Stay Where You’re Called (1 Corinthians 7:17-24)
In the eleventh century, King Henry III of Bavaria grew tired of court life and the pressures of being a monarch. He made application to Prior Richard at a local monastery, asking to be accepted as a contemplative and spend the rest of his life in the monastery. “Your Majesty,” said Prior Richard, “do you understand that the pledge here is one of obedience? That will be hard because you have been a king.” “I understand,” said Henry. “The rest of my life I will be obedient to you, as Christ leads you.” “Then I will tell you what to do,” said Prior Richard. “Go back to your throne and serve faithfully in the place where God has put you.”
I understand that illustration has many denominational overtones—the term “Prior” was used in monastic orders—but, I don’t want us to lose sight of the meaning of that illustration. King Henry thought it would be wonderful to join a monastery so that he could serve God and get away from the pressures of the throne. The leader of the monastery wisely told him to go back to the throne and rule where God had placed him.
Paul, in the text before us this morning, is informing the Corinthians of the very same thing. He says, “Stay where you’re called.”
The Pause, vv. 17, 20, 24.
The fact that Paul repeats his main proposition three times in this one paragraph illustrates how seriously he takes this mandate. He says:
- “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,” v. 17.
- “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called,” v. 20.
- “So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God,” v. 24.
Thus, Paul is saying, “Brothers, before you change the position in which you were called, PAUSE.”
Each repetition of this commandment compliments the other, and each adds its own nuance to Paul’s argument.
What Paul says here is one reason I really believe that those married with unbelieving spouses in Corinth were wanting to divorce. In the previous paragraph, Paul says, “Stay. Don’t you leave.” Here, Paul adds to that argument, and says, “Stay in the condition you were when God called you.”
Because this paragraph stands in the middle of a discussion of divorce, many have said that Paul teaches here that we should stay in wrong marriages if we were in them when we became Christians. That’s not the appropriate interpretation of this text.
- It can’t be, in the first place, because Paul is not talking about remarriage in this text—he speaks of being single and of being married, but divorce and remarriage never enters the picture. The only time Paul mentions remarriage, he says it’s sinful.
- Second, if that’s the right understanding of Paul’s words, then I’m free to remain in remain in whatever sin I was in when I came to Jesus. Was I in the mafia when I came to Jesus? I’m free to stay there. Was I in a homosexual “marriage” when I came to Jesus, I’m free to stay there.
- Third, that cannot be what Paul means, for Scripture teaches that if we don’t have a right to be married to someone, we need to get rid of that person. Ezra 10:2-4, 19. Matthew 14:3-4.
Paul instructs the Corinthians to live the life that the Lord has assigned him, v. 17. The King James Version says: “As God hath distributed to every man.” The idea is almost of God’s passing out different lives to different people. The newer translations, therefore, generally chose the word “assign”—it’s as if a teacher is requiring a report on history, and she says to her students, “You do a report on George Washington,” “You do one on Abraham Lincoln,” etc.
God has assigned us different lives. He assigned to Paul a life vastly different than Paul ever anticipated. When Paul was at the height of his Judaism, God called him. The Lord says to Ananias, “God, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16). That wasn’t the life that Paul wanted at that time—he was well on his way to being an important figure in Judaism and having a nice life—but God called him and that all changed.
What does it mean that God has assigned us different lives? I don’t think for a moment that this text is teaching predestination. We could divorce this text from the total teaching of Scripture and say that God has determined every facet of our lives—our career, our spouses, our children, our house, our car, etc. You understand that Scripture teaches we have free choice—we could choose any career, any spouse, any number of children, any house, or any car.
We need to keep this passage in context. Paul is writing about singleness and marriage—he is saying if you were single when you became a Christian, stay single; if you were married, stay married. The apostle, in this paragraph, also expands that idea to social status: circumcision and slavery.
What way can we lead the life God has assigned to us? We can use whatever situation we’re in to make a difference for the Creator. If you’re a schoolteacher, can’t you do much to make a difference? Can’t the very way you treat your students be vastly different from the way they’re treated at home? Can’t the example you set be vastly different from what they get at home? If you’re in business, cannot your honesty speak volumes about who you are? What will you do this week—in the place where you find yourself—to make a difference?
There is an old story about Lou Gehrig which fits perfectly at this point. Gehrig had been to Mayo Clinic, where he had just been diagnosed with ALS, the disease that now bears his name. While at Mayo, Gehrig talked with a little boy named Billy who was suffering from polio and sitting in an iron lung. Billy asked his idol if he would hit two homeruns the next time he played for the Yankees. Gehrig was having great difficulty at this point, but he went and did as promised. On July 4, 1939, Yankee managers hosted “Lou Gehrig Day” at Yankee Stadium. We remember that day as the occasion when Gehrig, a dying man, uttered those famous words: “Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” What you may not know is that just before Gehrig stepped up to the microphone, Billy caught Gehrig’s eye. Billy was standing there in leg braces and standing with the help of crutches. Yet, he threw off those braces and crutches and ran to Gehrig. It is then that Gehrig, a dying man, uttered those most famous words. Gehrig found a way to make a difference even as his body was wasting away with ALS. Can we not make a difference in whatever situation we are in?
The Pattern, vv. 18-19, 21-23.
Paul, in these verses, provides a pattern, an example, of the principle he lays down in this paragraph.
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. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God, vv.18-19.
The one who is circumcised shouldn’t seek to undo the circumcision.
As you probably recall from history courses, the Greeks exercised nude, and both the Greeks and the Romans frowned greatly upon circumcision. Some Jews, ashamed of their circumcision, tried various surgical and non-surgical methods to appear uncircumcised. In the Intertestamental Period, we learn that the Jews did so: “Some of the people eagerly went to the king, who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So, they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant” (1 Maccabees 1:13-15). I know First Maccabees isn’t inspired, and I don’t mean to imply otherwise, but as a historical document, it informs us what the Jews were doing. Paul says, “If you’re circumcised, don’t worry about it. Just stay that way.”
The one who was uncircumcised should remain uncircumcised.
You know that was a big issue in the early church, as there were always those who said that circumcision was a salvation issue. While Paul and Barnabas were ministering in Antioch, Some men came down from Judea, and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Paul wrote Galatians to combat such heresy: “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law” (Gal 5:2-3). Paul declares, “Don’t let it bother you if you are uncircumcised and some people come and start saying that you need to be circumcised.”
Why not be concerned about either circumcision or uncircumcision? Because neither one amounts to a hill of beans. Yes, circumcision was required under the Old Testament, but Jesus abolished the ceremonial law at his death. Baptism is the new circumcision: “In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God” (Col 2:11-12). Circumcision used to be the demarcation line of who was and who was not a child of God, but that demarcation line is now baptism.
Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Jesus told us that was the case: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21).
Roger Staubach who led the Dallas Cowboys to the World Championship in ’71 admitted that his position as a quarterback who didn’t call his own signals was a source of trial for him. Coach Landry sent in every play. He told Roger when to pass, when to run and only in emergency could he change the play (and he had better be right!). Even though Roger considered coach Landry to have a “genius mind” when it came to football strategy, pride that that he should be able to run his own team. Roger later said, “I faced up to the issue of obedience. Once I learned to obey there was harmony, fulfillment, and victory.” Have you learned the harmony, fulfillment, and victory which come from obedience? Let me encourage you to choose one area where you aren’t as obedience as you ought to be and to struggle earnestly this week to obey.
Were you a slave when you were called? Do not be concerned about it. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men, vv. 21-23.
Slaves shouldn’t worry about their slavery, but they could avail themselves of any opportunities to gain freedom. In the ancient world, slave revolts were very bloody, violent, and cruel. Paul, knowing that, says, “If your master offers you freedom, take it. If not, stay.”
He who was called in the Lord is a freedman in the Lord. This goes far past declaring that we have freedom in Christ, for there were obligations that freedman had toward the one who freed them. Freedmen bore the family name of the one who provided their freedom, he lived in that home of his patron, he rendered service, and he was expected to render respect to his patron. Thus, because we have freedom in Christ, we have obligations toward him.
The one who was free when he became a Christian is a slave of Christ—he is our master, and we are to serve him. Because we were bought at a price, we must not become slaves of men.
You might be thinking, “That’s great, Justin. But, circumcision isn’t a problem in this century, and we’re not slaves, so what’s the point?” There are two important lessons we need to learn from this text:
We don’t need to worry about social class.
This text is largely about social class in the ancient world—Jews looked down on the uncircumcised, the Romans looked down on the circumcised, and everyone looked down on slaves. Paul says, “Don’t worry about your social class. You’re in Christ: that’s what matters.”
Do we not often worry about our social class? Maybe we look around and notice a lot of people have more money than we do or other people have bigger houses or other people get to mingle with the riches people in town. Do you wish you could move to a high social class, get a bigger house, or have a fatter bank account? Why? If we’re in Christ, that’s what matters—all these things we’re striving after are going to be burned up anyway!
We also don’t need to be embarrassed by who we are.
The Jews were embarrassed by their circumcision. What reason did the Jews have to be embarrassed by their circumcision, even if the Romans looked down on them because of it? Circumcision was a sign that they were the people of God. Why should we ever be embarrassed to be recognized as a child of God?
Yet, we are often embarrassed by such a recognition, aren’t we? Maybe we don’t pray in a restaurant so no one will know we’re Christians; maybe we do whatever our employer asks because we don’t want him to know we’re Christians; or maybe we hide that identity in other ways. Brethren, regardless of what this world thinks, says or does, we have every reason to pick up the badge of Christian and wear it proudly!
I believe I have told about Polycarp, one of the elders of Smyrna before, but his story deserves retelling this morning. Polycarp died in AD 162, and here’s how it took place. Polycarp heard that people were looking for him, and he escaped, but was discovered by a child. After he was apprehended, he desired an hour to pray, which was granted, and Polycarp prayed with such fervor, that his guards repented of having taken part in his arrest, but he was carried before the proconsul.
The proconsul urged him, saying, “Swear, and I will release thee—reproach Christ.” Polycarp answered, “Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, who hath saved me?” Polycarp was taken to the steak, where he was simply tied rather than nailed, for he promised not to move as the flames encircled his body. After his death, Christians gathered as much of his remains as possible so they could bury it.
Brethren, that great man of God could have rejected the name of Christ, but we remember him as a great man of God because he took up that name of Christ as a badge of honor! What shall we do? Shall we be embarrassed at the name of Christ, or shall we wear that name as a badge of honor? Do you need to come and put on that name this morning?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.