This partial transcript was done by Sarah to accompany the blog post "Why Are We White-washing Slavery in the Bible? - Part 2." The original sermon can be found here at Doxa Church's website.
[Preaching from 1 Timothy 6:1-2, from the 44:25 remaining mark to the 32:42 remaining mark.]
Today, we come to quite a controversial subject. The title of the message is “The Witness of Your Work.” ‘K? The witness of your work. And you say, how have we gotten here? Because in Chapter 5 we went from widows to elders to now masters and slaves. Like, what’s the connection point? And so, often we read our Bible like Paul’s just bouncing from subject to subject almost randomly and what holds the whole text together in Chapters 5 and 6 is the idea of honor. OK? So you see in Chapter 5 with widows, you’re to honor those who are truly widows. And if you have faithful elders that are laboring in the preaching and teaching of God’s word, they are deserving of double honor. And then in the case of slaves and masters, there’s this concept of honor that the master is due.
Let me remind you, that the entire letter from Paul to Timothy reads as a corrective. Which is to say, Paul was aware – this was a church Paul loved, this was a church Paul started. ‘K? And over just a few short years, had seen the church kinda take a trajectory that Paul’s not fired up about. Seeing these issues and errors, and Paul’s addressing what he has been made aware of. And today’s no different. We’re dealing with the subject of masters and in particular bondservants shirking their responsibility as slaves to the masters that they work for.
So. Let’s just address the awkwardness of the situation. I’m talking today about slaves and masters. ‘K? Now I know that’s not like 21st century cool. I know we should skip over this. But here’s the thing. I’m not the boss. God is the boss. ‘K? And so we’re gonna look at this and we’re also not gonna quickly change what it means. “Well, it doesn’t mean slave [jesting/sarcastically].” And, by the way, “slave” is the better translation. Slave is the better translation. So I don’t want to quickly go, “It means we’re talking about your employment! You’re an employee and you’ve got an employer and it’s that relationship.” I’m gonna say that if we’re faithful here we can get some application for you guys that are working under an employer. ‘K? But at the same time, I don’t want to short-circuit this. So it may be uncomfortable for you. Let me just say, rest assured, it’s my responsibility to bring you between the world of the first century and the world that we live in today.
One of the things that I love about coming to this text is a reminder that the Bible wasn’t written to you. ‘K? Heads up. I know that every Bible big one, you know, with the notes in the bottom, you know it’s a “life application study Bible.” You just want to apply it all! But I just wanna, I almost wanna just poke a little air hole in your balloon today and say it wasn’t written to you, it was written to a guy named Titus. Another letter was written to a church in Ephesus. Another was written to a church in Colossae. Another letter was written to these elect exiles that were scattered in the dispersion, like in First Peter. And, by the way, every single one of those letters that I just talked about right now all mention the slave-master relationship. Now, while the Bible wasn’t written to you, it was written for you. And so what I have to do is help you make the connection properly between where we’re getting this text in the first century, where we live now, and how to understand it rightly.
So, let’s put our thinking caps on for a second. Let me do a little bit of work, and then we’ll get into the text. Does that sound fair? You’re here anyway so suck it up, alright? You can’t get out, now. You watch, lock those doors. ‘K? In 40 minutes they can open again.
There was something like 16 million slaves that were in the Roman Empire at this time. In big cities like Ephesus, as much as a third of the population were slaves. So, you ready? [Pointing at the congregation in a count-off] One two slave. One two slave. One two slave. One two slave. Do you get an understanding of what’s going on and in the congregation. K? So one in three in big cities were slaves. There were many, thus, in the church that were slaves. They have some estimates that in the church there were even more than that third of the church being slaves. And so there were also masters in the church, those who were slave owners. And when you read “bondservant” or “slave,” the issue that we have in our American context is that we immediately read what into that? We read American chattel slavery into this text. That is an inaccurate way of reading and understanding this workable economic system that was built into not only the first century, but centuries back in the ancient near-eastern culture.
If I can give you a little bit of a background, slavery has roots that go all the way back to the Old Testament. And when you understand this rightly, it gets brought up in your college classrooms about why Christianity is so bogus, because it’s got slavery in there. But most people don’t seem to understand the kind of slavery that’s going on. When you look at slavery in the Old Testament, what you see is that there was a number of ways someone became a slave. Some were slaves out of being prisoners of war. Right? They were captives that were captured, and instead of killing them, they put them to work. You can see examples of that in Numbers Chapter 31 and Deuteronomy Chapter 20. There were often times that widows would take their sons and sell them into slavery to be able to pay for bills, or often people would even sell themselves into slavery. It’s basically working a contractual agreement with someone over an extended period of time to pay off significant debt someone may have had.
So when you think of slavery, think of this indefinite relationship forever. And it was always this negotiated contracted period of time, often long term implications there, which could sound like a bad thing. Or, in the context of true Old Testament slavery, long term employment was actually a good thing and it was a good security and peace for yourself that you knew work was coming. When we think about slaves, we’re talking about primarily domestic servants. That’s the word doulos here in the Greek. Excuse [verbally stumbles] – yeah, the Greek. Doulos. Domestic employees that would have worked as if you had a cook in the house, they would have been a slave. If you had a teacher for your kids, they were slaves. If you had a doctor for your family, they were a slave.
So we’re not talking about low-level, uneducated sorta a lot of the mentality we talk about generally speaking. This was cooks, this was household managers, this was field workers, this was teachers of children, physicians, on and on you could go. They were contracted in some sort of long-term, submissive service and, get this, they would be paid up-front for their work. They would receive housing, they would receive clothing, they would receive food, and they would receive extra money on top of that for the work that they did.
And you go, well, what about them being treated poorly? Well if you read the Old Testament you will find that it is full of rights and privileges to slaves. They had religious rights. They were allowed sabbath rest and they were allowed to participate in ceremonial festivals and festivities. They had civil rights. If you were injured by your master, you were to be set free according to Exodus 21. If they could see that you had premeditatedly been intending to kill your slave and you did, you were up for the death penalty yourself. Slaves had social rights. Slaves could marry. They could have children. And when they left they could all go free. And while they were under the care of their master, the master was to support the entire family. They were, in fact, considered extensions of the family. And you can see that at the end of the ten commandments in Exodus 20:17, that says while we’re not to envy other people’s spouses, it continues on with male or female servants, as well.
Slaves had economic rights, believe it or not. They could acquire property while being slaves. They could even hire slaves to do the work they didn’t want to do. We call that sub-contracting out your work. ‘K? And you could give the less fun stuff to somebody else to do who needed to pay some bills. This, friends, was a workable economic system. And if you look into the history of it, slavery in this context was often preferred to freedom because of the peace and security and an economy when it was hand-to-mouth and you were surviving on a day-to-day basis was long-term support and long-term peace of mind.
This is far different than the race-based slavery that was wicked from our history. This was not a race-based slavery. Don’t think ratty clothes. Don’t think shackles on the ankles. Don’t think whips and horrible treatment. Think that some slavery was so good in relationship with the master that the slave would willingly use an awl and put it through the ear of a slave who was saying “I don’t ever want to leave, I want to be here for life. This family is my family and I love serving in this capacity.” There’s a very different word about slaves than we’re often used to because of our context.
Now, that being said, it’s not to be said that there weren’t abuses, because there were. The reason that there were abuses was because people were being sinners. ‘K? So it wasn’t necessarily that the system was broken, but that the people that were within the system were broken. And they were sinners and they have absolutely had circumstances historically where you can see abuses to this system by sinners. When you fast-forward to the first century you’ll see that the Greco-Roman world of the day, slavery was woven into the fabric of their culture. And for about 200 years right before the first century, which is when this [the book of 1 Timothy, the topic of the sermon] was written, there were severe abuses in the Greco-Roman world regarding slaves. And right before the first century, Roman laws were established that were basically humanitarian efforts to take care of slaves much better and even provide emancipation for slaves. So it was actually a stunning time in history because it had gotten a lot better even within the Greco-Roman world.
Now, laws can’t stop sin in the human heart, but all of this helped significantly. So, that being said, I want you to notice something. As you look at the text today, what you’ll notice is that Paul’s corrective to the church is not to overthrow the system. Because Gospel transformation is aimed at people. The Gospel transforms people and Gospel people permeate society. ‘K? The gospel, how the gospel changes corrupt realities within systems is from the inside out, just like their changes. [Transitions to next part of sermon.]