In my other article on celibacy, I reminded you of just how ordinary we single, celibate Christians really are. If that left you feeling a bit average, well, that was the intention! But don’t worry, because here comes the good news.
If you are a single (including single again) Christian who is committed to honouring God’s purposes for your sexuality by actively expressing it through celibacy (for as long as you are single) then, sure, your life might be very ordinary. But it is also uniquely meaningful.
While our celibate lives may not be any more exceptional or extraordinary than our friends’ married lives, there is something distinctive about our celibacy. Something unique. Something wonderful.
The (unique) meaning of marriage
We’re used to thinking that way about marriage, aren’t we? We understand marriage to have a bunch of meaningful purposes that are unique to it alone but which have a much broader significance beyond themselves. The ultimate example of this is our biblical conviction that earthly human marriage is a foreshadowing of the ultimate heavenly marriage. We see this most clearly in Ephesians 5:22-33 and especially:
‘"Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church’ (Ephesians 5:31-32).
Here, the apostle is concluding that earthly marriage points us towards a reality greater than itself, to the ultimate marriage between Christ – the bridegroom – and the Church – his bride (see also Revelation 19:6-10). In fact, that’s one of the reasons why it matters how Christian spouses relate to each other within their marriage – because their relationship is called to testify to something beyond itself. And so, the married Christian life is uniquely meaningful. It is distinctively significant.
But so is the unmarried Christian life. It is also uniquely meaningful. It is also distinctively significant. And it’s time we evangelicals (married and single alike) embraced that truth.
The (unique) meaning of singleness and celibacy
In Matthew 22:23-33 Jesus says something that our romanticised modern selves often find quite startling. To cut a long story short (I'll let you read the passage yourself), the Sadducees were trying to trick Jesus into admitting that this resurrection thing he was carrying on about was utter nonsense. They attempted to do this by challenging him with a hypothetical and somewhat absurd riddle (again, read the passage yourself).
Of course, Jesus was onto them and deftly refuted them with a few simple truths. One of those truths was this:
‘For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven’ (Matthew 22:30).
That’s right. Jesus states that resurrected human beings will not be married to each other. And no, he’s not saying there won’t be any new marriages (not the least because that would mean he hadn’t actually addressed the Sadducees’ hypothetical riddle). In this passage Jesus Christ is asserting that none of us will be married to each other in the new creation.
Now, at this point some say ‘Well, sure. As individuals we won’t be married to each other then because we will each be married to Jesus instead.’ Nope. Jesus is not a polygamist who will be married to innumerable individual Christians in the new creation. He is the bridegroom who has one bride – the Church.
Together, as one united people, we are Christ’s beloved bride. But as individuals – the ‘me’ that I will be in the new creation, the ‘you’ that you will be in the new creation – we will not be husbands and wives. In fact, you could say that in eternity, and for eternity, we will each be ‘single’.
Not only that, but:
- If sex was created to exist within and contribute to the marriage of a man and a woman
- In the new creation there won’t be any marriage between men and women
- There won’t be any sex between resurrected human beings.
In eternity, and for eternity, we as individual human beings will all be ‘celibate’. (This seems to be what Jesus meant by his somewhat enigmatic comment that we will be ‘like angels in heaven’.)
In the new creation, we will still be us: embodied, gendered, even sexual. But we will wonderfully, perfectly, magnificently express our embodied, gendered, sexual selves to, amongst, and with each other as people who are ‘single’ (i.e. not married to each other) and ‘celibate’ (i.e. not having sex with each other).
So what does this mean?
Human marriage (and the one-flesh sexual relationship) is an earthly reality that points us towards one amazing aspect of the heavenly reality that awaits us. Human singleness (and celibacy) is an earthly reality that points us towards another amazing aspect of the heavenly reality that awaits us.
The first points us towards the type of relationship we as the collective Church will have with our Saviour. The second points us towards the type of relationships that we will have with one another. Let me state the point again:
- Earthly marriage (and the faithful expression of human sexuality through sex between a husband and wife) points us towards the type of new creation relationship we as the collective Church will have with our Saviour.
- Earthly singleness (and the faithful expression of human sexuality through celibacy) points us towards the type of new creation relationships that we will have with one another.
Now, there are so many different implications of this wonderful truth, each of which we could explore at great length. But for now let me finish with just two of the most important and overarching implications.
If singleness and celibacy here on earth are (in part) intended to point us towards eternity, then singleness and celibacy have intrinsic meaning. This meaning is innate to the very state of singleness itself.
Do you see how very different this is from the dominant evangelical approach which typically sees Christian singleness as only meaningful if the single person uses it to ‘do kingdom work’? Though not necessarily bad in and of itself, that kind of meaning of singleness doesn't describe something intrinsic to singleness itself. Rather, it says that what matters is what we do or don't do with our singleness. This kind of meaning is external, rather than internal. It's reliant, rather than innate.
The unique meaning of singleness and celibacy we have outlined above insists that there is something intrinsically valuable and significant about the single Christian life, regardless of how ‘well’ it is spent. (This is the same as our thinking on marriage. Even when a marriage is difficult or messy or painful, we believe that marriage itself still remains good because it intrinsically testifies to something greater than itself.)
The unique meaning of singleness and celibacy we have outlined above insists that God has a grander purpose for singleness amongst his people than we currently allow. It insists that we go beyond simply saying that ‘singleness is good when it is used as a vocational call to do kingdom work’ and instead asserts that ‘singleness is ultimately good because it gives us a glimpse of the amazing future that awaits us all’.
All forms of singleness are meaningful
It therefore follows that all forms of singleness are meaningful in this way. It is not only the life of the person who has chosen or willingly embraced their singleness that testifies to this aspect of the heavenly relational reality that we are all longing for.
Our eyes ought also to be directed heavenward by the singleness of the unmarried Christian who longs for a husband and a wife; of the divorcee who laments the premature end of their marriage; of the widow or widower who grieves death’s claim on their marriage; of the Christian whose experience of same-sex attraction has led them to embrace godly celibacy and so on.
The unique heavenly meaning of earthly singleness transverses situations, experience, feeling, desire, sorrow, discontentment and choice. (Just as, in its own way, the unique heavenly meaning of marriage does the same). No, it doesn’t render those things inconsequential. It doesn’t promise singleness and celibacy will be easy. It doesn’t do away with loneliness or grief or struggle or sadness. But what it does do is call the single Christian, and with them, every member of the body of Christ, to rejoice in a glimpse of the incredible relational reality that awaits us in the new creation.
So single Christian, though your celibacy is intended by God to be the ordinary life of an unmarried disciple, it is also intended by that same God to be uniquely meaningful. The value and dignity of your singleness extends well beyond you and your own experience of it in this creation. God is at work in and through your singleness and celibacy, reminding all of us that, in Christ, we've got a pretty darn incredible eternity of relationship with each other to look forward to, standing shoulder to shoulder before his throne.
Ordinary though you are, will you embrace and celebrate that extraordinary privilege?