‘Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed. And they that have believing masters, let them not despise them, because they are brethren; but rather do them service, because they are faithful and beloved, partakers of the benefit. These things teach and exhort.’ — 1 Timothy 6:1–2
There are many things in the Bible that are shocking to our human reasoning and worldly sensibilities. I find the teaching of the New Testament on slavery one of them.
In 1 Timothy 6:1-2, servants (slaves – a common occurrence in the 1st-century Roman world) were told to:
- Count their own masters worthy of all honour so that the name of God and His doctrine is not blasphemed (v.1)!
- Not despise even their believing masters just because they are their brothers in Christ, but instead to continue serving them because they are believers and loved in the family of God (v.2)!
I would think that God through Paul would command these masters to let their slaves go free and for slaves to rise up and take their freedom. How could God tell them to keep on serving? Is God endorsing slavery?
First, God is not endorsing slavery. The Biblical teaching of loving your neighbour as yourself, everyone made in the image of God, and the prohibitions against enslavement (Ex 21:16) and menstealers (1 Tim 1:10) show that God would never endorse or promote slavery. There have been debates in past over this issue, with some so-called ‘Christians’ supporting slavery. But clearly, the loving, freeing spirit of God and the gospel as it changes people will bring about the abolition of slavery. Only a cruel, sinful person would seek to enslave a fellow human being.
Second, not all slavery is the same. The worst form of slavery is that which enslaves a person based on some ‘racial’ or ethnic/cultural basis. This slavery has caused entire groups of people to be forced and/or sold into slavery and is an awful stain on the history of mankind. Another type of ‘slavery’ is what some might called ‘indentured servitude’ where a person works without pay for another person to pay back a loan or to learn a trade. This is very different from the first type and there are examples of this mentioned in the Bible because it was common in the Old Testament and New Testament times. Please understand that just because something is mentioned in the Bible and even governed in some way does not mean that it is endorsed by God or His ideal (i.e. Jesus’ teaching on divorce in Matthew 19:7-8).
Third, we are all called to be slaves of Christ and to serve others. The instructions of 1 Timothy 6 are not discussing whether slavery should be legal or illegal, instead, they are talking about attitudes and actions of believers in the situations in which they find themselves. The teaching is for the person who finds themselves a slave and then coming to Christ. Obviously, the ideal would be that they are free, but what do they do until they are free? Do they have a sullen and rebellious attitude? Just as Christ came to serve and we are commanded to serve others, so a saved slave/servant should serve even their masters with respect and a good attitude so that they might honour God and show the difference the gospel makes.
As I mentioned at the start, this is a hard thing to understand and accept, but God cares more about the honour of His name and the promotion of the gospel than our physical freedom and personal comfort. As followers of Christ, we are all called upon to die to ourselvers, to give up our rights, and to serve others generally. That’s why the commands to servants are focused on honouring God and serving others rather than rebelling and fighting for freedom. It isn’t that God didn’t want them free physically, but more than being free of slavery He wants them free from sin, from selfishness, from pride, and from idolatry. He wanted them to know the freedom of serving God and serving others for the honour and glory of God regardless of their circumstances.