17Nevertheless, each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. 18Was 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. 19Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God's commands is what counts. 20Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. 21Were you a slave when you were called? Don't let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord's freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ's slave. 23You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. 24Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to.
If Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand nothing else, the one thing that he really wanted them to grasp is what it meant to be in Christ. In Paul’s theology, the only person worthy of being called righteous and entering into the ‘age to come’ was Jesus. The only way that any human could enjoy any of that was to enter into the life of Christ. This, was of course, done at baptism (Romans 6:2-11), and it is the only way that we can enter into God’s presence. Throughout this letter, Paul is trying to help the Corinthians understand what it means to live in Christ and grab hold of the resurrection life. As part of that explanation in his letter to the Galatians (3:27-28), Paul says, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” His point is that once you have entered into the life of Christ, human distinctions are unimportant. We should neither exalt ourselves for them or feel badly about them. We are in Christ and that is the only important place to be. All other positions are merely tools to be used to bring glory and honor to Christ and places in which we can carry out His work.
If we don’t have that concept from Galatians 3 in mind, this passage can seem a bit out of place. Why would Paul include discussions on circumcision and slavery in a chapter about sex and marriage? It is because the real point of the chapter is about understanding who we are in Christ. He has been discussing the angle of gender and marriage, now he will turn to the other two big areas of contention and status in his day (both of which are mentioned in Galatians along with gender).
The first is circumcision. This was a clear divider between Jews and Greeks, especially in Greek towns where the men bathed and exercised naked. Many Jews in the first century Greek towns were so embarrassed by this physical marker that they took to having surgeries to make it look like they hadn’t been circumcised. The second was that of slavery. Slavery was a major part of life in the first century. The entire economy and social fabric was built upon it. We should note, though, that although it was still far from God’s plan of freedom for all humans, this was not nearly as brutal and dehumanizing as the form of slavery practiced in the new world from the 16th to the 19th centuries, nor the evil form of human slavery still practiced in many corners of the world today.
Paul’s point on both of these topics cannot be taken out of context. He is not writing about his personal feelings on these topics, nor is he laying down a biblical standard, that, for instance, slavery should be considered a positive thing. His point is that once someone comes to Christ there should be no exaltation or shame at whatever position they were when they were called. Men should not think themselves better than women, uncircumcised better than circumcised (or vice-versa), or free better than slave. These are either things out of their control (in the case of gender) or human constructs that are null and void in Christ where all are equal. The Christian need never to be swayed by social pressures to better themselves or change themselves. In Christ, we are all we ever need. This is what Paul means when he says that keeping God’s commands is all that counts (this is deliciously ironic for a Jew who would consider circumcision to be doing just that). The whole of keeping the law, in Paul’s mind, is to remain in Christ. In Christ, all of God’s commands are kept, which is, of course, something that we could not do on our own power.
Paul believes this because he firmly believes that “this world in its present form is passing away” (v. 31). Why worry about social pressures, customs, and standards that should be passing from our lives just as surely as they will pass away from this world completely in the ‘age to come’? In more modern terminology, why be in a hurry to re-arrange deck chairs on the Titanic? Living in Christ means a dignity that goes beyond anything the world can understand or offer. This is why each person should consider their human status as precisely the place where God wants to use them rather than something to be escaped. This principle can easily be applied beyond just the categories that Paul mentions here. Changing your status in life in regards of marriage, education, or career, for instance, is not necessarily a bad thing if the opportunity presents itself but it can become a negative situation if you are motivated by the perceptions of others or you become so obsessed with gaining that change in status that you put that as a priority in your life over the things of God and His people.
In the passage on slavery, we should be clear, Paul is neither condoning human slavery, nor is he condemning it. It is true, that in its essence, it goes against the way that God ordered the world, where he gave each man the freedom to choose. Yet, if a slave became a Christian and all they could do is obsess about becoming free it would be a demonstration, not so much about the power of God in one’s life, as it was a demonstration that they considered their place in this present age to be far more important than it is. Although, they shouldn’t obsess about it, Paul does add that if the opportunity to gain their freedom comes up, that they should not hesitate to take it (v. 21).
Paul’s words in verse 23, then, are brilliant in the way in which they speak to each group in a different way. The slave would hear that they had been purchased and had now entered into the freedom of Christ’s lordship while the free man would hear that they had been purchased into bondage to the one who had purchased them. They had both had their status in this present age changed and transcended by Christ and thus, should never stoop to becoming slaves of men, by which Paul means the standards or conventions of the world. He wants them to realize that their status in Christ is far more crucial than any social or cultural standards. They, and we, need to resist both the subtle and the not-so-subtle pressures put on us to make changing their status their be-all-end-all.
Is your status of one who has entered into the life of Christ the most important thing in your life? Does it determine the way you act or think about yourself and your position in life or are you tempted to view your position in life according to the standards and conventions of the world? What evidence do you see in your life that you might not have the view of being ‘in Christ’ that Paul would want you to have?