“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” (1 Cor. 7:35).
After reading 1 Corinthians 7:25-40, a number of instinctive thoughts might come to mind. “Paul hates marriage.” “Paul’s unrealistic.” “Why would Paul tell someone to break off an engagement? That’s horrible.” “Paul can’t really mean that.”
But based on Paul’s eschatological push throughout the letter, he’s trying to get the Corinthians to consider the coming kingdom and prioritize service to the Lord. That’s the point. He’s reminding them of the new age to come, an age in which marriage is not the ultimate endpoint.
So he urges the Corinthians to live into the reality that Christ has called them to, married or not—a stance completely outside their societal norms.
People in that society, especially women, were expected to marry. But here Paul affirms the unmarried life (e.g. the celibate life)—even going so far as to call it “better”—for men and women in light of the coming kingdom.
If that’s the narrative Paul is pushing, why aren’t we? What has kept us from affirming celibacy the same way he has? What would it mean for us to seriously consider that we have two very appropriate options for living as disciples of Christ?
For starters, it would mean recognizing the water we’re swimming in.
N.T. Wright observes that over the last century, as sexuality has become an identifying label, the idea that all human beings “need active sexual experience” in order to feel complete and fully alive has also arisen.
So there is now the “shame of singleness,” a condition in which one’s sexual ache is not being fulfilled and one hears constant questions of “Hey, have you met anyone special?”, “What are you waiting for?”, or “Have you tried online dating?”, as if the only way we can receive love in this world is by having a romantic partner. As if something’s missing, and we’re lacking what our overly romantic culture claims is the highest good.
Based on how we act in the church, we’ve continued that narrative—but with a bit more “Christianese” thrown in. Many churches treat singles as those who haven’t fulfilled their purpose, as if their lives don’t really start until they marry.
This has been the tendency since the Reformation, when Protestants reacted against the Roman Catholic preference for celibacy and reaffirmed the goodness of marriage. The pendulum swung, and it never swung back. It never evened out.
What we need now is a radical rebalancing of that pendulum.
Read what church historian Sarah Williams says about this in the Regent College podcast #68:
What if we had a radical rediscovery of the spirituality of celibacy? What would it be like to call people into a life which isn’t singleness—waiting for the bus of marriage to come along—but is about renunciation, about people giving themselves with singularity to Christ, living lives of prayer, of intentional intimacy with Christ? Lives which are not lonely, but lives that must be lived in community. What if we reimagined how we did church so that the nuclear family isn’t the idol around which all things have to flow?
What if we—the church—were a place where the narrative changed? How would we do this?
We can start by recognizing that both marriage and celibacy are about sanctification. Both reveal how deeply selfish we are and reveal our need to be more like Christ. Both involve self-denial and a recognition that we (including our bodies) are not our own.
Both marriage and celibacy have the capacity to orient us in the right direction, toward Christ—which is what Paul was trying to articulate to the Corinthians. It’s not about you or your marital status. It’s about orienting your life around Christ.
As members of Christ’s body, all of us are on the road of sanctification and self-denial. We should never feel shame, and we should never feel alone, because throughout church history, celibacy always implied community. It was never an individual project, something you maintain by yourself. Jesus chose to live without a wife, but he never lacked community. Monastics have always lived in groups because they know they must.
Wesley Hill, a celibate professor in Pennsylvania, notes that celibacy does not mean exclusion from meaningful relationships. He lives with a married couple and their two young kids. He has five godchildren. He’s a spiritual uncle to all of them.
We have to start thinking more creatively. Maybe our houses could be homes for more than just our own families. Maybe we could invite one another into community living situations. Have we given space for our kids to have input from spiritual mentors or godparents?
Is there a place to redeem a vision of “family” that is bigger than just our own nuclear families? Christ didn’t call the church a support group or a yacht club; he called us a family. What does that mean? Can we expand our imaginations and be prepared to support one another when life circumstances change?
Celibacy does not imply permanency. One celibate woman puts it this way: “Am I called to singleness? Today I am. I don’t know about tomorrow.”
Marriage is not necessarily permanent in this life either. My husband, Danny, grew up with a single mom. His dad passed away when Danny was 9 months old. His mom was married for six years, and then she was celibate again.
Nothing is guaranteed. I’m not guaranteed to be married to Danny until I’m 95, so why would I live that with that expectation when an even greater joy is waiting for both of us?
What have we done to our understanding of Jesus and his kingdom by limiting ourselves to a vocation that doesn’t exist in the new creation, a place where our longings and our aches—inside and outside of marriage—will be completely fulfilled in the presence of God?
None of us in this life is free from aches, longings, or feeling alone. Our desires are off-kilter. Our bodies are broken. We’re waiting for redemption.
So we take that longing and train our hearts for when we do see Jesus face to face. We keep our desires in tune with him and remember that we have a future destiny.
Perhaps one day we’ll see Christians not lamenting someone’s singleness, but celebrating the decision to be celibate, delighting in a brother’s or sister’s desire to pursue Christ at all costs, undivided, unhindered, walking ahead with open hands, faithful to whatever God sets before them, marriage or singleness, looking ahead with joy to the final restoring of all things.
The question is never “What do we lack?” Rather, it’s “How can we best set our hearts on Christ in the place where we are?”
Because that’s exactly where he wants to meet us.