In the last essay studied 1 Cor. 7:8-16 in which Paul discussed Christians married to other Christians (7:10-11), and Christians married to non-Christians (7:12-16). In this essay we are studying 7:17-40. In verses 17-24, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to stay as they are, that is, to maintain the social status quo, which raises an extremely difficult interpretive issue. We have to ask, why did Paul say that? And we have to ask, is that God’s Word for us today?
Notice that Paul states his rule, or guiding principle, three times in verses 17-24. He states it once at the beginning; once in the middle; and again at the end. In verse 17 he says, “Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you.” Then in verse 20 he writes, “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.” And again at the end, in verse 24: “In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.”
Paul says that this is his “rule in all the churches” (v. 17). Therefore the question immediately arises as to whether Paul intended it only for the churches of his day, or for all churches of all time. If you glance at the next few verses, you will see that his command is to maintain the social status quo. And he speaks about it in terms of God’s call. Paul’s point is that God’s call transcends all social situations. That is to say, when we are right with God in Christ, social settings have no importance.
Paul illustrates with two social situations. First, in verses 18-20 he illustrates with circumcision, which of course is an aspect of Judaism. Thus Paul’s first illustration lies in the area of one’s relation to Judaism. His command is not to seek a change in the matter. If one is circumcised when converted, do not seek to remove its marks. If one is not circumcised when converted, do not seek circumcision. In other words, a relationship to Judaism is not important. The only thing that is important is keeping the commandments of God. Strict Jews would have responded that Paul was teaching nonsense, because circumcision is a command of God. But Paul no longer thought that way. For him keeping God’s commandments is doing the will of God, not doing Jewish rituals.
In verses 21-24 we see Paul’s second illustration, which has to do with social standing rather than religion. It is the matter of slavery. Notice that Paul is not commanding them to avoid a change in social status. For example, if Christian slaves have an opportunity to attain freedom, they should take it. He simply is saying that social standing is unimportant to the Christian. Verse 23 reinforces this, because he tells the Christian free men metaphorically not to become slaves to men, because they were bought with a price, as were the literal slaves. Ironically, both the Christian slaves and free men are free in Christ and in bondage to Christ. And that is why their social situations do not matter.
This teaching is not very acceptable in our American culture. We are raised to believe in upward mobility. We are all about moving to a higher economic and social status. I personally believe that Paul would not totally disapprove, because he allows for change for the better. But he clearly teaches that our lives are to be determined by God’s call, not by our social situations. Unfortunately, far too many Christians have God’s call on their lives on a back burner.
Now then, we must remember the larger context. The larger context is that of sex and marriage, divorce, and Christian devotion to God. An important part of the Corinthians remaining within their social status quo includes their marital status. And Paul refocuses on that theme in the verses that follow.
Verses 25-31 make up the section we looked at in part in our last essay. Paul here turns his attention to the “virgins,” apparently in response to something in the Corinthians’ letter. And he indicates that “in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are.” That is, maintain the status quo.
The first question we must ask is who are the “virgins”? The context, especially verses 36-38, suggests that they are people who are engaged to be married, but who have not yet gone through the wedding ceremony. In last week’s post we saw that “the impending crisis” was a key to Paul’s thinking. Because of a current or impending crisis, which Paul describes in verse 28 as “affliction in the flesh,” it is better to remain as one is, whether married or unmarried. But it is all right for singles to marry. Verse 29 brings out another aspect of Paul’s thinking, namely, the sufferings of the end-time. This is confirmed by his statement in verse 31, “For the present form of this world is passing away.” Thus we see that he was thinking in radical terms, which resulted in radical (though balanced) instructions.
This leads us to ask, Are Paul’s exhortations to the Corinthians eternal commands of God? Or are they temporary instructions for a particularly stressful time in the history of the early Church? Because of the context I believe it is the latter. First, there is the “impending distress” mentioned in v. 26. This is a reference to coming persecution. Paul wants the Corinthian Christians to have as few obligations and worldly concerns as possible.
Second, in verses 29 and 31 we see: “brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown very short (v. 29).” And “the form of this world is passing away” (v. 31b). The time referred to in verse 26 seems to be the time before the suffering begins, not the time of the end itself. But in verses 29-31 Paul definitely inserts an end-time element. In other words, Paul wants the Corinthians to think in end-time categories. The coming persecutions will make normal relationships impossible. And so Paul counsels them to remain in whatever social state they presently are, although as we have seen, he allows for change.
He explains this further in verses 32-35. In these verses Paul explains that his instructions about marriage are based on his desire to lower their anxieties. He notes that married men have worldly as well as otherworldly responsibilities. On the other hand, unmarried women and virgins are free to give their energies to service to the Lord, because they will not have to worry about a spouse, or possible children, during the time of great stress. The scholars seem a bit mystified as to why Paul distinguishes between “unmarried women” and “virgins,” since virgins also are unmarried. Once again I believe the context is our guide. In this section Paul has the issue of engaged virgins and what they should do particularly in mind.
At any rate, throughout this chapter, Paul consistently has advised the Corinthians to maintain the social status quo. If they are married, fine. If they are unmarried, they can marry if they want to. But it is better to stay single, because a single person has fewer worldly responsibilities. But whether one is married or single, he or she is to live from an end-time perspective. That is the key to reduced anxiety for everyone.
Paul returns to his advice about virgins in verses 36-38. Where the NRSV translates “fiancé,” the Greek word is “virgin,” as the NIV translates it. Either translation is correct, because Paul is writing about virgins, but specifically about virgins who are betrothed to men. In these verses, Paul writes from the perspective of the men. And his advice is the same as earlier in the chapter. Marry if you want to; stay single if you want to.
Verses 39-40 seem to be tacked on. Paul turns from men to women, but instead of continuing his discussion of virgins he speaks of widows. As Paul had taught earlier, the marriage bond is broken by death. So a widow was free to marry anyone who wished to marry her. But as always, he suggests that remaining single is the better decision.