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If-Only Discipleship

Many Christians subscribe to what I’d call if-only discipleship. They feel held back from serving God effectively by their circumstances, which are often quite restrictive and sometimes beyond their control. And they long for such circumstances to change and open up real opportunities to serve God.

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I’d serve God much more effectively, I owned a home. Or I were in better health. Or I had fewer responsibilities with my children / parents. Or I were younger / older. Or I were in a bigger / smaller church. Or I were married. Or I were married to a believer. And so on. This type of thinking is understandable. There have certainly been times in my life when my capacity to serve God seemed pretty limited.

How important are your circumstances for serving God? Do they need to change for you to serve him to the full?

Paul answers these very questions in 1 Corinthians 7, where he addresses believers in various circumstances – married, single, engaged, divorced and widowed. Some of the Christians in Corinth were considering changes in their marital status. Some married to unbelievers were considering divorce. Some who were engaged were considering marriage. And some widows were considering remarriage.

Part of their concern was how such changes might affect their service of the Lord. Certainly that was a big part of Paul’s concern for them. In verse 35 Paul insists that his advice is so that they might “live in undivided devotion to the Lord.”

In Paul broadens the scope from marital statuses to two other situations that might have held the Corinthians back in serving God, namely circumcision and slavery. In the case of slavery it’s not hard to conceive of a Christian longing for the freedom in which to serve God much more fully than their current circumstances allow.

What does God make of if-only discipleship?

Perhaps surprisingly, Paul insists that you don’t need to change your circumstances to serve God to the full. He says to those considering a change not to seek a change in status: “Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called them to” (v. 24; cf. vss. 17 and 20).

The reason Paul gives for being content even in difficult circumstances is that “the Lord assigned them to us” (v. 17b). Our circumstances are not simply due to dumb luck or even dumb choices. In the end God planted us in them and we can trust in the goodness and wisdom of God’s sovereignty. And there are no exceptions: “This is the rule I lay down in all the churches” (v. 17b). Paul believes that you don’t need to change your circumstances to serve God to the full.

There is in fact something more important than your circumstances when it comes to your discipleship: “Keeping God’s commands is what counts” (v. 19). Obedience is the measure of our devotion to Christ and service to God no matter what our circumstances. Later in 1 Corinthians, in 14:37, Paul says: “what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.” Whatever their social status or marital status, Paul calls on the Corinthians to obey God’s call to flee sexual immorality (6:18) and idolatry (10:14) and glorify God in everything they do (6:20; 10:31).

A few years ago I was planning a trip overseas and I asked a currency trader what the value of the Australian dollar might be in six months. He showed me various projections, none of which agreed. Finally, he confessed that the best prediction of the future exchange rate is the current exchange rate.

The same goes for your service to God. The best predictor of your future devoted service is your current devoted service. How well you will serve God in the future is not primarily to do with your circumstances – it’s about your present obedience. There is no point planning on a vibrant prayer life, selfless service, bold witness, generous giving, being an encouragement to others, and so on, if you are not making the most of opportunities in the present.

Even to the slaves Paul says in v. 21, “were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you.” Paul doesn’t say, “slavery is nothing,” as he said “circumcision is nothing” (v. 17). And he encourages the Christian slaves to take the opportunity for freedom if it presents itself: “if you can gain your freedom, do so.” It is not that God is not concerned about the distress of his people. The God of all comfort comforts us in all our troubles (2 Cor. 1:3-4). But our circumstances do not determine how he regards our devotion and service.

In v. 22 Paul gives a reason to the slaves not to despair, and it contains a clue as to how each of us can cope with our own limitations: “For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave.” God sees things differently, upside down in fact. Our social standing means nothing to him. Whether slave or free – all believers in Christ belong to the Lord and live with him as our Lord and Master.

Let’s not forget that it was at his most restricted, on the cross, that Jesus offered his most devoted service and his greatest obedience.If-only discipleship can be a copout. If you are banking on serving God to the full in the future, bloom where you are planted now.

Photograph by Greg O’Beirne

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