In the middle of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes, “You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men.  So brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Corinthians 7:23-24).  It almost sounds a paradox.  You’ve been bought; Jesus is taking you out of this world.  So, stay where you are, because Jesus is with you.

For Christians who have lived their faith, it is not a paradox.  We know our Lord’s name is “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”  He was born in a stable, slept with a stone for a pillow, and numbered with the transgressors.  As His followers, we find meaning in service others would only be able to find degrading.  Jesus pictured this when He washed His disciples’ feet (John 13).  He explained, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14).

But what is washing feet today?  We do not wear sandals on dusty roads.  To serve as Jesus served, we have to make a translation.  The translation is not from one language to another, but from one culture to another.  I can wash feet by changing a dirty diaper, by caring for the lonely elderly, by picking up litter on the side of the road.  Jesus’ time did not have disposable diapers, nursing homes, or paper cups; we’re making a cultural translation.

The process of cultural translation is not new at all.  There were cultural translations to make even in the first century of the church.  People in first century Corinth had dusty roads and sandals and feet to wash, but there was a lot of difference between first-century Greece and first-century Judea.  A lot of these cultural differences were in play as Paul wrote to the young Corinthian church.

For example, in Judea, you had no trouble finding kosher meat at the local butcher.  In Corinth, not only was kosher off the table, the meat available could have come from a pagan altar.  A pagan priest could have offered that meat to Zeus or Aphrodite.  Early Christians were divided on whether or not eating this meat was a sin by entangling you in idolatry.  Ask your local butcher if he could tell you which meat was from the temple, and he might have no idea.  So avoiding meat sacrificed to idols could have a major impact not only on your diet, but also on your social opportunities.  Imagine going over some place for dinner and asking, “Do you know if this meat was ever sacrificed to Zeus?  If you don’t know, I’ll just stick to the salad.”

Paul, then, is giving advice on how to make sure that we live in this world, but not of this world (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:9-12).  Some of that advice is grounded in the culture Paul was writing to.  All of it is based on the core idea of seeing sin as enslaving, but sinners as redeemed.  We are open to all people, for Jesus died for all.  We are cautious about participating in anything sinful, for sin enslaves us.

How did Paul apply these principles to the example of head coverings in the church service?  In ancient Greece, men and women did not socialize together outside the home, not in the ways that would become possible in the church.  On the other hand, there was a religious context for men and women to “worship” together in Greece.  At the temples of Aphrodite, priestesses were prostitutes.  So, having men and women gather together in a Christian church assembly was radical.  But within this radical grouping, some rules needed to be maintained.

Head coverings were not negotiable for Paul because of what they meant in that society.  A woman’s head covering was a sign of her marriage.  If she removed that head covering, it was like one of us removing a wedding ring.  Worse, because some Corinthians expected to “worship” with unmarried women, it would give some Corinthians horribly wrong ideas about what Christianity was about.

Today, a head covering doesn’t carry the same meaning, which is why most people attending our churches on Sunday have their heads uncovered and it isn’t controversial.  But if we added an escort auction to our cake auction, not only would it be controversial, it would be wrong for us to do!

Some Corinthians wondered if the new kingdom of the church meant that they were “free” of their marriages.  Some Corinthian men thought they should have a “spiritual,” sexless marriage with their wives, as if this were purer, leaving their baser instincts for the priestesses of Aphrodite.  In this case, Paul affirmed that marriage is a good that God created in the beginning.  Sex in marriage is good.  Fidelity for the marriage and for the children of that marriage is good.  This does not change no matter how the society around us changes.

Plenty of stories, from Austen to Zola, have explored how sexual “liberty” turns out to be enslaving.  This was as true in first-century Corinth, as in 19th-century western Europe, as in our own day.  So as we read Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians, watch for parts that reflect a very different culture.  But even in those parts, we find teaching that is as true today as it ever has been.  We are freed by love and to love.  We thrive in loving, even when that loving comes as dirty drudgery.  We know that the time of the mundane is limited, for we were bought by the dirtiest sacrifice, and won for life eternal.