Having begun the work of bringing his kingdom on earth, Christ promised to redeem all of creation. He promised fullness of life to those who would follow him and blessing to their neighbors.
Yet many believers offer timid testimonies about the gospel’s transforming power. They struggle with disappointment and hopelessness for themselves and those they love.
Some who know Jesus experience crippling doubt. Others who don’t yet know Jesus see a Creation in chaos. Christ’s promises seem to ring hollow, the kingdom is coming too slowly, the gospel feels feeble.
Thankfully, a potent vehicle of kingdom work and kingdom hope for the early Church is available to God’s people today, if we will only embrace and nourish it. Amid Christ’s ministry on earth, he instituted a vocation meant to give us hope for the kingdom to come and to bring forth that kingdom with undivided attention: the vocation of singleness.
Jesus came not only to reunite us with God, but to begin the work of redeeming all of Creation into the physical New Heavens and New Earth where we will spend eternity with God and His people (2 Peter 3:13). According to the Apostle Paul, not only has “the whole creation been groaning as in the pains of childbirth” to be redeemed, but also God’s children “wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8).
Just as Christ’s resurrection was physical, so ours will be, and so will be that of all creation.
Yet he did not leave us to merely wait for his return. He invited us to join him in the work of making the world right and bringing forth God’s kingdom here on earth. He called us to imitate him by laboring (and suffering) for the sake of others. And he sent the Holy Spirit to empower us as essential workers in the new kingdom project, knowing that we will not complete that work and that Jesus will return to finish what He started.
So, what we do on this side of heaven matters. Christ not only intended to answer the calls of the sick, the poor, and the needy through the labors of his essential kingdom workers. He also intended for the witness of that suffering for the sake of others to offer non-believers hope that things can get better, that Jesus is already making things better, and that they too can join the family of kingdom builders.
That is the full gospel of Christ.
In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright writes:
“The point of the resurrection…is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die…What you do in the present — by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself — will last into God’s future…They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”
Yet racial injustice multiplies, millions of unborn are being senselessly killed, the marginalization of immigrants and refugees widens, marriages are crumbling under the pressure of cultural decay, homelessness builds, and Christian parents feel the world grasping for more influence on their children. It seems that redemption is slow. The new kingdom project is stalled out, over-budget, behind schedule, and under-delivering. Because it’s under-staffed. When too few of God’s people are willing to faithfully collaborate with Him to bring forth the New Heavens and New Earth, it can look like God seems willing to let things fall apart.
Many Christian parents are faithfully doing the kingdom work of raising their children to know the Lord and serve Him obediently. But that important kingdom work is time-consuming. According to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics and a bit of back-of-napkin math, the average parent spends the equivalent of two decades of 40-hour work weeks raising children. Between the ages 25 and 65, that’s nearly a third of their capacity for kingdom work dedicated to the important kingdom work of raising children — but therefore unavailable for other kingdom work.
The average parent has to earn twice as much as a single person to provide for a family. Yet teachers in low-income neighborhoods, pregnancy resource center workers, nurses at free clinics, advocates for refugees, and mental health therapists are often the most underpaid. Parents often cannot afford to take the jobs directly addressing the plentiful harvest of brokenness. Where can the workers be found?
In Matthew 19, opposing factions of religious elites hoped to use Jesus against each other (and in the process turn the people against Jesus) by asking him about divorce. Instead of taking either of their sides, he calls God’s people to an even more rigorous standard, back to God’s original intentions for marriage. His disciples joke that with that high of a standard, it might be better to abandon one’s chance at a legacy and become a social pariah by never marrying.
Then Jesus does something that will not only upend the social order of God’s people, but also establish a cornerstone of his gospel.
Jesus institutes the vocation of singleness, explaining that those called to Christian marriage will be given the capacity to accept his high standard, but that some others will be called to permanently give up the prospect of romance, marriage, sex, and children to bring forth the kingdom with undivided attention.
“The one who can accept this should accept it,” Jesus concludes.
When Jesus establishes this vocation to stand alongside Christian marriage as a less common but equally normative calling, he’s imagining what difference could be made if some Christians took that 33% of kingdom work capacity and leveraged it for something other than raising children. He imagined a powerful minority of Christians having 50% more time and energy than parents to heal our communities with single-minded focus.
Simultaneously, vocational singles are meant to enjoy lifelong, lived-in family in the body of Christ without the need for competition or exclusivity, giving every believer hope for our future kingdom reality where there will be no child-bearing or marriage or sex, yet no one will be lonely (Matthew 22:30). Plus, the presence of vocational singles in our churches offers married parents a healthy challenge not to possessively cling to their biological family: “From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not…For this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:29-30).
Christ’s institution of vocational singleness isn’t incidental to the gospel. It’s a cornerstone.
The poverty of teaching and support for vocational singleness has led to anemic kingdom work and feeble kingdom hope. But we can revive this potent vehicle for kingdom work. We can retrieve Christ’s teachings and the ways the early Church put that into action, leading to fuller life for believers today, better witness to those who don’t yet know Jesus, and blessing to all who would live in a world being made right with undivided attention.
Those who first heard the teachings of Jesus and Paul, those the Apostles discipled, and their disciples taught of a permanent vocation of giving up a spouse and children to do kingdom work parents struggle to find the time or energy to do. Yet they didn’t live alone, cloistered and praying all day. Instead, they lived in urban intentional Christian communities with other celibates, worshiped in local churches with married people and their kids, and worked in the community while using their availability to bring forth the kingdom.
Churches today can teach about the vocational singleness in Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7. They can value vocational singleness by hiring vocational singles as head ministers, preaching pastors, worship leaders, youth pastors, and children’s pastors. Churches can celebrate vocational singles committing to their calling with just as much pomp and circumstance as weddings. And then celebrate the kingdom work that vocational singles are able to do with their undivided attention just as much as we honor kids. As Isaiah 56:3-5, Luke 18:28-30, and 1 Timothy 5:5-15 confirm, vocational singleness is still a call to lifelong, lived-in human family. Churches can gather singles, cast a vision for intentional Christian community, and support their efforts.
How can we raise up this cornerstone of the gospel? Discernment. Churches can guide every Christian young adult to open-handedly discern between vocational singleness and Christian marriage by creating anticipation for discernment from an early age and teaching teens general Christian discernment. Then in their 20s and 30s, help young adults ask God which gift he wants to give and embrace his calling. Discernment practices may include studying theology, addressing emotional barriers in counseling, considering the kingdom work they’re called to, praying in community, and giving God time.
A renewed teaching and practice of vocational singleness won’t complete the work of bringing forth the kingdom of Jesus. Only Christ’s return can accomplish that. But in the meantime, we can reinvigorate this cornerstone of the gospel, bring the good news alive for those curious about Jesus, and draw people to Him. Not-yet-believers would witness a meaningful minority of Christians giving up some of our world’s most coveted experiences to spend their lives healing the wounds of others. The spiritually curious would inquire further, “But why?” To which vocational singles would respond in word and deed, “We really believe that Jesus is who He says He is and that the fullest life is found laboring shoulder to shoulder next to Him.”
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Despite its theological merit, I doubt that this proposition has any legs within most churches. American Christianity has become so influenced by the secular theory of familialism that it’s probably impossible to reverse course without a major disruption. For example, a fairly large number of SBC theologians deny the Nicene formulation of the Trinity because the historic formulation would undermine certain tenets of familialism. And a substantial number of SBC and PCA leaders have affirmed the Nashville Statement, which implicitly makes heterosexuality a compulsory prerequisite for salvation. In fact, it’s probably no exaggeration to say that much of white evangelicalism is mostly a neo-Freudian self-help scheme with a veneer of Christianity on the exterior.
There are certainly barriers to churches rediscovering the wisdom of the early Church, but I’m hopeful! My hunch is that as fewer Christians get married, the need for a vision for intentional Christian singleness for the sake of the kingdom (and how to cultivate intentional Christian community) will grow!
I hope that you’re right.