For Americans, who sometimes take the cultural influence of Christian beliefs and traditions for granted, it may be hard to imagine the situation faced by churches in the New Testament. Many were islands of belief in a culture steeped in pagan religion. Tell someone that you’ve decided to commit yourself to following a crucified Jewish Messiah? Chances are, the response would not be, “Really? How nice for you.”
Converts were trying to figure out the real-life implications of their faith, without benefit of Christian media or even a Bible. The gospel brought everything into question, and the potential for division existed wherever believers had competing answers. It’s no wonder Paul had to stay busy visiting congregations, or writing letters when a visit was impossible.
In numerous posts, we’ve examined some of the issues that surfaced in the congregation at Corinth. Divisions based on pride and arrogance. Flagrant sexual immorality. Christians defrauding one another, then airing their dirty laundry in public. Unstable marriages. And at the root of it all, it seems, the Corinthians struggled to define what their newfound faith meant to existing roles. What kinds of changes did becoming a Christian demand?
Paul has already given a partial answer. As we’ve seen, to those who thought that their spirituality required abstaining from sexual relations with a spouse, or even divorcing an unbelieving spouse, Paul says “No.” Then, in the middle of 1 Corinthians 7, Paul gives the theological principle behind his counsel, saying it three times, three ways, in eight verses:
- Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. (vs. 17)
- Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. (vs. 20)
- In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God. (vs. 24, NRSV)
This is his “rule in all the churches” (vs. 17, NRSV), Paul says, which suggests that the kinds of problems experienced in Corinth were not unique. Each time he states the principle, Paul uses the language of call, echoing a challenge he issued near the beginning of the letter:
Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. So no human being can brag in God’s presence. … This is consistent with what was written: “The one who brags should brag in the Lord!” (1 Cor 1:26-29, 31, CEB)
Thus, there are two problems in Corinth. One has to do with the legitimate question of change. In various ways, Paul clearly tells them, You don’t belong to yourself anymore–you follow Christ, and must live like it. But that’s just the point: the Corinthians are still trying to figure out what that means, embedded as they are in cultures, institutions, and relationships that are not grounded in the gospel. What needs to change, and how?
But the second problem has to do with a habit of thought. Even as they wrestle with the question of change, they do so in a way that angles toward preferred social status. Sure, we’re all Christians, but the really wise/mature/spiritual Christians, the ones who show that they really get it, are the ones who _____ . Fill in the blank, and join the club.
That’s why Paul has to insist that God’s calling levels the categories they use to determine who’s in or out, up or down. And to make his point, he deconstructs two cultural distinctions that cut to the heart of their social life: circumcised versus uncircumcised (Jew vs. Gentile), and slave versus free. More on that in the next post.