1Let all who are under the yoke as slaved regard their masters as worthy of honor, so that the name and teachings of God are not blasphemed. 2And if they have believing masters, they should not despise them, on the basis that they are brothers, but should rather serve them more, because the ones who benefit from their service are believers and beloved.
Few other passages in the Bible have stirred up more controversy than this one. Disturbing questions to the modern American mind arise: was Paul giving tacit approval to slavery by not agitating against it in scripture? Why doesn’t 1st-century Paul have the same abhorrent attitude toward the institution of slavery that we enlightened folks have in the 21st century? Much like his passages regarding women in the Church, Paul is easily misunderstood by the modern thinker who superimposes his 21st-century values onto an earlier time without expecting bad consequences. Ultimately, one of the big lessons we learn from this is that, even with 20 centuries of “progress” man is still essentially the same. He has not improved, like he pretends.
But there’s more here, and the Christian should attempt to understand it. To begin with, the institution of slavery was a very different animal than the American one that stains our collective consciousness in the West. It was not specifically racially motivated, but was rather a pragmatic reality of a conquering empire; as the Romans took over lands, they enslaved the populations. In many cases, slaves were even adopted as family members. The stigma that slaves were less human or 3/5 of a citizen or any of that garbage came later, in America, in a slavery that was predicated on bigotry and racism. Second, the early Church believed, like we do, that they were in the “last days.” But “last days” to them really meant “last days,” and that’s why you don’t see a whole lot of social agitation to change social structures in Pauline writing. Christians knew that the Messiah was going to transform the whole world order, and agitating for social change was pretty far down the priority list. Third, one of the chief problems in the early Church was the fact that, while slavery was a practical social and political reality in the Roman Empire, there were no such distinctions in the Church. As Paul himself points out to the Galatians, there is neither “slave nor free” in the Body of Christ (Gal. 5.28). Under such a culture, it was common for masters and slaves to sit next to one another in church as brothers before having to go back out to the Empire as master-and-slave. For this reason, some temporal Christian ethics had to be set up to handle the tension in such an environment. All of it was settled by simply referring back to the example of Christ.
Jesus Christ is the King of Kings, yet humbled Himself as a servant or slave to demonstrate God’s selfless love to man. He was not above serving others who disrespected Him, and we shouldn’t be either. Note that nowhere does Paul abjure masters to demand respect from their slaves; if slave and master are brothers in the Body, respect should be mutual and voluntary. This is why this passage cannot be used to justify slavery, since the essential premise being taught here is that Christ submitted to others in service, and HE is the great example for all of us.
The concept of social agitation is a recent event. It begins, to a lesser extent, with the idea of self-government during the Enlightenment, but really takes off as a tactic with the writings of Communist propagandist Saul Alinksy in his Rules For Radicals. The modern placard-waving demonstrator culture is a direct descendant of Alinsky. The contrast couldn’t be clearer: Alinsky the Communist explicitly taught free people to stir up social unrest and trouble, while Paul teaches slaves to submit in respect to others.
It is true that self-governance is the safest form of government for people of all religious stripes. And as self-governance dies, we’ll see an uptick in slavery again. Paul’s words will become more and more relevant as the times march forward: the Christian cannot control his society—his faith is in the returning Christ.