Saturday, March 8, 2014

Paul & Slavery (Part IV)

Note. I am less convinced of my arguments regarding Colossians and Ephesians, so take them with a grain of salt and the knowledge that I'm not settled on my opinions. When Titus and 1 & 2 Timothy come up, this will be abundantly clear.

PAUL: Colossians 3:22-4:1

2Slaves, obey your earthly masters[a] in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord.[b] 23 Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters,[c] 24 since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve[d] the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong has been done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

While some manuscripts[1] omit ‘in everything’ (kata panta) in v22, the verse orders slaves to obey their ‘earthly’ masters. The reasons given are “in order to please them” and because they “fear the Lord.” Given that slaves are addressed first,[2] the first four verses are written directly to slaves, with the one verses dedicated to masters appears more as an exception clause. V23 confirms that slaves are to “put themselves into [their task]” but for the Lord and not their masters. In honoring Christ, slaves were honoring their secondary masters.[3] Here, Paul is less interested in manumission—though I doubt he would oppose the idea—and more with regulating an existing social norm. The adage of “turning the other cheek” comes to mind. The fact that there appears to be a mutual respect throughout Col. 3 would temper this apparently one-sided submission, and a call to look forward to the future for rewards.[4] God will simply and impartially repay whatever wrong has been done to the slave.[5] This is more likely a reminder to the slaves (“since you know…” v4) who are beneath their masters to endure suffering because of reverence for Christ. For (explanatory/giving reasons “gar”) there is no partiality with God; this segues nicely into the one verse on masters. Any master would hear these injunctions given to slaves, and then be granted a general directive: to “treat [their] slaves justly and fairly, for you know that you also have a Master in heaven”(4:1). This is a subclause of 3:25, with the theme of no partiality in view.
There is a clear distinction in view here, with Christ over the master, and the master over the slave. The alternative reading of 1 Cor. 7:21 (instead of taking freedom, stay a slave) seems to be the main theological thrust of this passage. There is no call for manumission, or even a reference to liberation or freedom. Because you have reverence for Christ, be a slave of him. Because you are a master over man, you are to treat them justly and fairly. While this is certainly preferable to encouraging abuse or even the status quo, this does seem to be a recognition in Paul’s mind of the social norm of slavery. However, a description of circumstances doesn’t endear itself to equality with the institution of slavery; nor does it necessitate that slaves couldn’t be preachers or “in Christ.” Given the use of “no partiality” and “no…slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”(3:11). At best, Paul’s words can be seen as an awareness of the culture of his time.
Paul hardly affirmed the institution of slavery.[6] Christians today should recognize the times of the ancient world; remember what was sacrificed, and where we’ve come. While not in the same vein as 1 Cor. 7:21-22 and Philemon, Colossians 3:22-4:1 does indicate a less one-sided view of master/slave relations that many assume.[7] Paul had to bring New Creation to an old world, and sometimes compromises (unfortunately) have to happen when an unstoppable force meets a very slow moving object.[8]

PAUL: Ephesians 6:5-9

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. Render service with enthusiasm, as to the Lord and not to men and women, knowing that whatever good we do, we will receive the same again from the Lord, whether we are slaves or free.
And, masters, do the same to them. Stop threatening them, for you know that both of you have the same Master in heaven, and with him there is no partiality.

The author of Ephesians most probably used Colossians as its primary source.[9] The amount of attention given to marriage is dissimilar, but the amount directed towards slaves and masters is roughly the same. This is a pivotal text used by Southern church leaders who supported slavery.[10] To them, slavery was an “institution of God.”[11] The fact that slaves are mentioned (as well as in Col. 3:22-4:1) could indicate a mixed congregation between slave and free.[12] What is most important to recognize is that marriage is shown to ‘set in place’ in creation, whereas slavery is institutionalized only after the collapse of Eden. Authority of humans over other humans, it seems, is a product of the Fall, and should be interpreted accordingly.
Again, we have the majority of data addressed to slaves, echoing Colossians 3:22-4:1. Slaves are called to “obey their earthly masters…as they would obey Christ” (5), with the heart of a servant, doing the will of God (v6), as they work for the Lord, and not humans (7), and that their reward is given by God, no matter their socio-economic status (8). Paul’s comment doesn’t stress the authority of the master, but instead focuses on Christ, and the servant’s love for him. Again, Paul has little ‘legal’ authority over his congregations.[13]
However, in specific instances (Philemon), Paul did put stress on the slave owner to free Onesimus. In contrast to Greco-Roman standards where slave owners were kind generally out of self-interest or out of a concern for status, Paul usurps this understanding. “In this same way” indicates a sense of reciprocity, as does the Colossians parallel in 4:1, though it is more pronounced here. Paul is concerned with correct action, and his sense of personal liberation is at work. Uniquely, he urges them to stop ‘threatening their slaves’ and suggests that both “have the same Master in heaven.” While v21’s call to mutual submission is grammatically connected to v22[14] and it doesn’t necessarily apply to the following sections (fathers/children, slaves/masters), there is a sense of reciprocity within the larger confines of the texts.[15] Several writers did exhibit a sense of compassion towards slaves, but by and large Paul was within this minority.[16]
If Christ is the Master, and both slave owner and slave are beneath him, then in some sense there is now a shared sense of identity. While social status is not completely abolished, the character of both figures is renewed towards the image of Christ. As F.F. Bruce states so well, “there is no word of abolishing the institution of slavery, but where masters and slaves are fellow-members of a Christian household their relationship should be mutually helpful.”[17] I would only add that if Paul were given the final say over such matters, maybe slavery as an institution would cease to exist.[18] 

[1] P46 81.
[2] Mentioned already that the subordinate parties weren’t addressed first.
[3] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 168-9.
[4] For slaves, future eschatology hasn’t been fully realized. Yet Christ has already reconciled us all to God (1:20), and one wonders to what extent the stanza to Christ in 1:15-20 exerts any influence on these admonitions.
[5] “It is uncertain why the emphasis here should be on requital for the wrongdoer.” Pace Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 169.
[6] Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice, 443-449, 448.
[7] To assume a social norm doesn’t necessarily imply an acceptance of said norm. Instead, it simply recognizes that society has a grand investment in certain systemic injustices, and by transforming the relationship; perhaps Paul hopes to render the slave system as irreconcilable.
[8] If you notice any conflicting emotions in the writing of this section, then you are observant.
[9] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 231. Bruce notes that 1 Corinthians and Romans have marked similarities to this ‘Paulinist’ epistle. Also of note is that much of what will be discussed has been mentioned in the Colossians section.
[10] Image in Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith, Divided by Faith, 35. The Southern leaders advocated that since, “…women are called to play a subordinate role (Eph. 5:22; 1 Tim. 2:11-15), so slaves are stationed by God in their place.” Therefore, the analogy between slaves and women drawn by egalitarians is valid, as it is consistent with the complaints of patriarchalists in the 50s.
[11] Ibid, 35. I find this completely in contradiction to Paul’s clear unease with slavery in 1 Cor. 7:21-22 and Philemon, and to a less extent in the later epistles. Their misuse of Philemon indicates an astonishingly simplistic reading of Paul’s most rhetorically persuasive epistle. As mentioned above, such a reading merits no serious attention.
[12] Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women & Wives, 205.
[13] Especially if Ephesians is a general circulated epistle. If this is true, then it would make the most sense that Paul wouldn’t have the same type of authority in a general letter. However, in a specific instance (Philemon), it makes sense that he would wield his authority with a heavier hand.
[14] V21 supplying the verb “submit” to v22’s “wives submit to your husbands.”
[15] Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women & Wives, 206 states, “Although much of the rest of what [Paul] says is within the conceptual bounds of the other progressive writers in antiquity, the principle of mutuality on which he bases this exhortation calls for more than a measured application of authority.”
[16] Pliny the Younger’s Ep. 9.21 and 9.24 are considered monumental.
[17] F.F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, 402.
[18] Craig S. Keener agrees, arguing that Paul would’ve been an abolitionist had he been alive in the 18th and 19th centuries. Paul, Women & Wives, 205-6.
[19] Some complementarians (George Knight III as a good example; see the brief discussion in Keener, Paul, Women & Wives, 208. I arrived at a similar – independent – conclusion) chafe at this, arguing that God didn’t ordain slavery, but he ordained marriage. This begs a special question: was marriage inherently subordinationist before the destruction of Eden? Genesis 1-2 gives no evidence for this.


  1. Well what about this!

  2. I have posted a movie review of God's Not Dead on my Christian blog.