1. Slavery in the Graeco-Roman world of the NT
2. Figurative applications of slavery
3. NT commands to slaves
c. Moral conduct
What a stupid place to put a chapter division!
Perhaps the person who was adding lines under passages was having a bad day or was so tired and in need of sleep when he came to this point in the NT that it totally escaped his attention that there are three pairs of exhortations that needed to be kept together. I just hope he realises that it looks real untidy to unite a section together that spans a chapter division.
As I’ve said before on the previous pages, there are three couplets contained in Col 3:18-4:1 and each pair stands as the complete picture of a human relationship which was common in the first century world. In each, it’s the more under-privileged section that are mentioned first and this appears to have been a quite deliberate ploy on Paul’s behalf to reverse natural conventions without undermining the authority of the ones in positions of oversight.
We should note that the apostles never go around trying to alter the culture of the society by campaigning against slavery and preaching against the social evils that sees men and women under the dominance and direction of men to the point where they’re considered to be part of the person’s property. Rather, they demonstrate and teach both slaves and masters what their correct manner of conduct should be towards one another in the cultural framework in which they find themselves.
Having now read some of the general statements which can be gleaned from the ancient writings, it would appear that a slave was in a much better financial position than the freedman or freeman who worked as a labourer. While the latter had to provide for himself out of his own income for food, accommodation, clothing and the like, the slave was provided with these as a right so that they might go about the master’s business as his representatives.
To have campaigned against such cultural acceptability and to have won their case would have released large numbers of men and women into a situation that would have meant that they would have had to have found employment back with their master in order for them to be able to live. Slavery in the first century AD, therefore, although exploited by masters on occasions, was actually a source of support for a great many men and women who would have died for lack of resources had they been left to their own devices.
That men such as Wilberforce campaigned so vigorously to abolish the slave trade in their own society was equally a well-informed course of action because of the way such a situation had degenerated from NT times. But, even so, the early Church were concerned not to bring about political or cultural change per se but to change the heart of man through the new birth that the life and reflection of Christ might be brought into society, heralding change not by law but by the Spirit.
These are two totally different ways employed to change society and christians are often ill-advised to campaign Government for better circumstances - sometimes they’re well-advised to do so, of course, but primarily the message of the Gospel isn’t about altering a man or woman’s natural, physical circumstances, but in the rebirth and, consequently, in the way that new life finds a different expression in the culture in which they continue to live.
English translators of the NT seem altogether horrified at the thought of rendering the normal Greek word for ‘slave’ (Strongs Greek number 1401) and ‘slavery’ with those words and seem to duck and dive away from anything which would hint at such a concept being spoken about.
The AV identifies 127 occurrences of the word and chooses to translate it 120 times as ‘servant’, 6 times as ‘bond’ and once as ‘bondman’ where the English word ‘slaves’ occurs only once in Rev 18:13 and there it’s the translation of a totally different word (Strongs Greek number 4983). The RSV has a few words that it translates with the ‘slave’ vocabulary and is a bit more honest to the words being used by the original authors. However, even here, it’s significant that ‘slave, slaves, slavery’ occurs only 53 times whereas ‘servant, servants, servanthood’ finds 131 usages.
It’s clear, then, that the idea of believers being ‘slaves’ is preferred to be thought of as ‘servants’ but this does little justice to the text and intention of the writers.
Finally, we should also note that there are more instructions to slaves in the NT than there are to masters and, even when the exhortations appear side by side, the volume of information recorded for the slave to consider is substantially greater. So, in Col 3:22-4:1 there are 4 verses on slaves and 1 on masters, in Eph 6:5-9 there are, again, 4 verses on slaves and 1 on masters. I Peter 2:18-25 which speaks only of three of the groups of six people listed in the former passages (wives, husbands, slaves), takes 8 verses to speak about slaves but has nothing to say to masters at all. And there are additional places where instructions to slaves stand alone (I Tim 6:1-2, Titus 2:9-10).
Perhaps the reason for such a concentration of instruction was the danger that, because slaves knew they were ‘free’ in Jesus (I Cor 7:22, Gal 3:28, Col 3:11), they naturally thought of that freedom needing to be outworked in reality so that their submission to and relationship with their masters began to become a little strained. There was a need to say more to the slaves, therefore, than to the masters as is evidenced in the way they’re consistently spoken to in the NT.
Some commentators look at this volume of instructions and see in them grounds for insisting that there were a great many more slaves who were believers than their masters but this isn’t necessarily retrievable. Having said that, I remember a friend who spoke with a worker in India who was seeing large numbers of converts and asking him what types of people they were - it transpired that the caste system was throwing up more believers than those in the more favoured positions in Indian society, presumably because the Gospel announces equality of all men and women ‘in Christ’. The same may have also been true in the NT Church but, upon a closer read of Paul’s letters, this appears to be a wholly incorrect position to take.
Others look at the volume of words here included in Col 3:22-25 and suggest that it was because of the ‘problem’ of Onesimus (see here where I noted that the letter to Philemon was probably transported at the same time as Colossians to the intended recipients) that so much instruction is given. While this could have been true, the fact that Ephesians contains the same ratio of material - and that Timothy and Titus both have clear instructions concerning what they’re to teach slaves - would suggest that it was a common problem that needed addressing and little should be gained from the apostle’s inclusion of these verses in the letter.
Col 3:22-25, Eph 6:5-8
On the whole, I’ve chosen to ignore the Jewish background to slavery that’s exemplified not only in the Mosaic Law but in the practical implications that the application demanded - I’ve also put to one side the examples of slavery in the OT which may or may not have agreed with the Law. The reason for this is that Paul is writing to a people in a predominantly Greek and Roman culture and the relevance of such laws as they impinged on the Empire’s laws were rather limited.
We did, however, look at the OT and Jewish background on the previous web page when we came to the matter of children and their relationship to their parents because Paul used the fifth of the ten commandments to support and substantiate the instructions that he was giving his readers (Eph 6:2-3) but there’s no direct parallel here and neither are any Scriptures cited to that end.
Just what circumstances were prevalent in Colossae for slaves is quite impossible to say with any certainty but the general one which existed throughout the Empire can’t be too far removed and will give us a good background in understanding the plight of the slave in Graeco-Roman society.
How and why slavery should ever have become integrated into human society is impossible to state with any degree of certainty but, as the slave was regarded as a piece of property that could be used as one required, it seems more likely that the earliest of human civilisations may not have needed slaves to perform tasks and duties - especially in the kind of agricultural arrangements where a family lived off the produce of the land from one year to the next with very little excess income in the form of produce which could be employed in supporting them.
Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB) observes that there was also the need for ‘social differentiation’ to have been a part of a society in which men and women were beginning to be classed as either superior or inferior in order for slavery to come about as a natural outworking - but it could equally well have been true that it was the slavery of individuals which was the instrument which brought such concepts of class into human society in the first place.
The bottom line, therefore, seems to have had to have been the existence of surplus income which could be employed to support the slave to produce more income than the expenditure or to meet a labour shortage which was restricting the amount of wealth and provision that could be generated. It must have been cheaper in the long run to employ labourers as and when needed because the master was obligated to maintain their slave in a fair state of health or they’d soon become of little worth to them - so, therefore, to have slaves was more a sign of economic prosperity than anything else.
As with all of mankind’s dealings, the exploitation of those under one’s control soon raised it’s head and the formulation of rules and regulations governing slavery in the OT were brought in through Moses to limit its expressions. It’s the Graeco-Roman concept of slavery, however, that we now turn to that the exhortations to both slaves and masters in the NT might be understood.
1. Slavery in the Graeco-Roman world of the NT
Zondervan observes six main ways in which slaves were acquired in the OT text - as war captives (Num 31:18, Deut 20:11), by purchase (Ex 21:2, Lev 25:45), through insolvency (Ex 22:1-4, II Kings 4:1), as a gift (Gen 29:24), by inheritance (Lev 25:46), and by birth (Ex 21:4).
To these, we should also add the possibility of slave-raiding or the kidnapping of individuals from lands and their transportation to markets where they could be sold for cash and which we know was certainly prevalent in Roman society even though it was probably a minor source of new slaves. These traders seem also to have been responsible for breeding new slaves from their own stock and of introducing them into the markets at the appropriate time.
We should also expand the idea of ‘purchase’ to realise that it wasn’t just those who would sell others into slavery for a price (though this occurred by parents, relatives and even partners who might sell another to pay off debts or to gain some food to avoid immediate starvation through famine) but men and women might sell themselves to pay off either their own personal debt or the monies incurred as a result of crime.
The capture of men and women in war seems to have been a major way in which slaves were ‘made’ and some see it as having been introduced as a humanitarian alternative to total annihilation. But it seems preferable to think of it as primarily intended as a benefit to the warriors who were risking their lives to overcome their enemy.
That the military man wasn’t always the brightest of humanity warrants Wight to make the statement that
‘Some of those captured were more educated than their captors. Thus it came about that sometimes Greek slaves became schoolteachers for the family of their masters’
and the acquisition of a slave (through the purchase from a soldier) who could intelligently deal with their personal affairs would be beneficial to the running of the master’s house. In Mtw 13:27-28 we get an example of a two-way relationship where there’s a discussion between a master and his slaves which implies that the slave was more than a brain-dead individual who just obeyed commands - rather, they were actively engaged in seeing to the master’s prosperity because in his wealth lay their own provision.
And the charging of slaves with duties when the master was about to depart for a time shows how important it was for a master to be able to find someone amongst his slaves who would be concerned with his own affairs and able to exercise his authority over them independently of supervision (Mtw 24:45, 25:14, Mark 13:34).
The Roman soldier is cited as having received only 225 denarius a year in Zondervan (that is, a labourer’s wage for a day was earned every one and a half days) but, to this, both ‘food and booty’ were added so that a successful soldier who was involved in military campaigns might be expected to at least double his income through the plundering of the property of those being defeated.
In the first century Empire, slaves comprised a great percentage of the population and seem to have come into the Roman society mainly by conquest. Zondervan observes that it was
‘During the Roman conquest of the third to first centuries BC, slaves were introduced into Roman society by the hundreds of thousands’
and Wight that
‘...it has been estimated that a half of the total population of the Empire - or about sixty million people - were slaves’
Wight’s percentage seems a little high simply because it’s impossible to know how the figure comes about but Zondervan’s compilation of independent studies on the quantities of slaves in specific places would indicate that the figure of slaves and freedmen (that is, former slaves who’d either been given their freedom by their masters or bought it themselves) could have been upwards of eighty per cent.
The one specific example they give with figures attached to their reasoning shows that around 500,000 slaves were freed in Rome between 81-49BC (and this doesn’t include those men and women who continued to be slaves and who were imported into the city as slaves) compared to a population of the city in 5BC of only 870,000.
All that can be said, therefore, was that the population of slaves was immense but what sort of percentage of the population there might have been in existence in Colossae is impossible to determine.
At the beginning of slavery in Roman controlled regions, there appears to have been excessive abuse and exploitation of those under the master’s authority but Zondervan notes that, by the first century AD
‘Sweeping humanitarian changes had been introduced into the Roman world...which led to radically improved treatment of slaves’
and that, according to Cicero, being in debt and unable to pay what one owed was banned as a reason that slavery was allowed to take place in 326BC. Perhaps this was more concerned with the protection of the Roman people that they might not find themselves becoming the slaves of non-Romans than it was thought of as a point which showed mercy to men and women fallen on hard times.
Most forms of slavery in the NT era are what are known variously as patriarchal, household or domestic slavery (three descriptors of the same thing) where the slave was one who served the master of the house - either in menial tasks, agriculturally such as sowing and harvesting or even as ones who conducted business on their behalf and with the master’s authority.
But Roman masters had absolute power (Mtw 8:9, Luke 7:8, 12:47) over their slaves to the point of life or death and, though reform had been brought into Roman society, there would still have been excesses displayed by individuals. The runaway slave Onesimus (Philemon) was in a major dilemma, therefore, for Wight notes that
‘...in the case of a runaway slave, if he were caught, his master might brand him, give him more than customary labour or could have him put to death if he so desired’
and his return to his master was fraught with personal danger, a major reason why Paul decided to accompany his visit with a letter of appeal.
Zondervan points out that, very often, a slave was in a much better financial position with a great amount of security than his ‘free’ counterpart. They observe that, if a denarius a day is attributed as being paid to a ‘free labourer’ in either Rome or one of the provinces, it would only have given him an income of 313 denarius a year if he worked six days each and every week. From this, deductions for food, clothing and accommodation would have to be made, leaving the man with a surplus of 34 denarii which would have been insufficient to support a family.
The slave, however, is quoted as having received about 60 denarii a year but his food, clothing and accommodation would be provided him free of charge by the master and, in time of hardship, the slave was in a much better position to survive than one who relied upon his own income from finding employment.
Ephlin’s observations regarding Greek slavery practices may well be applicable here as we come to consider the set up in Colossae for he notes that
‘...slaves of Greek owners could own property, including their own slaves...’
so that a sub-culture was entirely possible. He also notes that
‘...Greek law defined four elements of freedom - freedom to act as one’s own legal person, freedom from being seized as property, freedom to earn a living in the way one wanted and freedom of movement including the right to live where one wished’
and that for a person to be considered as a ‘freedman’ it was only the first of these which had to become a reality. This means that, although ‘free’, many men and women might still be enslaved if we were to assess their status in present day terms.
Paul’s instructions for men and women to remain in whatever state they were called needs to be set in this context, therefore, because availing oneself of freedom was to walk into a situation that was generally a more difficult place to survive (I Cor 7:21). Even so, a freedman was able to determine his own actions and he could devote more of his time (if he had a way to support himself) in the promotion of the Gospel.
Onesimus seems to have done just that, though his ‘freedom’ was only temporary and had come about through the fleeing of his master’s rule. Nevertheless, Paul writes to the master primarily because Onesimus had shown himself to be a faithful worker for the Kingdom following his conversion (Col 4:9, Philemon 12-13).
Finally, we should note that freedmen were frequently set up in business by their masters who took a sharehold in it. This meant that the training of slaves as apprentices was not only beneficial to the master’s own house but it served as a means towards an increase of income when he felt it time to grant freedom. If a master could reap financial rewards from more than his own business, it made sense to encourage the freeing of his slaves after a short time (the ancient writer Cicero is cited in Zondervan as claiming that slavery was normally a period of approximately seven years) to secure more wealth.
The slave’s apprenticeship, however, could also serve as a means whereby extra work taken on would earn him a sum of money which he could use to secure his own freedom. This shows, incidentally, that not everything that the slave did was considered to be the master’s possession or else the money would have been considered as belonging to the master. Ephlin notes that ‘permission’ had to be sought and, if this is the case, extra income became dependant upon the grace of the master.
And these freedmen weren’t engaged in the lower forms of employment. Zondervan notes that, in Rome, it’s been identified that among the occupations were pearl merchants (which would indicate that contacts had been made prior to the setting up of the business), jewellers, goldsmiths, an engraver, a maker of silver-plate, one who carved ‘Clodian ware’ and even two entire firms of bricklayers who were overseen by freedmen who employed slaves to carry out their business.
Ephlin points out that ‘freedmen’ in Greek society may not have been totally ‘free’ as the term suggests and that there were written agreements which had to be signed by the slave before manumission would take place and which would secure the master a regular income from the slave’s new employment. This could have had the effect of making a freedman of more benefit to a master than an ordinary slave for expenses would be removed in supporting the slave with food, clothing and accommodation and a regular amount of money would be returned to him without any responsibility on the part of the master.
Although not bearing directly on the NT passages concerning slaves and masters, we should note that freedmen and slaves must have been in the majority in Rome and that, with the advent of time, it’s entirely possible that Rome-born men and women with ethnicity originating from outside Italy were making up an increasing percentage of their citizens - even taking positions of authority and influence at the expense of the true-blooded Romans.
2. Figurative applications of slavery
Before we look at the exhortations to slaves in the main NT passages, we’ll take a few lines to consider other ways in which the concept of slavery is used. Even though the English translations do their best to conceal the truth from the general reader, believers are announced in the NT as having become God’s slaves (Luke 2:29, 17:10, Acts 2:18, 4:29, II Cor 4:5, Gal 1:10, Col 4:12, II Tim 2:24, I Peter 2:16, Rev 1:1, 2:20, 11:18, 19:2,5, 22:3,6), a way in which the writers of the NT letters also refer to themselves (Rom 1:1, Phil 1:1, Titus 1:1 - Paul, James 1:1 - James, II Peter 1:1 - Peter and Jude 1 - Jude).
Such a labelling of a believer has two specific reasons. Primarily, it demonstrates that the follower is now committed to doing God’s will in Jesus Christ where the same idea of the Master having complete control over their slave is combined with one of the care and protection that even a natural master was supposed to give those under his charge. God, therefore, becomes the picture of the ultimate slave master and Jesus the picture of the ultimate slave (Phil 2:7).
The believer, then, becomes like Christ and is called to glorify God on earth because (I Cor 6:20)
‘...you were bought with a price’
Even though Paul talks about staying in the state in which one was called to God in Christ (I Cor 7:20-21), he goes on to imply that slavery to God is such a high calling that to be enslaved by men to do their will is to go against the unique relationship that one has (I Cor 7:23).
So, first and foremost, being a slave of God implies not only a commitment to do the will of God but to receive security and provision from the Master of the house. But, secondly, slavery is also spoken of in terms of commitment to fellow believers (Mtw 20:27, Mark 10:44) so that Paul can speak of the apostolic band as being (II Cor 4:5)
‘...your servants for Jesus’ sake’
Here there seems to be only a limited idea on the subject of slavery but, nevertheless, a slave is due his care and provision from those who he serves and a faithful worker should expect to be protected and nurtured by those on behalf of whom he ministers.
Slavery isn’t something that’s thought of as only applying to a believer for all men are seen as being slaves and, those who are without Jesus Christ in the world, are pronounced as being slaves to sin (John 8:34 Pp II Peter 2:19. Rom 6:16-17,20) - that is, they’re sold into a commitment to obey the master and to do that which is displeasing to God.
It’s not that men and women are brought from freedom to slavery or vice-versa but that they only choose who to be a slave to, defined by Paul in Rom 6:16 that
‘...if you yield yourselves to any one as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness’
While the non-religious may point the finger at the believer and accuse them of being in bondage, the believer could very well do the same because all men serve something and have a master that they seek to please - whether self, satan, sin or God, the point is still the same. Man is a creature of service and the only choice he has is to choose the right Master.
There is freedom in Christ and Paul can use the play upon freedom and slavery to prick up the ears of those that listen to his letters and make them think. Therefore, he comments (I Cor 7:22) that
‘...he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ’
and, in Christ, slaves become brothers, co-equal with regard to salvation (Philemon 16, Col 3:11) and, very possibly, with a ministry from God that’s considered by their natural masters to be greater than their own - in the case of Philemon and Onesimus, it was the slave who’d been anointed by God to lend support to Paul and to the proclamation of the Gospel whereas the master seems, I presume, to have remained in Colossae with his own affairs and contributed to the Gospel only as opportunity came his way.
3. NT commands to slaves
Eph 6:5-8, Col 3:22-25, I Tim 6:1-2, Titus 2:9-10, I Peter 2:18-25
The reason for the volume of instructions to slaves as compared to their masters has already been hinted at above where I observed that the idea of freedom being ‘in Christ’ and of them being equal in standing in Him even to their masters (I Cor 7:22, Gal 3:28, Col 3:11) may have prompted them to look to God for emancipation and, even more dangerous, to liberate themselves through a rebellion which they might have justified by recourse to the message of the Gospel.
Not only would this have had the effect of causing the authorities to persecute the preachers of the Gospel for anarchy and social unrest but it would have been a misrepresentation of the outworking of the message. There was a need to say more to the slaves, therefore, than to the masters as is evidenced in the way they’re consistently spoken to in the NT.
We’ll look briefly at the five main passages here and comment on their instructions to slaves. We might assume that the presence of instructions to the churches at Colossae and Ephesus (if the letter was directed to that fellowship) are a good indication of the quantity of slaves within the believers but this might not be a relevant inference for the letter to the Romans contains no such instructions and we know from above that slaves and freedmen made up a great percentage of the city’s population.
But Peter’s letter was written to the Jews of
‘...Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia...’
a not insignificant area, the second of these regions being one to whom Paul had also written but had neglected to speak directly to the believing slaves. It seems best to accept that slaves made up a proportion of most of the fellowships throughout the Roman Empire, therefore, but instructions were only given in letters as the authors felt it necessary.
As of major importance, Paul emphasises the need for obedience towards the masters ‘in everything’ (Col 3:22) where nothing appears to be left outside consideration. This instruction appears in three of the other four passages (Eph 6:5-6, Titus 2:9, I Peter 2:18) and in the last of these we read Peter developing the theme at some length to speak of being obedient even to the ‘overbearing’ who may place unjustified expectations upon them and who punish them for failure to achieve.
One might have expected Peter to object in the strongest terms and to appeal to the brethren to contact their local Trade Union or Workers’ Rights advisor to lodge a complaint to see if they have grounds for complaint. But it’s only in very recent times that employees have been handed a bill of ‘rights’ that define minimum requirements of treatment that are expected of the employer - in ancient times, good treatment rested solely in the will and grace of the master.
Instead, the author urges patience and endurance and points towards the example of Jesus Christ who took - with patience - unjustified punishment and, in so doing, fulfilled the will of God (I Peter 2:21-23). We may well scream ‘injustice’, may well want to stand up and fight or confront the master with a power that overcomes the persecution - but masters in the first century AD had the absolute power over their slaves to do with them as they required, even to the point of punishing them by death for even minor offences - so the cultural framework isn’t being undermined by the apostle’s words but supported.
This is certainly a far cry from the action taken by organisations throughout the world as they try to undermine injustice and inequality in work and bring better conditions of service to those who are considered to be exploited. This is all well and good - though these struggles are aimed not at changing the heart as the Gospel is, but at changing the political arena to enforce what are perceived as ‘human rights’.
The Gospel is concerned with the right lifestyle and conduct of the individual and not in the overthrow of men and women who don’t demonstrate what’s considered to be a ‘fair-to-middling’ image of God in society. The teaching of the NT, then, is that the slave should be obedient to the master whether they be righteous or unreasonable, whether they reward good behaviour or only punish those under them through their own whims and fancies.
As such, the Gospel is distasteful to many for it has no political agenda to change society by broad, sweeping changes but by the revolution which comes about in individual hearts through the acceptance of the message of the Gospel and the new birth.
Paul outlines obedience with a positive and negative statement. Firstly, he notes that the believing slave shouldn’t obey their master ‘with eye service’, a Greek word (Strongs Greek number 3787) which occurs only twice in the NT and either rarely or never outside its pages depending on who you read. The meaning is somewhat disputed by commentators but Kittels gives the meaning as a type of work
‘...which is outwardly satisfactory but does not express an inner obligation for the sake of God and Christ so that the eyes of the master are deceived’
while Colcar speaks of it indicating that the barest minimum is performed so that the letter of the command is fulfilled and offers the alternative that it may indicate
‘...the carrying out of a duty without having any real interest in doing so’
Colwright, on the other hand, thinks that the word conveys
‘...that service performed only to attract attention - and therefore superficial...not merely doing the minimum required to avoid rebuke [but] with a show of effort when one is being observed’
where the idea is that the master is expected to see what’s being done and so cause the slave to find favour before him, an interpretation that forms the basis of the NIV’s translation. The best comment on the word is probably found in the positive attribute with which it’s contrasted in the following phrase - that is, ‘singleness of heart’ or, more literally, ‘purity of heart’ which speaks of a singleness of purpose and will in the things that are being done.
In other words, the slave is to work for their master with no alternative agenda in their minds, rendering service and fearing the Lord. In Eph 5:5, Paul adds the idea that the service being rendered should be considered as being done ‘to Christ’ (and Paul will add this descriptor in the second of his points in Col 3:23 when he moves on to look at the slave’s enthusiasm in the tasks that are laid before him).
The RSV’s translation in Titus 2:9 that the slave isn’t to be ‘refractory’ is a good way to state the negative aspect of obedience where rebellion is forbidden. ORS interprets the English word as meaning
‘stubborn, unmanageable, rebellious’
which demonstrates not so much a quiet act of subtle undermining of the master’s will but an all out refusal to do that which is being commanded. Timou understands the word to denote ‘to talk back’ and notes that, in the pastoral epistles (I and II Timothy and Titus) it’s only other use is in I Tim 1:9 where it describes
‘...the opponents speaking against the Gospel...’
If this is the right meaning, we should think about a verbal response from the slave against their master either openly or behind their backs, undermining their authority, respect and position. The idea appears not to be a quiet ‘rebellion’ but something which is outwardly witnessed.
Paul christianises the secular (so to speak) and causes true spirituality not to be confined to the meetings when the church comes together to learn more of Christ and to respond in thanksgiving for the work of the cross. So God is seen as much at home in the work place as in the gathering together of believers and His rule is to be demonstrated in the change of heart which begins to display what God requires in each and every situation that a man or woman might find themselves in.
Part of this, therefore, is demonstrated in the slave’s obedience to his earthly master.
Secondly, Paul emphasises enthusiasm - a word that I chose for want of a better one! Paul is recorded as commanding the slaves in Col 3:23 to ‘work heartily’ where the second word (Strongs Greek number 1537 and 5590) actually renders a two word phrase meaning ‘from the soul’ and which Colbrien explains as having the meaning
‘with a wholehearted endeavour’
hence my ‘enthusiasm’. The slave isn’t to look at his menial drudgery and think that it represents something into which he’s bound and from which he can’t be released - rather, considering his work as being service to God and not to his earthly master should compel him to work with a lightness in his step, seeing that it’s from Jesus Himself that he’ll receive the ultimate prize and reward (Col 3:24).
It’s not important, therefore, that the earthly master might be harsh and overbearing to the point of punishing where a transgression hasn’t taken place, for the slave knows the quality of his service and his own sincerity of heart in the work that he’s completed and it’s this that stands him in good measure before Jesus Christ.
Eph 6:7 (my italics) speaks of
‘...rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men’
where the indefinite article ‘a’ really isn’t needed in the verse - the slave is to work in serving his master with good will (Strongs Greek number 2133), giving his best because it’s a service that’s being rendered to Jesus Christ. Ephlin observes that
‘...their service is performed enthusiastically rather than grudgingly or out of sheer necessity’
so that the follower of Christ who works in a secular occupation can enjoy himself in his tasks even when his mind might drift onto one or two individuals he knows who are supported full-time to serve the Lord (I speak from personal experience - I often feel the same). The point is this - serving Jesus in a ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ capacity is not more important than the man or woman who works from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, year in year out.
Both should be service rendered to God and neither of the methods of employment can be considered to be of any more value than the other. Indeed, the secular worker might actually find himself pitying the other because of the opportunity that such a position within society gives him to be able to spread the Gospel to many more than the ‘more committed’ can reach.
Enthusiasm, then, should mark the slave’s life because he should consider his employment as the rendering of service to Jesus Christ and not, as it appears on the surface, to his or her earthly master.
c. Moral conduct
Moral conduct is hinted at in Col 3:25 (Pp Eph 6:8) where, after noting that the inheritance will be received from God as the slave’s reward of serving Him by obedience to their earthly master (Colbrien notes that the slave under Roman law wasn’t permitted to own property so that the promise of an inheritance for a believing slave is a particularly precious one), Paul ends his observations that
‘...the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality’
The apostle doesn’t list a series of morals that he tacks onto his call to obedience and enthusiastic working but he does list a few when writing to Titus (Titus 2:10), going on after his exhortation to slaves not to be refractory that neither are they
‘...to pilfer, but to show entire and true fidelity, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour’
The pilfering of goods must have been a sincere temptation for the slave who possessed very little (Timou speaks of the stereotyping of pilfering slaves as being ‘proverbial in the ancient world’) and who may have resented having to work for a master who received all the benefits and profits from their hard work. It would have been very easy to take small amounts of items without the master knowing but Paul insists that they’re to treat those things which they encounter as belonging not to themselves to do with as they please.
Perhaps, above all other instructions, this applies more especially to employees in today’s society. While a worker may be generally obedient to the demands placed upon him by his employer and even enjoy their work to a fair degree, the idea that there are items which can be taken for one’s own use rarely escapes the attention.
But the believing slave or employee is to ‘put on’ the doctrine of God where the idea of a belief of the mind being sufficient to please God is being soundly repudiated. Timguth comments that the word being used here (Strongs Greek number 2885)
‘...is used of the arrangement of jewels in a manner to set off their full beauty...’
so that Paul has in mind the outward ordering of knowing Christ to demonstrate and display the new life for all to see. In a world where there’s little respect for the employer or master and employment is carried out by the employee for the benefit of themselves, Jesus’ representative should demonstrate a kind of conduct which is a reflection of the character of Jesus Christ to the point where they stand out as being a valued asset.
I should qualify this statement, however, because in the larger organisations where the worker rarely - if ever - meets with the real owners and performs work that they experience, favour is often granted to the employee by their direct bosses over them who, very often, have little sympathy for those above them. In such a climate, the honest employee is not always favoured by those who think that pilfering and dishonesty go hand in hand with the authority of their own position.
Even so, the believer is still caused to represent God in the workplace and to reflect the image of God through his handling of the affairs of his master or employer.
Finally, I Tim 6:1-2 teaches the slave to have respect for their master in two different situations. In the first verse, the slave might be tempted to think of his master as worthy of less honour and obedience than he was before the slave came to know Jesus - in this way (as I noted above) service to another who doesn’t know Jesus Christ is seen to be irrelevant to the advance and expression of the Kingdom in the earth.
But respect is the basis upon which obedience rests as we saw when we thought about the OT command to children to ‘honour’ their parents and it’s this that Paul emphasises to the end that the Gospel isn’t hindered by being maligned and ridiculed.
We have to note, however, that there’s only so much that a slave would have been able to do and good conduct displayed openly by a believer would generally have been observed with favour. But, as events in today’s society demonstrate, no matter how well a worker reflects the image of God in the workplace, sometimes the employer seems to have it in for them regardless of moral conduct - even more so when the employee shines with God’s presence and men and women are unwilling to acknowledge Him.
Advancing the Kingdom by right conduct, therefore, must be balanced along with the persecution that comes through knowing Christ.
Paul’s second observation in this passage is to slave/master relationships where both are believers (I Tim 6:2). If the believing slave is to be perfect in his relationship and regard for his unbelieving master, their conduct towards a believing master must be more than perfect for they’re contributing to the welfare of a brother for whom Christ died.
Paul seems to want to emphasise that master/slave relationships must still continue even in Christ and that the master continues to have the right to use those under him for his own purposes and ends. The slave, however, should now content himself with knowing that the one above him is more genuinely concerned for his welfare than ever before and that service rendered shouldn’t be seen as worthless.
The master’s wealth, used by the master to advance the Kingdom, is something that the believing slave has contributed to and, to a fair extent, is something to which he or she also finds themselves contributing.
Finally, as I said before at the start of these notes, Paul doesn’t campaign to have slavery abolished. In the cultural arrangements of his day, slavery was often a tool whereby those who would otherwise have been destitute and have died of hunger can render service so that they have a fair degree of prosperity through good service.
Instead of shunning the very thought that one man could own another, Paul exhorts slaves to stay as they were but, if the opportunity raised its head, to take their freedom by recognised legal means (I Cor 7:21).
The Gospel is about right actions and reactions from the believer in the situation in which he finds himself and isn’t as concerned with changing the culture in which it takes root through a political agenda than it is with changing the heart of the individual.
Col 4:1, Eph 6:9
As we noted at the beginning of this web page, the specific words for ‘masters’ of slaves is fairly small compared with the verses dedicated to the behaviour and lifestyle expected of those under them. In the NT, it’s confined to just the two Scriptures (Eph 6:9, Col 4:1) and, even then, the verses are strikingly similar in their instruction. In dealing with the commands issued to slaves we have also dealt with a lot of the observations which we could have included under this present header.
There are three verses in the OT Law that we should note as instructing the Jews concerning the treatment of their slaves but, when read carefully, we see that this related only to Hebrew slaves and the treatment of foreign, non-Jewish ones seems to lack comment. Even so, both Hebrew slave owner (Lev 25:43,46) and foreigner (Lev 25:53) are commanded not to treat the Jew ‘with harshness’.
There are two specific commands directed to masters in the NT which can be lumped together as a type of code of conduct which they needed to employ in their dealings with all their slaves and not just those ones who were believers as the OT legislation was concerned with. Col 4:1 exhorts the believing master to treat their slaves
‘...justly and fairly...’
and Eph 5:9 that they’re to
which speak of both the positive and negative aspects of conduct, of the correct and righteous use of the power and authority which is entrusted to them as the absolute ruler over men and women who are regarded as being part of their own possessions.
It was quite some step for Paul even to announce that they should desist from ‘threatening’ and it may have been much easier to accept this than the positive treatment exemplified in Colossians which seemed to raise the possession of slaves into a place where the master was expected to regard them as members of humanity in a way that a great part of the Greek world of the first century didn’t. It isn’t enough that the master’s conduct should be acceptable to the culture in which he lived but, rather, there was a need for it to be fully acceptable to God.
The master, quite clearly, is expected to have in mind the slave’s ‘rights’ even though the slave isn’t exhorted to insist on them. As we noted on previous web pages, the idea of ‘rights’ seems wholly missing from the NT commands and in the three pairs of instructions to groups of people, it’s always the other person’s rights that are expected to be upheld by the one being addressed - the one with the rights is to rely upon the other for them and not to insist upon them being fulfilled to them.
Eph 6:9’s statement that the masters are to
‘...do the same to them [that is, the slaves]...’
is somewhat perplexing for it’s not immediately obvious what it is that Paul’s referring to. But the phrase shows the closeness of care each is to have for the other and it doesn’t relate back to any specific action but, as Ephlin notes, it makes
‘...their service of the one heavenly Master determinative for their actions. Both masters and slaves have the same Lord and, therefore, both have the same standard of conduct in their relationship to each other’
Therefore, the idea behind the statement is that the master is to do to the slaves as they would expect them to do good to themselves (Mtw 7:12) - it isn’t just that the master should refrain from dealing with them in a way that’s overbearing and authoritarian because that doesn’t demonstrate the type of behaviour that’s expected of the slave. Rather, the master is to give the slave a demonstration of the conduct expected of him that’s to be mirrored towards themselves. As Ephen paraphrases the phrase
‘Promote the welfare of your slaves as you expect them to promote yours. Show the same interest in them and in their affairs as you hope they will show in you and your affairs’
Finally, in both verses the masters are reminded of the ultimate Master of all and called to remember this in their dealings with those under them. The masters are themselves servants of the supreme Master and are, therefore, in a much more responsible position to be compelled to demonstrate the characteristics of a righteous master to those under them.
Both serve as slaves to God, therefore. The master should think about how the Master deals with them and reflect that in their dealings with those under them, rather than to think that their own personal sovereignty on earth is absolute and makes them answerable to no one.
God shows no partiality in His dealings with men and women and what’s a sin for one is equally a sin for another. Therefore the lifestyle expected of any two believers is the same - whether master or slave, male or female, Gentile or Jew - because all are one in Jesus Christ (Gal 3:28, Col 3:11).
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