Raymond Brown defines interim ethics as "ethical attitudes phrased in a context where the present time is seen as quickly passing because Christ will return soon" . When writing his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul believed that the parousia was imminent. He thought that it was already the apocalyptic time. He then addressed Corinthians burning issues accordingly. This was 2000 years ago. Yet, is his so called interim ethic still relevant today?
i. - Pauline interim ethics in 1 Cor 7:17-40
Paul uses the eschatological perspective to discuss marriage, circumcision and slavery in his first letter to the Corinthians. He recommends every one to remain with God in whatever state he/she was called, for the "appointed time has grown very short" (7:29). Thus, he expresses his preference for celibacy for those who are not yet married. Those who are married should not seek separation and those who are not married should not look for a wife (v.27). Though Paul does not disregard marriage, he underlines the functional superiority of celibacy at this end of time. Celibacy for him frees a person for the service of the whole community.
Those uncircumcised should not undergo circumcision. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts. What counts is to keep the commandment of God. In fact, what Paul is saying is that distinction should be made between the call of God and different states of life. No state of life should impede anyone to respond to the call of God. "Male and female, Jew and Greek, Slave and Free are all called to a life of righteousness. Therefore, neither sexual nor social nor ethnic divisions can matter before God" . What matters for Paul in this apocalyptic time, is not revolutionizing unjust institutions, but Christian commitment in whatever social and marital situation people are. That is why he says, "were you a slave when called? Never mind" (v.21a).
Pauline interim ethics leads also to be detached to earthly things. These things are not permanent or ultimate. People are to live within them "as though not" (vv. 29-31).
ii. – Irrelevance of Pauline interim ethics.
Moreover, this ethics fails to grasp the twofold dimensions of salvation. The Lord, who announced the kingdom in associating himself to the poor, the outcast, and the sinner, shows that salvation is both historical and eschatological. In asking slaves to remain in their situation, Paul is considering only the eschatological dimension of salvation. This kind of ethics allows toleration of unjust social institutions. It seems that for Paul, the imminence of the parousia must relativize the value of all human institutions. Slavery, circumcision, and marriage were institutions. For Paul, since the time is running short, these institutions must be given less importance. In fact, social institutions are very important for the society, inasmuch as human beings are social by nature. This means that, human beings reach a certain level of fulfillment through social institutions. And this fulfillment is already part of salvation which should not be neglected.
iii. - Relevance of Pauline interim ethics.
Moreover Paul, in proposing this ethics, is not interested in institutions of the world as such, but rather in Christian commitment in the particular situation in which they are called. This commitment is a fruit of baptism. It is revealed through union and equality among believers. So, among Christians, there can be no discrimination or inequality due to sexual, religious, or social differences. Paul clearly expresses this same idea in Galatians: "for as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:27-28). After his baptism, a slave becomes free in Jesus and one with his Christian Master. It then could be said that in Paul's mind there were no unjust institutions among Christians or there was not supposed to be unjust institutions among Christians.
As a way of concluding, let us say that we have to notice that the Pauline interim ethics could be taken for erroneous because the end of time has not yet come since 2000 years when he wrote this letter. However, since our world and individual lives have a passing character, this ethics is relevant, for it calls Christians to live as the Lord commended: in prayer, watchfulness, and detachment.
• BROWN, Raymond, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1997).
• DEMING, Will, Paul on Marriage and Celibacy. The Hellenistic background of 1 Corinthians 7 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
• JOHNSON, Luke T., The Writings of the New Testament. An interpretation (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986).