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Slavery and Subservience. 1 Timothy 6:1-2


Slavery and Subservience

A Model for a Christian Work Ethic?
Text: 1 Timothy 6:1-2
Servants are ‘bond-servants’ δουλοι. NKJV translates this accurately as ‘bond-servants.’ The Greek word for master is δεσπότης. Their ‘despot’ – absolute master! Why would believers not release their slaves, and why would all the Christian slaves not rise up in a great rebellion and overthrow the masters; why not have a slaves’ trade union, and refuse to work until slavery was done away with?

1. Slavery in its OT Context! servants as are under the yoke. Cf Exodus 21:2 
How is it that the bible allows slavery? There were different ways that a person could enter into slavery, –

  1. Slavery through debt. What if one got into debt and you owed so much that you could never hope to repay it? You would go to your debtor and admit your inability to pay, and you will become his property, and he will sell your house and he will bring you in to his service, along with your wife and children, and you will work for him until the debt is repaid and you are released.
  2. Slavery through choice. But what of a man who preferred to be a slave? If you lived in Israel 2000 years ago, and you were unemployed and penniless, you had two options. You could beg along the road, like many other people, or you could go along to a wealthy farmer and you could ask for work, – and that work would be unpaid, it would be a willing slavery, but you would have a bed to sleep in and food to eat, and it was better than being out in the cold all night, afraid of bandits and wild animals, freezing and hungry. Under such circumstances slavery would be preferable to begging.
  3. Slavery through contentment! What if you reach the end of your six year period of service, – the slave would weigh up his options, and he would perhaps conclude that his master is a good employer, and he loves his master, and what would the outside world hold for him? So he will go to his master, and request permission to stay, and they would go together to the gate of the city, where the judges sat, and they would get an awl, and they would pierce the ear of the slave, against the doorpost of the master’s home, as a sign of willing, loving service.
  4. Slavery through capture. This kind of slavery was common through the ancient world. Armies would enslave their captives. They would be sold in the markets and then worked to death, rowing in slave galleys, or toiling endlessly in the fields. The fate of women slaves was much Israel such a thing should not be seen. Slaves should be treated fairly.

The Bible never condones slavery, never encourages slavery, but it does regulate slavery, and it does lay the foundation for the eventual emancipation of slaves, a social revolution brought about by the work of evangelical Christians, eg. William Wilberforce.

2. Slavery in Roman Society!
In Paul’s writing, he refers to slavery quite a few times, and uses the attributes of slaves to illustrate key aspects of the Christian life.

  1. Spartacus! The Roman Empire had a deep suspicion of slaves. There had been a number of slave uprisings during the two centuries before the birth of Christ. Spartacus was a freeborn soldier, a Thracian gladiator who joined up with a small band of around 78 escaped slaves. They rampaged through Italy, and others fled their masters and joined them, until their numbers grew to around 120,000 slaves, including men, women and children. It became known as the Third Servile War. The slaves perpetrated some dreadful atrocities, robbed and stole, and were aiming to take the city of Rome itself. The people of Italy lived in terror of them, and Rome had to do something about the slave problem but the first stage of that was to put down the rebellion. Rome fielded an army of eight legions under the harsh leadership of Marcus Licinius Crassus. The war ended in 71 BC when the armies of Spartacus, after long and bitter fighting, were utterly destroyed. With the rebellion put down, Rome now began a series of reforms to regulate slavery.
  2. The Roman Slave. The next act of the Empire, after the rebellion was quashed, was to make laws to radically improve the treatment of slaves. The Roman Empire had many thousands of slaves. It’s even estimated that around one third of the population of Ephesus was comprised of slaves. But again don’t think of these slaves as similar to the slaves of American history. After all we’ve all seen the images and heard the stories of the early days of American history, when the black people were enslaved on the plantations and treated disgracefully by their white masters. The slavery was based on racism. Roman slavery wasn’t racist. And some of these slaves would have been quite well off! Some would have had their own homes, their own families, even their own business! Some slaves even had their own slaves! Others were totally impoverished, so there were different ‘classes’ in enslaved society. A slave of a wealthy master would be dressed better, and better fed and looked after than the slave of a poorer master – so there was a kind of slave-society status. But under the new Roman laws, there was another innovation…
  3. Manumission. Manumission was the right of slave to earn his freedom, and so effective was it that few slaves ever reached old age. many slaves were released before the age of thirty, and at one point so many slaves were being set free that Augustus Caesar had to amend the legislation to curtail it! But many slaves were released before the age of thirty.

So, why would Paul not just do the right thing and demand the end to slavery? Why not call upon the slaves to rise up and revolt, and throw off the shackles of bondage? Because the Romans would crush them with overwhelming force, and because even if such an uprising would be viable, what would happen to the poor of society, and who would feed and clothe all those who had been set free?

When we understand what slavery was in NT times, we come to understand that in many cases it wasn’t that different from what we do in our everyday lives today! We are all in some form of subservience! We have employers, – and even if we are self-employed, we have customers to whom we are responsible, and there are laws to hold us to account on their behalf. How will Christians behave in such servitude?

3. Slavery and the Christian Worker! Let as many servants … count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. 2And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit.
Now, what about our passage in 1 Timothy? Many of the slaves in Ephesus had been brought to saving faith in Christ, and were sitting in the meetings of the church, and right beside them were their masters, who had also come to saving faith in Christ! They were, in the church equal, in that both were sinners, saved by God’s grace. Galatians 3:28 Colossians 3:11 How would this equality of status in Christ affect their working relationship when the church service ended? There are two possible scenarios that Paul is anxious to instruct Timothy about.

  1. A Christian slave with an unconverted master. Now, how might the Christian slave regard his unsaved master? Will he look down on him with some kind of superiority? Will he begin to think the prayer and soul winning are more important than his regular work? In Ephesus, perhaps Christian slaves were becoming a nuisance, becoming morally superior, and disrespectful, so that their ungodly masters began to speak ill of them, ruining the testimony of the church, and the gospel and the doctrine and teaching of the church. ‘These Christians – you wouldn’t want to employ one of them… ‘ Ephesians 6:5-8 Our workplace is the place where most of us contact the ungodly world. It is a place where we can witness – but our witness is only effective if our masters and our colleagues can see that we are living out the testimony that we speak.
  2. A Christian slave with a Christian master. And what might be the temptation in this work relationship? Would they use the equal status that they had in Christ to look down on their Christian master, or to expect some favouritism from him, or to lord it over the other slaves who were not Christians, – for all of that would cause resentment among the other workers and lead to disaffection and strife. Paul’s argument is that Christian slaves ought to obey their master all the more, not despise them, but serve them even more willingly and more fervently because they are serving them out of brotherly love, – their service to their master is part of their Christian service.
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