What, if anything, must change when one becomes a Christian? What happens to one’s relationships, commitments, social status?
The converts in Corinth wrestled with such questions, disagreed on the answers, and wrote Paul to seek his counsel. As I suggested in the previous post, the situation may have been complicated by their concern to fit in or even gain some social advantage. In response, Paul bids them remember that God didn’t call them because of their social status.
To drive home his point, he uses two social distinctions that would have been meaningful to his audience. Here’s the first:
If someone was circumcised when called, he shouldn’t try to reverse it. If someone wasn’t circumcised when he was called, he shouldn’t be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing; not being circumcised is nothing. What matters is keeping God’s commandments. (1 Cor 7:18-19, CEB)
To many Jews, “uncircumcised” was but another way to say “Gentile.” Paul tells them not to become “uncircumcised,” which may refer to a painful cosmetic procedure. Who knows how many felt the need to do so? From the other side, Gentiles should not be pressured to get circumcised–a live social issue in other churches (e.g., Gal 5:2-12).
But again, it’s not really about anatomy. Are people anxious about fitting in? God has already called them to a new social reality. How new? Imagine telling a devout first-century Jew to keep God’s commandments, while declaring circumcision to be “nothing”! Yet that’s precisely what Paul does.
The second distinction deals with the deeply embedded Roman institution of slavery:
If you were a slave when you were called, don’t let it bother you. But if you are actually able to be free, take advantage of the opportunity. Anyone who was a slave when they were called by the Lord has the status of being the Lord’s free person. In the same way, anyone who was a free person when they were called is Christ’s slave. (1 Cor 7:21-22, CEB)
Translators disagree whether Paul told slaves to “take advantage” of opportunities for freedom (CEB, NIV, NASB), or to remain slaves even then (NRSV). But here, too, the point is that such earthly distinctions have been relativized by the gospel. Christians are simultaneously free in and yet slaves of Christ (vs. 22). “You were bought with a price,” Paul says (vs. 23a; see also 6:20)–did he mean that through the cross God purchased them as slaves, or purchased their freedom? We don’t have to choose; both are true.
Therefore, “Don’t become slaves of people” (vs. 23b, CEB). I read this in light of Galatians 5:1, in which Paul tells Gentile converts not to submit to circumcision, which he characterizes as “a yoke of slavery” (NRSV). In Corinth, the similar but broader point would be: Don’t be trapped by such human distinctions, as if God required you to be in one category or the other.
Paul concludes this part of the argument thus: “So then, brothers and sisters, each of you should stay with God in the situation you were in when you were called” (vs. 24, CEB). We may not know exactly what it means to live in the Roman Empire, or Corinth specifically. But we do know what it means to live in an society that values upward mobility, to be dissatisfied with our social status, whether because of our own aspirations, our fear of being looked down upon, or both.
Stay with God. Paul wants us to see ourselves through God’s eyes, as people for whom he paid dearly regardless of their social credentials. God called you as you were, and God is with you now. That’s what matters. You don’t have to look for him somewhere else.
What desired change would suddenly seem unnecessary to us, if we knew that God was already with us in our present situation?