Mythbusting Celibacy #3 | Introducing the Eunuchs (Part 2)
Ok. We’re going to launch right into it here. Which means if you haven’t already read the first part of our “eunuchs” sub-series, you’ll want to do that now. Things will make much more sense if you do.
This is another long one. But there's a great anecdote and a bonus fun fact for those who stick through to the end ;) With that said, let’s dig into the obvious (?) reading of Mt 19:1-12.
The Obvious (?) Reading
Remember, we were left wondering how Jesus went from responding to the Pharisee’s questions about divorce to speaking about eunuchs. Here is the full passage again:
3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” (Matthew 19:3-12 ESV)
Let’s trace the line of logic for the obvious (?) reading:
The pharisees ask a (trick) question about Jesus’ thinking on reasons for divorce.
The disciples are a bit shocked at how no nonsense Jesus’ answer is. And so they respond with what is usually interpreted as a kind of uneasy joke. “Given all that, Jesus, surely it is easier to remain single instead! <insert awkward chuckle here>”.
Jesus essentially says, “Yes. You are right. But not everyone can receive what you’ve said and what I’m about to confirm. Only those to whom God has given it are able to take it on board”.
Jesus then confirms the fact that the disciples were onto something (i.e., that it is better for a man not to marry) by giving the example one who has made himself a eunuch (i.e., someone who has chosen not to marry)
However, contrary to the disciples reasoning, Jesus says that the self-made eunuch’s choice is good, not because marriage is too hard (or too hard to get out of!), but because it is for the “sake of the kingdom of heaven”.
Jesus then repeats his reminder that the one who is able to “receive this” saying should receive it. This is interpreted as a call for a select few to the type of lifelong, vocational celibacy we explored in our very first post.
(You might like to go back and reread that again in order to get your head around the obvious(?) reading).
By and large this logic seems reasonable, doesn’t it? If this is how the passage is to be obviously read, then yes, it does seem that Jesus says there will be some who actively choose the unmarried life as a result of their commitment to the kingdom of heaven. And so, it’s easy to see why the self-made eunuch has become a bit of a modern-day poster child for the contemporary construct of “celibacy” (a settled, called, committed and focused “vocation”), as opposed to “singleness” (an unsettled, uncalled, uncommitted and unfocused “situation”)
However, there is a problem with this reading, and here it is. The obvious (?) reading doesn’t capture the entirety of Jesus’ logic in his response to the disciples.
Have you noticed that every single article, post, podcast, book, talk and social media comment which appeals to this passage to support the contemporary notion of celibacy only ever speaks about the last eunuch? He’s the only one that is ever actually mentioned. But Jesus doesn’t just speak about that one eunuch. Instead, he refers to three different eunuchs. Three different “characters” who all do what the disciples suggest (i.e., remain unmarried). But for three different reasons.
At this point we probably need to have a bit of a sidebar about eunuchs themselves, because let’s face it, they aren’t exactly run of the mill in the modern day! Who were these dudes?
A Less Than Obvious Bunch
In ancient times, eunuchs were typically men who had either been castrated or had been born with some sort of physical impediment or deformity, which rendered them effectively castrated. This was obviously bad news for them, but not just because of all the fun they were missing out on. It was bad news because in a world where continuing your family line by having kids was socially essential, well, eunuchs were well and truly out of the running. (This was also precisely why God's promise in Isaiah 56:5 to give eunuchs 'an everlasting name that shall not be cut off' was nothing short of extraordinary!)
However, there was a silver lining to being a eunuch. Because there was no way they could father children of their own, eunuchs were pretty safe guys to have hanging around the women in your household... especially if (in a day before paternity testing was a thing) you really, really needed to ensure your children were actually your children. And so history testifies to a long tradition of eunuchs rising to important and trustworthy positions of authority within significant households, and one most particularly—the royal household. Eunuchs served the king. Not only that, they typically served the King (and his family) in the most intimate and private part of his home, the bedchamber. In fact, that is what the greek word (eunoukhos) we translate as eunuch meant—“bedroom guard”.
Within the Roman Empire (the era and place in which Jesus lived), eunuchs were enigmatic characters who were despised for not being “real men”. But they were also individuals who demanded some degree of respect because of the unique access they had to the king. Given their ambivalent position in 1st Century society—and even more so in the Old Testament in which they were considered unclean and cut off from the assembly of God’s people (Dt 23:1)—it might seem rather odd that Jesus just drops them into the conversation here.
However, most commentators who lean towards this reading don’t find it odd at all. To them, Jesus speaks of the eunuchs for one particular reason, that being the chosen lifelong nature of their situation. That is to say, the contemporary emphasis on the self-made eunuch is nearly always on their unmarried state being necessarily lifelong and vocational. This is what specifically makes the eunuch a poster-boy for the “celibate” rather than just the “single”. It seems to be the fact that marriage has been taken off the table for the self-made eunuch which makes all the difference.
Now, there’s no doubt that the literal eunuch was indeed a eunuch for life. However, I’m not so convinced that the embracing of the permanence of their situation is the sole, or even primary reason Jesus speaks specifically of them in this passage. Let me explain why.
Let’s Not Miss Something Obvious
Firstly, we need to be careful about taking the example of the 1st Century eunuch and plopping him directly into our 21st Century context.
In the first post in this series, we considered how important it is to recognise both continuity and discontinuity between past and present. In particular we observed that the ready agency singles have today in deciding whether to commit to lifelong celibacy or remain open to marriage down the track is just that—a situation that belongs to singles today. In the 1st Century, you either married according to your family’s plans, or you rejected that in order to remain unmarried for life (and likely made yourself somewhat unpopular with your folks for doing so). This means that it is extremely unlikely that a primary reason Jesus spoke of the eunuch was to emphasise their choice to permanent rather than temporary singleness. The very concept of ‘temporary singleness’ is a 21st Century phenomenon. It was not on a 1st Century mind. As we seek to grapple with our unique contemporary concerns and questions, we need to ensure that we are reading and applying Scripture carefully. We must not draw analogies or conclusions which are, quite simply, anachronistic.
However, there is also a second reason why I think we should be cautious about reading the eunuch’s permanent state as his most important feature in this passage. And it’s a reason which takes us back to what I pointed out a number of paragraphs ago—the fact that Jesus speaks about not one, but three “types” of eunuchs.
For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. (Mt 19:12)
In their hurry to get to the third eunuch, most commentary on or references to this passage render the other two eunuchs pretty much invisible. The emphasis is on the one who makes himself a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.
He’s the eunuch that matters. He’s the one who is able to receive this saying. He’s willing to make kingdom work a priority.
In the telling of it, the other two eunuchs may as well not exist.
However, think about what we discovered about eunuchs just above. If there was anything that made these otherwise pitiful people valuable in the eyes of their society it was that they served the King. Regardless of whether they were born with a physical deformity, or whether they were intentionally or accidentally castrated by others, or even if they chose to castrate themselves (!)… regardless of why they were eunuchs, they were nonetheless still all eunuchs. And so they were all equally positioned to serve the king. To live for the sake of the kingdom.
In our hurry to celebrate the eunuch who has made himself one, are we not missing the fact that there are two other eunuchs (i.e., those who didn’t choose it for themselves) who were also uniquely positioned to live for the sake of the kingdom?
Remember, the disciples have just suggested that it would be better for a man to not marry because gee whiz, marriage is a tough gig. But on this reading Jesus essentially says:
“Yes. Being unmarried is good. But not because marriage is too hard and divorce is too restricted and remarriage is normally off the cards. The reason it is good to be unmarried is because, like the eunuchs, those who aren’t married are in a unique position to focus on the kingdom. Let those who are able to hear and understand and embrace this, hear and understand and embrace it”.
In this sense the “circumstantial” eunuchs are just as significant to Jesus’ point as the “self-made” eunuchs. The eunuchs who are rendered invisible by the obvious (?) reading are just as important to Jesus’ point as the ones it celebrates. All eunuchs were brilliantly and uniquely positioned to serve the king. Jesus’ specific reference of the kingdom of heaven as motivation of the self-made eunuch simply reinforces that point.
An Obvious Problem
Which raises another problematic aspect of this reading, or more correctly the way we typically apply it today. In a 2021 article ‘Family Planning for Eunuchs’ (you should read it in full, it is destined to warm the hearts of any single Christian), Greg Coles writes this:
I am, as far as I can tell, precisely the kind of person Jesus has in view when he says in Matthew 19, “There are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” I seem to fit that third category rather well: the people who live a sexless and childless life, not because they have no other options, but because they truly believe that the kingdom of heaven is worth every ounce of their devotion. 
Coles locates himself in the position of the one who has good options (i.e., to marry and have a family), but who has chosen to forgo the good option because of something which is better in his estimation—celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. However, what Coles doesn’t say in this article (not because he is hiding it, but just because it is not the focus of his argument here) he says elsewhere:
Once you find yourself in the place I’ve found myself—unconvinced by revisionary theology on homosexuality, unable to conjure even the slightest heterosexual desire, unwilling to marry a woman you can’t desire sexually—there’s no reason to keep wondering about marriage. 
Let me be absolutely clear. I find Gregory Coles’ honesty incredibly honourable and courageous. I also find his desire to live faithfully in light of his understanding of God’s call to godly sexual discipleship incredibly encouraging and challenging. Nonetheless, it genuinely doesn’t sound like he has exclusively chosen ‘a sexless and childless life’ in spite of what he considers other (good) options. Of course, he is not alone in this application of Mt 19:12. He’s one among many who apply this verse (and its self-made eunuch) through a binary of simple “choice” versus “circumstance”.
But this is problematic.
Here’s the thing folks, a Christian person’s singleness is almost never a strict binary of choice (the self-made eunuch) or circumstance (the accidental eunuch). As I’ve written elsewhere in an article on this very topic:
Despite our best attempts to reduce Christian singleness down to a simple either/or, it almost always involves a complex interaction of circumstantial factors beyond personal control and intentional decisions that are the result of personal choice—and most significantly, personal choice concerning godly obedience. Sometimes circumstances put us in the position of needing to make a choice. Sometimes making a choice leads to certain circumstances. For the single Christian these two things are very rarely unrelated to each other. 
A key problem with the obvious (?) reading is the way it seeks to very directly align one “type” of eunuch with one “type” of single person based on an over-simplified paradigm of choice versus circumstance. Almost inevitably this positions one “type” of the unmarried life (i.e., celibacy) as somehow more significant or worth noticing than other “types” (i.e., singleness). The self-made eunuch stands in the middle of the stage under the full strength of the spotlights, while the other two eunuchs literally fade into the background.
Some Obvious Questions
I’m currently 43 (and a bit. Ok. And a half). I’ve never been married. I’ve never even had a serious, committed romantic relationship. With anyone. Ever. If we’re going to let past realities predict future potentialities, I think we could probably assume there is a good chance I’ll be single for life. However, I’m still open to the possibility of God’s good gift of marriage in the future. In light of that, here are some obvious questions I have to the proponents of the obvious (?) reading:
By God's grace, I'm committed to wholeheartedly living out my singleness for the sake of the kingdom of heaven for every second that I remain single. On what basis should my present singleness be considered any less valuable or significant or dignified or even “called” (in either God’s or your sight) than the singleness of someone who happens to know that they will be single for life?
I’m single as a result of circumstance (e.g., none of the mature single Christian men I’ve ever met decided they would like to marry me). But I’m also single as a result of choice (e.g., I have chosen not to initiate or pursue any relationships with non-Christian men). On what basis is my potentially lifelong singleness rendered invisible, while the almost certainly lifelong singleness of someone who is also single as a result of both circumstance and choice is spotlighted?
I’m someone who remains open to the possibility of marriage. Do I need to wait to my deathbed to think “Wow. I guess I WAS one of those lifelong eunuchs after all! If only I had known for sure that I’d stay single then my lifetime spent unmarried really could have been considered just as significant and noteworthy as the one who expected they were going to be single all along. Alas, too late now though.”?
A Not So Obvious Anecdote
When a good friend of mine heard that I was writing a series on the eunuchs of Mt 19:1-12, he sent me an email. I wish he had also sent me a warning in the subject line of that email, because it might have spared my computer screen from the spray of water that was ejected from my mouth when I read it. He’s given me his permission to share it with you all. He wrote:
When I had my vasectomy it was done under local anaesthetic. While the surgeon was doing his stuff, I got to share the gospel with him. I like to say “I became a eunuch for the kingdom!”.
I’ll give you a moment to wipe down your computer screens.
Now, obviously he was joking. In fact he introduced the anecdote as ‘a completely inappropriate way of understanding Jesus in Matthew 19’.
And yet, it is also the perfect anecdote to summarise what I’ve been arguing above. You see, as Christians we are all called to live for the kingdom. That’s our “calling” as disciples. Whether we find ourselves single at the age of 43 (OK. And a half). Whether we decided to remain single at 22. Whether we are a married man lying in day surgery having a vasectomy. Living for the king is both the privilege and responsibility of us all.
Does Jesus suggest in Mt 19:1-12 that some of his disciples will actively “make themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” by choosing not to marry? You bet he does! As a result we should eagerly stand alongside those men and women who make such a choice. Brothers and sisters, I honour you. I am deeply encouraged and challenged by you. Please keep helping me live for the sake of the kingdom just as you do.
But those men and women are not the only “eunuchs” whom Jesus speaks of in Mt 19:1-12. They are not the only unmarried person he points to. They are not the only single Christias who are right here, right now wonderfully positioned to serve the King and his Kingdom.
There is more to the obvious (?) reading than generally meets the eye… or at least more than generally makes it into contemporary articles, talks, podcasts and books on celibacy. Are we willing to embrace that?
Of course, all of this is only relevant if the obvious reading is indeed obvious. And it may not be. There is a little discussed, but alternative way of understanding and applying this passage. And I reckon it has some merit to it. We’ll dive into that in our next post.
Subscribe now so that you don’t miss it.
Bonus Fun Fact: (Consider it a reward for making it to the end of this long post!). Our good friend Augustine had yet another take on this passage (which I guess means there is more than just one alternative reading to the obvious one). He argued that the eunuch who made himself such for the “sake of the kingdom of heaven” didn’t so much have in mind the purposes of growing and furthering the kingdom of heaven here and now, but the sake of his own situation in the kingdom of heaven—and most specifically the higher heavenly rewards and better place he would occupy above those who married, or who were eunuchs by accident rather than choice. See Augustine, Holy Virginity, §23-24.
2 Gregory Coles, Single Gay Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2017), 95.