I want to engage briefly with an argument regarding 1 Cor 7:17-24 Bruce Winter has put forward in Seek the Welfare of the City. In that text, Paul commends Christians to remain in the calling (Winter argues this should be translated “class”) they were in when they were converted. He then applies this to several specific cases: (1) removing circumcision; (2) becoming circumcised; (3) being released from slavery; and (4) becoming a slave.
Winter’s suggests that general reason Paul opposed changing classes in these cases was that the motive behind doing so was to increase social status. This would imply Paul did not approve of desiring increased social status.
To add a bit more detail to his case (see chapter 8 of the book, “Social Mobility”, for the full case) In the case of removing circumcision, being circumcised was often looked down on by Gentiles, and thus removing all traces of Jewish ancestry could indeed help one to be upwardly mobile. On the matter of becoming circumcised, Winter argues (more specifically in regard to Galatians 6:12, but says it applies here as well) that Gentile Christians could be tempted to do this in order to attain the status of religio licita, which would obviously be an improvement for someone who could not worship the emperor but had no legal exemption from doing so (the precarious position of many Gentile Christians). On being released from slavery, Winter emphasizes that this was a concession, and that Paul also that Christian slaves should not be anxious about their status. On becoming a slave, Winter notes that some forms of slavery available in the Roman empire could actually lead to improvements in status for some free people. He also notes that becoming a slave normally included an act of implicit idolatry, swearing by the genius of the paterfamilias.
I want to raise a few questions, and ask if any readers have thoughts or criticisms. Firstly, it seems clear enough that Paul does not think that having high social status, per se, is somehow intrinsically wrong. One of the main theses of Winter’s book is that the NT encourages Christians to engage in benefaction, which would be rewarded with civic recognition. Further, there may even be an example of a Christian who took public office after conversion in Rom 16:23 (Winter spends a chapter arguing this in the book as well). And it’s obvious the churches of the apostolic era did not excommunicate rich people simply for being rich. So it seems fairly clear to me that Paul could not consistently oppose social climbing simply because the higher state was intrinsically evil. He does not seem to have believed that.
Secondly, Winter wishes to emphasize the concessional nature of Paul’s permission for slaves to become free, but this must nevertheless be factored into our understanding of Paul’s underlying principle. If Paul allowed for one type of social climbing, it can’t be that he believed all social climbing per se was problematic. And further, it is not clear to me how what Paul says can truly be considered a concession: it seems rather to be an imperative. This provides an even stronger problem for Winter’s general thesis, I believe.
Thirdly, even though Winter argues becoming a slave in some cases could lead to social climbing, he also provides a totally different, and sufficient, reason for Paul to say Christians should not become slaves: it involved an act of idolatry. The reason Paul does explicitly state for his prohibition is that Christians are slaves of Christ (7:23). This could perhaps be more easily connected with concerns about idolatry, rather than social status seeking.
Fourthly, Paul in fact had Timothy circumcised for evangelistic purposes, suggesting his absolutely phrased command against being circumcised was not as absolute as it sounds. (Obviously this need not be a contradiction: general principles in law are often assumed to admit of not explicitly stated exceptions.) This seems to mean Paul would allow exceptions to his command based on good motives. And also: it would seem that if he could allow exceptions for the removal procedure, there would be no a priori reason to exclude the restorative one.
Fifthly, it is not clear to me how becoming circumcised in order to avoid state punishment is the same thing as status seeking. It seems more like self-preservation.
So, to summarize, of the four commands given here, one has an explicitly stated exception, and another has a known exception. This forces us to look for more underlying principles that can explain both the commands and their exceptions in a consistent way. Further, Paul’s acceptance and even commendation of rich people in the church, and his command to take advantage of freedom if possible, suggests that high status per se, and seeking increased status per se, could not be the principles behind Paul’s prohibitions.
Winter suggests that the underlying issue behind these principles was one of covetousness: Paul prohibited these actions because he prohibited covetousness. This may in fact provide the underlying principle which explains the above issues I raise. If these actions were problematic because they were common expressions of covetousness, then Paul could conceivably have accepted the actions if they were not so motivated. As argued above, it seems he in fact did this in some circumstances. So, while Winter does not explain the point this way, his case may be sustainable, if explicitly qualified: Paul was not opposed to seeking a higher status per se, but only if such seeking was an expression of covetousness in some way.
However, it’s not clear to me that we can say these commands are all ultimately motivated by a desire to prohibit covetousness. Winter provides a completely different kind of motivation for prohibiting becoming a slave (to avoid idolatry), and it does not seem natural to interpret the motivation for becoming circumcised (avoiding persecution) as covetousness. (I should note that Winter himself notes that this command could not be motivated by financial issues.) I believe this should lead us to look for another common principle underlying this list of commands. And I can’t think of a better one than that provided by Calvin in his commentary on 1 Cor 7:20:
20.Every man in the calling in which. This is the source from which other things are derived, — that every one should be contented with his calling, and pursue it, instead of seeking to betake himself to anything else. A calling in Scripture means a lawful mode of life, for it has a relation to God as calling us, — lest any one should abuse this statement to justify modes of life that are evidently wicked or vicious. But here it is asked, whether Paul means to establish any obligation, for it might seem as though the words conveyed this idea, that every one is bound to his calling, so that he must not abandon it. Now it were a very hard thing if a tailor were not at liberty to learn another trade, or if a merchant were not at liberty to betake himself to farming. I answer, that this is not what the Apostle intends, for he has it simply in view to correct that inconsiderate eagerness, which prompts some to change their condition without any proper reason, whether they do it from superstition, or from any other motive. Farther, he calls every one to this rule also — that they bear in mind what is suitable to their calling. He does not, therefore, impose upon any one the necessity of continuing in the kind of life which he has once taken up, but rather condemns that restlessness, which prevents an individual from remaining in his condition with a peaceable mind and he exhorts, that every one stick by his trade, as the old proverb goes.