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1 Corinthians 7:20–24

“Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.)” (v. 20–21).

Looking at Paul’s instruction on marriage and sexuality in 1 Corinthians 7:1–16, we see that many Corinthian believers operated with the assumption that faith in Christ required a radical change in their outward circumstances. Some thought Christianity required them to get a divorce, to stop enjoying the sexual relationship in marriage, or something else. Paul counsels against making a radical change in any of these or other ways. Underlying all this is one key principle: when people come to faith in Christ, they are not to be overly concerned with changing their vocation. Instead, insofar as their vocation is lawful, they should remain therein and find ways to serve Christ where they are (vv. 17–19).

Paul expounds on this principle in today’s passage, telling us that “each one should remain in the condition in which he was called” (v. 20). He then provides another illustration of the principle by considering the status of bondservants or slaves. Although ancient slavery was different from slavery as practiced in the United States, ancient slaves were still at the bottom of the social ladder. If anyone had reason to be concerned about his status and to want a change, it was a slave. Yet, Paul tells Christian slaves not to be concerned about it (v. 21). In other words, they should not be making it their chief aim to escape slavery but rather ought to focus on serving Christ where they are. Their faith in Jesus relativized the importance of their status as bondservants, meaning it was not the most important thing about them any longer. It just happens to be where Christ found them when He called them to faith.

Nevertheless, Paul’s direction is not that they must remain slaves. He says that while they should not be overly concerned about their slavery, they should obtain their freedom if the opportunity presents itself (v. 21). Thus we see that while the Christian faith should not make people focused on changing their outward calling, neither does it forbid such a change. It is not necessarily bad to want a different job, to be married, or even to gain individual liberty. The problem is when that becomes our primary aim, when we are so discontent that we start to believe that we cannot serve God in any circumstance. Paul is calling us to look out for the state of our hearts. John Calvin comments, Paul “has it simply in view to correct that inconsiderate eagerness, which prompts some to change their condition without any proper reason.”

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

Paul notes that slaves are free in Christ and that free people are slaves in Christ (1 Cor. 7:22–24). Even if our outward circumstances never change, our relationship to Christ changes who we are and what we are able to do where we are. Thus, we should aim for contentment. It is OK to want and to seek a change of our circumstances, but we cannot obsess about it or make it our chief aim. Our goal should be to serve Jesus right now wherever we are.

For Further Study
  • Ecclesiastes 5:18–20
  • Luke 3:10–14
  • 1 Timothy 6:6
  • Hebrews 13:5

Keeping the Commandments of God

Counsel for the Betrothed

Keep Reading The Christian Ethic

From the March 2021 Issue
Mar 2021 Issue