During the Protestant Reformation, the great thinkers of that era like Luther and Calvin harshly criticized the mandated celibacy that was imposed on priests in the Catholic church. At the same time, they extolled the goods of marriage while remaining relatively silent on the goods of singleness. This, along with the criticism of celibacy, left a generally negative impression of singleness within the Protestant tradition that is still in the process of being corrected in most modern churches.
In most churches, many sermons are preached on marriage, but very few, if any, sermons are preached on what it means to be single, how to serve the Lord in your singleness, or have celibacy elevated as a legitimate calling or vocation in life. Singleness is often treated as an undesirable calling or vocation, analogous to a disease for which marriage is a cure.
Yet, this is not how Jesus or Paul talked about singleness and celibacy. In fact, both of them, being unmarried themselves, extolled its virtues. Two passages, Matthew 19:11-12 and 1 Corinthians 7:1-40, best exemplify this. Though addressing very different situations, three principles regarding singleness and celibacy emerge from both of these passages.
First, marriage and celibacy are equally worthy callings and vocations.
In Matthew 19:12, Jesus mentions various types of eunuchs, including “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” This has generally been understood to include individuals who deliberately remain celibate. The very mention of celibate individuals from the lips of Christ is of great comfort to those who face this as a daily reality. But more than anything else, the very fact that Jesus was celibate himself should carry the greatest weight in this conversation. Jesus never married or had sex, and yet he embodied what it meant to be truly and fully human more than any other person who has ever lived.
In 1 Corinthians 7, the language Paul uses regarding singleness would almost seem to suggest that he views singleness as superior to marriage (See 7:7, 38, 40). Yet, this is due to contextual factors within the Corinthian church, not the ontological natures of marriage and singleness. Paul refers to both singleness and marriage as gifts (charisma), the same word he later uses in chapter 12 when describing the other spiritual gifts. Jesus and Paul were both celibate vocationally, yet acknowledged the goods that marriage offers (See Matt. 19:4-9, Eph. 5:22-33).
Second, celibacy is a gift that some have the capacity to live out and other do not.
In Matthew 19:11-12, Jesus twice mentions that not everyone will be able to accept what the disciples had previously mentioned about remaining unmarried (Matt. 19:10). Most people, because of their sexual desires, cannot accept a celibate lifestyle and are better served and sanctified by being in a marriage. Paul affirms this principle throughout 1 Corinthians 7 in verses 2, 9, and 36.
It’s worth saying, though it may be obvious, that if you are currently unmarried, then you have the gift of singleness, even if it’s only temporary. If you are able to discern a calling from the Lord to remain single for an extended period of time (perhaps even your whole lifetime), then that is the gift of celibacy. Whether you have the gift of singleness or celibacy, both are gifts that the Lord will give you the grace to steward well.
Third, celibacy is given for the purpose of service to God.
In Matthew 19:12, Jesus affirms that eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs did so “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Paul also upholds singleness as a means of securing an “undivided devotion” (1 Cor. 7:35) to “the things of the Lord,” (v. 32) as well as developing understanding in “how to please the Lord” (v. 32) and “how to be holy in body and spirit” (v. 34). Celibacy and singleness cannot be viewed simply as an abstention from sex, but ought to draw all singles into a lifestyle of undivided service to God and to others.
Marriage and singleness in light of eternity
In Matthew 22:23-33, Jesus is being questioned by the Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection. Who would a woman be married to in the resurrection if she had been married to multiple men during her life? Jesus makes an astounding claim in verse 30 when he says, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.” Marriage is an earthly institution and will not carry over into eternity. When we meet Christ face to face, we will meet him as single individuals.
At the same time, though, Scripture affirms that there will be marriage in heaven. Yet, it will not be between men and women, but between Christ and his church (Rev. 19:7, 21:2). Paul describes earthly marriage as a reflection of this heavenly marriage (Eph. 5:31-32).
So, whether one is married, single, or celibate, each person has to remain aware of the heavenly realities that transcend our earthly lives. If married, remember that in the resurrection, earthly marriage will cease, having fulfilled its intended purposes. If single or celibate, have the mindset that you are not yet married to the perfect husband, the Lamb of God. Everyone can take comfort in the fact that in the heavenly kingdom, we will have perfect communion not only with one another, but with the author and perfecter of our faith, Jesus Christ our Savior.