[B]ut obeying the commandments of God is everything. Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. 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. – 1 Cor. 7:19c-24 (NRSV)
Sometimes I wish Paul had had a crystal ball — or less of a legal background. Only a lawyer (ecclesiastical or otherwise) would try to think of every possible angle of an issue and then try to list them in such a way that there was little or no wiggle room left for change. Had he had a crystal ball, he might have seen the untold human misery that those words have caused. But he wrote to his time and his culture (and also to the culture he sought to reach through evangelism).
Paul had good motives; he was using an analogy of physical states that would be immediately understandable to those reading his words. To the slaves it gave hope that even though they were slaves now, they would be free in Christ. To their masters, it spoke to the fact that they may be free now but they would be slaves to Christ. The hard part was that of “remaining in the condition” that they found themselves because, of course, God called them to that station and there they should remain as evidence of their dedication to the care and obedience to God.
“Remaining in the condition,” however, goes against nature in a sense. Nature changes, never remaining static although the changes are often miniscule and almost invisible. Tall mountains gain or lose fractions of an inch a year due to upthrust or weathering. People grow old, unless accident or illness intervenes and ends that life prematurely. Spring moves inexorably through summer and toward fall. Aggressive ants take over colonies of non-aggressive ones and produce more aggressive colonies. We learn that many species are far more intelligent and resourceful than we ever thought possible. Whether the word “evolution” is accepted or shunned, it expresses the concept that change happens, and nothing really remains statically in the “condition” in which it first found itself.
There’s really nothing wrong with change except that sometimes it is hard to accept it. It’s hard to be comfortable and then find that something has changed and it’s not so comfortable any more. It took a long time but people finally came to believe that slavery is wrong, yet it still exists in places and in different situations than we read about in the history books. Change still needs to happen.
Paul didn’t have a crystal ball to tell him when the parousia was going to happen; Jesus had said that some of his generation would not taste death until the second coming had come about so Paul wasn’t taking any chances. I wonder if he felt like some of the prognosticators these days who predict the end of the world only to have to admit they had miscalculated so while they thought it was going to be today it is really scheduled for the third Thursday in July two years from now.
The second coming hasn’t happened yet. Meanwhile do we just sit and contemplate our navels or do we go to work to make the world a better place and ourselves better people while we wait? That in itself would represent change, change for the positive.
And isn’t that what Jesus’ message was about — changing, not just “remaining in the condition”?