Early Christianity_Reading an Apostolic Letter_Acts 15

Colossians 3:22 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

22 Slaves, obey in all things them who are your masters according to the flesh; not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord:

Clearly, the apostle Paul did not condone slavery, nor did any of the apostle’s own slaves, including Paul. To understand the New Testament’s view on slavery, we must look at the historical setting. During the time of the Roman Empire, slaves were numerous in the extreme, with some individuals owning a few, while others owned hundreds, even thousands depending upon their station in life. Even some slaves were well off enough that they owned slaves as well. The Roman Empire protected the institution of slavery.

Let us look at how Christians were to deal with human governments, even those that were not favorable to Christianity. Under inspiration, the apostle Paul tells us, “Let every soul[1] be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God, and those that exist have been placed[2] by God. Therefore the one setting himself against authority has taken a stand against the ordinance of God; and those who have taken a stand against it will receive judgment against themselves.” (Rom. 13:1-2) Paul tells us elsewhere, “Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work.” (Tit. 3:1) The apostle Peter tells us similarly, “Subject yourselves to every human authority for the sake of the Lord, whether to a king as having supreme authority.” (1 Pet. 2:13) What though if a superior authority (government; king; ruler) orders Christians to do something that is against the Word of God, such as, making all evangelism illegal? Then the words of Peter and John would apply, “We must obey God rather than men.” (Acts 5:29)

The Roman Empire was not forcing Christians to own slaves. Therefore, first-century Christians did not protest or openly oppose the governmental authority of the Roman Empire, just as today, Christians should not publicly oppose or take a stand against any law that is not explicitly imposed upon them but is contrary to the moral values of God. If the United States government legalizes homosexual marriages, this does not affect the work that Jesus assigned. Yes, it is repugnant and contrary to God’s Word and nature but to get lost in trying to change imperfect humans who are alienated from God, from walking in the fleshly desires of Satan’s world is futile. We already know that it is supposed to “progress from bad to worse.” (2 Tim. 3:13) If Christians are bogged down in trying to fix Satan’s world, they will be neglecting the work assigned by Christ: proclaiming the good news, teaching the Word of God, and making disciples. (Matt. 24:14; 28:19-20; Ac 1:8) The first-century Christians respected the legal right of their fellow citizens.

In many ways, many of the slaves in the first-century were nothing more than an employee. In some cases, they were quite satisfied to be under the house of a wealthy master, who housed them, fed them, clothed them, protected them, and even treated them like family. Yes, of course, some evil masters abused the Roman Empire laws on slavery, just as some evil employers do the same to workers today. The world of the first-century was very rough and painful, even life threatening for the poor, who were uneducated, and had no real skills outside of their physical strength. Thus, they became the working class of that day. Just as we are disappointed, even outraged, at a sweat factory today that works humans like dogs in very difficult and demanding environments for a mere minimum wage, while the owner lives in a life of luxury, it was the same of the slave in the first-century. Then again, persons with good moral values, who pay their workers extremely well and treat them like family, own some companies today. The same held true for the master-slave (employer-employee) relationship under the Roman Empire.

Paul said, “Those [slaves-employees] who have believing owners must not be disrespectful to them because they are brothers, but rather must serve more readily, because those who receive the benefit are believers and beloved.” (1Ti 6:2) We did not live in the first-century, under that horrific environment so we cannot know that it was actually a blessing for a slave-employee to have a Christian master-employer, as he or she would know that the owner was under obligation to treat them right, just, and fair. (Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1) Those who were slave-employee, who became Christians, would also become better a slave-employee. “Slaves must be subject to their own masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not stealing, but showing all good faith.” (Tit. 2:9-10) Even if that Christian slave ended up with an evil master, they were still to carry out their work with a Christ-like personality. (1 Pet. 2:18-25) The apostle Paul wrote, “Slaves, obey in all things them who are your masters according to the flesh; not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord: Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” (Col. 3:22-23; Eph. 6:5-8) This Christ-like conduct would leave no reproach on God, and it might very well win the owner over to Christ.

However, while a slave was to “obey in all things them who are your masters,” this did not include disobeying the Word of God, any more than it would have for a citizen to a government. If a master asked a slave to sin against God by doing something, not in harmony with, hence contrary to, God’s personality, standards, ways, and will, the slave would have refused. Thus, each Christian would have to depend on their Christian conscience to govern whether they obeyed their master or not. This is the same today in what an employer might ask an employee to do.

Of course, a slave’s ‘obedience in everything’ could not include disobeying God’s law, as that would have meant fearing men rather than God. Wrongdoing by slaves, even when committed at the direction of a superior, would not have ‘adorned the teaching of their Savior, God,’ but would have misrepresented and disgraced this teaching. (Tit 2:10) Thus, their Christian conscience would govern. In the Christian congregation, all were the same regardless of their social standing in society. All were born again Christians, who shared the same hope as the others in the body of Christ. (1 Cor. 12:12-13; Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11) The slave-employee, of course, would have been more limited in his ability to share the gospel with others. If the master gave him his freedom; then, he could increase his activity in making disciples.–1 Cor. 7:21-23

[1] Or person

[2] Or established, instituted

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