Eleventh in a series
1 Corinthians 7:17-40
For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God. (1 Corinthians 7:22-24)
Today, we bring to a conclusion three messages from 1 Corinthians 6 1 Corinthians 7, dealing in some ways directly and in other ways peripherally with the topic of human sexuality.
Let’s face it – it’s the topic of the day, and it always has been. Can any of us resist being fascinated with the latest chapter in the lives of Jennifer Aniston, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie? Tabloid headlines shout out the latest tidbits of information, and our heads turn to read them whether they are true or not.
And now into the mix of our age-old fascination with heterosexual activity comes our newfound preoccupation with gay and lesbian activity, as it is manifested in the cultural bombardment with information about the Oscar-nominated Brokeback Mountain.
Some would prefer pastors never address these topics. I wouldn’t if the Bible didn’t. However, the Bible makes it clear that our God is the One who created our human sexuality. It’s meant for our very best. As fallen, broken people living in a fallen, broken world, we see all kinds of distortions of this beautiful God-given gift. Part of our fascination with the topic is that we ourselves live with these distortions, confused and even attracted in our fantasies to the very actions we condemn in others.
I like the way John Ortberg, the teaching pastor of the Menlo Park Presbyterian Church, addresses this topic. He says: “The desire to appear sexually attractive makes people jump through all kinds of hoops. It makes people buy more clothes, try out more ab machines, go through more elective surgery than anything else. It makes young girls in our society starve themselves, sometimes to death. The prospect of a few moments of sexual gratification has the power to make powerful people – politicians, pastors, church leaders, university presidents, CEOs – trash their reputations, ditch their marriages, capsize their families, and lose their careers. The prospect of a few moments of sexual excitement makes some of the smartest guys in the world act like they have a lower IQ than Cookie Monster. Why?
“There’s two ways you can take this question. One is: Why would people pay that kind of price for sexual gratification or excitement or fulfillment? Why would they pursue it with such desperate, unflagging urgency? The other way you could ask this question is: Why do we make such a big deal about it? Why do we use loaded terms such as betrayal or molestation or abuse or sexual immorality? Why do we use moral language around it, when, physically speaking, it’s just a simple act? It’s just body parts and nerve endings. It only involves the expression of inevitable biological urges. Why does it have this power to create longing and desire, folly and regret, guilt and shame, hope and joy or remorse like no other activity on Earth?
“The Bible says sexual intimacy is not just a simple act and does not just involve body parts and nerve endings and is not simply biology. When it comes to sex, the reason it is so explosively powerful is that we’re dealing with something that deeply involves the human soul. I want to tell you something that’s important to spiritual life. Bodies and souls are much more connected than most people think. A writer by the name of Craig Barnes notes that, according to the Bible, God did not create you as a soul and then just wrap you around a disposable body. He created Adam’s body, we’re told, and then breathed into it the breath of life. And that means that what goes on with your body is intimately connected with what goes on in your soul. They are inextricably linked.”
Having your pastor talk about sex from the pulpit may make you just as uncomfortable to hear it as it is for me to talk about it. Yet, it is basic to our human existence.
In fact, I like the way the great British writer G.K. Chesterton stated it. “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is really looking for God.” There is that ongoing quest for relationship and inner peace for which there are many false substitutes. St. Augustine put it in these words: “Our hearts are restless ’til they find their rest in Thee!”
Now having made these introductory comments, let’s get back to our study of 1 Corinthians 7.
As we saw two weeks ago, this chapter includes some of the most puzzling, troublesome and controversial statements in the Bible. This chapter must be seen from at least three specific perspectives. The first two of these we examined two weeks ago.
One is the perspective of just who was the apostle Paul.
Two is the perspective of four specific questions that had emerged from the Corinthian context.
In the seventh chapter, there is a third perspective. We will look at it today.
This is the perspective of more long-term principles that can be extracted from this passage and applied with even greater specificity to our circumstances today. Let’s look at them in terms of four principles.
Principle One: Contentment is not a matter of circumstances but of attitude.
Paul writes this in 1 Corinthians 7:17-24:
However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. 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. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.
You and I are encouraged to be content with our present status in life. We are free to change what we can change. However, we are privileged to live triumphantly with what we cannot change. Our real contentment in life comes from our calling in Jesus Christ, not from some artificially induced change in our societal status.
The point is that Jesus wants you and me to be Christians where we are. Some of us are so eager to break away from our job, from our circle of friendships and begin new lives that we can distort our new life in Christ into an excuse to extract ourselves from our present circumstances. God wants us to bloom where He has already planted us. Don’t keep wanting what you don’t have. Don’t keep wanting to do what you can’t do. Improve yourself in whatever ways self-improvement is possible, but remember that your human status is not the determination of who you really are. The very fact that you have come to faith in Jesus Christ makes you a son or daughter of the Living God. No one can take that away from you! Rejoice in that fact. See yourself as having enormous potential in whatever circumstances you find yourself.
Paul uses two specific illustrations.
First, he refers to a Gentile who has come to faith in Jesus Christ, who has been told he has to be circumcised to be a true believer. Paul says you don’t need the circumcision of the flesh. Yours is a circumcision of the heart. And if you happen to be a Jew who has been circumcised, you don’t need to reverse the operation, as if one could. Celebrate who you are. Allow the richness of your cultural background to enhance your faith in Jesus Christ instead of detracting from it. Coming to faith in Jesus Christ does not necessitate cosmetic surgery. Trust in the Lord sets you free to be all you were created to be.
Second, he uses a bit more complex illustration. He deals with the issue of slavery. God is diametrically opposed to one person owning another person. Christian theology is liberation theology. No one has the right to dehumanize you, whether it’s a slavemaster, an employer, a husband, a wife, a parent or your children. However, dehumanization is not simply a matter of circumstances. A person can be caught in very difficult circumstances but, by seeing one’s self as called by the Lord, even a slave is a free person before God. Paul reminds us that we were bought with a price.
How we view ourselves is what is important. It is not a statement against revolution. There are appropriate moments in which great social statements can be made. What it says is, don’t think that by changing your circumstances you are going to automatically be set free. Freedom comes from relationship with Jesus Christ and an understanding of who you are. The wealthiest and most diabolical of all slave owners is not free. That person is the one in true bondage, while the most abused of his slaves stands tall as one redeemed by Jesus Christ, with an eternal destiny that radically restructures life as we perceive it in the human value system!
Or to bring this up to date, I know people today who have everything and are miserable. I know people today who have very little and experience wholeness of life in Jesus Christ.
I see it in my own life and experience. There have been moments this week in which I’ve allowed myself the slavery of negative attitudes, of self-pity, of fear, of resentment, that have left me immobilized. I blame the circumstances, allowing them to shape my attitude. And then there have been moments this week when I have reminded myself of what it is to be set free by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. In those moments in which I remind myself of His transformational grace, I rise above my circumstances, which have not changed, to a sense of the peace of God that passes all understanding.
Have you learned that the limitations in your state of life are only limitations if you allow them to be? Turn those perceived limitations into opportunities. See the possibilities in every circumstance, so that you can declare, along with the apostle Paul, writing from prison in Rome just prior to his martyrdom, “Not that I’m referring to being in need, for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances, I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-14).
Principle Two: Prioritize your life aware of the times in which you live.
Paul models this for us in the next few verses. He is aware of the crisis times in which he is writing, as he states in 1 Corinthians 7:25-31:
Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
Paul had absorbed the wisdom of Solomon, who had declared in Ecclesiastes 3:1, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. . . .”
What would appear to be teaching that endorses the status quo is simply modeling for us what it is to understand with godly wisdom the times in which we are living and in which we are called to serve the Lord. Far from being anti-marriage, Paul is dealing situationally with the day in which the Corinthians lived. He is reminding them of the imminent return of Jesus Christ. This has been a major doctrine of the Christian faith ever since our Lord ascended into heaven. In the early years of Paul’s itinerant ministry, he expected the Second Coming to be so soon that it would not make sense to involve one’s self in building long-term institutions and associations. He was saying it was best to hold steady, leaving things pretty much the way they were, as the time had grown very short. He even acknowledges that he has no command of the Lord in regard to these matters. He is simply answering their questions and giving his suggestions as how best to live with the thought that the Lord was going to return any day. Check out his later writings and you will see that he began to develop a longer-haul understanding of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
So this leads him to say, that if you are married, wonderful. If you are not married, don’t panic, don’t push for it. Jesus could return any day.
Let’s assume that your boss calls you in and says that there’s a pretty good possibility that you will be transferred to the New York office within the next three months. I doubt that you would go out and begin negotiations to buy a lot on which you have had your eyes and engage an architect to come up with plans for a new home somewhere here in the Harbor Area. That would be foolish, wouldn’t it? But there would be another time in your life where such a plan would make great sense. It would be a more settled time.
Paul was alerting them to the possible imminent return of Jesus, which I add parenthetically still is a reality. Some of us have become so complacent, so settled in, that we would be shocked if Jesus happened to return right now. He could!
Paul also brought to this discussion an additional dimension, that of persecution. It wasn’t too many years later that he and many other first-century Christians would lose their lives in the horrible persecutions instigated by the dissolute pagan Roman emperors. In crisis times, you tend to prioritize your life, don’t you? It’s not always an act of wisdom, when your Reserves Unit is called up to be transferred to Iraq, to suddenly up and marry a woman you just started dating a few months ago. Perhaps a bit of caution would be better when, under more stable circumstances and the luxury of a more prolonged courtship, the two of you might just be ideal for each other.
I am no specialist in race cars, but I do know that, on the Indianapolis Speedway when there’s some problem on the track that endangers the race drivers, you observe the yellow light that is flashed. This is not a signal for the drivers to stop. It is simply a signal for them to hold their place as they go around the track. They are neither to lose ground nor gain ground, but stay in place.
Paul felt that the circumstances under which the new converts would be living justified his flashing the yellow light. What he wrote was never intended to make Christians as preservers of the status quo. It was very wise advice to the Corinthian Christians, considering the circumstances that they faced. He’s urging them to ride loose in the saddle. He is sensitive to the circumstances of their day, to see the situation for what it is, realizing that it could change. Even in this crisis environment, there is not just one way of doing what is right, although his advice would be to remain single, work harder for the Lord, anticipating His return and to minimize complex commitments in an environment of increasing persecution and change. If you still really want to get married and it’s that important to you, go ahead.
In fact, it’s refreshing to see this person, who so often is accused of being ultra-doctrinaire as he is led by the Holy Spirit, put a disclaimer to some of this teaching. He says, in 1 Corinthians 7:25, “. . .I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.” Again, in 1 Corinthians 7:40, he says, “But in my judgment. . . And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” Later on, when things have calmed down somewhat and it is apparent that the Lord is not coming as soon as Paul had earlier thought, he writes that magnificent letter to the church at Ephesus in which he encourages marriage and a depth of bonding and long-term relationship.
So what is being said here? God does not change. The times do. Although there are commands of His Word that are changeless, the application of those eternal truths must be within the environment of life lived in changing circumstances. Although there are some aspects of the faith that are changeless, once delivered to the saints and of essential value, there are other teachings that must be seen in the light of specific circumstances. This does not mean that everything is up for grabs. There are some teachings of Scripture that are final. That’s why the Bible is the best commentary on itself. You dare not just pick a text out of context and run with it as a life mantra. Look to see what the rest of the Scripture says.
For example, the entirety of biblical teaching distinguishes clearly between what the Levitical code teaches on not eating shell fish and what the totality of Scripture has to say in upholding the Levitical teachings on sexual purity. The eating of lobster from the Red Sea or the Mediterranean Sea transported three days by camel without benefit of refrigeration would existentially be an abomination to an ancient Jew but not a major issue for Christians in Corinth with seafood caught fresh that morning. However, the Levitical code said that sex outside of a marriage between a man and a woman is an abomination, because of the toxic implications of that in terms of human joy and healthful, relational fulfillment. The totality of biblical teaching is that that is an abomination.
I’ll never forget tuning into the final episode of Friends and observing that part when Rachel suggests to Ross that “sleeping together is the perfect way to say goodbye.” Just a moment. That trivializes that which is sacred and for deep, life-long bonding, not just a casual, peck-on-the-cheek goodbye.
Do you catch the distinction?
Principle Three: Don’t put down singleness – it has its pluses.
Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:32-40:
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried woman and the virgin are anxious about the affairs of the Lord, so that they may be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.
If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancée, if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry. But if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée, he will do well. So then, he who marries his fiancée does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.
A wife is bound as long as her husband lives. But if the husband dies, she is free to marry anyone she wishes, only in the Lord. But in my judgment she is more blessed if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.
The bottom-line message that Paul is trying to get across is not that singleness is ideal or that marriage is ideal, but that the right relationship with God is what is most important. Marriage is wonderful, but marriage isn’t everything. Marriage isn’t for everyone. Celibate singleness has a very important place in the life of the Christian church.
It is better to be single and in the center of the will of God than to be married and out of the will of God. There are many variations on that central theme. For example, it is better not to be married than to intentionally marry a nonbeliever.
For example, it is also better not to be married than to marry simply because everybody is doing it. I remember the pressure on me during my senior year in college. In those days, the thing to do was to graduate and, a few days later, get married. I remember the senior panic when some couples rushed into marriages that fit the cultural mores of that society and lived to regret their haste.
It is better to be single than to marry just for sex.
The fact of life is that, in terms of service for the Lord, the single person is able to have a ministry that is more focused. Married persons have a multiplicity of difficulties and unique challenges that spread them thinner. What they do for the Lord inevitably ends up less targeted. There are earthly cares and responsibilities, which become multiplied when one is married and raises a family.
God calls some persons to pioneer work for Him that demands special sacrifices. Some of this work can only be done by those without family ties and responsibilities. Two weeks ago, I may have sounded a bit critical to the Roman Catholic Church for its insistence on a celibate clergy. I thank God for men and women of both heterosexual and homosexual orientation who have the gift of celibacy and are able as a result to do targeted ministry much more effectively than those of us who do not have that gift.
Back in 1982, Anne and I met two Wycliffe Bible translators when we were in Sydney, Australia. For twenty years, they had labored faithfully in a remote Papua, New Guinea, village studying the speech patterns of that tribe numbering several hundred persons, reducing those oral sounds to a written language and then translating the New Testament into that language. I remember seeing a copy of that New Testament and the joy in the eyes of these two single women who had given their lives to that particular task. It was clear that God had called them to a single, celibate lifestyle with the particular privileged contribution they were able to make. Whatever sacrifices, they declared them worth it for the accomplishment that was theirs.
And don’t put down singleness, because for each of us a major part of our life is lived as a single person.
It is difficult for me to realize that, at age 65 and as one who married at the age of 24, well over a third of my live has been lived as a celibate single. My life did not begin the day I married Anne. A new dimension to life began. There were some valuable lessons I learned and some important contributions I made in my singleness, even though it is quite clear that marriage was in God’s plan for my life. And I need also to remember that there will probably be a day in the future in which either Anne or I will again be single. One need not rush into remarriage, because somehow that is a better lifestyle. Life doesn’t end when marriage ends. So those of us who are married have a sacred calling to affirm those brothers and sisters who, at this point in life, are called to singleness. God has a design for them that is as special as it is for us who are married.
Back in the early 1990s, a dear friend of mine, Joanna Mockler, lost her husband Coleman to death. He was at the peak of his career as CEO of the Gillette Company and was a member of the Harvard University Board of Overseers. He had been planning to retire early and to do special things with Joanna, including traveling the world. Instantly, her life changed. She could have easily sought out a new relationship and remarried. She didn’t. Instead, she channeled her energies into her family, her church and her service on the boards of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and World Vision U.S. and World Vision International. Just last week, she was elected to become the next chairperson of World Vision U.S. As a single woman, she is free to put in the forty-some days a year it will take to provide such leadership. I celebrate her for the wonderful example of dedicated, godly service.
How important it is for us as a congregation to minister to both the unique needs of singles wherein it is important that there be special activities for them, while at the same time being willing to enthusiastically meld those same singles, or other singles who prefer not to carry that label, into the organic ministry of this congregation.
Principle Four: Being married makes life more complicated, but faith in Jesus Christ should enhance not diminish quality of relationship.
Paul states it bluntly, “Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life. . . .” (1 Corinthians 7:28). How true that is. It is not easy to be married today in the culture in which we live. There are enormous pressures on marriage. We are kidding ourselves if we pretend otherwise.
People who came to faith in Jesus Christ in Corinth wondered if perhaps it wasn’t better to be single. Some of them were prepared to exit their marriages, so that they would be better able to serve Jesus with their targeted energies. They had begun to wonder if their marriages actually stood in the way of their serving the Lord. That is why we need to remember that, in this very same chapter, which makes such a strong case for a celibate life, Paul urges those of us who are married not to withdraw from those marriages. He counsels that, if for any reason a newfound faith in Jesus Christ put a strain on the marriage relationship and separation resulted, the believing spouse was not to consider divorce but to work on reconciliation.
You and I who are married are observing a horrendous Satanic attack on marriage and the home. Few of us are exempt from it. Our experience is much more similar to that of believers in Corinth than was that of Christian couples living in the United States in the early part of the last century leading up to 1960. Divorce is increasing in an exponential rate to the point that it panics our children. I think of how many of their friends come from divorced homes. Some of us never even considered the possibility that our parents would get a divorce. It simply wasn’t a viable possibility. Today, a serious disagreement between a husband and wife, some intense stress that produces episodal irritability with each other, or simply the pattern of casual ongoing bickering into which some of us can stumble, can signal to our children that the next painful reality will be divorce. The very idea that two people can fall in love and then fall out of love only serves to exacerbate these fears.
Our daughter Carla and our daughter Janet, along with her husband Ryan, joined us for a few days on our ski vacation. Janet and Ryan made the offhand comment that many of their young friends are entering into prenuptial legal contracts, simply facing the realities of the fragile nature of marriage in our contemporary times.
Our relationship to Jesus Christ can give stability to a marriage. God’s Word furnishes the ideals and the guidelines for a meaningful commitment. Our own personal relationship with Jesus Christ, in which He forgives us and stands by us, models for us what it is to forgive and stand by our partner. It presents us with a basis for analyzing and rejecting the many inadequate models for relationships which are promoted in secular society today.
We need to look our children directly in the eyes and say, “Yes, Mom and Dad have our differences, but we are committed to each other in Jesus Christ, even when we get on each other’s nerves or are insensitive to each other, or have serious differences with which we are struggling to resolve. With God’s help, we are prepared to work out our difficulties and forgive each other, and even get some outside help if that is necessary.”
Don’t minimize the importance of renewed commitment of your vows to God, to your partner and to your children in an honest acknowledgment that every marriage has problems, and even the healthiest of marriages have times of unhealth. Remember there is a major distinction between being “in love” and choosing “to love.”
C.S. Lewis describes the absurdity of maintaining the feeling of “being in love” that two persons have the day before they are married and throughout the next fifty years. In fact, it would be highly undesirable if it could be. How much better it is “to choose to love.” He writes in Mere Christianity:
Who could bear to live in that excitement for even five years? What would become of your work, your appetite, your sleep, your friendships? But, of course, ceasing to be “in love” need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense – love as distinct from “being in love” – is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriages) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. They can have this love for each other even at those moments when they do not like each other; as you love yourself even when you do not like yourself. They can retain this love even when each would easily, if they allowed themselves, be “in love” with someone else. “Being in love” first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise.
Undergirding all this frank talk about marriage, sex, singleness, celibacy and divorce is the call of Jesus Christ to relationship with Him, in which we acknowledge our humanity, we confess to Him and to each other our sin, and we receive and share with others His grace, His unmerited favor, which causes us to be agents of reconciliation in a world of battered and bruised relationships.
These three messages are not designed to weigh us down with guilt over our past failures in these areas. The starting point of all such biblical teaching is God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ. All our sin and dysfunction is nailed to the cross, and God’s amazing grace and unmerited favor embraces us with forgiveness as we repent and receive His gift purchased at such an enormous price. Claim this forgiveness and new beginning. And be proactive in modeling this for others who also need the fresh new beginning available through faith in Jesus Christ!
John A. Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.