Slavery is an uncomfortable subject—and rightly so.
In the United States (where most of my readership is based), slavery was based on ethnicity. This ethnic slavery produced socio-economic ramifications, but it was based in ethnicity.
So when we read a passage like 1 Timothy 6:1-2a, it’s very difficult.
When we read of slavery in the New Testament, such as here in today’s passage, we have to keep it in the first century. People were enslaved then for economic or political reasons. If their families were poor, children would be sold into slavery. If they were part of a country or region conquered by the Romans, they would have been enslaved.
It doesn’t make it moral, but it certainly changes the picture when we conceptualize “slavery” from the Bible’s perspective. We read in 1 Timothy 6:1-2a:
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. 2a 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.
1 Timothy 6:1-2a
New International Version
Paul’s teaching to Timothy concerns the witness of the Gospel in the lives of all believers, slaves or free. The message of Jesus is not something merely printed on a page; it is something printed on our hearts and revealed in our lives.
While we may have wanted Paul to denounce slavery as dehumanizing and use his “platform” to free slaves, we must put our twenty-first-century passions aside and remember that Paul had virtually no power to change the socio-economic fabric of first century Rome.
Even if the handful of Christians had released their slaves right then and there, the economic and political reality of his day would have simply caused them to be enslaved by someone else. We may not like it, but that was the world Paul and Timothy were in.
Therefore, the Apostle Paul did all he could do: insist on a change of relationship within the slave-master relationship. He tells Christian slaves: whether your master is a fellow Christian or not, respect them and work hard. And the cause for this was the message of Jesus and the Gospel power in people’s lives.
In the world Paul was counseling Timothy in, he tells Timothy to emphasize the individual responsibilities of bringing glory to God. Even though one was a slave and one was a master, the way of Jesus demanded their attitudes towards each other change.
While it’s certainly not a strong connection for a great number of reasons, the closest comparison we have to this is the employer-employee relationship. Again, it’s not a perfect comparison, but in many ways, we can feel “enslaved” to our employer.
Yet, the Apostle Paul would still have given Timothy the same counsel today as then: bring God glory wherever your station in life is. There is a mission to accomplish and it’s ultimately based on the mission of God: reaching and discipling people to experience the life change found only in Jesus.
Interested in more like this? Consider Joel’s book: 31 Days of Spiritual Wisdom: A Month in the Proverbs. Moving through a selection of verses from a chapter of Proverbs for every day of the month, Joel walks readers through a journey of spiritual formation applicable to everyday life. The goal? Knowing how to apply the wisdom of Scripture so we grow in our faith, become wiser, and show the world the life-changing power of Jesus.
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