1 Timothy 6:1-2
There are some who would have us believe that Jesus came to turn the social structures of the world upside-down. That’s not true. Now when the Kingdom comes in its fullness, the first shall be last and the last first (Matthew 19:28-30), and we are certainly to do all we can to alleviate poverty and sickness and distress wherever we find it. But Christ did not come to destroy the social order whether we are talking about marriage or government; these are of divine institution. Instead, he came to sanctify them. Sanctification betters them in the sense that they should now be ordered in a Christlike manner serving him and his Kingdom.
One such institution at that time was slavery. This troubles people today who rightly find slavery abhorrent. We should note that the New Testament nowhere condones slavery; on the contrary, it condemns outright the enslaving of people which Paul does in this very letter (1:10; also Revelation 18:13), and I have said elsewhere that I consider Paul’s letter to Philemon the “Emancipation Proclamation” of the New Testament. We should also note that slavery in the ancient world was not based upon race as it was in America. It could sometimes be driven by economic necessity as the ancient world was not what we would call “upwardly mobile.”
But the Church did accommodate it. Why? “So that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled.” So the apostles commanded slaves to be obedient to their masters but sanctified such obedience as it was rendered as unto Christ (Ephesians 6:5-7). Likewise, masters were commanded not to threaten understanding that they both served the same Master in heaven who shows no partiality (Ephesians 6:9). It seems from the context here that slaves in Ephesus were taking advantage of their believing masters. Paul condemns this as unloving and lacking integrity. In short: 1) the institution of slavery was a mainstay in the ancient world; 2) slaves were coming to saving faith in Christ; and, 3) the ancient world lacked democratic institutions, to say the least. Moreover, the Church herself was a powerless and persecuted institution. And above all, the gospel needed to be preached.
What? Does the advancement of the Kingdom and the spread of the gospel mean more than my personal freedom, convenience, or happiness? Why yes, it does. By the nineteenth-century, cultural attitudes had changed. But let us never forget—the worst slavery of all is slavery to sin of which the institution of slavery is that most horrifying mirror image (John 8:34-36).