Verses 17-24 form a fascinating section of chapter 7 of 1 Corinthians, serving as a type of heavy duty hinge between Paul’s discussion regarding those who either had been or were presently married (vv1-16) and his counsel regarding those who had never been married, whom he refers to by the classical term, virgins and those wives whose husbands had died (25-40). Verses 17-24 not only serve to conclude his direction to the first group, but also serve to introduce his counsel to the second. In these verses Paul advises both groups: Don’t scramble to leave the place in life where God found you, but also follow Him when He leads you off of that path… This passage deserves much more treatment than I intend to give it from the pulpit this Sunday, so I’ve put together this short summary of it for your consideration. Thanks! Pastor Ken
- Paul’s Big Idea: Stay where you were when God called you to follow Him, but follow Him where He leads. 17
17 Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And so I direct in all the churches.”
I can imagine many places where a person might be in life that they would NOT want to “remain” in once they are called by Him to the new life of salvation! It’s important to remember Paul is writing regarding some specific questions he’d been asked by the Corinthians regarding these issues of marriage (7:1), so we should not assume that Paul is suddenly, in response to those questions, departing from his response to go on a tangent and write about Judaism vs. being a Gentile, or slavery vs. living as a free-person. It is reasonable to assume that Paul is still speaking of marriage issues, although he is backing off enough to give a very generalized view here, and is not giving an unalterable, fixed command for all Jews, all gentiles, all slaves, all gentiles, etc., but is instead providing guiding principles for them to apply to their specific circumstances.
Example Number One: Whether you are from Jewish culture or from the gentile culture—don’t run away from where God found you. 18-20
18 Was any man called when he was already circumcised? He is not to become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? He is not to be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God.” 20 Each man must remain in that condition in which he was called.”
To be called while “already circumcised” simply meant that one had become a believer in Jesus Christ out of the Jewish culture of ancient Corinth. Physically, such man had been circumcised in adherence to the Jewish law, probably as an infant. (Some Greeks who converted to Judaism did undergo circumcision.) But in a larger, (and I think more likely sense), Paul is referring to a man who lives with Jews, and lives as a Jew—observing the Jewish customs and traditions. Such a man was not to try and hide where he’d come from when God found him. (It was possible, and fairly routine, for a circumcised man to undergo a surgical procedure to reverse the circumcision—mainly to alter the cosmetic effects of the procedure.) Likewise, a Gentile man, who would not have undergone circumcision, was not to undergo circumcision in some sort of misguided attempt to more closely identity with the culture of the Jews. Understanding the Lord Jesus was a Jewish man, and would have been circumcised, this would certainly have been a very real possible desire for a Gentile man who had become a follower of Jesus. In each of these cases, the believer was to consciously remain in the culture condition in which God had called him.
Example Number Two: Live as free men who have become slaves to the Lord. 21-23
21 Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. 22 For he who was called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he, who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.
It is impossible to understand this passage unless we gain a very clear idea of the vast differences between the slavery forms of the ancient Roman world and that of the Colonial and pre-Civil War United States of America. The United States condoned, practiced, and facilitated a system of slavery the likes of which had been rarely seen in human history. It is perhaps the most inhumane, self-defeating, animalistic system of bondage one can find in history. Americans must own that part of our history, and never seek to forget or justify existence, just as we must not simply shrug our shoulders at the subsequent forms and presence of racism and racialization that the nation is still seeking address in its culture—even after the abolition of slavery with the Civil War.
Slavery in the Roman Empire, on the other hand, was very complex and different from the American version, and it permeated all levels of Roman culture. Up to 1/3 of the slaves in any given Roman city were born of slave-mothers, and had grown up as slaves. Slaves were everywhere, and one could not easily recognize a slave when one saw him or her, say, on a street in Corinth. Your doctor, lawyer, household manager, farm supervisor, warehouse foreman, etc., and certainly your children’s teacher—was a slave. Slaves in ancient Rome might be lashed to the oars of a war-ship, and consigned to an almost certain death. They would be found in the mines, working alongside prisoners and convicted criminals, and liable to suffer an early death. But also, they might be found working side by side with free-men on public works projects. They might be married (although their marriages would not be considered legal per Roman law), might have children, might be soon to receive their freedom from a kind master, or certain to be sold to another master. They might be freed by a master—so that the master could marry them (this is only in the case of a female slave), or, they might be repeatedly molested and raped, with the permission of the law, by a cruel master or his wife. And get this—some of the slaves had chosen to be slaves, having “sold” themselves into a limited time of slavery to a master, usually in order to pay off a debt! I don’t think I’ve begun to scratch the surface of the complexity of the ancient Roman world’s system of slavery—but I hope I have presented to you that it was in a multitude of ways vastly different than the horrific, reprehensible crime of slavery that our government and its forbearers allowed early in our history.
So, what was a man (or woman) to do when called by God into a saving relationship—and by the grace of God now a member of a church, perhaps worshipping alongside both other slaves and slave-owners? Paul advises this: “If you’re a slave, don’t worry, just make sure you jump at the opportunity to become a free-man, if and when the opportunity arises.” His reason? “You are now, in the eyes of the Lord, free—so live that way as the chance arises.” And to those who had met the Lord while free-men; they were to see themselves as now being the Lord’s slave. And to each Paul is adamant: “Do not become the slaves of men!” I realized there are many applications that we can make to this specific statement of verse 23; “Don’t submit to man’s religious rules.” “Don’t be a people-pleaser!” etc. But I think we should also be sure to affirm what the basic meaning of Paul’s instruction would be to those he was writing: Don’t make yourself a slave to anyone on earth. No matter how rough times get—do not enter into a slave-master agreement with anyone, ever again!”
In conclusion, Paul summarizes his point: “Stay where you were when God called you, and from there, follow Him to wherever He leads you.”
24 Brethren, each one is to remain with God in that condition in which he was called.
Paul does not tell Jews to act like Gentiles, as if that would somehow make them more “Christian”, or perhaps more acceptable to the surrounding, non-Christian culture. He doesn’t tell Gentiles to act like Jews, as if it would make them more “Messianic.” (Don’t we often struggle with the desire to change the externals of our lives as a means of image-making, and not out of genuine submission to our Lord?) Paul doesn’t tell slaves to aspire to remain slaves, but instead to seek freedom when it comes, as they have a new Master, Jesus Christ, a Master who does not suffer worldlings to hold His brothers in captivity. This was a lesson written with the blood of its own sons, fathers, and brothers by the United States in the 1860’s. Paul neither asks anyone to remain in bondage, nor does does he advocate running away from who we are, and where we were at in life when God called us to His Son. And for those who met Christ while enjoying the social status of being a “free-man,” Paul reminds them, and us today who enjoy so much freedom in our American culture: “You are now slaves to the Lord. Serve Him alone, and never again choose slavery over the life of freedom that He has purchased for you with His precious blood.” Changes to the external circumstances of our lives are to arise out of THE great change of our salvation, and never independent of it!