In almost every way, a volunteer soldier is more effective than a conscript.
Studies comparing the US’s modern all-volunteer force to conscript armies found a strong correlation between volunteer forces and lower use of illicit drugs, lower AWOL (‘Absent Without Official Leave’) rates, increased education rates, and overall greater discipline and commitment.1 Other research found that volunteers are statistically likely to have greater discipline, better verbal and math scores, be more educated, and be more responsible.2 Because of longer service and re-enlistment, less people have to serve in countries with volunteer armies and those serving are more effective.3 The biggest challenge for all-volunteer forces is recruitment, requiring better pay and a society that value and honors military service.
By contrast, forced-service armies like the United States Army during the Vietnam War were typically composed of short-service soldiers (and some draft-induced ‘volunteers’) who lacked consistent training, experience, or cohesion, leading to ineffectiveness and disaster on the battlefield (Ironically, at the same financial cost and likely greater social cost).4 Conscripts are more likely to abandon a cause and less willing to suffer the casualties necessary to accomplish the mission.
Embracing a Calling to Vocational Singleness
Oddly enough, the same relationship between forced service versus volunteering for a mission applies to celibacy. Christians who embrace a calling to vocational singleness5 are more effective and have greater endurance, particularly when they’re publicly honored and supported by their faith communities. Christians who embrace a calling to vocational singleness are more effective and have greater endurance, particularly when they're publicly honored and supported by their faith communities. Click To Tweet
Similar to soldiers, when Christians feel forced into celibacy, they may be less willing to sacrifice for the cause of bringing forth Christ’s Kingdom. Seven years ago, I wasn’t ready to take ownership of my celibacy because vocational singleness didn’t seem good. I was living in the second of what would eventually be four failed intentional Christian communities. I hadn’t yet discovered how God would engage with my celibacy to build His Kingdom. I still had a fairly shallow appreciation of both vocational singleness and Christian marriage. I couldn’t help but assume that celibacy was the lesser good as I watched everyone around me celebrating fairytale weddings and posting idyllic honeymoon photos. For me, that led to self-pity, resentment, and enabling myself to make decisions that dishonored God, while wasting my Kingdom capacity.
Those walking out involuntary celibacy often feel like they can’t commit to a particular Kingdom work6 in a particular place, continually making temporary plans to keep their options open for a future Christian marriage. Christians who feel conscripted into celibacy find themselves spending meaningful amounts of time and energy each week convincing themselves to remain celibate. Plus, people living in involuntary celibacy can justify giving up when celibacy gets too difficult, claiming that they never chose celibacy or promised to be faithful for a lifetime. Shifting blame to their lack of communal support or to the God who seemingly forced them into celibacy becomes the natural result.
In contrast, Christians who voluntarily commit to vocational singleness are more effective and have greater endurance for Kingdom work. When Christ-followers accept a call to vocational singleness, they free themselves to focus on their Kingdom work with undivided attention. This empowers vocational singles to train for their vocational calling in more intentional ways, develop greater expertise, and invest more deeply in the ways God has called them to bring forth the New Heavens and New Earth. A lifetime, long-service celibate has time to deepen and mature their skillset, strengthening their muscles for thriving in vocational singleness. All of this leads to greater Kingdom impact because vocational singles are able to intentionally and consistently leverage their celibacy. Christians who voluntarily commit to vocational singleness have greater endurance for Kingdom work. When Christ-followers accept a call to celibacy, they free themselves to focus on their Kingdom work with undivided attention. Click To Tweet
Humans understand intuitively that people are more willing to sacrifice for a mission they chose. Before committing to vocational singleness, celibates count the cost and benefits of giving up romance and sex for a lifetime to leverage the time and energy parents use in raising children to bring forth the Kingdom with undivided attention. They’ve counted the cost, and they’re ready to pay it, leading to greater personal ownership of one’s vocational singleness and of the larger mission of God.
After accepting my own call to vocational singleness, I’ve been able to intentionally leverage my availability to serve my community in ways that would be difficult if I had a spouse and kids. I’m a proud godfather and blessed with the responsibility of helping his parents raise him (and his siblings) to be faithful Christian disciples. I’m a founding brother of the Nashville Family of Brothers, an ecumenically Christian brotherhood building family for men called to vocational singleness. I’m the founder and executive director of Equip, a leading consulting and training solution for churches aspiring to be places where gay people thrive according to a historic sexual ethic (So far, we’ve trained over 20,000 Christian leaders). I’m a licensed professional counselor specialized in serving gay Christians hoping to steward their sexualities according to a historically orthodox sexual ethic. I’m a writer and speaker about discernment, vocational singleness, and LGBT+ topics according to a traditional sexual ethic in places like Christianity Today, Mere Orthodoxy, and numerous churches, Christian universities, and campus ministries across America. On top of all of this, I’m a teacher and aspiring deacon in the Anglican Church in North America, focusing on celibacy and sexuality. Each of these is made possible by my availability in vocational singleness, and as a result, I’m daily grateful for God’s call on my life!
Similar to soldiers, ‘called, not conscripted celibacy’ is most effective when it’s publicly honored and supported. God intended for vocational singleness to be valued and celebrated in our churches. Jesus and Paul particularly praise lifetime abstinent singleness for the sake of kingdom work with undivided attention, with Paul repeatedly encouraging those given the gift of celibacy to keep their commitments. During the first few centuries of the Church, tens of thousands of celibates in cities of no more than 100,000 people voluntarily committed to lifetime celibacy,7 using their availability to serve their city and their church. In large measure, they were honored by their community for their sacrifice.
Celebrating public commitments to vocational singleness has been the primary opportunity to value and begin supporting celibates. Public commitments provide a chance for friends and family to gather and honor vocational singles, inviting friends and family to provide ongoing accountability and practical support. Then, friends and family can celebrate the anniversary of that commitment each year, renewing celibates and drawing them forward. The oldest Christian traditions teach that in order to receive the fullest gift of grace from God to thrive in vocational singleness, Christians have to actually settle down into the vocation. God intended for vocational singleness to be valued and celebrated in our churches. Both Jesus and Paul particularly praise lifetime abstinent singleness for the sake of kingdom work with undivided attention. Click To Tweet
When I felt called to vocational singleness but didn’t know where I would find sufficient family in the body of Christ or how to embrace my calling, I asked my local pastor. Over the next couple of years, he honored my need for a lifelong, lived-in family. He encouraged me to gather other Christians contemplating lifetime celibacy and pray whether God was calling us to start an intentional Christian community. My pastor pointed our community to theological and practical resources and coached us through interpersonal challenges, spiritual attack, and administrative questions. He helped us write our community covenant. He let us have commitment ceremonies in his church, wore his collar, gave a homily, and laid hands-of prayer and blessing on us. My pastor cried with us when it was tough, prayed for us, and gave us courage and hope when we had none left.
Five years later, our ecumenically Christian brotherhood, called the Nashville Family of Brothers, continues building family in Nashville for men called to vocational singleness. Seven of us now pray, eat, worship, vacation, serve, and live together in a home as a covenanted family, while we discern whether to make lifetime commitments to each other. Yet we’re still a part of our local churches. We’ve got jobs outside of the brotherhood leveraged for the sake of the kingdom. We’re still connected to parents and their kids.
We Can Champion Those Called to Celibacy
Admittedly, Christian celibates today don’t have the same institutional support that United States army soldiers do. Even those who have answered the call to vocational singleness struggle to thrive, negatively impacting their kingdom work effectiveness. But churches can take practical steps to better support those called to celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, including the following:
- Teach what Jesus and Paul actually had to say about a lifetime calling to celibate singleness for the sake of kingdom work with undivided attention (See Matthew 19 and 1 Corinthians 7 for a start).
- Value vocational singleness by hiring vocational singles as head ministers, preaching pastors, worship leaders, youth pastors, and children’s pastors. Children in particular need to see that vocational singleness is valued within the Church.
- Celebrate vocational singles committing to their calling with just as much pomp and circumstance as you do weddings. Celebrate the Kingdom work that vocational singles are able to do with their undivided attention just as much as we honor couples who have kids.
- 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, embracing God’s 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.
- Help those called to vocational singleness find lifelong, lived-in human family. Gather singles and cast vision for intentional Christian community. Offer coaching, accountability, and financial support. One of the first ministries of compassion within the early church was to gather celibate women who had lost their spouses, and offer them practical support to build family with each other (Acts 6:1-7).
It’s at the core of the Church’s DNA, both theologically, historically, and in compassionate function, to foster family for vocational singles. The Church of the 21st century would do well to model the same. Celebrate vocational singles committing to their calling as you do weddings. Celebrate the Kingdom work that vocational singles are able todo with their undivided attention just as much as we honor couples who have kids. Click To Tweet
Pieter Valk is a licensed professional counselor, the Director of EQUIP, and Co-founder of the Nashville Family of Brothers, an ecumenically Christian brotherhood for men called to vocational singleness.
1 Manning, R. L. (2005). The Importance of Maintaining an All-Volunteer Army During an Extended War. Army War College Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania.
2 Asher, R. (2008). Draft or Volunteer Army: Our Nation’s Best Interest. Texas University at Austin Institute for Advanced Technology.
3 Pattison, J. (2013). ‘Using volunteer forces, rather than conscripts or private contractors, is the most legitimate method for organising a military.’ LSE European Politics and Policy (EUROPP) Blog.
4 National Defense University. Mobilization Concepts Development Center. (1988). The Anthropo Factor in Warfare: Conscripts, Volunteers, and Reserves. Mobilization Concepts Development Center, National Defense University.
5 I define vocational singleness as ‘lifetime abstinent singleness for the sake of Kingdom work.’
6 Kingdom work is any work that promotes flourishing in the world in ways that treat workers justly and use resources responsibly.
7 Greg Peters, The Story of Monasticism: Retrieving an Ancient Tradition for Contemporary Spirituality.