“You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men” (1 Corinthians 7:23).
There are various ways to be slaves of people. There is the most literal way, of course, in which you are physically or contractually restricted in your movements by the will of another. Think of the Hebrews as conscripted labor for the Pharaoh’s building projects around 1700 B.C. Or more benevolently, think of Onesimus the slave of Philemon, in the accepted economic reality of the Roman Empire. (See the book of Philemon.)
Religiously, one can make the mistake of being a slave to rules and regulations that have passed away and belong to a dispensation that has been superseded by Christ. The apostle Paul had strong words for this in Galatians:
“… how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.”
But there is another interpretation of the verse from Corinthians that God has brought to my attention: It is possible to be a slave of men in the sense of an inordinate preoccupation with the opinion of others toward you.
To be sure, it is not wrong to take some regard for how you are seen by others. Scripture does enjoin us to take care not to do things that would be fodder for gossip or give a bad impression, even if we are entirely innocent in the matter:
“… give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all” (Romans 12:17).
“… for we aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of man” (2 Corinthians 8:21).
“… if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13).
These prudential measures toward a brother are out of love for him, and out of hope that he would be won to Christ.
But there is another kind of regard for the opinion of others that I find virulent in my life because it all but completely snuffs out the Spirit. When a general and pervasive concern for the opinions of people waxes, the teachings of Scripture shrink to a negligible voice, and I betray my God left and right. There are things I have done and courses I have chosen that were done in good conscience before God and for biblical reasons, and when I am suddenly ready to distance myself from these choices out of an acute fear of what men will say, the Lord is not pleased. He wants me to turn back and look at Him and not at every Tom, Dick, and Harry. It is then that He says to me:
“You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men.”