“Slaves are to be submissive to their own slave-owners in everything; they are to be pleasing, not defiant, not stealing, but demonstrating good faith in all things in order that the teaching of our God and Savior may be orderly in everything.”
Most western Christians get skittish when we come across passages like this, dealing with slavery. We know the human cost of American slavery and we don’t like any association with it or with a group that might consider it an acceptable practice. We also know that many atheists like to refer to passages like this and point out that the Bible does not condemn slavery wholesale. Indeed, there are restrictions in the Bible as to how long one could hold a slave and as to how one could purchase their freedom, but most would like a more clear-cut repudiation of slavery within the scriptures. Instead, there are instructions like this one, to be submissive to your slave-owner.
So, how do we handle this? First, we must lay out that while slavery is still a form of ownership of one human being by another, the practice of slavery found in the Roman Empire was very different than the practice of slavery found in America. In some cases, one would willingly sell himself into slavery for a period of years to gain a better position in society…this was not how American slavery worked. So, while the word we use is the same, there are profound differences between the two entities.
Second, the notion that every man, woman, and child has freedom and is not bound into the service of another is a very recent idea. Medieval serfs were little more than slaves or indentured servants in the land, for example. We like to think that freedom is a human reality, but it really hasn’t been through much of human history. The Bible speaks in the context of its time and historical audience; to presume a modern worldview is unfair to the text or to its author.
Furthermore, though we like to think of ourselves as free men today, are we? Many of us might very well be considered indentured servants to those into whom we are in debt. Whether this be to a mortgage lender or to a credit card company, the end result is the same…a major percentage of our income goes toward paying these lenders over long periods of time…sometimes with outrageous amounts of interest. Similarly, if we are landowners, but neglect to pay our property tax, the government will place a lien against our home, forcing our compliance. The government already taxes the money that we make, then taxes it a second time when we spend that money, and then continues to tax that money annually with said property taxes. In a context such as this, who can truly say that they are a “free” man? Instead, most of us are more like indentured servants, forced to work to feed both our debt-holders and the state.
Thirdly, as the Bible presents it, being a slave is not a terrible thing if you serve the right slave-owner. Paul and his companions are called “slaves of the Most High God” (Acts 16:17), for example, and Paul refers to himself as a “slave of Christ” (Romans 1:1; Galatians 1:10), slaves to the church (2 Corinthians 4:5), and even earlier in Titus, he refers to himself as a slave of God (Titus 1:1). He even states that being freed from our slavery to sin (Romans 6:20), we are now slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:18). So, the Christian is, by very definition a slave…not to other humans, but to God, and we must be submissive to His will.
And thus, being submissive to the will of God, as revealed in the Scriptures, we are to be submissive to those in authority over us, whether governmental officials, slave-owners, or employers. This final category of “master” in our lives is where many Christians really fall short, and the outrage over the idea of slavery often blinds us to applying this notion to ourselves. How do we act, then, with respect to our employers? Are we submissive? Do we try and be pleasing to them? Or, are we defiant and obstinate?
Do we steal from our employers? This could be misappropriating office supplies or misappropriating time on the clock? Do we abuse our privileges or do we act in good faith toward those from whom we earn our pay? Are we orderly and disciplined in our behavior toward our employers, conveying that we worship a God who has ordered our lives? Or, do we convey untruth about our God by the way we live out our faith while at work?
While the matter of slavery is an important one to discuss, recognizing that slavery is an ongoing human crisis in many places in the world, what we must also discuss is the nature of our labors and our lives in our own context. Do we live out this command in our workplace? If not, we must repent and turn from our unfaithful ways.