Many precious truths were recovered during the Protestant Reformation, including the fact that every social status and legitimate vocation gives the believer an opportunity to serve the Lord. The medieval church had elevated the priesthood and lifelong celibacy as callings for the holiest people. But the Reformers insisted that one could be holy and be married, and that true holiness could be expressed by serving God as a baker, a carpenter, an accountant, a janitor, or any other lawful vocation.
First Corinthians 7 is foundational for the Reformers’ teaching on vocation. Paul’s counsel that both marriage and singleness are legitimate spheres for Christian service assumes that holiness is possible in both cases (vv. 1–11). Verse 16 also points in this direction. Paul notes that even marriage to an unbeliever can provide avenues for serving the Lord, for the believer might very well lead the unbelieving spouse to faith in Christ. Believers should not set out to marry unbelievers with the aim of converting them. However, if a believer ends up married to an unbeliever, the marriage should continue if the unbeliever consents to the union. Who knows whether the believing spouse may be a saving influence on the non-Christian (vv. 12–16)?
Today’s passage tells us more explicitly that believers may serve God in many different spheres. We are to lead the life we had when the Lord called us (v. 17). The Lord does not demand a drastic change in our social status, employment, or marital state when He brings us to faith in Jesus. These outward circumstances have no bearing on whether we can serve God (unless, of course, they require us to sin). Consequently, He does not require us to change any of them.
Paul illustrates this principle with an illustration from the Jew-gentile distinction. If one is uncircumcised (that is, a gentile) when converted to Christ, he does not need to get circumcised (that is, become a Jew) once he comes to faith. If he is circumcised, he does not need to reverse the circumcision. One can be content as a Jewish Christian or a gentile Christian, because one can serve God either way (v. 18).
Remarkably, Paul says that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything. Only keeping God’s commandments matters (v. 19). But of course, circumcision was one of God’s commandments (see Gen. 17:1–14). Thus, circumcision is of a different class of commandments than the Lord’s eternal moral law. It is a rule that was never intended to be permanent for God’s people.