Theoretically? Yes. Practically? No.
Despite the encouragements to consider lifetime singleness in Scripture, the stated value of celibacy, the promise of a gift to thrive in this vocation, a promise of an 100-fold blessing in this life, Jesus radically lifting up celibacy from being a curse for a few to a normative vocation for many, and the countless examples of celibate Christian leaders throughout history including Jesus and Paul—despite all of this, our churches don’t teach the rich theology of lifetime singleness in Scripture, and there is little support for celibate Christians, leading to painful results for the Church.
The Church fails to teach about, model, help people discern a calling to, support, or celebrate lifetime singleness. Instead, we hear false teachings that celibacy is loneliness for the sake of the gospel, that marriage is better and more beautiful than celibacy, and that you only have to be celibate if God disrupts your life and gives you an undeniable call. We teach that it is our choice whether we get married or commit to celibacy. We hear that celibacy is only for asexual people or it’s only for gay people or it’s only for those people who don’t want to be married or have children. Somehow, our churches are stuck in Old Testament theology of marriage and singleness. We don’t grow up seeing thriving in celibacy modeled in our churches. Our churches don’t invite anyone to discern whether God has called them to celibacy or marriage. And while a laundry list of days celebrate the vocation of marriage—engagement parties, marriages, wedding anniversaries, baby showers, baptisms, Mother’s Day, and Father’s Day—nothing marks and celebrates the vocation of celibacy.
What are the results?
48% of Americans are not married and 4 out of 5 single people consider themselves to be Christians, yet single people struggle with loneliness and can’t find meaningful family in the body of Christ. This leads to depression, suicidality, sex outside of marriage, and hasty marriages. A 2008 study found that single people are more likely to struggle with loneliness, depression, and anxiety, and another study found that loneliness is a bigger health risk than smoking or obesity. In response to this loneliness, 80% of Christian have sex before marriage and over 41% of Christians believe cohabitation is wise. Churches optimized for the vocation of marriage hurt single people because celibates fall through the cracks in between the loose patchwork of nuclear families. Without teaching about the practical and theological beauty of lifetime singleness, celibate Christians don’t know how to think about or walk out their vocation. Many of us are plagued with doubt about whether God exists because we don’t experience a physical embodiment of God’s love in the form of family. A 2017 study found that single people were less likely to rebound from doubt and more likely to lose their faith. All of this makes it difficult for people to commit to celibacy and for celibate people to make spiritual families of their own.
Without a robust theology and practice of lifetime singleness, people rush into marriage, leading to adultery and divorce. 33% of Christian marriages end in divorce—at the same rate as non-Christians. Marriage is perverted from being a beautiful vocation with specific theological and missional purposes for some to being merely a vehicle for guilt-free romance and sex for any Christian who wants to take it. We don’t ask God what His best is for us, and we dive into marriage for the wrong reasons and with the wrong expectations. Without a meaningful minority of Christians committed to lifetime singleness, nuclear families struggle to raise their kids because they don’t have the help of celibate Christians. And because kids grow up seeing marriage as the only option and used in these ways, the pattern of suffering continues.
These people on the margins are disproportionately affected by our poverty of teaching and support of lifetime singleness. While gay Christians may be most acutely affected by a poor theology and practice of celibacy, women are certainly most numerously affected. A 2018 study found that there are 50% more single women than single men in the Church. Because of the fewer number of faithful men in the Church, many single women involuntarily continue in singleness because the numbers just aren’t there. Widows and divorcees re-enter singleness to find a Church that will not support them.
In light of the mounting pain and brokenness in the world around us, a powerful minority of Christians wholly committed to advancing the Kingdom through lifetime singleness is needed now more than ever. Our churches are suffering from a famine of lay leadership, our churches need better teaching, nuclear families need more support, wealth inequality has deepened, racial tensions have risen, immigrants and refugees lack advocacy, and our churches struggle to care for those managing mental illness. There are not enough workers available to do the work of the Church.
All of this tarnishes the good news. Believers struggle to experience the reality of the gospel in this life, and the reflection of God’s love we offer the world is ugly. Without a meaningful minority of Christians thriving in celibacy and doing the work of the Church, we lack a key Sacrament—we lack this unique embodiment of the truth of the gospel. In contrast to the idolatry of romance inside and outside of our churches, lifetime singleness preaches the gospel that God is worth giving up everything and can provide more than the gods of our culture ever could.
The Church can return to a healthy theology of lifetime singleness and start supporting single people again so that they can thrive in their calling for their sake, for the sake of the world, and for the sake of the gospel.