Having God’s Point of View: Theological Perspectives from Corinthians

Jennifer McNeelEI Faculty member in Biblical Studies, Dr. Jennifer McNeel was featured during our Theology Town Hall Meeting on May 13. Dr. McNeel is known to current students and recent grads as one who orients to biblical studies, and teaching the New Testament survey. Last fall, she co-taught with Rabbi Nina Cardin our “Mothers in Jewish and Christian Scripture and Tradition” class. The full text of Dr. McNeel’s town hall follows, or you can view the recording

Even before the COVID-19 crisis took over our lives, many people felt like the world was changing, and changing too fast. In my experience, many people already had a lot of anxiety about what was going on in the world and where things were headed. There were already worries about social change, political change, climate change, and more. And now of course, it feels like almost everything about our lives has changed under stay at home orders, as we deal with meaningful events being canceled, worries about those who are sick, concerns about job loss, and the struggle to maintain our own physical and mental health during social distancing.

All this new change, piled on top of the anxiety many of us already felt about a changing world, can be overwhelming. When I think about people in the Bible who had a sense that the world they lived in was changing, Paul comes right to my mind. Paul lived and moved through the world with the sense that Christ’s death and resurrection had inaugurated a new age, and that the final culmination of that massive changing of the world was coming soon. In other words, a great change had already taken place, and more change was still coming.

What did all that change mean for the way Paul lived his life and wanted other believers to live? I’d like to take a look at a few different passages that show us something about that, starting with 1 Corinthians 7. In this chapter Paul is giving a lot of advice in answer to questions that the Corinthians asked him in a letter – questions about how to live “in Christ” while also “in this world.” We see here Paul’s advice that the Corinthian believers should not seek to change their status with regard to a variety of things, such as circumcision, slavery, and marriage. Here’s the example of circumcision from verses 17-20:

17 However that may be, let each of you lead the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 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. 19 Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything. 20 Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.

In the matter of circumcision as well as marriage and slavery, Paul says they should be guided by this principle in verse 20: “Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.”

If you were already married, don’t seek to separate from your spouse. If you are a slave, don’t be concerned about seeking freedom. Stay in the condition you were in when you became a Christian.

I think we might find this a little surprising. I would imagine that those early Christians were probably eager for some kind of outward change in their lives to mark their new faith, their membership in a new community, and Paul seems to be saying: in the face of this great change, you are not called to change anything. As modern readers, I think perhaps his words on slavery in this chapter can be the most challenging – when he tells slaves not to be concerned about seeking freedom. Fully getting into that is beyond the scope of this 15 minute talk, but if we go a little further we can understand better why his philosophy is “let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called.”

In verses 29-31, Paul writes:

29 I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.

Two related ideas bracket this passage: that the appointed time has grown short, and that the present form of this world is passing away. We’ll look at these in turn.

First, “the appointed time has grown short.” This NRSV translation uses 2 English words to translate 1 word in the Greek. “Appointed time” is translating the Greek word kairos. This word means time, but has a richer meaning than just time as we think of time ticking by (the word for that is chronos). Kairos can be mean: “time, period, season, type of time, appropriate time.” If I say to you, “these are the times we are living in,” I don’t just mean it’s Wednesday afternoon at 12:10. I mean something richer—there is some particular quality or characteristic of this time period I am trying to express. Kairos  has that sense–a particular kind of season, or a time that is especially appropriate for something. So, if we wanted to be a capture the meaning of this phrase, “the appointed time has grown short,” we could also translate it, “the times we live in are ending soon.” Most people would agree that what Paul really meant by that was that the “end times” were coming soon—Jesus would return and the God’s new age would be fully inaugurated.

The sentence that ends the above passage is: “the present form of this world is passing away.” Once again the NRSV is using two words to translate one word in the Greek. In this case, “present form” is translating the word schema. We could translate this word, “outward appearance, form, shape,” or in a more figurative sense, the shape of life or the “way of life” in our world. So if we want to get a clearer sense of what Paul means by this phrase, we might translate it more loosely as, “the way this world operates is disappearing.”

There are two things I think are particularly interesting to think about related to this word schema. First, if you think about its meaning—form, shape, outward appearance—it’s that aspect of the world that’s changing—the shape. That would also seem to imply that there is something deeper and more essential about the world that is not changing (something that’s not its outward appearance). This may be a helpful notion for those living in times of crisis—even when it seems everything is changing, there are still some things that always remain the same.

The second interesting thing about schema is that we’ve taken this word into English—our word “schema.” What does “schema” mean? One meaning is a model or outline that represents a theory or other type of information. It is something that gives structure to an abstract concept, helping us grasp it or understand it. This concept of schema is used in psychological circles to refer to the organized mental representation we each have of what we know and understand about the world. Our schema is our way of thinking about the world. Now, I’m defining here the English word “schema” here not the Greek word schema, but of course the words are related to each other, and our understanding of schema can help us understand a little bit better what is going on in chapter seven as a whole.

Taking in all Paul is saying in chapter 7, it seems like we could sum it up by saying, “the way this world operates is disappearing, therefore your mental framework for understanding the world is no longer valid.” Paul, of course, would not use the term “mental framework”—this is my interpretation of the text, not my translation of it. But this idea does seem to fit well with what he is saying. Think about the words in this paragraph we are discussing:

“from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.”

Paul is trying to get them to question every assumption they have about how people live in the world because the way the world works is changing.

I said earlier that it seemed like Paul was saying to the Corinthians that they should not change anything. But that’s not actually true, is it? In reality he’s asking them to make a huge change: a change in the very nature of their thinking about the world. So what happens when we take this idea back to those earlier verses where it seemed like Paul was telling them not to change anything? We’ll use the verses about slavery as our test case. Picking up where we left off earlier:

20 Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. 21 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. 22 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. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of human masters. 24 In whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God.

This passage, especially verse 22, shows us that this isn’t just a simple case of Paul supporting the status quo. Paul viewed the status quo, whether related to circumcision, slavery, or marriage, as related that outer form of the world, the schema that was passing away. So he wanted them to go deeper, past the things that are disappearing and on to those deeper realities that don’t change. Who you really are as a person in Christ is not dependent on your outward status in the fading world, but on the inward reality of your life in Christ. Christian slaves, to Paul, are in reality free persons in Christ. Christian free people are in reality slaves of Christ. Paul is asking them to change their mental framework–change the very nature of their thinking about the world.

Now, the things Paul is talking about in Corinthians 7 relate to some pretty big picture concepts: how society is built, how people fit into that, institutions like marriage and slavery. But Paul’s idea of Christians needing to change their mental framework was also relevant at the more intimate level of interpersonal relationships. To see that, we’re going to go to 2 Corinthians 5. This part of the Corinthian correspondence comes after Paul and the Corinthians have come through one of their periods of disagreement and conflict. They have renewed their affection for each other and are in a period of reconciliation. In verses 14-15 Paul writes: “For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.”  Paul is here reflecting on his relationship with the Corinthians in light of the fact that Christ has died for all, and therefore all have died because they participate in that death. And if they have died, they no longer live for themselves, but for Christ. Therefore, their behavior towards each other should be reflective of the fact that they no longer live for themselves.

So what Paul is saying here is that that massive change in the world that occurred with Jesus’ death and resurrection has implications for how we relate to one another on a personal level. We now look at our fellow human beings with a new point of view. He goes on to say that more explicitly in the next few verses (16-17): “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” According to Paul, everything has to be reevaluated in light of the cross and the resurrection. We have to reevaluate what we thought we knew about money, family, vocation, relationships, culture, and everything else. Our call is to look at everything with the new divine point of view that we recognize through the Spirit and because of the death and resurrection of Christ. We see new creation around us and indeed we become a new creation ourselves when we are “in Christ” and looking at the world and each other with this new point of view.

So the question that I wanted us to reflect on today is, how do we view our current situation when looking at it with a divine point view – when seeing it with the new mental framework given to us by the gospel? It should change how we see both the big picture of society and our smaller scale interpersonal relationships, just like it did for Paul. If participating in the death and resurrection of Christ causes us to no longer live for ourselves, how do we live in the time of COVID-19? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I want to propose three possible answers, and then I’d like to hear from you about how you would answer the question.

My first answer is that the gospel’s mental framework will cause us to build connection rather than sowing division. I have sometimes been disheartened over the last few weeks to see that the national conversation about the virus has become very partisan in nature. While in some cases this experience is definitely bringing people together, in other cases it seems to be making our divisions even worse than they were before. The divine point of view would call us to use the crisis as an opportunity to bring people together, not drive them apart, so we ought to be mindful of how our words and actions can contribute to either healing or division, and we ought to choose healing.

My second possible answer to the question is, if we no longer live for ourselves, then every situation, even a COVID-19 lockdown, becomes an opportunity for us to look for ways to serve others. How we do that depends on our situation. It could be donating to a food bank if we have the means to do so. It could be running errands for someone who can’t safely go out. It could be extending grace to our kids when stress causes them to act out. It can be a lot of different things, but one thing we always see when we look at the world from God’s point of view is people who are in need of our help.

Finally, my third answer is to remember what I said earlier about the fact that the outer form of the world changing implies that something more essential about the world is staying the same. So with God’s point of view, I believe we can see and hold on to the things that always stay the same, even when it seems like everything is changing. We might think of the beauty of creation, our need for connection, and most importantly, the love of God. As Paul reminds us in Romans 8, nothing can separate us from that. No microorganism, no downturn in the economy, no amount of social change or social distance can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What difference do you think it makes to view the world from God’s perspective during this time of COVID-19? What are you seeing differently with the mental framework that the gospel gives you?