“Slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as you would Christ. Don’t work only while being watched, as people-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing God’s will from your heart. Serve with a good attitude, as to the Lord and not to people, knowing that whatever good each one does, slave or free, he will receive this back from the Lord. And masters, treat your slaves the same way, without threatening them, because you know that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.”
The next group that Paul addresses are slaves and masters. Today we look at these verses and think that Paul is endorsing slavery. He was not endorsing slavery, but rather addressing a fact of life in the Roman Empire. It is so important to understand Biblical context. Today, people are very quick to take offense at things from the Bible without reading them in context of either the entire passage or the bigger picture. One of the things that I have come to understand as I have read through the Bible, and I’ve studied for this blog are both historical and cultural context when reading. It is also very important to never just pull out one Bible verse. As Greg Koukl from Stand to Reason says, “Never read a Bible verse.” Always read the verses before and after it! You need to understand the context of the verse.
As I was getting ready to write this portion of my blog, my husband and I happened to listen to an Alisa Childers podcast. I don’t think that timing was a coincidence. She had on as her guest Dr. H.C. Felder. The topic? “Does the Bible Condone Slavery (and Other Moral Evils?)” It was so perfect for this section! I watched it again on YouTube, and this time I took notes (3 pages worth!). I’m not going to write everything down, but I will add what I learned as we go. Here is a link to the podcast in case you would like to listen to it: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/158-does-the-bible-condone-slavery-and-other-moral/id1260262855?i=1000567053435
The first important thing to understand is that slavery has been the state of mankind since its inception. It has existed in every nation, in every time period. Europeans enslaved Europeans. Asians enslaved Asians. Africans enslaved Africans. Native Americans enslaved Native Americans. You get the picture! The word slave has origins in the word Slav. The Slavs, who lived in Eastern Europe, were taken as slaves by the Muslims of Spain during the 9th century.
So we know that slavery has always existed. Dr. Felder points out in the podcast that God does something in the Old Testament that had never been done before. He put parameters around people and what they could and could not do. What was unique in the Bible is that it maintained the dignity of the person. A slave had to be released after six years. A slave could only be a slave for life if they requested it. A slave could actually run away from their master and if that slave was found the owner could not force them to come back. The slave then got to decide where he wanted to live. A slave could inherit from his master. In many ways, it was like an extension of the family. This was very different than the cultures that lived around the Israelites.
When we move up to the 1st century AD and when Paul was writing this letter, William Barclay estimated that there were 60 million slaves in the Roman Empire. John Stott writes in his commentary, “They constituted the workforce and included not only domestic servants and manual labourers, but educated people as well, such as doctors, teachers and administrators.” What is remarkable to me is that Paul is addressing the slaves personally. Notice that Paul personally addressed the wives, the children, and the slaves. They are all part of the body of believers and equal in stature. In his letters to the church at Galatia and Colossae, he had reminded them that in Christ, there was no difference between slave and free, male and female (see Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11). By faith we are all one in Christ Jesus.
I want to cover one more thing before we move on to the passage. Today, we look back and judge slavery as evil because we are doing it through a Christian lens. We view people as being made in God’s image. Christianity sparked the abolitionist movement in England in the early 1800s. William Wilberforce was key in ending slavery in England and it was due to his Christian beliefs. This led to the abolition movement in the United States. According to the Wikipedia article on Christian Abolitionism, “although many Enlightenment philosophers opposed slavery, it was Christian activists, attracted by strong religious elements, who initiated and organized an abolitionist movement.” When we are told today that Christians should not be involved in the political arena, we need to remember that it was Christians who were key players in abolishing slavery!
Slavery was officially abolished in England in 1833 and America in 1865. Mauritania was the last country in the world to abolish slavery in 1981. Yet today there are more people enslaved than in any time in history. There are 20 million people in forced labor and 15 million in forced marriage. These are 2016 stats from 50forfreedom.org. It happens in every country in the world. Most work in industries such as agriculture, fishing, construction, manufacturing, mining, and domestic work. About one in five are victims of sexual exploitation. Forced labor generates an annual profit of over $150 billion. Women and girls make up 71% of modern slavery victims while children make up 25%. These numbers are shocking. But we live in a world that increasingly is becoming less Christian. We are told that we need to keep our faith out of politics. The irony is that it was Christianity that stopped slavery as it was practiced. We need to remember that people are made in God’s image and have equal rights to life from the womb to the grave.
That was a lot of background information, (with a little contemporary history thrown in) for this passage. There are two parts to this. Slaves were to work as though they were working for Christ. And the masters were to treat their slaves as though they were their equal. It’s really pretty simple! What does that look like for today? Let’s start with the worker. If you are a worker, be sincere. Have a good attitude. Don’t do the right thing only when people are watching. Paul writes in his letter to the Colossians, “Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ” (3:23-24). And if you are a boss, treat your workers with respect. They are your equals! You are serving Christ, and there is no favoritism with him, so there better not be any with you! As both workers and leaders, we will be working with non-Christians. What a great opportunity to show others the love of Christ. Our example should be one of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We should look different than the world.
In all the relationships that Paul lists, the Christian examples of family and work should look different than the worldly ones. Jesus said we are to be salt and light. We are to show by example. If our family life and our work relationships don’t look any different from the world’s, then why would anyone want what we have? Verses 7 & 8 are good way to end this. “Serve with a good attitude, as to the Lord and not to people, knowing that whatever good each one does, slave or free, he will receive this back from the Lord.”
Grace be with you!