1 Corinthians 7:17-24
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. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise, he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. 
If nothing else is clear to us from the preceding passages of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, it is that Christianity has far-reaching consequences for all areas of life. Our identity in Christ has implications and applications for our whole life. It affects our concept of community, authority, marriage, sexuality – all our horizontal relationships and conduct. In v. 15, in the context of staying in a marriage rather than dissolving it, the apostle set forth the general maxim: “God has called us to peace.”
Now he picks up that theme in order to press home the theological point that controls his response throughout chapter 7. Using the slogan, “It is good not to have relations with a woman,” they were seeking to change their present status. As believers, they saw this as conforming to the more spiritual existence they believed they had already attained. They saw one’s status with regard to marriage/celibacy as having religious significance and sought change because of it. Under the theme of “call” Paul seeks to put their “spirituality” into a radically different perspective. They should remain in whatever social setting they were at the time of their call into Christ since God’s call to be in Christ (1:9) transcends such settings, making them essentially irrelevant.
The question of our calling is as important for us today as it was for the congregation in Corinth. Christian or not, most people will spend the majority of their waking hours working. The average person will spend about 96,000 hours at work. So, it’s essential for us to ask what we are doing and why we were doing it and how we’re doing it and who are we doing it for? What is our motivation for work? What are the guiding principles for work? Is my work largely self-serving or others-serving? Unfortunately, our fellow believers have not been helpful in sorting through these questions. There are two unhelpful views that distort our understanding. One is an over spiritualized view of our life situations. The second is an under spiritualized view that encourages individuals to seek their perfect niche that will lead to an ultimate, abiding sense of purpose and fulfillment – “Do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life.”
Just like there is no perfect spouse in marriage, there is no perfect vocation. Neither marriage nor work is meant to produce ultimate fulfillment. More experiential and mystical movements within Christianity tend to over emphasize pietistic spiritual devotion. Those people see work as something that simply to be done in order to support the “more important work” of the church. However, the Bible teaches that all work is inherently valuable. God intends for us to take joy in our work, to use it for the common good of our neighbor, and to reflect God as we care for an cultivate creation and culture.
Paul demonstrates a remarkable balance in his perspective on vocation and calling. His view is not overly spiritual, since he highlights the call to live ordinary, faithful lives wherever we find ourselves. His view is not under spiritual because he suggests that ordinary callings are invested with immense value because of the end to which they point. Verses 17 through 24 evidence three plot movements giving us helpful guidelines to grasp what Paul is writing. Paul deals with the reason for living as we are called; the difficulty of living as we are called; and the power for living as we are called.
The Bureau of Labor and statistics reports that the average wage earner stays at each of his or her jobs for 4.1 years. That means the average wage earner over the course of their working life would have about 15 to 20 jobs. Certainly, variations in the economy play a role in the decision to change jobs or careers. But, by and large, it also reflects the confusion between one’s fundamental identity and vocational calling. People are often told “you can be whatever you want to be.” The assumption behind that statement is that we can achieve fulfillment when we get to be what we want to be. By fleshly default, we buy off on the idea that work provides security, comfort, and identity. But to that we have added the idea that work should provide ultimate fulfillment and satisfaction as well. However, God never designed work to provide ultimate fulfillment and satisfaction. So, people move from job to job chasing after something they can never truly have.
A disproportionate amount of college students undertakes studies that will lead them to careers in finance, law, and medicine because they believe those vocational fields will guarantee them a high salary, reputation, prestige, and success. They don’t ask, “Which jobs will help other people flourish?” Instead, they ask, “Which jobs will make me flourish?” We do the same thing with our jobs as married couples do with their marriage. We turn them into the ultimate source of flourishing. We make them idols; and behind every idol are the demons lurking in wait to destroy our spiritual identity. No wonder there is so much dysfunction in marriage and in career. We approach both relationships and vocations with a self-centered orientation. “It’s all about me.”
Since Adam’s fall in the Garden, our sinful flesh has been hard-wired to think only of self. This is why Paul instructs the Corinthian believers in verse 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.” As you and I do much of the time, the Corinthians had their identity and their vocation confused. Because they had some understanding that their identity was in Christ, they believed that their ethnic/religious background (circumcised or uncircumcised) or their vocational callings (bondservant or free person) had to change as well. This is nothing more than works righteousness played out on a horizontal level. They weren’t seeking to change their behaviors but were seeking to shift their identities to please themselves and impress others.
Paul speaks to their self-centered works righteousness through the grid of calling. Paul writes about two kinds of calling in this text. The first calling, the vertical calling, is one of identity and is a reference to the Christians fundamental shift in identity – being called into Christ. God’s saving grace is written of as a “call” in verses 18, 20, 21, 22, and 24. This is the unshifting, foundational core, vertical calling for the Christian. Everything else in our lives should flow out of this vertical identity in Christ. This is where believers are designed to receive their identity, fulfillment, security, comfort, and hope. It has everything to do with how we were late to God and to one another.
The secondary call about which Paul writes is a horizontal calling. It may have elements of enjoyment, excellence, and contribution to the common good, but it is not our ultimate source of identity, fulfillment, security, comfort, and hope. God cares deeply about our secondary call because it has everything to do with how we relate to the world at large. Martin Luther called this secondary calling our “vocation.” The Christian is called first through the gospel to trust into the perfect life and sacrificial blood-shedding, atoning work of the risen and ascended Jesus Christ. But we are also called to occupy a particular station or place in life – our vocation. Our vocation embraces all that we do in service to our neighbors not only in a particular occupation but also as a member of the church, a citizen, a spouse, a parent, or a child, and a worker. In our vocation, we live in love toward other human beings and become an instrument by which God does his work in the world, exercising his common goodness to all mankind.
Our call into Christ and our vocation are vitally connected. But only our calling into Christ is instrumental. Salvation by grace shapes our vocation, our work in the world. It is never the other way around. So why does Paul say we should live where we are called? A vertical identity gives horizontal freedom. Paul writes in verses 18 and 19, “Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision but keeping the commandments of God.” Our vocation is more than our job. It encompasses even our ethnic origins – whether we were born and circumcised as Jews or born into a Pagan household and never circumcised before coming to Christ. When our identity is secure in Christ, vocational decision-making is much easier. We don’t have to worry about our vocation because there is no need for it to provide more than it can produce! That fact gives hope to those who do not love their jobs, because our jobs are not designed to define who we are in our fundamental identity. But it also gives a foundation to those who love their jobs, because our fundamental identity won’t fall apart if we lose our jobs.
Last week, we mentioned that some experts refer to making the other person or the relationship itself to be the ultimate thing in life. In other words, one’s happiness or sense of satisfaction in life is dependent on the condition of their partner’s love or the health of their relationship. If those things crumble, one’s hope in life would evaporate immediately and completely. This phenomenon is called “apocalyptic romanticism.” The same concept could be applied to the understanding of work and vocation. If we make our vocational call ultimate, we would be stuck in apocalyptic vocationalism. Our supplemental call (vocation) is important, but it cannot be the source of our fundamental identity and ultimate hope. Sometimes, our vocational calling is as simple as just doing something. In our modern world, a wrong perspective on our two callings can lead to serious problems.
The problem with settling into a vocation is that so many people live in uncertainty about our identity calling. That leads us to seek our identity in vocation. The Corinthians were wrestling with that issue, as verses 18 and 19 make clear. They were seeking social works-righteousness. Some who were circumcised were talking about having the surgery reversed. Others who were never circumcised were considering undergoing the procedure. Both groups we’re seeking horizontal approval by changing the externals. Paul says both groups missed the point.
Our identity is not secured by making external change. Christians need to live out the identity we have already been given in Christ Jesus. God’s call to Christ that comes in these various settings renders the settings themselves irrelevant (vv. 18–19, 22). Because of this, change is not necessary; indeed, one may live out the Christian life in whatever setting that call into Christ took place. On the other hand, precisely because the settings are irrelevant, if change does take place, that too is irrelevant. We don’t have to seek change as though it had religious significance – it does not.
Paul gives another illustration in verses 20 and 21, “20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.)” The English Standard Version uses the term “bondservant.” Many other translations render the word, “slave.” Both are legitimate translations. In verse 23 Paul writes, “23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men.” The Bible nowhere approves of racial slavery and man stealing. We need to note the differences between modern forms of slavery and the institution to which Paul refers in 1st Corinthians. The modern understanding of slavery is about free hard labor. In the ancient world, it covered all vocational levels. A slave could own a business, be a teacher, manage your household, or do any number of other powerful and important jobs.
Many would sell themselves into slavery for economic and social advantages. Anyone could become a slave and any slave could purchase their own freedom. Ancient slavery was oftentimes (but not always) more like indentured servitude than the oppressive, coercive, forced slavery that takes place in our world. Even understanding the differences, Paul still sets conditions that would lead to the end of slavery in the Church. In verse 21, slaves are encouraged to gain their freedom, and in verse 23, non-slaves are told not to sell themselves into slavery, no matter the potential advantages. Only when we understand the kind of slavery to which Paul is referring can we receive Paul’s instructions to people dealing with less-than-ideal vocational circumstances. He is saying their security of identity in Christ should make the situation of their vocational calling less than ultimate. Dignity and identity are not ultimately derived from or threatened by vocational circumstances.
The security of one’s calling into Christ makes one’s vocational calling less than ultimate. How can we tell if we are allowing our vocation to consume our identity? It normally works out in one or two ways. It can cause a person to have unhealthy aspirations, or to become ambitionless. Having unhealthy aspiration’s makes an individual into an opportunist. He is future-focused and consistently dissatisfied. She cannot exist in the present, and therefore never able to exist inside the place where God has called her to be. He takes risks for all the wrong reasons – to grab power, to gather wealth, to achieve false security, to amass creature comforts. The Corinthians were all about upward mobility by using and abusing others. In ancient cultures like theirs, this would include owning slaves. In our modern context this includes abusing power, pulling rank, praying on the needy, and ignoring the lack of positive impact your vocation has on the marginalized or less privileged.
The other unhealthy expression is being ambitionless, being entrenched with a sense of martyrdom, or simply accepting the status quo. This person focuses primarily on the past, and is consistently hunkering down, settling, or remaining risk-averse. The worst expression of this identity confusion is settling for what is comfortable and readily achievable. In the Corinthians time, this might be expressed by selling oneself into slavery for all the perceived benefits like spending cash, a place to live, and three meals a day. The Bible commands vocation that is seen as a faithful ambition, neither overly focused on the future, nor always sedentary. We are to have a faithful presence in the present moment by being aware of our calling to love and serve our neighbors. Because we no longer need to invest our resources in striving for identity, we might even actually become more productive in our vocational calling. But how do we walk that tightrope?
Verses 22-24 read:
22 For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise, he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
The gospel tells those who are aspirational that they are purchased bondslaves of Christ because they have been bought with a price. Their new master owns 100% of their identity and their vocational calling is his to do with as he pleases. On the other hand, to the ambitionless individuals, they hear the message that they are actually free. In Christ, they are set free because they too have been bought with a price. No other master has a claim on them. They are much freer than they think they are, and this should produce in them a greater boldness in their vocations. They are free from enslavement to the social status quo in order that they may serve Christ by serving their neighbors. We are free to remain where we are and to be faithful where he has placed us. Only Christ diffuses the tension between identity and vocation.
For most of us, busyness and personal worth go hand in hand. Many people like to be (or at least appear) busy because it gives them a sense of self-worth and significance, as if the world around them could not survive without their contributions. The gospel is an act of liberation. That is why we celebrate the Sabbath. When we do so we are saying that our vocation does not define us. When we get in that mindset of our own indispensability, we have forgotten that our identity with God has already been secured and finished. That is where our true rest lies. Our true rest lies in the already-finished work of Christ. We rest from our vocation because the risen and ascended Christ performed the works of God’s law perfectly for us and underwent the penal substitutionary death all of us deserve.
Do you mistake your vocation for your identity? Are you asking your work to provide what only Christ can provide? Do you have unhealthy aspirations? Have you embraced your work as being apocalyptic? Are you looking for that perfect future role in which your whole life will snap into place? Or are you functionally ambitionless? Are you entrenched and unwilling to budge? To whatever vocation God has called you, you need to be faithful. Our present explodes with significance because our identity is that we are unimaginably and eternally loved by God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
 The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Co 7:17–24.
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