So if Paul's advice to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 7:25-40 is very contextually specific and that context is not the same as our context and Paul was wrong in his assumptions about their context anyway, where does that leave us? In my post yesterday, I talked about the irony of preaching from any passage of Scripture but especially a passage like this one. However, I also mentioned that in spite of that irony, I still believe that the Spirit speaks through a text like this, even if that speaking is so intertwined with human speech that the two are seemingly indistinguishable. So the question now is "What does the Spirit have to say to us from 1 Corinthians 7:25-40?"
I think how we go about answering that question is important and I think my comparison of this passage to a counseling session from my post yesterday could be a helpful analogy. In reading this passage, we are essentially listening in on a pastoral counseling session; not the kind of session that explores deep seated psychological issues but the kind that involves giving spiritual direction and pastoral guidance about an important life decision. If someone came to me seeking such guidance there would basically be two questions I would have in mind: "What principles/values/criteria do you want to guide your decision making process?" and "What does it look like to act on those principles/values/criteria in this given situation?". Now let's imagine that I'm a really superb counselor and that the person leaves with principles and course of action in hand. However, a week later the person returns to my office, now unsure of the previously determined course of action because something about the situation has changed. In this instance, presumably the principles and values that guided the first decision would not have changed but the situation has so we would then discuss what living out those principles and values now look like in this new situation. It may turn out that the resulting course of action in completely different, maybe even polar opposite of the previously determined course of action but in this case that is fitting because of the change in circumstance.
I think we can approach Paul's pastoral counsel in this passage in a similar way. Paul is giving pastoral advice here based on assumptions about a specific context; namely the assumption that Christ's return would shortly follow his resurrection. We can plainly see that our circumstances have changed since Paul gave that advice but the "principle" on which he based the advice has not and is still relevant for us.
One difference here - and I think it is a substantial one - is that we as individuals don't decide what those "principles" are... at least not if we really want to submit ourselves to the text and hear the Spirit's voice rather than our own. If we really want to approach this text as Scripture and as a means of grace and not merely as just another piece of ancient rhetoric (which is always an option, of course), then we will not simply pick out the things with which we already agree and drop out the things with which we don't. Instead, our "principles" are the rule of faith, the Nicene Creed, the apostolic teaching, the themes that are consistent across all of Scripture, the shared beliefs of the historical Christian tradition, and the present community of faith. That is to say that we seek to hear the Spirit speak in this passage in fresh continuity with the places that the Spirit has spoken and continues to speak.
So then, what is the "principle", the theological foundation of this passage? What is it that transcends context and is consistent across Paul's teaching and that of the Church? It is what Paul states in v. 31: "The present form of this world is passing away." If Paul preached to us here 2000 years later, I expect he would revise his estimate concerning the speed with which it was passing away but would not recant the idea that the old order is indeed passing away. A new heaven and new earth, a new order, God's reign come to earth, is a central promise of the gospel message.
Fortuitously, we can return to part of the counseling analogy to consider what this meant for the Corinthians and what it means for us. In our oversimplified counseling scenario, let's imagine that the decision was about choosing between two jobs - one that allowed more family time and the other that payed more money. By the end of the counseling session the person decides that although family time is important the extra money could be more valuable at least until the economy gets better and more job opportunities open up. However, a few days later the job that allowed for more family time offers to match the other company's offer. Obviously, no one would consider it inconsistent or hypocritical to change's one mind in this scenario because the circumstances have changed.
This is essentially what Paul is communicating to the Corinthians and to us: "Your circumstances have changed!". The Corinthians are still making decisions based on the present form of this world that is passing away. Paul is saying don't get married or buy or sell or do anything the way you would normally do it because that way of doing things is fading away and soon there will be a new order, a new kingdom, a whole new way of doing things. Although this kingdom has not yet come, we still believe it is on its way and that the kingdoms of this world are on their way out. As a result, we are not called to abandon all ties with this world but to live in it in a way that shows we are part of another kingdom. We are to live knowing that our circumstances have changed.
This is essentially what repentance is about. In the gospel reading which the lectionary pairs with this passage, Jesus says what is programmatic for Mark's gospel: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel." That word "repent" has become such a religious word for us that we tend to associate it with hell fire sermons and tear-filled, guilt-laden trips to the altar. But it essentially means to turn around, to stop doing what you are doing and go in a different direction, to recognize that your circumstances have changed and to adjust your allegiances accordingly. That's why Jesus ties it to the announcement of his kingdom. The call to repentance is not a summons to a private religious confession. It is an announcement that a new world older has arrived and it would be wise to join this kingdom movement because one day it will replace all others. The Spirit is calling us to give up our allegiances to the kingdoms that our fading, powerful and alluring though they seem, and to pledge our allegiance to the kingdom of the crucified messiah.