Walking With Christ In Social Relationships, Part 1 – The Bible And Slavery: Reformation From Inside-Out

Grace For The Journey

God has ordained authority structures for our good and for His glory.  Without question, we are wise to obey authority and to live within the framework of God-ordained governmental laws and structures.

But what about an authority structure that is not ordained by God?  What about a relational system that is not taught in Scripture, but exists because of the fallenness of man and the brokenness of the human condition?  

What about, for example, first century Roman slavery? 

God did not ordain slavery,

Yet many Christians in Rome

Were either slaves or owned slaves. 

So here is a relational structure

That does not have God’s approval

(Unlike husbands and wives

And parents and children),

Yet exists as the gospel begins

To penetrate the Roman Empire.

What does God say to Christians who find themselves in this situation?  Let’s find out as we continue our study of Colossians and look at Colossians 3:22-4:1, “Bondservants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God.  And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.  But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality.  Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven.”

Here is a passage of Scripture that talks about Roman slavery.  Truth is – slavery existed in 1st Century Rome and was pervasive throughout the Roman Empire.  And while slavery was not something ordained by God, Paul nonetheless writes to Christians who themselves may be slaves or may own slaves.  He teaches them how to live within that authority structure.

Now this raises an immediate question for many of us.  We may wonder why Paul doesn’t teach Christians to put an end to slavery right away.  You know: “Stop it! It’s wrong!”  Well, for one thing, we must remember that real, lasting reformation in a society has to take place on the inside of individuals before lasting change comes to the outside community. 

It is the reformation of individuals that leads

To the eventual reformation of a society.

It is for this same reason that we can never fully stop racism in our country merely by passing legislation.  Nor can we fully stop poverty simply by distributing money to poor neighborhoods.  We cannot fully stop crime merely by imposing stiffer penalties.  True and lasting reformation and societal change comes only when individuals themselves change.  

And individuals can change;

They can change on the inside

– One individual at a time –

By the power of the Gospel.

And when an increasing number of individuals change on the inside, we will eventually see a societal change on the outside.

Of course, it is compassionate and wise to pass legislation that advances a society.  Christians are commanded, for example, to give to the poor and to feed the hungry.  We are to work for justice and we are to obey the laws of the land when they do not contradict Scripture.

At the same time,

We remember that

The Great Commission

Is not a call for

Societal revolution or reformation,

But a call to “make disciples

(Matthew 28:19),

To lead people to Christ

So they can be changed

From the inside-out

To the glory of God. 

That change occurs

One person at a time.

So, Paul addresses these Christians where they are.  Whatever their position in life, he has a word for them. There were slaves in Colossae and there were slaves in the church at Colossae, so Paul writes this section to tell these Christians how they may live for Christ.

Incidentally, we may wonder just how many slaves lived in first century Rome?  While estimates vary, this much is certain: there were many.  In fact, there were so many that the Roman Senate once considered requiring slaves to wear a certain kind of clothing identifying them as such.  This idea was quickly abandoned as the Senate feared slaves might then see just how many of them there were, perhaps emboldening them to rise up and overthrow the government.

Righteousness and Slavery

Some slaves were more like “bondservants,” the word translated here in the New King James Version.  A “bondservant” was someone who was bound to his or her master for a lengthy period of time and might eventually be freed.  Other slaves were not as fortunate.  Treated as property, they were often subjected to brutal behavior by their masters. 

To be sure, Roman slavery was not exactly like our country’s checkered history of slavery, but both forms are wrong, pure and simple.  It is always wrong to enslave human beings created in God’s very image, whether it’s Roman slavery 2,000 years ago or American slavery 244 years ago.

So again, Paul simply addresses these Christians where they are without endorsing the institution itself.

This truth underscores an important

Rule of biblical interpretation:

What Scripture records is not

Necessarily what God endorses.

The Bible records a lot of things God does not endorse.  This doesn’t mean Scripture is not God’s Word; it absolutely is.  But God’s Word is a record of truth.  The Bible records true history and true events, even if they are unfortunate, undesirable, and unwanted true events.

God may address a particular social structure and even regulate an undesirable relationship within it – such as the relationship between a servant and a master.  This by no means, however, indicates that God approves of every social situation approved by man.  For example, when the Pharisees pressed Jesus on the issue of divorce, you may recall that Jesus replied in Matthew 19:8, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”  

In other words, “Divorce is not God’s ideal plan for your marriage.  From the beginning – Genesis 1 and 2 with the first marriage of Adam and Eve – from the beginning, it was not God’s plan for two to separate, but for the two to become one” (Genesis 2:24).

The Bible may regulate a behavior without condoning the behavior.  The Bible does not condone persecution of Christians, yet in Hebrews 10, God tells Christians how to live under persecution.  Once again: here in Colossians 3, the Apostle Paul addresses Christians where they are and tells them how to live within that situation.  

We have taken time to study these verses in the context of Roman slavery so that we do not jump too quickly to application of the passage.  Before we can talk about what a passage means today we must take care to understand what it meant then; taking care to study the passage in its context – including its historical or cultural context.

This is not a passage primarily about the relationship of American employers to American employees!  It is a passage about Roman servants and Roman masters.  It is about a social structure that fortunately no longer exists in most developed and free countries.  I am not suggesting there are no criminal abuses or similar atrocities such as human trafficking in even the most “developed” nations, but rather that we thankfully no longer see the large scale acceptance of institutional slavery as addressed by the apostle.

So, if the passage is not primarily about the roles of employers and employees, is it wrong to apply the passage to the modern work setting?  Are there no abiding principles that apply to our contemporary culture?

I think there are.  We will address some of them in tomorrow’s post.

This is God’s Word …

This is Grace for your Journey …

Rest and Rejoice in this eternal truth!

Pastor Terry

Ephesians 4:7 – “But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.”

Hebrews 4:16 – “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”

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