Let each man abide in that calling wherein he was called. Wast thou called being a bondservant? Care not for it: nay, even if thou canst become free, use it rather. For he that was called in the Lord being a bondservant, is the Lord’s freedman: likewise he that was called being free, is Christ’s bondservant. Ye were bought with a price; become not bondservants of men (1 Corinthians 7:20-23).
Slavery– the very word evokes powerful feelings. Some of the darkest chapters of human history involve the enslavement of some people at the hands of others. The concept of slavery is entirely abhorrent to modern eyes, a tragic reminder of human sinfulness and rapacity. We have a great desire to move on and to get away from such a practice.
Our Bible translations seem to reflect this same impulse. Many times we will find the word “bondservant” in our translations. Somehow “bondservant” does not sound as bad– but it should. The Greek word doulos means “slave”– and that is not only what Paul calls himself (Romans 1:1), but in fact all Christians (1 Corinthians 7:22-23)!
When we think of slavery today our minds tend to drift toward the practice of slavery in America from the 1600s through 1865. While the Bible was used in fast and free ways, both to justify and to condemn that practice, slavery in Paul’s world was a bit different from slavery in America. In the ancient Roman world, slavery was sometimes the result of birth, but just as easily could have befallen a prisoner of war or someone who fell into too much debt. While some slaves were sent to mines or to do otherwise unpleasant and difficult work, most were domestic slaves, performing different functions for their masters and mistresses. The life of slaves could run the gamut– some had very cushy and comfortable lives, while others were as miserable as we could imagine and then some.
Yet the one constant with all slaves throughout time has been the desire to be free– or, if nothing else, such would likely be our desire had we ever been enslaved. We find freedom to be so important, and we cannot imagine what it would be like to be a slave.
The Bible’s attitude toward slavery has posed a conundrum for years. God does not wholeheartedly embrace the practice, but He also does not wholeheartedly condemn it, either. This has frustrated many believers for generations. How could God countenance such a terrible institution? Why was it not condemned outright?
As we can see in 1 Corinthians 7:21, 23, it is not God’s will for believers to be slaves of men. If a person is a slave when called, and he can obtain his freedom, he should. Believers should do everything in their power to avoid being enslaved to men, for it often leads to compulsion to do things one ought not do. It is easier to serve the Lord and His purposes unhindered by the expectations of an earthly master.
But the principles of Christianity transcend social structures. The emphasis of Christianity is on God’s Kingdom, not one’s position amongst men. Those who are appointed to eternal life and great things in God’s Kingdom are often those who are debased and despised among men (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:26-27). As Paul says– the earthly slave is the Lord’s freedman, while the earthly free man is a slave of Christ (1 Corinthians 7:22).
The Kingdom of God certainly upsets the social structures of the world, but not by direct assault. Government is to be respected and obeyed (Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:11-18); each is to remain in the position he had when called (1 Corinthians 7:24). In fact, one is to be better at whatever one does or is, seeking to reflect Christ as husband or wife, parent or child, slave or master (Ephesians 5:22-6:9). No ruler or authority could come and declare Christianity to be subverting existing social systems through direct, explicit condemnation of the ruler himself or of the prevailing ideas of the time.
Instead, the subversive nature of the Kingdom derives from its egalitarianism. In Christ man and woman, Jew and Greek, slave and free, rich and pauper, are equal (Galatians 3:28). In Christ there is no “other” to dehumanize or degrade, for every person is precious in God’s sight (1 Timothy 2:4). When you assemble with fellow Christians, including your own slaves, and jointly participate in Christ, it will be a lot harder to keep them as your slaves the rest of the time. This is why the dignity of man increased as Christianity was promoted.
Such things, however, cannot be forced. Instead, as Paul explains, it is always best to serve God in whatever circumstances we find ourselves. Paul wrote passionately to Philemon to save Onesimus, so we know that he has some level of sympathy for slaves. Ultimately, however, freedom is not the goal– salvation is the goal. Better to be a saved slave than a condemned freedman; therefore, it was best to serve God as a slave, understanding that in the Kingdom even a slave can be adopted as a son of God (Romans 8:15-17)!
In the end, the question is moot, for, as Paul indicates in Romans 6:16-22, we are all slaves to something. We do not particularly appreciate this perspective, yet it is needful for our sake, for, as Paul says, we were bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:20, 7:23). We glorify the idea of “redemption” and being “redeemed” from sin, but do we remember that redemption really means purchase, and that if we have been bought, we are no longer our own?
Slavery, in and of itself, is only a problem if we have made an idol out of “freedom,” and if we are deluded about the way things really work. In reality, far too many people have used their “freedom” to enslave themselves to taskmasters far worse than the slave drivers of the past. People all around us are enslaved to various passions and lust, being led astray by their own impulses, and in terrible straits. They are slaves of sin. But thanks be to God that we have been given the opportunity to turn away from such taskmasters and to become slaves of Christ, to live for Him and His purposes according to His dictates. Slavery is not optional; the master we choose to serve is. Let us be slaves of Christ, seeking His will, no matter what circumstance in which we find ourselves!
Ethan R. Longhenry