February 2, 2020
We arrive this morning at one of the more challenging passages of Scripture in the Bible. And it’s actually everywhere. Not just for what it says, but also for what it does not say. Opponents of Christianity often point to this passage, others like it to attack the authority, even morality of the Bible. It’s culturally and morally antiquated. You see, here’s the problem: most people, Christians and non-Christians alike, would agree that slavery – one person owning another as property – is wrong. Evil. Immoral. We are abhorred to hear slavery still exists around the world today. And so we have rightly developed Fair Trade products. Christians continue to lead the fight against modern-day injustices like child slavery, sweat shops, the sex slave trade. And yet, it appears Scripture condones slavery. After all, it regulates it – gives instructions for buying and selling slaves, the treatment of slaves. Google slavery and the Bible and the first site to appear is evilbible.com – with an article suggesting the Bible is evil for its acceptance, indeed, promotion of slavery.
And today, the passage tells us how slaves are to obey their masters – even evil ones. To suffer unjustly. Catch that, it calls for slaves to submit – it does not call for the abolition of the institution. It does not call for slaves to revolt, or fight for their freedom. Why, in one NT letter, the apostle Paul actually sends a slave named Onesimus back to his master named Philemon. Paul wasn’t a slave runner – he was a slaver returner. And so, in the not-too-distant past, Christians in the pre-Civil War South not only owned slaves, but justified it from the Bible.
Jefferson Davis, former President of the Confederate States of America said, “[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God…it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation…it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts.”
A 19th Century South Carolina pastor, the one for whom Furman University was named said, “The right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example.” (Rev. Richard Furman)
Is that true? Does the Bible give the right to hold slaves by precept – that is, teaching, and by example? Does it give a theological basis for one human owning another? If so, then slavery can be used as an example of a human institution the Bible formerly condoned, even promoted, that we no longer do. We’ve grown beyond that. The Bible was a product of its time and culture. It’s culturally antiquated, and in error. Just like it was behind the times in the husband/ wife issue – wives submitting to their husbands. A product of a patriarchal society. The homosexuality issue? Well, it’s time for the church catch up – and abandon its problem with that issue just like it abandoned its approval of slavery. By the way, Christians once used the Bible to support prejudice, too. This is an enormous challenge.
Yes, I’m aware it was primarily Christians who were responsible for the abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom and the United States. I’ve watched the movie, read the book Amazing Grace which tells the story of the great Christian statesman, William Wilberforce. He became a member of English Parliament in 1784 at the age of 24. The next year, he came to faith in Christ – he called it the great change. He then began the lifelong task of abolishing slavery in Great Britain. He fought tirelessly for over twenty years, until finally, in 1807, Parliament voted to abolish the slave trade. Of course, that did nothing to emancipate those who were already slaves. So he fought on. Freeing them took until three days before his death in 1833. This great Christian statesman fought slavery for almost 50 years. The author of Amazing Grace, Eric Metaxas, writes in his introduction:
“Wilberforce saw much of what the rest of the world could not, including the grotesque injustice of one man treating another as property. He seems to rise up out of nowhere and with the voice of unborn billions—with your voice and mine—shriek to his contemporaries that they are sleepwalking through hell, that they must wake up and must see what he saw and know what he knew—and what you and I know today—that the widespread and institutionalized and unthinkably cruel treatment of millions of human beings is evil and must be stopped as soon as conceivably possible—no matter the cost.”
And stop it he did. And then, the great Christian statesman of our own country, Abraham Lincoln, who hailed Wilberforce a hero, abolished the slave trade and freed the slaves with his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Two years later, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution outlawed slavery. So, did Wilberforce and Lincoln finally get something right the Bible never seemed to figure out? Did Wilberforce and Lincoln fix Paul, and did the 13th Amendment fix Peter? We have a huge challenge. I will attempt to do the following three things this morning:
- First, we must compare slavery in the Bible with slavery in the New World with which we are somewhat familiar. Were they the same thing?
- Second, I will then seek to teach the text within that context of understanding.
- Third, I will seek to apply relevant principles for us today and our submission to authority in our work environments. Most of us have bosses. Do you like them? Respect them? Submit to them?
So let’s begin by answering the question – was slavery at the time of Peter different than slavery in our pre-Civil War South? And the answer is a resounding yes. Consider the following:
- First, slavery in the Greco-Roman culture was not a matter of race. In the American South from the 17th to 19th centuries, slaves were primarily black Africans who were forcibly taken from their homelands and enslaved. In the society which Peter addressed, race was not the issue – slaves came from every quarter – to include Romans and Greeks. The most common source of slaves were prisoners of war, while others were rescued infants or those who sold themselves into slavery – think, indentured servants. Others were born into slave families.
- Second, most ancient slaves could reasonably expect to be emancipated/freed during their lifetimes, usually by the time they were thirty years old. In fact, freed slaves became such a problem – the economy couldn’t handle them – Caesar Augustus passed a decree limiting the number of slaves that could be freed each year, and required the slave be at least 30. Of course, slaves in our country were so for life.
- Third, many slaves worked in a variety of specialized and responsible positions. Unlike slavery in our country, they were not just manual laborers – they were doctors, teachers, accountants, administrators, musicians, artists, etc.
- Fourth, many slaves received education and training for those specialized skills – this benefitted both the slave and the master. Of course, in our country, slaves were simply treated as property – we could say animals.
- As a result, many ancient slaves, when they were freed, had marketable skills; many became Roman citizens; many maintained a working relationship with former masters.
- All this leads to the last thing I’ll say which may sound a bit provocative. I don’t mean it so. I have a deep and abiding hatred toward prejudice of any kind, to include slavery that was a lamentable part of our country’s heritage. But, it was different in the ancient Near East during the time Peter was writing, such that I can say slavery was actually beneficial to slaves. It can be said that while slavery in the South was for the benefit of slave owners, slavery in the first century often benefited or provided economic relief to slaves. Yes, there were those horribly mistreated. To deny that is patently false. But many found their situations not only tolerable, but helpful. Many found it economically advantageous to belong to another. Because the master was then responsible for their care. Many found freedom was worse than slavery.
This helps explain why Peter could call us bondslaves of God. Because of our understandable distaste for the institution of slavery, modern translations often translate the word slave as servant or bondservant, perhaps closer to the truth. But the fact is, while we are children of God, we are also His slaves. We saw that last week – we are free – from the tyranny of sin, and now slaves of God. You see, we have simply changed masters. And there is great benefit to that. He is the Master, He owns us – as such, He is responsible for our care.
We also have to understand slavery was woven into the fabric of society at this time. It was the economy of the day. It’s estimated about one-third of the Roman Empire was made up of slaves – as many as 60 million people. It was the way the economy functioned, and while there was ownership, it was not the brutal, forced slavery of a specific race of people.
Now, please understand the widespread practice of slavery does not give moral justification for its existence. Slavery always involves the ownership of one person by another that results in the deprivation of freedom. Slaves possessed few legal rights, they lacked honor, they were subject to whatever punishments their masters deemed appropriate, they were goaded into compliance through intimidation and threats – there were all kinds of problems, abuses, mistreatments and exploitations. I’m not condoning slavery – I’m suggesting it was different than our recent history. Nor do I believe the Bible condones or promotes slavery. Regulating humane treatment in a broken world does not condone the institution.
You see, when Peter and Paul address slavery, they never give a theological justification for it – they simply assume its presence in society and help believers understand what it means to live as Christians in this environment. Remember, Peter is telling us how to live beautiful lives so we can make the gospel attractive. And seeking to overthrow the overwhelming economic system of the day would not do that. He simply casts a vision for how slaves should live out their Christian lives within the constraints of this prevailing social system.
So let’s move, then, to a quick exposition of the text. What does it say? Remember again, Peter is talking about how to live beautiful lives in an unbelieving world – a world that was oppressing them. And that oppression could likely increase if they were now Christian slaves – if they no longer worshiped the god of the household, the master, as they were required to do. The implication seems to be, live within culture, obey its mandates, without unnecessarily inciting revolution. We want to make the gospel attractive. And one way we can do that is to live lives of beautiful, humble submission.
Peter launches into what is called a household code. Paul did it all the time. It was actually all over the secular world at that time. You see, it was understood, as goes the family, so goes society. We’ve sort of lost that. So it was vital to society to maintain the stability of households – hence these codes. What’s interesting to note is the secular codes were mostly addressed to superiors – masters, fathers, husbands in these patriarchal societies. They didn’t address slaves, children and wives, because they were thought unworthy of attention. Aristotle had himself written a household code. He said of necessity, households are made of slaves and freemen. And he called a slave “an animate article of property.” They could move and speak, but they’re just property. They were considered unable to take part in rational discourse. Aristotle said, “The slave is entirely without the faculty of deliberation…”
This was the view of slaves – animated articles of property without faculty for thoughtful conversation. Not worthy of moral instruction. And yet Peter addresses them directly, and gives lots of moral instruction. This is staggering. It’s obvious he considers them to be rational and moral beings capable of developing meaningful relationships – not only with masters, but with Jesus. So just by addressing slaves, Peter elevates them. Let’s read the text – I Peter 2:18-20.
Peter turns his attention first to slaves [household servants] in the household code. Servants, be submissive to your masters. There are several thoughts I will draw from the text:
- First, servants/slaves were to simply submit. Do what you’re told. In fact, similar passages in Ephesians and Colossians says they were to obey in all things. Not just when you feel like it, feel like you’re being treated well, being paid enough, etc. You are under authority – obey.
- Second, be submissive with all respect. Now, that could be, show your masters the respect is due them as your masters. Other passages indicate that. But the word is actually, fear. Be submissive with all fear. And Peter seems to go out of his way to remind us, we show respect and honor where honor is due – but we only fear God. So many suggest, probably rightly, that slaves submit for fear of God. It is He, after all, whom we serve and to whom we give an account. Paul says it this way in Ephesians 6:
5 Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ;
6 not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart.
7 With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men,
8 knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.
In Colossians 3 he says:
22 Slaves, in all things obey those who are your masters on earth, not with external service, as those who merely please men, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord.
Paul reminds us, it the Lord we are ultimately serving, so do that with appropriate, reverential fear. Remember, you are serving Christ and His gospel.
- Third, and this gets challenging, especially since we live a world where, if we don’t like our jobs or our bosses, we just find another job. But Peter says, submit not only to those who are good and gentle – and there were those – but also to those who are unreasonable. The word is actually scolios, from which we get our word scoliosis. It meant crooked or preserve. It’s the opposite of good and gentle – it’s not too much to say, harsh. That’s hard to hear – he actually says, don’t stage a sit-in, fight for your rights, fight for your freedom, run away – he says submit. How can he say that? The gospel.
- He tells us how in verse 19 – For this finds favor – and the word is grace – this finds God’s gracious favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God – remember – we’re serving Him and His gospel – this finds favor with God. And the implication is, future reward. If for the sake of serving God faithfully, we bear up under sorrows and unjust treatment, in obedience to Him and for His gospel, He likes that. Again, were slaves mistreated? Yes, they were. And they had no recourse. And Peter writes, bear up patiently. Justice will come. Reward will come. And who knows, by your beautiful response, you are making the gospel attractive. And the master could become a brother.
- He elaborates, but says the same thing in verse 20 – listen, if you’re punished for doing evil, what credit is there for that? Listen, if you get in trouble for disobeying, you deserve it. But, if you do what is right – in the context of suffering – do what is right as a believer and suffer for it, patiently enduring – this finds favor or grace with God. With such submissive, faithful, patient, obedience, God is well-pleased.
Which brings me to the last thing I want to do this morning by way of closing. If Peter was addressing the predominant socio-economic structure of his society, do these words have any bearing on us today? After all, we’re not slaves. But, we do work in a societal structure with bosses and “bossees” – managers and workers – employers and employees. Do these commands apply? I know this is hard, given our fierce commitment to freedom and independence and rights. But does it apply, or is the Bible antiquated, hopelessly outdated?
By the way, before I move to that – in my introduction, I commented that Paul sent a runaway slave back to his master. That’s true. We read about it in the short book of Philemon. Onesimus ran away, and ran into Paul. He came to faith in Christ. Paul knew his master, Philemon –who happened to be a Christian – led to faith in Christ by Paul. So Paul sends the newly-converted Onesimus back to Philemon and says:
15 For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever,
16 no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
17 If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me.
18 But if he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge that to my account;
19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand, I will repay it (not to mention to you that you owe to me even your own self as well).
Does that sound like Paul is promoting slavery by precept? Sounds to me like he’s calling for emancipation. Now, let me also say in the reading I did, I found it’s estimated there are some 27 million (21-46) people held as slaves throughout the world today. Most of them are in slave labor in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. In addition, there are great numbers of women trapped in the sex slave trade in many countries of the world. We should pray for the release of captives, and where possible, do something about it. We should hold American manufacturers accountable to not buying goods from so-called sweat shops, making our voices heard in objection. We should support those fighting the sex trade, like International Justice Mission. And when and where possible, we should do something – give, go and serve.
So, what can we apply as workers under authority, since most of us have bosses to whom we are accountable? What can we do as employees in our socioeconomic authority structure?
- First, we should do what we’re told. We have today too much an attitude of entitlement – I deserve my pay, and you’re lucky to have me – not, I’m lucky to have you. Or, I’ll do what I’m told if I want to, if it’s not beneath me, if I think it demonstrates my value – it’s all about me. We actually have the idea that the employer owes us for the privilege of us working for him or her. I can remember when we honored the employer for employing me. How would it change your work environment if your employer knew you respected and honored him/her – and valued your job?
- Second, we should treat our managers, our supervisors with deep respect, even if you don’t think they deserve it. Remember – we’re ultimately serving Christ. Bosses don’t always act honorably – neither do we. But their position deserves our respect. And by the way, Paul told Timothy, “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.” (I Timothy 6:1) In other words, being a good worker makes the gospel attractive. And if your employer or manager is a Christian, don’t take advantage of that. Paul tells Timothy further, “Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brothers, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit [of our diligent, respectful work] are believers and beloved.” (I Timothy 6:2) [SP]
we serve well, work hard, even when our employer is disrespectful,
dishonorable, unkind, and maybe even harsh. Unless, of course, we don’t think this
passage applies today. We remember,
it is ultimately Christ we are serving.
That means we give 100 percent when the boss is present and not –
because the Master is always present.
I’ve said this before – Christians ought to be the hardest workers
in the marketplace. I didn’t say
the most skilled, the most trained, the most educated. There may be others whose education and
skills exceed ours – but no one should work harder and more faithfully.
- Fourth, we should make God’s will the top priority in our life and work. This means, again, that everything we do, we do ultimately for the glory of God and the sake of the gospel. And it also means there may be times when we don’t do something our managers ask that is illegal or immoral.
It is true, Peter and Paul did not overtly call for the abolition of slavery. But they understood, regardless of economic, social and cultural context – followers of Christ have the opportunity to share the love of God by their changed lives – by faithful, submissive, humble obedience.
For you are not your own, you have been bought with a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body, which is His. You have been bought with a price – the precious blood and body of Jesus Christ.