Sex, Circumcision and Slavery: A Bank Holiday Reflection!
Readings: Genesis 17:1-14, 1 Corinthians 7:17-24
A came across a story this week…and I don’t know if you’ve heard of this…but apparently, there is some referendum happening in a few weeks time. Something about Europe? Yes, the battle buses are out, the arguments from both sides have been ramped up such that, depending on who you believe, the outcome might lead to peace, justice and the flourishing of these islands or else war, pestilence and death. And whilst much of the debate is, quite frankly, embarrassing hyperbole, half truths and lies, how we vote on June 23rd does say something about our cultural identity, says something about whether we self-identify as Welsh, British, European or other.
And there’s another significant vote on the horizon, for in July, the great and the good – and I – have been called to the United Reformed Church’s biennial General Assembly where we will debate and vote, amongst other topics, on whether or not to allow churches to register for same sex marriage. As we know full well at St David’s Uniting, this is an issue which has kept resurfacing in recent years as cries of scriptural literacy, authority and obedience are countered with biblical themes of justice, grace and love.
Of course such debates about marital status are nothing new. In fact, it is the question of who should be married to whom and in what circumstances that lies behind this morning’s New Testament reading. Paul’s words about circumcision and slavery serve his wider argument about marriage, which concerns the rest of chapter 7. Underpinning it all is the deeper question about where our identity as human beings and as Christians comes from. So, this morning, we’ve got marriage, sex, circumcision, scripture, slavery and the fundamentals of human identity to cover. We should be done by 5!
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, it is pretty clear that there was some controversy concerning marriage going on within the church community in Corinth and so Paul is writing to them with some advice. The first issue that he deals with in chapter 7 is whether one should marry at all. To which, Paul essentially says that no, ideally, as a Christian you shouldn’t!!!
“Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do,” he tells us in verse 8. He later goes on to explain that, “An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord’s affairs—how he can please the Lord. 33 But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world—how he can please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. 35 I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord.”
Wow! It is more than a little ironic that certain sections of the church talk a lot about ‘Christian family values’ when the faith is founded upon the most famous single man in history and when the man who wrote more books in the Bible than anyone else advises his readers not to get married. For Paul then, marriage is seen as second best – it is better to live life undistracted by a partner. More than this, Paul suggests that the only reason to marry is not for children, not even explicitly for love, but much more straight-forwardly, to have sex. It is better to have your sexual needs met within the context of marriage, than ‘be aflame with passion’ and seek to meet our sexual desires just any which where.
But what about those who were already married? In his letter, Paul goes on to consider these and, in particular, the scenario in which a Christian was married to a non-Christian which was another disputed issue of the time. Should a converted Christian divorce their non-Christian partner? Behind this question seems to lie a concern with purity and holiness. Are you made unholy by being married to a non-believer? No, says, St. Paul turning things upon their head. It is not that a non-Christian partner makes someone unholy, rather the faith of the believer makes holy the unbeliever. It’s a view which might offer some solace to those of us who are married to apparent non-Christians as well as being a theological position which, if pushed to an illogical conclusion, might suggest that the best way of saving non-believers is for all single Christians to get married to non-Christians! It would certainly be an interesting mission strategy!
It is at this confusing point that we reach this morning’s passage. ‘Let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you’, Paul tells us and he begins to illustrate his point with circumcision. This was a huge debate within the early Church. Do you have to become a Jew in order to become a Christian? Do male converts to Christianity have to be circumcised before being welcomed into the church? Such a belief would certainly make evangelism to adult men a much more challenging task today! Fortunately, then, Paul says no. ‘Circumcision is nothing’. This in itself is a radical, incendiary remark for the very identity of those considered God’s chosen people rested on a sense of separation from other peoples marked out by circumcision. And Paul has not finished yet:
‘Circumcision is nothing.’ He tells us. ‘Obeying the commandments of God is everything’.
To first century Jewish listeners, Paul had clearly lost his mind. First he declares that circumcision – the sign of the covenant with God – is nothing, and then he immediately goes on to say ‘Obeying the commandments of God is everything’. The trouble is that circumcision was one of the commandments of God. As was having children! It would appear that Paul tells his readers to keep the law in one breath, but tells them to do things in direct contradiction of the law – to stay single and remain uncircumcised – in the next!
So, just, to recap – Paul advises against marriage; informs us that non-Christians might be saved not by their beliefs but by their marriage to Christians, tells his readers to obey the commandments of God the very sentence after telling them to disobey one of them and then after all this we get to a few very uncomfortable words on slavery –
“Were you a slave when called?” Paul asks. “Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever”.
Really?! I know one Bible study group found these words troubling this week when looking at this passage, and who can blame them for Paul seems to be telling slaves to just get on with things! To make the best out of being a slave! Is this really the good news of the gospel? How might we even begin to understand or explain what is happening in these verses? Where is the God of love, peace and justice to be found here? I think it might be time to pause, to praise and to ask God for wisdom. Let us sing hymn number 174 – God of grace and God of glory, on thy people pour thy power…grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of this hour…
Hymn: 174 – God of grace and God of glory
Right then, where were we? Marriage, sex, identity, circumcision and slavery. Quite the smorgasbord! So here do we go from here?! Well, in the brief time remaining, allow me to outline four key reflections that this passage might have to offer concerning our use of scripture in general.
Firstly then, our consideration of these few verses from St Paul might remind us of the dangers of reading passages in isolation. In our reading from First Corinthians, Paul does not condemn slavery but tells slaves to make the best out of being slaves. This could be, and tragically has been, used to argue Christianity’s endorsement of the slave trade and yet when one reads such passages in the context of the whole Bible; when we read that each person is wonderfully created by God whose kingdom is justice and whose being is love, who came in the person of Jesus, to bring good news to the poor, freedom for the oppressed and release to the captives it is clear that slavery is a denial of our creation, an abuse of our neighbours, it is an inverse of the good news of Jesus.
Similarly, when it comes to discussions about sexuality and marriage, some Christians use verses from the Bible as weapons, forgetting both that there is a plethora of very different positions concerning marriage found in the Bible and that the pervading themes of justice, inclusion, equality and love might shed further light on the issue. To try to win arguments about morality by isolating and obsessing over single verses makes us no better than the Pharisees, and we know how Jesus felt about them!
Secondly, we might be reminded that the Bible points us toward the wonder, joy and glory of God, but that it does so from a very different context from today. To divorce scripture from the time and place in which it was written would be a very dangerous thing to do. We can see how this might be the case for slavery, which was generally accepted at the time of Paul’s writing, but is now considered an evil which must be condemned. Similarly, our look at Paul’s advice not to get married is poorer without the acknowledgement that things were very different for Paul at the time of writing as the early church believed that Jesus was soon to return, the world would come to an end and God’s new era would begin.
Throughout the letter Paul tells his readers that time is getting short, that the present form of the world is passing away. There was an urgency to spread the good news of Jesus that many today would argue, rightly or wrongly, we do not have. So perhaps we cannot simply transpose the New Testament’s teaching on marriage – especially the recommendation not to marry – to the very different context of society today. And if this is the case with this issue, controversial in Paul’s day, why could it not be the case with other challenging issues today? When our worldview is significantly different from that of first century Israel, perhaps we cannot just parrot words from scripture without consideration of context.
Of course, as a church, we cannot simply act like a weak read, being swayed by every breath of wind, allowing social changes and whims to dictate to us our beliefs and this is where we must seek the wisdom of the holy spirit in our wrestling with the Bible. It is only by being open to the guidance and discernment of the Spirit that we can hope to come to understand, if only in part, and live out our calling as outlined in The Bible.
And there are so many examples within scripture that affirm the view that the Holy Spirit sheds new light on scripture. The spirit revealing to Peter that no food was to be considered unclean any longer; the spirit revealing that Cornelius, a gentile, could be a follower of Christ; the spirit revealing to Paul that circumcision was no longer to be considered a commandment of God. The Bible itself attests to the fact that its teaching can evolve through the prompting of the Holy Spirit and, as a people who declare that God is still speaking to us today, we must be open to the Holy Spirit giving us fresh revelation as we read scripture. Such an undertaking is challenging to say the least and we must take care that we do not simply assign the Spirit’s allegiance to whichever side of an argument we are on, yet we must continue to read and seek to understand scripture through the Spirit’s illumination.
So don’t read verses in isolation, don’t divorce the writing from its context, pray that the Holy Spirit might aid our understanding of the Bible and, finally, read all scripture through the lens of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who reveals to us the nature and will of God. It is through his person, his teaching, his compassionate, inclusive, radically loving actions that we learn of our compassionate, inclusive, radically loving God. This is something that Paul understood. In one of his most famous passages he speaks of being ‘in Christ’, and says that ‘in Christ there is no Jew nor Greek, slave or free, male or female’. He is following exactly the same logic in our text today. Those human distinctions and divisions of ethnicity, culture, and biology, are no longer the prime determinants of human identity for a Christian. We are not to be defined by status or circumcision, by nation or denomination, for all of these categories are radically relativized by our being ‘in Christ’. It is Christ who shows us who God is; Christ who defines who we are; Christ who must be the lens through which we read all scripture.
So there we have it. A simple scriptural guide to help us make easy decisions about everything – from Europe to euthanasia; nuptials to nuclear weapons. If only it was that easy! In the elections that are coming – be they in the church or at the polling stations – we may well believe different things and vote in different ways. And if done in a spirit of love, that is no bad thing in itself. For we are no more defined by our political allegiance than our nationality or gender but instead we are defined, loved, transformed and united in Christ. And as we journey onward together, as we delight in, differ and disagree on what scripture might say, may we do so with the love of God the Father, in the footsteps of God the Son, seeking the guidance of God the Spirit. Amen.