CO-AUTHORED WITH AMBER CARROLL
Why discern God’s calling to vocational singleness or Christian marriage? How can we discern between vocational singleness and Christian marriage? How can pastors and parents help Christians discern well?
We are all first called to a period of temporary singleness (that’s the singleness we’re born into), and from there we are to discern whether God is calling us to vocational singleness or to Christian marriage. This is the way Christians have historically understood the Bible to teach about sexual stewardship–about the options available to Christians–and how we carefully discern with God how to steward those options.1
This is the big picture for what it looks like to faithfully, in God-honoring ways, steward our sexualities.
Why do I use the word “vocation”? A Christian vocation is generally a calling with a specific design for a specific purpose with a specific provision. Vocational singleness is a lifetime calling to singleness for the sake of the kingdom work with undivided attention, and Christian marriage is a lifetime commitment between one man and one woman with an openness to raising children for the kingdom.
Vocational singleness is distinct from temporary singleness. It is best for everyone to settle down into marriage or vocational singleness, instead of a prolonged temporary singleness. Marriage and vocational singleness are equally good callings, but marriage will be more common. There is no default path, one’s calling should be an open-handed question for every Christian.
These distinctions were mind-blowing for me when I first saw them in Scripture. None of us are on a default path. We are not supposed to just take what we want, and we shouldn’t continue in the limbo of uncommitted singleness. Rather, there are two options for Christians. Both are equally good and normal, but one is more common, and Christians need to ask God which He wants them to do. Plus, we won’t get the gift from God to do either well until we step out of temporary singleness and commit to the vocation He gives us.
With that foundation, what evidence might we find in Scripture for the call to discernment?
Let’s start with Matthew 19. A little background here: At this point, Jesus’s disciples are unmarried (likely teenage or young adult) Jewish men who know the Old Testament and the procreation mandate in Genesis. They understand that obeying God’s command to marry and procreate is central to the Israelites’ prosperity. God had promised to bless the descendants of Abraham with land, military success, and economic flourishing, but the key to all that was the multiplication of Abraham’s descendants. If a Jew failed to marry and have children, it was seen as a grave sin against the Hebrew people, putting the blessing of God into jeopardy. As such, Jesus’s disciples view celibacy as a sin and barrenness as a curse. Literally everyone gets married. And they’re at the age where marriage is on the horizon for them. Jesus is in Judea and the Pharisees come to test Him.
1 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan. 2 Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there. 3 Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?” 4 “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 7 “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”
What’s going on here? Two opposing factions of religious leaders have gathered around Jesus and each side is hoping to use Him to win their debate about divorce with the other side. They’re also hoping to turn the townspeople against Jesus, so they ask Him a trick questions of sorts.
8 Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. 9 I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
So these opposing factions of religious leaders had different opinions on the acceptable grounds for divorce. One side was a little more conservative, one was a little more liberal.
But instead of taking either side, Jesus calls God’s people to an even more rigorous standard. He calls them back to God’s original intention for marriage, that, except in rare circumstances, God’s people should never divorce. Everyone is surprised by Christ’s answer, even His disciples. Look at their response in verse 10.
10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”
Divorce had become fairly common among God’s people, so Christ’s suggestion that they turn back the clock, so to speak, seemed extreme, unrealistic.
Jesus’s disciples are shocked when they hear Jesus’s high standards for marriage. Jesus’s standards are laughable, so they reply, “If those are the terms of marriage, why get married? That’s ridiculous. That’s too hard. We’ll stay single.” If godly marriage really meant lifetime marriage, no matter what, most of the time, the disciples joke that it would be better to break God’s commandment to marry and have children and just never get married at all.
But then Jesus replies.
11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”
In essence, Jesus says, “Yes, some of you should give up the prospect of marriage.” Jesus says that only those to whom the vocation of marriage has been given will be able to accept His teachings about marriage (and Jesus has some pretty high standards when it comes to marriage, as we just saw). But what about verse 12? Some will be called to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom. Not everyone can accept this teaching either, only those who have been called to it.
But why does Jesus choose the word “eunuch”? A eunuch was a eunuch for a lifetime. It was a permanent state. Additionally, eunuchs lived in the king’s palace and were honored (see verse 29 for how this plays out in vocational singleness), and eunuchs built up the king’s kingdom (see Daniel as an example of this). What we’re talking here about a permanent, lifetime calling for the sake of building up God’s kingdom.
To paraphrase these two verses, Jesus says, “Yeah, not everyone will be able to live up to such a high standard for marriage. So only those of you who’ve been given the capacity to accept that commitment should get married. And there are others of you who should intentionally give up marriage and children for a lifetime and use the time and energy you would have spent on a spouse and kids to instead contribute to My kingdom.”
This is a huge deal. Jesus tells a crowd of Jewish people–who know they are commanded to marry and procreate in order to sustain God’s blessing, who view singleness as a curse–to consider lifetime vocational singleness. Jesus is letting His followers know that a lifetime of committed singleness for the sake of the kingdom is equally valid, normal, and valuable for them as marriage.
1 Corinthians 7
1 Now for the matters you wrote about: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” 2 But since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband. 3 The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. 5 Do not deprive each other except perhaps by mutual consent and for a time, so that you may devote yourselves to prayer. Then come together again so that Satan will not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 I say this as a concession, not as a command.
In brief, Paul is calling married people to faithful monogamy.
7 I wish that all of you were as I am. But each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.
Paul was permanently celibate after his conversion. And we see in this verse that he has a preference for vocational singleness, saying he wishes everyone was called to it. But he recognizes that each person has his own gift. And recognizes that the gift is from God. God gives the gift. And note that Paul doesn’t say God offers both gifts and we choose. No, God gives some people one gift and others another gift.
8 Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.
Paul again voices his preference for lifetime vocational singleness. But knowing what we know about marriage and family in the first century, how could Paul encourage Christians in Corinth to stay single? Because early Christians saw themselves as members of the family of God. For them, there was no urgency around marriage. We often fail to understand how radical Paul’s advice is because in Paul’s day, marriage was essential to economic stability and social security. Your family provided protection, wealth, and people to care for you in sickness and old age. Women especially were very vulnerable without the protection a husband and male children provided. But “Paul could encourage ‘singleness’ because to be a Christian means you already have a family. You already have people looking out for you in practical, everyday ways.”2
9 But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
This verse is commonly thought to mean that poor sexual stewardship in singleness shows that one has not been given the gift of singleness and should instead marry. (The thinking goes that one who is easily able to remain single must have the gift of singleness, the gift being a supernatural ability to remain single without burning with sexual desire. And anyone who experiences uncontrollable sexual desire can take that as a sign from God that they should marry.) It’s more accurate to read this verse as a specific rebuke from Paul to Corinthian Christians who had adopted the heretical idea that the “real” person is made up of only mind and spirit. That our bodies are just containers we’re stuck in for this lifetime but will eventually be thrown away, so it doesn’t matter if we mistreat our bodies. As a result, some Corinthian Christians were claiming to be celibate in mind and spirit, but were engaging in sexual immorality with their bodies since the body didn’t matter.
But the general principle holds true here: it is unwise to walk the path of vocational singleness without the gift to do it well. But the same could be said of marriage: it is unwise to engage in some of the activities of marriage without God’s provision that comes from taking marriage vows and stepping fully into that vocation.
Additionally, marriage isn’t a remedy for weakness or lust. Because God instructs His followers to limit sex to marriage, all Christians will spend at least part of their lives delaying sexual gratification. Yet, too often we look to marriage as the solution for sexual sin rather than looking to the spiritual root of habitual masturbation, hooking up, sex outside of marriage, pornography usage, etc. We should never encourage anyone who cannot be self-controlled and faithful in the area of sexual stewardship to get married. Marriage vows aren’t a magical incantation that puts a stop to sexual sin. Those who are sexually unfaithful before marriage–be it pornography addiction, lust, habitual masturbation, sexual activity with others, or anything else–will almost certainly continue to be sexually unfaithful after the wedding. Marriage doesn’t “cure” habitual sexual sin. And habitual sexual sin hurts the spouse and their children and violates the gospel picture of marriage.
Skip down to verse 25 now.
25 Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 27 Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this. 29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
“Present crisis” or “present age” are consistently interpreted as the age after Christ’s death and before Christ’s return; this is not a reference to a narrower time frame just after Christ’s death where more people should have remained single. Today is no less and no more tumultuous than it was for Paul when he was writing these words. Paul’s words are no less relevant for us today. Paul’s point here is to remind us that many of the things we devote our lives to, like marriage, will ultimately pass away. Paul reminds us to use marriage (or singleness) wisely rather than seeing it as an end in itself.3
Paul again says that vocational singleness is good.
32 I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.
Paul says that the point of vocational singleness is to “please the Lord,” to serve God and His kingdom with undivided devotion.
36 If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. 37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. 38 So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.
This is a complicated passage, but the most textually robust and historic interpretation is that it’s referring to an early Church practice of spiritual betrothal.
39 A woman is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, but he must belong to the Lord. 40 In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is—and I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
Here we see Paul’s fourth recommendation to remain in vocational singleness.
There’s a lot going on in that passage! To recap: Paul says God calls some to a commitment to lifetime singleness for the sake of the kingdom and some to Christian marriage. Paul praises lifetime vocational singleness four times, and Paul says that those in vocational singleness are to serve God with undivided attention.
Are Paul and Jesus recommending permanent singleness?
A key question here is whether the kind of singleness Jesus and Paul are talking about in Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 is supposed to be permanent. So is it? I think so!
As we’ve already mentioned, in Matthew 19, Jesus speaks of a call beyond the singleness we’re born into and compares vocational singleness to the permanent state of being a eunuch. In Luke 18:28-30 Jesus promises an 100-fold blessing of family in this life to those who give up the prospect of marriage and children for the sake of the kingdom. (It seems a bit like cheating for someone to ask Jesus for this 100-fold blessing and then change their mind and get married.) As we’ve already mentioned, In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul recognizes and praises committed singleness and teaches that it is better to keep a commitment to vocational singleness than get married. Plus, the people who first heard the teachings of Jesus and Paul, the Christians those Apostles mentored, and their disciples unanimously taught that Jesus and Paul were speaking of a permanent giving up of marriage, sex, and children in Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7. This includes St. Clement of Rome (the disciple and successor of Peter the Apostle), St. Ignatius of Antioch (the disciple of John the Apostle), St. Justin Martyr, St. Athenagoras of Athens, Polycrates of Ephesus, Tertullian, St. Cyprian of Carthage, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, and St. Methodius of Olympus.
Six reasons to discern
There are six reasons why every Christian young adult should open-handedly discern between vocational singleness and Christian marriage:
1. God has a preference and wants to communicate that preference to us.
Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 teach that our vocation is given or called, not chosen. God knows us best, can imagine all of our possible futures, and knows whether singleness or marriage will lead to more goodness for you and more glory for Him.
2. Both vocations involve a gift to accept the teachings and the call, and a gift in response to accepting the call to do it well.
Part of the gift of vocational singleness is the ability to accept the high standards of the calling. Plus, God also gives each person who commits to and steps fully into their vocation a gift, a provision of grace, that enables them to live out their vocation well and thrive there. It is hard to “do” Christian marriage or vocational singleness well if you refuse to take hold of the gift and the provision of grace God gives to those who commit to the vocation He has picked out for them.
3. God intended for Christian marriage and vocational singleness to be committed and permanent.
Three, God intended for Christian marriage and vocational singleness to be committed and permanent. Matthew 19, 1 Corinthians 7, and 1 Timothy 5 all speak to the permanence of commitments to vocational singleness. There is no Bible passage that mentions a calling to temporary singleness or a gift of temporary wingleness.
4. Temporary singleness is not mentioned or gifted.
There is a big difference between the singleness we’re all born into vs. a committed, lifetime, vocational singleness for the sake of doing kingdom work. Plus, those who continue indefinitely in temporary singleness (by choosing not to discern their relational vocation or because no one ever taught them to discern their relational vocation) are likely to be shallowly rooted in their spiritual families and uncommitted to the kingdom work they’re doing. They can’t commit to a job or specific ministry long-term, and they can’t step into committed, lived-in family with anyone because they must stay prepared to reorganize their lives around a (potential) spouse at any moment.
In order to receive the gift from God to do vocational singleness well, one must step out of temporary singleness and into committed singleness. (The two passages where Jesus and Paul encourage every Christian to consider singleness aren’t commending temporary singleness–they’re commending vocational singleness, and there are no verses in Scripture that commend temporary singleness or speak to a gift of temporary singleness.)
5. There is no default path.
We’re obviously not born into either Christian marriage or vocational singleness. Both Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 speak about intentionally stepping into one or the other and caution against doing so lightly.
6. It would be unwise to unthinkingly take what we want.
While God wants us to share with Him whether we’d prefer vocational singleness or Christian marriage, ultimately God wants to show us why His preference is even better for us!
Is the word discernment used in any of these passages? No. But all of this leaves an undeniably discernment-shaped hole. And it’s the conclusion of the early Church, the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, Max Thurian, and Karl Barth that discernment is key.
If there’s no default path, if we must step out of temporary singleness and commit to something in order to receive the gift, if both vocations are permanent, if God has a preference, if we’re not supposed to just take what we want or step forward recklessly, how do we learn God’s preference from Him? How do we hear the call? How do we know which path to step toward? How do we make sure we consider this question carefully? Discernment.
So God eventually calls most of us to either a vocation of singleness or a vocation of marriage. Everyone should discern this question of vocational singleness or Christian marriage. We should all open-handedly offer these possibilities to God and seek His preference.
1. Why not continue in temporary singleness? What difference does it really make?
There is a big difference between the singleness we’re all born into vs. a committed, lifetime, vocational singleness for the sake of doing kingdom work that parents can’t do. Plus, those who continue indefinitely in temporary singleness (by choosing not to discern their relational vocation or because no one ever taught them to discern their relational vocation) are likely to be shallowly rooted in their spiritual families and uncommitted to the kingdom work they’re doing. They can’t commit to a job or specific ministry long-term, and they can’t step into committed, lived-in family with anyone because they must stay prepared to reorganize their lives around a (potential) spouse at any moment. They struggle with job dissatisfaction, kingdom work unfulfillment, loneliness, and a sense of waiting for life to start.
Plus, the two passages where Jesus and Paul encourage Christians to consider kingdom singleness aren’t commending temporary singleness–they’re commending committed, lifetime singleness. In order to receive the gift from God to do vocational singleness well, one must step out of temporary singleness and into committed singleness. So if someone is in temporary singleness (without the gift of singleness that comes from committing) and they’re struggling, perhaps part of the difficulty is that they haven’t received the gift yet.
That said, there are exceptions. God will choose not to give some Christians a call to either vocation. For some, faithfully following God’s guidance will look like leaving open the possibility of either vocation, continuing into their 40s, 50s, or perhaps their entire lives. It’s less common, but those who faithfully continue in temporary singleness should be supported in our churches.
2. Some object, “I want to be married. I want to be a parent. So that must be God’s desire for me.”
By that logic–that a desire to marry, a desire to be a parent, or a difficulty being single tells us that we’re called to marriage–the only people who are called to vocational singleness are asexual people. And clearly that wasn’t Christ’s intention. 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. Those desires aren’t an indication of God’s preference. Marriage and children aren’t promised in Scripture to anyone.
3. Others argue, “Singleness is too difficult, singleness isn’t natural!”
Does the average Christian automatically possess everything they need to thrive in vocational singleness? No. But the same is true of marriage. We don’t automatically have what we need to do marriage well either.
In light of the Fall, committed, celibate, singleness isn’t natural. And neither is faithful Christian marriage. In light of the Fall, sex without commitment, sex outside of commitment, polygamy, multiple partners, and are what come naturally to us.
To thrive in either vocation, we must take hold of the gift of provision God offers to those who step fully into the vocation He chose for them.
4. But Jesus says “choose” in Matthew 19:12.
Doesn’t that contradict what I’m saying here? Actually, I agree that one’s relational vocation should be entered into voluntarily. No one should be forced into marriage or forced into singleness. But this doesn’t mean that all that matters is your child’s own preference or desire. This doesn’t mean that you only have to be single (or married) if you really want to. Christ’s teachings make it clear that God has a call for each Christian and that Christians should obey that call. God intends for our preference to be conformed to His preference. But no one should be forced into committing to lifetime celibacy before their will has aligned with God’s, just as no one should be forced into a covenant marriage without being called to it and recognizing that call. Jesus’s use of the word “chosen” should be a clear admonishment of anyone being forced into a relational vocation if they haven’t discerned that call.
We should discern God’s calling, ask God to show us why that calling is best for us, be patient for our heart to grow to desire God’s best for us, and then choose to accept God’s gift.
5. What if I ignore God’s preference or never seek it? What are the consequences for not discerning?
I don’t think God is going to strike down anyone’s marriage or celibacy, even if it wasn’t His best. I think God wants us to be faithful to the commitments we make. But it could also explain why some find marriage or singleness particularly difficult, because it wasn’t God’s best path for them.
6. Why bother discerning if God calls the vast majority of Christians to get married?
90% is pretty good odds. But if everyone assumes marriage, those 90% will take it for granted, assume they are owed it, not see it as a gift, and not own the difficulty and responsibility marriage brings. And the 10% will feel cheated. 100% of Christians open-handedly asking God this question, discerning His gift, will lead to 100% of Christians joyfully accepting God’s gift and faithfully walking out their vocation.
So, should every Christian young adult open-handedly discern between vocational singleness and Christian marriage? Should every Christian young adult discern with God, ask Him which gift He wants to give? Should every Christian young adult ask Him what His preference is for whether we pursue vocational singleness or Christian marriage? Yes!
How can we discern between vocational singleness and Christian marriage?
By the end of college, in 2013, I had experienced multiple long periods of singleness and studied Jesus & Paul’s words about lifetime singleness for the sake of the kingdom. While I was out to most people in my life, I also ended up dating a couple of women, uniquely falling in love with them, and almost got engaged. Despite my sexual attractions, I knew that Christian marriage could work for me. But the Holy Spirit made clear to me that I wasn’t supposed to go take the gift I preferred. Instead I was supposed to ask, “God, do you have a preference for whether I pursue vocational singleness or Christian marriage?”
I wasn’t aware of it, but over the next three years, God led me through a process of discernment: I dug deeper into historic theology of vocational singleness and Christian marriage. I met with my therapist and mentors to make sense of my fears around both singleness and marriage. I read God’s Voice Within by Mark Thibodeaux to develop my capacity for general Christian discernment. I gained clarity about the kingdom work I was called to and increasing peace about passing on the work of raising kids to give myself fully to the work of Equip, being a therapist, and public discipleship around vocational singleness. Plus, I was patient. I accidentally but meaningfully discerned for more than three years, hesitating to draw any solid conclusions and instead just giving God space to give me peace.
Once I felt confident that God was calling me to vocational singleness, I didn’t rush to make a lifetime commitment. Based on the wisdom of people committed to vocational singleness over the past 2,000 years, I knew I first needed to start with a shorter commitment to seek greater confidence and I knew I needed to figure out how I would find family. You see, I also knew I didn’t have a magical gift of celibacy such that I didn’t need human family. I asked my pastor, the late Fr. Thomas Mckenzie, “How can I find the family in the body of Christ that I need at our church?” Here’s how he responded: “I’ll be honest. You’re not going to find the kind of family you need at this church or any church in Nashville anytime 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 to teach us how to do family better. Maybe by the time you die, our church will be good enough at family that the community you started won’t be necessary anymore.”
So that’s what I did! I gathered ten other single Christian men I knew who were at least open to long-term singleness and intentional Christian community, and we spent six months sharing weekly meals, hanging out, and asking God whether He was calling any of us to start an intentional Christian community. By the end of that six months, two of us felt confident that God was calling us to start what we’d eventually call the Nashville Family of Brothers. We separately made one-year commitments to vocational singleness and to the Nashville Family of Brothers.
That was in 2018. Today, there’s seven of us living in a house together. We gather for a quick time of prayer before work each morning, have family dinners three nights a week,
go on vacations together, and alternate Thanksgivings and Christmases with our brotherhood and our biological families, all while we’re trying to figure out what kind of kingdom work God is calling each of us to, and while we each discern whether we’re called to commit to this brotherhood for a lifetime. We’re still committed to a couple of different local churches that we go to. We’re still connected to families at our churches and friends at work and people in our neighborhood. We’ve got normal jobs. In September 2023, I made lifetime commitments to vocational singleness and to the Nashville Family of Brothers.
Ingredients for wise discernment
I can know look back now and see that, unbeknownst to me, God was leading me through the time-tested ingredients for wise discernment between vocational singleness and Christian marriage:
1. Grow your capacity for general Christian discernment
2. Deepen theological respect for both singleness and marriage while addressing emotional resistance to either vocation
3. Discover what kingdom work God’s calling you to do
4. Consider your past and current circumstances
5. Patiently seek support from church, family, friends, spiritual director
Then, take small steps in the direction you think God is calling and seek confirmation. For those who are feeling called to vocational singleness, those small steps should include figuring out where you might find lifelong, lived-in family in vocational singleness.
A word of caution about these ingredients: no one ingredient is meant to reveal God’s preference to you. That goes both ways. Just because you want to get married and your Christian college roommate dreamed about being in your wedding doesn’t mean your discernment process is over. We each need to take the time to collect each of these ingredients and patiently seek mature confirmation of our intuition. But this also reassures someone who is collecting these ingredients and one question seems to point you toward the vocation you don’t want. Don’t fret or give up. Just keep discerning. Most who wisely discern will find a mix of signals among the fruit of seeking each of these elements of discernment, but the results will probably lean in one direction or the other. After patiently seeking confirmation from God for that leaning, God will provide the confidence we need–usually just short of the amount we desire, but just enough to take the next step.
Let’s explore each of those ingredients.
1. Grow discernment muscles
Before we discern the specific question of vocational singleness and Christian marriage, we need to grow our general capacity for Christian discernment.
There are many Christian traditions of discernment, and there is no “best” tradition for discerning vocational singleness and Christian marriage, but whatever tradition fits you best, lean into that and grow your muscle to discern. I found it helpful to explore Ignatian Christian discernment, arguably the oldest and most developed tradition of Christian discernment. I read the book God’s Voice Within by Mark Thibodeaux, a really accessible intro to Ignatian discernment, even for non-Catholics like me. That book taught me how to bring a question before God, consider Scripture, consider practical aspects of my 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. Some of you might find it helpful to meet with a spiritual director to guide your discernment and help you build these muscles.
2. Remove emotional and theological barriers
Second, deepen theological respect for both singleness and marriage while addressing emotional resistance to either vocation.
A clear understanding of God’s design for the vocations of marriage and singleness will give you a better framework in which to digest the other ingredients for discernment. If you could read only two books, I suggest Breaking the Marriage Idol by Kutter Calloway and Marriage and Celibacy by Max Thurian. Breaking the Marriage Idol is the best analysis of western cultural Christianity’s relationship with romance, and it includes some preliminary suggestions for how we can better teach about and support both marriage and vocational singleness. Marriage and Celibacy is by far the best text on the theology of vocational singleness.
Other standouts for the Christian’s theology of marriage include Theology of the Body by Pope John Paul II, Mere Sexuality by Todd Wilson, and Divine Sex by Jonathan Grant. While I am not a Catholic, Theology of the Body is a must-read for any Christian (or you can read Christopher West’s Theology of the Body for Beginners if you can’t make it through the original text). On the topic of vocational singleness, The Significance of Singleness by Christina Hitchcook and Singled Out by Christine Colon and Bonnie Field are both valuable explorations of the topic, but fall short of approaching the topic with the same theological depth as Max Thurian.
Another helpful resource is Toward a Protestant Theology of Celibacy by Russell Hobbs–a great review of all of the Christian literature on the topic of celibacy.
Just as important as having the right theological foundation is removing obstacles to discernment that might have accrued over time. We develop and continue to live in a broken world. Loneliness, divorce in your family, sexual sin, heartbreak, abandonment, rejection, and a host of other emotional wounds related to marriage, singleness, and family can bias our discernment. The Christian would benefit from processing those wounds with a parent, pastor, or counselor to remove any hurdles to clearly hearing God’s calling.
With each of these ingredients for discerning marriage or vocational singleness, I want to emphasize signs a person might be called to vocational singleness. To be clear, I do not want anyone to mistakenly discern vocational singleness any more than I want Christians to mistakenly discern marriage. But too few Christians have discerned a call to vocational singleness. While at least 90% of Christians will be called to marriage, it’s reasonable to assume that God wants to call at least 5% of Christians to vocational singleness. Yet less than 1% of Christians accept a call to vocational singleness in the modern era. To that end, as you’re studying the theology of marriage and vocational singleness, if you find the theology of vocational singleness particularly beautiful, pay attention to that. That doesn’t necessarily mean you are called to vocational singleness. Those ultimately called to marriage will find theology of singleness appealing as well. But a deep appreciation for the theology of vocational singleness may be an early sign of a Christian’s calling.
3. Consider kingdom work
Third, consider what kingdom work you’re called to and whether that points to one vocation or another.
Pastors, teachers, and other occupations in the helping professions that require numerous hours of work after 5 p.m. will be the first to tell you: it is difficult to be a good parent to both your church, classroom, etc. and to a set of kids at home. While I don’t advocate for mandatory priestly celibacy, one of the primary reasons the Catholic Church asks its pastors to be celibate is so that they can fully commit themselves to their parish family. Inherent in the stories of pastors, teachers, and others seems to lie a recognition that raising children is a full-time job that might be incompatible with some occupational professions and with some kingdom work.
Paul understood this in 1 Corinthians 7: 32-35 when he spoke about God’s design for vocational singleness. A key feature of Paul’s singleness was that he could fully commit himself to the kingdom work he had been called to because he didn’t have to do the important and costly work of raising a family. Perhaps the kind of work you are called to is more compatible with either marriage or vocational singleness.
It’s been a journey trying to figure out what kingdom work I’m called to, but today I’m a proud godfather and blessed with the responsibility of helping his parents raise him (and his siblings) to be faithful Christian disciples. I’m a licensed professional counselor, and I get to help people make sense of big questions of faith and family. I’m humbled God has used me to start a ministry that helps pastors and parents teach their churches and kids the kind of stuff we’re talking about here. And I’m grateful to get to be a part of building intentional Christian community with the other men in the Nashville Family of Brothers and offer lifelong family to people who are lonely. All of that is made possible by my availability in vocational singleness. I know from repeated conversations with my married friends raising kids that I would have to sacrifice one if not multiple of the kingdom works I’m doing if I were instead doing the important kingdom work of raising kids.
Many of my friends see their work as a mother or father as their primary calling, and then their occupation–the work they get paid to do–as merely a means to an end. Certainly, they prefer work that pays well, matches their skills and interests, and is participating justly in the economy. But their first job is their family. People drawn to this vocation are likely called to marry and raise children.
Most people, however, don’t feel confidence in either of these directions. They don’t feel a clear calling to a work that would be better served by a vocation of singleness, but they also don’t feel a particular calling to raise a family as their primary work. Don’t get me wrong–many people want to make a difference in the world and be a parent, but those leanings don’t tell us much about whether God is calling that person to marriage or a vocation of singleness. And that’s okay. For some, this line of exploration will be fruitful, and for others it will not. Thankfully, there are many ways a person might collect data to use in their discernment.
4. Consider past and present
Fourth, reflect on God’s providence in your past and present circumstances.
Has God been trying to tell you something? Has He been gently nudging you toward one vocation or another? Perhaps you find yourself single later in life and ask, “Am I still single not by accident, but because God has called me to a vocation of celibacy?”
I’m not saying that every adult who is single later in life has been called to lifetime singleness, but perhaps if someone is single later in life, that is a sign of God’s intentions.
Max Thurian, my favorite author on vocational singleness, says it this way: “…the circumstances of life can be signs of the vocation of God. The Lord, who directs all things by his providence, can show a man in his life history his intention of calling him to celibacy. St. Paul recalls the meaning of a person’s past history when he writes to the Corinthians…(1 Cor 7:17-24). The apostle does not, of course, make past history into a determinism… But he sees in past life and in present circumstances, in the state or the condition assigned to each man, a result of the providence of God and a way of being led to hear the call of God and of serving him.”
So perhaps if someone is single later in life, that is because God intends for them to be single. Now this is a tricky subject, on which I think Thurian’s words would again be helpful: “We have not forgotten that there are people for whom unmarried life was not a free and voluntary choice but was rather an obligation imposed on them by the circumstances of their life. They were not able to marry, although they would have liked to do so. We should not speak of vocation or choice on the part of these men and women. However, this does not mean that the hard sacrifice which was imposed on them cannot take on a meaning in the plan of God. They can realize afterwards that this condition which was imposed on them has enabled them, in spite of great difficulties, to serve the Church more freely. The spiritual direction of these people should gradually lead them to consider that, if they ask for it, God will grant them the gifts necessary for accepting a way of life which they did not choose…”
5. Patiently seek support
The fifth and perhaps most obvious ingredient for discerning between vocational singleness and marriage is to patiently seek support from church, family, friends, and perhaps a spiritual director.
Our parents, pastors, mentors, and friends have unique perspective on our lives. They might come alongside you in your study of theology of marriage and vocational singleness. Maybe they’ve grown up with you and know what emotional barriers you might be experiencing to open-handedly offering this question to God. Perhaps they can help you process emotional wounds standing in the way of receiving from God. The connection between your work and your relational vocation might be more apparent to your friends, or maybe they see God’s providence in your life in ways you can’t. You might find it helpful to invite a spiritual director to guide your discernment process.
And don’t forget the patience. I started intentionally discerning more than five years ago. Throughout that time I’ve asked a team of friends, my parents, people at church, mentors, and pastors to pray for my discernment and speak into my discernment.
Once you’ve gathered all of the evidence you can, leaned into the discernment process, arrived at a plausible conclusion, and tested this conclusion, there’s only one thing left to do: take a leap. Often, we will find ourselves wishing for more confidence before taking another step, but Thurian offers this encouragement: “A man will never have complete certainty concerning his vocation and the rightness of his choice. He must, to a certain extent, make a leap in the dark. Sometimes it is not until after decision and self-commitment that a vocation becomes clearer and more certain. God wills the just to live by faith, in other words, often by decisions that are more or less blind, and not by sight, by logical reasoning, by objective criteria or by miraculous visions. If God grants these things, we must bless Him for them, but they are not necessary for the response to a vocation. This act of faith and this decision, which sometimes have to be made without evidence or insight, are not, however, unmotivated acts or a sort of wager. The act of faith, the response to a vocation, the decision for a way of life or the choice of a ministry are founded on the Word of God, read and meditated upon in a spirit of prayer.
Thus the assurance given by Christ in the Gospel that celibates for the kingdom of heaven’s sake are following his example and are in communion with his manhood,
and the assertions of St Paul concerning the value of celibacy for the ministry, will be supports on which faith and decision can be solidly based.”
But a leap doesn’t mean immediately making lifetime commitments to either vocational singleness of Christian marriage. It means taking small steps in the direction you think God is calling to seek confidence. Particularly if you are feeling called to vocational singleness, those small steps should include figuring out where you might find lifelong, lived-in family in vocational singleness.
This might be a controversial opinion, but I think every Christian young adult, including LGBT+ Christian young adults, should open-handedly discern between vocational singleness and Christian marriage between one Christian woman and one Christian man. This doesn’t mean that I think every gay Christian has to date someone of the opposite sex, but it means at least being emotionally and theologically open to the possibility and genuinely discerning both. If we’re going to ask straight Christians to discern both, we’ve got to ask gay Christians to discern both.
As for the impacts of never committing to vocational singleness and instead defaulting to long-term singleness in a way that might feel forced and involuntary, I think there’s lot of dangers associated with that. I’d commend to you a lengthy essay I wrote on this exact topic titled “From Involuntary Celibacy to Thriving.” In short, involuntary celibacy leads to self-pity, resentment, and self-loathing that Satan uses to tempt us to self-destruction. Instead, we’ve got to own our celibacy because there are significant advantages to being all-in.
And discernment can help us own our celibacy. You see, discernment is about much more than just identifying the most likely path forward. It’s also about accepting, embracing, choosing, taking a leap of faith, seeking confirmation, and stepping forward. Discernment can help us move from seeing our celibacy as involuntary to seeing our celibacy as chosen.
How can pastors and parents help Christians discern well?
Here’s six key ways pastors and parents can support those who are discerning:
1. Teach kids to anticipate discernment of both vocations
2. Model both vocations in your family by including celibates
3. Celebrate both vocations in your church with public vocational singleness commitments
4. Value both vocations by hiring people in both vocations as church leaders at all levels
5. Help teens grow their capacity for general discernment
6. Invite those in their 20s and 30s to discern and guide them in that process
Let’s explore each of those.
1. Teach kids to anticipate discernment
First, teach kids that one day they’ll get to discern between vocational singleness and Christian marriage.
From a young age, talk about the possibilities of both vocational singleness and Christian marriage for your kids. Talk about the fact that God knows which will be best for each of them, and build positive anticipation for a time when they’ll get to ask God which adventure He’ll call them on!
2. Model both vocations in your family
Second, model both vocational singleness and Christian marriage in your home by making sure to include people called to vocational singleness in the everyday life of your family.
Kids need to see both modeled as good and beautiful in your home to believe both could be good for them! You could be intentional about choosing vocational singles as godparents for your children to knit them into your family. You could invite single people to weekly dinner with your family or include them in holidays and vacations. You could even invite single people to live in your home, commit to your family, and help you raise your kids.
3. Celebrate both vocations in your church
Third, celebrate both vocational singleness and Christian marriage in your community, particularly by making sure your church celebrates those committing to vocational singleness.
When the Nashville Family of Brothers was first developing, my pastor encouraged us to make our first commitment publicly. Why? Because he knew that our families and friends needed to see us making this commitment so that they would take our vocations more seriously. He knew that they would realize the weight of our commitments and our need for support from them in the coming months and years. He knew that we needed a public celebration for the joy and weight of the commitments to settle in for us. As I’ve made one-year and then three-year public commitments over my discernment, I’ve consistently seen this to be true.
This could be a simple as someone committed to vocational singleness gathering friends and family in the church sanctuary, singing some favorite worship songs together, reading passages of Scripture about vocational singleness out loud, writing out some public commitments to refrain from romance and sex and using that availability for the sake of the kingdom, having friends and family lay hands on the person committing and pray for God to sustain their commitment, singing a couple of more songs, and then celebrating the commitments afterward with dinner at a favorite restaurant, maybe even going on a celebratory vacation. Then you can celebrate the anniversary of that commitment each year, and churches can be intentional about celebrating the kingdom work that vocational singles are able to do with their undivided attention just as much as we honor married people and their kingdom work of raising kids.
4. Value both by hiring vocationally single staff
Fourth, value both vocations by hiring people in both vocations as church leaders at all levels.
Kids need to see vocational singles up front and serving as head ministers, preaching pastors, worship leaders, youth pastors, and children’s pastors.
5. Help teens grow their capacity for discernment
Fifth, help teens grow their capacity for general discernment.
Teach them how to bring a question before God, consider Scripture, consider practical aspects of my 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. Before you invite them to specifically discern between vocational singleness and Christian marriage, help them practice discernment on less consequential decisions.
6. Invite those in their 20s and 30s to discern
Finally, when Christians reach their 20s and 30s, invite them to discern and help guide their discernment.
Invite them to ask, “God, would you prefer that I commit to vocational singleness or get married?” If you feel confident to guide their discernment, you can be that person who accompanies them over three plus years as they explore those five ingredients for discernment or you can connect them with a spiritual director.
Find the full recording of “Discerning Between Singleness and Marriage” in Equip’s Digital Leaders Course, along with recordings of other webinars and a 16-video series for pastors and parents.
- A historic sexual ethic is the belief that God’s best for every Christian is either what I call vocational singleness (which is a lifetime vocation of abstinent singleness for the sake of doing kingdom work with undivided attention) or Christian marriage (which Christians have historically understood to be a lifetime vocation of opposite-sex Christian marriage with an openness to raising children for the sake of the kingdom ↩︎
- Branson Parler, Every Body’s Story, p. 140 ↩︎
- ibid., p. 139 ↩︎