As the Director of Outreach for First Fruits of Zion, I frequently attend conferences to build relationships with Christian leaders.
At these events, I often get into theological conversations, which usually lead to Paul. A common question I like to ask is, “What do you think of Paul’s rule in all the churches?”
Most of the leaders I speak to at these conferences have advanced theological and Bible degrees. When I ask the above question, it is unusual for the other person to know what I am referring to, much less to have given Paul’s rule much thought. Typically, answers I receive are along the line of something like, “I think Paul’s rule was to ‘be all things to all men’ to save some of them,” with reference to 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Or perhaps someone will say, “Paul’s rule was to ‘count everything as loss…in order [to] gain Christ,’” from Philippians 3:8-9. These Pauline thoughts are certainly important. However, they are not what Paul expressed as his “rule in all the churches.”
The question above that I pose to leaders is not aimed at drawing out their opinion of what they think serves as Paul’s central idea or primary focus. Rather, my question is referring to a specific statement Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 7:
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. 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. (1 Corinthians 7:17-20)
In my opinion, this is one of the most underemphasized texts in the Bible and certainly in the letters of Paul. Paul’s language here is unique. It is the only time that he explicitly mentions his “rule.”
According to Paul, this fundamentally important “rule” is something that applies to Yeshua’s disciples “among all the churches.” But what did Paul mean to establish by this rule?
The Challenge within the Text
Part of the challenge with interpreting this text is the seeming contradiction between verses 19 and 20 in 1 Corinthians 7. On the one hand, Paul says that “circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing.” Here, “circumcision” and “uncircumcision” are used as words that represent Jewish and Gentile social identities, respectively. At face value, this verse seems to indicate that Paul is collapsing the value of previous social identities as he says that circumcision and uncircumcision “count for nothing.” But in verse 20, he continues: “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.”
Now, this statement sounds like an affirmation of previous social identities. So, which is it? Does Paul affirm or deny the ongoing role of social identities within the ecclesia (assembly)?
Interpreting Paul’s Rule
My understanding of Paul’s “rule” in 1 Corinthians 7:17-20 is that he affirms that all have equal access to the gift of God in Yeshua, yet diversity remains within the ecclesia. When Paul says, “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing,” he communicates that both Jews and Gentiles can be justified in Christ as either Jews or Gentiles. Both Jewish and Gentile identities mattered greatly to Paul. Why? Because this harmonizes with the reality that the God of Israel is not just the God of the Jews, but he is also the God of the Gentiles:
Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, 30 since God is one—who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith. (Romans 3:29-30)
In Paul’s mind, the massive turning of the Gentiles from their idols to the God of Israel was an indication that the Messianic time clock had started. This is a concept firmly established among the prophets of Israel. They envisioned a day when the Gentiles would join Israel in giving singular worship to the God of Israel. But fundamental to the expectation of the prophets is that the Gentiles retain their identity as members of the nations. For this reason, Paul established his “rule” in 1 Corinthians 7.