God’s Word for You
1 Corinthians 7:20-24 You were bought at a price
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, February 8, 2023
20 Everyone should continue in the station in life he had when he was called. 21 Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned. But if you can gain your freedom, take advantage of that. 22 For the slave who was called to be in the Lord is the Lord’s free man. Likewise, he who was free when he was called is a slave of Christ.
Now Paul’s thoughts move to one possible station in life that a person might want to change: slavery. In the Bible, slavery is a different condition than the two forms we’re more familiar with today: the slave trade of kidnapped Africans between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the modern sex-trafficking slave trade that was present in the twentieth century but is, if anything, more commonplace today. Attractive white women must be especially careful when traveling overseas, but there are many accounts of children being kidnapped and then lied to about it right in our own cities. When I was a child, there was a certain week when my mother told me I could not walk the streets of our village, or go to a friend’s house, or play in our front yard. I found out later that there was a scare about kidnapping, and that she was looking out for me. To this day I remember the feeling of my love for my mom growing deeper and closer that week, even though she was doing what (I hope) any parent would do.
In the Bible, slavery was generally arrived at either by losing a battle or by going into debt. God set down laws about these things through Moses (Exodus 21:20-21, 31-32) and even protected the worship life of slaves by forbidding work on the sabbath for slaves (Exodus 23:12).
If a slave became a Christian, then Paul says, if you can become free, go ahead and do that. But remember that you are a Christian when you do.
More than this, if a slave were being hindered from his Christian belief or forced to associate with the master in a sinful act or in a sinful lifestyle (as thieves, pirates, counterfeiters, vigilantes, militia, or what have you), then the slave should feel free to run away and escape by whatever means were possible without being afraid of breaking the Fourth Commandment. On the other hand, those terrible ‘modern’ (that is, present-day) forms of slavery are, without exception vile, wrong, sinful, execrable, and do not bind the slave to obedience (except to save her own life), honesty, or other virtues. One’s behavior against such a slave owner or slaver (kidnapper) becomes tantamount to organizing and carrying out a feint or deception in warfare (such as David in 1 Samuel 21:13 and 2 Samuel 5:22). The same is true of the self-defense a girl may use against a rapist: she is free to do to him whatever is possible to escape, if she can (see Deuteronomy 22:26-27). If you can be released from slavery, or if you can escape, or even trick your captor into letting you go, then by all means go.
An ancient difficulty with this passage is that Paul’s Greek text could possibly be translated in the opposite way: “Even if you have a chance to become a free man, choose rather to make the best of your condition as a slave” (TEV footnote). This is referred to by translators as the “slavery translation” as opposed to the “freedom translation.” The problem is Paul’s free Greek style, which is literally: “If you can become free, rather make use of it.” This begs the question, make use of what? The opportunity to become free, or one’s slavery? The “slavery translation” would have us apply the possibility that a slave might hope to convert the slave-master into the faith. But this is countered by at least three things: (1) verse 23 below, (2) What Paul said to Christian spouses when the unbeliever departed (1 Corinthians 7:15) and (3) By the provision God makes for runaway slaves in the law and the example of consistently good treatment given to runaway slaves by the godly Patriarchs (1 Samuel 30:13-15). Therefore I have not even included the “slavery translation” as a footnote to the translation text.
23 You were bought at a price. Do not become slaves of men. 24 So brothers, let each person remain before God in the station in life he was in when he was called.
Here Paul parallels the way he talked about divorce and about circumcision: Don’t do the one, and don’t to the other on account of your new conversion to Christianity. He hardly needs to say, “Don’t become a slave,” but it is the natural follow-up to “Do not seek freedom (unless it presents itself)” in verse 21.
When Paul says, “You were bought at a price,” he means Christ paid the price for us with his own blood. We are, as the New Testament authors love to say, “slaves of Jesus Christ” (Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:10; Titus 1:1; James 1:1; Jude 1:1; Revelation 1:1). He bought us from our debt of sin and punishment, and he set us free even from the demands of the law. In the world, these things do not affect our other obligations: one still has to pay bills, fix the roof, buy food, and so on. But before God no law binds us. Our faith in Christ frees us from all sin and debt before God. And so we remain in our station in life—mother, teacher, accountant, baker, musician, editor. As the prophet Samuel said: “Do whatever your hand finds to do, for God is with you” (1 Samuel 10:7).
Pastor Timothy Smith