Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect. (NASB)
Slave, Bondservant, Employee
I’ve read or heard various reports about the status of a slave in the first century. Some say our own history of slavery has stereotyped it and slaves were not as bad off as we think. One article describes slaves being used in three typical areas. The first is doing work directly for their masters. The second was when they acted as managers of their master’s estate. The third was where they would actually own and manage property even though it technically belonged to the master. We can see all three of these positions in parables that Jesus taught. In Matthew 18:23-35, Jesus described a servant (Greek doulous = slave) who owed his master ten thousand talents. Another of the master’s slaves owed the first slave a hundred pence (KJV). This is nothing like our concept of slavery so many translators use the word servant instead of slave. Matthew 25:14-30 is the familiar parable of talents where the master gives stewardship of his funds to three different servants. The word is again translated servant rather than slave because of the obvious management of resources. Luke 17:7-10 is a description of harsh slavery or drudgery where they work in the fields then come in and serve the master without thanks. Regardless of how the translators used servant or bondservant or slave, the status of a Roman slaves during this time was more in keeping with our current concept. The owners had the right to abuse (physically and sexually) and even kill a slave regardless of his or her position. The slave had only the right to serve as the master directed. Marriage was only with the master’s approval but it was not marriage in the sense we think of because the master still had sexual rights over the slave. The arrangement was called contubernium.
How did the Law of Moses describe slavery? The first difference is that it there were very clear rules and regulations regarding the way a master could treat a slave. Exodus 21 contains many of the regulations for slaves. Killing a slave resulted in the same penalty as a free person but there was no penalty if the slave survives a beating or mistreatment. However, if the slave loses an eye or tooth, the slave is to be set free. Reading this chapter gives the impression that female slaves were often chosen as wives and had specific rights if chosen for the master or sons but fewer rights if given to another slave as a wife. Leviticus 19:20-22 clearly described sex with a slave promised to another man as sin even though the punishment was not death as it would have been for a free woman. While certainly not ideal, it was much better than the Roman practice.
When Paul wrote to Titus, he was not writing to someone with the Hebrew background and training regarding slavery. He was addressing Gentiles living under the Roman law. Clearly, all levels of slavery would be included in the term doulous. Some complain that Paul therefore endorsed slavery of any kind and that we can’t apply this to our current culture except where the culture has slavery. However, Paul is not talking to society in general, but to Christians. These slaves are people who are Christians and are owned by someone else and the implication is that their masters may not be Christians. He is saying that if you are a Christian, you must, you have no other option than to please your master. That means being subjective in everything. That is the positive attitude but you must also eliminate the negative attitudes and behavior of arguing and stealing from your master. How is this possible when a slave is subjected to humiliation, insult, and injury?
You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42b-45 ESV)
Jesus described the situation clearly. He pointed us to culture of the time with Gentile masters, not the Hebrew culture. That means we have to consider the abusive Roman law as we consider the verses. Jesus takes our status down a notch by saying that to be great we must be a servant to others. He used the word diakonos, which is translated servant, minister, or deacon. There is no connotation that this is other than a hired person. However, if we want to increase our status up a notch to become first, then he takes us back down to the bottom rung and says we must become a doulous, a slave. Then He provides the ultimate example of his own death.
This is the attitude that a Christian slave has to have. Without this attitude, the life of a slave on the bottom rung is without hope. Now, is it possible to apply this attitude to our current culture and to our work when employed by someone else? Is it possible to apply this attitude to customers if we run a business? If not, then we need to go back and redefine what it means to be a Christian because Paul’s direction to Titus must apply to us in whatever circumstances we find ourselves because the doctrine of our Lord and Savior is to be servants and slaves first to Jesus then to everyone else. Of course, if we don’t care about being great in God’s kingdom, much less first, then becoming a servant or slave doesn’t matter.
When Paul says that we should be submissive in everything to our masters, (boss, or whoever is directing the work and paying for our services), does he allow any refusal of service? Think of those slaves who were the sexual property of the owners. Would you tell them to submit joyfully to that kind of abuse? What would you do if the master ordered you to kill another slave because he spilled the master’s wine? If this means blind obedience, then that means that an accountant should falsify the books when the owner requests it. It means that a policeman should lie to protect his superior who has just beaten a homeless man without cause. I really get tired of people who look at a verse and find a word like all or everything and apply the meaning not just literally but inflexibly. While there are places where it may be appropriate, this certainly isn’t one of them. The principle of obeying God rather than being submissive to sinful commands of superiors is as ancient as the midwives who refused to kill newborn Hebrew boys (Ex 1:15-17), or the Apostles’ refusal to keep quiet about Jesus (Acts 4:19, 5:29), and extends to the future where believers refuse to take the mark of the beast in opposition to his rule over the earth (Rev 13:7).
Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. "Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.” (1 Peter 3:13-14 NIV)
Paul’s point and that of Peter is that a slave or anyone else who wants to do good will generally stay out of trouble. This is not a guarantee that trouble will not come along. It is not a guarantee that you may be asked or commanded to do something wrong. So Peter says that when we suffer for doing right we don’t need to fear because we are blessed by God. Wow, when you put this in perspective of real slavery and not just a nasty boss, there is only one conclusion. We must have our eyes on eternity instead of the world or we’ll never survive or have any hope. Peter offers the way to do this in the next verse, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15 NIV). We can’t do it without Jesus and with Jesus, we will have the hope and others will see it. This is how we “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:9).
What Are You?
An added thought about the issue of slave, bondservant, or employee, is our relationship with God. Yes, we are sons and daughter, not slaves according to Romans 8:14-14, Ephesians 1:5 and 3:15 as well as many other verses. However Paul also affirms that we are slaves of God (Rom 6:22) and Peter says we were ransomed out of slavery of sin (1 Peter 1:18). Paul also refers to himself as a slave of Christ in Romans 1:1, Galatians 1:10, Philippians 1:1, and Titus 1:1 as does James in 1:1, Peter in 2 Peter 1:1, Jude in verse 1, and John in Revelation 1:1. Furthermore, John says that the book of Revelation is written to show his servants (doulous) what is in the future. It should be quite obvious that while we are citizens of God’s kingdom (Eph 2:19, Phil 3:20) and members of his family, our attitude should be more that of slaves than kings. How do you view yourself and does your view adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:9)?
 Odochiciuc, Ana, and Lucrețiu Mihailescu-Bîrliba, "Occupations of Private Slaves in Roman Dacia." Studia Antiqua Et Archeologica 20, (January 2014): 231, EBSCOhost, accessed December 21, 2015, http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu:2048/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=101906193&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
 Ibid., 232.