On an ordinary Tuesday last spring, the Dean of Student Life at an evangelical Christian college in the Midwest said to me, her graduate assistant, “Marcy, the evangelical culture of our campus does a lot to prepare its students for the inevitability of marriage, but we do little to set them up for singleness. We need to do better. You should be the one to speak with them,” she decided, “and the title of your talk should be, ‘Single by Choice.'”
She was a provocative one, this dean, with sharp instincts. Her title’s declaration posed an ultimatum: to reconsider the assumptions about singleness and marriage passed down to us by the lore of our Christian campus, and an ultimatum to me as a representative of the most recent generation of young adults, most of whom, according to U.S. census data, will not marry until we’re at least 27. A full one-fifth of us will never marry at all.
There are several reasons for this trend toward prolonged singleness. Sociologists such as Robert Wuthnow and Christian Smith point to a changing job market that requires extended years of education beyond a traditional, four-year bachelor’s degree. Many young adults devote their post-college years to volunteer or low-paid service. Few careers available in one’s early 20s come vested with the 9-to-5 sturdiness that used to turn one’s thoughts to starting a family.
In this climate of enterprise and ambition, few young adults experience singleness as a condition worthy of their attention or concern. When I asked my 28-year-old friend why he never came to any of our church-sponsored events for singles, he replied that he didn’t know he was supposed to. In fact, though the church I attend is nestled in a college town and lists over 120 single adults in its directory of 500 members, its singles ministry has folded for lack of interest. Singleness, it seems, is not so much the harbinger of identity for these young adults as it is the default set of tracks for the train of their young adult years.
Yet what changes in the experience of these young adults when they reach their early 30s and are still single? How do they activate their desire to grow up—to commit themselves in love to a person, a place, and a plot—without a wedding planner to script this transformation and a ceremony to declare it? How do they get their community to see them as grownups without a rite of passage akin to marriage? Who are they as adults, if they tarry on as singles—laden with time, money, and experience, but in limbo and alone?
This is the question my supervisor was essentially posing to me, a 35-year-old woman, transitioning from the unmeditated singleness of my 20s to the long-term investment impulses of my 30s. I mulled over her question for six months or more. In an evangelical culture that has tended to view marriage and family as the normative template of adulthood, how would I conceive of my identity as a single?
The answer that has come to hold the most shape for me resides in the purposed way of life evoked by celibacy. I’m not endorsing here a wholesale return to traditional lifelong religious orders, but I think it’s time to ask, “Why not?”
Why not call for a vowed, vocational commitment to the church? What would change in our culture of singleness if the church were to reclaim a tradition that reinvokes the memory that we live in the time between the gospel’s first announcement and its final fulfillment—a time in which marriage is celebrated, but celibacy is held out as a radical sign of fidelity to Christ and his body?
And what would change in the social fabric of the church if we replenished our communal imagination with the canon of celibate saints who display a portrait of singleness both purposeful and engaging? How might singles think differently of themselves if the church classified them not with the language of what they lack (single), but with the language of a fidelity they may freely assume (celibate)?
Christians are familiar with Scriptures such as Matthew 19, where Jesus speaks of “eunuchs” who have “renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven,” or 1 Corinthians 7, where Paul writes, “It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am.” Singles, Paul said, are “concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how [they] can please the Lord.” Evangelical pastors justify the celibate life with those passages, but hardly ever promote it as a desirable calling. Therefore, I had to begin by rediscovering a picture of celibacy.
The “American family dream”—the icon of mature adulthood typically passed down to us through the verbal and visual culture of our churches—pictures first a wedding, and next a well-groomed set of children in front of a two-story house with a basketball hoop in the drive.
I draw a caricature only to reiterate Rodney Clapp’s caution in Families at the Crossroads: Beyond Traditional and Modern Options. The image of family inherited by the evangelical tradition, Clapp says, is not biblical, but rather bourgeois—a sentimental shelter designed to serve as a “haven and oasis, an emotional stabilizer and battery-charger for its members.” Clapp does not deny that these functions are part of the design of the family to serve a great human good, but when these insular values become ends in themselves, the dream of Christian family is too small. Much like the single, the family becomes a body unto itself—set up for life, but alone.
A modest proposal
The picture that needs to be restored to evangelical consciousness, Clapp suggested in 1993, is the picture of “church as first family.” He writes, “With the coming of the kingdom—a kingdom that manifests itself physically as well as spiritually, socially as well as individually, and in the present as well as in the future—Jesus creates a new family of followers that now demands primary allegiance.”
In Christ, Paul had a narrative framework for his singleness. Paul proclaimed himself a celibate man. In love with the mission of the church, he never hedged his bets. He was not single “just because,” and he was not single alone. Rather, Paul viewed himself as a man uniquely free to warm to the humanity of all people and to rally them together as his mothers, brothers, sisters, and sons. The tradition that grew up around this supra-familial realization of the kingdom is celibacy.
Enlivened by an understanding of the church as first family, celibacy has stood alongside marriage for two millennia as an embodiment of a vocational narrative that’s wider than individual ambition and more enduring than the American dream.
“Here is a vision shown by the goodness of God to a devout woman … in which vision are very many words of comfort, greatly moving for all those who desire to be Christ’s lovers,” wrote Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century English anchoress. The design of her lean-to shelter, attached to the back of a church, was the design of her life: by day, she prayed the hours; between prayers, she stood at her shelter’s open front, exchanging news and banter, counsel and prayer with the merchants who passed by in the lane.
I read Julian’s spiritual memoir last summer, perched at the kitchen counter in my own apartment whose west window opens to the sidewalks of our campus, and whose back door turns toward my church. In the celibate life of Julian, I’d been given a picture of what I already, in fact, loved to be.
As things turned out, I never gave the talk titled “Single By Choice.” I did, however, host some discussions on it at my church. Midway through the discussion series, I met one of my best single friends for lunch. After effusing for a half-hour on the overall energy of the class, I turned to her and asked, “How do you think about your singleness?”
My friend is not passive. She’s an artist, she’s a leader, and her eyes wear the look of someone who sees into the world with meaning. But on this occasion, her eyes looked down. When she raised them, they were skimmed with tears. “I want to be married,” she said, and then looked down again.
I’m convinced that the passive or palliative approach to singleness on display in most evangelical churches lacks the substance to sustain an earnest and committed life vocation, but the solution isn’t to romanticize what is, in fact, difficult.
Since the time of Paul, formal celibate orders within the church have admittedly displayed bouts of folly and excess. I dare not demolish the bourgeois myth of Brides magazine only to replace it with another falsely idealized image cloaked in a spiritual veneer.
We are celibate, but we are human. We are married, but we are human. The Christian story graces both states with a joy that is appealing, but it also softens us with the sense that our love still longs for more. My friend’s honest answer knocked the triumph from my voice and reminded me that the celibate community’s greatest witness might be its unresolved resolution.
In the Catholic tradition, when candidates for religious orders are brought before the bishop to voice their vow to remain committed in celibacy to Christ and his church, the bishop tells them:
“You ought anxiously to consider again and again what sort of a burden this is which you are taking upon you of your own accord. Up to this you are free. You may still, if you choose, turn to the aims and desires of the world. But if you receive this order it will no longer be lawful to turn back from your purpose. You will be required to continue in the service of God, and with His assistance to observe chastity and to be bound forever in the ministrations of the Altar, to serve who is to reign.”
The terms offered by such a formal vow of celibacy are as frightening as they are appealing—and strangely, they are no different from the terms posed by marriage. While chastity binds married couples to a shared intimacy and singles to refrain from sex, both callings are self-sacrificing as well as self-giving, and both rise from an engagement of love and of faith.
This said, celibacy is not necessarily a terminal vocation. God could certainly call a single adult into a new way of being in the world. But that presumes that he or she was first in full possession of a previous identity. In other words, our attentiveness to marriage as a holy calling—a calling “not to be entered into lightly,” as the Anglican service book puts it—proclaims itself most strongly when it is assumed by two people who have first known themselves to be celibate.
Though some churches may flinch from ordaining a celibate vow, we might still use the word celibacy to rightly honor and rightly name the countercultural life to which singles are called. In doing so, we encourage more than just abstinence from sex. We bless the single vocation. We recall the church’s history and remember our true family. We christen singles as called-out ones, with familial gifts that amplify the church and her outward-looking mission.
A return to a culture that welcomes celibacy might happen simply through a rise in the number of Christian singles who display a winsome picture of celibacy’s communal appeal. Anyone who has read Donald Miller’s spiritual memoir Blue Like Jazz will hear in his narrative of pubs and coffeehouses, college campuses and Volkswagen vans the story of a celibate man who, like Francis of Assisi, is barefoot and mobile to meet the face of Jesus in everyone.
Joining Donald Miller are others like Shane Claiborne, the young man whose Simple Way community in Philadelphia has joined married couples and singles in a community committed to poverty, chastity, and obedience—a pattern first modeled by the early church and later ordered by Saint Benedict.
Singleness is no social anomaly; celibacy shouldn’t seem that way to us, either. Postmodern life, Mother Teresa, and the new monastic movement have brought the holy challenge of celibacy before the church.
The church’s opportunity in this is simply to name what it sees: an explosion in the number of young adults who are highly educated, creative, entrepreneurial, spiritually intuitive, and apt to invest in a calling that has some roots—like the monastics who illuminated the Book of Kells and effectively saved the transmitted text of Scripture. Or the early church fathers like Athanasius and church mothers like Macrina, theologians like Aquinas, seers like Teresa of Avila, and sages like the desert monastic Synclectica.
“Single” does not do justice to the vital intelligence that spurred these saints to wed their affection to the forward-moving family of the church. “Celibate,” on the other hand, is a word that tells me they knew exactly what they were doing. Theirs was a way of life purposely chosen with their community wholly in mind.
We are a community of interpreters, continually mirroring for one another our role in the story of God’s kingdom. In restoring the language of celibacy to the lexicon of the church, we’ll also restore a tradition that has historically produced much life. More importantly, we’ll restore a Christological story of family, in which celibacy is a viable choice, a worthy commitment, and a sacred relationship.
Marcy Hintz is a member of Church of the Resurrection in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and a recent graduate of the Christian Formation & Ministry Program at Wheaton College Graduate School.
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