I want to do three things today as we study this passage. I want to deal with the elephant in the room in regards to the topic of this text, which is Paul’s apparent ignorance of the horrors of slavery. Then I want to explain what Paul is actually saying in the text. And finally I want to tie everything together under the bloody cross in the doorway of the empty tomb in practical application for us.
So in short, I want to deal with the problem and I want to deal the text and then I want to make a beeline for the cross and the empty tomb of Jesus. The message of the gospel is explicitly focused on our broken and sinful state of existence in sharp contrast to the perfect and powerful work of Jesus at the cross and the empty tomb.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The power of Satan, sin and the grave has been vanquished. Our old slave master, Satan, has been defeated. The chains of sin have been broken. The plantation of death and the grave have been burned to the ground. For those of us who have trusted in Jesus, we hope in a kind of freedom that is both life giving and eternal regardless of our background or current circumstances. We trust in this truth, that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28)
So What The Heck Is Up With Paul’s Apparent Ignorance Of The Horrors of Slavery?
A quick reading of 1Timothy 6:1 – 2, could easily lead us to believe that Paul is in favor of slavery: 1 Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. 2 Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved.
In this passage, Paul literally tells slaves in the Ephesian church to honor their masters, respect their masters, serve their masters and love their masters. And this isn’t the first time we find Paul apparently glossing over the horrors of slavery.
In his previous letter to the Ephesian church he says “Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free.” (Eph. 6:5-8) So even here, Paul is calling for an obedience to our earthly slave masters that is characterized by fear and trembling and sincerity.
He’s literally instructing slaves to honor their slaveholders just as they would honor Christ. He instructs us not to obey only when the boss-man is looking but instead to serve from a pure heart that is full of good intentions that desires to please God and not just to please man. The promise in all of this is that if a slave honors, obeys and respects his master then that slave can bank on the fact that somewhere in eternity he will receive a reward for his faithfulness.
I admit this kind of language is mind boggling to me. I’m the kind of guy who identifies deeply with the downtrodden. I take the side of the weak and the oppressed. And as far as I can tell in all of my study of the Scriptures, we have a Father in Heaven who has the same heart. I believe our Father is horrified by the institution of slavery.
So what’s up with this apparent contradiction? Is there something unique about the Ephesian church that would lead Paul to give these kinds of instructions instead of instructing the church to rebel against slavery in some sort of civil act of disobedience or protest?
A quick glance at Paul’s letter to Philemon who was a quote unquote “slave owner” in Colossae (a town near Ephesus) seems to paint the picture of an apostle Paul who is disinterested with abolishing the slave trade in the first century. His letter to Philemon is written on behalf of a run away slave named Onesimus who had stolen something from his slave owner when he ran away but had since then met Paul and become a Christian.
And the letter that Paul wrote to Philemon on behalf of Onesimus details Paul’s desire that Philemon would receive Onesimus back into his household as a brother rather than a slave. He even offers to repay Philemon for any loss that he might have incurred in the whole ordeal. So it doesn’t appear to me that Ephesus was something special.
But why handle the relationship between a slave owner and a run away slave this way? Why send Onesimus back to Philemon? Why instruct slaves to obey their slave masters? Why not write a letter condemning Philemon for owning another human being like an inanimate object? Why not write a letter pontificating on the horrors of slavery? Why doesn’t Paul see this situation as an opportunity to talk about how every human being is made in the image of God and therefore they deserve better?
Part of the answer to these questions is a cultural answer and the other part is a biblical answer. Culturally, slavery in the 1st century was a bit different than the kind of slavery that we have in our history as Americans. The slavery we are used to in our American history was largely if not completely a work of evil that oppressed humans who were created in the image of God and relegated them into mere inanimate objects for the sole purpose of the advancement of some slave owner’s social, economic and political gain.
And while slavery in the 1st century did have many elements of the same kind of dehumanizing effects, there were other streams of slavery that were more like the workplace environment that makes up the backbone of our American economy. So culturally, some of the issues we have here are the complex differences in the culture of the 1st century church. And the other issues we have are just pure language issue where instead of using the language of employer and employee we have the language of slave and slave owner or bondservant and master as we see in the text before us today.
Now from a Biblical perspective, when we are trying to figure out why the Bible doesn’t appear to outright condemn slavery and encourage social reform or civil outrage, we have to understand that the Bible is not primarily a social reform handbook. Instead, God the Holy Spirit, through the Biblical authors, seeks to reveal or introduce us to a loving and gracious and merciful Father against the backdrop of our own brokenness, unfaithfulness and slavery to sin. And then from there, God seeks to call us into his presence where we are transformed into the image of Jesus so that we can live in a redemptive and countercultural way in the midst of the broken world we occupy.
So in short, biblically speaking, God isn’t primarily concerned with fighting so-called social justice battles. Though it is highly Biblical for Christian men and women to engage social injustices and to seek social reform, God is primarily concerned with his glory being manifested through his children as he adopts us out of a world of slavery to Satan, sin and death. And then after that, God is concerned with sanctifying the church family where every person from every tribe, tongue and nation lives together in equality regardless of cultural, social, economic or ethnic backgrounds.
This Leads Me Back To Explaining The Text We Began With…
In 1 Timothy 6:1 – 2 Paul says 1 Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. 2 Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved.
So in short, Paul instructs slaves to honor their masters by respecting them, serving them and loving them. And it appears that Paul might be making a distinction between non-Christian masters in verse one and Christian masters in verse two.
The reason I say this is because of the reasons Paul gives to slaves for honoring their masters. In verse one Paul seems to be concerned that a slave should honor his master so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. And then in verse two Paul seems to be concerned that a slave should honor his believing master and respect him on the grounds that they are brothers in Christ and therefore they should seek even more to honor a brother in Christ because brothers are called to love each other.
Again, you have to put yourself in the Ephesian church gathering to get the thrust of this passage. In that culture there would have been people from various different backgrounds as well as people with various different current circumstances. Some of them were bondservants who were bound to a contractual relationship with a master who was like an employer. Some of them were freedmen who were bound to no one and often lived below the poverty line because they didn’t have contracted income. And others were masters who had people bound to them for their livelihood. I can’t imagine that there were any slaves and masters in the Ephesian church that met the criteria for the institution of slavery that existed in America.
Paul’s concern is that all of these different kinds of people would live in harmony with one another as they sought to worship their Savior and bring honor to the name of God and the preaching of the gospel. People are really no different today then they were then. Even today we struggle with the ways our employers rule over us. In much the same way we are bound to our earthly employers because they contractually provide the income we need to pay our bills.
It wasn’t uncommon then and it’s not uncommon now to hear a person complaining about their work environment and dreaming of a job with more opportunities. It’s not uncommon to look across the aisle and see someone doing the same kind of labor for a higher wage or better benefits and wish we had what they had. And it’s not necessarily wrong to desire to make ends meet just a little bit better. Paul has even just said as much in the previous chapter in regards to a pastor’s compensation.
Paul is after something much more important than better benefits. He’s after something much deeper than raising the minimum wage. Paul is concerned about godliness in the church family. He’s concerned about how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth. (1Tim. 3:15)
In this immediate passage I think Paul is concerned that slaves might begin to dishonor their masters, disrespect their masters, undermine their masters, generally act in ways that would be a disservice to their masters and miss the opportunity to love their masters. To do any of these things would be to bring reproach on the God they claimed to follow and the gospel they claimed to believe.
I want you to stop and think about the God you claim to follow and the gospel you claim to believe. What does your attitude towards your boss convey about the God you claim to follow and the gospel you claim to believe? What do your words say? What do your actions say? What does your relationship with your boss or your coworkers or your landlord or your bill collectors say about the God you trust in and the gospel you believe?
We spend the majority of our time in the work place. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the workplace is probably the largest unreached mission field in America even though I think the workplace is more populated with Christians than many neighborhoods are. So what does your presence in your workplace say about the God you know and the gospel you believe?
When I think about our Father in Heaven and the message of the gospel I am reminded of how Jesus came to serve and not to be served. He came down from his throne in Heaven to a sin soaked earth so that he could wash the feet of rebels and make them into sons and daughters. Jesus is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Yet he laid down his ability to rule us through an iron scepter so that he could ransom us through the cross. He was disrespected, rejected, abused, beaten, bloodied, humiliated and murdered so that his enemies could become family.
When I think about how I honor, respect, serve and love my earthly masters, this picture of my Heavenly Father and the work that Jesus did at the cross motivates me to not just get better as a bondservant but to continue to trust in Christ as his bondservant.
The reality is that all of us are bondservants to people around us. Hopefully not in the destructive sense of the slavery we experienced in America. But hopefully in healthy roles like husband to wife and wife to husband and brother to sister and sister to brother and church member to church member. We are all called to serve each other by honoring, respecting and loving one another well. Because I am a slave to Jesus who did all of this for me and more, I can be enslaved to anyone because I know that I am eternally free and the power of the cross and the empty tomb resides inside of me.