A Christian missionary who once persecuted the church advises his readers not to seek to change their status. Whether circumcised or uncircumcised, slave or free, married to a believer, to an unbeliever, or unmarried, his readers should stay as they are since “the appointed time has grown short” (1 Corinthians 7:29) and “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31).
Part of the occasion for 1 Corinthians is that the church in Corinth has sent a letter to Paul asking for his comment on various issues. One of them is the issue of sex within marriage. It is not entirely clear what is going on in Corinth. Are spouses separating or refusing to be sexually involved with each other, because the spiritual has become so fashionable and the physical so passé? Whatever the case, Paul advises people not to seek status changes (from married to single, from single to married, etc.). At some points in his advice (see 1 Corinthians 7:17, for example), he is clear that he is offering his opinion, rather than a word received from the Lord.
First Corinthians 7:21-24 is controversial because of the way this text has been used to support slavery. In these verses, slaves are encouraged not to take advantage of opportunities to gain their freedom. In the larger context of Paul’s advice here, his argument for staying “as is” has two points. First, for those in Christ, socially constructed human divisions no longer have any real existence. What is slavery when a slave is a freed person belonging to Christ and the free person is a slave of Christ? The institutions by which humans had ordered their relationships are all made relative as Christ creates new lines of kinship and commitment.
Second, time is short. Paul says that he and his readers are those “on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). He sees his present time as the time when the old age has bumped up against the new. Soon “the Day” (1 Corinthians 3:13) or “the day of our Lord Jesus is the Messiah whose life, death, and resurrection are God's saving act for humanity Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:8) will reveal the new age in its fullness and none of these socially constructed categories-marriage, singleness, slavery, freedom, Jew, Gentile-will matter. Since the lifespan of these categories has grown so short, Paul argues, why worry about them at all?