What identifies who we are? What determines how we see ourselves? Paul’s words to the Corinthian church answer those questions.
In 1 Corinthians 7:1-16 Paul urged the Corinthian Christians to remain as they were–married, widowed, single, etc. Here he applies that exhortation to circumcision and slavery. First, he enunciates . . .
THE PRINCIPLE (7:17)
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.
“Nevertheless” refers back to the one situation in which they shouldn’t remain as they were: “ . . . if the unbelieving partner leaves, let it be so” (7:15). Despite that exception, Paul writes, a believer should stay in the same social situation he was when converted.
Why? The Corinthians thought their social status (married, celebate,7:1-16) held religious significance. For example, being moved to a “higher plane” by the Spirit, they should strive to be celebate in marriage or, if a widow, they should remarry.
Paul tells them that Christ’s call transcends social status. It’s irrelevant. It has no spiritual significance. The Gospel eclipses social standing. Therefore, they shouldn’t seek to change it. They should see marriage to a believer or pagan as the proper place God “assigned” them to live out their Christian lives. Now Paul applies that to . . .
THE CIRCUMCISED (7:18-20)
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. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
A circumcised man couldn’t “become uncircumcised”. But Paul is making an earthshaking point: “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing.” Neither makes a difference to God when a man is “in Christ”.
Paul, then, repeats the principle: “Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.” There’s no need to change, because the believer is “in Christ”.
What matters is “keeping God’s commands”. The Corinthians, particularly, need to hear this, because they considered themselves “spiritual” to the point where bodily sin doesn’t matter.
Paul, however, doesn’t mean “keeping God’s commands” as works of the law. Rather, obedience is the proper response to God’s grace in Christ. One keeps God’s commands, not to become a Christian, but because God in Christ by the Spirit has made one a Christian.
This brings Paul to his second social situation . ..
THE SLAVE (7:21-24).
Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 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. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
To the slave-called-to Christ, Paul doesn’t counsel, “Stay as you are.” In fact, he says, “ . . . if you can gain your freedom, do so.” But his counsel is, “Don’t let it trouble you”. “Don’t let it be a concern to you.”
Why? “For the one called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person”. He may remain a slave socially, but spiritually he is freed from his sins to know Christ.
In the same way, “the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave.” His calling to Christ results in his belonging to Christ. He no longer belongs to himself.
“You were bought at a price do not become slaves of human beings.” In other words, the cross purchased you to belong to Christ. Don’t allow a human way of thinking (I have to improve my social status) to enslave you.
“As responsible to God” is literally “with God”. Paul’s sense seems to be that one–slave or free—is “responsible to God”, not to the mores of social status. Slavery or freedman is irrelevant.
YOU AND ME.
To the Corinthians spiritual identity required certain social identity. I’m approaching “identity” differently. What identifies who I am? What determines how I see myself?
In 1989 we moved to Florida. I thought I needed a “sabbatical” from pastoring, so I bought (believe it or not) a small carpet-cleaning company. I remember complaining to my wife, Lois, “I don’t know who I am.” My identity was “pastor.” When I temporarily stepped away, I didn’t know who I was.
Then, three years ago I retired. Again my identity changed. No longer “pastor”, I became an old wheel chair-bound curmudgeon. As a pastor, I was needed and respected. People looked to me to interpret God’s Word. Who needs an old curmudgeon? I’ve become less important, less needed. So who am I?
Incredibly, it took me a couple years to realize my identity never changed. Whether pastor or curmudgeon, my identity has always been a man in Christ. I’m a blood-bought sinner, joined to Christ, indwelt by his Spirit. Sure, I’m a husband, father, grandfather and blogger (!). But what identifies me, what determines how I see myself, is Christ himself. I’m his.
How about you?