The word of the day is “remain.” It may seem to be a surprising question since our society assumes that our goal in life should be to fulfill our dreams, whatever they may be. But in our reading of 1 Corinthians 7:12-24, Paul states “Let each [believer] remain in the calling in which he was called” (1 Cor. 7:20). We may react to this passage because it seems to accept slavery, though St Paul says that “…if you can be made free, rather use it [take the opportunity] (1 Cor. 21). But it also seems to counter our values of setting and achieving goals for oneself. Today we will find that we have a higher calling than our career in this world.
In our reading, Paul says we should “stay” or “continue” (Strong’s 160) in the situation which we had when we first responded to the Gospel in faith. This station in this life may be single or married, circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free. Elsewhere Paul says we should look on this station in life as a divine calling (1 Cor. 7:20) and that one should serve the Lord in it without seeking to change it.
We Are Defined By Our Belonging to the Kingdom
To the standards of this age, this advice of staying in place is against our values. Our norm is that one should always try to better oneself and one’s social circumstances. But St. Paul contrasts our calling to be part of the Kingdom of God to the vocation of our career or occupation.
In this world, people define us by our social group, occupation, and achievements. These are markers of our social standing. But Paul says, “In Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything but a New Creation” (OSB Galatians 6:15). Then too, he writes, “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, and there is neither bond nor free, and there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:27-29).
The Dividing Lines of Social Status Are Erased
The old stations in life, such as male or female, single or married, slave or free, Jew or Greek, remain in this world, and we serve the Lord in them. But in the Body of Christ, these dividing lines are erased. All the members of Christ’s Body share equally in the inheritance of salvation promised to Abraham. Thus, our chief concern should be our belonging to the fellowship of the saints.
The priority of our status among the People of God should not excuse or dismiss the immorality and inhumanity of slavery. Yet we should understand that in the Roman Empire at the time of Paul, up to one-half of the population were slaves, and the Roman way of life depended on them. However, Paul’s theology of equality in the Body of Christ changes the viewpoint toward slaves, if not slavery. We see this in the case of Onesimus, Philemon’s runaway slave.
Receive the Runaway Slave as a Beloved Brother
Onesimus had probably stolen some of Philemon’s money to travel to Rome. There the runaway met Paul, who taught Him the Gospel. But Paul sent him back to his owner with the letter we know as Philemon. But Paul’s instruction was remarkable. Paul asks the slave owner to take slave back without recrimination. Moreover, he is to treat him as “more than a slave” but “a beloved brother” in Christ (OSB Philemon 15-16). The Orthodox Study Bible comments, “While the master-slave relationship continues, it is transcended by brotherhood in Christ (OSB comment on Philemon 14-17). Onesimus is a slave in terms of this world. Yet, he has equal standing with his owner as a brother in Christ in terms of the Kingdom.
Moreover, the slave has a new calling in the Kingdom. He has been helpful to Paul in his ministry in chains (Philemon 11). Now, Paul hints that he would like Philemon to send the slave back to him so that Onesimus can continue to serve Paul and the Gospel (OSB Philemon 12-13).
This case exemplifies Paul’s point that our calling to be disciples in the Kingdom is paramount. But our standing in this world is incidental. Wherever we find ourselves in the social order, we can be content, and we can use our position in this world, whether a high or low estate, to serve the Lord and advance the Gospel.