“Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 3:22-4:1).
I believe, like you (I trust), that “all Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16a). Although Paul originally had in mind the Old Testament when he wrote this to young Timothy, his statement surely extends to all Scripture, inclusive of the New Testament and his own writings (see 2 Peter 3:15-16).
But how can a passage giving instructions to slaves and masters be “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 1:16b)? What can this passage possibly say to us in the twenty-first century when slavery no longer exists in the U.S. and everyone (well, most everyone) acknowledges that it is a moral reproach? Are there ethical ideals that can be gleaned from Paul’s instructions to slaves and masters in the first century that are relevant, even binding, on us in the twenty-first? In other words, once we’ve conceded that Paul is addressing a situation that no longer obtains in our society, are there moral principles in his counsel that we might discern in the text and apply to circumstances that bear some degree of resemblance to the slave-master relationship?
There’s no easy answer to that question. When I first preached through Colossians in the early 1980’s I rather naively transferred Paul’s counsel concerning ancient “slaves” to modern “employees” and his counsel for ancient “masters” to modern “employers”. But the correspondence between the two is far from exact, making application in this instance a more difficult task than interpretation. Still, there appear to be certain principles in Paul’s instruction that apply to a number of contexts today, the workplace being one.
But before I go any further, we need to address a sticky issue. Many have argued that it is inconsistent to insist upon the “submission” of the wife to the “headship” of the husband (Colossians 3:18) while setting aside the slave/master relationship as antiquated and morally intolerable. In other words, is not the argument for why wives should submit to husbands the same as the argument for why slaves should submit to masters? If we insist on the abolition of the latter, should we not also insist on the abolition of the former? Craig Keener, for example, contends that “modern writers who argue that Paul’s charge to wives to submit to their husbands ‘as to Christ’ is binding on all cultures must come to grips with the fact that Paul even more plainly tells slaves to ‘obey’ their masters ‘as they would Christ’ (Eph. 6:5). If one is binding in all cultures, so is the other” (“Paul, Women and Wives,” 184).
There are several reasons why we can (and should) insist on the abolition of slavery while retaining the submission of wives to their husbands.
First, Scripture is known to regulate undesirable relationships without condoning them as permanent ideals (see Mt. 19:8; 1 Cor. 6:1-8). Paul’s recommendation for how slaves and masters relate to each other does not assume the goodness of the institution.
Wayne Grudem (“Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth”) explains: “The Bible does not approve or command slavery any more than it approves or commands persecution of Christians. When the author of Hebrews commends his readers by saying, ‘You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one’ (Hebrews 10:34), that does not mean the Bible supports the plundering of Christians’ property, or that it commands theft. It only means that if Christians have their property taken through persecution, they should still rejoice because of their heavenly treasure, which cannot be stolen. Similarly, when the Bible tells slaves to be submissive to their masters, it does not mean that the Bible supports or commands slavery, but only that it tells people who are slaves how they should respond” (341).
Second, the institution of slavery is not grounded in creation but is a distortion resulting from the fall. Marriage and male headship, on the other hand, are part of the original created order that antedates the fall. As Grudem has noted, “people who abolished slavery, based on an appeal to biblical principles . . . were abolishing something evil that God did not create. But Christians who oppose male headship in marriage and the church are attempting to abolish something good, something that God did create. The examples are simply not parallel” (340).
Third, on several occasions in the New Testament the seeds for the dissolution of slavery are sown. This is especially seen in Paul’s words to Philemon (vv. 12-16; cf. also Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1; 1 Tim. 6:1-2). Nothing in the New Testament, however, suggests that the same was envisioned for the relationship between husbands and wives.
Fourth, no permanent moral command is used with reference to the institution of slavery in Paul’s writings. He is obviously adapting to a temporary and ultimately repugnant social construct, but such is not the case with his instruction to husbands and wives which is consistently grounded not in culture but in creation (see 1 Corinthians 11:8-12; 1 Timothy 2:13-14) or in the relationship of Christ to the Church (see Ephesians 5:22-33).
Fifth, and finally, Paul explicitly envisions and endorses the possibility of a slave obtaining freedom (1 Cor. 7:21). He never says anything comparable to this with regard to wives and submission to their husbands.
Well, enough on that issue. In the next meditation we’ll return to this passage and determine what, if any, application it has for us today.
Seeking to be instructed by ALL Scripture,