Social Status and Spirituality, Part 1 (1 Corinthians 7:17-19)


Is celibacy more spiritual than marriage?

Some Corinthians evidently thought so. They argued, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” (1 Corinthians 7:1 TNIV). In consequence, they urged married Christians to practice celibacy within marriage, widows and widowers not to remarry, Christian spouses to divorce, and Christians to divorce unbelieving spouses. None of this advice makes sense unless the Corinthians believed that marital status and sexual activity were spiritually inferior to celibacy.

In reply, Paul argued that if married, Christian spouses should maintain regular sexual relations with one another (verses 2-6). If widowed, marriage is permitted, although Paul stated his personal preference for celibacy (verses 8-9). Christian spouses should not divorce one another (verses 10-11). And Christian spouses should not divorce unbelieving partners, although the unbeliever may initiate divorce (verses 12-16). None of this advice makes sense unless Paul believes, as he states in verse 7, that both celibacy and marriage are spiritual gifts and that one should live as one is gifted.

Underlying the debate between some Corinthians and Paul is the assumption that certain social statuses are more spiritual than others. This is a recurring argument in Christian history, where celibacy and poverty have often been viewed as more spiritual than marriage and relative wealth. Having dealt with the specific issue of celibacy versus marriage in verses 1-16, Paul now turns to other markers of social status—specifically, circumcision and slavery—in verses 17-24. The thread tying the entire argument of verses 1-24 together is simply this: Social status is irrelevant to spirituality.

Consider what Paul writes in verses 17-19:

Nevertheless, 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. Was 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. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.

In the ancient world, circumcision marked the difference between Jews and Gentiles, both religiously and ethnically. Jews practiced it. Gentiles did not. Indeed, they considered it barbaric. But Jews were so committed to the practice—it was part of the law (Genesis 17), after all—that many Jewish Christians required it as part of Gentile conversion to Christianity.

Paul’s “rule” was that “each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him.” A Christian, in other words, can be genuinely spiritual whether their social status is “circumcised” or “uncircumcised.” Either status is “nothing.” Paul’s rule agreed with the ruling of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-35). For Paul, moral behavior rather than social status is a sign of genuine spirituality. “Keeping God’s commands is what counts.”

Does this have contemporary application? Yes. Most American Christians aren’t concerned about marital status or circumcision, but we routinely assume that “real Christians” will look like us, spend like us, be educated like us, and choose political parties like us—whatever “like us” may mean.” But are demographics, socioeconomics, education, and party affiliation any more reliable indicators of authentic spirituality than marital status and circumcision? No.

Now, as in Paul’s day, social status is irrelevant to spirituality.

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