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. Teach and urge these duties. (RSV)
Who Is a Slave?
Was Paul really talking about literal slaves in this passage or was he talking about anyone who is employed by another? The answer has some strong implications for both slaves and employees. Had he used only the word slave, which includes both voluntary and involuntary servitude, then it would be easy to say he was only speaking to people who had signed up to do a job. You might call them contractors today. They have the option of leaving at some point. Those that were born into slavery, captured in war, or sold into slavery for debt usually didn’t have that choice.
God allowed slavery and I don’t know why. However the slavery that He allowed had some definite rules around it. If people followed these rules slavery would not be the cursed condition that it is. It would not have degenerated into what we saw in our own nation where people were treated like cattle with no rights or dignity.
Ex 21:1-27 specifies some of the conditions surrounding slavery. The first is for Hebrew male slaves who were to be set free after serving six years. It gets messy if a slave had a wife and whether or not the wife was part of the original deal or the wife was a slave that was given to the male while a slave. Depending on these circumstances, the wife might allowed to go free. The male slave could then volunteer to continue as a slave for life to stay with his wife. Wow, that doesn’t sound much better than any other slavery but beneath it is respect for a human being in a world that usually considered slaves as nothing more than property that could be used in any way the owners want.
The passage also would put a stop to sex slaves. It is clear that if someone took a female slave for sex, she was then given the same rights as any wife. There wouldn’t be the possibility of using the woman promiscuously as is done today.
Abuse of slaves that resulted in death would be avenged. In other words, the family of the dead slave had the legal right and responsibility to kill the person who killed the slave. If the slave recovered from the abuse, there was no penalty – ouch – that doesn’t sound too good. However looking at verses 26 and 27 reveals that loss of an eye or tooth meant the slave would gain his freedom. The principle was clear that there were limits and that abuse shown to slaves in our more modern times was not allowed.
So this is the mindset of Jews at the time of Paul and it was the starting point of how Christians would deal with slaves. As a starting point it was better than the rest of the world, but it isn’t where we should end up as we take to heart the rest of Scripture. Unfortunately, many Christians have used these Old Testament Scriptures to condone and enforce slavery as a legal right instead of examining the Word to see what an ideal relationship between people should look like.
The Better Way
In 1 Tim 6:1-2, Eph 6:5, Titus 2:9, and 1 Peter 2:18 we find commands to slaves about the way they should do their work and show respect to their masters. In Eph 6:9 and Col 4:1 we also find that masters are supposed to be treating the slaves in the same way.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28 NASB)
The better way is to consider who each person is in Christ. We are all members of one family and we should treat each other as family members. No one is better than the other. No one can claim another human being is inferior because Jesus died for all which means anyone can become a Christian. Another thing to remember is that we are witnesses of Christ who lives in us. How we behave and our attitudes can detract or attract someone to Christ. That master or employer could come to Christ by our example.
Even if a person isn’t a Christian, how would you treat him if he were? Would you suddenly have to change your behavior or attitude toward someone if she became a Christian? Would your conscience be clear if someone you worked with become a Christian? Certainly some things would change because this person would now be a brother or sister in Christ. He may stop swearing, stealing, lying, and other things. However the way you worked with that person shouldn’t change. You should still be fair, honest, doing a good day’s work as the slave or employee or paying for a good day’s work as the master or employer.
We should obey our earthly masters with fear and respect in sincerity of heart just as we would obey Jesus (Eph 6:5). The key is sincerity of heart. When it comes down to the basics, what is in our hearts comes out in our speech and actions by which we will be judged (Matt 12:34-37). The same applies to masters. If we are in the authority role, then we need to remember that Jesus is over us and He doesn’t show partiality (Eph 6:9).
For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. (Gal 5:14 KJV)
There is simply no getting around the fact that we should love our neighbors. We shouldn’t have to ask who our neighbor is as the lawyer did in Luke 10:29. Lawyers look for loopholes in the law. That is one of their jobs. Jesus closed the loopholes when He preached the Sermon on the Mount, especially in this regard by saying we even need to love our enemies (Matt 5:43). When it comes to the Bible, we shouldn’t be looking for loopholes. We should look for the ways we can obey.
So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (Matt 7:12 ESV)
This is the way to obey the law to love others. This brings us back to slaves and masters. If I’m a master, then I should consider what I would want if I were a slave. I were an employer would I think that my employees would want decent wages, fair treatment, and a good work environment? If I’m working for someone else, do I think they would like an honest day’s work from me, for me to leave company supplies in the office, and respect the boss? Whatever may have transpired in ancient cultures (or even current cultures) can’t trump the golden rule.
When we are poor employees or employers, we profane God’s name. Followers of Christ were first called Christians at Antioch (Acts 11:26). Later, Paul emphasized that every family in heaven is named after the Father (Eph 3:14-15). Love of each other is one command that we should follow but we also need to love God above all other things. That means that whatever we do should bring honor to His name.
And wherever they went among the nations they profaned my holy name, for it was said of them, “These are the Lord's people, and yet they had to leave his land.” I had concern for my holy name, which the house of Israel profaned among the nations where they had gone. (Ezek 36:20-21 NIV)
The nations of Israel and Judah profaned God’s name by their disobedience and they suffered the consequences of exile. It isn’t any different today. When we sin in the way we treat each other or rebel against God’s moral law, people notice. Just as they noticed what happened to the Israelites. They are saying that being a Christian doesn’t help a person lead a godly life and there is no point in Christianity if we act the same or worse than everyone else.
Loving God needs to be a motivating factor in our lives. Why should we love God instead of defaming His name?
We know love by this, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has the world's goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? (1 John 3:16-17 NASU)
The obvious reason is that God loved us and Jesus, who is the exact representation of God (Heb 1:3), died for us. Where would we be headed if Jesus hadn’t done that? We would be headed for hell. Jesus saved us from the punishment we deserve by taking that punishment on Himself. Does that motivate us to love God or not? Does it motivate us to love other by taking care of other who are in need. Does this apply to employee and employer, slave and master relationships? Well, if you think it doesn’t then you have another think coming or you simply don’t have a relationship with Jesus and the Father.
If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? (1 John 4:20 KJV)
Put these last two passages together and it becomes obvious that anyone who does not have a loving relationship with others (husband – wives, parent – children, employees – employers, or neighbors) doesn’t have a relationship with God. It may take some longer than other to work though this, but the first step is to look to Jesus to change your heart by repenting and following Him.