Part II: Paul and Slavery: Submit, Subvert or Something in Between?

Paul opens 1 Corinthians with his typical greeting and thanksgiving section (1:1-9).[1] Following more or less Brown’s outline, the letter divides neatly into four parts, wherein Paul:  (1) addresses divisions in the Corinthian church, 1:10-4:21, (2) speaks to various moral and practical issues (incest, lawsuits, sexual immorality, marriage and re-marriage, status of slaves, food offered to idols, and issues concerning the worship service), 5:1-11:34, (3) gives instructions regarding the proper use of spiritual gifts and exhorts the Corinthians to the superior way of love (chapter 13), chapters 12-14, and (4) presents a theologically rich discourse on the resurrection of Christ and its implications for the Christian, chapter 15.  In the final chapter (chapter 16), Paul provides practical information regarding the collection for the saints, announces his travel plans, and closes with his final greetings.

In the latter part of chapter 1, Paul brings to a close a passage contrasting the wisdom and power of God with the wisdom and power of the present, fading world (1:18-31).   Paul’s exhortation in 1 Cor 1:26-28 functions on multiple levels, creating polysemous applications for his diverse Corinthian audience.  As many commentators observe, Corinth was a religiously diverse city of considerable socio-economic import. The Corinthian church was a microcosm of the social structures of the larger culture.  “There was no middle class in the Greco-Roman world.  At the top of the pyramid were a few rich persons who were, therefore, automatically persons of power and status.”[2] This reflection of the larger culture is indicated in 1 Cor 1:26, where Paul states that few of the saints at Corinth were wise according to worldly standards (σοφοὶ κατὰ σάρκα), few were powerful (δυνατοί), and few were of noble or high birth (εὐγενεῖς).  Thus, we can reasonably posit that most in church at Corinth were of low birth (perhaps slaves), weak or lacking in worldly power (perhaps women, who, in a patriarchal society, generally occupy subordinate socio-political positions), and unsophisticated, non-philosophical individuals (those whom the world considered “foolish”).  To these no-bodys (τὰ μὴ ὄντα, literally, “things that are not,” italics added) by worldly standards, Paul speaks words of immense encouragement:  “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Cor 1:27-28, NRSV).  Yet, to those few in the Corinthian church who were wise, powerful, and high born, Paul words are meant to convict, to urge them back to God’s system of values, which in the eyes of the world is weakness and foolishness.  Paul then informs the Corinthians of his purpose in reminding them who they were and who, by God’s gracious call, they now are in Christ:  “so that no one (πᾶσα σὰρξ) might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:29-30, NRSV).  Both their calling to intimate union with Christ and the spiritual charismata they have received for the upbuilding of Christ’s body were gifts.  What, or better, who, is wisdom for the Christian, asks Paul?   His unequivocal answer is:  Christ! “Who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:31, NRSV).  Since the Corinthians have so quickly forgotten the source of everything good thing which they have and are, he reminds them once again in whom alone proper boasting is found.  “As it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord'” (1 Cor 1:31, NRSV).  As we shall see, Paul’s exhortation in this opening chapter to the Corinthian believers to relate to one another in a way that recognizes their mutual, equal status in Christ, is a theme permeates the letter as a whole and has particular bearing on our focus passage, 1 Cor 7:20-24.

As we saw in our brief overview of 1 Corinthians, chapter 7 falls between Paul’s admonitions regarding lawsuits and sexual immorality and his directives concerning food offered to idols.  More specifically, chapter 7 consists of Paul’s responses to particular questions, which the Corinthians had raised and sent to him by letter on an earlier occasion (1 Cor 7:1). The focus of the present essay centers on Paul’s teaching regarding slaves in 1 Cor 7:20-24.  This passage reads as follows:

20 ἕκαστος ἐν τῇ κλήσει ᾗ ἐκλήθη, ἐν ταύτῃ μενέτω. Each person should remain in the situation in which he was called.
21 δοῦλος ἐκλήθης, μή σοι μελέτω· ἀλλʼ εἰ καὶ δύνασαι ἐλεύθερος γενέσθαι, μᾶλλον χρῆσαι. Were you a slave when called? Do not be consumed by it; (however, if you are able to obtain the status of one who has been freed, by all means, take advantage of
22 ὁ γὰρ ἐν κυρίῳ κληθεὶς δοῦλος ἀπελεύθερος κυρίου ἐστίν, ὁμοίως ὁ ἐλεύθερος κληθεὶς δοῦλός ἐστιν Χριστοῦ. For he, who was a slave when called, is, in the Lord, one who has been freed by the Lord. Likewise, he, who was a free person when called, is a slave of Christ.
23 τιμῆς ἠγοράσθητε· μὴ γίνεσθε δοῦλοι ἀνθρώπων. You were bought with a price; do not become the slaves of fellow humans beings.
24 ἕκαστος ἐν ᾧ ἐκλήθη, ἀδελφοί, ἐν τούτῳ μενέτω παρὰ θεῷ.[2] On account of this, brothers and sisters, before God, let each person, while finding himself in the situation in which he was called, so remain.[3] (My translation).

Verses 20 and 24 form an inclusio, with verse 24 offering an explanatory variation on the theme, “remain in the situation in which you were called,” stated in verse 20.[4] Before explicating my (no doubt controversial) translation of verse 24, we should walk carefully through the passage and see how it relates it to its immediate context.  As we shall see, the Gospel for Paul necessarily affects one’s relationships with others, and, hence, ipso facto affects the broader socio-political sphere.  A believer’s redemption in Christ involves not only the vertical dimension (God and humans) but the horizontal dimension as well (humans and other humans).  In fact, the horizontal, socio-political dimension is precisely where the radical transformation resulting from one’s redemption is embodied and displayed to an on-looking world, for good or for ill.

Though many New Testament scholars highlight the positive ways in which slaves in the Roman world were treated-some received an excellent education, others gained greater economic security than poor, free-born individuals-nonetheless, slaves were still considered legally the property of another person.  As S. Scott Bartchy observes, “a slave was a res, a thing, a chattel to be owned, bought, and sold.”[5] In addition to this de-humanizing reification, a slave could not enter into a legal marriage, could not represent himself legally, could not inherit, and was subject to physical, sexual (particularly if a female) and other abuses by his or her master.[6] With these very concrete, tangible realities in mind, Paul wants the slave to understand who s/he is and to whom s/he now belongs.  Those who currently find themselves under the yoke of human masters are in actuality ἀπελεύθεροι κυρίου (v. 22), who have been “bought with a price” (v. 23), the shed blood and broken body of our Lord.  Paul, as one who knows what it is like to be concerned for his own safety and the well-being of others, to be beaten, to be despised and humiliated, is no doubt acutely aware of the daily hardships endured by slaves and exhorts them not to make their current status as slaves the driving focal point of their concerns and their understanding of who they are.[7] Yet, in the very same breath, he encourages them to seize their freedom, should they be presented with such an opportunity (v. 21).

The verb, μεριμνάω (merimnaō)/ μέριμνα (merimna), in 1 Cor 7:21 is used repeatedly in our present passage and also occurs in 1 Cor 7:32-34. In this latter passage, Paul uses the verb four times and begins the passage with the noun variant, ἀμέριμνος (amerimnos), which is found only here in the New Testament.  The verb μέριμνα can be translated in many ways; however, in our passage at hand, it means “to care for,” “to be concerned about something or someone.”   As used in 1 Cor 7, as well as in 1 Cor 12:25, Php 2:20, and Matt 6:25-34, μέριμνα is bound up with an object(s) of care, an intentionality or directedness and focus on something or someone.  Our English phrase, “to be consumed with one’s work,” captures the intentional nature and all-encompassing aspect of the verb but perhaps loses what is conveyed in notion of care.  One can, of course, be consumed with positive and negative and greater and lesser activities, attitudes, and goals.  As a pastor and fellow sufferer for the sake of Christ, Paul exhorts these slaves not to allow the cares of this (presently fading) world to consume them, causing them not only to lose sight of their Christocentric identity and life-focus, but perhaps also to lose hope.  Thus, for those slaves who are not presented with the opportunity to obtain their freedom (manumission was clearly not in their power to decide, as they were not considered persons under Roman law, and consequently, had no legal rights),[8] Paul wants to encourage them with the truth that in Christ they have been freed from the bonds of sin, and in Christ their status before God is not less but equal to their (free) fellow-Christians.  Moreover, all Christians are δοῦλοι ἐστιν Χριστοῦ. “Thus values and status are turned upside down in Christ.”[9]

Paul likewise urges various other groups of believers at the church in Corinth (the married, unmarried, widows, virgins, 1 Cor 7:25-39) not to allow the understandable, legitimate concerns of this life to distract them from their kingdom callings.  These exhortations as a whole must be interpreted in light of Paul’s strong apocalyptic conviction that the “present world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31).   In fact, 1 Cor 7:25-31 is permeated with eschatological language, which reflects Paul’s belief in the imminent return of the Lord Jesus Christ (i.e., he expected the parousia to occur during his own lifetime).  For example, in the pericope immediately following our focus passage, Paul speaks of the “impending crisis” (1 Cor 7:26), stresses that the “appointed time has grown short” (1 Cor 7:29), and, as just mentioned, describes the present structure of the world as “passing way” (παράγει γὰρ τὸ σχῆμα τοῦ κόσμου τούτου, 1 Cor 7:31).  With Paul’s apocalyptic and eschatological views in mind, we are now in a position to discuss my translation of 1 Cor 7:24.

In 1 Cor 7:24, Paul states, “[o]n account of this (ἐν τούτῳ), brothers and sisters, before God, let each person, while finding himself in the situation (ἐν ᾧ) in which he was called, so remain” (ἕκαστος ἐν ᾧ ἐκλήθη, ἀδελφοί, ἐν τούτῳ μενέτω παρὰ θεῷ).  Paul has made use of an inclusio to frame this passage; yet, he has also varied his original theme.  In 1 Cor 7:20, we read, ἕκαστος ἐν τῇ κλήσει ᾗ ἐκλήθη, ἐν ταύτῃ μενέτω, whereas in verse 24, we find two substitutions, (1) ἐν ᾧ for ἐν τῇ κλήσει and (2) ἐν τούτῳ for ἐν ταύτῃ.  Are these variations significant?  More specifically, do the substitutions in the second parallel passage serve both to establish the inclusio structure and yet simultaneously function as a prelude to the explicit eschatological themes in the pericope which immediately follows (1 Cor 7:25-31)?  I contend that verse 24 does serve this dual purpose, as it creates an organic connection between the two passages (1 Cor 7:20-24 and 1 Cor 7:25-31)-passages, which must be interpreted in light of Paul’s apocalyptic and eschatological concerns and emphases.  Moreover, emphasizing the temporal dimension of 1 Cor 7:24 helps us to make sense out of Paul’s exhortation in verse 21 (μᾶλλον χρῆσαι, “by all means, take advantage of it,” that is, of gaining your freedom).  If we fail to take into account Paul’s strong apocalyptic orientation, then his instructions that follow regarding marriage, re-marriage and celibacy can easily be misconstrued as “nay-saying” (Nietzsche) and as espousing a disparaging view of embodiment and life in this world.  In light of Paul’s knowledge of the OT teaching affirming the goodness of creation, his high view of the Incarnation, his teaching on the sacraments as a means for sanctification in this life, and his firm belief in our embodied state in the age to come, the principle of charity demands that we seek a more this-world-friendly interpretation.  Here perhaps we would benefit by bringing our 1 Cor 7 passage in dialogue with Paul’s letter to Philemon.


[1] As both Witherington and Brown attest, Paul’s authorship and the unity of 1 Corinthians are widely accepted among scholars (Cf. Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 71, and Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 512).

[2] Sampley, “The First Letter to the Corinthians,” p. 814.

[3] Aland et al., The Greek New Testament, p. 451.

[4] All other Scripture verses, unless indicated otherwise, are taken from the New Revised Standard Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1989, and will be abbreviated as NRSV.

[5] As far as I can see, even if my translation proves problematic, the main thrust of my exegesis remains defensible.

[6] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 544.

[7] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 544. Bartchy acknowledges that slaves were considered property and things; yet, he seems at times to present an overly romanticized view of slaves in the Greco-Roman world, emphasizing the varied roles slaves had, depending on to whom they belonged. Bartchy adds that slaves in the NT period constituted a “logical” and a “juridical” class but not a social class (p. 544). I find this a somewhat confusing claim. If such were the case, why would the apostle Paul feel the need to address gender and social status issues, as he does in our current passage as well as other crucial texts such as Gal 3:28? For a less romanticized view of slavery in the Roman period, cf. Glancy, Slavery in Early Christianity. Cf. also A.A. Rupprecht’s discussion of the use of the ergastulum to house slaves who worked in chain gangs (“Slave, Slavery,” in The Dictionary of New Testament Background, p. 881) and J.A. Harill’s comments on the severity of the physical torture of Roman slaves by means of the flagellum (“Slavery,” in The Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, p. 1125).

[8] It is also worth highlighting that in 1 Cor 7:18-19, two verses immediately prior to our focus passage, Paul relativizes the circumcised verses uncircumcised distinction. Thus, we have in close proximity two of the three distinctions annulled in Gal 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). In light of Kenneth Bailey’s thesis that women in the Corinthian church had misconstrued Paul’s message and were engaging in anti-male sexism, perhaps the absence of the relativization of the male-female distinction in Christ was purposed by Paul. If so, once again, the cultural-historical and occasional nature of the letter must be stressed, and one must resist a “timeless truth” application of Paul’s commands to women in the Corinthian church (e.g., in 1 Cor 14:34-36) to our contemporary, ecclesial situation (cf. Bailey, “Women in the New Testament,” pp. 6ff.).

[9] Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 184.

[10] Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth, p. 185. Cf. also, Lewis, “The Philemon-Paul-Onesimus Triangle,” pp. 236-39, especially p. 239.

2 thoughts on “Part II: Paul and Slavery: Submit, Subvert or Something in Between?”

  1. Hi Cynthia,

    This is shaping up to be very interesting. I assume you plan to engage with the understanding of 1 Cor 7:20 reflected in NRSV (though I agree with your choice).

    I wonder what Fitzmyer has to say on this passage in his new Yale-AB commentary.

  2. Hi John,

    I don’t interact with the NRSV’s translation of 1 Cor 7–one can only do so much in a short essay. I haven’t read Fitzmyer on 1 Cor or Philemon–I’ve only read Brown (in terms of RC exegetes).

    Best wishes,

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