As a Slave: Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?

This is a comment I intended to leave at Vox Populi, but it went over the 4096 character limit, so that gave me a reason to put it here.  It’s an attempt by a Latin duffer (me) to offer some commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:21 based on the Vulgate, in response to a request there.  The context is whether Paul was telling slaves to remain slaves or to free themselves if possible.

Does Vulgate tell the slave to make use of the slavery, or make use of the opportunity to freedom?

I’m no scholar, but I’ll take a shot at it. Here’s the Vulgate I’m looking at, if anyone wants to look for himself. The English translation there is very literal. I’m actually not sure if it’s the Douay or the early KJV, but they should be virtually identical here anyway.

First I’d back up a bit for context. Verse 17 says, “But as the Lord hath distributed to every one, as God hath called every one: so let him walk.” That’s verbatim from the Latin, to my eye. The RSV Catholic Edition (RSV-CE, which we Catholics borrowed back from the RSV of the KJV in 1966, taking out the thees and thous) puts it: “Let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him.”

So St. Paul’s talking here about not making changes in your worldly life, but focusing on God. Verse 18 says if you’re circumcised, don’t “procure uncircumcision” (maybe there was some sort of ritual to revoke it?), and if you’re not circumcised, don’t get snipped. Verse 19 says that’s “nothing but observance of the commandments of God” (again a literal translation); and as Paul says elsewhere, Jesus, as the New Covenant, supersedes the old laws. Then verse 20, literally: “Let everyone stay in which calling he was called in.” Or a smoother translation: “Every one should remain in the state in which he was called.”

So the context coming into verse 21 is: don’t waste time and energy changing your situation in this life; put that effort into being a good Christian and doing the Lord’s work because He’s coming back before you know it. Then verse 21, which I’ll break it down since you asked about it:

  • servus (slave) vocatus (called) es (you were): I’m not sure how they know this is a question, but the meaning is something like: A slave, were you called? Or more clearly: Were you called, being a slave? Or: Were you a slave when you were called?” It’s not “Were you called a slave?” or “Were you called to be a slave?” Those would be different in Latin.
  • non (not) sit (let it be) tibi (to you) curae (of care/concern): Let it not be of concern to you.
  • sed et (but/and/also) si (if) potes (you are able) liber (free) fieri (to be made) magis (even more, rather, instead) utere (make use of [it]): But if you are able to be made free, even more/rather/instead make use of it.

It’s all straightforward except for that “magis,” which has a range of possible meanings including those three. (Latin adverbs are a pain in the ass that way.) If you translate it as “even more,” then it sounds like Paul is saying: if you have a chance to be free, try all the harder to use it. If you translate it as “rather” or “instead,” then he’s saying: instead of trying to get free, make use of your position to do the work of the Lord. It seems to me the latter translation fits the context of the previous few verses much better (and the context of all Paul’s letters), and it better reflects the overall sense of the word I get from the Latin dictionary. He just said not to change your state in life — even the state of your foreskin — why would he now say the opposite, in the very next breath?

For more context, verse 22 then uses the concept of earthly slavery as a symbol: “For he that is called in the Lord, being a slave, is the freeman of the Lord. Likewise, he that is called, being free, is the slave of Christ.” In other words (as I read it), one’s earthly freedom or slavery is of no importance next to the fact that Christ frees us while also making us slaves to Him.

So my take would be that he wasn’t giving practical instructions to slaves at all; but using slavery, like circumcision, to make a point about putting aside earthly cares and focusing on Jesus Christ.  My final answer to the question would be that Paul is telling them to make use of their slavery, not of the opportunity to be free.

And here’s the note from the Navarre Catholic study bible on verses 17-24: “Some Corinthians may have been misapplying the consequences of being ‘reborn’ through Baptism, making out that it brought about a total change in a person’s life, not only internally but externally as well. The Apostle explains (by giving two examples — circumcision and slavery) that external circumstances do not determine or inhibit a person’s Christian life; in fact, God designs these circumstances as a positive help for Christian living.”

7 thoughts on “As a Slave: Should I Stay or Should I Go Now?

  1. “The Apostle explains (by giving two examples — circumcision and slavery) that external circumstances do not determine or inhibit a person’s Christian life; in fact, God designs these circumstances (being a slave?) as a positive help for Christian living.”

    God makes some people slaves as an aid to help them live as good Christians?

  2. Leiff,

    Yes, that’s possible, or so they may spread the gospel to other slaves, or to their masters.

    In a broader sense, God calls each of us to some state in life, and that state may include suffering, which God may use for a greater good (though we may never see that good in this life). That doesn’t mean we should seek out suffering or wallow in it. If you have a splinter in your arm, pluck it out; don’t leave it there and suffer while it festers and you end up with gangrene. But Churchianity goes all the way to the other extreme, seeing all suffering as bad and to be avoided, which is the vice of effeminacy.

    Christianity, unusual among religions, places a real value on suffering. The Churchian rejection of that makes faith shallow and easily discarded it when things get tough. If you place an eternal spiritual value on suffering, then when you lose your job and your house burns down, you’re more likely to turn to God for solace and pray, “Lord, I don’t know why these things are happening to me, and I beg you to make it stop, but let Thy will be done.” If you think suffering is pointless and should only happen to bad people, you’re more likely to say, “Hey, I’ve been a Good Person. Why are you doing this to me? Screw you, I’m not going to church anymore,” and turn away from Him.

    See the book of Job. See all the martyrs who died for the faith. If we may be called to die for it, isn’t slavery a lesser suffering?

    As I said over at VP, I don’t think Paul is saying that if a master offers a slave freedom, he should reject it. I don’t think he was saying, “Once a slave, always a slave.” I think he was writing to people who were saying things like, “Jesus freed me, so I shouldn’t be a slave anymore.” He was saying that misses the point: Jesus didn’t die to free us from human slavery or other physical ills; he died to free us from the slavery of sin. Paul was trying to get their minds on what was really important, not on how their new faith should change their social standing.

  3. You know, CC, this is really profound, and I totally appreciate it. I’m not sure I could have conveyed it half as well to my readers, who are generally not Catholics.

    I’ve gotten myself in trouble with the slavery issue more than once, since slavery is so clearly “a bad thing” as per the spirit of the age. I wouldn’t support it in any way, but I recognize that there is a certain sort of person that, in a certain sort of society, might be better off slave than free. The kind that cannot make good choices for him/herself. The kind that cannot provide for his/herself. The kind that has nothing to contribute to discussion about the social order except to complain that it is not adequate. The kind that would end up on welfare or disability because there is nobody around to give instructions at the appropriate time.

    I totally agree with you about what the apostle is saying here. We are of an entirely different spirit, and of an entirely different world. What we do to make a living in this world, by choice or not, is merely window dressing.

  4. Thanks for posting Cail. I don’t have the Navarre and my Latin and Koine Greek are too poor to have been a help to Markku. Hopefully he saw this.

  5. Durandel, you’re welcome. Yes, Markku saw it and replied over there.

    334, thank you. I think you make the main point that I ended up settling on: it’s not intended as a how-to guide for slaves at all, but as an example of how the worldly concerns that seem so important to us….aren’t.

    It might be interesting to identify a group of people who read this selection as literal instructions (one way or the other), and then see how they interpret some passages from John 6.

  6. My expereince with Biblical literalists is that they are selective on what they take as literal, as they always seem to think Christ speaks in metaphors in John 6 and Matt 16.

  7. I agree with Cail’s take on suffering.

    Having been through depression I was forced to reassess my theology along similar lines and for similar reasons. Like Job, I saw “good” people suffering and not-so-good people seemingly being blessed. I couldn’t reconcile that with the prosperity gospel being endorsed by the church I was in at the time , without concluding that God had rejected me. Not to mention others that I knew to be faithful.

    I had to conclude that God is more concerned in the eternal things in our lives, like character development (I know, slow learner here 🙂 and less with our bank accounts or physical comfort. Suffering is not an end in itself, but to be valued for the things that it brings if
    approached correctly. Patience,
    perseverance, long suffering etc.

    It is also – if regarded in the light of Christ’s word that we will not be tested beyond our ability to stand, a sign of His confidence in us. I may not “stand” this time, being fallible, but I can take confidence in the knowledge that it is not beyond my ability.
    It also denies me an excuse, but that is another matter.

    Finally, if there were not suffering, there would be a lot of people in church for the benefits, rather than for the love of God.

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