The underlying message of 1 Corinthians 7:1-24 is that social status is irrelevant to spirituality. One can be celibate or married, and spiritual (verses 1-16). One can be circumcised or uncircumcised—that is, Jew or Gentile—and spiritual. And according to verses 20-24, one can also be enslaved or free and, and spiritual.
Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him. Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For he who was a slave when he was called by the Lord is the Lord’s freedman; similarly, he who was a free man when he was called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. Brothers, each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to.
Modern American readers of this passage often struggle with it, understandably. Our culture emphasizes action, but Paul says, “Each one should remain in the situation which he was in when God called him” (verse 20, cf. verses 17 and 24). Our culture emphasizes freedom, but Paul says, “Were you a slave…? Don’t let it trouble you.” Our culture emphasizes independence, but Paul says, “each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to.”
And—to be blunt—Paul seems nonplussed by the practice of slavery, which modern Americans shrink from in horror. Didn’t we fight a Civil War to end that practice? Why in the world, then, would the apostle be so casual about a slave purchasing his freedom? Shouldn’t he be demanding the man’s emancipation?
This passage, then, is both countercultural and controversial.
Before we get into a high dudgeon about Paul, we should remember his cultural context, as well as the point he’s trying to make. Regarding cultural context, slavery was a given in Paul’s culture. Indeed, given the brutality of Greco-Roman society, it’s unclear whether there was even a moral conscience regarding slavery’s wrongness. It would take centuries of Christian influence for that change of moral conscience to work its way toward the abolition of slavery in medieval Europe.
But we should also remember Paul’s point. For the ancients, only free men could be genuinely spiritual. Indeed, only men freed from the burden of manual labor could be genuinely spiritually free. Paul’s point in these verses is that such an idea is total rubbish. Obviously, from the standpoint of the slave, freedom is preferable to slavery, which is why Paul encourages slaves to “gain your freedom.” But if they can’t gain freedom and must remain a slave, “Don’t let it trouble you.” Why? Because in Christ, a slave is “the Lord’s freedman” and the free man is “Christ’s slave.”
Now, imagine the Corinthian worship service at which this passage is first read. The Christian slave owner, proud of his free status, learns that he’s no better in Christ’s eyes than his Christian slave. This is humbling. The Christian slave, ashamed of his chains, learns that he’s no worse in Christ’s eyes than his Christian owner. This is emboldening. Paul’s message, which modern readers consider retrograde, in its own day was downright revolutionary.
If only it could be revolutionary once again, against the social status markers we consider spiritual significant!