Tuesday, April 20, 2004

1 Timothy -- Passing the Baton (18)

Slaves and Masters.

All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against. 

Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles. (1 Timothy 6:1-2)


Most human civilizations have or have had a practice of enslaving others. Slaves could be defeated enemies. Slaves could be debtors unable to pay what they owe. Slaves could be born as slaves. That the practice is common has never made it right. That it persists in its various forms reveals much about the hearts of men and women.

Slavery requires strong cultural support. Men and women will rarely choose to be slaves. People are slaves only when it is not in their power to be free. A society that sanctions slavery must sanction penalties that induce fear in slaves. The slave owner must have the right to use physical force against his slaves, for they must fear him to remain slaves. The slave owner must also have to right to maim or kill a slave who runs away or revolts, because that is a slave's ultimate crime. 

Slavery Practiced by Christians

There were Christians in England and the United States of America who bought and owned slaves. From New Testament references like this one from ! Timothy, one must conclude that early Christians also bought and owned slaves. The sad fact is that those who have owned slaves have used the Bible to justify the practice. They confused regulation with approval.

The Bible has done the same for other practices. The most obvious is the regulation of marriage:

  • Polygamy -- Old Testament Law regulated the practice of having multiple wives by limiting the pool of women from which you could consider marrying (Leviticus 18). It required a man to marry his brother's wife (Deuteronomy 25:5). 
  • Divorce -- Old Testament Law regulated the practice of divorce (Deuteronomy 24:3) 

And yet in the New Testament, Jesus established the ideal of one man and one woman united as husband and wife:

Some Pharisees came to Jesus, testing Him and asking, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason at all?” 

And He answered and said, “Have you not read that He who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate.” 

They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?” 

He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses permitted you to divorce your wives; but from the beginning it has not been this way. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:3-9)

So just because the Law regulated polygamy and divorce does not place God's seal of approval on the practice. The same is true with the practice of slavery. In Jesus' day, the Jews no longer practiced polygamy and servants were accorded higher status than hired hands. But slavery persisted and so even the New Testament regulated it. For example, Colossians 4:1 reads, "Masters, grant to your slaves justice and fairness, knowing that you too have a Master in heaven." (Colossians 4:1)

Side Note: It is interesting to see the Biblical wisdom behind regulating what might be impossible to stop. As Jesus said, "Because of the hardness of heart." Because of our hard hearts, there will be cultural institutions that the Lord tolerates and regulates, because they are impossible to eradicate given our sinful leanings. As Christians, we can apply this principle in democratic governance. How much more effective might our efforts to enact pro-life legislation improve if we could tolerate a less than perfect solution. So much of our efforts have been all or nothing. By seeking abolition instead of regulation, many more unborn children have died. This is not to say that abolition should cease to be the goal. It rather suggests that when society is not ready for abolition, regulation is a biblical alternative. 

Back to Paul and Timothy

Given that slavery existed in the Roman Empire and that Christians in Paul's day were both slaves and masters, Paul directs his attention to Christian conduct within the institution.

  • If you were a slave, you were to be the best slave that you could be. This included giving honor and respect to your master.
  • If your master were a believer, you were to honor and serve with even more diligence, because this benefited to body.

Most of you reading my words are not slaves or masters today. But you may be employees or employers. Some of you may actually have little choice about what you do to make a living, so you might feel like a slave. It matters not. According to Paul, our service to our employers is for the sake of the gospel.

<>< Test everything. Cling to what is good. ><>


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