Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to win their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for his wrong, and there is no favoritism. (Colossians 3:22-25, NIV)
In our study of Colossians, we come to an often misinterpreted passage. In his discussion of household order, Paul turns from husbands, wives, and children to discuss slavery. Some misguided interpreters in the past have said that Paul was endorsing the institution of slavery. Others argued that, while not a full-fledged endorsement, he at least didn’t call for its end. But there’s more to be said…
- Paul believed and taught that all humans were equal, regardless of gender, race, or class (Col. 3:11). That, in and of itself, contradicts the foundational tenet of slavery.
- Paul expressed that the institution of slavery was wrong. When he wrote his letter of Philemon, he told the slave owner in no uncertain terms that it was impossible for him to “own” a “brother.”
- Even here, he’s not talking about the institution, but the heart of slave and God’s love and promises for them.
Those hearing Paul’s message of the egality of the Gospel understood these amazing social concepts, which is one of the reasons why the Romans (whose entire empire was built on human slavery) persecuted the church and why thousands of slaves and freemen (ex-slaves) were flocking to the church. In fact, the church was ALONE in their position on the equality of people and the evils of slavery.
So why, we might ask, were Paul and others not more outspoken against the institution? I believe it is simply a matter of priority…first things first. Paul believed that everything changes for a person as he comes to Christ. As he explained to Philemon, though something (like slavery) may be socially acceptable before one becomes a Christian, now that he is a Christian he discovers that it is no longer acceptable and must be rejected. He’s mentioned many of these things already in the book of Colossians.
If Paul and the early church had begun a social crusade against slavery from the outset – especially one that would be economically devastating to Rome – the Christians would have been opposed in a much more violent way as political opponents. Instead, God gave them a spiritual mandate first. Lead people to Jesus first – THEN let the Holy Spirit change their hearts. Sinful social institutions will follow.
This process may seem slower, but it works. Just as Rome grew on the backs of slaves, so did the church. Only in the church, they were free and equal partners in the Gospel. Eventually the church swallowed Rome – ending Roman slavery and eventually Rome itself. By the way, the slave in the book of Philemon eventually became a Bishop!
You and I live in much different times and circumstances. We have a constitution which guarantees our rights to free speech, so we can and should call out sinful institutions for what they are. But the same principle that was present with Paul is still present with us…those institutions won’t change until hearts change first. The church has a social mission and always will…but our first priority will always be spiritual.
Perhaps it’s a good time for a reminder. If you don’t like the state of our nation, feel free to speak up. But let’s don’t do so without praying and sharing our faith first!