February 3, 2002
Slavery in the ancient world was a fact of life, so much so that virtually no one, including the slaves themselves, ever thought of abolishing the institution itself. Cruelty on the part of masters was common enough. Aristotle, in his famous work on ethics, spoke of slaves as “lifeless things” and that, therefore, the concept of justice did not apply to their treatment. But, as we might have expected, the lot of many, in fact most slaves was comparatively good. The separation between slaves and freedman was often not very wide, some slaves owned property, even owned slaves, and were considerably better off than many freedmen. Slaves were regularly granted legal freedom by their masters though, not infrequently, that could involve a loss of living standard for the slave himself. There were some who sold themselves into slavery precisely to climb the social ladder. There were, from time to time, slave rebellions, as the famous one under Spartacus, but there was not in the Greco-Roman world a general climate of unrest among slaves. Generally, if a master treated his children well, he was likely to treat his slaves well also. We look back on that institution with disgust and, in some respects, rightfully so. But, it would be well for us all to admit that there are employer-employee relationships, even in the most modern economies, that bear some resemblance to a number of features of chattel slavery as it was practiced in the ancient world. Tennessee Ernie Ford sung of miners who “owed their soul to the company store” and of many others a similar thing could be said. A relatively few rule in our modern economies and most work for them and only a few of those workers feel secure in thinking that if they wished they could take their labor elsewhere. In fact, not a few thinkers, from Tolstoy to the present day, think that western society has only succeeded in replacing an obsolete form of slavery that was no longer economically justifiable with new forms. Human life in sin produces slaveries of all kinds and always will.
v.1 You may have noticed that in each grouping the subordinate position has been mentioned first: wives before husbands, children before parents, and now slaves before masters.
There is plenty of comment in Greco-Roman writings about how slaves should conduct themselves. What is different here in Paul is that he speaks directly to the slaves themselves as ethically responsible agents. And the entire foundation of Paul’s counsel is already hinted at in the term “earthly” masters. There is another master, not of this earth, and we all – slaves and free – must live our lives before him. The NIV has softened Paul’s language: Paul wrote not “respect and fear” but “fear and trembling.” And the reason, as he says, is that we must obey them as we would obey the Lord Christ! And not only because we love him, but as well because we must face him in the Judgment Day.
v.8 They are not to obey in order to ingratiate themselves with their masters but because obedience is right and pleasing to the Lord, and this will mean that they obey as punctiliously when the master is not looking as when he is. They are always in Christ’s view and in all their service of their master they are to be serving the Lord!
v.9 “in the same way” means that masters too are to treat their slaves in that way which is pleasing to the Lord Jesus and comes out of distinctly Christian love and loyalty in their hearts. Being a master may give a man an advantage on earth, it will count against him at the Judgment Day unless that master has treated his slaves in a manner that Christ approves. What is clear is that both for slaves and masters, it will be their ultimate allegiance that determines their attitudes and their behavior toward one another. The exhortations are general – slaves to be obedient, masters not to be cruel and harsh – but, as everywhere in the Bible, if the conscience is awakened and love is ruling in the heart, in almost all cases one will know what to do and how to behave.
The early church was in no position to effect the eradication of slavery in the empire and there was no movement in the world to do so until much later, when Christianity was established in its influence. It was inconceivable to the Greco-Roman mind that the world could exist without slavery. It is not surprising that a culture that considered foreigners as barbarians and thought labor was beneath the dignity of a free man would welcome slavery! But everywhere and in many ways, Christianity laid the axe to the root of that institution, even in that hostile culture. Christian slaves died as martyrs and were honored as such; some rose to positions of prominence in the church, one former slave was bishop of Rome from 218-223. When the owners of slaves became Christians, the old relationship virtually ceased, as Paul suggests it should here. What the Apostle commanded, the church actually practiced to a very great degree. They came together at the table of the Lord to eat the same food and drink the same drink. Lactantius, who lived in the 3rd and 4th century wrote in his learned defense of Christianity,
“Should any say: Are there not also among you poor and rich, servants and masters, distinctions among individuals? No; we call ourselves brethren for no other reason than that we hold ourselves all equal. For since we measure everything human not by its outward appearance, but by its intrinsic value, we have, notwithstanding the difference of outward relations, no slaves, but we call them and consider them brethren in the Spirit and fellow-servants in religion.” [In Schaff, vol. 2, p. 352.]
Don’t you think, my brothers and sisters, that that statement and that way of thinking is extraordinarily powerful and beautiful? Aren’t you proud of your faith and your Savior that he should teach his followers such a way of life? And don’t you want more and more of that spirit to dominate our life together and everywhere in the Christian church? Wouldn’t such a spirit be an almost unconquerable witness to the truth of the gospel in such an alienated and divided world as ours?!
One of the most striking evidences of the difference the gospel made in a culture where slavery was a way of life appears in the catacombs. In a typical Roman cemetery one will find everywhere references to the deceased there buried as either a slave or a freeman. But not in the Christian tombs. There you find just the name along with some ascription of Christian hope; no reference to whether he was a slave or free. And, of course, these principles couldn’t help to lead to the manumission, the release, of multitudes of slaves by their Christian masters. One Roman prefect, Hermas, became a Christian and was baptized at Easter with his wife and children and 1,250 slaves. At their baptism, he gave them all their freedom and gifts beside. Such are the implications of the gospel of freedom in Jesus Christ and of the exchange of our slavery to sin, death, and the Devil for our service to Jesus Christ our new Master. Like some slaves of old, we who are Christians have willingly sold ourselves into slavery precisely that we might move upward! But what a Master we have in Jesus Christ!
Let me tell you a true story. Actually, let John Jasper tell it, for it is about him. Jasper was for many years the celebrated pastor of Sixth Mount Zion Church in Richmond, Virginia. He was a slave for some 50 years, up to the time of the Civil War and was a slave during part of the time he pastored the church. This reminiscence comes from a sermon he preached.
“Master Sam Hargrove called me to preach the gospel – he was my old master and he started me out with my message. I was seeking God six long weeks – just because I was such a fool I couldn’t see the way. The Lord struck me first on Capital Square, and I left there badly crippled. One July morning something happened. I was a tobacco-stemmer – that is, I took the tobacco leaf and tore the stem out, and there was no one in that factory who could beat me at that work. But that morning the stems wouldn’t come out to save me, and I tore up tobacco by the pound and flung it under the table. Fact is, brethren, the darkness of death was in my soul that morning. My sins were piled on me like mountains; my feet were sinking down to the regions of despair, and I felt that of all sinners I was the worst. I thought that I would die right then and, with what I supposed was my last breath, I flung up to heaven a cry for mercy. Before I knew it, the light broke; I was light as a feather, my feet were on the mountain, salvation rolled like a flood through my soul, and I felt that I could knock off the factory roof with my shouts.
But I said to myself that I would hold still until dinner, and so I cried and laughed and tore up tobacco. Presently, I looked up the table and there was an old man – he loved me and had tried hard to lead me out of darkness, so I slipped round to where he was, and said in his ear as low as I could, ‘Hallelujah; my soul is redeemed!’ Then I jumped back to my work, but after once opening my mouth it was hard to keep it shut. It wasn’t long before I looked up the line again and there was a good old woman there who knew all my sorrows and had been praying for me for a long time. … I had to tell her and so I skipped along quiet as a breeze and started to whisper in her ear, but just then the holding-back straps of Jasper’s britches broke, and what I thought would be a whisper was loud enough to be heard across the James River. One man said that he thought the factory was falling down; all I know was that I had raised my first shout to the glory of my Redeemer.
But for one thing there would have been a general revival in the factory that morning. That one thing was the overseer. He bulged into the room and, with a voice that sounded like he had his breakfast that morning on rasps and files, bellowed out: ‘What’s all this row about?” Somebody shouted out that John Jasper had got religion but that didn’t work at all with the boss. He told me to get back to my table and he had something in his hand that looked ugly. It was no time for making fine points, so I said, ‘Yes, sir, I will; I didn’t mean any harm; the first taste of salvation got the better of me, but I’ll get back to my work. And I tell you, I got back quick.
About that time Master Sam came out of the office and said, “What is the matter out there?” I heard the overseer tell him, ‘John Jasper kicked up a fuss and said he got religion, but I done fix him, and he got back to his table.” The Devil told me to hate the overseer that morning, but the love of God was rolling through my soul, and somehow I didn’t mind what he said.
A little later I heard Master Sam tell the overseer that he wanted to see Jasper. Master Sam was a good man; he was a Baptist, and one of the head men of the old First Church down here, and I was glad when I heard Master Sam say that he wanted to see me. When I got to his office he said, ‘John, what was the matter out there just now?’ … I said to him, ‘Master Sam, ever since the fourth of July I have been crying after the Lord, six long weeks, and just now out there at the table God took my sins away and set my feet on the rock. I didn’t mean to make any noise, Master Sam, but before I knew it, the fires broke out in my soul and I just let go one shout to the glory of my Savior.’
Master Sam was sitting with his eyes a little down to the floor, and with a…quiver in his voice he said very slowly, ‘John, I believe that way myself. I love the Savior that you have just found and I want to tell you that I don’t complain because you made the noise just now that you did. Then Master Sam did something that nearly made me drop to the floor. He got out of his chair and walked over to me and gave me his hand, and he said, ‘John, I wish you mighty well. Your Savior is mine and we are brothers in the Lord.’ When he said that, I turned around and put my arm against the wall, and held my mouth to keep from shouting. Master Sam knew well the good he had done me.
After awhile he said, ‘John, did you tell any of them in there about your conversion?’ And I said, ‘Yes, Master Sam, I told them before I knew it, and I feel like telling everybody in the world about it.’ Then he said, ‘John, you may tell it. Go back in there and go up and down the tables, and tell all of them. And then if you want to, go upstairs and tell them all about it, and then downstairs and tell the hogshead men and the drivers what the Lord has done for you.’
By this time Master Sam’s face was raining tears, and he said, ‘John, you need work no more today. I give you a holiday. After you get through telling it here at the factory, go up to the house and tell your folks; go round to your neighbors and tell them; go anywhere you want to and tell the good news. It will do you good, do them good, and help you to honor your Lord and Savior.
Oh, that happy day! Can I ever forget it? That was my conversion morning, and that day the Lord sent me out with the good news of the kingdom. For more than forty years I’ve been telling the story. My step is getting rather slow, my voice breaks down, and sometimes I am awfully tired, but still I’m telling it.
Ah, my dear old master! He sleeps out yonder in the old cemetery, and in this world I shall see his face no more; but I don’t forget him. He gave me a holiday, and sent me out to tell my friends what great things God had done for my soul. Often as I preach I feel that I am doing what my old master told me to do. If he was here now, I think he would lift up those kind black eyes of his, and say, ‘That’s right, John: still tell it, fly like an angel, and wherever you go carry the Gospel to the people.’ Farewell, my old master, when I land in the heavenly city, I’ll call at your mansion that the Lord had ready for you when you got there, and I shall say, ‘Master Sam, I did what you told me, and many are coming up here with their robes washed in the blood of the Lamb who were led into the way by my preaching; and as you started me I want you to share in the glory of that salvation.’ And I tell you what I think: that when Master Sam sees me, he’ll say, ‘John, don’t call me ‘master’ anymore; we’re brothers now, and we will live forever around the throne of God.’”
Now, there was a slave who obeyed his earthly master with sincerity of heart, who served him whole-heartedly as if he were serving the Lord not men. And there was a master who – for all that we might wish he were more like the Roman prefect, who gave all his slaves their freedom and a gift as well one Easter Sunday – treated his slave in a distinctively, unabashedly Christian way. And there is something exquisitely beautiful about the bond that Christ and the love of Christ forged between those two good men, whose stations were so different in this world.
We Christians know a great deal about slavery; more than most. We know ourselves first as slaves to sin and death. All human beings are by nature such slaves, to be sure, but only some people know it and feel the galling yoke of that slavery. This is the point that Moses makes in Deuteronomy, when he commands the Israelites to be gracious and generous to slaves in their midst. Indeed, when an Israelite sold himself into slavery in order to pay his debts, the law of God required the slave holder, when the time came to release his slave – and all slavery was temporary in Israel, a means of economic recovery that was permitted and strictly regulated – the slave holder was required to send his former slave away with gifts. No doubt this is where the saintly Hermas got the idea. “Do not send him away empty handed,” the law says in Deut. 15:14. “Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as the Lord your God has blessed you.” And why? “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. That is why I give you this command today.”
There is a common experience of slavery that lies at the bottom of the regard and affection and respect in which Christians are to hold one another. A common experience of hopelessness and need and a common experience of deliverance solely by the grace of God. This is what the perceptive Simone Weil meant when she wrote, “Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves; slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among them.” [cited in Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time, 416]
But, there is another slavery that all Christians share, a slavery that still more powerfully and completely confirms them in a shared experience, in true brotherhood, and in a compelling sense of sympathy and fellow-feeling toward one another. And that is the slavery into which all Christians enter willingly when they surrender themselves to the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Paul is always referring to himself and to other Christians as “servants” of the Lord Jesus, but, of course, that word “servant” is just our word “slave,” the same word Paul uses here. Servant means the same thing as slave, but it is a softer, more polite, less biting term. But every Christian is a slave. We have been, Paul says in another place, “bought with a price,” the blood, the death of Jesus Christ. And what is the consequence of that, he asks? It is this: “you are not your own.”
Christians admit this gladly. They glory in this slavery. They think it the highest possible honor to be Christ’s slave. We belong to Christ and God! We think of ourselves as those slaves in the OT who so loved their masters and loved being in their employ that when they could go free, instead they asked to remain and were taken to the doorpost and their ears were pierced through with an awl as a sign that they would remain this master’s slaves for life. No Christian feels himself so utterly free as that Christian who knows himself the willing slave of Jesus Christ. There are no chains except the chains of love and no obedience is required by our master except that obedience we most want to give him from our hearts. To serve a master you love with every fiber of your being is not slavery as the world thinks of slavery! But it is slavery in this sense: we belong, body and soul, to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, and we know him free, absolutely free, to command us as he will.
And we look upon folk in the world, who so jealously guard their freedom, who refuse to follow Christ lest he require them to obey him and do his will, and we see the worst kind of slaves: slaves who don’t even know they are slaves; slaves so completely in thrall to their masters – the world, their own sinful natures, and the devil – that they do not feel the weight of their chains. Everyone in the world is a slave. The difference is that some have cruel masters and some a surprisingly gracious, wise, and generous master.
And when a Christian man or woman has this understanding of his or her place, the deliverance that Christ brought, the glorious slavery that he imposes on those he loves, life that is lived in the very presence of the Lord, and that our gracious master expects us to love in the same extravagant way in which he loved us, then it becomes not simply our duty to love every other human being and especially our Christian brethren, it becomes our glory to do so. For the Christian businessman, it becomes more important to him than his bottom-line to treat his employees humbly, generously, graciously, and kindly. And so for every Christian supervisor, boss, lead, or manager. And, similarly, for the Christian employee it becomes a matter of sacred honor that he should give his employer, whether or not the employer observes it or knows it or will ever learn about it, more consecrated and devoted labor than he has paid for.
A book was published not long ago in which a Duke University professor took the temperature of American evangelicalism and found it “embattled but thriving.” Those words were actually in the subtitle of the book. But one thing the book revealed was that American Christians of the Bible-believing type had very little idea of the implications of their faith for their life outside of family and church. When asked what difference it would make if there were suddenly many more Christians working at one’s company, most of those Christians surveyed could only imagine that there would be more lunchtime Bible studies. Oh, no! The theology laced ethics of Ephesians 6:5-9 would transform the office and the shop-floor. It would make managers and company owners and stock-holders the willing servants of their employees and employees the most scrupulously diligent workers for the company. Love and respect and generosity and sympathy would transform the competitive and often adversarial environment of the American and capitalist workplace into a locale more welcoming, more person-affirming, more appreciative, more understanding, more cheerful, and more helpful than almost all those who work there could find even in their own homes.
Here Paul is talking about Christian masters and slaves, but elsewhere he makes the point that the same conscientious practice of Christian grace in the workplace is required of Christian masters toward non-Christian slaves and vice-versa.
Love as you have been loved. Be gracious and generous and sympathetic and patient as God has been toward you! And do this not only at home, but at work. For Christ, your Savior and your Judge, is at both places, all the time.