Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Paul’s legacy: slavery, 1 Cor. 7:21

Posted by cherylem on September 29, 2007

After I finish these posts on Paul’s legacy as an “agent of oppression in our age,” see here (if I ever do), I think I’ll do some posts on Paul’s legacy in terms of transcendent gospel principles.

This is the third post under the title, Paul’s Legacy. Remember that these posts are drawn largely, but certainly not entirely, from Neil Elliott’s book: LIBERATING PAUL: THE JUSTICE OF GOD AND THE POLITICS OF THE APOSTLE.

I’ll begin by looking at 1 Corinthians 7:17-24. Here are three translations: King James, NIV, and NRSV.

Leander E. Keck, in PAUL AND HIS LETTERS (Fortress, 1979, p. 94-95), wrote: “Paul’s ethic appears to be so thoroughly influenced by his expectation of the imminent parousia that it produces a ‘conservative’ stance, for he actually urges his readers not to change their roles in society (1 Cor. 7:17-24).” For some, this becomes one of the basic tenants of Paul’s theology.

Elliott asserts that Keck’s interpretation is common, widespread. Mostly this interpretation is based on 7:21, which in some translations, including the NRSV I’ve provided, is rendered “Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever,” or in other words, stay in your place. Interestingly, however, other translations, including the NIV, say the opposite: “if you can gain your freedom, do so.” So the original Greek can apparently be translated in opposite ways. Elliott says the Greek phrase mallon chresai can be rendered “by all means take advantage” but . . . of what? The translator has to fill that part in. Some translators fill in “slavery,” others, “freedom.”

How is this decision made? through the context of vs. 17-24, and the translation of the Greek word klesis, or “calling” to mean “one’s station in life.” Yet it appears that klesis was used consistently by Paul not to mean a station in life but a calling to belong to Christ (TDNT). Translations that render this as a station in life are “preunderstanding” what Paul really means. Indeed, after giving further arguments, Elliott says that interpreting klesis to mean that God called someone to be a slave is actually a lexical and syntactical impossibility.

How did this “conservative gospel of Paul ethic” begin? The TDNT traces this use to Martin Luther, who translated klesis into the German Beruf (occupation) rather than Berufung (calling), based on similarities to other passages: Col 3:18-4:1, Eph. 5:22-6:9, and 1 Tim. 2:8-15, 6:1-2, all of which were almost certainly not written by Paul, and all of which apply to reciprocal social relationships that do not appear in 1 Corinthians.

Why is this important? Elliott says the importance lies not only in how 1 Cor. 7:21 (and the entire section of 7:17-24) was used historically when western countries utilized slaves (and he gives horrific examples of the use of this verse to keep slaves in abysmal conditions), but it also important today because (and he gives examples of each) scholars continue to say that:
1) For Paul, civil freedom was a civil affair, and had nothing to do with the church.
2) Social institutions as institutions were not Paul’s first concern. Relationships were his first concern.
3) Desire of Christian slaves to be free was not as crucial to Paul as his opposition to circumcision.
4) Some slaves did not desire to be freed.
5) Social structures were outwardly respected, but inwardly rejected. Attitude was everything.

The net result, both historically (through time) and today is that Paul’s teachings are interpreted in the socially conservative instruction: DO NOT CHANGE. Where you are, stay. Paul is interpreted as being reluctant to shake up social structures, and this becomes a broad generalization for all our readings of Paul today. Attempts to change one’s society reflects a lack of faith in God, since Paul “clearly” taught that socio-economic freedom doesn’t matter – inner freedom in Christ is all important. To think otherwise, goes the generalization, is to misunderstand grace. Finally, then, social egalitarianism is condemned as heretical, and Paul has become the apostle of the status quo.

Elliott writes: “Thus the apostle of the status quo not only stands ensconced in the canon by virtue of the presence of the pseudepigraphia; he is discovered, through the tortuous process of conventional exegesis, to be the Paul of the genuine letters as well.”

And quoting Elliott as he quotes Amos James, Jr, who wrote in PAUL’S MESSAGE OF FREEDOM: WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO THE BLACK CHURCH?, 1984, p. 38:
“It may not be fair to say that the history of failure to grasp Paul’s understanding of slavery in light of Christian freedom on the part of the Christian church and its scholars is a racist proclivity (i.e., bent on keeping in subjection and even destroying a certain class or race of people), but it would be fair to say that there has not been a mad rush on the part of white theologians to the opinion that, for Paul, Jesus meant freedom for the slave in the church as well as in society. It has been because of this negatively skewed interpretation of Paul that the black church and black theologians have ignored the Apostle to the Gentiles and, in fact, have held him as an object of scorn.”


This is a little more detailed than I had planned, and is actually not the end of Elliott’s discussion on Paul and slavery, which includes Philemon.

Is this interesting to anyone? Anyone have comments?

6 Responses to “Paul’s legacy: slavery, 1 Cor. 7:21”

  1. Ann said

    I don’t have any comments. This is fascinating. Wonderful. I’m looking forward to #4.

  2. NoCoolName_Tom said

    Please, please continue! I may not entirely agree with some modern Pauline readings, but I do think that trying to understand Paul more helps us to understand our Lord more.

  3. Ann said

    Unsolicited advice: this series may not generate a lot of discussion (then again, it may). But don’t let that deter you! Please! Just assume that the silence means a lot of nodding heads.

  4. cherylem said

    Thanks Ann, NoCoolName, and others. This is a bit of work for me, but I will continue, at least for awhile.

  5. Jim F. said

    cherylem: However much you can do will be appreciated by all. Thanks.

  6. Robert C. said

    I too find this fascinating, Cheryl. I’m curious how Elliott would deal with, say, Romans 13:1ff, where Paul seems to be saying that we should submit to political authority b/c such authority is established or allowed by God. That is, I think there are good reasons for the reading of Paul that Elliott is criticizing. Of course I’m not condoning the way Paul was used to support slavery, but I’m not sure I follow the extent to which Elliott is saying that Paul was saying something different. That is, although Elliott seems to make a good case for how to read this 1 Cor. passage, I think other passages support the claim that Paul taught as Christians we should accept our “political station in life.”

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