- Read 1 Corinthians 7:17-24. What do you think Paul means when he tells Christians, “let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called? What’s your response to how Paul applies this teaching to slaves? How might this teaching apply to those who are married and single?
- Read 1 Corinthians 7:25-31. What do you think Paul means when he speaks of ‘the present crisis, and says ‘the time is short,’ and that ‘this world… is passing away’? What might this have to do with what he says about marriage and what he said earlier in verses 17-24?
- Read 1 Corinthians 7:32-40. Compare what Paul says here with Jesus’ words in Matthew 10:37-39 and Luke 9:57-62. What does this say about the kind of devotion we are to give to Jesus and God’s kingdom?
- Consider what Paul says in 7:38 ‘the one who marries… does well; and the one who refrains from marriage will do better.’ What do you think of Paul’s views on sexuality and marriage now that you have read through all of 1 Corinthians 7?
To make sense of what Paul is saying in 7:17-40 it's important to remember that central to Paul's beliefs is the statement he makes in Galatians 3:26-28 "For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus." (NRSV) For Paul, all of the old divisions in ancient Mediterranean society are healed and all are made one and equal in Jesus: Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female.
But just as important for Paul is the fact that unity and equality should not be reduced to sameness. Jesus calls all people, and the church must always be made up of people of all kinds. Paul taught unity in diversity. He taught that Gentiles should continue to be Gentiles and not seek to become Jewish and that Jews should not give up their Jewish identity and become Gentiles. This is what he says in 7:17-20. Here he makes no exceptions. The church must contain both Jews and Gentiles.
However, when it comes to slaves Paul does make an exception. In the context of a Roman Empire made up of slaves and free people, Christ's church ideally should always include both slaves and free to show that this false division is broken down in Jesus. This is why he tells slaves not to worry about their status as slaves - when it comes to their relationship with Jesus and their place in the community of his disciples their slave status doesn't matter.
That being said Paul does make an exception here because out in day to day life in the Roman Empire being a slave meant one had a very different life from those who were free. And so he tells them that "if you can gain your freedom, use the opportunity." (7:21) The trouble is that the Greek of this verse is a bit unclear: it can be taken to mean 'gain your freedom' or it can possibly mean 'make use of your status as a slave more than ever' (ie. stay a slave even if you can be free). The King James Version kept the ambiguity of the verse in it's translation (which is why slave owners in the 18th and 19th Centuries were able to point to it as justification), but most modern translations have favoured the 'gain your freedom if you can' reading. The only major translation that gives the alternate reading is the NRSV - which is my preferred Bible translation, but on this verse I believe it is wrong.
So here we have Paul giving the general rule, 'stay in the same life state you were in when you were called by Jesus' and a basic example with no exceptions (Jews and Gentiles), followed by an example of a life state where exceptions to the rule apply (Slaves and Free). This sets us up for what Paul will say about celibacy and marriage. General rule: it is best to stay single and celibate, it will allow you to do more for God's Kingdom and it will also make it easier for you to be a disciple of Jesus in this age of crisis. Exception: not everyone can do this - marry if you don't have the spiritual gift of celibacy. While Paul is often described as being too caught up in big ideas, here as elsewhere in his letters he shows that he is deeply practical and familiar with the needs of day to day life in the world.