Slaves and Their Beloved Masters

(1 Timothy 6.1-2)

Jason Procopio

It’s good to be back—last weekend I was in Portland, Oregon visiting some churches, trying to raise additional support for our church plant here. And two things struck me as I was sitting there, surrounded by men and women I had never seen, who were praying and singing to Jesus alongside me. The first was that you all had done exactly the same thing just a few hours previous (Portland is nine hours behind Paris). The second was that all of those people surrounding me, whom I’d never met, were family—they are every bit as much my brothers, my sisters, as you all are. And though I don’t know them all now, I will have an eternity to grow to know them all.

Of course this was on my mind, in part, because of what we’ve been seeing these last few weeks in 1 Timothy. Paul begins chapter 5 by saying (v. 1-2), Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, 2 older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity. He’s reminding Timothy of what the church really is: the family of God. 

Christ lived, died and was raised to reconcile us with the Father, so that he may adopt us as his children. Through Christ, we are no longer enemies of God, we are no longer outside of the province of his promises, but we are citizens of heaven, members of the household of God—which means that we are all brothers and sisters, God’s adopted children. 

Often we still base our love for others on their “lovability”—we love those who are lovable, but for those who give us a hard time, we don’t give them too much thought. But unity with Christ means unity with the church—you can’t have one without the other! As John says in 1 John 3.14, We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. 

So Christ died and was raised to build a household, a family of God which transcends cultural and racial boundaries; the love that we have for other Christians is a familial love—and this familial love produces radical changes in our relationships. These transformed relationships are the focus of what Paul’s been saying all throughout chapter 5—in v. 3-16, Paul talks about widows in the church as the church’s mothers, or her sisters; so Paul calls the church to provide financial support and protection for these widows. Then in v. 17-25, he talks about elders: the familial love produced in the church for Christians extends to the church’s leaders as well, so Paul calls the church to provide materially for the elders, to respect them and to lovingly hold them accountable for their actions (as any loving family does).

Up to now, the transformed relationships Paul has described are perhaps a bit extreme for some, but they are not necessarily surprising—most people can see how it would be good for a church to provide for a widow in that church, if she had no other means to provide for herself; most people can see why a church should pay their pastor, why they should respect him and hold him accountable. But chances are good that we still don’t entirely grasp just how deep these transformed relationships go; we may still imagine that there must be a limit to the unity to which he calls us. So in order to dispel that idea, and to show us just how radically different our relationships to one another should be, Paul gives an example which is off-the-charts extreme. It is, in essence, the most difficult context imaginable in which to show one brother’s unity to another: the context of slavery—and particularly, a context in which a Christian slave works for a Christian master. I understand that the title of this message—“Slaves and Their Beloved Masters”—could be shocking to some; and that is exactly the point. Paul presents us here with a profoundly shocking situation, to drive home to us the depth of change that the gospel is meant to produce in us.

1) Slaves and Masters (v. 1)

Now, because this context is unthinkable for most of us (and rightly so), we need to do a little homework. This letter to Timothy was written in the mid-first century A.D. We’re not exactly sure where Paul was when he wrote it, but Paul is writing to Timothy in Ephesus, which was still under the rule of the Roman Empire. This setting is very important, because it will help us see why Paul writes the way he does. Slavery was not merely present in Greco-Roman society—it was deeply engrained in the culture itself. All wealthy people had slaves, sometimes hundreds of them; they were considered essential to society itself, for they were the laborers—they were not merely domestic servants, but farmhands, “clerks, craftsmen, teachers, soldiers and managers.” John Stott puts it this way: “It is believed that there were more than fifty million of them in the Empire, including one third of the inhabitants of Rome. In consequence, to dismantle slavery all at once would have brought about the collapse of society.”

This is, of course, a big problem for society, because slavery undermines a person’s very value as a human being. And if the Bible said nothing about this, we would have every reason to throw this book away as fraudulent. But it does—for example, look at the way Paul describes slavery in v. 1: Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants… Yokes are made for animals—for horses, cows, and oxen. With a couple of rare exceptions, this image of a yoke is a profoundly negative image when applied to a human being, an image which speaks of oppression. In addition, elsewhere in the Bible, Paul and the other biblical writers speak at great length about the fact that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus are to be cherished and cared for as image-bearers of God. If one takes all that the Bible says about humanity and applies it to this subject, it is clear as a bell that slavery undermines everything we are as humans. 

But these things take a lot of time to be fully realized; if Jesus or the apostles had attacked every unfair or inhuman institution set up by sinful men, the very society in which they ministered would have fallen into anarchy. (Indeed, perhaps the most inhuman institution of them all, crucifixion, was not only not abolished at the time, but the means by which Christ accomplished his greatest work!) The maintenance of some order in society was necessary for the gospel to go forward (which is, in part, why Paul told Timothy to have the church pray for the governing authorities in chapter 2). In other words, God is never in a hurry; he knew perfectly well that those areas in which the gospel went forward would be the first to do away with slavery eventually, because of what the gospel says about our value as human beings.

In the meantime, however, slavery was still omnipresent in Ephesus—so Paul uses the example of slavery to show to what extent the gospel changes our relationships with those outside the church, and with one another. V. 1: Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. 

Paul gives a blanket statement here—this should be the attitude of Christian slaves in general toward their masters in general: they should not only not resist their masters or revile them but regard [them] as worthy of all honor. Now why is that? Why does Paul say Christian slaves should honor their masters? He gives the answer: so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. 

Like I said, at the time that Paul wrote this letter, slavery was an institution which was practically unquestioned, and in which slaves had absolutely no recourse to fight back—they had no one to call on, no one to come and fight for their cause alongside them. Their only means of “fighting back” (so to speak) was to disrespect their masters, to work less well because their work was unfair.

But, Paul says, the gospel should so reorient our thinking that no one who understands the gospel—even in the worst situation imaginable—is thinking of himself, but of Christ. The Christian’s top priority, once he knows Christ and is saved by Christ, is no longer his own happiness or well-being, but the establishment of God’s kingdom on earth through the spread of the gospel. A Christian who understands the gospel—even in the worst situation imaginable—is not thinking of himself, but of others…even if those “others” are cruel. I know this sounds harsh, but think about the attitude our Lord displayed toward those who hated him, who were cruel to him, who reviled and abused him. As Isaiah prophesied of Christ (Isaiah 53.7), He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. He made himself nothing, suffering for the good of his enemies. In this scenario, we were the enemies, we were the abusers, and he made himself nothing so that we might know him.

By the same token, in this context, at this time, a Christian slave who dishonored his master because of the unfairness of his slavery not only poorly reflected Christ’s attitude toward abuse, but also toward those who were in positions of authority over him. Christ submitted to those in authority over him, even if their authority was temporary and voluntarily given. He submitted to Pilate, by allowing him to send him to the cross. He submitted to his own mother at the wedding at Cana (and, surely, at many other points in his life). And ultimately, he submitted to God the Father, by drinking the cup of suffering that the Father had given him.

Paul is saying that at this point in history, a Christian slave who honors his earthly master despite the unfairness of that submission actually reflects the gospel to his master. Precisely because it was so unthinkable, it bore a powerful witness to the name of God and the teaching of the gospel. In other words, a Christian slave’s submission to his master was, at this place and at this time, a powerful tool for evangelism, for the spread of the gospel. Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled.

2) Christian Slaves to Christian Masters (v. 2)

Now Paul turns to a slightly different situation, which we modern Westerners will find even more unthinkable: a situation in which a Christian slave may be subject to a master who is also a Christian. V. 2: Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved. This is unthinkable to us because we can’t imagine why any Christian would ever accept to own a slave! It is true that this is a dark point in the history of Christianity—we don’t understand why it took so long for some Christians to see the atrocity they were committing in owning slaves, even if they treated them well. (And indeed, it took a long time: some absolutely solid Christians such as Jonathan Edwards, as late as the 18th century, owned slaves.) 

But again, it’s important to remember the context. Slavery was not even remotely questioned at the time; it was an aspect of society that was so ingrained in the culture that no one thought twice about it. Christianity was still gaining traction; it was far from the main religion at this time. So it is easy to imagine the situation Paul presents here. What are these men to do, if a slave who is a Christian discovers that his master has become a Christian as well? 

The possibility that Paul mentions is that a slave would disrespect his master because his master is a Christian: Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers… Why would a slave be more likely to disrespect his master on the ground that he is a brother? Well, what would you do, if you were this slave, and you discovered that your master was a brother? When I first moved to France there was a period during which I had to return to the United States for three months, while we waited for our marriage paperwork to come through in France. During those three months I needed a small job, just to have some spending money, and at the time my brother Jeremy (whom some of you know) was managing a local cinema. So he gave me a job. This was a strange experience for me, and not entirely comfortable. It’s not an easy thing to take orders from your kid brother. That’s not the kind of relational dynamic that you want to have with your brother. 

Now of course, this example is a far cry from what’s going on this text, and that’s why I gave it. If you think it would be difficult to be employed by your brother, imagine how difficult it would be to be a slave to your brother. The dynamic of that relationship would be nothing like that of a slave with an unbelieving master; and thus, if would be incredibly hard for a slave to continue submitting to this brother, in this position. So can you see now how huge what Paul is saying here is? He says that this slave shouldn’t only submit to his Christian master because he’s his master, but precisely because he is his brother. This is the crazy extent to which the gospel transforms the relationships Christians should have with one another. 

Now of course this situation is vastly different, but the principle is similar: were a slave’s master to become a Christian, the dynamic of their relationship would have changed; and thus, it would have been very difficult for a slave to continue submitting to this man as his master. Which is exactly why Paul says what he says—he says that this slave should not merely submit to his Christian master because he is his master, but precisely because he is a brother. 

A slave might want to fight back against the authority of his master, because he knows that his master is also subject to the Lord Jesus, and because the gospel tells this slave that he is worthy of respect, just as the master is. Now Paul has some choice words for Christian slaveowners elsewhere (notably in Ephesians 6), but here Paul is focusing on the slave, because he wants to show just how complete our transformation should be if we understand the gospel—he wants to give the most extreme example possible. So he says that a slave who disrespects his master because his master is a brother, and because this slave is worthy of respect, actually betrays a misunderstanding of the gospel. 

And here’s why (this is very important): the gospel does not entice us to consider what we deserve, but what we have already received in Christ. Seeing Christ’s generosity toward us, we are thankful and joyful; and thus we seek to show generosity to others. We were deserving of condemnation, and he was deserving of all praise and honor. And yet, what he did was exactly the opposite: he did not give us what we deserved, and he did not seek to obtain from us what he deserved. Rather, he took on himself the punishment we deserved, and he gave us the treatment that he deserved. 

So even someone in such an extremely unfair situation as a slave should not seek what he deserves, but rather should seek to honor his master. And there are several reasons why. The gospel tells this slave that his master is made in the image of God, and thus deserves respect as an image-bearer of God. But in the case Paul hypothesizes here, it goes even deeper—this master is not only a human being made in the image of God; he is a believer, which means that he is a beloved brother. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved.

The master is a believer, which means that these two men share the common experience of salvation—they have both been saved by grace, through faith—and this common experience binds them to one another for all eternity: they are now brothers, and they always will be. But it goes even further than that—this master is not only a believer; he is also beloved. He is not just “some guy”; he is not just a master, not just an employer. He is his brother, and he is beloved. 

I have an unbelieving neighbor; let’s call him Julien. I am called to love Julien, because he is my neighbor, both literally and figuratively, and Christ tells me that I am to “love my neighbor as myself.” So to the best of my ability, I love Julien. But I have to say, I don’t love him in quite the same way I love my two brothers, Jeremy and Jared. In addition to the love Jeremy and Jared deserve as human beings, as image-bearers of God, there is a familial bond there. So to come back to that period where Jeremy was my employer: in that situation, I was called to show him, in my work, the respect he deserves as a human being made in the image of God. But there was something else driving me in the way I did my work, and that was the fact that he is my brother, and I love him. So if I love him, I will work even harder to do my work admirably and to serve him well. 

3) Christ’s Love and Ours

Which is exactly the point Paul is trying to make—he is not mainly making a point about slavery, but rather he is illustrating the transformation which the gospel produces in the relationships Christians have, first, with those outside the church. We have a mission towards those who do not know Jesus Christ—and the way we react toward those who mistreat us will have an impact on the way they see Jesus; our reaction to injustice will go a long way toward convincing others of the truth of the gospel. Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled.

The gospel will also transform the relationships we Christians have with one another. As children of God, we share not only the common experience of knowing and loving and being saved by Jesus Christ; we also share a familial bond which will last for all of eternity. And this knowledge should influence every relationship we have with our brothers and sisters in Christ—even the most conflictual. It should transform all of the relationships the children of God have with one another, in such an incredibly radical way that even a slave would accept to not disdain his Christian master, but to show him all the more respect because he is a brother.

So let me ask you an honest question, and I want you to think about it honestly. When you come to church, when you engage in a conversation with your brother or your sister, when you knowingly engage in that relationship… Why do you do it? What do you hope to get out of it? What do you hope to give, and why? Paul gave us an extreme instruction in this text, an instruction which is designed to make us see how deeply our relationships as children of God should be transformed by the gospel. So given what he says here, when we engage with other believers, the first question on our lips should never be, “What good is this relationship doing me?” but rather, “Who do I have here, in front of me?” This is not simply “another Christian.” This is not a stranger—even if we’ve never met. This is my brother, this is my sister. And they will always be my brother, and my sister.

There is one simple fact that our entire lives as Christians are based on, one fact that is the reason why we come together to worship: Christ took on himself the wrath that he did not deserve, in order to give us the honor we do not deserve. Often we subconsciously rebel against those situations which we deem unfair or unjust—but thank God he did not give us what was fair or just! If God had been fair, we would stand condemned. God’s justice was manifested, but not by giving us what was just. Rather, his justice was placed on the shoulders of his Son—justice was done, but we could not have endured it; so Christ took justice on himself. He lived the life we should have lived; and he suffered and died the death that we deserve. He did not give us what was fair, but miraculously worked out his justice in the person of his Son.

And the more we realize that reality, the more we are changed by it. The more we realize Christ’s compassion on us (though we do not deserve it), the more we are driven to show compassion to others (though they do not deserve it). The more we realize how profoundly he has loved us and united us to himself, the more deeply we love those brothers and sisters to whom he has united us. You can’t have Christ without Christians—if we love him, we love his children.