Doug Van Meter - 17 September 2023
Bloom Where You Are Planted (1 Corinthians 7:17–24)
In what may seem to be a sudden change of theme, Paul moves in 7:17–24 from talking about enduring the hardship of a spiritually mixed marriage (7:10–16)—even being divorced by the unbelieving spouse—to an exhortation concerning the Christian and circumcision, and the Christian and slavery. Is this a completely new subject or is there a connection between these paragraphs? I believe the latter is the case. Paul is both summarising what he has just said as well as bridging to another theme. Both the former and following paragraphs call for Christian contentment in one’s station in life and these bridging eight verses state this duty clearly. This passage instructs us that, when God calls us to salvation, he also calls us to a life of faithful living under his lordship—regardless of circumstances. We can say that, when God saves us, he expects us to bloom where we are planted.
Circumstantially, adult people generally seek their identity in three major areas: their marital status, their ethnic status, and their social status. First Corinthians 7 addresses all three. But Paul counters such thinking by emphasising that one’s relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is the one status that matters. Therefore, if one belongs to him, one should be at peace and set oneself to living a life under the lordship of Jesus Christ to bloom where one is planted.
We will flesh this out as we study 1 Corinthians 7:17–24 under the following headings:
- Commanded to Bloom (v. 17)
- Called to Bloom (vv. 18–23)
- Contented to Bloom (v. 24)
Commanded to Bloom
The text opens in such a way making it clear that whatever he is going to say has some connection with what he has just said. In v. 17, Paul commands his readers to bloom where God has planted them: “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches” (v. 17).
Paul’s exhortation here is not culturally conditioned; it is an apostolic “rule in all the churches.” This is not a description of a unique situation in a church; rather, it is a prescription for all churches, including our church. So what’s the rule? What is Paul commanding?
In v. 15, Paul instructed those in a hostile marriage (spiritually mixed and hostile) to do all they can to maintain the marriage bonds peacefully in the marriage. They are to do the best they can to make the marriage work. But if the unbelieving spouse is hell-bent on ending the marriage, then Paul counsels the believer to let them go. The Lord does not hold the faithful believer responsible for this outcome. In fact, God recognises they are freed from the marriage bond and therefore, in my view, also free to remarry. But what we want to grasp is Paul’s words: “God has called you to peace.” These words are directly connected to what Paul has just said about the abandoned spouse not being “enslaved.”
Paul realises that a Christian might feel “trapped” in an abusive marriage out of loyalty to Christ. They may feel that they have no choice but to “force” the marriage to stay together, even though the unbeliever clearly wants out. Paul, however, counsels that, if the unbelieving spouse wants a divorce, the believer is not biblically compelled to fight this. Rather, they should “let it be so.” “Rather than being antagonistic, they should take a peace-loving approach” (Ciampa and Rosner). Rather than ratcheting up the tension and ensuring more despair, Paul reminds the believer that the Lord desires their welfare by the statement, “God has called you to peace.” God wills shalom for his children.
When a Christian (particularly a Jewish one) heard or read the word “peace,” he or she would have thought in terms of shalom, a Hebrew word meaning more than the mere absence of conflict. Shalom implies comprehensive peace, a comprehensive sense of well-being, which enables a believer to bloom to the glory of God (Numbers 6:24–26). This comprehensive well-being was first and foremost the blooming of one’s relationship with God, knowing that all was well between the person and God. As the new covenant songwriter put it, “It is well with my soul.”
Paul is teaching that the most important relationship a believer has is with the Lord and that this relationship trumps all other relationships. Therefore, Christian, if you are in a marriage in which your spouse is abusing you, the Lord takes that very personally. He wants your well-being, and, if your well-being is being undone by abusive treatment, he does not expect you to endure that.
Of course, one must be careful with this. Paul is not saying that God will always arrange things so there is an absence of conflict and hence no discomfort. He is not saying, if his child is in an unhealthy marriage and has much heartache, that God expects that child to depart the marriage. Rather, the context suggests that, if the unbeliever desires to leave the marriage, the Christian spouse’s well-being is a factor to be considered. This is akin to how Jesus warned his disciples to flee persecution when they could. He even expected this of them in some cases (see Matthew 24:15).
Paul now expands his application of this instruction to all Christians, regardless of their ethnic and social status. Paul commands “each person” in the church to bloom where they are planted. Each and every one is expected to recognise and accept their providential planting as coming from “the Lord,” since he has “assigned” us where we find ourselves. Therefore, we are to live our life in the confidence that God has sovereignly placed where we are and therefore we are to be at peace about it. “In Paul’s view, my station in life is under the sovereign and gracious direction of God. He ‘assigned’ it to me and ‘called’ me to it. ‘To each as God apportions, each as God has called, thus walk” (Ciampa and Rosner). This is the “rule” that Paul prescribes “in all the churches.” It is God’s rule for you and me because it is what “God has called” us to. The sooner we reckon upon the truth that the Lord has ordained our portion in life, the sooner we will make the most of it.
Beware the temptation to compare your portion with the portion of another. If your marriage is hard and another is happy, don’t ungratefully covet what God has not given you. If you are single and another is married, be content to bloom where God has placed you. If you are married and another is single, walk faithfully in the situation in which God has seen fit to place you.
The Lord commands us to follow him when the marriage is good, when the marriage is non-existent, when the marriage is hard, and when the marriage is horrible. The Lord commands us to walk faithfully whatever our circumstances. That is, God has commanded us to bloom where we are planted—to trust and obey, whatever our situation—and he provides shalom for us to do so.
Roger Ellsworth pastorally notes, “Isn’t it ironic that we often use our circumstances as an excuse for not obeying God when God is the one who gave us those very circumstances so we could obey him?… If God isn’t in control of very detail, it is sheer folly to talk about trusting him.”
Called to Bloom
In the bulk of this passage, Paul exhorts Christians to bloom regardless of either ethnic or social status.
Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men.
(1 Corinthians 7:18–23)
In raising the issue of circumcision, Paul was addressing a culturally significant matter, for it pertained to ethnic identity. As Prior comments, “Circumcision and slavery represented the two most divisive phenomena in the world of the New Testament.” Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that their ethnic circumstance is also determined by God and therefore they need to experience shalom in this area as well. Jackman helpfully observes, “The fact that a new believer is in a particular position at the time of his conversion is not an accident. God’s sovereignty does not come into play when an individual’s spiritual life begins; it has governed everything from the beginning of creation.” This includes cultural circumstances.
Jewish males (and hence circumcised) who have been converted to Christ may have been self-conscious about physically identifying with many who were rejecting Christ. They may therefore have thought it best to become “uncircumcised.” But Paul cautions against this saying they should “not … remove the marks of circumcision.” He then counsels those Christians who are “uncircumcised” (Gentiles) that they must “not seek circumcision.” No surgery is required. Paul makes a bold statement, almost unbelievable but for the gospel: “For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God” (v. 19).
In a biographical sketch, Paul said that, if anyone could boast in religious works and ethnic superiority, it would be him. After all he was born “of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews” and “circumcised on the eighth day” (Philippians 3:5). But he says that, when he was called by the Holy Spirit to salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ, he counted this status as loss, even as “rubbish.” The message of the cross enabled Paul to see that what matters is circumcision of the heart (Romans 2:28–29). The message of the cross opened Paul’s eyes to the fact that salvation is in the blood of Christ, not in the bloodline of a people group.
The message of the cross showed Paul that salvation comes through God removing a heart of stone, and replacing it with a heart of flesh, rather than through removal of a piece of flesh.
The message of the cross led to Paul seeing that, in Jesus Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. In Christ, there is full equality. In other words, the message of the cross transformed Paul’s ethnic prejudice as he came to realise that believing Jews and believing Gentiles make up the new temple of God (Ephesians 2:14–22).
In summary, when the Lord called Paul to salvation through the message of the cross, the Lord enabled him to see that the only status that matters is with reference to one’s relationship with Jesus Christ.
It is not by our works of righteousness, nor any religious or ethnic connection, which brings us to a right relationship with God. It is only through what God has done. And once he puts us in in Christ, we are to bloom there. This blooming is the flower of obedience. The phrase “keeping the commandments of God” speaks to this. But what does Paul have in mind?
At first blush, this may look like a contradictory statement. After all, Jewish sons were to be circumcised in obedience to God’s command (Genesis 17). Therefore, Paul must have something else in mind.
Perhaps he is referring to “the law of love” (Romans 13:8–10; Galatians 5:6). This is real possibility. But perhaps, in keeping with the context, he is referring to commandments recently given. Let’s do some review.
From chapter 5 through the first verses in chapter 7, Paul addresses matters of human sexuality. Sexual immorality and confusion over sexual morality in marriage loomed large. In confronting and correcting these matters, Paul issues various commands. The local church is to excommunicate the unrepentant sexual offender (5:9–13); those committing sexual immorality are to flee it (6:18); those who are married are to remain married (7:10–11). So what does this have to do with circumcision? Much.
Since Paul has been speaking of marital relations, it is possible that a certain degree of self-consciousness may have crept into the marriage bed. That is, a non-circumcised husband (Gentile with pagan religious background) may have been especially aware of this if his wife was Jewish. Perhaps he may have thought that his condition somehow disqualified him from enjoying marital privileges. Perhaps he may have thought that his pagan past disqualified him from marital privileges. Therefore, this passage would have been pastorally significant, providing the comforting truth that his physical/cultural condition did not limit him from experiencing God’s shalom in his marital relations.
On the other hand, if the man was Jewish and his wife was an unbeliever, this “condition” might make him uncomfortable if he assumed that, because he was literally marked for God, he could not enjoy marital privileges. Having just addressed this concern (vv. 1–5, 12–14), Paul reiterates here that what pleases the Lord is obedience to his word in one’s marriage. This is why I lean towards the interpretation that “keeping the commandments of God” refers to the commandments preceding these verses. Let me put it as gently as I can: Foreskin is not the issue in marriage; faithfulness is. Covenantal faithfulness before God in one’s marriage is what pleases the Lord. Surgery does not make a marriage; sanctification does.
To summarise, what matters to God is living for him in whatever cultural circumstance we find ourselves. We are to lead our life obeying his commands, which is key to experiencing shalom. In every area of life.
Let me broadly apply this.
Many years ago, one of our church members was shot, resulting in severe paralysis and the rest of her life in a wheelchair. I remember where I was when my cell phone rang and her husband told me the news.
This dear lady died of cancer several years ago, with her faithful husband at her side. He made a covenant that he would love, honour, and cherish his wife until death parted them. He kept that vow before the Lord, despite the situation in which he and his wife found themselves. Keeping the commandments of God is what mattered, not a wheelchair.
Sadly, there are many stories where the opposite response ended a marriage. When conditions changed, rather than accepting this as the result of the providence of God, disobedience to God’s commandments characterised the response. Rather than the marriage blooming where it was planted, it wilted and died. When the roots of the marriage are in the shifting sands of circumstances rather than in the solid soil of covenantal faithfulness, it will die.
But we can make another application from this text: Ethnic status is irrelevant when it comes to one’s relationship with God. A failure to grasp this is detrimental to one’s spiritual growth, and it has caused immense problems as seen in some of the history of missions.
When we read passages such as Revelation 5, we view people from every tribe and nation and tongue worshipping around the throne of God. Ethnicity does not change when someone is converted. God loves diversity and forever and ever the circumcised and uncircumcised will live side-by-side worshipping God. But too often, when people are converted, they jump to the erroneous conclusion that they must now reproduce the cultural customs of those who were used to convert them. What they need to be taught was to obey God’s commandments, and if that means an obedience expressed in a unique cultural way, so be it.
The point should be clear: What matters is faithfulness to God and to his gospel, not identifying with a particular culture, unless we are talking about a gospel-culture, which is a transcendently cross-cultural way to live.
In v. 20, Paul states and summarises this principle before providing another example and application. It is an emphatic statement: “Each and every one of you is to abide in the condition [literally, ‘calling’] in which he was called.” He is not suggesting that one should not try and improve their particular circumstances (e.g. health, financial, career, etc.) but he is saying that the marital, ethnic situation/condition/status in which God saved you is irrelevant to your spiritual well-being; you can experience shalom regardless of your station in life. You don’t need to end your marriage nor do you need to marry. You don’t need to abandon your people group. You will need to leave cultural sins, but you do not need to leave your culture. You don’t need to abandon your language or good, true, and beautiful cultural expressions. You don’t need to change your name. God has already done that (Revelation 2:17; 3:12; 22:4).
In vv. 21–23, Paul continues to make the point that God has called his people to bloom where they are planted, whether they have economic freedom or whether they are dependent upon others. That is, whether enslaved or freed. Why does he make this particular point?
First, it is estimated that one third of the Corinthian population was composed of slaves, a second third of emancipated slaves, with the final third free born persons. This church may have reflected this population breakdown. If so, imagine being converted while a slave and sitting next to a church member who was a freeborn citizen or an emancipated slave. Imagine if he or she was your employer. And perhaps you are tempted to question whether you are as acceptable to God as they are.
Perhaps you feel as though you are a second-class Christian, a second-class church member and so you desire to change your social status. You are longing to update your Facebook status to “Emancipated!” Paul cautions against such thinking. Rather, he says, your social status makes no difference before the Lord. In fact, you and your believing master are co-equals, co-heirs. There is no difference where it really matters.
But Paul also makes clear that he is not discouraging a right kind of ambition. He writes, “But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.” Paul is not counselling passivity but neither is he prioritising upward mobility. Rather, as Thiselton explains, “‘Even if there is a possibility … start to make positive use of the present’ (v. 21), brings home the fruitlessness of merely waiting for supposedly better opportunities for service rather than starting to get on with the job of service to the Lord whatever the circumstances.”
Paul knew what was most important. He knew that belonging to the Lord was what matters and that living under his lordship is what pleases the Lord. Any other social distinctions are irrelevant. In fact, he subtly reverses the world’s value judgement when he writes that “he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ” (v. 22). Notice how he elevates the bondservant/slave to a freedman while “demoting” the free person to a bondservant/slave. Of course, what he is doing is equalising both at the foot of the cross, as is made clear in v. 23: “You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men.”
The precious blood of Jesus Christ was shed to purchase his people out of slavery to sin, self, and to Satan, and to give them a new kind of slavery. Jesus Christ owns us (6:19–20). Jesus Christ is our Master. We are therefore freed from bondage to any kind of social stigma and status. Hence Paul’s exhortation: “Do not become bondservants of men.” Obviously, he is not instructing them to rebel against their human masters. Rather, he is reminding them that, regardless of their social status, they ultimately serve the Lord Jesus Christ, which is where they find their identity and dignity.
Jackman summarises the entire passage well. He envisions a wrong kind of slavery: slavery to societal commands such as
“Give up marriage … leave that pagan husband … you really should be circumcised … aren’t you going to buy your freedom?” and so on. Instead, he wants them to stay where they are and keep on obeying God’s commands, so that they might enjoy the only true freedom any human being can have, in recognizing and submitting to Jesus Christ as Lord. The circumstances of life are not the most important things in life. The great priority is that, irrespective of our circumstances, we have been set free, in Christ, to be our true, redeemed selves.
The Christian’s call to salvation gives them dignity, not their vocation. The Christian’s call to salvation is their most important calling and we must guard this mindset. It is fine to want to improve one’s lot in life, but not at the expense of losing what we should value the most. Don’t be enslaved by the world’s value system.
Beware how you treat your brothers and sisters in Christ who are of a different social status. Do the hard work of overcoming worldly prejudice.
But we need to consider a possible second reason why Paul brought up the subject of bondservants, and, as with the issue of circumcision above, it is related to the context of marital relations.
We learned that heads of households had nearly absolute rights over all in the household. This meant that a head of household could “touch” (v. 1) any female or male servant in the household. Think about what this would mean for a sister or brother in Christ who was a slave. Think about their potential horrible situation. And think about the shame and the conflict they would have felt in their soul when the master abused them in this way.
Such would doubtless have questioned whether they were acceptable to the Lord. A victim of such abuse would have questioned whether he or she was a second-class Christian, whether “damaged goods” in the kingdom of God. If so, then this exhortation would serve to relieve such a believer of a huge burden.
Yes, she belongs to the Groom, who loved her and who bought her and who will bring her to himself one day. No, she is not damaged goods: She is blood-washed and loved forever. No, her wicked and perverse earthly master has not determined her value; the Lord Jesus Christ has done that. Hallelujah, what a Saviour!
Such a victim is indeed in a terrible situation. And though the Lord hates the man’s sin—and will judge him for it—nevertheless, if it is an inescapable situation, a Christian needs to keep trusting the Lord. And this brings us to the last verse and the Pauls summarising principle.
Contented to Bloom
We could also call this “connected to bloom” or “in communion to bloom.” Paul wants his readers to be content as they rest in the Lord: “So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God” (v. 24). Regardless of their circumstances, they can experience shalom. As Mare writes, “God is looking on and is there with you to help you” and therefore “the Christian … is to live for the Lord without anxiety in his present situation.”
Here, Paul basically repeats v. 20 but with three additional elements.
First, he pastorally uses the word “brothers” (the Greek word includes brothers and sisters) reminding them of their family connection. That is, they are a church family, which helps one another to bloom where they are planted.
Second, Paul emphasises the comprehensiveness of the responsibility to bloom where they are planted. The word “whatever” makes this clear. Regardless of the station/season of life, they are to lead the life (v. 17) of one who has been bought with the blood of Christ. And as Leon Morris helpfully reminds us, v. 24
does not forbid a man to better himself. But it cautions him not to seek a change simply because he is a Christian. In passing it is worth noticing that this principle is still valid. Conversion is not the signal for a man to leave his occupation (unless it is only plainly incompatible with Christianity) and seek some other. All of life is God’s. We should serve God where we are until he calls us elsewhere.
Third, they can be confident that they will bloom where they are planted because they abide “with God.” Their connection to him—their face-to-face communion with God—is why they can and why they will bloom where he has planted them. This should encourage us.
Remember this in If you are in a hard, even horrible marriage: God has you there and he is with you there (Romans 8:31ff). Remember this if you are in a terrible financial strait: God has you there and he is with you there. Remember this if you are in a mundane, tedious job: God has you there and he is with you there. Remember this if you are in a miserable physical condition: God has you there, and he is with you there.
“Whatever” your circumstance, God desires shalom for you there. He desires for you to bloom there, for his glory. This passage makes clear that God has powerfully saved us, providentially placed us, and will perseveringly give us what we need to bloom where he has planted us.
Brothers and sisters, because God the Father chose us, because God the Son, Jesus Christ, was crucified for us, because God the Holy Spirit has called us, because the triune God has converted us, we can bloom where he has planted us. God’s shalom is ours. Therefore, despite your circumstances, embrace what God has called you to. As Thiselton puts it, “The key point is not ‘staying as you were’ but [the point is] that Christians can fully serve Christ as Lord in whatever situation they find themselves.” Brothers and sisters let us faithfully, fruitfully, beautifully bloom where we’ve been planted.