The Difficult Calling To Be and Remain Single
In the last three verses of Sunday’s text Christ speaks of being a eunuch. His comments are in response to the disciples who have reacted to his difficult teaching on marriage with the (comical? exasperated?) observation that it would be better to remain single. It’s an extreme observation, since voluntarily remaining single was culturally very unusual and suggested a refusal to fulfill the religious duties to marry and produce children. It is all the more shocking, then, when Christ responds in the affirmative.
Jesus uses the image of the eunuch precisely because it is shocking and attention grabbing. He points to three ways a person can be a eunuch, with his real emphasis coming on the third and last possibility. One can be born this way - presumably referring to a physical abnormality. One can be turned into a eunuch - almost certainly referring to the literal process of castration. And finally, one can choose to be this way for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. In this final possibility, Christ is most likely speaking metaphorically. That is, someone who chooses not to marry, and therefore not to bear children. This is assumed because self-mutilation in this manner would have most definitely been a sin.
Jesus opens and closes his statement with an acknowledgement that this path is not for everyone. In verse 11 he says, “not everyone can receive this saying.” In verse 12 he says, “Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” The decision to remain single is a calling. It is not a calling born out of selfish ambition, but “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” That is, in order to serve the kingdom of heaven.
Paul expounds on this statement in 1 Corinthians 7. You can read the entire chapter to see Paul’s entire argument, but here is the key passage…
“I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 7:32–35 ESV)
With all of this understood, there are a few key takeaways for us.
First, being single can be a calling from God, and as such can be a source of great blessing. Not everyone who is single is called to remain single, but some may be.
Second, the Church has not always acknowledged those who are single (where there is an emphasis on families to the neglect of those who are single), and when they have it has not always been with the proper biblical perspective. Those who remain single for the sake of the kingdom of heaven ought to be celebrated and their service to the kingdom received thankfully. What that service looks like will be different from one person to another and one context to another. But whatever service God calls them to, it is for the sake of the Kingdom.
Finally, we should keep in mind that such a calling is not without its difficulties. Christ acknowledges this twice in our passage. It’s not for everyone, but “only those to whom it is given.” Those whom God calls to this service he equips and makes able.
Marriage and family are important parts of the body of Christ and means by which he is growing his kingdom. But just as we all have different gifts, there are some who are not called to this, but rather to be single for the sake of the kingdom. We thank God for this calling and those who are able, by the power of the Spirit, to receive it.
Your Fellow Servant in Christ,