“Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.” First Corinthians, 7:21-24
When I try to make sense of this passage from Paul, I find myself feeling incredibly frustrated. After I had read it during a Bible study, at first I thought Paul was contradicting himself. How could a slave make use of his or her present condition while not being a slave to a human master? It seems so strange to me to think of a relationship with God as an economic one of possession. And yet, Paul says that “you were bought with a price,” perhaps suggesting that humans are an object owned by God. Granted, the writing gives all people both a sense of freedom and imprisonment. Those who are enslaved find freedom in the Divine, yet those who are free are bound to Christ. Paul’s words, however, don’t seem to give a satisfying explanation for why we have been bought.
Despite this frustration, I gained three insights out of this initial impression. The first is that a significant source of my discomfort comes from the discussion of slavery. It was likely a part of Corinthian society, and that context must be recognized. Still, after learning about slavery in US history and colonialism, it is very hard for me to hear the subject and not have a visceral reaction. How could someone claim to believe in God and his message of love while enslaving another person? I fully acknowledge, of course, that I have the luxury of hindsight. It is so easy to judge how people behaved in the past, even though I don’t know how I would have acted in the same time, place, and circumstances. Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable that Paul would advise someone to remain a slave while seeking God.
The second point was articulated by a friend in the Bible study with me. He said that the phrase “slaves of human masters” could very well be a metaphor. He reminded me that there are many things in our material life that humans can become ensnared by. Money, power, and possessions are all things that can detract our attention from the Divine when we remain transfixed by them. In my initial response to the reading, I judged too quickly and did not take the time to consider what the text meant beyond the literal words. Reading scripture involves listening to the text, and then trying to converse with it and get at its meaning. As controversial as its words may be, that doesn’t mean the language should be entirely dismissed or ignored.
The last insight came from a different friend, and this one speaks to me the most. He addressed the very last sentence: “In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.” My friend argued that this meant we should not try to change ourselves before we begin to seek God. Through our journey with the Divine, we work towards achieving our best self, whatever that may be. He interpreted the passage to mean that one shouldn’t wait to make oneself better before following God, because by that time it will be too late. We are accepted for who we are, and whatever state in which we approach the Divine is enough. That in itself is a powerful message, which I doubt I would have gleamed from Paul’s words from my own reading.
With all that I have just said, am I entirely comfortable with this passage? No, there are some things I still cannot understand. I still feel uneasy reading parts of it. My experience with scripture, though, has informed me to listen to it, even if I don’t necessarily agree. The Bible study I take part in is teaching me to engage in dialogue with the text as well as with others. I may question and not agree with parts of scripture, but it still has something to say about the Divine, for better or for worse. Scripture tries to speak with us and teach us how to live spiritually. We can agree or disagree with what is said as much as we feel. We should listen to it without dismissal or judgment, but not without questions as well.