how to bring a question before God, consider Scripture, consider practical aspects of their question, seek advice from spiritual mentors, arrive at a potential conclusion, hold that conclusion before God, seek confirmation through small steps, and move forward with confidence.

Make sure there are no emotional or theological hurdles to either vocation through pastoral conversation about emotional wounds and careful teaching about marriage and celibacy. Then, invite them to start asking: “God, would you prefer that I commit to celibacy or get married?”

God may have even left some clues laying around. Does a person feel called to a special mission, a difficult ministry, or a life of contemplation or study? Or does the individual feel particularly called to raise children for God as their primary kingdom work? Do any past or present circumstances in the person’s life point to God’s preference?

And last but not least, make sure to involve pastors, parents, mentors, and friends in the discernment process to provide outside perspective.

Third, support it.

One of the biggest ways we can support celibate people is by helping them find family. Celibate people need intimate, committed relationships just like their married friends. They need a family of companions who they know will still be around in a decade. They need to know who will be there for dinner at night, to hear about their day, or to go on vacation with them.

We can help them find their inner family. Maybe they stay deeply connected with their biological family, living with siblings or cousins and doing rhythms of family together. Or perhaps a single person can knit themselves into an unrelated nuclear family in their church and live with them as family.

Singles for the Lord can even band together with other singles or married people and start intentional Christian communities. Churches can help support celibate people in creating these intentional Christian communities by suggesting the idea, helping them cast vision for it, providing pastoral support while they explore the possibility, coaching them through the process, and maybe even providing financial support in the early years.

What does this have to do with loving sexual minorities?

If you take a look at my author bio below, you will notice that I focus on teaching the Church how to better love sexual minorities. Why, then, have I spent a whole post talking about singleness for the Lord?

Gay Christians stewarding their sexualities according to a traditional sexual ethic are typically the only Christians considering Jesus and Paul’s words about singleness for the sake of the kingdom.

(Note: If you’re curious about the term “gay Christian,” read this.)

Because few straight Christians consider lifetime singleness for the Lord, churches easily ignore the needs for better teaching and support for lifelong celibacy. Gay celibate Christians are disproportionately affected by the Church’s poor teaching and support of celibacy.

But if our churches started teaching about celibacy, inviting all Christians to consider celibacy, and supporting celibate people in meaningful ways, gay Christians could thrive in celibacy. Not only that, many more straight people would answer their call to singleness for the Lord and enjoy the good fruit of it.

And, most importantly, the Church would once again benefit from the hope of the gospel that singleness for the kingdom embodies. The Bride of Christ would be encouraged to live into the reality of the next age that singles for the Lord model.