“Remain as you are…”

1 Corinthians 7:10-24

This next passage begins with Paul quoting from the early Jesus tradition; prohibitions against divorce seem to have been part of the Church’s teaching from the very beginning.  Notice that Paul gives both the man and the woman agency in the situation.  He states that the woman should not separate from her husband, and the man should not divorce his wife.  This is a surprising thing to say in a very patriarchal society, and demonstrates that Paul is not as much of a misogynist as he is often portrayed to be.

Paul then turns his attention to interfaith marriages.  There were, evidently, men and women in the Corinthian community married to pagans, people who were not part of the church.  As far as Paul is concerned (he is careful to stress that this is not part of the early Jesus tradition, but his own advice), these interfaith couples should make every effort to stay together.  Indeed, he suggests that the unbelieving member of the married couple is made holy through his or her Christian spouse.  Paul then makes a strange reference to the children of an interfaith couple being holy rather than unclean.  No commentators have been able to provide an adequate explanation of this rather confusing non sequitur.  Despite encouraging interfaith couples to stay married, Paul does say that if the non-believing member of the couple decides to leave the marriage, then the believer should be at peace.  Nevertheless, Paul notes that a believing wife might well bring her husband into the fellowship of the church, and vice versa.

The next section of this passage is one of the more problematic in Pauline literature.  Using the examples of circumcision and slavery, Paul insists that those who have been brought into Christ’s fellowship should remain as they are.  Thus, those who are circumcised (i.e., those who were born Jews), should not seek to remove the marks of that circumcision, while those who were born Gentiles should not seek to be circumcised.  In the same way, those who were slaves when they became members of the church should not seek their freedom.  These verses were historically used to justify the institution of slavery in Europe and the United States.  Those who used this passage to justify slavery fundamentally misunderstood the context in which Paul was writing.  Fully one-third of the people in the Roman Empire were enslaved in a form of indentured servitude.  Slavery in the Roman Empire, while not pleasant, bore little resemblance to the chattel slavery that existed in the United States for almost three and a half centuries.  Moreover, Paul’s point has much less to do with the institution of slavery and more to do with one’s identity in Christ.  He makes an important rhetorical point: those who were called to the Lord as slaves are free people belonging to the Lord, while those who were called as free people are slaves of Christ.  In other words, everyone belongs to the Lord, whether they are slaves or free people.  A person’s identity, therefore, is not tied to one’s status in this world, but rather to one’s status as a person who belongs to God in Jesus Christ.

“Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might be found more suitable mates.  But the real soul-mate is the one you are actually married to.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

Paul’s overall argument in this passage is “remain as you are,” which might seem to be the most obvious position for Paul to take.  After all, the Church has always been biased toward permanence, especially when it comes to marriage.  This, however, ignores the Christian assumption that the Christ event changed the world in an irreversible and dramatic way.  Indeed, other parts of the New Testament seem to indicate that being a follower of Jesus should completely reorder one’s human relationships: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-26).  This line from Luke’s gospel deserves further analysis at some later date, but for the moment we should notice that the author’s assumption is that Jesus has reordered human affections to the point that the old categories of “mother,” “father,” “husband,” and “wife” no longer apply.  There is no doubt that Paul and Luke regard the Christ event to be similarly earth-shattering, but for whatever reason,  Paul draws the opposite conclusion.  Rather than nullifying our human connections to one another, Paul argues that we should reaffirm those connections in light of the Christ event.  Again, this is a fairly progressive view.  Rather than completely abandoning our attachments in this world, Paul suggests that Christ calls us to live knowing that those attachments have been fundamentally transformed.

Though J.R.R. Tolkien was not particularly well-qualified to give marriage advice (he was a lifelong bachelor who was enraged when his friend C.S. Lewis married Joy Davidman), his sentiments about marriage seem to capture Paul’s attitude well.  It is easy to look at a marriage or any other relationship and wonder how it might be different if different people were involved.  Paul, however, hints at the fact that deeply committed relationships transform the people involved to the point that removing one of those people would be like removing part of the other person.  This is partially why Paul does not believe that the Christ event has nullified our human attachments.  When we separate from someone, part of our self is destroyed.  And God sent Jesus Christ into the world not to destroy, but to transform our selves.  At the beginning of Lent, we observe that God “desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live.”  In other words, we are called to “remain as we are,” not because God wants to maintain the status quo, but because God is transforming us and the world around us.

2 thoughts on ““Remain as you are…”

  1. While I am sure that Paul called on his first readers (and us) to remain faithful in our marriages, I’m not at all convinced that he calls us to “remain as we are.” I’m persuaded that the typical translation of “kalesis” in some verses of this pericope in modern English bibles is simply wrong. I believe that Paul is urging his readers to remain in (be faithful to) their calling into the body of Christ. (See my meditation on this text http://thefunstons.com/?p=1507)

    1. I think your argument is persuasive and I agree with Dr. Bartchy’s translation. One of the tricky things about commenting on the readings from the Daily Office is that the passages are not always topically organized: I focused on the marriage bit, while you focused on the slavery/circumcision bit. I think, however, we are ultimately making the same point. The Christ event has transformed the world in such a way that our former conditions do not matter. This comes across most clearly in Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” It is God’s action in Jesus Christ that is important; anything that we do is simply a response to what God has already made possible.

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