Exulting in celibacy and singlehood, the apostle Paul reminds the church in Corinth that the anxieties of marriage are part of a world that is “passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). Of course, nothing could be further from the sentiments of Christians today. Our pursuit of romance and marriage is out of step with previous generations of Christians, who formed communities of love and service to Christ, free from distraction. Teeming with spiritual and intellectual life, these communities produced significant advances in science, medicine, philosophy, and theology. What is more, they were also places of enormous companionship and love. Unmarried but never alone, single Christians drained the swamps, fed the poor, kept the Scriptures alive, and preserved Christianity from peril. Consider some prominent examples.
Widowed at an early age, ardent in faith and endowed with enormous wealth, Paula (AD 347–404) befriended the Bible scholar Jerome (AD 347–420) and together they pursued a life of simplicity, prayer, and service in Palestine. With her vast wealth, Paula purchased ancient manuscripts and together with Jerome, produced the Latin Vulgate—the most significant translation in history. Though she is rarely mentioned as a contributor, without Paula we would have no Vulgate. Jerome acknowledged her spiritual and intellectual leadership, comparing her to Deborah: “while Barak trembled, Deborah saved Israel.” Paula also built monasteries and hospitals, spending her talents, treasure, and time making known the glories of Christ. Though she dressed in silk in Rome, she welcomed poverty, celibacy, and anonymity in Palestine, devoting herself to the needs of others. She recognized that this world, in its present form, is passing away.
Macrina the Younger (AD 330–379) led a community of Christians in Turkey. Referred to simply as “Teacher,” Macrina was joined by her two brothers, Basil the Great (AD 330–379) and Gregory of Nyssa (AD 335–395), both Cappadocian Fathers and contributors to the Nicene Creed. Macrina’s community, where everyone lived as equals, attracted singles, both wealthy and poor.
Isolated on the island of Iona was another community of single Christians, formed in AD 563. Men and women lived in close proximity in a community committed to prayer, worship, and scholarship. Here, Scripture was preserved, transcribed, and illuminated. If not for the work of this community and others like it, the Bible would have been lost.
Centuries later, fasting from opulence and wealth, Francis (1181–1226) and Clare (1194–1253) founded what is known today as the Franciscan order, which emphasizes poverty. They realized this world is passing away, and they renewed Christian faith through their devotion to simplicity, service, and prayer.
Among Protestants, too, celibate communities have abounded and for similar reasons: to focus on prayer and service. Working in Calcutta, Pandita Ramabai (1858–1922) founded the Mukti Mission (Mukti means liberation, freedom, or salvation), a community of women serving widows, sex slaves, and handicapped girls and women. Widowed herself, Ramabai devoted her enormous energy and talents to translating the Greek and Hebrew texts into Marathi, the language of her region. In all of history, this is the only Bible completed entirely by women. Mukti Mission was Christ’s kingdom in action.
Like Ramabai, Amy Carmichael (1867–1951) devoted her life to girls and women in India, particularly the temple prostitutes, called Devadasi. Because her work was so dangerous, Carmichael worked only beside single women, unwilling to put families of married workers in harm’s way. Single but never alone, Carmichael is considered one of the greatest missionaries of the modern era.
For communities of Christians throughout history, singlehood was not only a means of service. It was also a form of protest—a refusal to allow the false gods of this world to dictate the value or vocation of men and women created in God’s image and thereby endowed with spiritual gifts and authority for service. They lived out of the knowledge that the world in its present form is passing away.