The Horror and Hope in Slavery

I just confess right off that I find these kinds of things, principally clear, and I don’t know what the word is by way of application, difficult, complicated. I have so many unanswered questions in my life about how Christians relate to government, so many. So don’t expect me to have all the answers for you about why we should vote on this and should we even be voting, and should I run for office, and should we make this a crime, or is that a sin that shouldn’t be a crime.

The Complexities in Exile

The complexities in exile living are many, so just expect that, expect disagreement, expect people to criticize you if you take a stand on this or that, this strategy or that strategy. But think it through, and that’s what Peter, I think, is trying to help us do.

I should say here, Peter is written in a situation where Nero is the absolute dictator. He has power to kill whom he pleases without anybody calling his bluff. And it’s not a situation like ours, and therefore it doesn’t address kinds of questions directly that we would like it to address. We live in a country where we supposedly, in a democracy, a republic, are supposed to be involved in shaping the way things are. Well, they didn’t do much shaping in 1 Peter, much. They did want people to stop calling them evil-doers. Start glorifying God, and guess what happens if enough people do that? You might have a Christian on city council fifty years later. Then what?

Things start to get really complicated as to how he’s supposed to bring his Christian life to bear on decisions that happen to be not just moral but legal, and which things should be made legal and illegal when it comes to right and wrong. Not a clear thing for me.

Continuity and Discontinuity

I was just reading in the Old Testament this morning in Deuteronomy, part of my devotions, if someone leads you away to worship the false gods, seek diligently to find out if this is so, and if it is so, kill them, put them to death, stone them, and let all the people be involved in stoning them so that when it does, they will not do that again. So idolatry was a capital crime in Israel. Should it be today? Probably not. Why not? Crucial questions to ask. Crucial answers.

What has changed with the coming of Jesus? And I believe things significantly have changed with the coming of Jesus, over against Old Testament theocracy, that make some things, like murder, punishable by death, other things, like idolatry, not punishable by death. What’s the difference? Is it just what you can get to agree on? You can get enough people to agree. That’s dangerous, right? Majorities can be dangerous and minorities can be dangerous. So all that to say, I don’t have all the answers. But oh, there is much here that will guide us and help us. So let’s move on. I’m watching the clock. Let’s go for another 15 or 20 minutes and then we’ll take a break.

Be Subject to Your Master in Fear

Here we are at 1 Peter 2:18–20. Every place you see the word servants, it means slaves. I think the word servants is meant to soften it, but slavery then and slavery 150 years ago here wasn’t pretty. This may be a very offensive teaching, and it raises the kind of questions that I’m talking about.

So think, slaves are coming into the church here, and their masters are good or cruel, and huge questions for these slaves are, “I’m a Christian, my citizenship is no longer here. He’s not my final master. God is my Master. What does that mean?” That’s the issue. Now it’s not government anymore, it’s some kind of situation, and I think it is appropriate to broaden it out to employment, but let’s not whitewash it.

“Slaves [or servants], be subject to your masters” (1 Peter 2:18). So the same word as in 1 Peter 2:13 to government. You can see what he’s doing. He’s carrying through this principle. “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect.” And that right there is in fear. Push the button. In fear. They translate it in all respect, because, I guess, it’s too complicated to explain otherwise, but I do want us to deal with that complicatedness. In fear. And it’s not just slaves that are told to live in fear. Wives are told to live in fear. And when you give a witness, you’re supposed to do it in fear.

What does that mean? Not what you think, perhaps. Not only to the good masters who are gentle, good and gentle, but also to the unjust. Very controversial statement, right? So if you have a master or an employer or whoever who’s over you in some way and they’re rotten people, cool, unjust, his first statement is “submit,” “be subject,” for, here comes his reasons. “For this is a gracious thing” (1 Peter 2:19).

Mindful of God

When mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. Gracious thing, thankworthy, beautiful, in God’s eyes as that’s happening, mindful of God.

So when you receive unjust treatment and you don’t fight back, but return good for evil, God says, “Beautiful.” He hates what’s happening, and that heart that just trusted him, and for his sake endured, beautiful, gracious, lovely, thankworthy. One endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. So for this is a gracious thing, when mindful of God. That’s what makes it beautiful in God’s sight. Mindful of God, conscious of God, for God’s sake, in reliance upon God. God is the issue here in this moment in my life.

I’m just pause here and say, if this sounds way far away from you because slavery’s not part of your life, just think of a marriage situation. Not because it’s like slavery, but because these sorts of things happen in marriage, or a friend. Somebody treats you unjustly. Somebody says something disrespectful. Somebody puts you down.

The principle is the same: mindful of God. This sorrow that I’m now experiencing and suffering, which is unjust, I am enduring without retaliation, for God’s sake. God writes that down in a book. It wasn’t wasted. Your silence last night in response to that barrage of criticism was written in heaven. Your gentle return, a soft answer turns away wrath. Your effort to make a soft answer back when she or he spoke so cruelly was written in heaven. God liked it.

I totally believe in rewards. We’ll see how that comes out. For what credit is it if when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if you do good and suffer for it, you endure, this is a gracious thing, beautiful thing, thankworthy thing, commendable thing. A God-noticed, God-approved thing in the sight of God.

The Basic Christian Orientation

Now, then he starts into his reason. But let me just stay here for a minute. Let me step back, and we must always remember when you’re interpreting the Bible that any given paragraph is not alone. There are other things the Bible says about slavery. The only thing this says right here is submit.

Let me read you a few others. Let me see where I think I’ve got these on the overhead. Look at this: “Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about [princes].” This is Paul’s princes, not mine. “But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 7:21–22). See the principle again? You’re not yielding to the human boss master for his sake. You’re a freedman of the Lord.

“Likewise he who was free when called is a [slave] of Christ” (1 Corinthians 7:22). So if the earth has created positions of subordination for you, you are free in Christ. And if the earth has made you free, you are slave to Christ. So brothers, 1 Corinthians 7:23: “You were bought with a price; do not become [slaves] of men.” I think that has at least two meanings. One is, don’t opt for slavery in relationships. And two, if you’re a slave, you’re not a slave. You’re not. You’ve been bought. You’re free, just like we are free from government. And if you stay, you stay free. As free man.

“So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Corinthians 7:14). So, he stays. “Were you a slave when called? Don’t be concerned about that.” That’s his main point. In other words, for most of us, if you get saved at age 40 and you’re in sales, Paul’s word to you is not, “Get out of sales. There’s a lot of corruption there.” Or if you’re in government, “Get out of government, because there can’t be a Christian government.” He said, “No, no, no, no. Stay. Stay.”

That’s the basic Christian orientation: Get saved in a position. Stay. You’re the light of the world. You are a foreigner in a structure, a new alien, new light, new light structure there from the alien position that you have, from the exile position. But he says here, “But if you can gain your freedom, do it.” You see how he’s living with this tension? Basically, let’s all be out there.

Don’t everybody say, “Okay, we’re all going to be missionaries at Brook Hills.” David might like that. Probably not, because they’d run out of money real fast, and all other kinds of reasons that God doesn’t will that. And I’m sure David has taught you well on that as well as other pastors, that when Paul wrote Romans, you know it’s a missionary support letter. He’s going to Spain, he’s going to stop off in Rome. He wants them to know what he’s preaching, and so he’s going to stop off in Rome and say, “Would you send me out?” And said, “Wait a minute. I thought you wanted us to go with you.” No, he expected the whole Roman church to stay right where they were. Not go to Spain. Maybe the whole Roman church would not be right, but most of them, because he didn’t tell them to go.

So we remain basically in our structures. But there are certain ones, like this one here. If you can gain your freedom, gain it. So that is a fact about the biblical mindset towards slavery that you need to have in your mind as you contemplate the nature of that institution and submission.

The Gospel Transforms Relationships

Here’s another one. So you know the situation, the book of Philemon, written to Philemon about Onesimus, a slave who escaped. Paul led him to Christ in Rome. He’s sending Onesimus the slave back to Philemon, the master.

I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. I am sending him back to you, sending my very heart. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother, especially to me. But how much more to you, both in the flesh, brother, and in the Lord. Now there are tensions in that. Paul lives in a situation where the structures are such that a wholesale overthrow of the economic order was not evidently feasible.

And yet he is sowing seeds here and calling for relationships here that have to overthrow the institution. You cannot live long-term with these kinds of words and maintain a slave order, especially a race-based, chattel slave order based on man stealing, which is a capital crime in the Bible, which of course the American slave system was. It was based on man stealing. It was race-based. It was chattel. It could not survive, and what a tragedy that 600,000 people had to die.

My wife and I just watched the documentary, the Ric Burns documentary called Death and the Civil War. Amazing. Anything that can take you back. That’s my great-grandparents. I grew up in South Carolina. That’s my great-grandparents. That’s yesterday, historically. Yesterday. So I’m sending back my very heart. Maybe this is the whole reason why he left you, even though he ran away, is so that you would have him back no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, as a beloved brother. So whether Paul meant in that little tension-filled sentence, okay, he’s going to fit back into your structure of household, but Philemon, if you get what I’m saying, that relationship is totally transformed.

The Bible on Slavery and Masters

I think I have one more here. I’m just giving wider biblical pictures on the issue of slavery so that when we go to 1 Peter and try to understand submit we’ll have a bigger picture. Ephesians 6: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters . . . as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord” (Ephesians 6:5–8). I regard that as one of the most stunning statements in all the Bible. When I said that last night’s silence in the face of the barrage of criticism was written down in heaven, that’s what that says, doesn’t it?

“Whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord.” And why believing that is so essential for survival in marriage, in parenting, in work situations, in military situations, all kinds of situations where you are going to get stuff you don’t want and you don’t like, you don’t think is right to get being treated certain ways, either by neglect or actively.

It’s because you feel so alone. “Nobody can know what I’m going through with this kid. Nobody can know what I’m going through in this marriage. Nobody can know what I’m going through at work. I can’t talk about it because I would get into trouble if I talked about it or I put her or him or them or this child down. I’m alone in this suffering.” No, you’re not. It’s all being written down. Every moment of your returning good for evil is being written down so that you will receive back from the Lord.

What you do in secret will be cried out from the housetops for all eternity. Yes, it will. In heaven, we will celebrate the evidence of God’s grace forever, even if nobody but you knew it happened during your life. I think that’s very powerful for sustaining relationships. Just like the compost pile. Whatever any good anyone does, he will receive back. So if you are in a situation like this slave, then remember, all the injustice that you endured at work or whatever the situation is today that would correspond is not wasted.

“Whether he is a bondservant or is free” (Ephesians 6:8). And then this word to the masters, I underlined it. “Masters, do [literally] the same to them.” What is that? What’s that saying? Well, obey your earthly masters, as to the Lord, do the same things. Well, they don’t. Whatever good anyone does, he’ll receive back. Do the same things.

In other words, there is a kind of parody, a kind of equality that God looks down on this servant and this master and sees them both expected to do the same things. “Stop your threatening.” Wow. I mean slavery’s over if you obey that. Think about it. I mean, think that through. Think that through to the bottom. That is the difference between a boss and a slave master, isn’t it? Bosses can pay you a certain way to entice you to stay. I suppose they could fire you. A slave master can beat you. And he says, “Don’t threaten that anymore.” That’s pretty powerful.

This is why it had to be over. Paul was sowing the seeds of dissolution. “Knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (Ephesians 6:9). God is not impressed with your authority as a master. He’s judging you on the same standards as he judges them, and you’ve got a Master in heaven. You better start bringing your life into conformity to your master in heaven, and your Master in heaven does not treat people like this.

That’s what the church should have been doing in Alabama 150 years ago, or 1950. My church voted, in 1963, in Greenville, South Carolina, to forbid blacks to come to the church. My mother was the lone sole vote. She cried when she came home. I wasn’t at that meeting. She was from Pennsylvania. Didn’t fit. No offense to Southerners per se, but we should have been seeing things like this, and talking differently, 150 years ago, 50 years ago, and we failed, I failed badly. John Piper was a racist and a wicked teenager on this issue.

We had our rationalizations of why Martin Luther King was a commie. He was a lot closer than I was to the truth, whatever else he was.

The Meaning of Submission in Fear

So where are we? Back to the paragraph. Oh yes. Got to go back to that issue of fear. Where was it? There we go. Right here. So 1 Peter 2:18. We’ll do this one more thing then we’ll take a break. This will take five minutes at the most, and then we’ll take a break.

“Servants, be subject to your masters with [in fear]” (1 Peter 2:18). What does that mean? In fear? Translated “in all respect.” There’s more to it than respect. In fear, and there are clues.

Textual Clues

So 1 Peter 3:1–2: “Wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct.”

Or public witness in 1 Peter 3:15: “Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” Now, they do translate it fear there. “Do it with gentleness and fear.” So three times. Slaves, submit in fear. Wives, conduct yourselves in fear, and you, in general public, where you’re being called to give a witness, answer in gentleness and fear. What do those words mean?

I mean, Christians are not to be people who fear men. Don’t fear those who can kill the body and have nothing more that they can do. Fear him who can cast soul and body into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. We are to be the most radically bold, fearless, courageous people on the planet for truth. So any thought that this “Obey your masters in fear,” or “Wives, submit to your husbands in fear,” or “When you give a witness out there, do it in gentleness and fear” should somehow mean that I am cowering, or I’m scared of what they might think or what they might do to me? That’s not what’s going on. And there are reasons from the context why we know that’s not what’s going on.

We’re going to see in 1 Peter 2:25 here. “You were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” That’s the end of the paragraph on slaves. “You’ve come home to your shepherd. You’ve come home to your elder. This is meant to be. I’m home. I’m safe. My Lord meets every need. My Lord watches over me.” That’s not fear. That’s the absence of fear. So there’s one clue.

Another one is in 1 Peter 3:6 to those wives: “Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.” How do you become a daughter of Sarah? Fearless. So when it’s said, “Conduct yourselves in purity and fear,” it can’t mean live your life in terror of your husband or what people think.

And here’s the third clue. Just before it says, “Give the answer in gentleness and fear,” (1 Peter 3:15) it says, “Even if you should suffer for righteousness sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled” (1 Peter 3:14).

Free from Fear for Fear

So we know when it says to slaves “submit in fear,” to wives “obeying in fear,” to witnesses, “in meekness and fear,” it doesn’t mean be afraid of people. What does it mean? Well, here’s the contextual clue. I gave the illustration of the dog last night. That’s where I’m going, basically, but I want to see it in the text.

So in 1 Peter 3:14–15, where it’s talking about giving an answer in meekness and fear, it quotes Isaiah 8:12–14. “So don’t be afraid of them, sanctify Christ in your heart,” is paralleling, or a quotation from Isaiah 8:12. This is amazing. When I first saw this, I felt so liberated, so helped. “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear.”

Okay, good. I don’t want to be like the world in fearing death, suffering, unemployment, the disapproval of others, and not being successful. I don’t want to live in fear. I want to be free from fear. I don’t want to be an anxious person. Jesus said not to be anxious.

So yes, thank you for saying that. Nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Now that’s quoted, and Jesus is put in place of the Lord of hosts here. Amazing. In Isaiah 3:14 and 15. “But the Lord of hosts, him you shall sanctify, regard as holy. Let him be your fear, not what they fear. Let him be your fear and let him be your dread, and he will become a sanctuary.”

Whoa. Yes! That just makes sense of a hundred texts for me, on the fear of God. Oh, all the talk in the Bible about fearing and fearing and fearing God, I get it. I get it. If God is my fear, if God is my dread, God will become my sanctuary. Now, this stone of offense doesn’t apply to me. That’s another group. So for some he’s a sanctuary. For others, he’s a stone of offense. So now bring out my dog story again.

If you realize that what you should fear in God is the disapproval that God has of your running away, you see how fear makes him a sanctuary. If you run toward him, he licks your face, fights for you. If you run away, he growls, and he’ll do more than growl if you keep running. Which means fear of running away and the disapproval of running away drives you to God where there’s no fear. You run away from God, you’ve got God as your enemy. You run to God, God becomes the enemy of all your enemies. Safest place in the world, with God.

And what keeps you there? Many things keep you there. The sweetness of grace keeps you there, and the fear of running away keeps you there. So I think in all three of those places where it said that the slave should submit in fear, and the wife should conduct herself in fear, and when you give a witness, you should do it in fear, I think that means fear the disapproval of God more than you fear disobeying men. Or, I didn’t say that right. More than you fear what man might do to you here.