At present this blog is examining the Corinthian correspondence of St. Paul. Earlier passages and other projects can be accessed from my archive. The daily headlines are a reminder of the world we live in.
1 Corinthians 7
17 Only let each person live the life the Lord has assigned him and live it in the condition he was in when God called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the congregations. 18 Was someone already circumcised when he was called? Then he should not try to remove the marks of his circumcision. Was someone uncircumcised when he was called? He shouldn’t undergo b’rit-milah. 19 Being circumcised means nothing, and being uncircumcised means nothing; what does mean something is keeping God’s commandments. 20 Each person should remain in the condition he was in when he was called.
21 Were you a slave when you were called? Well, don’t let it bother you; although if you can gain your freedom, take advantage of the opportunity. 22 For a person who was a slave when he was called is the Lord’s freedman; likewise, someone who was a free man when he was called is a slave of the Messiah. 23 You were bought at a price, so do not become slaves of other human beings. 24 Brothers, let each one remain with God in the condition in which he was called.
25 Now the question about the unmarried: I do not have a command from the Lord, but I offer an opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is worthy to be trusted. 26 I suppose that in a time of stress like the present it is good for a person to stay as he is. 27 That means that if a man has a wife, he should not seek to be free of her; and if he is unmarried, he should not look for a wife. 28 But if you marry you do not sin, and if a girl marries she does not sin. It is just that those who get married will have the normal problems of married life, and I would rather spare you. 29 What I am saying, brothers, is that there is not much time left: from now on a man with a wife should live as if he had none — 30 and those who are sad should live as if they weren’t, those who are happy as if they weren’t, 31 and those who deal in worldly affairs as if not engrossed in them — because the present scheme of things in this world won’t last much longer. 32 What I want is for you to be free of concern. An unmarried man concerns himself with the Lord’s affairs, 33 with how to please the Lord; but the married man concerns himself with the world’s affairs, with how to please his wife; 34 and he finds himself split. Likewise the woman who is no longer married or the girl who has never been married concerns herself with the Lord’s affairs, with how to be holy both physically and spiritually; but the married woman concerns herself with the world’s affairs, with how to please her husband. 35 I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to put restrictions on you — I am simply concerned that you live in a proper manner and serve the Lord with undivided devotion.
36 Now if a man thinks he is behaving dishonorably by treating his fiancée this way, and if there is strong sexual desire, so that marriage is what ought to happen; then let him do what he wants — he is not sinning: let them get married. 37 But if a man has firmly made up his mind, being under no compulsion but having complete control over his will, if he has decided within himself to keep his fiancée a virgin, he will be doing well. 38 So the man who marries his fiancée will do well, and the man who doesn’t marry will do better.
39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives, but if the husband dies she is free to marry anyone she wishes, provided he is a believer in the Lord. 40 However, in my opinion, she will be happier if she remains unmarried, and in saying this I think I have God’s Spirit.
Paul’s great principle is that all believers are one and equal in Messiah Jesus, but that raises questions about Jewish practices like circumcision and universal practices like slavery. Should the equality of people “in Messiah” lead them to demand a change of status in secular life?
Paul is cautious; he does not want the messianic communities to become known as places of social unrest or scandalous behaviour. He advises believers to be content with the social condition in which they became believers. Circumcised Jews and uncircumcised Gentiles, Roman citizens and slaves, should all remain as they were prior to believing in Messiah Jesus. As a pragmatic measure to protect the believing community, we can see Paul’s shrewdness.He was trying to build up a network of alternative communities where believers could be nurtured in their discipleship of Jesus, not trying to reorganise society on the blueprint of God’s kingdom.
We may also defend Paul’s double standard by guessing that he recognised the value of the Roman Empire for the spread of the Gospel of Messiah Jesus. The relative good order brought about by the Pax Romana in most parts of the Mediterranean world, and especially the efficient means of communication, were conducive to the “announcement of the Good News of God” by Paul and the other messengers. Judaism had been given special status as an official religion (religio licita) of Rome, and as long as followers of the Jew Jesus remained good citizens, they enjoyed the protection of the mother religion. But public arguments about circumcision as a sign of membership, or worse, an explosion of slaves deserting their masters, could easily have brought Christian communities to the notice of the imperial officials.
Indeed, as Paul urges his converts, the new equality in Jesus Messiah could be enjoyed to the full in the Assemblies; just as the new “servitude” of one another had also to be practised in the Assemblies.
Paul however was not a slave and he perhaps should have been a little more careful than he was in giving authoritative advice to those who were. In more general terms, the combination of radicalism within the Messianic communities and conservatism in imperial society could not co-exist for long without contradictions. The Roman state often saw the communities as dangerous and persecuted them; while radical believers saw Rome as a Satanic enemy doomed to divine retribution ( see “The Revelation” throughout). Paul’s cautious balancing act was used in the 4th century CE to justify institutional Christianity becoming in effect the Imperial religion, while the fiercer faithful took to the desert to live as they believed under Gospel simplicity.
In fact the whole issue of “Church and State” or of the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of God, is ultimately raised by Paul’s careful advice to the Corinthian and other Assemblies. He cannot have appreciated the full scope of the issue at the time, but he did in my view get one thing right: believing communities must first of all practice what they preach; if they preach equality in Jesus, they must live in their community as equals; if they preach that the poor are blessed, they must make sure that their communal life provides for the needs of the poor. Doubtless they also have a duty to recommend equality and provision for the poor to the secular societies in which they exist, but they must start with their own house. My own church does recommend these aspects of social justice and it has made some attempts to use its working wealth in a just manner. But as long as its constituent assemblies are based on the geography of social division -and this is by and large the fate of “parishes” in modern Scotland- it may not have done enough to set an example.
Paul as applies his principle “remaining as you were” to the issue of celibacy. Married people must not desert their partners out of enthusiasm for Jesus Messiah. On the other hand, those who happen to be single should remain free of family responsibilities if the are able to do so. He explains his advice as appropriate in a time when “the present form of the world”is coming to an end. He is referring to his belief that Jesus Messiah will return.
The advice to engaged couples is more obscure.The best guess is that Paul is addressing the custom of “spiritual marriage”, that is, a male/ female partnership that excludes sex. Clearly Paul is open to this kind of partnership but he emphasises that it must be honest and freely chosen by both partners. He is careful to emphasise that ordinary marriage is not sinful or spiritually inferior.
While we may not agree with all of Paul’s judgements, we should again be impressed by his grasp of the issues; and the modesty and practicality of his advice.
( For a “dangerously inventive” (The Online Presbyteran) biblical fiction, try my Paul: An Unauthorised Autobiography, on Kindle)