In our culture we are constantly talking about how we identify. Not only that, but we know that whatever our answer is to that question, we will be judged by it. It has of course to do with who we are, what we do, or even what we believe. We are republican, democrat, conservative, liberal, American, black, white, male, female, gay, straight, feminist and on and on. In the Church identify ourselves and judge others as Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, fundamentalist, charismatic, Baptist, Calvinist, Lutheran and on and on. Heck in my town we identify people by their zip code, whether we live north or south of a street and what high school that someone went to. We can also identify ourselves and others by things that have happened to us, or that we’ve participated in or even what teams we root for.
Some of these are things that we are born into and others are things we choose or believe. But if we are in Christ none of these things are supposed to be our core identity. Meaning that they are not to be the first thing that defines us. This includes whether or not we are single or married.
Being single or married has become a core identity for us, maybe especially (though certainly not limited to) in the Church. This is a real problem because in the Church we are supposed to be one family. We aren’t really supposed to divide ourselves up by category and then just hang out with the other folks in that category. The Church should be the one place where your category doesn’t matter. We are all of equal value under the cross. We all are sinners. Jesus thought us each valuable enough to come and die for. Sin and the cross are the ultimate equalizer.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t offer practical teaching, guidance and wisdom for people in these different contexts. But we have to start with the fact that at the core we are created in God’s image, all have sin, and all are loved by Jesus.
Adding to this, singleness is not really even a biblical category. You could be unmarried, divorced, widowed, celibate by gifting, by the sin of man, or by choice for the Kingdom. This is really important because it affects how we see ourselves and how we set people up within the church.
Being unmarried is a context that you may be in. But that is not the same as your identity or for that matter even your vocation.
This matters for those called to Celibacy because Celibacy for the Kingdom is not simply a context they find themselves in. It is a calling and a vocation within the Church, at least historically.
Vocation is an interesting word in our culture. It’s not really what your job is necessarily. It could be. But really your job could be simply your means to your vocation. In fact, as a lay Christian, this is always true. Let me explain.
Our first vocation as a believer is to follow Jesus and represent the Kingdom wherever we go. This was our original created vocation going back to Genesis. We were created to know God and advance His cause.
But we also have a secondary vocation. That is either to be in the married vocation or the celibate vocation. As I heard a wise priest once say, “The first vow we all have to make is to Jesus – to be committed to Him. Then we can make a second vow – either to God to be in celibate ministry or to God and to another person.”
Now here is where we screw it up in Protestantism. We equate the vocation of celibacy with the context of being unmarried. This is unfair to both the person who has the vocation of singleness and the person who doesn’t. We need to honor the person who is called to that vocation by recognizing the Kingdom picture it represents, honoring their pursuit of that, and giving them the support they need as well as utilizing their gift and choice.
At the same time we need to not saddle the people who are not called to that with the responsibilities, lifestyle or teachings that those called with that vocation have. Instead we need to support them in their context, help them navigate it, and ultimately help them pursue marriage.
In short. Being unmarried is not an identity group and shouldn’t be treated as one. It is a context that people are in. For some it is a vocation they are called to. Recognizing all of that sets us up to serve, teach, empower and support each group. Not recognizing that hurts everyone.
We should instead identify people first by who they are in Christ, created to by God to know him and advance the Kingdom. Secondly we should help them pursue their secondary vocation from whatever context they are currently in.