Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Apostles on Slavery

From time to time, we hear that St. Paul, as a victim of the cultural conditioning of his day, endorsed slavery. A morning or afternoon with a Bible, a concordance, and a good cup of tea will suffice to dispel this slander of the Holy Apostle. (Okay, coffee will work as well as tea, almost!)

The passage upon which this alarming notion is based is Ephesians 6:5-9. Let’s examine, though, what it actually says.

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with goodwill doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free.

And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.

Of course, it would be politically incorrect today to urge slaves to obey their masters. But notice, that’s not exactly what St. Paul says. He says, “masters according to the flesh”. Not according to the Spirit, that is, not according to the higher order of things. This and virtually every sentence of this passage tell us he does not mean to support slavery. He goes on to say, “not with eye-service, as men-pleasers,,,” – in other words, explicitly not for the sake of the any man, including the master, not for his benefit, not, that is, in support of slavery – “but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart…” for Christ’s sake then, rather than for that of any earthly master.

What? Is this what Christ wants? Certainly. We recall His instruction: If anyone compels you to walk a mile with him, walk two. What Christ wants is for us to show meekness, forbearance, love, longsuffering, goodwill. (Guess what else it shows if, when forced to walk a mile, you walk two? Freedom, that’s what! It shows you walked both miles, not only one, voluntarily.) The same principle applies to being slapped in the face; you are to turn the other cheek, to show both your goodwill and that you suffer the abuse of your own free will. Christ means this literally, as I discovered once when I did slap back, with disastrous consequences, the least of which was my two broken fingers. So St. Paul continues, “with goodwill doing service as to the Lord, and not to men…” Not to men. It’s nothing to do with upholding slavery. It's more to do with showing forth Christ's own attitudes, with being a good witness to Him, maybe even with saving the master.

For the Lord’s sake, he says; but then St. Paul goes on to say how his counsel is also for the good of the slave himself: “knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same again from the Lord…” the same, multiplied. And then he makes a point of adding, perhaps for the sake of the master, “whether he is a slave or free.”

Next he explicitly addresses the masters: “do the same things to them”!!! Do all these same things to your slaves as I’m telling them to do to you! Do you see how this sabotages the whole structure of slavery? “Give up threatening…” Threat is the very essence of slavery. Slavery won’t work without threats. Finally, St. Paul completes his undermining of the institution of slavery by reminding the masters that they, too, are slaves to their Master in heaven, Who pays no attention to any earthly status of slave or free.

If we say St. Paul approved of slavery, we shall have to level the charge against St. Peter, as well, for he writes a similar thing:  (1 Peter 2:16-24)

18 Slaves, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. 19 For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. 20 For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. 21 For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps:

22 ​​“Who committed no sin,
​​Nor was deceit found in His mouth”;

23 who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; 24 who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.

But then, of course, St. Peter goes on to urge all of us to submit to each other. (1 Peter 5:5)  All of us.  Because this is what love does.  This is what humility does.

St. Paul, far from endorsing slavery, preaches equality among all who are in Christ:

Galatians 3:26-28 26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Colossians 3:10-11 you have put off the old man with his deeds; And have put on the new [man], which is renewed in knowledge after the image of Him that created him: Where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, slave [nor] free: but Christ [is] all, and in all.

But if anyone is still in doubt what the Holy Apostle thought of slavery, here’s a hidden gem for you, hidden due to the usual, poor translation of one word:

1 Tim. 1 8-10 …law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for the sexually immoral, for homosexuals, for slave-traders, for liars, for perjurers, and for any other thing contrary to the sound doctrine according to the glorious gospel…

It’s that word, “slave-traders” that is often translated as, “men-stealers”, so we miss the impact of it; but the Greek means those who capture and/or abduct men to sell them as slaves.

So rest assured, it takes an egregious misreading of St. Paul (or St. Peter) to conclude that he ever supported slavery.  He actually condemns it.


GretchenJoanna said...

Thank you for a clear explanation of this truth. I haven't had anyone challenge me about Paul's supposed endorsement of slavery, but if it ever happens, I'll be ready!

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Hi, GretchenJoanna,

Glad if you liked this. You must not be hanging out with any liberal Protestants!