Exposition of 1 Corinthians 7:17–31 Our status is in Christ

1 Corinthians 7:17–31

17 Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18 Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. 20 Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.

21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you — although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.

25 Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. 27 Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.

29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

As part of his instruction about marriage and divorce, Paul has said, “God has called us to live in peace” (1 Cor. 7:15). While his primary focus has been on strengthening the Corinthians’ understanding of marriage in the context of their Christian faith, Paul takes this occasion to give some other examples that involve maintaining peace: the conditions of circumcision or slavery.

The main principle Paul stresses may be found in verses 17, 20 and 24. Gordon Fee summarizes, “They should remain in whatever social setting they were at the time of their call since God’s call to be in Christ (cf. 1:9) transcends such settings so as to make them essentially irrelevant.”[1] Anthony Thiselton makes a solid, practical point when he says, “A Christian does not have to seek ‘the right situation’ in order to enjoy Christian freedom or to serve God’s call effectively.”[2]

For a new Christian to think they should divorce their spouse to serve God better makes about as much sense as the man who says that he will first clean up his life and then trust in Christ. Neither idea has any merit! Similarly, it makes no sense for every enthusiastic new Christian to think that God intends for them to throw everything aside and go to seminary or the mission field.

Unless you understand how Paul thinks of Jesus Christ, 1 Cor. 7:19 can sound paradoxical or even contradictory. Circumcision was a central requirement for those under the old covenant, but the coming of Christ, and particularly his crucifixion, replaced the old covenant with the new covenant in his blood (Luke 22:20). For those who follow Jesus, everything revolves around the relationship to him and thus to what Jesus required through his own teachings and those of his apostles. When we call Jesus “Lord,” we are saying that he is God! When Paul says, “Keeping God’s commands is what counts,” he is speaking of Christ’s commands, not those contained in the Old Testament law. This is verified in 1 Cor. 9:21 where Paul says, “I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law” (emphasis added). A great deal more about the Christian’s relationship to the law may be found at this link:  http://wp.me/p1mupH-m. See also Galatians 6:2.

In interpreting the Bible we must also be sensitive to the fact that the Scriptures may set out a seemingly absolute principle and then follow it with one or more exceptions. Verse 20 seems quite clear and comprehensive about remaining in the situation of your calling, but in verse 21 Paul says that a person called to Christ as a slave should embrace their freedom if they are freed.

Roman slavery was no walk in the park, but it cannot be understood through the lens of former slavery in America.[3] Further, in addressing the status of slaves and freedmen (1 Cor. 7:21–23), Paul’s main objective is to warn the Corinthians against their excessive preoccupation with status-betterment, a mad scramble in achievement-oriented Corinth. Fee says, “Status of any kind is ultimately irrelevant with God.”[4]

To understand 1 Cor. 7:22a (“For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person”), consider how David Garland’s analysis of a Roman freedman’s obligations to the one who freed him compare to our relationship to Christ, who freed us:

“The freedman owed the former master lifelong obsequium [a Latin term meaning…] (eagerness to serve respectfully); a certain number of days’ work per week, month, or year (operae, enforceable by civil action); gifts (munera); and moral duty (officium). In return, the master, now the freedman’s patron, looks after the welfare of the freedman. As Christ’s freedman, the former slave takes on the name of the master, is directed by him, and owes him allegiance.”[5]

When we trust in Christ, we become members of Christ’s household. Thiselton says, “The slave’s real status is determined by his or her placement in a different household entirely: the household of Christ. . . . To be a slave of Christ (rather than of another) outranks any other status in any other household.”[6] That is exactly our status because “you were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 7:23; 1 Cor. 6:20), and the price was the blood of Christ shed for us on the cross. Again we return to a focus on Christ crucified (1 Cor. 2:2).

The remainder of this section, verses 25–31, will be discussed in a brief style.

  • The “virgins” (1 Cor. 7:25) are probably unmarried yet betrothed women who would be uncertain about whether keeping the same status in which they were called (1 Cor. 7:24) might be interpreted to mean they should not marry.
  • The nature of the “present crisis” (1 Cor. 7:26)is not known, but a likely candidate would seem to be a widespread grain shortage in A.D. 51 that was so serious as to cause Rome to place one man in charge of Corinth’s supply.[7] To prevent grain shortages in Rome, the provinces were often exploited with widespread hunger as the result elsewhere.

Perhaps the most important sentence in verses 25–31 is this: “this world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:31). Fee rightly says: “In Paul’s view the End has already begun [with the crucifixion of Christ]; the form of this world is already passing away. Christians do not thereby abandon the world; they are simply not to let this age dictate their present existence.”[8]

Copyright © 2013 Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.

[1] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 307.

[2] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 545.

[3] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 319; Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 556.

[4] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 322.

[5] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 314.

[6] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 560–561.

[7] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 573.

[8] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 330.