Per Caritatem

One-in-Christ-229x300The post below as well as the one which shall follow deal with the issue of slavery in the New Testament and were written by yours truly, Cynthia R. Nielsen.  Unfortunately, I did not receive any submissions to the series dealing with the contested letters of St. Paul and the household codes.  I have not studied those letters in depth and thus am not entirely sure as to how they relate to St. Paul’s uncontested letters and the passages therein dealing with slaves and the Christian community. My underdeveloped hypothesis is that the NT captures glimpses of different and competing Christian voices  in the early church reacting to perhaps a perceived threat regarding the Christian freedom St. Paul advocated, for example, in his epistle to the Galatians.  I certainly welcome comments related to that intertextual interpretive issue.

Thanks again to everyone who has contributed to this series by way of posting essays and commenting on the posts.  There are still several guest posts to come, so please continue to be part of the conversation.


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.”[1] This reflection of the larger culture is indicated in 1 Cor 1:26, where St. 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 the 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, St. 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, St. Paul’s 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. St. Paul then informs the Corinthians of his purpose by 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). As we shall see, St. 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.

1 Corinthians chapter 7 falls between St. Paul’s admonitions regarding lawsuits and sexual immorality and his directives concerning food offered to idols.  More specifically, chapter 7 consists of St. 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 St. Paul’s teaching regarding slaves in 1 Cor 7:20-24. Before explicating the more controversial aspects of my translation and interpretation of this passage, a few preliminary remarks are needed.

The Gospel for St. 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 often 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.”[2] In addition to this de-humanizing reification, a slave could not enter into a legal marriage, could not represent himself or herself legally, could not inherit, and was subject to physical, sexual (particularly if a female but not excluding males) and other abuses by his or her master.[3] With these very concrete, tangible realities in mind, St. 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.  St. 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 allow their current status as slaves consume them such that they forget who they truly are in Christ.[4] Yet, in the very same breath, he encourages them to seize their freedom, should they be presented with such an opportunity (v. 21).

As a pastor and fellow sufferer for the sake of Christ, St. 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 mission, 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),[5] St. 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.

St. 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 St. 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 St. 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, he 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 St. Paul’s apocalyptic and eschatological views in mind, we are now in a position to discuss my translation and interpretation of 1 Cor 7:24.

In 1 Cor 7:24, St. Paul states, “[o]n account of this, brothers and sisters, before God, let each person, while finding himself in the situation in which he was called, so remain” (ἕκαστος ἐν ᾧ ἐκλήθη, ἀδελφοί, ἐν τούτῳ μενέτω παρὰ θεῷ).  St. 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 St. 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 St. 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 St. 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 St. 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.

Wrapping up my exegetical discussion of this pericope, to what does the “this” refer in the phrase which I have translated, “on account of this” (ἐν τούτῳ, v. 24)?  In verse 23, St. Paul commands the currently enslaved believers not to become slaves of human masters. Why?  Because they have been “bought with a price” (ἀγοράζω (agorazō),[6] Christ’s blood, whose value infinitely outweighs any monetary amount offered for the purchase of a human being.  Consequently, the only true Master for a Christian is Jesus Christ, who alone is worthy of devotion and unyielding submission.[7] The Christian community then must exhibit kingdom relationships to the on-looking world—relationshipscharacterized not by the arbitrary, self-serving, exploitative standards of unregenerate human beings, but by mutual respect and recognition of the equal status of all believers before God.  “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” (Gal 3:28, NRSV).

In the next post in our series, I shall bring the 1 Cor 7 passage into dialogue with St. Paul’s letter to Philemon.


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

[2] Bartchy, “Slavery,” p. 544.

[3] 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).

[4] 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.).

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

[6] The same verb is used in 1 Cor 6:20, where Paul exhorts the believers to, glorify God with their bodies, since they were “bought with a price.”

[7] The following goes beyond my competence, but I propose it as “food for thought.”  In contrast with the Covenant (Ex 20:22-23:33) and Deuteronomic (Dt 12-26) Codes, the Holiness Code in Lev 25:39-55 explicitly forbids the enslavement of fellow Hebrews, as they are God’s “slaves,” whom he delivered from Egyptian bondage (Lev 25:42).  Is it possible that Paul has Lev 25:39-55 in mind and is engaging in a Christocentric variation on an OT theme?  That is, just as the Hebrews were commanded by God not to re-enslave their fellow Hebrews because God himself had delivered them from the hands of their oppressors and made them his slaves, so too Christians, using Paul’s language, are slaves of Christ, having been bought with a price, Christ’s blood, and ideally are not to be the slaves of other human beings.  Brown, for example, notes that Paul “betrays his Jewish roots” in his outcry against the sexual immorality condemned in 1 Cor 5:1-2; “for marriage within such a degree of kindred was forbidden by the Mosaic Law” (Lev 18:8; 20:11) (An Introduction to the New Testament, p. 518).  Sadly, American slaveholders in the South appealed to Lev 25 to justify their proslavery position, claiming that just as God permitted the Hebrews to enslave other people groups, so too, they, as God’s chosen people, have a divine sanction to enslave African Americans (cf. Martin, “The Haustafeln,” p. 215).

4 Responses so far


I enjoyed this post and wanted to comment earlier, but a fever has left me feeling rather discombobulated. Hopefully my mind is now clear enough to set something down.

For the most part, I agree with your reading of Paul here. You main point is good, but I do have a few quibbles. First of all, I would object to your reading of 1 Cor 1.26, which presents the assemblies of Jesus at Corinth as a microcosm of society. I understand that this view has been dominant in NT scholarship for, oh, the last 35 years (especially due to the influence of people like Gerd Theissen, Wayne Meeks and Abraham Malherbe), but it has now been significantly challenged by the likes of Justin Meggitt (cf. Paul, Poverty and Survival), Steven Friesen (various essays), and Peter Oakes (esp. Reading Romans in Pompeii). What I would suggest, contra the prior consensus, is that the assemblies of Jesus at Corinth are not a microcosm of Graeco-Roman society, but provide us with a glimpse into the diversity that existed amongst those who were poor and had low status. The key thing to realize is that status and wealth are always relative — yes, some at Corinth had relatively higher status (not all were slaves, not all were females), yes, some at Corinth had more wealth (not all relied to the same degree upon the Lord’s Supper) but this does not mean we have a microcosm of Graeco-Roman society. A better parallel, in my mind, would be to look at the differences between poor white families in an American city and poor non-white immigrants who move there. There will be significant differences in status and wealth — not to mention hostilities that will need to be negotiated! — between those two parties, and I think this is more of what we see at Corinth. Thus, rather than challenging those with high status to move to a different set of values, Paul is calling those with relatively higher status — like our poor white Americans — not to get caught up in the ideology of the empire, to which they are more naturally inclined (Tea Party, anybody??).

My second quibble is in relation to your assertion that Paul believed in the imminent parousia of Jesus. Although I lack the space to lay out the argument here, I would suggest that Paul reckoned with the very real possibility that Jesus would return during his life, but that Paul never held this as a hard-and-fast expectation.

That said, I find it interesting that a symposium on violence and Christian Holy Writ has (so far) been dominated by various remarks about slavery. I have been asking myself why this might be the case. My suspicion is that this highlights how our readings of the biblical texts are conditioned by hot topics in our own culture. The ways in which slavery is explored seems to support this suggestion — we have been exploring slavery in the ANE, in the Graeco-Roman context, and in the colonial American context… with next to nothing being said about the implications of this for slavery in our own context (in fact, MWW suggests that, compared to other forms of slavery, the chattel slavery practiced in America was “ESPECIALLY evil”, leading me to conclude that he actually knows very little about ancient slavery — which is fair enough, I suppose, given that NT scholarship has often read ancient elite literature in a sympathetic and acritical manner — or the current plight of trafficked women and children, Filipino/a workers in the Middle East, Christians and animists in the Sudan, and so on). Hence, this discussion of slavery remains at the level of abstraction — and we never end up connecting our readings of scripture to the fact that a great deal of our commodities — clothes, electronics, toys, etc. — are produced by slave labour in the two-thirds world. In this way, we can engage in a “radical” or “liberating” reading of the biblical texts while continuing to support contemporary expressions of slavery. Oddly enough, a focus upon slavery potentially ends up perpetuating the very real violence of our daily lives. Thoughts?

Hi Dan,

Regarding your point about the assemblies of Corinth, you may well be right. Since NT studies is not my field, I am not current on the literature. Your thesis that the Corinthian ecclesial community show us the diversity among the poor and lower classes is something I’d like to pursue (after I complete my dissertation). But as you point out, we do have at least some in those communities with a higher status in socio-economic terms. So there are asymmetrical power relations that have to be addressed, whether in relation to slaves or women and the issues surrounding those groups do differ. (Even women of higher status were still treated different than men in the society with the same socio-economic standing). So directing us to our in Christ identity is, in my opinion, something needed in every sphere, whether we are dealing with groups of wealthy people, diverse groups of poor people, how different classes are to engage one another etc. I do like what you say about looking to, for example, (and of course this is somewhat Amero-centric, as my Russian friends would not find it helpful at all), difference among poor white families and poor immigrants. The general Tea Party position on immigration disgusts me, as it is thoroughly infused with empire ideology (and seemingly proud of it).

Regarding your second point, if you’ve written on your position on St. Paul and the parousia, I’d be interested in reading it over my winter break.
Lastly, regarding slavery—that was one of the topics I specifically wanted to investigate, so I asked people for papers dealing with that issue. You have to keep in mind that some of us are living in areas and dealing with communities who actually believe that slavery is not such a bad idea because (as they would say) St. Paul teaches it. You say that you think we are reading the text in terms of hot topics in our own culture—well, I think we always come to the text with our own horizon, biases, etc., but the Sache of the text, not to mention the Holy Spirit, can of course reshape our horizons. You make a good point regarding our need to move into current issues of child and women trafficking today, the exploitation of workers that fuel America’s economy etc. I agree wholeheartedly. But don’t be too quick to condemn your fellow travelers who are becoming aware of these issues at different stages and different “paces”. I think that everyone who has participated thus far cares about the issues you raise, and we are all seeking to make Christ known in these areas, in our own lives, and in our communities. I’d like to host a future blog conference on what you state in your last paragraph about “contemporary expressions of slavery” via labor exploitation etc. This is a serious issue that I’ve only of late come to see as a huge issue because in my theological training economics and theology were completed separated (a travesty given our culture). If I do host such a conference, I’d certainly love for you to participate.

Best wishes,

Hi Cynthia,

A few quick responses:

(1)To be clear, I’m not looking to “condemn” anybody. I deliberately use first person plural pronouns when reflecting on contemporary slavery — so I’m talking about myself as much as anybody else (more actually). I’m just trying to think through this subject in a more extended manner and wondering why discussion of this topic tends to gravitate towards certain points and neglect other points (I think Foucault might approve of this sort of discourse analysis?).

That said, I’ve had conversations like this many times over the years, and I often get the “don’t be so quick to condemn” response. I can’t figure out if that’s because I am consistently failing to communicate clearly on this matter or if this is simply the go-to line people employ when confronted with more rigourous social analysis when applied to our own context (instead of exclusively engaging in that amount of rigour in our analysis of the biblical contexts). I don’t know… sorry, if I came off too strong. It’s not my intention to condemn anybody.

(2) I have written on Paul and the parousia, but that’s embedded in my chapter(s) on Pauline eschatology in my book on Paul. I suppose I could send you a chapter draft if you’re interested.

(3) Regarding the now contested terrain of NT studies related to the social status of early assemblies of Jesus, I agree that both positions still end up with members who have relatively higher and lower status, power, wealth, and so on. Yes, in both cases, one’s identity in Christ requires an historical and material, as well as spiritual and ideological, leveling of the playing field.

However, I raised the point because the previous consensus associated with Theissen (which itself was an overturning of an old consensus associated with the likes of Deissmann and Kautsky) was often employed, at the more general level, to serve different ends. More generally, the work of Theissen et al. has been used to justify the existence of contemporary Christians with high status, wealth, and power, who continue to hold onto that status, wealth, and power, but who simply exercise it in a more sensitive or generous manner. Hence, Theissen’s model of “love-patriarchalism” (a term he takes from Ernst Troeltsch, who was also writing aggressively against Marxist understandings of the early assemblies of Jesus). What this reading does, is focus on one’s identity in Christ as a primarily spiritual matter, thereby leaving social and material divides firmly in place.

Therefore, the works of those like Meggitt, Friesen, and Oakes (not to mention Robert Jewett, who replaces Theissen’s “love-patriarchalism” with “agapaic-communalism”) do a fine job of challenging the assumptions and outworkings of the prior consensus on a number of levels.

Anyway, perhaps all of this is too tangential, and now I’m just rambling because I get excited about this topic. Many thanks for your gracious response.

(Oh, as for your Russian friends, you could always substitute the examples of the plight of the Roma or the Muslims in Chechnya in contrast to poor “white” Muscovites!)

Hi Dan,

I think we are more or less on the same page on most of these issues. It was just that some of your comments “felt” like perhaps you expected everyone to be on the same page as you with respect to these issues, and for some at least, including myself, grappling seriously and thoughtfully with economic and other issues theologically is new terrain. That said, I very much appreciate your participation in this series and have thoroughly benefitted from your dialogues. I don’t think I’m using the “don’t condemn” as a mask for not wanting to engage the issues deeply or as a way to avoid thinking about how I am implicated as part of the problem—I know I am implicated, but I’m not sure, given the entrenchment, for example, of the current capitalistic system in the US to go about making changes that will amount to anything. I know that sounds nihilistic, and I don’t mean to endorse a position like that. I do believe that it is often in the little things that we can make a big difference in the lives of those with whom we live and have daily contact. I want to hear more about how a Christian can resist the empire today—so keep sharing ideas, I am all ears (and I mean that very seriously).

As to your chapter on the parousia, send it. I’d love to read it over the break.

What you say in (3) is very clear and makes sense to me. I too reject the spiritual/material divide and certainly do not want to promote an in Christ identity that is merely “spiritual.” I emphasize that (or at least I attempted to do so) in my Philemon post.

Again, thanks for your very helpful and challenging comments. I am very thankful that there are Christians like yourself who are dealing with these issues thoughtfully and in conversation with past and present thinkers and past and present events.

I must devote the rest of my day to my dissertation.

With all good wishes,