SCRIPTURE – Ephesians 6:5-8 – Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
The Problem with Paul – Sermon #3: Paul and Slavery
Sept. 2, 2012
Media mogul Ted Turner once said, “Christianity is for losers.” Obviously Mr. Turner has never visited our wonderful congregation! I’ve sent him a personal invite and a pledge card. But what Turner doesn’t know is that he’s right. Jesus talked about how the last shall be first and how those who wanted to save their lives had to lose it. According to Jesus, faithful Christians are losers, people willing to lose their social status or their tight grip on their possessions in order to gain something of greater spiritual significance. So congratulations, we’re all losers!
In Paul’s time, this idea of Christians being losers had another meaning. The message of freedom that Paul was preaching appealed most to people who were on the bottom of society, the people without power or status, the “losers” of his time. In fact, many of the early Christian churches were filled with slaves.
But the word “slave” has picked up a lot of baggage as it has crossed the bridge from Paul’s time to ours. It has become one of those words we just don’t use a lot out of sensitivity. I can tell by looking at you that you are all Britney Spears fans, so I’m sure you remember her song called, “I’m A Slave for You.” She received a lot backlash for using that word in her song title. That word carries too much history to be used regularly. So when we read words like our passage today, we may react in a variety of ways – anger, bewilderment, disgust – based on our culturally loaded definition of the word “slave.” What are we going to do with Paul and his words?
Last week, when we looked at Paul’s critique of women, we used a metaphor of a bridge to help our understanding. We said that on one side was Paul’s ancient culture and on the other side was our very different modern culture, and in between was this shaky bridge across which all our interpretations and understandings must travel. We’ll be crossing this bridge this morning as we attempt to make some sense out of Paul’s words.
It’s safe to say all of us agree that the concept of slavery is repugnant and repulsive. The history of our country is scarred by the evidence of slavery and the continuing effects it has on race relations, not to mention its ongoing presence in other parts of the world. Slavery is now abolished and segregation and discrimination are illegal, but the wounds caused by slavery are still open and festering. Our denomination has made a commitment to anti-racism and pro-reconciliation as a direct result of the lasting effects of slavery on our society.
So when we come across these passages in Paul’s letters, we don’t know what to make of them. And that’s a problem we can’t run away from, because the concept of slavery is very prevalent in the Bible. In fact, in the New Testament alone, there are more than 190 references to slaves and slavery. We tend to miss this fact because we’ve softened the translation of the Greek word “doulos” from “slave” to “servant.” But that doesn’t erase slavery’s presence in the Bible.
What’s even more disturbing than Paul’s words about slavery is how his words have been used. As we sit here today and hear these passages, we are far removed from the 1800s and the institution of slavery. But imagine what it must have been like for slaves to hear the plantation owner or the white preacher read from the Bible, “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect, so that God’s name and our teaching may not be slandered. Those who have believing masters should not show them disrespect just because they are fellow believers. Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves.” Do you see how these words could be used to oppress people? “See? The Bible says you should be happy to serve me and be my slave.” I can only imagine the thousands of sermons preached by white Southern ministers on these texts, using them to continue the oppression of slaves and to send Southern soldiers to their death believing God was on their side in defending slavery. Paul’s letters have been bloodied by the Civil War, and that’s a fact that cannot be softened by changing “slave” to “servant.” On our side of the bridge, we want to know why Paul, someone so fervently supportive of the gospel of freedom in Christ, didn’t call for an end to a system as oppressive an evil as slavery. To get an answer, we have to go back across the bridge to Paul’s time.
When we get there, the first thing we’ll need to do is redefine our understanding of slavery. Slavery in antiquity was a building block of the Roman society, and slaves were a crucial part of each household. Slaves could be well-educated and were often tutors of their master’s children. They could join the same clubs as free people. They had many legal rights, including the right to appeal to a higher authority in the case of unfair treatment. And most importantly, unlike the life sentence of American slavery, Roman slaves were often given their freedom after a 10 to 20-year period of work. In fact, Roman slavery was so accepted that many people chose to sell themselves into slavery to find a better life than they had as free people. So when Paul says, “Slaves, obey your masters,” he’s not condemning them to a life of slavery as we understand it; he’s encouraging them to fulfill their obligation under the very different Roman system of slavery.
Now let me be very clear here so that there’s no misunderstanding. My explanation of this issue does not equal my support of it. I’m not condoning any form of slavery, regardless of how well the slaves were treated. A well-educated slave is still a slave, and that’s never an acceptable situation in my understanding of the gospel. But in order for us to understand Paul’s motives, we need to understand the reality in which he lived, and how he used the gospel to transform that reality.
For example, although we may shudder at the use of the word “slave,” in Paul’s time one-third of the Roman population was slaves and one-third was former slaves. So there would have been a high level of relatability for his readers when Paul uses a term like “slave of Christ” to describe his own relationship with Jesus, because they knew what it was like in real life to be a “doulos,” a slave.
The Greek word “kyrios,” which we often translate as “Lord,” would have been heard by Paul’s readers as the common word for “master,” as in this passage from 2 Corinthians: “For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as master, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” Paul’s dominant metaphor for his relationship to Christ was that of slave and master, and he regarded the spiritual human condition of all people as enslavement. You were either a slave to sin or a slave for Christ.
This understanding of Paul is critical for us as we bring his words back across the bridge. Because of the foundational role the institution of slavery played in Roman society, it probably didn’t even cross Paul’s mind to protest against slavery. There was no such thing as the right to free speech or civil rights in Paul’s time, and trying to force those on him or hold him accountable for them is like cutting down the bridge between us. Instead of trying to change the institution, what Paul does is try to change the individuals within it, transforming their understanding.
First of all, Paul addresses the slaves directly, treating them as people of self-worth and deserving of respect. Paul tells slaves that if they are going to live with the reality of slavery, they should faithfully fulfill their obligation of service. “Obey your masters.” How we practice our service to others mirrors how we live out our service to God. But Paul takes it a step further by saying don’t do this simply because you are required to; do it as an act of devotion, mirroring your devotion to Christ. He tells them to serve wholeheartedly, as if they were serving the Lord, because they will be rewarded for their good service, a reward far beyond anything they will receive here on earth.
So what does that mean for us, who are so far removed from Paul’s first-century society? William Barclay puts it this way: “Paul tells slaves to be Christian where they are. We can be Christian wherever we are and whatever we do. Christianity does not offer us an escape from circumstances; it offers us a conquest of circumstances.” In other words, Christianity doesn’t show us a way around life’s challenges; it shows us a way through them.
That’s what Paul is saying to slaves, and to us. Make the most out of your situation by dealing with it as a Christian first. There are going to be times when we’re in a situation we simply don’t want to be in, but don’t have any choice – a meeting, a relationship, a job. What Paul tells us is to let our Christian values and beliefs guide us through those situations, so that we stay true to our faith and obedient to our one true Master. That also means treating those around us as equals, even when society dictates a hierarchy. If slaves were able to look upon their masters as equals and treat them with the dignity and respect every fellow human being deserves, they maintain their own dignity and integrity in an otherwise deplorable situation.
That may sound like a rationalization for a slave to be content with their situation, but what’s absolutely amazing is that Paul says it goes both ways. There’s one more verse that we didn’t read this morning. It’s verse 9 in Ephesians 6. After Paul instructs the slaves on how they are to behave, he says this: “And masters, treat your slaves the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.”
“Masters, treat your slaves the same way.” Do you think that was preached in the south 150 years ago? But that’s Paul’s ultimate point: through Christ’s eyes we are all the same. There is no Greek or Jew, no slave or free, no woman or man. We are all equal, we are all one in Jesus Christ, who is our true “kyrios,” our one Master. May we live our lives as “doulos,” as servants of each others, and as slaves of Jesus Christ.