This Tuesday we will be finishing our study of 1 Timothy with a discussion of 1 Timothy 6. The first part of this reading raises the uncomfortable issue of Christianity and slavery. “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be defamed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brethren; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved.” (v.1-2).
Slavery is not foreign to the Scriptures. For example, slavery is explicitly permitted under the Law (see, Ex. 21:1-11, Lev. 25:39-46) with various provisions governing the treatment of slaves and requiring their manumission after a certain period. Unlike the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament’s treatment of slavery is less concerned with the treatment of slaves by their master, but the obedience of slaves to their masters. (Eph. 6:5-9, Col. 3:22-25, Titus 2:9, 1 Peter 2:18-20). These verses should necessarily perplex us. These verses are one of the reasons why modern scholarship doubts Paul’s authorship of Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals. Elsewhere Paul explicitly states that in Christ there is neither slave nor free (Gal. 3:28), requires a Christian slaveholder to free his Christian slave (Philemon 1:16), and generally sees his Gospel message as one of freedom from slavery (Rom. 6, Gal. 5).
How are we to handle these verses supporting slavery? First, these verses starkly show us the cultural context in which the Scriptures were written. Slavery was simply an ever-present feature of the Roman world and the very basis upon which Roman society existed. Someone had to work the mines and the fields. It is estimated that in Rome, thirty percent of the population was enslaved. In a way, the New Testament writers simply had a cultural blind spot on the issue of slavery. Second, Paul is also concerned with what outsiders think of the church. (1 Tim 3:7). The Third Servile War led by Spartacus had taken place less than a century ago and another similar rebellion was always a concern. Any teaching which could have encouraged a slave revolt could not have been tolerated by Roman society. Therefore, these teachings show how Paul’s teachings can be limited by practical societal considerations.
These verses also help to show us how we allow the scriptures to be used/misused within our own cultural context. I am certain that if I was leading a bible study 200 years ago, I would have read these verses the same way my southern forefathers did and understand that God’s Word unequivocally supported our Peculiar Institution. In the 1840’s a difference in the interpretation of these verses caused both the Methodist and Baptist churches to split when their respective national conferences denied slaveholders leadership positions. (The Methodists were reconciled in 1939 and the Baptists never have been.) At least for me, these verses point to the dangers of being governed by the black-letter words of Scriptures divorced from the underlying Spirit of the Scripture (2 Cor. 3:6). We all necessarily have our cultural blindspots that are only obvious to others.
The challenge for us today is to see how we are to apply these verses in our own lives. Although none of us are slaves, most of us are employees. We spend more time with our employer and our fellow employees more than anyone else, including our families. For some of these people, we may be the only Christian they know and we should represent Christ well within our employment context.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,Psalm 107:13-16
and he delivered them from their distress;
he brought them out of darkness and gloom,
and broke their bonds asunder.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wonderful works to the sons of men!
For he shatters the doors of bronze,
and cuts in two the bars of iron.