Welcome back to my study/review of 1 Corinthians. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
1 Corinthians 7:17-24
17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
This section of staying where one is called, generally, builds from Paul’s comment in verses 15 and 16.
15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
The general idea here is to be at peace with one’s marital circumstances to to assume that those circumstances are where you are placed by God. In verse 17, Paul builds on the idea in a wider sense. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:
(17) But as God hath distributed . . .—Regarding 1 Corinthians 7:16 as a kind of parenthesis, these words follow on from 1 Corinthians 7:15 as a general principle to be ever borne in mind, as limiting in practice the very broad liberty which the Apostle has given regarding separation in cases of mixed marriages. It is to be noticed that in 1 Corinthians 7:15 the unbelieving partner is the only one who is spoken of as taking an active part in the separation; the believer is, merely for the sake of peace, to acquiesce in it; he is never to cause or promote a separation, for he is to be guided by the great principle that we are to continue to walk in those social and political relations by which we were bound when God called us. Christianity does not destroy them, but purifies and exalts them, and thus makes them more binding on us than before. According as the Lord has divided to each man his portion in life, and as God has called each man, so in that condition let him continue to walk as a Christian. Let him not try to change it for another. The words “God” and “Lord” have been transposed by later copyists. The order in the English version is different from that in the older MSS. It is important to preserve the accurate reading here, for it speaks of Christ—“the Lord”—as the one who allots to men their natural condition in life, while “God” calls them from heathenism to the Christian faith.
And so ordain I in all churches.—This principle was of universal application, and the Apostle lays it down authoritatively for all Churches. The I is emphatic, as the writer speaks with apostolic authority. It is noticeable that in some few later MSS. there is an attempt to weaken its force by the substitution of “I teach” for “I appoint or direct.” (See 1 Corinthians 16:1.)
The assignment given to each person is the life they are in when called. From that point forward, in those circumstances, one should live in obedience. Paul goes on to clarify this idea and its application when broadened beyond marriage. From The Pulpit Commentaries:
Being circumcised. The first instance he gives is that of Judaism and paganism. The circumcised Jew is to remain circumcised; the uncircumcised Gentile is not to undergo circumcision. Become uncircumcised. The Hellenising Jews in the days of the priest Menelaus (l Macc 1 Corinthians 1:15; Josephus, ‘Ant.,’ 12.5, 1) had discovered a process for obliterating the appearance of circumcision; such persons were known as masochim. St. Paul does not permit the adoption of this course. In the rebellion of Barcocheba many obliterated the sign of circumcision, and were afterwards, at great danger to themselves, recircumcised. (‘Yevamoth,’ tel. 72, 1). Let him not be circumcised. This rule was of much more practical significance than the other. The early fortunes of Christianity had been almost shipwrecked by the attempt of Jewish rigorists to enforce this odious bondage on the Gentiles, and their deliverance flora it had been due almost solely to St. Paul. It was his inspired insight which had swayed the decision of the synod at Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-41.); and at a later period his Epistle to the Galatians was the manifesto of Gentile emancipation. He proved that after Christ’s death “circumcision” (peritome) became to Gentiles a mere physical mutilation (katatome) (Philippians 3:2).
Circumcision is nothing. The Jews regarded it as everything; and to make this assertion at so early an epoch of Christian history, required all the courage of St. Paul, and proved his grand originality. He was the first to prove to the Jews that circumcision had become a thing intrinsically indifferent, which might, under some circumstances, be desirable (as in the ease of Timothy), but could never be reckoned among essentials. And uncircumcision is nothing. The same sentence occurs three times in St. Paul, summing up, as it were, the liberty which it had cost him endless peril and anguish to achieve. Each time he concludes it with a weighty clause to show what is everything: “Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God” (1 Corinthians 7:19); “… but faith which worketh by love” (Galatians 5:6); “… but a new creation” (Galatians 6:15). But the keeping of the commandments. So St. John says, “Hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments.”
Let every man abide in the same calling, etc. In accordance with this general principle, which illustrates the distinction between Christianity and violent social revolutions, St. John the Baptist had not bidden publicans or soldiers to abandon their callings, but to do their duty in that state of life to which God had called them (Luke 3:12-14). The “calling” alluded to is not what is described as “a vocation,” a calling in life, but the condition in which we are when we are called by God.
Paul’s next example relates to a contentious issue within the early Church. He tells those who are already circumcised when called to remain so. He advises those who are not circumcised not to become so. Much as with marriage, he advises the idea that a person’s condition when called by God is the state he or she should remain in for service and obedience to God. Continuing with Ellicott in verse 21:
(21) Art thou called being a servant?—Better, Were you called while a slave? Do not let that make you anxious. The fact of your being in slavery does not affect the reality of completeness of your conversion; and so you need have no anxiety to try and escape from servitude. In this and the following three verses the subject of SLAVERY is treated of as the second illustration of the general principle laid down in 1 Corinthians 7:17—viz., that a man’s conversion to Christianity should not lead him to change his national or social condition.
But if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.—These words may seem to imply that if a slave could obtain his liberty he was to avail himself of the opportunity to do so. Such an interpretation, however, is entirely at variance with the whole drift of the argument, which is, that he is not to seek such a change. What the Apostle does say is, that (so far from letting the servitude be a cause of distress to you) if you can even be free, prefer to use it, i.e., your condition as a converted slave. It, as well as any other position in life, can be used to God’s glory. Such an interpretation is most in accordance with the construction of the sentence in the original Greek; and it is in perfect harmony, not only with the rest of this passage, but with all St. Paul’s teaching and his universal practice on this subject.
It may be well here briefly to notice the attitude which the Apostle of the Gentiles maintains towards the great question of SLAVERY. While there were many points in which ancient slavery under the Greek and Roman Governments was similar to what has existed in modern days, there were also some striking points of difference. The slaves at such a place as Corinth would have been under Roman law, but many of its harsher provisions would doubtless have been practically modified by the traditional leniency of Greek servitude and by general usage. Although a master could sell his slave, punish him, and even put him to death, if he did so unjustly he would himself be liable to certain penalties. The power which a master could exercise over his slave was not so evidently objectionable in an age when parents had almost similar power over their children. Amongst the class called slaves were to be found, not only the commonest class who performed menial offices, but also literary men, doctors, midwives, and artificers, who were constantly employed in work suited to their ability and acquirements. Still, the fact remains that the master could sell his slave as he could sell any other species of property; and such a state of things was calculated greatly to degrade both those who trafficked and those who were trafficked in, and was contrary to those Christian principles which taught the brotherhood of men, and exalted every living soul into the high dignity of having direct communion with its Father.
How, then, are we to account for St. Paul, with his vivid realisation of the brotherhood of men in Christ, and his righteous intolerance of intolerance, never having condemned this servile system, and having here insisted on the duty of a converted slave to remain in servitude; or for his having on one occasion sent back a Christian slave to his Christian master without asking for his freedom, although he counted him his master’s “brother”? (See Ep. to Philemon.)
One point which would certainly have weighed with the Apostle in considering this question was his own belief in the near approach of the end of this dispensation. If all existing relations would be overthrown in a few years, even such a relation as was involved in slavery would not be of so great importance as if it had been regarded as a permanent institution.
But there were other grave considerations, of a more positive and imperative nature. If one single word from Christian teaching could have been quoted at Rome as tending to excite the slaves to revolt, it would have set the Roman Power in direct and active hostility to the new faith. Had St. Paul’s teaching led (as it probably would, had he urged the cessation of servitude) to a rising of the slaves—that rising and the Christian Church, which would have been identified with it, would have been crushed together. Rome would not have tolerated a repetition of those servile wars which had, twice in the previous century, deluged Sicily with blood.
Nor would the danger of preaching the abolition of servitude have been confined to that arising from external violence on the part of the Roman Government; it would have been pregnant with danger to the purity of the Church itself. Many might have been led, from wrong motives, to join a communion which would have aided them in securing their social and political freedom.
In these considerations we may find, I think, ample reasons for the position of non-interference which the Apostle maintains in regard to slavery. If men then say that Christianity approved of slavery, we would point them to the fact that it is Christianity that has abolished it. Under a particular and exceptional condition of circumstances, which cannot again arise, St. Paul, for wise reasons, did not interfere with it. To have done so would have been worse than useless. But he taught fearlessly those imperishable principles which led in after ages to its extinction. The object of Christianity—and this St. Paul over and over again insisted on—was not to overturn and destroy existing political and social institutions, but to leaven them with new principles. He did not propose to abolish slavery, but to Christianise it; and when slavery is Christianised it must cease to exist. Christianised slavery is liberty.
The comment here provides historical differences between the ancient practice of slavery, and that form practiced in the 19th century. The comment points out that Paul’s comments were directed to the slavery of his own time. The form of slavery which emerges later, particularly in the Americas, faced predominantly Christian opposition, leading to the free states of the United States after its founding, the Abolitionist Movement, the end of slavery in the British Empire, and the American Civil War that ended slavery in its slave states.
The Pulpit Commentaries also provides a lengthy note regarding this verse.
Being a servant. This is the second instance of the rule. One who was converted whilst he was a slave is not to strive over anxiously for freedom. The word “emancipation” sometimes seems (as in the letter to Philemon) to be “trembling on Paul’s lips,” but he never utters it, because to do so would have been to kindle social revolt, and lead to the total overthrow of Christianity at the very commencement of its career. Our Lord had taught the apostles to adapt means to ends; and the method of Christianity was to inculcate great principles, the acceptance of which involved, with all the certainty of a law, the ultimate regeneration of the world. Christianity came into the world as the dawn, not as the noon—a shining light, which brightened more and more unto the perfect day. Care not for it. Do not be troubled by the fact, because in Christ “there is neither bond nor free” (Galatians 3:28), and because earthly freedom is as nothing in comparison with the freedom which Christ gives (John 8:36). But if thou mayest be made free, use it rather. The words may mean,
(1) “use freedom”—avail yourself of the opportunity of emancipation; or
(2) “use slavery”—be content to remain a slave. In favour of the first interpretation is the fact that there is nothing extravagant or fantastic in Christian morality; and that, considering what ancient slavery was—how terrible its miseries, how shameful and perilously full of temptations were its conditions—it sounds unnatural to advise a Christian slave to remain a slave when he might gain his freedom. Yet the other interpretation, remain a slave by preference, seems to be required:
1. By the strict interpretation of the Greek particles.
2. By the entire context, which turns on the rule that each man should stay in the earthly condition in which he first received God’s call.
3. By the fact that even the Stoic moralists—like Epictetus, who was himself a slave—gave similar advice (Epict., ‘Dissert.,’ 3:26; ‘Enchir.,’ 1 Corinthians 10:32.)
5. By his appeal to the nearness of the day of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:29-31).
6. By the preponderance of high authorities—Chrysostom, Theodoret, Luther, Bengel, De Wette, Meyer, Alford, etc.—in favour of this view
7. By its parallelism to the advice given to Christian slaves in 1 Timothy 6:2, where they are urged to serve Christian masters all the more zealously because they were brethren.
8. Lastly, all the apparent harshness of the advice is removed when we remember that St. Paul was probably thinking only of the Christian slaves of Christian masters, between whom the relation might be as happy as that of Philemon to the forgiven Onesimus.
There is no doubt that this teaching is difficult. However, among the considerations involved were the desire to differentiate Christianity from being a secular political movement and also the reality that much of the early Church was comprised of slave converts. Paul says here that the Gospel is not overtly about starting a slave revolt. Trying to lead a slave revolt, without God’s authorization, was a plan for failure and also likely to place the message of Christ beneath the opposition to slavery. The Gospel spread far and wide, through slaves, under the noses of the Roman leaders. Within three hundred years, Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire.
One factor that is often forgotten in these conversations relates to Biblical teaching regarding governance. It is one thing to tell a governed person how to behave, and another to instruct a ruler on how to rule. If God places a believer in a position to govern, how should that person do the job? That person should be am Ambassador for Christ in that role. Submitting to a Roman view of the world, when God allows the Romans to rule, is one thing. But if God places a Christian in authority, should that person not serve God in that role?
Romans 13:1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.
Isaiah 9:6-7 6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.
Matthew 7:2 For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.
Is Paul arguing here that when Christians are in government, that they should rule as the pagans do? Not at all. This advice regarding slavery is given in a context where Romans rule over an Empire and Christians live in that empire. Continuing with Ellicott:
(22) For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, . . .—Better, For he that was converted as a slave is Christ’s freedman; and, similarly, the one who was converted as a freeman is Christ’s slave. Therefore, no one need trouble himself as to his mere earthly servitude or freedom. If he be a slave, let him be cheered by remembering that he is a freedman belonging to Christ; and if he be a freeman, let him not despise the state of the one in servitude, realising that he himself is Christ’s slave. A “freedman,” as distinct from a “freeman,” was one who had been in bondage but was now free.
(23) Ye are bought with a price . . .—Better, You were bought with a price therefore become not slaves of men. This carries on the idea of freedmen of the previous verse. With a great price—even the blood of Christ—they have been purchased by Him as freedmen: therefore, do not become slaves of men—do not yield to their views by seeking to change the condition of your calling.
The bondage which Christ, Paul, and the early Church were most concerned with is the bondage of sin. Earthly slavery was a short-term situation, while the other had eternal consequences. We’ll close this section of thought from Paul with the note from the Pulpit Commentaries on verse 24:
Therein abide with God. The verse is a summary and reiteration of the advice contained in the whole paragraph. “With God;” literally, by the side of God; “as in God’s sight;” “doing service as to the Lord;” “for conscience towards God.” The words sum up the essence of all apostolic counsels to Christian slaves in Ephesians 6:5-8; 1 Timothy 6:1, 1 Timothy 6:2; Titus 2:9, Titus 2:10; 1 Peter 2:18, 1 Peter 2:19, etc.
And with that reiteration of the general idea, Paul moves back toward the discussion of marriage – this time focuses on the unwed and widows. We’ll cover tha tnext time.