Masters and Slaves
Slavery was a reality of the ancient world, and the modern world as well. Indeed, slavery exists in its most despicable form today in human trafficking. May the Lord take away this scourge and protect and make successful those who work to end it.
But it was a reality then. I will save for the “addendum” comments about the Bible and slavery itself; for now, let us attend to the teaching that this passage of Scripture offers that does concern what we have today: workers and bosses. First, if we work a job (and there are few who do not), we should do it “with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as [we] would for Christ.” This command of the Apostle might offend some, but it shouldn’t. We must understand that the Lord commands us to fear no one on earth (1 Peter 3:6 and the multiple places where we are told to “Fear not”), nor tremble—which is why he immediately adds, “as you would Christ.” We are only to fear our Lord as fear is an integral ingredient of worship; that is, the one you fear is the one you worship. Thus, we are to consider our work as done unto the Lord and in fear of the One who knows whether or not we are doing our best work, for we are to do all to his glory (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Second, and in the same manner, we are to do our work not to please men but to please Christ. If we seek to serve men, our work will only be as good as the reward we receive from men. So Paul reiterates that we are to do our work “as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man.” We note that in our work, it is the intention of the heart that is most important: Are our hearts pure? Whom are we seeking to please? We are first and foremost the Lord’s servants; after that, we may work any job and serve anyone we please as long as it is honorable work and service.
We see that Masters (in our case, bosses) also have the duty to be fair and not threatening. Why? Because they have a Master in heaven—the One who is truly Master. And He shall one day judge slaves and masters, workers and bosses, and without partiality. We might add that bosses should also oversee with the same purity of heart as those whom they oversee, seeking the best for them as well as the institution they all serve. We live in a world bound together economically. To the extent that we all do the best work we can (and the Christian even better), we make a better world in which to live. And this is a common grace God gives to all.
The Bible is often “faulted” with condoning slavery. I would like to address this. There is no doubt that the Old Testament condoned slavery as Exodus 21 and other numerous passages bear out. But we must also understand that slavery was a fact of life in the ancient world. And though what I am about to say is anathema to many ears, it was not always harsh and terrible. For instance, it is obvious that Abraham’s servant loved him (Genesis 24). Indeed, in the ancient and medieval world, practically everyone was a servant of someone no matter how high or low one’s place was. I say this only because we must be wary of judging a previous era by our own standards. That said, I do not see that the Bible anywhere condones the chattel slavery which existed in America until the Civil War.
And though I affirm the entire Bible, we must also highlight those places in which the New Testament fulfills the Old and fills it with “fresh wine.” We have such a case regarding slavery. I consider Paul’s letter to Philemon the Bible’s “Emancipation Proclamation.” It is obvious that Paul is telling Philemon, the slave-owner, to let Onesimus, the slave, go free. Paul also tells slaves that if they can gain their freedom to do so (1 Corinthians 7:21). And certainly chattel slavery is condemned in Revelation 18:13. And, of course, the “Granddaddy” of all passages of Scripture ultimately condemning slavery is the entire exodus account of the children of Israel in Exodus 1-15. In sum, it seems that God, for reasons of His own, accommodated slavery in the Old Testament, much like He did divorce (Matthew 19:8).
But I will be brave enough to say one thing more: God never accommodated sexual immorality: adultery, fornication, unnatural acts between people of the same sex, bestiality—we read nowhere (certainly not in the New Testament) in which God said, “Go ahead.” Paul never said that the Corinthians might visit the pagan temple and go into a prostitute once a year—and there were Christians doing it. The Scriptures do not accommodate theft, lying, abortion, dishonoring one’s parents—these are all condemned.
Which leads me to ask the question: When we look at our society in the twenty-first century, are we really better than previous societies? Some who believe that human beings can be perfected would say so. But man is always a sinner, his best works always marred by sin. Just when he thinks he has made one step forward, he makes two backward. The only progress I see in the world is that progress introduced by the Church—from which many of the abolitionists came. It was the Church which began hospitals, orphanages, and set humane rules for war, etc. We are beset with sin until the end; may we seek purity of heart before God and man before He returns