Sermon Discussion Questions:
1. What stood out to you most?
2. What would you assume you need in your life to be content?
3. Why might a Jew be tempted to pursue uncircumcision? Why might a Greek be tempted to pursue circumcision? Can you relate to the temptation to adopt a different set of cultural preferences to fit in?
4. How can Paul tell slaves to be content in their station?
5. What's would you say to someone who feels miserable in their marriage, their station, or their job?
What is the secret to being happy? If you are unhappy, the problem is either (1) your circumstances or (2) you. We have a lot of ground to cover today, so I’ll cut to the chase: Paul doesn’t think the problem with our lack of contentment is our circumstances.
10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. 15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16 For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
The central passage here is verse 17, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” Paul wants you to live as you are called in: your marriage, your culture, your work. But you will notice that in each of these points, Paul is going to make an exception.
10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. 1 Cor 7:10-11
When Paul says, “To the married I gives this charge (not I, but the Lord),” he isn’t saying that he has received some special mystical revelation from God, but is instead saying that the historical Jesus clearly taught on the issue of divorce and marriage. When Jesus was asked about whether or not it was lawful to divorce one’s wife, He responded by citing the Genesis account of the two becoming one flesh, and if God has joined the two together, man ought not separate (Matt 19:3-6). But then when pressed as to why Moses allowed divorce, Jesus replied: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery,” (Matt 19:8-9; cf. Matt 5:31-32).
So, Paul simply re-affirms Jesus’ basic teaching. A wife should not separate from her husband, and a husband should not leave his wife. But, if either leave one another, they should remain unmarried or be reconciled with their spouse, otherwise they are (in the words of Jesus) committing adultery with whoever they remarry.
Now why is Paul bringing this up? Remember what some of the Corinthians were saying: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman,” (1 Cor 7:1). There was some faction in the church who were saying that it was better to avoid sexual relations entirely, and so avoid marriage. Perhaps some people heard this and were tempted or even actually had abandoned their spouse because of it. And Paul says: No, don’t leave your spouse! God isn’t pleased with that kind of holiness movement.
But another reason why he may be bringing this up is to address what one should do if you find yourself married to an unbeliever.
12 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. (1 Cor 7:12-13)
“The rest” here now refers to those married to non-Christians. In verses 8-9, Paul addressed singles, and in verses 10-11 he addressed those married to other believers, but now Paul turns to “the rest,” those in unequal unions. Remember, the Corinthians are all likely first-generation Christians. They didn’t grow up in church nor did they likely have their faith when they were entering into their marriages, so they weren’t looking for a Christian spouse. Later in the chapter, Paul is going to exhort widows who are seeking remarriage, but “only in the Lord,” (1 Cor 7:39). So, we should only be seeking a spouse who is “in the Lord” in the same way we are. But, what if you weren’t a Christian when you were married? What should a person do who has become converted, but their spouse remains an unbeliever?
Paul says: if they consent to live with you, do not seek a divorce. And then Paul grounds this with verse 14, “For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy,” (1 Cor 7:14). What does that mean? If any Christian thought perhaps they should leave their unbelieving spouse because they may be contaminated by their unholiness, Paul flips that fear on its head. Much like when Jesus would touch a leper, here the holiness drives out the uncleanness rather than itself being contaminated. But what does it mean that your spouse and children are “made holy”? Does that mean that they are saved? No, the meaning seems to be found in verse 16, “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?” (1 Cor 7:16).
Here the salvation of the spouse is a possibility, but not a certainty. The “holiness” that Paul seems to refer to in verse 14 is that by the positive influence of the believer, the unbelieving spouse and children are now much more likely to come to faith in Christ. There is a holy influence on their lives, so the believing spouse should live as they were called, they should be content in their marriage. The theme of “contentment” weaves through this whole section—how can you live as you were called? You must be content, not pining after another life, another spouse.
Paul said that if an unbelieving spouse “consents to live with” the believing spouse, they should remain. But if they don’t consent to live with you? If they abandon you? Paul teaches: “But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace,” (1 Cor 7:15). If the unbelieving spouse separates from the believing, then the believing spouse is not enslaved to the unbelieving spouse and is free. Unlike those who divorce illegitimately in 7:10-11, the individual who is abandoned by their spouse is free to seek remarriage without being guilty of the charge of adultery.
What About Domestic Violence?
But practically this leads us to ask: what about cases of abuse? Well, there are those who say that abuse is not a legitimate ground for divorce, but most would disagree. And the most persuasive proof would likely be this text. Here Paul says that you should remain married to an unbeliever if they “consent to live with” you but if they “abandon you” then you are free. If a spouse is making your home an unsafe place for you or for your children to live through physical or sexual assaults or credible verbal threats on your lives, or drug/alcohol use that make them unsafe, then you need to physically remove yourself from the home until the spouse has proven that they are a safe person to be around, and should report them to the authorities if they have committed a crime.
If they persist in being an unsafe person, thereby making the home an unsafe place for you and your children to live in, then they are not consenting to live with you and have abandoned their marriage, and so a divorce may be appropriate. If this is pursued patiently and with the wisdom of the church by your side to help sift through the details, then this would not be an illegitimate divorce, and thus the divorcee would be free to seek remarriage.
But what if my abusive spouse is a Christian? If they persist in their unrepentant sin, then the church would move through the regular motions of church discipline. If they continue to deny, blame-shift, or evade the steps of repentance, then the church would exercise their use of the keys of the kingdom and pronounce the individual to be outside of the church, an unbeliever.
And, just a word of pastoral care: please know that your pastors here are always available to you and would be honored to walk through this with you, to listen to your story.
17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. (1 Cor 7:17)
Now, there is a heading division in our Bibles, but when Paul wrote this letter you can see how this is directly connected with the previous unit of thought. Were you married when you met Christ? Then don’t abandon the life that the Lord has assigned to you—stay married! God has called you there. This is Paul’s universal rule: becoming a Christian does not mean that you wipe the hard drive on everything about you and become a new person.
But what is most surprising is the realm that Paul applies this teaching to: circumcision. “18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision,” (1 Cor 7:18). Why bring up circumcision here? Circumcision was the sign that God gave to Abraham to mark off his descendants, to identify who was a member of the Jewish family. There were a handful of things that set Israelites apart from the surrounding culture, but circumcision may have been the most outstanding of them all.
Greek men would exercise unclothed in gymnasiums and found men who had been circumcised to be laughable and the practice grotesque, a mutilation of the body. It was considered a sign of enlightenment, an adoption of Hellenistic culture, for any Jew to undergo a surgical operation to “remove the marks of circumcision.” For Jews, on the other hand, the practice was intensely important, not only because it was a sign of their belonging in the covenant family of God, a descendant of Abraham, but in recent history a Greek ruler who had occupied Jerusalem attempted, among other things, to forbid the practice of circumcision. Any male infant who was discovered to be circumcised was immediately put to death. This led to the Maccabean revolt in the 2nd century BC, and ever since then, orthodox, faithful Jews held on ever more tightly to the practice. For any male non-Jew to convert to Judaism, they had to undergo the process of being circumcised.
So to be really welcomed into Hellenistic culture, you needed to be uncircumcised, but to be really welcomed into Jewish culture, you had to be circumcised—but Paul says: Eh, you don’t really need to worry about it. If you are circumcised, don’t try to change it; if you are uncircumcised, don’t try to change it.
Again, this shows us just how radical of a thinker Paul was. Circumcision was of paramount importance to Jews, and here is Paul, a very Jewish man from the most conservative sect in Judaism teaching: you don’t need to be circumcised. Does this mean that Paul has modified the Bible? Is he a radical thinker because he has tossed the authority of the Old Testament out the window? Wasn’t circumcision a command? Yes, it was under the Old Covenant. But Moses taught that circumcision pointed forward to a spiritual circumcision of the heart that God would work in the New Covenant. Ezekiel and Jeremiah wrote about the day when God would perform this heart change when He poured out His Spirit and wrote His Law on our hearts. Paul knows that New Covenant was inaugurated by the work of Christ, so now the obligation for boys to be circumcised has passed away. So now, becoming circumcised is something that one is free to do or not do. Paul’s radical stance has not come from disregarding the Bible, but from sticking with it—and that has made him in his day a very unfashionable thinker and someone who is therefore eternally relevant. Stick with the Bible and you will be free from the idols and fads of your culture.
Paul teaches: Live as you were called. If you are Jew, don’t try to become a Greek; if you are a Greek, don’t try to become a Jew. For us today, this may look something like: if you are minority, you don’t need to become a majority culture; if you are majority culture, you don’t need to become a minority. Or: if you are an urbanite, you don’t need to become farmer; if you are a farmer, you don’t need to become an urbanite. If you like pop-culture you don’t need to be embarrassed; if you like high-brow art, you don’t need to be embarrassed. If you drink single-origin espresso, (good news!) you don’t need to drink Folgers; if you drink Folgers…well, let’s talk.
Live as you were called. Everyone can have a kind of resentment of their station, of their place, and can be embarrassed of who they are or even what they really like. You want to be accepted by the right people, so you try to become something you are not. Maybe you like Seinfeld, Star Trek, Taylor Swift, College Football, Soccer, Woodworking, Hunting, Ballet, Hallmark Movies, Poetry, Knitting, Video Games, Rock Climbing, Baroque Art, Weight Lifting, Southern food, Hip Hop, Ramen, Red Wine, or Pumpkin Spice Lattes. God has placed you in the place, in the culture, in the time, with the interests and traditions you have—becoming a Christian doesn’t mean that you abandon your cultural heritage or identity, nor do you need to be a prisoner to the fads of the moment.
Exception: Commandments over Culture
Now, when we say things like that today, what we tend to mean by that is: I don’t have to become something I am not because my culture, upbringing, traditions are so important—they are better than others! But, Paul actually goes in the opposite direction: “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God,” (1 Cor 7:19). He places the competing worlds of Jewish culture and Greek culture next to “keeping the commandments of God” and says that in light of that, neither Jewish or Greek culture are that important. What is of utmost importance is obedience to the Lord, in whatever culture you are in.
This is Paul’s second exception to his teaching that we should live as we are called. No culture is above the commands of God, and all cultures from all time and all places must submit to the culture of the kingdom of God. This means that just because something is a part of your culture, your tradition, heritage, etc. it does not mean that it is above scrutiny. A culture that enshrines a practice of dishonesty, drunkenness, sexual immorality, or arrogance is not sacrosanct just because it is a cultural practice or because you like it. This means that Christians need the wisdom and knowledge of God’s Word to evaluate their own and other cultures critically, to enjoy the good world that God has made, but never embracing what God forbids. So that means that in every culture there are going to be things that Christians should be free to enjoy, and things that they must avoid.
“Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it,” (1 Cor 7:20-21a).
Shifting from your station in marriage, in culture, now Paul shifts to your station in society via your vocation, your job. And to illustrate the point, Paul picks the most menial and servile of all jobs: that of a slave. Surprisingly, Paul encourages slaves to not be concerned about their status as slaves, but to seek contentment in their role. And before we rush into this text with our questions about the Bible’s view on slavery, let’s first listen to the teaching. If the theme in this section has been contentment in your current role—if you are married, if you are a Jew, a Greek, be content, live as you were called—then this may be the most surprising application. If a slave in the first century can be content, how much more so can you or I in our current vocation?
Maybe your job feels incredibly unexciting, menial, or pointless. Maybe you are changing diapers, maybe you are mopping floors, maybe you feel like you aren’t using your full potential. Maybe it feels like God should be calling you to something with greater purpose, with greater thrill, something that makes your heart sing! Doesn’t God want you to be happy? But here, like a big wet blanket, Paul just says: remain in the condition you were called. Paul doesn’t seem to invest a great deal of importance in how important the wider world thinks your job is.
Now how can he say that? Look, “For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ,” (1 Cor 7:22). There is a parity here: the slave who is “called in the Lord” is really a freedman in Christ, and the free man who is called is a slave in Christ. To be a Christian is both humbling and ennobling at the same time. The illegal immigrant who is cleaning bathrooms in the office building is in Christ, and therefore has more standing in the kingdom of God than the CEO who is not a Christian. And if the CEO is a Christian, they are one who has been bought with a price and therefore owes their complete allegiance to their Lord. The slave is tempted to feel dishonored by the world, so they must remember who they are in Christ; The rich are tempted to feel arrogant, so they must remember who they are in Christ. The gospel should humble us: you are a sinner in need of mercy and as recipients of mercy are now slaves to Christ. But the gospel also emboldens us: we are recipients of divine mercy and will one day inherit this whole world.
Exception: Gain your freedom if possible
Now, you could say, Hang on, Marc—this just says remain in the condition you were called. Does this imply that whatever job I am working when I become a Christian is the one I am locked into for life? No, I don’t think so, because Paul says: “Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.)” (1 Cor 7:21). If an opportunity presents itself, a slave should seek their freedom. If we had time, we would dive into how the New Testament actually undermines the institution of slavery, but we don’t. But if you are ever wondering: why does the Bible call for the abolition of slavery? You must remember that the Bible was written at a time where the church was a disenfranchised, thin slice of society that was persecuted on the right by the Jews and persecuted on the Left by the Romans. They had no institutional power, and they lived in a world where slavery was woven into the fabric of the whole of life. But it is the trajectories set by the teaching of the New Testament that eventually led to the erasure of slavery in the Western world. The only reason we read the Bible today and ask ourselves questions like: Why doesn’t this call for the abolition of slavery?? Is because Christianity has been so successful in shaping the warp and whoof of our culture that the very idea of slavery now seems outlandish to us.
Here we see that Paul thinks that slaves who have the ability to should become free, and then outrightly calls on Christians not to make themselves into slaves: “You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men,” (1 Cor 7:23). Much like a Christian shouldn’t marry a non-Christian, but if you become a Christian you should remain married, so too, Paul teaches that Christians shouldn’t voluntarily become slaves, but if you become a Christian and are already a slave, then you can be content—even as you look for an opportunity to be free.
So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (1 Cor 7:24)
Here is Paul’s final exhortation to you. Are you unhappy in your marriage? Do you feel embarrassed of your station in life? Do you long for a different calling, a different job, a different income? Are you discontent? Paul tells you: remain. He gives us exceptions, yes, we need to be wise. But, those exceptions aside, Paul encourages the most un-American thing we can think of: be content with what you have. The problem isn’t the surrounding details. You don’t need to move, you don’t need a new job, a new spouse, new children, a new hobby. Remain where you are. But he does not leave you to remain alone.
Let him remain with God. Here is the question we must ask ourselves: what does the presence of God mean to us? What if by abandoning your boring marriage you leave God behind? What if in your lust for approval, your envy of a better job, you venture forward alone? What if you get everything you ever hoped for…without God? And what if in the ordinary, the mundane, and the regular, God was with you? God will not call you to do what He will not equip you for. If you calls you to remain, and gives you Himself there, then that means that in the infinity of God’s person there is the contentment you need to make it through.
“He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only,” (Lewis, Weight of Glory).
Content with beholding His face,
My all to His pleasure resigned;
No changes of season or place,
Would make any change in my mind.
While blessed with a sense of His love,
A palace a toy would appear;
And prisons would palaces prove,
If Jesus would dwell with me there.