By the year 1860, just prior to the Civil War, the number of slaves in this country (USA), had grown to 4 million. Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave from Maryland, described slavery as a life of "perpetual toil; no marriage; no husband, no wife, ignorance, brutality, licentiousness; whips, scourges, chains, auctions, jails and separations; an embodiment of all the woes the imagination can conceive."
1. Many of the great political leaders of the time accepted the institution of slavery. Andrew Jackson, for instance, owned a plantation that was worked by slave labor. Those who wanted to do away with slavery felt as did New England historian Richard Hildreth who considered slavery to be "a far more deadly and disastrous thing, more fatal to all the hopes, the sentiments, the rights of humanity, than almost any other system of servitude which has existed in any other community."
2. When we in this country think of the concept of slavery, these are the images which come to mind. But is this what it means when Paul describes believers as "slaves?" Instead of thinking in terms of black slavery, we must understand the experience of slavery as it was practised in the first century in the Greco-Roman world. By doing this we can clarify the nature of our being slaves of Christ Jesus.
BACKGROUND OF GRECO-ROMAN SLAVERY
Let me begin by describing the practice of slavery in the Greco-Roman world. First, a point on methodology. Since Paul was a Jew and practiced the teachings of the Bible, shouldn't we look to the Jewish customs? This is true but Judaism of the first century was thoroughly hellenized, influenced by the language, customs, and laws of the Greeks and, in turn, by the Romans. This happened to such an extent that it becomes difficult at times to know what is Jewish and what is Greco-Roman.
Paul was also a Roman citizen and lived within that culture. Therefore, we must go outside of the Bible to discover what Paul's experience of slavery was. Slavery was an accepted and important institution in the Roman Empire. There was an estimated one-to-three ratio of slave to free. During the reign of Claudius during which time Paul wrote his letters, there were approximately 20 million slaves in Italy alone.
People became slaves for a number of reasons. Prisoners of war became slaves. Yet, this accounts for only a small fraction of the slave population. People often became slaves because of poverty. Someone who could not pay his debts could be forced into slavery until the debt was paid in service. When a person was no longer able to obtain food and shelter, that person might make a contract to become a slave. Similarly, if a baby was not able to be cared for, it could be made the property of a slave owner. There were some who hoped they could become slaves on a wealthy estate and be promoted to a high position. The children of slaves also became the possession of the Master. This, in fact, was the usual method of slave production.
The relationship of the slave to the master was often affectionate. One author writes, "Though by nature an inferior being, the slave was a member of his master's family, one whom the master 'loved' and punished paternally and from whom he expected obedience and 'love' in return."
Slaves performed a wide variety of tasks in the Greco-Roman world. It has been thought that slaves functioned largely in agriculture. In reality, large estates were worked by sharecroppers and hired laborers and only partially by slaves. Most slaves were domestic help. The household, made up of husband and wife, their children, slaves and freed slaves who were still obligated for service, was the most important social unit in the Roman Empire.
Slaves were involved at every level of life in the household. Here are some of the duties of slaves according to the ancient sources: They took care of finances; prepared the food; dressed the householder and his family; nursed the family when sick; guarded the estate and the family; read poetry; reminded the master of people's names; provided background music at dinner; served as messengers and doorkeepers; and the women were sometimes concubines. Slaves also held positions in government, were physicians, grammarians, philosophers, architects, singers, actors, artisans, traders, and shopkeepers.
According to the custom of the day, the ultimate outcome of owning a slave was to set it free. There was no law that stated that slaves eventually had to be set free but masters were under a moral obligation to one day free their slaves. Sometimes this happened at the death of the master. A slave could buy freedom or someone could pay a price for a slave's freedom. It was considered wrong for a slave to ask to be set free, but could go to another slave-owner and ask him to petition the master for the slave's freedom. This seems to be the case with Onesimus in Paul's letter to Philemon.
Freedom was sometimes given as a reward for loyalty. In one case, a woman was set free because she bore four sons who became the master's slaves. Once freedom was attained the freed person could not be reclaimed as a slave. Sometimes a slave could actually be adopted by the master and inherit equally with the natural sons. It is important to note that a freedman still had obligations to the master such as showing honor by daily visits, turning over a percentage of income, and performing duties of business.
PAUL'S PICTURE OF THE BELIEVER AS A SLAVE TO CHRIST
With this in mind, let's look at how Paul pictures the believer as a slave to the master Christ Jesus;
POINT ONE: Through the death of Jesus Christ we were freed from one master to be slaves of another. In Romans 6:6,17, Paul depicts the Gentile believers as having been "slaves to Sin". Paul makes the term "sin" almost anthropomorphic - it takes on human characteristics. "Sin" was the Master. But by their mystic participation in Jesus' death and resurrection, they have been set free from a cruel master to become the slaves of God. Now the believer should no longer function as a slave to the old Master but remain loyal to God. The new owner has much more to offer. For the "wages" (a term sometimes used for the wages paid to a slave) of the Master "Sin" is death, "but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Master".
Paul writes to the Galatian church to admonish them not to try to become slaves again to the type of religion they experienced as idol worshippers by attempting to follow rigidly the law of Moses.
So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world (Gal. 4:3) "Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God; or rather are known by God, how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?" (Gal. 4:8-9).
Let me ask you, whose slave are you? Are you still a slave to sin or have you become God's slave? If you are a slave of the Master Christ Jesus, why did you become His slave? Was it because you felt there was some personal gain in the community by being a respectable church-goer? That kind of a slave would be classed as a "bad" slave; a slave who only had his own interests in mind and was not committed to serving the master. Or are you trying to pass yourself off as Christ's slave because Mom and Dad are Christians and go to church? While this type of second-generation slave was desirable in antiquity--the slave didn't know what freedom was like, so it didn't feel the loss, it can also lead to apathy and even hypocrisy. Or did you become a slave of Christ because you felt the spiritual poverty that exists apart from a deep commitment to God? In my opinion, being a slave of Christ is so much more fulfilling than being a slave to self and to temporary and fleeting objectives. If you are a slave of the Master Christ Jesus, what kind of a slave are you? Are you faithful to God in every duty you are given? Or are you like the slaves Paul talks about who want to continue serving the old Master? Are you this kind of runaway slave from Christ, someone who thinks that things were better with the former master?
POINT TWO: There are various occupations for the "Slave of Christ Jesus" Paul called himself a "slave of Christ Jesus" (Rom. 1:1) and considered himself a slave to those to whom he ministered (1 Cor. 9:19; 2 Cor. 4:5). He also called his fellow-workers "slaves": Timothy (Phil 1:1), Epaphras (Col. 1:7; 4:12), and Tychicus (Col. 4:7). These "slaves of Christ" were all missionaries. Is the only occupation of a slave that of a messenger? Of course not. Slaves performed the duties of many different occupations. In the same way, we can be "slaves of Christ" by fulfilling our duties in whatever occupation we have prepared for. In God's household, the church, we need people who can use their talents. The church needs accountants to help with maintaining the finances. The church needs entrepeneurs who know how to keep a business going. The church needs computer literate people to help bring it into the modern age. The church needs people to keep buildings in good repair, who are willing to clean, who are able to prepare refreshments, who take care of infants and children. The church also needs ministers who can help when people are hurting and teachers who can instruct in doctrine those who are doubting. As you know, I am currently trying to prepare for a career in teaching. I consider it to be a noble profession and one of high status. However, I was disappointed, while researching this topic, to read about an incident in which a Greek slave fell from a tree and broke his leg impairing his ability to work. Someone remarked, "That slave has just become a teacher."
POINT THREE: God made us His slaves in order to free us and adopt us as His children. If you are still not happy with the slave imagery in Paul then notice what the final outcome is. In Romans 6, we saw that we have become slaves of Christ Jesus having been freed from our previous master. But then in chapter 8 Paul says that we not only are no longer slaves as before, but now we have received adoption as God's children and have become recipients of his inheritance. When Paul writes to the Galatians he emphasizes the total freedom that is their's.
But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem1 those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, 'Abba, Father.' So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir. (Gal. 4:4-7) Does that mean that we are free to do whatever we want? First of all, it was argued in antiquity whether a child of the master actually had any more rights than a slave. The child still must obey the Father, the Master of the household. And the Father will punish the child for his sins. So a child really had a lot in common to the slave. We are not able to do as we please because, secondly, a freed slave remained in a close relationship of obedience and homage to the master. The freed slave was often expected to show up at the former Master's house to say "Good Morning" and "Good Night". God has freed us from slavery and made us his children, and many of us have to be classed as "ingrates" who can't even pray a "Good Morning" or "Good Night" to God. Just as the Master provided the freed slave with a livelihood, God continues to care for us. But we find it difficult to share the profits with God. God also wants us to share in his business of reconciling the world to himself, but too often we find other ventures that we feel are more lucrative. As freed slaves of Christ, we still are obligated to God. But as his children, we enjoy a special relationship and the prospects of God's inheritance.
This image of the master and slave is
important for the way Paul describes our relationship to God through
Christ Jesus. It is not an image that should make us think of a
brutal existence and an impersonal servitude. Rather, we should be
grateful to be set free from our former enslavement and now to have
the most gracious and loving Master. Not only this, but we have also
been set free from slavery and to have been adopted as children of
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