1 Corinthians Chapters 7-8: Work in Freedom Not Slavery
Note: PRS.work is a plug-and-play video Bible Study. Everything you need to connect the Bible to your work is in the video above. Feel free to press play and just listen. Or follow along with the transcript below.
Welcome to PRS.work, a video series that helps us hear the Bible together at work. In this video you'll hear a brief introduction, a Psalm read as an opening prayer, a long passage from the Bible, and a commentary about what this means for work, workers, and the workplace. When the video ends you can discuss how this applies to your work.
As Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians continues, a pattern begins to develop. Paul presents the Gospel as a solution for problems dividing the church and argues the Corinthians are not living out their Christian beliefs.
Specifically, there were controversies on sexual integrity, slavery, and food. Paul writes on them through the lens of the Gospel. If following Jesus redeems now and forever, it matters how you live today.
Jesus’ redemption includes death to broken relationships caused by sexual misconduct. Sexual integrity is one of the main ways to respond to Jesus’ love and grace.
Roman enslaved people could have a better lifestyle than free people. It was far different than pre-Civil War US slavery or slavery today. Paul addresses the institution from the Gospel’s perspective.
The third topic is food preference, but not about which foods you might like to eat. It was about eating meat sacrificed to pagan gods. Again, Paul refers to God’s love for instruction.
Before reading along to a dramatic recording of 1 Corinthians chapters 7 to 8, we will open with Psalm 116 in prayer.
I love the Lord, because He has heard
My voice and my supplications.
2 Because He has inclined His ear to me,
Therefore I will call upon Him as long as I live.
3 The pains of death surrounded me,
And the pangs of Sheol laid hold of me;
I found trouble and sorrow.
4 Then I called upon the name of the Lord:
“O Lord, I implore You, deliver my soul!”
5 Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
Yes, our God is merciful.
6 The Lord preserves the simple;
I was brought low, and He saved me.
7 Return to your rest, O my soul,
For the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
8 For You have delivered my soul from death,
My eyes from tears,
And my feet from falling.
9 I will walk before the Lord
In the land of the living.
10 I believed, therefore I spoke,
“I am greatly afflicted.”
11 I said in my haste,
“All men are liars.”
12 What shall I render to the Lord
For all His benefits toward me?
13 I will take up the cup of salvation,
And call upon the name of the Lord.
14 I will pay my vows to the Lord
Now in the presence of all His people.
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
Is the death of His saints.
16 O Lord, truly I am Your servant;
I am Your servant, the son of Your maidservant;
You have loosed my bonds.
17 I will offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving,
And will call upon the name of the Lord.
18 I will pay my vows to the Lord
Now in the presence of all His people,
19 In the courts of the Lord’s house,
In the midst of you, O Jerusalem.
Praise the Lord!
1 Corinthians 7
Now concerning the things of which you wrote to me:
It is good for a man not to touch a woman. 2 Nevertheless, because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband. 3 Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to her husband. 4 The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. 5 Do not deprive one another except with consent for a time, that you may give yourselves to fasting and prayer; and come together again so that Satan does not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. 6 But I say this as a concession, not as a commandment. 7 For I wish that all men were even as I myself. But each one has his own gift from God, one in this manner and another in that.
8 But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; 9 but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
10 Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. 11 But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife.
12 But to the rest I, not the Lord, say: If any brother has a wife who does not believe, and she is willing to live with him, let him not divorce her. 13 And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. 15 But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. 16 For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?
17 But as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk. And so I ordain in all the churches. 18 Was anyone called while circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Was anyone called while uncircumcised? Let him not be circumcised. 19 Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters. 20 Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called. 21 Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. 22 For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 Brethren, let each one remain with God in that state in which he was called.
25 Now concerning virgins: I have no commandment from the Lord; yet I give judgment as one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy. 26 I suppose therefore that this is good because of the present distress—that it is good for a man to remain as he is: 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Nevertheless such will have trouble in the flesh, but I would spare you.
29 But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, 30 those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, 31 and those who use this world as not misusing it. For the form of this world is passing away.
32 But I want you to be without care. He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. 33 But he who is married cares about the things of the world—how he may please his wife. 34 There is a difference between a wife and a virgin. The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But she who is married cares about the things of the world—how she may please her husband. 35 And this I say for your own profit, not that I may put a leash on you, but for what is proper, and that you may serve the Lord without distraction.
36 But if any man thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virgin, if she is past the flower of youth, and thus it must be, let him do what he wishes. He does not sin; let them marry. 37 Nevertheless he who stands steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but has power over his own will, and has so determined in his heart that he will keep his virgin, does well. 38 So then he who gives her in marriage does well, but he who does not give her in marriage does better.
39 A wife is bound by law as long as her husband lives; but if her husband dies, she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 But she is happier if she remains as she is, according to my judgment—and I think I also have the Spirit of God.
1 Corinthians 8
Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies. 2 And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him.
4 Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.
7 However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.
9 But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? 11 And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? 12 But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
Work in Freedom not Slavery
From the Theology of Work Bible Commentary on 1 Corinthians
In answering the question, “What should believers who are slaves do if they have the chance to gain freedom?” Paul makes an important statement about calling and work.
Slavery in the ancient world was a complex phenomenon that is by no means identical to its modern manifestations. Modern slavery always diminishes the lives of those enslaved. But in Paul’s context, while slavery was heinous in many cases, some slaves were better off, at least economically, than many free people. Many educated people, including doctors and accountants, chose slavery for economic reasons. Thus, for Paul, it was a genuinely open question whether slavery or freedom would be the better lot in any given situation.
Paul's question then is not whether slavery should be abolished, but whether slaves should seek to become free. It is difficult to determine the precise nature of Paul’s instruction here because the Greek of 1 Corinthians 7:21 is ambiguous, so much so that it is open to two divergent interpretations. As a number of commentators understand it, it should be rendered as follows: “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” (1 Corinthians 7:21, NRSV). Equally possible (and more likely, in our opinion), however, is the sense given in the NIV, NASB, and KJV, which is, “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Corinthians 7:21, NIV). Whatever Paul’s advice, his underlying belief is that, compared to the difference between being in Christ and not in Christ, the difference between being a slave and a free person is relatively minor. “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” (1 Corinthians 7:22). Thus, if there are no compelling reasons to change your status, it is probably best to remain in the situation in which you were called.
Paul’s teaching here has important application for the workplace. While we may feel that getting the right job is the most important factor in serving God or experiencing the life he intends for us, God is much more concerned that we make the most of every job we have over the course of our lives. In a given instance, there may be good reasons to change jobs or even professions. Go ahead and do so. Yet any morally legitimate job can fulfill God’s calling, so don’t make finding your life’s work into your life’s work. There is no hierarchy of more godly and less godly professions.
No matter what profession you choose, you have a right to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Paul explains this in 1 Corinthians Chapter 9. He begins by asserting the right of workers, including apostles, to receive wages for their work. We serve the Lord in our work, and the Lord intends that we draw sustenance from it in return. Paul quotes Deuteronomy in support of his argument. “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” (Deuteronomy 25:4). If even animals deserve a share of the fruits of their labor, then surely any person who participates in bringing about some benefit should share in that benefit.
This text has clear implications for the workplace, especially for employers. Workers deserve a fair wage. In fact, the Bible threatens employers with dire consequences if they deny their employees just compensation. A variety of factors affect the determination of a fair wage, and Paul does not try to prescribe a figure or formula. Supply and demand, regulation and unionization, wages and benefits, and power and flexibility in today’s labor markets make simple prescriptions complex. But the principle is not. Those who employ human labor cannot neglect the needs of those whose work they employ.
As it happens, God has made it possible for Paul to earn a living in Corinth by introducing him to fellow tentmakers (or leatherworkers), Priscilla and Aquila. Paul doesn’t expect that God will arrange things so that all church workers can afford to work for free. But in this case, God did, and Paul accepts God’s provision with thanks. The point is that only the worker has the right to offer to work without fair remuneration. The employer has no right to demand it.