Deepen your vision for how God wants to use singleness, whether temporary or lifetime. What is vocational singleness? Why does God call people to vocational singleness?
From an early age, I was led to believe that the best things in life were found through marriage. Even at the age of five, I understood that if I was a good Christian, God would reward me with a spouse. When my brother, cousins, and I would play house, our annoying cousin would throw a tantrum if she was forced to be the cat lady next door. We all understood that remaining single and not having kids was a curse. Being the cat lady next door was not good.
Fast forward to college, during one longer season of singleness, I started fearing that I might never get married. Some Friday night when all of my roommates were on dates, I tried drowning my feelings with Netflix, but after failing to satisfy, I did what any good Christian does: went to Scripture to find a promise from God to soothe my fears. To my surprise, the Bible didn’t promise me marriage. Instead I found the opposite: Jesus and Paul urged Christians to consider vocational singleness. Scary.
By the time I graduated college, I had dated a couple of women and fallen in love with one of them, but I had also had long periods of singleness during which I grew to appreciate singleness. Both marriage and singleness seemed like real possibilities. I had a choice to make, but for reasons I can’t explain other than to credit the Holy Spirit, I couldn’t ignore the undeniable feeling that it wasn’t my choice to make. That God wanted me to offer this question to Him. That He has a preference for my future, and I would benefit most from listening.
So I started discerning which God was calling me to, and I eventually became convinced that I was called to vocational singleness. Two big questions stood out during that process: what is vocational singleness and why does God call some people to it? These questions were particularly difficult because I never heard anyone teach about vocational singleness or saw anyone model thriving in it.
What is Vocational Singleness?
The denominations that represent a majority of Christians today and throughout time have consistently understood Scripture to teach the following about our relational vocations: All Christians are first born into a period of temporary singleness during which they deepen in their relationships with God and others AND discern whether God is calling them to vocational singleness or Christian marriage. 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.
Vocational singleness is a lifetime calling…
It’s a calling. God eventually calls most of us to either a vocation of marriage or a vocation of singleness. The Bible teaches that our vocation is given or called, not chosen. God has a preference and wants to communicate that preference to us. And sometimes, God’s preference doesn’t match our preference. Proverbs 16:9 tells us that our hearts plan our course, but it’s God who directs our path. And it’s our responsibility to submit to His direction.
Everyone should open-handedly offer this question of vocational singleness or Christian marriage to God, and everyone has the same inherent capacity for both vocations. In light of the Fall, romance, sex, and polygamy are natural—not celibacy or faithful monogamy. None of us inherently have what we need to do vocational singleness or marriage well. Neither is natural. Both require a calling and gift/provision to do well. In Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus urges that if someone doesn’t have the gift of marriage, the person should not step into it. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-40, Paul urges that if someone doesn’t have the gift of vocational singleness, the person should not step into it.
In Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus says that God has called us to either marriage or vocational singleness and given us the capacity to accept Jesus’s teachings about marriage and vocational singleness, according to our calling. In 1 Cor 7:1-40, Paul says that God gives some the gift of vocational singleness and others the gift of marriage. Paul then points to our practical circumstances and our personal mission as evidence for our calling. In 1 Timothy 5:5-15, Paul reiterates the need to clearly discern God’s call and the consequences of discerning poorly. Vocational singleness is a calling.
But it’s not just a calling. It’s a lifetime calling.
God intends for vocational singleness to be committed and permanent. In Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus speaks of a call beyond temporary singleness and compares vocational singleness to being a eunuch, a state which is permanent. We cannot imagine Jesus providing the 100-fold blessing promised in Luke 18:28-30 to someone who has only temporarily given up the prospect of marriage and children, only to later get married. In 1 Cor 7:1-40, Paul recognizes and praises committed singleness and teaches that it is better to keep a commitment to vocational singleness than get married. Then in 1 Timothy 5:5-15, Paul reaffirms that a commitment to vocational singleness is good and to break that commitment is a sin.
As you can see, there’s a difference between the temporary singleness we are all born into versus a vocation of singleness. None of us are born married. There’s a difference between the singleness we’re all born into and experience as children versus committed, lifetime, vocational singleness for the sake of doing kingdom work. There’s a big difference between just waiting for marriage versus accepting a call to permanently give up the prospect of romance, sex, marriage, or children in order to use that availability to do kingdom work parents can’t. Many in temporary singleness seem to be only shallowly rooted in their spiritual families and the kingdom work they’re doing, because they need to always be prepared to reorganize their lives around a future marriage. Plus, the two passages where Jesus and Paul encourage every Christian to consider singleness aren’t commending temporary singleness–they’re commending vocational singleness. In order to receive the gift from God to do vocational singleness well, we have to step out of temporary singleness and into committed singleness.
That being said, there are always exceptions to the rule. God will choose not to give some Christians a call to marriage or vocational singleness. For some, faithfully following God’s guidance will look like continuing to leave open the possibility of both vocational singleness and marriage in their 30s, 40s, 50s, or perhaps for their entire life. While less common than either vocational singleness or marriage, faithfully continuing in temporary singleness should be honored and supported in our churches.
Vocational singleness is a lifetime calling to singleness…
Vocational singleness is a call to give up romance, dating, marriage, sex, and children, but that doesn’t mean that a person is called to loneliness. In Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus talks about vocational singleness as a giving up of romance, marriage, sex, and children. And then in Luke 18:28-30, Jesus promises a 100-fold of brothers, sisters, and children now in this present time to those who give up the potential for a spouse and children for the sake of the kingdom. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-40, Paul confirms that vocational singleness involves giving up sex, romance, marriage, and children but recognizes that those called to vocational singleness still need committed companionship.
But, vocational singleness is still a call to intimacy in the context of committed family. In Isaiah 56:3-5, the celibate is promised family, belonging, and honor equal to the married person, that they will be full and equal members of the family of God, that they will be spiritual parents in ways just as great as biological parents. In Luke 18:28-30, Jesus promises a 100-fold of brothers, sisters, and children now in this present time to those who give up the potential for a spouse and children for the sake of the kingdom. In 1 Corinthians 7:36-38, Paul recognizes that those called to celibacy still need committed companionship by commending the now-outlawed spiritual betrothals present in the early Church. Then in 1 Timothy 5:5-15, Paul recognizes early families of celibate people by commending a committed community of celibate women.
Now that we know what vocational singleness is, now let’s explore why God calls some people to this lifetime vocation of singleness.
Why does God call some to Vocational Singleness?
Vocational singleness is a lifetime calling to singleness for the sake of the kingdom.
Jesus uses the phrase “for the sake of the kingdom” in Matthew 19:1-12 and Luke 18:28-30 to describe vocational singleness. Those called to vocational singleness live “for the sake of the kingdom” in three ways:
God intended for those in vocational singleness to use their availability, primarily from not raising children, to do kingdom work that those raising children don’t have the time, energy, or financial freedom to do. In Matthew 19:1-12, Jesus invites his disciples to consider giving up the potential for spouse and children in order to live “like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom,” referring to Old Testament eunuchs who commonly worked for a king, managing and building up the king’s kingdom. In 1 Corinthians 7:1-40, Paul explains that vocational singleness involves giving up a spouse and children to be more concerned with the work of the Church. In 1 Timothy 5:5-15, Paul commends faithful members of the community of celibate women who have fully committed themselves to the Lord.
Vocational singleness is for the sake of the kingdom because it embodies the gospel. Similarly to marriage, vocational singleness is an image of the love found in God’s family (the Trinity* and between Christ and the Church), preaching the gospel by reflecting that love. Vocational singleness is spiritually procreative, sacrificial, committed, intimate, and hospitable, pointing those who see that image back to the original source: God’s love.
Vocational singleness is diverse. The friendships enjoyed by those committed to vocational singleness reflect the diversity in God’s family. There is a differentness between the persons in each friendship. Plus, vocational singles still need healthy relationships with people of the opposite sex, parents, and children. Vocational singleness is still a call to a diversity of friendships with people of all ages and stages of life. This differentness points observers back to the complementarity in the Trinity and between Christ and the Church as well as the unity found in the body of Christ even amidst differences.
Vocational singleness is intimate. As already mentioned, vocational singleness is still a call to intimacy in the context of family. Jesus and Paul recognize vocational singles’ need for committed companionship (1 Corinthians 7:36-38) and promise a 100-fold of family in this lifetime (Luke 18-28-30). This intimacy points observers back to the intimacy in the Trinity and between Christ and the Church. The family vocational singles enjoy testifies to the fullness of God’s love and gives every Christian hope for how we will all live in the New Heavens and New Earth.
Vocational singleness is faithful. The permanent, lifetime nature of a commitment to vocational singleness reflects the faithfulness of God’s love found in the Trinity and between Christ and the Church. Through this vocation, those called faithfully live out their singleness for the Lord consistently build up the kingdom in ways that point back to the faithfulness of the love in God’s family.
Vocational singleness is life-giving. While those called to vocational singleness do not bear biological children, their availability for kingdom works should bear the fruit of many times more spiritual children. The vocationally single have the time and energy to share the gospel with more not-yet-believers and mentor more new Christians than parents can. Plus, those called to vocational singleness reflect the procreative nature of God’s love by building up the kingdom and bringing spiritual life to the Church.
Vocational singleness is sacrificial. At first glance, those called to vocational singleness have chosen to give up their right to some of our culture’s most coveted experiences: romance, dating, marriage, and sex. The sacrifice of vocational singles points observers back to the sacrificial nature of the love in God’s family.
Vocational singleness is hospitable. Those called to vocational singleness have the unique opportunity to offer family to those on the margins without the need to compete for belonging. This hospitality reflects the welcoming nature of the love in the Trinity and between Christ and the Church.
Vocational singleness is for the sake of the kingdom because it gives every Christian hope for the New Heavens and New Earth. In Luke 20:34-36, Jesus teaches that all will be celibate in the New Heaven and New Earth. So vocational singleness preaches the gospel in way that marriage does not by serving as a physical sign and hope for how we will all live in the New Heaven and New Earth.
Contemporaries of early Christians saw marriage as a necessity to secure physical protection, wealth, and a legacy through descendants. So when Christians called to vocational singleness fulfilled the promises in Isaiah 56:3-5 and Luke 18:29 by experiencing more family, more belonging, and more honor than married people, they provided Christians with a preview of and hope for a New Heavens and New Earth where God would keep us safe, provide everything we needed, and would never forget us.
But today, westerners seem interested in romance and marriage because they promise a way to find faithful love and escape loneliness. So modern Christian vocational singleness can uniquely testify to the fullness of God’s love by previewing a time when we don’t have to compete—to be more attractive or intelligent or funny than others—in order to be loved by others and belong in a family. Christians today should look at those in vocational singleness, see them enjoying intimate community without the need for romance, exclusivity, or competing for each others’ affection; and that preview should give every Christian hope for the fullness of God’s love in the kingdom to come.
Vocational singleness is a lifetime call to singleness for the sake of the kingdom.
It is supposed to be a vocation that is just as beautiful as marriage, both practically and theologically. Isaiah 56:3-5 promises those called to vocational singleness family, belonging, and honor equal to married people, that they will be full and equal members of the family of God, and that they will be spiritual parents in ways just as great as biological parents. In Matthew 19:1-12 Jesus suggests that the average Jew should now consider vocational singleness, lifting up vocational singleness from being an exceptional vocation for only a few to an equally normative calling for the average Christian. In Luke 18:28-30 Jesus promises an 100-fold blessing to those called to vocational singleness, suggesting it is equal, if not greater. And in 1 Corinthians 7:1-40, Paul shows a preference for vocational singleness and describes it as practically superior.
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*To be clear, the Trinity is not three independent, distinct persons in the ways we think of human persons. Instead, the Trinity is one single entity in three modes of being. The Trinity is one triune God, one consciousness, one intellect, one will, one nature, one substance. And at the same time, we notice a relationality, a knowing and being known, a diversity, and a fidelity in the one triune God (John 17:20, Matthew 3:16-17, Genesis 18, Luke 10:22). While human families made up of independent, distinct human persons are different than the Trinity in significant ways, human families would do well to embody characteristics of the Trinity and welcome the ways the one triune God seeks to teach us about Himself through human family.