This article was previously published at pieterlvalk.com.
My hope for the Church is that gay people called to the celibacy of Jesus and Paul will soon find the family in the body of Christ they need to thrive in their calling with reasonable effort.
Or to put it more simply:
My hope for the Church is that (gay) celibate Christians would find real family.
Notice that I’ve put the word “gay” in parenthesis. I don’t think gay celibate Christians are the only celibate Christians suffering from a lack of support from the Church. And, as you’ll see, the steps we need to take are the same for both and will benefit both! We hear about this need more acutely from gay celibate Christians, and there’s reasons for that, but better teaching and support of vocational singleness is needed for the whole Church.
Today I want to talk about how God has made vocational singles for healthy intimacy in permanent family, why that’s been difficult for vocational singles to find, and how our churches can cultivate intentional Christian community where vocational singles find the family they’re made for.
First, why do I want the Church to become a place where celibate Christians find real family? Why do those of us called to vocational singleness need the Church to offer us family? Well, because we feel that we need it. Intuitively, we know it.
We know we need family
Those of you who are celibate have felt that need when you were left out of COVID bubbles. And hurt when everyone else posted about how grateful they were to have at least their spouse and kids to endure lockdown with or posted about that one other nuclear family they created a COVID bubble with, all while you doom-scrolled through meals and movie nights you weren’t invited to.
You’ve felt that need when you’ve done mundane times alone—breakfast before work, laundry, making dinner, watching your favorite show.
You’ve felt that need when you’ve endured painful times alone—getting fired, losing a loved one, not getting your bid on a house, learning about an illness, seeing tragedy on the news that hit close to home.
You’ve felt that need when you’ve celebrated alone—decade birthdays, promotions, new jobs, paying off student loans, graduations, well-cooked dinner, new pet.
You’ve felt that need when you’ve tired of the revolving door of roommates and small groups and temporary mentors.
You’ve felt that need when you’ve wondered who will be at dinner next week, who will you spend holidays with year after year, who will be there when you die.
After college I was part of four different houses with vague aspirations of intentional Christian community. But each fell apart because guys got married, moved for a job, or ran away from conflict. And every time I connected deeply with people in healthy ways—only for that connection to be torn—I was injured. Eventually my heart started screaming in resistance, “Not again! This is too painful!” My heart made clear that I couldn’t connect deeply again unless it was safe. I knew what safe meant: real, permanent family
But we don’t just feel we need it. Scripture says we’re all made for intimacy in permanent family.
We’re all made for intimacy in family
How do we know that? Because God is a being who enjoys intimacy in the context of family, and He created us in His image for those same things.
He created us for intimacy. The love in God’s family is intimate. The persons of the Trinity know each other perfectly and are fully known by each other. In John 17:20, Jesus speaks longingly about the Trinity when praying for hHs disciples:
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they…be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”
God the Father reciprocates this affection. Just after Jesus is baptized, the following happens in Matthew 3:16-17:
“…At that moment heaven was opened, and [Jesus] saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’”
Then, because we’re created in God’s image, we’re made for those same things, and our sexuality is our need for intimacy, our need to be in relationship, to know and be known, to give and receive love, and because we are mind, body, and spirit, we need connection on an emotional level, intellectual level, physical level, and spiritual level.
At the same time, neither sex nor romance are promised in Scripture or necessary to meet our intimacy needs or be whole people. Quite the opposite. Jesus didn’t have sex. Paul was committed to celibacy. Many of the mothers and fathers of the Church have been celibate.
And Jesus says that in Heaven, there won’t be any more marriage or sex. In Matthew 22:30, He says this:
“At the resurrection people will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven.”
It doesn’t make too much sense that the example of our faith was celibate or that we will all be celibate in heaven if marriage and sex are necessary to be fully human.
I mean, yes, if you’re married, you’ll meet some of your intimacy needs in your relationship with your spouse. But, even if you’re married, God and your spouse alone won’t meet all of your intimacy needs. You will still need emotional intimacy, intellectual intimacy, physical intimacy, and spiritual intimacy from friendship. We’re all made for it.
We’re not just made for intimacy. We’re made for intimacy in permanent family.
Not just family—*permanent* family
God put Himself in families. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit make up a family called the Trinity. And the Trinity created this world, made man, gave us choice, and sent the Son to live a perfect life and die on the cross for our sins so that we could be a part of God’s family. The Bible goes even further to establish that God is in family and He invites us into that family by calling us, the group of people who follow Jesus, Christ’s bride and calling Jesus our groom. We’re being married into the family of God.
Plus the love in that family is permanent. There is a perfect and permanent faithfulness in the Trinity and from Christ to His people. No matter what we do, God will never abandon us or withhold his love. Lamentations 3:22-23 says it this way:
“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is [God’s] faithfulness.”
Then, because we are created in God’s image, we’re made for the same thing. We too are made for intimacy in permanent family.
But when I say family, I don’t just mean married people and kids.
In Matthew 12:46- 50, Jesus subverts our understanding of family, rejecting familial ties based solely on biology and instead establishing that Christian family is bound by the blood of Christ:
“While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, ‘Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.’ But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’ And pointing to his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’”
Jesus defines Christian family as a small community of Christians who live life together and embody the gospel for each other. But Jesus still means a robust idea of family. He still means people you live with in the same house, share meals with daily, sit next to and pray with, celebrate holidays with, leisure with on your days off, and do boring daily mundane life with.
So we feel we need family and we’re all made for intimacy in permanent family. Even those called to vocational singleness!
Vocational singles are made for permanent family
The Church has most consistently understood the Scriptures to teach that while vocational singleness is a call to permanently give up romance, dating, marriage, sex, and children to do kingdom work parents struggle to find the time, energy, and focus to do, it’s still a call to intimacy in family.
In Matthew 19:11-12, Jesus compares the celibate to Old Testament eunuchs who lived in the king’s family home while serving his kingdom. They often out-lived the patriarch. They were a part of the family. When Jesus makes this comparison, part of what He’s doing is promising us that we’ll find family in God’s family, the King we serve.
In Luke 18:28-30, Jesus promises 100-fold spiritual brothers, sisters, and children now in this present time to those who permanently give up spouse and children for the sake of kingdom work. He promises family, 100-fold family to those committed to vocational singleness.
In 1 Corinthians 7:36-38, Paul recognizes that those called to vocational singleness still need human companionship by blessing an early Church form of family for celibates.
In 1 Tim 5:5-15, Paul recognizes a proto-convent house that provided family to widows.
Every time Jesus and Paul speak of vocational singleness, they seem to recognize in some way that celibates still need human intimacy in permanent, lived-in family.
Perhaps some called to vocational singleness have an even more exceptional filling of the Holy Spirit such that they don’t need as much human intimacy.
But for most celibates I know (including myself), God does not choose to magically meet our human intimacy needs. Instead, he invites us to build family with other believers.
But it’s difficult for those called to vocational singleness to find permanent family, right?
It’s difficult for vocational singles to find permanent family
In Rodney Clapp’s Families at the Crossroads, he argues that the primary reason for the breakdown of a broader experience of community where celibates could find family was the Industrial Revolution, but not intentionally. It was accidental.
All of a sudden, a bunch more people could afford to move cities and buy single family homes, but they didn’t pause to think whether they should even if they could. So they put miles and doors between each other and community where vocational singles could find family broke down. We started slipping through the cracks.
In recent decades, that’s continued with the idolatry of romance. I’m particular to say the idolatry of romance here and not the idolatry of marriage, because healthy theology and practice of Christian marriage is not the problem, and this idol of romance takes its roots long before marriage. Disney channel movies and Taylor Swift songs tells us that magically coupled love is the best thing the world has to offer.
And Christians don’t do much better. Do you recognize this quote from a #1 selling book about Christian masculinity?
“Deep in his heart, every man longs for a battle to fight, an adventure to live, and a beauty to rescue…A woman doesn’t want to be the adventure; she wants to be caught up into something greater than herself…every woman wants to have a beauty to unveil…to simply and truly be the beauty, and be delighted in.”
Do you see the idolatry of romance in that quote? From an early age, parents and pastors highlight Bible stories and holidays centering romance and marriage. When they say “When you get married…” and ask “Are you dating anyone?” they leave no room for stories or celebrations of singleness for the sake of Christ’s kingdom. Christian teens assume they are free to indulge in romance as much as they want, as long as they don’t cross certain lines. 72% of pastors surveyed believe that “If a person desires to marry and have kids, then God wants them to marry.”
This all leads to painful results. Half of married Christians get divorced. And studies show that singles struggle more with depression, anxiety, doubt in God’s existence, and rebounding from doubt. The idol of romance promises us easy and perfectly satisfying love, belonging, family, pleasure, and an escape from loneliness. At what costs? Casual connection, codependency, adultery, and divorce.
No wonder vocational singles can’t find the family we need. Plus, we don’t quite know what that would look like if we did find it. We certainly don’t know how to build it, and we can’t do it alone.
The Church has a history of offering vocational singles permanent family
Thankfully, we’ve done this before. The Church has a rich history of offering vocational singles robust family in the body of Christ.
According to primary sources about celibacy in the first five centuries of the Church, before cave monks and desert ascetics and cloistered monasteries, there were what’s called the remnuoth, translated “city celibates.” And they walked out this city celibacy in a particular way.
First, their celibacy was permanent. The disciples of the Apostles, and their disciples and their disciples, unanimously understood Jesus and Paul to be commending permanent celibacy, instead of waiting for marriage. We’re talking about people like St. Clement of Rome (the disciple and successor of Peter the Apostle), St. Ignatius of Antioch (the disciple of John the Apostle), St. Justin the Martyr, St. Athenagoras of Athens, Polycrates of Ephesus, Tertullian, St. Cyprian of Carthage, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and St. Methodius of Olympus.
Second, they lived in cities in homes with other celibates of the same sex in informal monasteries, and they were still a part of their local churches, instead of living alone or cloistered from married Christians.
Third, they were still a part of the economic life of the city, instead of praying all day in closets or caves.
Fourth, they felt called to leverage their availability in singleness to serve others in their church and their city, instead of running away to serve themselves.
And fifth, they were common. There were tens of thousands of them—actually 20,000 of them in one city no larger than 100,000 according to records. This wasn’t exceptional.
Sources: James E. Goehring, Ascetics, Society and the Desert (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1999)
Chapter 1 of The Story of Monasticism (Baker Academic, 2015) by Greg Peters
Vincent Desprez, “Christian Asceticism between the New Testament and the Beginning of Monasticism,” American Benedictine Review 42 (1991): 163-178, 334-344 and 356-373 — This issue of the ABR is available from the Haithi Trust.
This is the secret sauce.
And we’ve done just that in Nashville. Remember my story from earlier about those four failed attempts at intentional Christian community?
In 2017, I met with the late Father Thomas McKenzie, my pastor. I shared that I felt called to vocational singleness, but I didn’t feel a magical gift of celibacy such that I didn’t need some kind of family. I asked him how I could find the family in the body of Christ I needed. And he responded:
“To be honest, I don’t think you’re going to find the kind of family you need at our church or any church in Nashville any time soon. But monasticism has been the most common way celibate people have found family. It’s been the greatest source of evangelism in the Church, the greatest source of theology in the Church, and the greatest source of social justice in the Church. I think you should start something in Nashville. Build the family you need. And stay connected to our church and teach us how to do family better. Find two to three other people, commit to doing something together for a year, and see what happens!”
Fast forward to today: the Nashville Family of Brothers is an ecumenically Christian monastery building family in Nashville for men called to vocational singleness. We’re still a part of our local churches. We’ve got jobs outside of the brotherhood. We’re still connected to parents and their kids. And five of us pray and eat and worship and vacation and serve and live together in a home as a family as we discern whether to make lifetime commitments to each other.
Now there’s multiple ways vocational singles can find permanent family. In addition to starting an intentional Christina community, you could move in with an unrelated nuclear family and eventually make commitments with them or you could commit to living with some of your biological family. But can I particularly commend this remnuoth solution to you? The way of these early church city celibates? Because it’s been the most successful way celibate Christians have found family historically, and there’s something particularly life-giving about living with people called to the same vocation who can empathize with you and challenge you.
So how? How can we build this kind of family?
How can we build permanent family for vocational singles?
If you think you might be called to the celibacy of Jesus and Paul, could I challenge you to move somewhere this already exists, or build it yourself?
I’m not special. Any of you—empowered by the Holy Spirit—could build this. And you don’t have to start big.
Just find three other people willing to live in an apartment together and commit to celibacy for a year. Do some simple prayer together once a day, confess to each other once a week, do two meals together a week. Maybe serve in your neighborhood together once a month, go on a vacation together, do one of the big holidays together, read a book about discernment or intentional Christian community together. Celebrate kingdom work successes together and mourn loneliness together. You don’t have to do all of these. But gather some people, do something for a year, and see what happens.
While I encourage you to seek out pastors or Christian leaders to help and support you like Thomas did us, Thomas was the exception rather than the rule. He was uncommon. Don’t wait around for help because by the time help comes it might be too late.
How can Christian leaders help vocational singles build permanent family?
Last, I want to speak to pastors and Christian leaders in the room, because we desperately need you to up-skill and quickly.
And before you say it isn’t your job, answer this question: What was the first administrative act of the Church? When the community of believers started getting too big to just run organically on good vibes and good intentions, when the Church had to start dealing with the daily reality of scarcity, what did the Church do?
It provided for celibate women.
Acts 6:1-7 describes a scene where immigrant widows were being accidentally neglected. The love of Jesus was drawing unmarried people to the church—thank the Lord! But the need had become too great to be met organically and too great for those called to primarily preach/teach to also take care of these celibate women. Yet they recognized that it was the responsibility of the Church, so they empowered other leaders to take care of these practical responsibilities and they resourced that work.
Then fast forward to 1 Timothy 5, Paul is talking about the proper care of widows. And what do we see? A house of widows, the beginnings of one of these city celibate homes, a place where celibate women are finding family!
While Paul is holding some of those women accountable for unfaithfulness and offering some lesser-of-two-evils-accommodations, topline he’s still affirming that it would be best if they kept their commitments to permanent celibacy and family together in the house of widows.
Clearly the Church had by 1 Timothy 5 made good on its commitment in Acts 6 to provide for widows, for celibate women, not only to have food, but to have a home and a family. That was the first administrative act of the Church. It’s what leads to establishing the first generation of church leaders after the apostles. Providing for celibate people is what the Church was created to do.
So get busy helping us! Perhaps you could do what my pastor did. He honored the reality that the Church wasn’t doing its part, freed us to build what we needed, and inspired the idea. He pointed us to theological and practical resources and coached us through interpersonal challenges, spiritual attack, and administrative questions. He helped us write our community covenant. He let us have commitment ceremonies in his church, wore his collar and gave a homily and laid hands on us. He cried with us when it was tough, prayed for us, and gave us courage and hope when we had none left.
But can I challenge you to go even further than my pastor did? Cast vision for intentional Christian community to everyone in your church. Gather singles and lead them in incubating community. Don’t wait for them to come to you. And expect it to be messy.
I want to close with an encouragement by imagining a future Church where celibate Christians are finding real family, living in families with other vocational singles and with married people and their kids.
Imagine how the testimony of their faithfulness in vocational singleness might expose the idol of romance. Imagine how much kingdom work they could do when they’re thriving instead of struggling to survive. Imagine them healing their communities by attending to wealth inequality, racial division, homelessness, mental illness, and a lack of care for immigrants and refugees. Imagine them helping married people raise their kids and helping lead our churches.
Imagine them showing us what it means to enjoy family in the body of Christ and giving all of us hope for how we’ll enjoy family in the New Heavens and New Earth. And imagine how all of this would bring the gospel alive for those curious about Jesus and draw people to Him because a meaningful minority of Christians are willing to give up some of the things our world today says are most valuable and instead spend their lives healing the wounds of others. All because they really believe that Jesus is who He says He is and that the truest life, the fullest life, is found laboring shoulder to shoulder next to Him.