The Principle Stated
Only, as the Lord has assigned to each one, as God has called each, in this manner let him walk. And thus I direct in all the churches. Was any man called already circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but what matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. (7:17–19)
Christians individually and corporately are to minister in many ways, including the practical, material ways of feeding the hungry, healing the sick and injured, and other such services. Christianity has far and away been the leader in building hospitals and orphanages, in visiting prisoners, in helping the poor, and in ministering in countless other ways that are considered social services. But those are ministries Christians do as Christians, not services that they persuade society to perform.
Christ made it clear that He did not come to instigate an external social revolution, as many Jews of His days thought the Messiah would do. Jesus told Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm” (John 18:36). Christ’s mission was “to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10), and that is the mission of His church. When Christianity becomes closely identified with a social movement, the message of the gospel is in danger of being lost.
When it is faithfully followed, however, biblical Christianity cannot help having radical effects on every person, institution, and practice around it. But the primary purpose of the gospel is to change people, not change society. Its focus is on inward change, not outward. We should be satisfied to be where God has put us, to accept what the Lord has assigned us, and to be faithful in whatever condition God has called us.
Obviously the apostle is not telling believers to stay in occupations, professions, or habits that are inherently immoral or illegal. A thief was not to keep stealing, a temple priestess was not to continue in prostitution, or a drunkard was not to keep getting drunk. Everything sinful is to be forsaken. The issue has to do with believers being content in the social conditions and situations they are in when saved.
Several areas of discontent were prevalent in the Corinthian church. Some believers wanted to change their marital status—from single to married, from married to single, or from an unbelieving partner to a believing one. Some were slaves and wanted to be free. They had misinterpreted, and often abused, the truth of Christian freedom—taking it to mean freedom to do as they pleased, instead of freedom to do as God pleased.
The unity of the church at Corinth was seriously fractured. Not only were there numerous parties and factions, but some groups were encouraging those with the gift of celibacy to get married, while other groups were encouraging those who were married to become celibate. Slaves were chafing under their bondage and were trying to find spiritual justification for demanding freedom. Although the gospel is the antithesis of the standards and values of the world, it does not disdain or seek to destroy governments, societies, or families. Rather where the gospel is believed and obeyed, some of the most obvious by-products are better government, better societies, and better families.
But Christians can be Christians in a dictatorship, a democracy, or even under anarchy. We can be Christians whether we are man, woman, child, married, single, divorced, Jew, Gentile, slave, or free. We can be Christians in Russia or the United States, in Cuba or China, in France or Japan. Whatever we are and wherever we are, we can be Christians.
God does not justify corrupt governments or immoral societies, and they will be judged in His time and in His way. But the purpose of the gospel of His Son Jesus Christ is not to revolutionize social institutions but to revolutionize hearts. The gospel is directed at the human heart, not at human society. Because faithful Christians are better husbands or wives, better friends, better slaves or masters, better sons or daughters, and better citizens, they cannot help contributing to better societies. But using natural means to try to effect a better society is not their ministry.
The gospel can be planted and take root wherever there is a person to hear and accept it, even in countries or in families that are pagan, atheistic, humanistic, and avowedly anti-Christian. As the saying goes, we should bloom where we are planted. Where the Lord has assigned and where God has called is where we should walk.
The principle is universal. It was not given only to the divided, contentious, and immature Corinthians, but to all the churches. God’s primary purpose for His church in every nation is for them to evangelize, to change the world through spiritual regeneration, not social revolution.
The first illustration Paul gives of that general principle has to do with identity as Jew or Gentile. Was any man called already circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. In the epistles, being called by God (cf. v. 17) always refers to an effectual call to salvation. When a Jew is saved, he should not try to become like a Gentile.
This had a very specific application. Circumcision was an embarrassment in the Roman world. According to the Maccabees, some Jewish men “made themselves uncircumcised.” Josephus tells us that during the Greek rule of the eastern Mediterranean several centuries before Christ, some Jewish men who wanted to be accepted into Greek society had surgery performed to make themselves appear uncircumcised when they bathed or exercised at the gymnasiums. They literally became uncircumcised surgically. The Roman encyclopedist Celsus, in the first century a.d., wrote a detailed description of the surgical procedure for decircumcision (De Medicina VII. 25).
The practice was so common that considerable rabbinic literature addressed the problem (e.g., Aboth 3:11; Jerushalmi Peah 1 and 16b; Lamentations Rabbah 1:20). Jews who had such surgery were referred to as epispatics, a name taken from the euphemistic term epispaomai, meaning “to draw over,” or “to pull towards.” That is the very term Paul uses here for uncircumcised. Perhaps some Jewish Christians thought that was a way to demonstrate their break with Judaism.
The apostle’s meaning here can also be figurative. Circumcised and uncircumcised were commonly used to represent Jew and Gentile, respectively. By extension, the terms may even have related to women, for whom literal circumcision obviously does not apply. And the idea could also be that, when they become Christians, Jews are not to give up their Jewishness and try to appear like Gentiles. Many religious beliefs must be changed, but not racial or cultural identity as Jews.
The same principle applies to Gentiles. Has anyone been called in uncircumcision? Let Him not be circumcised. Gentiles who become Christians are not to become like Jews.
The problem concerning circumcision was not as serious in Corinth as it was in Galatia, where Judaizers taught that circumcision was necessary for salvation (Gal. 5:2–3). In Corinth the practice may have been viewed as a mark of special dedication and a means of special blessing. But circumcision is not necessary either for salvation or for blessing. It has no spiritual significance or value for Christians at all. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing.
For Jews to want to appear as Gentiles or for Gentiles to subscribe to things unique to Jews was both spiritually and practically wrong. It was spiritually wrong because it added an outward form to the gospel that the Lord does not require and that has no spiritual merit or meaning. It was practically wrong because it unnecessarily separated believers from their families and friends and made witnessing to them much more difficult.
What matters is the keeping of the commandments of God. Obedience is the only mark of faithfulness the Lord recognizes. Obedience is sometimes costly, but it is always possible. We can be obedient anywhere and in any circumstance. The issue is internal.
17 Paul gets into this more general section with ei mē (lit., “if not”), a Greek idiom that generally indicates a contrast with a preceding (often negative) statement (“otherwise,” “nevertheless”). In this case, the statement it relates back to must be v. 15: If the unbelieving spouse wants to leave, that’s fine, for the believing spouse is not bound then. Nevertheless, this is not something that the believing spouse should actively seek, because the Lord in general expects us to remain (“should retain” is, like vv. 2–3, a third person imperative; see comments there) in the social situation in which we found ourselves when we became believers.
Then, to make sure the Corinthians realize he is not treating them any differently from what he expects in any church he started, Paul goes on to say that this is what he commands (diatassō, GK 1411, a verb used also in 9:14; 11:34; 16:1; Tit 1:5) everywhere. Insofar as Paul says something similar in three other places in this letter (1 Co 4:17; 11:16; 14:33), one gets the feeling that some in Corinth may have been charging Paul with treating them differently from, or perhaps more harshly than, his other churches.
7:17 / Paul refocuses the deliberations in this verse. Quite literally he writes, “At any rate, to each as the Lord allotted, each as God has called; thus let one walk—and thus in all the churches I direct.” Paul’s grammar is simple, but his choice of words is subtle, even enigmatic; so translations supply words and phrases to clarify Paul’s elusive statements. The niv’s introduction of the verb should retain, the phrase to which, and the explanatory paraphrasing This is the rule I lay down together add a tone of moral oughtness, depersonalize the focus of Paul’s thought, and lapse into heavy, static moralizing. This rendering misses the personal concern of Paul’s statement, its dynamic confidence in God, and its gentle tone of encouragement and direction.
Far from being heavy-handed, Paul is concerned that the Corinthians alter their social status in celebration and display of their Christian freedom, and he assures them that God attends to their lives as they are. Whatever place in life was granted to the believer by the God-given gift of life, that is the capacity in which God came to the Corinthians and called them. Thus, the Corinthian Christians are able to live with the assurance of God’s concern and in the dignity of knowing that God had brought them to a new life in faith and in the church in their present earthly statuses. Moreover, Paul assures the Corinthians that they are not alone in this endeavor, for all the churches are called and directed in this same manner, even as Paul himself lives this way. The subtlety of Paul’s statement suggests that one should imagine his gently checking, nudging, and encouraging the believers in Corinth. Reading and hearing from this point of view, one perceives a different Paul and even a different God from the one suggested by the severe and clumsy rendering of the niv and most other translations. One may easily misread the NIV to reveal a cold-hearted Paul and a capricious and indifferent God, but that understanding does not fit in the context of this epistle.
7:17. Throughout this passage Paul spoke of God’s calls to believers, calls both to salvation and to various tasks. This emphasis on “call” expanded his statement in verse 15 that “God has called us to live in peace.” Believers live in peace partly by knowing and following God’s call.
It is important to remember that Paul did not suggest that believers should never change their status. He said that they should seek to know how God has called them, and to retain the places God has assigned them. His general rule was: Christians should remain as they are in relationships and service unless God assigns them new tasks.
17. Nevertheless, so let each one live the life the Lord has imparted to him, as God has called each one. And I am laying down this rule in all the churches.
- “Nevertheless, so let each one live the life the Lord has imparted to him.” The first word is an adversative that calls attention to the exception to the rule that marriage vows are binding (v. 15a, b). When the Christian spouse is divorced by the unbelieving partner, then let it be so, says Paul. Nevertheless, when a marriage has been dissolved, life continues.
However, Paul broadens his scope to address everyone affected by the gospel. Notice that Paul uses the substantive each one twice in the first sentence of this verse. He knows that the gospel enters not only the relationship of husbands and wives, but also of Jew ad Gentile, of slave and freedman. In whatever situation a person becomes a Christian, he or she must remain there. That is the place in life the Lord has designated for everyone. “Paul endeavoured to convince his readers that their relation to Christ was compatible with any social relation or position.” New converts to the Christian faith are often of the opinion that the only way to show gratitude to God for the gift of salvation is to become a minister or missionary of the gospel. This is commendable but not necessary. The Lord calls his people in all walks of life to follow him. He wants them to be Christian fathers and mothers, Christian husbands and wives, Christian employers and employees. Each one should fulfill the role the Lord has assigned to him or her and live (literally, walk) accordingly.
- “As God has called each one.” in this chapter, Paul repeatedly writes that God has called the believer (vv. 15, 17, 18 [twice], 20, 21, 22 [twice], 24). God calls a person first into the fellowship of Jesus Christ (1:9) and then to a role of fulfilling the Christian life in the setting in which the Lord has placed him. This does not mean that God allows the believer no change of status, employment, or residence. The Lord often leads his people into other areas of life and gives them different roles; in whatever calling God places them, they must reflect his glory. They must live worthily in that place and environment as Christians who demonstrate the love of the Lord Jesus.
- “And I am laying down this rule in all the churches.” The rule for believers is to stay where the Lord has placed them and to live worthily in their calling. Paul repeats himself to bring the point home (vv. 20, 24). He makes this rule on the strength of his apostolic authority and applies it in all the churches (see 4:17; 14:34; 16:1).
7:17 There is sometimes a feeling among new converts that they must make a complete break with every phase of their former life, including institutions such as marriage which are not in themselves sinful. In the newfound joy of salvation, there is the danger of using forcible revolution to overthrow all that one has previously known. Christianity does not use forcible revolution in order to accomplish its purposes. Rather, its changes are made by peaceful means. In verses 17–24, the apostle lays down the general rule that becoming a Christian need not involve violent revolution against existing ties. Doubtless he has marriage ties primarily in view, but he also applies the principle to racial and social ties.
Each believer is to walk in accordance with the calling of the Lord. If He has called one to married life, then he should follow this in the fear of the Lord. If God has given grace to live a celibate life, then a man should follow that calling. In addition, if at the time of a person’s conversion, he is married to an unsaved wife, then he need not overturn this relationship, but should continue to the best of his ability to seek the salvation of his wife. What Paul is stating to the Corinthians is not for them alone; this is what he taught in all the churches. Vine writes:
When Paul says, “and so ordain I in all the churches,” he is not issuing decrees from a given center, but is simply informing the Church at Corinth that the instructions he was giving them were what he gave in every church.
 Verbrugge, V. D. (2008). 1 Corinthians. In T. Longman III &. Garland, David E. (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Romans–Galatians (Revised Edition) (Vol. 11, p. 321). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Vol. 18, pp. 229–230). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
 MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (p. 1768). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.