Before I end this series of blog entries, it is necessary that I lift up one other important teaching of Christ and the Church dealing with human sexuality, namely singleness and celibacy. This doesn’t necessarily address the issue of same-gender marriage, aside from lifting up singleness and celibacy as a worthy calling equal to the union of one man and one woman in holy covenant. By singleness, I mean a single-minded focus on the kingdom of God or the undivided life.
Although it may seem counter-intuitive, let me begin by focusing on a passage about marriage. In Matthew 22:23-33 a group of religious leaders known as the Sadducees approach Jesus to ask a question about marriage and the resurrection. The Sadducees, no doubt, are attempting to trap Jesus by their question because the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the dead.
“Teacher, Moses said, ‘If a man dies without children, his brother should marry the widow and have a child who will carry on the brother’s name.’ Well, suppose there were seven brothers. The oldest one married and then died without children so also his brother married the widow. But the second brother also died, and the third brother married her. This continued with all seven of them. Last of all, the woman also died. So tell us, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? For all seven were married to her.”
Jesus replied, “Your mistake is that you don’t know the Scriptures, and you don’t know the power of God. For when the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. In this respect they will be like the angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:23-30, New Living Translation).
Jesus’ teaching points us toward the future life in the new heaven and the new earth. As I mentioned in the first blog on this topic (Navigating the Cultural Trend of Same-Gender Marriage, Part I July 6, 2015), marriage is an image of the relationship of the Holy Trinity. The covenant of marriage also points to the relationship between Christ and his Church. In Ephesians 5, Paul states that the union of a man and woman is a great mystery, “but it is an illustration of the way Christ and his church are one” (5:31). Marriage, as holy and wonderful as it can be, is not an end itself but points us toward our future union with God. John illustrates this when he describes his initial sight of the new Jerusalem, “I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Rev. 21:2). God will give himself to us in a completely new and unfathomable way in the new heaven and the new earth (See Revelation 21:1-7, 22-27; 22:1-6). Fully immersed in God’s grace, we will rediscover relationships with human beings in the life of the Trinity. The relationships and communion experienced in the new heaven and the new earth will far surpass the communion we experience with one another presently on earth. It will truly be the “communion of saints.” The communion of man and woman in marriage points to our future communion with God and with one another.
What does this have to do with celibacy and singleness? Let’s look at another teaching from Jesus. This time Jesus is responding to a question about divorce raised by the Pharisees (Matthew 19:3-12). Jesus’ response highlights that God’s original intention for marriage has not changed despite human sin and brokenness. The disciples are so taken aback by Jesus’ response to the Pharisees that they say to him, “If this is the case, it is better not to marry!” (v. 10) Jesus says the following to his astonished disciples:
Not everyone can accept this statement … Only those whom God helps. Some are born as eunuchs, some have been made eunuchs by others, and some choose not to marry for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. Let anyone accept this who can (vv. 11-12).
In the New Revised Standard Version Matthew 19:12 reads, “… and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” These “eunuchs” have voluntarily made a decision not to marry based on a calling from God. The concept of voluntary celibacy would have shocked Jesus’ original listeners. Celibacy and singleness was not a common practice in Jesus’ day. Nor were there examples of celibacy and singleness in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), aside from Jeremiah. Jeremiah’s singleness was an anomaly and he certainly didn’t proclaim singleness as a way of life. The disciples would have never considered singleness and celibacy as a chosen way of life and a way of giving witness to God’s coming kingdom.
In highlighting celibacy and singleness as a way of life in the kingdom, Jesus is saying that marriage is not the only pointer to the future new heaven and new earth. Singleness is a high and holy calling. In fact, those who choose singleness and celibacy for the kingdom are living as if the new heaven and new earth are already here. This was a choice that Christ made. The Apostle Paul, also, chose singleness and celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. I find it disturbing when I hear Christian teaching claiming that the ultimate need of a single person is a spouse. The ultimate need of human beings is union with God lived out in the Christian community! Think of how ridiculous it would be for someone to say, “If only Jesus would have been married, he would have been a better Savior. If only Paul would have been married, he would have been a better apostle for the church. If only Mother Theresa had been married, she could have done more for the poor, sick and orphaned in Calcutta.” Singleness is a special gift from God (1 Corinthians 7:7). Singleness and celibacy for the kingdom is a response to God’s love in Jesus Christ and the desire to give one’s self fully back to Christ. In his extensive teachings on celibacy, John Paul II wrote, “Those who take up this path are so devoted to Christ, the divine Spouse, that they sacrifice all other things—including marriage and family” (Theology of the Body 171). Through the self-less love of Christ working in and through them, single people can become “spiritual fathers and mothers, helping younger believers mature in the faith” (168).
Like all persons, those who choose singleness and celibacy for the kingdom will struggle with temptations of lust, and most likely envy, as well as the experience of loneliness. Singleness and celibacy require a special grace of God and must be received as gifts. That’s why Jesus said, “Not everyone can accept this statement. Only those whom God helps.” Only when this calling is received as a gift and a special grace of God, can a person control and direct his or her bodily urges, instead of being controlled by them.
In this season of thankfulness, I am grateful for those who choose to receive this special grace of God and to live out their calling to a life of singleness and celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. In particular, I am reminded of a woman I knew in my childhood and teen years, named Mary. Mary gave herself completely to Christ and served faithfully in the small United Methodist church my family attended. She was a spiritual mother to countless people. She lived out her call to singleness with great joy and enthusiasm. For the life of me, I cannot imagine Mary’s life being any richer or fuller if she had been married. Her life was blessed because she lived out her special calling from God to singleness and celibacy enjoying a deep communion with God and with those in her life. She gave witness to our ultimate destiny—total union with God in the new Jerusalem. I am grateful to have been impacted by Mary’s life. My faith is stronger because she chose to receive God’s grace to live a single life honoring God.
-Dr. Steve Pulliam
Senior Associate Pastor