1 Corinthians Week 6

Called to . . . Bloom Where We Are Planted: 1 Corinthians 7:1–40

By Robert Drovdahl
Seattle Pacific University Professor of Christian Ministries and Education

Read this week’s Scripture: 1 Corinthians 7:1-40Listen to the podcast

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This week’s Lectio passage marks a substantial shift in Paul’s letter. The first six chapters reflect Paul’s agenda for the Corinthian believers, set by the report from Chloe’s people (1:11). In sharply worded attacks, Paul chastises the Corinthians for their pride that led to divisions in the church (Chapter 1); accuses them of immaturity (Chapter 2) and ignorance about God’s ways (Chapter 3); defends his apostolic ministry (Chapter 4); and expresses dismay at their willingness to tolerate church members behaving badly (Chapters 5 and 6). The tone is direct, decisive, polemical, and sprinkled liberally with sarcasm and irony.

Paul now picks up the Corinthian believers’ agenda by addressing issues and questions raised by the church. Most likely these questions were also brought by Chloe’s people. The general structure that seems to mark Paul’s answers is the phrase, “Now concerning.” This phrase occurs six times over the final 10 chapters (7:1, 7:25, 8:1, 12:1, 16:1, and 16:12) [see Author’s Note 1]. Each time, the phrase introduces a new topic. While we don’t see the actual questions asked, we can infer the contours of the questions based on Paul’s answers. The following list identifies the possible questions that prompted Paul’s responses:

 

Now, if we are honest, it’s hard to get excited about these questions. After all, when was the last time you heard Christians wondering aloud whether to eat meat sacrificed to idols? I have done premarital counseling with many Christian young adults, and I have never asked them, “In light of 1 Corinthians, are you really sure you should proceed with your wedding?”

The nature of these questions reminds us again that reading the Bible as Scripture requires use of our imagination, guided by the Holy Spirit. In seeing how God spoke to the Corinthians through Paul, we can imagine how God speaks to us through the text. Keep this in mind as we examine Paul’s response to the first question: How are Christian faithfulness and marital status related?

Married, Unmarried, Widowed, Separated, Engaged (7:1–40)

Before we look at Paul’s advice on these particular marital statuses, I want to take us to eight verses nestled in the middle of this week’s Lectio passage. Here Paul provides the theological teaching undergirding his counsel to the Corinthians on marriage matters. This section (7:17–24) has played an important role in Christian teaching on vocation: the idea that our whole lives can be orchestrated according to the purposes of God.

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The great reformer Martin Luther used this text to emphasize that every person has a calling from God. In Luther’s day, “earthly” work was considered inferior to the “heavenly” work of priests, monks, and nuns. For Luther, “the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks” [see Author’s Note 2].

Do we believe this? It is tempting to assume that those who serve in “full-time Christian ministry” as pastors or missionaries have a higher calling than nurses, construction workers, stylists, or programmers. If the majority of our work-life remains in front of us, we may think following God completely means we should and would consider full-time ministry. Paul would surely say, “Not so!” Let’s look carefully at three principles Paul teaches in this section that shape God’s call on our lives. God’s call involves being in the right place, living by the right priorities, and having the right perspective.

The right place. Paul’s basic principle is simple. God calls you to the place you already inhabit; we are to remain in the condition in which we were called (7:20). Paul mentions two specific conditions, circumcision and slavery, but his point is broader. In whatever condition you were called, don’t make changing the conditions of your life your first priority. The “condition” Paul addresses in 7:1–40 is marital status, but his brief allusion to circumcision and slavery suggests he has a variety of “conditions” in mind. I recall one memorable line from the pastor’s homily at our wedding that stated a similar principle: “A good marriage is not so much finding the right person as being the right person.” God’s call is to bloom where we are planted. [see Author’s Note 3]

The right priorities. In 7:19, Paul uses hyperbole to emphasize getting our priorities right. One’s condition (in this instance, circumcision) is nothing; obedience to God is everything. Again, the Corinthian believers were mistakenly confusing spirituality with their marital or social status. Paul’s counsel was to “obey the commandments of God in everything” (7:19).

The right perspective. Finally, Paul goes on to encourage a larger perspective by noting the great reversal that faith in Christ makes: “Whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ” (7:22).

This powerful reversal reminds us that life conditions do not define us. Our work does not define us, our health status does not define us, our geographical location does not define us, even our marital status does not define us. Our standing with God defines us. In whatever condition we find ourselves, we are God’s servants and God’s beloved children. This identity can never be taken from us.

With this theological groundwork laid, we can now see how Paul appropriates it to address the first two Corinthian questions: What is the Christian faith’s impact on married life, and what is its impact on engaged couples’ plans?

Spirituality, Sex, and Married Life (7:1–16)

In last week’s Lectio (I Corinthians 5:1–6:20), we noted that written Greek did not have quotation marks to indicate quoted text. This fact is essential for properly understanding Paul’s teaching in 7:1–16, since Paul opens the section with a Corinthian claim and then refutes that claim with his own position.  Failure to separate these claims, which unfortunately has been a pattern in interpreting this passage, results in distorted thinking about spirituality and human sexuality.

The Corinthian claim. The stance some Corinthian believers were taking was, “It is not well for a man to touch a woman” (7:1). In this claim, we see the nascent disconnect between physical life and spiritual life, a disconnect that eventually resulted in views that demonized bodily existence. In Corinth this hyper-spirituality resulted in married couples abstaining from sexual relations (7:3), Christians believing they should dissolve their marriages (7:10–11), and Christians married to unbelievers thinking they should leave the marriage (7:12–13).

Paul’s claim. Paul argues that these three claims are misguided on theological (7:4, 7:10, 7:14) and practical (7:2, 7:5, 7:9, 7:16) grounds. Here is a brief summary of Paul’s counterclaims:

  • Regarding sexual relations in marriage, Paul makes a strong claim for mutuality: the husband has authority over the wife’s body and the wife has authority over the husband’s body (7:4). Paul does allow for mutually agreed times of abstention, but these are for particular times of prayer, not to demonstrate a type of super-spiritual life (7:5).
  • Regarding Christians staying married, Paul reminds the Corinthians that this falls under God’s commands (7:10). Any claim to a “spiritual” course of action must be tested against the commandments of God.
  • Regarding a Christian married to an unbeliever, Paul applies the same counsel — stay married — but he acknowledges in two ways that the situation may be more complicated. First, Paul “qualifies” the authority behind the advice by saying, “I say — I and not the Lord ….” (7:12). Second, Paul recognizes that the “right path” may not be within the believer’s control. If the unbelieving spouse ends the marriage by leaving, the believing spouse is no longer bound to the marriage (7:15).

The Particular Case of Engaged Christians (7:25–40)

Paul establishes the tone for his counsel to engaged Christians at the outset of this section. His advice is his own alone; it is opinion, not command; and he hopes they will receive it as trustworthy counsel. The advice is straightforward. Paul encourages them to remain single, but acknowledges that may not be possible. Perhaps more useful for our reading is not what Paul advises his readers to do, but how Paul advises them. What does Paul’s guidance look like? We conclude our Lectio by examining characteristics of Paul’s counsel in this week’s passage.

The Help We Need When We Need Discernment

Paul’s tone clearly shifts as he begins to respond to the questions asked by Corinthian believers. He is less directive and more cautious. He recognizes alternative ways to respond, and acknowledges exceptions and mitigating circumstances. His tone seems predicated on the idea that he was addressing issues with no clear-cut answers. Instead, these issues required discernment — that delicate combination of the Spirit’s leading and practical wisdom. How can Paul’s counsel with the Corinthians guide us when we need discernment? Here are five possibilities:

  • Discernment should begin with openness and a desire to please God. While we might raise an eyebrow at those “crazy Corinthians,” we can admire their willingness to go “all out” for God.
  • Discernment should be focused on living in light of our beliefs. Given this principle, we must pay careful attention to what we believe.
  • Discernment includes practical considerations. Note how often Paul’s counsel included attention to the consequences of particular actions.
  • Discernment is about “What is better?” not “What is right?” Even though Paul prefers engaged couples to stay unmarried (7:38), he is quick to say that marrying is not a sin (7:28).
  • Discernment involves seeking wise counsel. The Corinthians sought counsel from someone who was trustworthy (7:25) and had the Spirit of God (7:40). We do well to seek the same!

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. How do you connect spirituality with the “conditions” of your life: work environment, marital status, social circumstances, physical existence?
  2. Are you currently seeking discernment regarding some area of your life? Who are trustworthy, Spirit-led people whose counsel you could seek?
  3. What were you taught about God’s call in your life? Does it align with Paul’s teaching in 7:17–24?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

Paul may also be answering Corinthian questions when he addresses women wearing head-coverings in worship (11:2–16) and communion practices (11:17–34). Though not introduced by “Now concerning,” Paul works with these two topics in a similar fashion to his treatment of the six topics introduced by the phrase.

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Author’s Note 2

When we imagine how Paul’s counsel to “stay put” applies to our lives, we must remember this counsel is not absolute. Paul himself places limits on the principle, when he suggests that slaves who can gain their freedom may “avail themselves of the opportunity.” Additionally, we should remember that Paul’s counsel was given against the backdrop of expecting Jesus’ return in the very near future. However we understand “I am coming soon” and our responsibility to live expectantly in light of Jesus’ return, we should not expect its application for our lives to look exactly as it looked to the Corinthian believers.

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Author’s Note 3

The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, published in 1520.

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