1 Corinthians 7 contains what seems to be a blatant contradiction in back-to-back paragraphs.
In verses 17 through 24 we find a clear call to remain as you are:
17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches.
20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.
24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.1 Corinthians 7:17,20,24
Between these verse are specific examples of conditions that one may have been in that should not be changed.
In the very next paragraph we find what appears to be contradiction:
29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 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 goods, 31 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.1 Corinthians 7:29-31
In other words: “Remain who you are but also don’t.”
Contradiction is not new within Christianity, though we struggle to navigate and understand it because of our desire to hold to our own logic and will; because “the wisdom of God is foolishness to man”, what appears to be contradiction to us may make total sense spiritually. To understand these verses and the presumed contradiction we have to name and push against the human logic that led Paul to write these words.
At the core, we are dealing with identity and expectation, and their capacity to influence our engagement with and commitment to God.
1 Corinthians was, in large part, Paul’s response to a long list of questions from the believers in Corinth. They wanted Paul to tell them how to function in an array of specific situations — sexual desire, marriage, bond-service, circumcision — because they wanted to make the right choices.
We’re like that too, right? We want to make the right choices, and find ourselves tripping up on the various elements of life that demand decision. If we make the wrong decision — we fear — we may be rejected by God or others.
Paul spends his letter humoring some of their concerns, but ultimately sends this message:
This is not about figure out the rules and learning how to play by them; this is about a right understanding of Christ and how to step towards him, and a right understanding of ourselves.
After all, Paul had spent the first part of his life living by the rules and doing everything “right”, and utterly missed the mark. Paul wanted to free them from focusing on “what” to focusing on “Who.”
So when we hit verse 17, Paul is addressing a body of people who believed they weren’t good enough to approach God; something about their life needed to change before they could be in ongoing relationship with the Creator.
This is for several reasons. Some had been told by other spiritual leaders that they could only be true believers if they were circumcised. Some believed their state as a bondservant diminished their value, and that they needed to be free — to be better — to be free to follow Christ. There were many mixed messages regarding if the single or the married had a clearer line to God. In all, how they identified themselves and/or the expectations they perceived — internally or externally — created a barrier between them and accepting a relationship with God.
Paul basically tells them “come as you are.” It’s like he is saying, “you don’t need to be a different person in order to be received by God; He accepts you here and now. Don’t focus on what you should become or do, focuse on being with Him.“
This is our struggle too. We may see our present life as lesser, and decide that a life with God must look and be very different. If I don’t become something different — if my life looks the same as it always has — then something is wrong.
Don’t be mistaken: we are not talking about continuing to live in sin. We are talking about the pressure to show something of our lives; we desire that at the end, we can say, “look who I became, look what I accomplished… see, I was a good Christian!”
What is a good Christian? One who fills stadiums with a gospel message? One who transforms communities? One who writes profound books? One who’s name is remembered?
Or is it simply one who follow Christ?
The bondservant who remains a bondservant for the rest of his life, but follows Christ, will hear “well done, my good and faithful servant” just as clearly as the Apostle Paul. Packed stadiums, community impact, meaningful writings, and a legacy can all be wonderful things, but are not what define us; they are simply a bonus. You don’t need to become something to live the life God is inviting you to live; you simply need to be who you are in His presence.
However, Paul throws a curve ball in the next paragraph, saying we shouldn’t live as what we are.
Paul is merely addressing the same core issues: identity and expectation.
When Paul says, “let those who have wives live as though they had none”, it seems like a heartless call that would destroy marriages. Is he condoning neglect or infidelity? Of course not, he is merely tapping into the heavenly logic of Christ, who said:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.Luke 14:26
Jesus was not condoning hatred, but breaking the bonds that attach us to human identity and human thinking. Unless a young engaged man breaks his bond with his parents (“That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”), he cannot fully embrace being a man and husband. Yet the breaking of that bond does not end the relationship with his parents; in fact, it can make it stronger and more mature. You can compare this to the trope of the “man living in his mom’s basement”; there is an unhealthiness to his engagement with that bond that can actually harm both parties.
Each of those relationships Jesus mentions points to an identity we hold — as son/daughter, spouse, parent, sibling — that can bind us to expectations. When we take on a new identity, we break from the old and its requirements. In the same way, when we understand our right identity in Christ, we break from the old and embrace new expectations; and as with the married man above, our former relationships and roles can actually strengthen and mature as a result.
Paul shares the same, essentially saying, “The time is short, so don’t bind yourself with identities and expectations that can keep you from identifying entirely with Christ. Whether married, mourning, rejoicing, wealthy, or engaged with the world, don’t let a single one of those take precedence over your identity in role in Christ.“
So we find in this chapter not a contradiction, but an emphasis on a core reality:
Our right identity is in Christ, as Ambassadors of Him and children of God. Human logic, the world, and our own minds will tell us we must become something to be worthy of God, but God says to come as you are. And human logic, the world, and our own minds will tell us not to neglect or diminish who we are in the world, but Jesus says “die to all and follow me.”
In the end, these calls are not contradictions, nor an acceptance of a lesser lifestyle or neglect of responsibilities; they are the path to a deeper understanding of who God is, who we are, and the way to discover a full life.
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