A Clash of Cultures ~ 1 Corinthians 7:8-24
Big Idea: There is no ideal condition for us to attain in order to better serve God. We can honour God just as we are now – whether single, married, divorced, or remarried.
At age 29, Siddhartha had everything one could possibly wish for. Born into a royal family, he had wealth, status, health, as well as a beautiful wife and son. But a nagging restlessness stirred within. Surely there was something more – better and greater – than what he had now. Seeking that spiritual kingdom, Siddhartha renounced his earthly one. He left absolutely everything behind. That’s what made Siddhartha into the Buddha.
Many in first-century Corinth would probably agree. To attain heaven is to abandon the world. (That’s what lies behind their pro-celibacy slogan in verse 1.) Even today, Buddhist monks, Hindu yogis, and Roman Catholic priests, all practice some form of asceticism – severe self-discipline and avoidance of worldly things and pleasures. Austerity and celibacy are believed by many to be the ideal pre-condition to attain nirvana or heaven.
For the Corinthians, this belief means unmarried believers should stay single. Married believers should abstain from sex in marriage. Or they could divorce – dissolve their marriage in order to become single again. And widowed and divorced believers should ideally not remarry. Why? If we want to better honour God, we first need to put ourselves in an ideal situation.
In response to this, Paul says (7:17), “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.”
In other words, our external circumstances is not what counts. What matters is “keeping God’s commands” (7:19). And we can do that wherever we are, whatever our circumstance. Hence “each person,” Paul reiterates in verse 20, “should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.”
Want to change your marital status? That’s easy in first-century Corinth. What’s hard is to change your circumcision or slavery status!
Paul used these extreme examples to underline his point. If there is an ideal marital situation to honour God, it follows there would also be an ideal physical, racial, class, and economic situation as well. But what if those situations cannot be changed? Does that mean we are doomed to always be sub-par believers?
This doesn’t mean the Corinthians didn’t try. As the NIV Quest Study Bible notes:1
Surgical procedures existed in the first century that could reverse circumcision. Why? Because some Jews wanted to participate in Greek athletics or in the public Roman baths, where men discussed business and politics in an attempt to advance socially. Though nudity was the style there, the circumcised look was not. It was considered vulgar and uncultured. To avoid humiliation, some were undergoing surgery to reconstruct the foreskin.
For slaves, Paul says, “don’t let it trouble you” (7:21). Please don’t misunderstand. Paul is not condoning slavery here. Slavery was widespread and deeply rooted in first-century society.2 “If you can gain your freedom,” Paul goes on to say (7:21), “do so.”
Paul even urged his friend Philemon, in a subsequent letter, to welcome Onesimus, Philemon’s former slave, as a “dear brother” (Philemon 16). Why? All believers, regardless of worldly rank, are ultimately “Christ’s slave” (7:22).
What Paul says here, in essence, is that even in a situation that’s clearly less than ideal and hard to change (i.e. slavery), we can still honour and please God. How much more those who are not slaves?
So for singles and widows, you can stay single, or marry (7:8-9). For those married, you should stay married (7:10-11). For those in mixed marriages – where one spouse subsequently became a believer – if the unbelieving spouse wants to stay, the believing husband “must not divorce her” (7:12). Likewise, the believing wife “must not divorce him” (7:13). On the other hand, if the unbelieving spouse wants to leave, Paul says “let it be so” (7:15).
What ultimately matters is not our circumstances but our attitudes. Believers don’t need a change in our external situations to better honour and serve God. There is no ideal situation. This truth should liberate us. Why? It means we can honour God right now in whatever situation we are in.
1 NIV Quest Study Bible (2011), p. 1675.
2 Slavery in the first century took many forms and cannot be compared to that practiced in England and America in the 17th and 18th centuries. In major cities like Corinth, many household slaves were likely to be educated and worked as doctors, scribes, teachers, and managers of their masters’ estates. Female household slaves, on the other hand, were often vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
Questions for personal reflection or group discussion:
1. “Believers don’t need a change in our external situations to better honour and serve God.” What does this “honouring” and “serving God” really mean?
2. If you are a Christian and you are single, widowed, or divorced, what are the areas in your life that can honour God and point people to Christ?
3. In first-century Corinth, Christians came from a variety of backgrounds (eg former/current slave, circumcised Jews, etc). What kinds of backgrounds do 21st-century Christians come from that might cause concern about whether their current lifestyle is an effective witness for Christ? What do you think Paul has to say about them, based on what you now understand of verses 8 to 24?