My sister and I, both single and now in our 30s, have spent a great deal of time discussing marriage and singleness and our own unique journeys navigating our experiences with relationships. Just recently she had an interesting experience with a guy that she was interested in. She met him at church, and was hoping he would ask her out. But after waiting for some time without him asking, she finally decided that she would take the initiative and ask him out. It is the 21st century after all! She asked him to coffee, and he said he would be happy to go, but in the name of honesty he had to tell her upfront that he wasn’t interested in a relationship because he felt called to singleness.
Called to singleness. What exactly does that mean? As a single person, this is one of the most emotion-filled concepts taught by the church. The church’s teaching often implies that no one should be single unless they have a specific calling to it. It may be hard to recognize this trend for those who are not single, but as a single person I have often felt the implication that, since I am STILL single, there is either some kind of problem, or that God has called me to singleness. Take this quote from Albert Mohler for example, “[There] is no biblical category of enduring singleness, except for the gift of celibacy.” In other words, the only legitimate way for a person to be single long-term is if they have the “gift of celibacy”. The gift of celibacy, or the call to singleness, is marked by a lack of desire for marriage, a lack of desire for sexual intimacy, and a calling to Christian service. If a person doesn’t have those things, the implication is that they really shouldn’t stay single.
As a result, those who can neither find a spouse, nor fit the “definition” of one called to singleness, are put in a difficult position. They either don’t fit any biblical “category” (implying that they are in a sinful or unbiblical state), or they have to make a commitment to a calling that might not seem to fit. Sometimes I wonder if those who teach the “gift of singleness” think there is a stock of spouses somewhere just waiting for a person to declare “I’m not called to singleness” so they can materialize and get married. If that’s true, please check in the back for mine! He hasn’t seemed to get the message…I say that tongue in cheek of course, but the truth is that most people asking what it means to be called to singleness aren’t asking because they identify themselves as having received this gift, but because they have been single for a long time and they are starting to wonder why. Is it because God has placed a call on my life that I wasn’t aware of?
For this reason, we need to clarify what the Bible does and does not say about a call to singleness. There are two main passages in the Bible that address singleness as a “calling”. The first is Matthew 19:11-12 says, “But he 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.”’ Here it appears that Jesus is making a “category” of those who are called to be “eunuchs” (i.e. celibate) for the kingdom of heaven.
The second passage is 1 Corinthians 7. This whole passage is about marriage and singleness, and it is this passage where Paul famously says that he considers singleness to be better than marriage (see verses 7-8, 25-28, 32-34, 38, and 40!). His reasoning is that single people can be more wholeheartedly devoted to God, and are not distracted by the needs of a spouse. In verse 7, Paul says that both singleness and marriage are gifts from God, “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.” This passage is often the specific basis for a call or gift of singleness - Paul had that gift, and he says “each has his own gift”, meaning others may have that gift as well.
As I have read and studied these passages, I have begun to think that maybe we are using these passages to create categories which were not really ever intended to be the point of these passages. Jesus didn’t mean to make categories of “married” and “eunuchs” and Paul didn’t mean to make categories of “gift of marriage” and “gift of singleness”. Instead, these passages are teaching something entirely different. In the Matthew passage, Jesus is actually making a point about selfishness. After he tells his disciples that they can’t get divorced for whatever reason they want, they say, “Well then it’s better not to get married!” In other words, if I don’t get to have the “out” of divorce if I get tired of this wife, then I’ll just stay single so I can do what I want! Jesus counters their selfish attitude by saying that even a life of singleness is about serving God. A person should not choose to be single so that they can serve their own desires rather than serve a spouse and children. Instead, a person should consider carefully in choosing singleness, recognizing that they are doing so for an equally unselfish reason - to serve the Kingdom of Heaven. Interestingly, Jesus mentions two other categories of people as well, those who are “born eunuchs” and those who are “made eunuchs”. I think this explanation better includes these categories as well. Jesus is acknowledging that some people are single due to no choice of their own. But when it is a choice, it should be made with God’s purposes in mind, rather than out of a desire to serve oneself.
In Paul’s passage, the truth is he is actually addressing the question of celibacy rather than marriage. The Corinthians had written to him asking if it was better not to have sexual relations (see 7:1), and Paul’s answer is here in chapter 7. I think the Corinthians may have been dealing with the heresy of Gnosticism, which says that everything in the body is evil, and only things of the spirit are holy. So, it would make sense that a bodily pleasure like sexual intercourse would be considered evil. But Paul says that is not true, and it is not wrong for married couples to come together sexually. He finishes his paragraph by saying that he wishes “all of you were as I am.” Scholars debate whether he means here that he has a lack of sexual desire, or that he is single. But, that question is actually overshadowed by what Paul goes on to say. The rest of the chapter talks about how it doesn’t matter what state you are in - married or single, circumcised or not, or even a slave - all can serve the Lord. And that is really his point. Wherever you are when you are called to Christ, you can serve the Lord that way. You don’t have to be in a certain position in order to follow and serve the Lord. A married person, a single person, a Jewish person, a non-Jewish person, a slave can all serve the Lord. Of course, Paul gives his own commentary that he feels like remaining unmarried is ideal because it allows a person to serve the Lord unhindered. But again, his point is not about whether a person is “called” or “gifted” with singleness, but rather that a person should consider how best they might serve the Lord.
Both of these passages, then, really boil down to serving the Lord. They have less to do with marital status, and more to do with selflessly working to do God's will. Jesus tells us to choose singleness not out of selfishness, but out of a desire to work for the kingdom of heaven. Paul tells us to choose singleness so that a person is unhindered by cares of the world, but he also says a person can serve the Lord in any state. He or she should choose based on how best they can work for Jesus.
There is one last thing I want to mention for single people who have been single for many years, and who have sought to serve the Lord while single. Our singleness is as much a gift to God as it is a gift from God. If we sacrifice the desire for marriage to do what God has called, what a great gift we have given Him! How precious in God’s eyes must be the person who says, “I give up this desire for You.” So great is His love for us that He responds by saying, “I will be to you spouse, companion, friend.” And so we press on in serving Him in whatever way He has called as we wait for the ultimate fulfillment of that promise when Christ returns for his bride. Let us focus on serving Him!