The advantage or disadvantage of two certain social identities came up for intense discussion in the earliest Christian assemblies in the Diaspora (i.e., the area outside of Palestine): Jewish ethnic identity and slave status. Did one of these (Jewish identity) confer a special preferred status? And did the other one (slave status) indicate a lower one?
Since the gospel as preached by Paul made it clear that circumcision—the principal physical identifying mark on males of Jewish identity—was unnecessary for belonging to the community of the Messiah Jesus, there were some Jewish men in the groups who wondered if they should have the painful operation performed to remove the appearance of circumcision. On the other hand, other non-Jewish male Christians, learning through the Christian preaching of how God gave the seal of circumcision to Abraham, and knowing that by believing in Jesus they had become spiritual children of Abraham, wondered if they should also imitate Abraham by becoming circumcised. After all, after Abraham believed he then followed up by being circumcised. This was the first big issue Paul had to address in this letter.
The second was Christian slaves.
The Greco-Roman slave system was an integral part of every aspect of life in Paul’s time. Estimates are that 85–90 percent of the inhabitants of Rome and peninsula Italy were slaves or of slave origin in the first and second centuries a.d. Facts and figures about slavery in the provinces are sketchy by comparison with those in Italy, but the existing evidence suggests a comparable percentage. By law slaves were what Aristotle called “human tools.” Nevertheless, in the first century they were granted many rights. They could worship as members of the extended family of their owner. They could marry. Such marriages, however, were called contubernium rather than matrimonium. This meant that the offspring of slaves became the property of the owner. Therefore, this may have been the largest source of slaves in the time of the early Empire. During the late Republic slaves were usually prisoners of war. Only very early in Roman history was slavery the result of debt. Slaves also were allowed to accumulate money of their own, the peculium, that often could be used by them to purchase their freedom or to start a business when once they were manumitted, that is, set free by their owners (IVP Dict. of Paul & His Letters).In view of the preponderance of slaves in the Roman population, even in Greece, it seems almost inevitable that they would have figured in the earliest Christian groups as well, especially since a slave-owner who became a believer would bring with him into the worshiping community all of his household, which of course included his slaves.
Slaves who believed in Jesus understood from the gospel Paul preached that in God's eyes there was no difference between slave and free (Galatians 3:28). Both were not only welcomed into God's family on the basis of faith, but God played no favorites within the community. All were on the same footing within God's family. This naturally made them wonder, if their masters were also believers, why they should not be required to set their slaves free.
Although the two issues—Jewishness and slave status—were certainly not identical, and Paul does approach each in a slightly different way, he also points out a common denominator: If God welcomed them in the state they are now in, it is no shame to remain in that state. In other words, although it may sound callous to someone in today's world, Paul wished such people to remain content about matters of status and to focus on what he considered more important matters, such as their witness to non-believers and their love for their fellow Christians.
As for their present status, Paul refers to it as "the life that the Lord has assigned, to which God called you" (v. 17). In that same verse (v. 17) Paul makes it clear that this is not just an ad hoc verdict tailored to the local conditions in Corinth, but rather his own well-considered policy advocated in all of his churches.
Some scholars also think that Paul's belief that Jesus would return within his own lifetime may have influenced him into thinking a focus on social status and freedom to be unimportant. If Jesus was going to return in his own lifetime, why should any believer worry about being a slave a little longer? But I stress that there is nothing in this chapter itself to support these scholars' opinion about Paul's motive.
17-20 As for the issue of circumcision, Paul is treats the physical rite as insignificant (v. 19), and for that very reason argues that it should be neither added nor removed. What is important, he claims, is "keeping God's commands" (v. 19). Not to criticize Paul here, but it is ironic that he expresses the contrast this way, since for Jewish Christians loyal to the Torah (Old Testament law), "keeping God's commands" would above all mean keeping the command to circumcise male babies (Gen. 17:9-14)!
But a principle that underlies both this question and the one to follow is that Jew (circumcised) and Gentile (uncircumcised) are on an equal footing before God. The big dividing line is not ethnicity, but faith in the Messiah Jesus. The Messiah Jesus gave no command requiring Gentiles who believe in him to be circumcised.
21-24 The second case has to do with slave versus free status. As the quote at the top of this page indicates, some slaves could accumulate enough wealth (Latin peculium) to actually purchase their own freedom. A Christian slave might not only wonder if his Christian master owed it to him to free him, but—even if that were not possible—wonder if Paul thought he should save his money to purchase his freedom, as opposed to using it for some other purpose, such as contributing to the poor.
Paul's answer in v. 21 has been interpreted in two different ways. Until recently the only one favored by mainline English Bibles was that represented in the translations of the KJV, RSV, NIV, ESV, JB, REB, and NAB: "although if the opportunity to obtain your freedom arises, avail yourself of it". But the NRSV has now proposed a second way of understanding the verse, which does more justice to two key points in Paul's Greek: "even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever". This would mean, do not avail yourself of the opportunity to become free, even if it presents itself.
The two crucial points in the Greek are: (1) ei kai cannot rightly be translated "although if" (NIV) or "but if" (ESV), but must be translated "even if" or "(even) though" (see other examples in your English Bibles in the verses Mark 14:29; Luke 11:8; 18:4; 2Cor 4:16; 5:16; 7:8, 12; 11:15; 12:11; Phil 2:17; 3:12; Heb 6:9; 1Pet 3:14); and (2) the word mallon in the final clause of v. 21 is left untranslated by the NIV, but means "rather" or "instead". I would paraphrase the entire verse as follows: "But even if [Greek ei kai] you are able to become free, instead [mallon] you should use (your present condition to serve Christ)". It would then appear that Paul actually advises—but does not command—these Christian slaves not to use the opportunity to become free.
You might wonder why anyone in his right mind would not take such an opportunity. But you should know that for slaves in many wealthy homes, with kind and gentle masters, and whose duties were light, continuing in that status was vastly more advantageous than becoming free and poor. This fact of life is recognized even in Old Testament times, by the law of Moses, which allowed a slave due to be freed to voluntarily request a continued status as a slave in his master's house (read Exodus 21:5-6).
But what if a Christian slave was owned by a cruel master, and his duties were not easy ones? Paul seems to ask him still to use his difficult circumstances to serve Christ.
Paul's advice is by no means cruel or unfeeling, since he himself knew from long experience what it meant to work long and hard and to suffer unjustly for the cause of the gospel. But above all else he wants all the believers—Jewish and non-Jewish, slaves and slave owners— to live together in maximum understanding and consideration for each other.
And just in case you may think Paul never tried to encourage a Christian slave owner to free one of his believing slaves, you should read the short letter he wrote to Philemon.