The first time in my life I ever went “live” was Saturday, March 14th— announcing that there would be no church in the morning. I had been pastor here for almost eighteen years, but my head was spinning. From the number and nature of the responses to the post,
it was evident that not only our church, but also our community was watching… closely. I could feel the eyes on me.
No courses in seminary prepared me for pastoring during a pandemic. Was I equipped to pastor God’s people through this unprecedented moment? The questions began to pile up…
Cancel church or not?
Masks or not?
Online or not?
Pre-record or go live?
Vaccines or not?
Home groups or not?
Two services or not?
To Zoom or not to Zoom?
How to care for our folks physically, emotionally, spiritually?
How to disciple?
How to preach?
And a hundred others.
1 Corinthians 7:26 pushed its way to the front of my mind:
I think that in view
of the present distress
it is well for a person
to remain as he is. (RSV, as all others unless otherwise noted)
The Corinthians had written to Paul with questions about how to live the Christian life in that particular place and in those particular days (7:1). This is Paul’s response. Though we can’t know for sure what “the present distress” was, Bruce Winter has made a strong case that the distress was a famine. If it was a famine or something similar, it affected the whole society and not the church only. Gordon Fee understands Paul to be saying, “In light of the troubles we are already experiencing, who needs the additional burden of marriage as well?” Delaying marriage – not an insignificant decision for an excited young couple! – was a temporary measure in view of the present distress.
Paul does not pontificate in this passage on what they all must do. In fact, this chapter addresses “each one” and demonstrates Paul’s sensitivity to the complexities of life. Thiselton comments,
Paul deals with the good, the possible, the just, the feasible, the constructive, the useful, and the right ‘and their contraries’ in ways which ‘take seriously the contingencies of the addressees’ life… and underscores… Paul’s concern with adaptation.”
Ciampa and Rosner are prescient here on the pandemic:
Important decisions in life (as well as mundane ones), if made wisely, will take into consideration the social context… We need wisdom to discern the times and understand our circumstances so as to know the best way to glorify God and avoid putting ourselves or others under unnecessary duress.
This is pastor Paul providing wisdom for living wisely in a chaotic world.
How should pastors think about taking temporary measures in a time of crisis?
Below I suggest a 7-step process to follow as we decide what to do in times of crisis. But first I want to consider 1) 1 Corinthians 7 in view of the Jewish responsa material, and 2) 1 Corinthians 7 in the context of 1 Corinthians 1-14.
During the Holocaust, a group of Jews were huddled in a bunker hiding from the Nazis. There was a baby with them who began to cry. If discovered, they all would be slaughtered, so one of the men covered the infant’s face with a pillow. When the Nazis finally left, the infant had suffocated. The Jews, traumatized, sent a question, a she’elah, to the rabbi asking what should be done in such circumstance. In such a situation, the rabbi’s answer is a teshuvah, and material such as this is called Responsa. Hundreds of thousands of responsa have been preserved through the centuries, making up an authoritative body of Jewish legal material. Eminent Jewish legal scholar, Menachem Elon, explains why the responsa carry such great authority in Jewish law:
Rulings arrived at in the course of a responsum in an actual case have greater force and are closer to the truth than conclusions reached as a result of theoretical study.
Furthermore, a responsum is
accorded special force and weight once it has been applied in practice and has been tested in the crucible of actual life.
The rabbis stood near their suffering people, as shepherds with their sheep, pressed by circumstance to offer answers to inescapable questions. In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul is a pastor-sage giving answers to the pressing requests of his people, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote” (7.1).
This is the way of biblical wisdom – being present with these people in this place, understanding their plight so you might provide a “word in season” (Proverb 15.23).
We all now know the feeling.
Now the context in 1 Corinthians.
Paul is a principled pragmatist. He leaves some questions without definitive answers because he knows life is messy. But there is a deep principle of wisdom that guides everything. In chapters 1-2 Paul reminds the Corinthians of the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross which is the epitome of the wisdom of God. The world cannot understand it, but it is the center of the Christian life. This is the bedrock principle at work throughout the book. Hear the echoes of the cruciform wisdom as Paul applies in a concrete world…
Why not just accept the injustice and leave it at that? Why not let yourselves be cheated? (6.7, NLT)
On the right to eat meat sacrificed to idols:
If food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall. (8:13)
On Paul’s rights as an apostle:
I have made no use of any of these rights. (9:15)
Back to meat and idols:
Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. (10.24)
On spiritual gifts:
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (12:7)
Paul’s big idea – it is never about my rights first. To put it in American lingo – the First Amendment is never our first priority.
Temporary measures must pass the test of the timeless measure against which all things are tested, the cross of Jesus.
Not even faith can be the foundational consideration, “If I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing… faith, hope and love – and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:2, 13). During this pandemic, I often heard faith being prioritized over love, but faithfulness is often a matter of love more than of faith, and a Corinthian-style display of faith-flexing (ch. 12, 14) is no virtue.
Let’s gather this up. No two crises are exactly alike, and so it’s difficult to be too specific, but here’s a suggested process for considering temporary measures in a time of crisis:
Pray. This is obvious, but often overlooked and underdone. Pray and listen.
Be as Present as Possible. They need to know we are with them. Be present and listen.
Consult the Prudent. I could not have shouldered the burden without the wisdom of my deacons. Listen to the wise.
Pay Attention to the Particulars. I am in Locust Grove, not New York City. Loving our community may look a little different. Listen to the locals.
Consider Precedent. Paul constantly drew on the First Testament (e.g.10.1-10), and so did Jesus. Jesus justified plucking grain on the Sabbath in part by appealing to David eating the sacred bread. Listen to the past.
Prioritize Deeper Principles. Crises reveal priorities. The Christian faith is pragmatic, and what looks like pragmatism always has underlying principles of priority. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In spite of the Chronicler’s typical punctiliousness on law-keeping, he reports that those of the northern tribes “had not cleansed themselves, yet they ate the Passover otherwise than as prescribed. For Hezekiah had prayed for them, saying, ‘The good Lord pardon every one who sets his heart to seek God, the Lord the God of his fathers, even though not according to the sanctuary’s rules of cleanness’” (2 Chronicles 30.18-19). The Didache 7:1-3 (c. early second century CE) allows at least four options for baptism from the best to the acceptable. The deepest principle is always the cross of Jesus.
Be Practical. You must do something. You have been placed there to do something. “He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap” (Ecclesiastes 11:4). There is never a perfect time and a perfect plan, but you can’t afford to be paralyzed by idealized perfection.
Dr. Jeff Blair is Pastor of Locust Grove Free Will Baptist Church in Oklahoma where he lives with his wife, Jennie, and three kids. Jeff graduated from Northern Seminary in 2018 with a Doctor of Ministry in New Testament Context.
 Bruce W. Winter, “Secular and Christian Responses to Corinthian Famines,” Tyndale Bulletin 40.1 (1989), 86-106.
 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 329. Emphasis mine.
 Emphasis mine. Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 536–537. Quoting Glad, Paul and Philodemus: Adaptability in Epicurean and Early Christian Psychagogy, 246 and referencing Charles H. Giblin, “1 Cor 7—A Negative Theology of Marriage and Celibacy?” BT 41 (1969): 239–55.
 Note the date, 2010, on the heals of the Great Recession. Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI; Eerdmans, 2010), 337–338. Emphasis mine.
 Irving Rosenbaum, The Holocaust and Halakhah, p. 40.
 The earliest examples are embedded in the Talmud. Later, responsa became a distinct genre of Jewish legal material.