Christian Casuistry*

Guest Writer Frederick W Robertson

“Let every man abide in the same calling in which he was called” (1 Corinthians 7:20).

Preached at Trinity Chapel, Brighton, England, 4 January 1852

Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Is any man called being circumcised? let him not become uncircumcised. Is any called in uncircumcision? let him not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing, but the keeping of the commandments of God. Let every man abide in the same calling in which he was called. Are you called being a servant? care not for it: but if you may be made free, use it rather. For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the Lord’s freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is Christ’s servant. You are bought with a price; be not the servants of men. Brethren, let every man, in what he is called, abide there with God” (1 Corinthians 7:18-24).

The whole of the first seven chapters of 1 Corinthians is occupied with questions of Christian casuistry [case-based reasoning]. Because difficulties had arisen in applying Christian principles to real-life circumstances, the Corinthians had put certain questions to the Apostle Paul. Chapter 7 contains the apostle’s answer to many of these questions. There are, however, two divisions into which these answers generally fall: answers that come from the Lord (by commandment) and answers that come from the Apostle Paul (by permission). Paul addresses the Corinthians as he was taught of God (cf Galatians 1:11-20) and as a servant “called of the Lord and faithful” (cf 1 Corinthians 1:9).

Obviously, there are many questions in which right and wrong are not open for discussion. On the other hand, situations arise where God has not spoken and man must decide. For instance, in the present chapter Paul addresses the duties and advantages of marriage and celibacy. There may be circumstances in which it is the duty of a Christian man to be married; there are others in which it may be his duty to remain unmarried. A married missionary may be preferable to an unmarried one. A pauper may not have the means to support a family, and so should remain unmarried until his circumstances improve. No fixed law can be laid down on this subject. We cannot say marriage or celibacy is a Christian duty, nor that it is the duty of every missionary to be married, or of every pauper to be unmarried. These things vary according to circumstances, and the duty must be stated not universally, but circumstantially.

These, therefore, are questions of casuistry, which depend on the particular case (the word from which casuistry is derived). On these points the apostle speaks not by commandment, but by permission as a man of God. With reference to 1 Corinthians 7, a distinction has sometimes been drawn between that which Paul speaks by inspiration and that which he speaks by wisdom. The distinction, however, is false, and beside the question. The real distinction is not between the inspired and the uninspired, but between Christian duty and Christian prudence. It is evident that God does not advise; He commands. God does not say, “It is better to do this.” His perfection demands absolutes: “You shall do this. You shall not do that.” Whenever, therefore, we come to advice, however sound, we have the human element not the divine. In these circumstantial cases, Paul speaks as one whose judgement we have no right to find fault with or to cavil at: he lays down what is a matter of Christian prudence and not a matter of Christian duty.

Today we will look at 1 Corinthians 7:10-24, leaving part of the commencement and the conclusion of the chapter for our consideration, if God permit, next Sunday.

There are three main questions the apostle addresses.

• The first concerns the sanctity of the marriage bond between two Christians. His verdict is “To the married I command, yet not I, but the Lord, Let not the wife depart from her husband” (7:10). He lays down this principle: that marriage is indissoluble.

On such a subject, before a mixed congregation, it is manifestly evident that we can speak only in general terms. It is sufficient to say that marriage is of all earthly unions almost the only one permitting of no change but death: “Until death do us part” (traditional marriage vows). Marriage is that engagement in which man exerts his most awful and solemn power—the power of responsibility that belongs to him as one who will give account—the power of abnegating the right to change—the power of parting with his freedom—the power of doing that which in this world can never be reversed. And yet it is perhaps that relationship that is spoken of most frivolously, and entered into most carelessly and most wantonly. It is not a union merely between two creatures, it is a union between two spirits; and the intention of that bond is to perfect the nature of both, by supplementing their deficiencies with the force of contrast, giving to each gender those excellencies in which it is naturally deficient: to the one strength of character and firmness of moral will; to the other sympathy, meekness, and tenderness.

And just so solemn and just so glorious as these ends are for which the union is contemplated and intended, just so terrible are the consequences if marriage be perverted and abused. For there is no earthly relationship that has so much power to ennoble and to exalt. Very strong language does the apostle use in this chapter respecting it: “How do you know, O wife, if you will save your husband? or how know you, O man, if you will save your wife?” (7:16). The very power of saving belongs to this relationship.

On the other hand, there is no earthly relationship that has so much power to wreck and ruin the soul. For there are two rocks in this world of ours on which the soul must be either anchored or wrecked. One is God; the other is the opposite sex. One is the “Rock of Ages,” on which if the humble soul anchors, it lives the blessed life of faith; against which, if the soul be dashed and broken, there ensues the wreck of Atheism—the worst ruin of the soul. The other rock is another person. Blessed is the man, blessed is the woman, whose life-experience has taught a confiding belief in the excellencies of the opposite sex—a blessedness second only to the blessedness of salvation. And the ruin in the latter case is second only to the ruin of everlasting perdition—the same wreck and ruin of the soul.

These, then, are the two tremendous alternatives: on the one hand, the possibility of securing, in all sympathy and tenderness, the laying of that step on which man rises toward perfection; on the other hand, the blight of all sympathy, to be dragged down to earth, and forced to become frivolous and commonplace, to lose all zest and earnestness in life, to have heart and life degraded by mean and perpetually-recurring sources of disagreement. These are the two alternatives, and it is the worse of these alternatives that the young risk when they form an inconsiderate union—excusably indeed, because through inexperience. And it is the worst of these alternatives that parents risk—not excusably but inexcusably—when they bring up their children with no higher view of what that tie is than the merely prudential one of a rich and honorable marriage.

• The second is the sanctity of the marriage bond between a Christian and an unbeliever. When Christianity first entered into our world, and was little understood, it seemed to threaten the dislocation and alteration of all existing relationships. Many difficulties arose; such, for instance, as the one here started. When a heathen spouse converted to Christianity, the question arose, What is the duty of the Christian? Is not the duty separation? Is not the marriage in itself null and void? as if it were a union between one dead and one living? And is not perpetual contact with a heathen, an enemy of God, in a relation so close and intimate, perpetual defilement?

Paul answers this question with his usual inspired wisdom. He says the marriage bond is sacred still. “If any brother has a wife that believes not, and she be pleased to dwell with him, let him not put her away. The woman who has a husband that believes not, if he be pleased to dwell with her, let her not leave him” (7:12, 13).

Diversities of religious opinion, even the farthest and widest diversity, cannot sanction separation.

The proof Paul gives of the sanctity of the marriage is exceedingly remarkable. If this were no marriage, but an unhallowed alliance, it would follow as a necessary consequence that the offspring could not be reckoned in any sense as the children of God; but, on the other hand, it is the instinctive, unwavering conviction of every Christian parent, united though he or she may be to a heathen, “My child is a child of God.” Or, in the Jewish form of expression, “My child is clean.” So Paul says, “The unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband—else were your children unclean; but now they are holy” (7:14), for it follows if the children are holy in this sense of dedicated to God, and are capable of Christian relationship, then the marriage relation is not unhallowed, but sacred and indissoluble.

The value of this argument in the present day depends on its relation to baptism. Are we baptized because we are the children of God? or are we the children of God because we are baptized? When the catechism of the Church of England says that by baptism we are “made the children of God,” are we to understand that we are made something we were not before—magically and mysteriously changed? or are we to understand that we are made the children of God by baptism in the same sense that a sovereign is made a sovereign by coronation?

Paul does not say that these children were Christian, or clean, because they were baptized, but they were the children of God because they were the children of one Christian parent. Nay, more than that, such children could scarcely ever have been baptized, because, if the rite met with opposition from one of the parents, it would be an entire and perfect veto to the possibility of baptism. You will observe that the fundamental idea out of which infant-baptism arises is that the impression produced on the mind and character of the child by the Christian parent makes the child one of a Christian community; and therefore, as Peter argued that Cornelius had received the Holy Spirit, and was to be baptized, so in the same way, as they are adopted into the Christian family and receive a Christian impression, the children of Christian parents are also to be baptized.

Observe, also, the important truth that comes out collaterally from this argument; namely, the sacredness of the impression that arises from the close connection between parent and child. Stronger far than education, possibly from the first moments of consciousness, is the nurture of parents. Our character, voice, features, qualities—modified, no doubt, by entering into a new human being, and into a different organization—are impressed on our children. This is not the inculcation of opinions, but much rather the formation of principles. Physiologists tell us of the derivation of mental qualities from the father and of moral qualities from the mother. But be this as it may, there is scarcely one here who cannot trace back his present religious character to some impression, in early life, from one or other of his parents—a tone, a look, a word, a habit, or even, it may be, a bitter, miserable exclamation of remorse.

• The third is the development of the last. Christianity, Paul says, does not interfere with existing relationships. “As God has distributed to every man, as the Lord has called everyone, so let him walk” (7:17). “Let every man abide in the same calling in which he was called” (7:20). “Let every man, in what he is called, abide there with God” (7:24). This is the principle. Christianity is not to interfere with existing relationships. Christian men are to remain in those relationships in which they are, and in them to develop the inward spirituality of the Christian life.

Then Paul applies this principle in two ways: ecclesiastically and civilly.

First, ecclesiastically. With respect to their church, or ecclesiastical affairs, he says, “Is any man called being circumcised? Let him not become uncircumcised. Is any man in uncircumcision? Let him not be circumcised” (7:18). In other words, the Jews, after their conversion, were to continue Jews, if they so desired. Christianity required no change in these outward things, for it was not in these that the depth and reality of the kingdom of Christ consisted. So the Apostle Paul took Timothy and circumcised him (Acts 16:1-3); so also he used all the Jewish customs with which he was familiar, and performed a vow, “having shorn his head in Cenchrea; for he had a vow” (18:18).

It was not Paul’s opinion that it was the duty of a Christian to overthrow the Jewish system. He knew that the Jewish system could not last, but what he wanted was to vitalize the system—to throw into it not a Jewish, but a Christian flavor; and so doing, he might continue in it so long as it would hold together.

And so it was, no doubt, with all the other apostles. We have no evidence that before the destruction of the Jewish polity, there was any attempt made by them to overthrow the Jewish external religion. They kept the Jewish Sabbath, and observed the Jewish ritual. One of them, James, the Christian bishop of Jerusalem, though a Christian, was thought even among the Jews remarkable and honorable for the regularity with which he observed all his Jewish duties.

Now let us apply this to modern duties. The great desire among men now appears to be to alter institutions, to have perfect institutions, as if they would make perfect men. Mark the difference between this feeling and that of the apostle, “Let every man abide in the same calling in which he was called.” We are called to be members of the Church of England. What is our duty now? What would Paul have done? Is this our duty—to put such questions to ourselves as these: “Is there any single, particular sentence in the service of my church with which I do not entirely agree? Is there any single ceremony with which my whole soul does not go along? If so, then is it my duty to leave it at once?”

No, my brethren, all that we have to do is to say, “All our existing institutions are those under which God has placed us, under which we are to mold our lives according to His will.” It is our duty to vitalize our forms, to throw into them a holier, deeper meaning. Surely no man will get true rest, true release for his soul, in these days of controversy, until he has learned the wise significance of these wise words—“Let every man abide in the same calling in which he was called.” He will but gain unrest, he will but disquiet himself, if he says, “I am sinning by continuing in this imperfect system,” if he considers it his duty to change his calling when his opinions do not agree in every particular and special point with the system under which God has placed him.

Second, civilly. Rome was known for its classes of people. Paul reaches out to that civil relationship that was the most difficult to harmonize with Christianity—slavery. “Are you called,” Paul asks, “being a servant? Care not for it.”

Now, in considering this subject we should remember these two things.

First, we should recollect that Christianity had made much headway among slaves. There is little wonder that men cursed with slavery should embrace with joy a religion that was teaching the worth and dignity of the human soul, and declaring that rich and poor, peer and peasant, master and slave, were equal in the sight of God. And yet, great as this growth was, it contained elements of danger. It was to be feared lest men, hearing of brotherhood and Christian equality, should be tempted and excited to throw off the yoke by force, and compel their masters and oppressors to do them right.

Next, we should recollect that all this occurred in an age in which slavery had reached its worst and most fearful form, an age in which the emperors were accustomed, not infrequently, to feed their fish with living slaves, when captives were led to fight in the amphitheater with wild beasts or with each other to glut the Roman appetite for blood. And yet, as dangerous as slavery was, the apostle tells slaves to abide in their calling. As dangerous as war was in those days, when soldiers came to John to be baptized, he did not recommend they join some peace association. He simply exhorted them to be content with their wages (Luke 3:14).

So, we understand the way Christianity is to work. It interferes indirectly, not directly, with existing institutions. Even when Onesimus ran away and came to Paul, the apostle sent him back to his master Philemon, not dissolving the relationship between them. And then, as a consolation to the servant, Paul told him of a higher feeling—a feeling that would make him free, with the chain and shackle still on his arm. And so, it was possible for the Christian then, as it is now, to be possessed of the highest liberty even under tyranny (John 8:36). It many times occurred that Christian men found themselves placed under an unjust and tyrannical government and were compelled to pay unjust taxes. The Son of Man showed His freedom not by refusing, but by paying (Matthew 17:24-27). His glorious liberty could do so without any feeling of degradation; obeying the laws, not because they were right, but because institutions are to be upheld.

It is possible from all this to draw the wrong conclusion. Some men have spoken of Christianity as if it were entirely indifferent about liberty and all public questions—as if with such things as these did not concern Christianity. This indifference is not to be found in the Apostle Paul. While he asserts that inward liberty is the only true liberty, he still goes on to say to the servant, “If you may be free, use it rather” (1 Corinthians 7:21). Though it was possible for a servant to be a high and lofty Christian, it was not probable. Outward institutions provided structure and order in society, but they did not ennoble. Christianity gave to the servant his dignity as a man. At the same time it gave to the Christian master a new view of his servant, and taught him to regard him “not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved” (Philemon 16). And so, by degrees, slavery passed into freed servitude; and freed servitude, under God’s blessing, may pass into something else.

Two mistakes are often made on this subject: one is supposing that outward institutions are unnecessary for the formation of character; the other, supposing that they are all that is required to form the human soul. If we understand rightly the duty of a Christian man, it is this: to make men free inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, so that they may become masters of themselves, rulers of their own passions, having the power of self-rule and self-control (cf Galatians 5:22, 23). Outwardly, so that there may be every opportunity of developing the inward life. “To break the rod of the oppressor and let the oppressed go free” (cf Isaiah 9:4).

“I continually find it necessary to guard against that natural love of wealth and grandeur that prompts us, when we come to apply our general doctrine to our own case, to claim an exception.” ~William Wilberforce

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Sunset Fulking Escarpment, South Downs National Park, England

*Adapted from Frederick W Robertson [1816-1853], Sermons Preached at Brighton / Third Series (London: Kegan Paul, Trench & Co, 1884), sermon 13. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.


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