“Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. 2 Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved.” (1 Tim. 6:1-2)
The Roman economic system was built on the backs of slaves. These words were written to Timothy who was the lead elder at the church in Ephesus. Timothy was a shepherd in a community where slavery was a part of the culture and just part of the way things were done. It was estimated that up to a third of the population in Ephesus consisted of slaves. Paul is writing to a people that this is the norm of life. As the gospel goes into a culture its works slowly changes it. The gospel does not change a culture overnight, it works like leaven and slowly changes. At the church in Ephesus you certainly would have had slaves come to faith in Christ and you would have had masters come to faith in Christ. Presumably, slaves and masters would have been in the same church serving the Lord together. It is even quite probable that a slave could have become an elder and held a position of authority over masters in the church. This is what the gospel does. It turns the world right side up.
With this happening, slaves were finding new found freedom in Christ. This leads to talks of believing slaves rebelling against unbelieving masters and believing slaves disrespecting believing masters. Paul took time to carefully exhort slaves who found themselves serving in either one of these situations.
Believing Slaves and Unbelieving Masters
Paul addresses not those who are in a position of voluntary servitude but those that are in a position of involuntary servitude. They are serving as a slave against their own will. This was not their choice. This is an important point. The Old Covenant allowed and gave laws for slavery, but that system of slavery was to serve as a welfare system. It was voluntary and had term limits of six years. After six years a person could then voluntarily choose to continue to serve as a slave to that master. Rome did not practice this type of slavery. This was built on kidnapping people and forcing them into manual labor. Paul is writing to a group of people who are serving in an unjust system.
The word Greek word “doulos” (slave) could be used to say voluntary servitude. Paul wanted to make it clear that is not what he is referring to though. He adds the word “yoke,” which is an instrument owner’s use on animals to make them work for them. In saying this, Paul is making it clear that he is writing to slaves that are serving against their will. To those slaves Paul says to serve them and work for them as they are worthy of all honor. Serve them in this way so that God and His word will not be evil spoken of, so that it will not be reviled. God’s name and God’s Word seems to be more important to Paul than for these slaves to gain their freedom through leading an anarchist revolt against their masters.
Let’s be clear, Paul is not condoning the Roman system of slavery. In fact, he said to the slaves in the church in Corinth that if they can secure their freedom, they should; “Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity)” (1 Cor. 7:21). The ideal is for people to not only be spiritually free in Christ but to also be physically free.
A Choice of Weapons
What you see Paul doing here is giving an application of social theory as it relates to revolting against the unjust system of slavery. There are essentially two ways that the slaves could fight against this. The first is to pick up the sword and revolt. Nat Turner, a slave and preacher of the gospel, attempted this and his siege lasted only 48 hours and all of his men died, as well as many other women and children. This was often the result of using this weapon. Also, it gave justification to the masters for the way they have treated the slaves and for taking their lives. It made the gospel ill thought of.
The other option is to yield the sword of the spirit which is the word of God (Eph. 6:17). This is a great weapon, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12). Paul is instructing the slaves to use this weapon. Use it by submitting their lives to it and living out the word. The word of God works like leaven.
John Newton was a slave owner. Under his care most likely thousands upon thousands of people died. Imagine if you could go back in history and you were placed in a dark room with him and given two weapons. One was a sword and the other was the Bible. If you use the sword you know that he would stop capturing the slaves. It would end immediately. Well, for him that is. The problem is that there would always be another captain. If you use the Bible He could come to trust Christ and be part of the solution to end this unjust system. I hope you would choose the Bible because without it we would not be able to sing the song, “Amazing Grace,” nor would England have seen an end to the slave trade in their country without the war being fought. William Wilberforce and John Newton were key to seeing that end.
With our church’s involvement in ending abortion now in Genesee County I can’t help but think of a parallel in strategies. There have been those that took up arms and killed abortion doctors. What happens though? There is always another abortion doctor and the gospel is then evil spoken of. The weapon of choice needs to be the word. It needs to be the gospel. That is why I am so thankful for the ONElife for Life team that has marched to the front lines of the pit of hell yielding the weapon of the Kingdom of Christ. They are yielding the sword of the Spirit. By God’s grace may he end these evils through His word.
"The weapon of choice needs to be the Word. It needs to be the gospel."
Note to Employees
I cannot help but to see and make a parallel for the people here that may find themselves working as an employee. If Paul tells slaves to honor unbelieving masters for the sake of the gospel, should we not then honor our employers in the same way? Your boss may have graduated from the University of Idiots and Jerks as the Valedictorian, and may do everything in his or her power to make life miserable on everyone else because he or she is so miserable. And while you are tempted to think of your boss as your enemy, God sees them as one held captive by the real enemy. Your boss needs Jesus. The person who uses threats, intimidation, and anger is in bondage, even if he is in charge, while the person who chooses to honor and esteem is free, even if he is under authority. True freedom has nothing to do with your circumstances and everything to do with your position in Christ.
"True freedom has nothing to do with your circumstances and everything to do with your position in Christ."
Christ Became a Slave
Paul’s appeal to the slaves is totally founded on the gospel of Christ. In particular to serve as a slave and to honor someone who has not honored you is the heart of the gospel. That is precisely what the Lord Jesus Christ did for us. If you are a follower of Christ, then you are actively engaged in following Christ. What did Christ do? Christ chose to place himself into slavery. When Christ came to this earth, he chose, in essence, to sell himself to be your slave. That is what Philippians 2 tells us. “…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant (bondservant), being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
"To serve as a slave and to honor someone who has not honored you is the heart of the gospel."
Christ, our Creator and King, voluntarily chose to humble himself and become a slave to us in this way. He obligated himself to serve us. He sold himself to give up his life in the ultimate service for us. He considered our salvation so important that he gave up his life in order to secure it. This was pictured by Christ when he wore the attire of a slave and washed the feet of his disciples the night before he died. That event was a picture of his entire life and ministry on earth. He left his place of honor at the table and took on the role of a servant in order to wash their feet because that is what his entire life was about. He left his place of honor in glory in order to come as our servant and serve us by dying for us even by dying in about the most inhumane manner possible. He died on a cross. If Christ considered you worthy of that honor, then you can certainly consider others worthy of honor. You cannot die for them and secure their salvation, but you can serve them in a manner that points them to the One who did. Following Christ begins with trusting in what he did for us by dying for us. Following Christ is marked by a life in which I give up my rights to him. I give up my ownership to him. I give up my authority to him. I chose to love others more than myself. I chose to honor others rather than seek the honor of others. I chose to consider the gospel of such inestimable value that I will choose to do hard work, faithfully and without complaining in order that the gospel will not have anything in my life distract from it.
Contributor / Eric Stewart
Eric Stewart is the Lead Pastor of ONElife Church in Flint, MI.