Free to Live As Slaves

Bondservants are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, 10 not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior. – Titus 2:9-10 ESV

In our modern-day, 21st-Century context, reading two verses addressed by an apostle of Jesus Christ to slaves within the body of Christ is always a bit disconcerting. They appear out of place and, rather than condemning the practice of slavery, actually, appear to condone it. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago in our own historical context when verses like these were used to justify slavery as acceptable and biblical. But Paul’s mention of slaves in his letter should in no way be taken as his seal of approval on the institution itself. Slavery was a normal part of 1st-Century life. It was stitched into the corporate fabric of daily existence. And while Paul’s failure to condemn it as unjust and untenable has been interpreted by some as tacet approval, this is a gross misrepresentation of the facts.

Like Jesus, Paul had a much more expansive and consequential mission in mind than the transformation of society through political and cultural innovations. Like his fellow apostles, Paul was following the lead of their teacher, the Messiah, and promoting a revolutionary new way of life that was focused on life change that emanated from the inside out. The gospel of Jesus Christ was about the renovation of the sinful heart of man and the restoration of the relationship between the Creator God and His creation.

Jesus Christ had come into a world where every human being was a slave – a slave to sin. Their status in society had no bearing on the state of their enslavement. From the rich young ruler and the Samaritan woman at the well to Nicodemus the Pharisee and Zacchaeus, the tax collector, they were all held captive by sin. And the only means of finding escape from their captivity was the gospel of Jesus Christ. Which is why Jesus told His fellow Jews, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave of sin. A slave is not a permanent member of the family, but a son is part of the family forever. So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free” (John 6:34-36 NLT).

Paul had a commission from Jesus Christ Himself to take to the Gentile world the good news regarding release from the captivity of sin. Like his Messiah, Paul was not out to foment cultural revolution or to eradicate social injustices. He was out to restore sinful humanity to a right relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ the Son.

What is interesting to note is that Paul addressed slaves at all. And he did so quite frequently. The very fact that Paul saw slaves as deserving of his attention and clearly believed them to be worthy recipients of the gospel speaks volumes. Paul did not view them as second-class citizens, but as fellow citizens in the Kindom of Heaven. It is clear from his letters that slaves were part of the early church. They were coming to faith and becoming a part of the local congregations springing up around the world. And, in some cases, slaves and their masters found themselves as members of the same local fellowships. Paul wrote an entire letter to a man named Philemon, regarding a runaway slave named Onesimus. It seems that Onesimus had come to faith in Christ and had become a companion to the apostle, ministering to his needs while he was in prison. But Paul, knowing that Onesimus was a fugitive, encouraged him to return home and make things right between him and his master. And Paul sent a letter to Philemon encouraging him to see Onesimus in a new light.

It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever. He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. – Philemon 1:15-16 NLT

Legally, Onesimus was still a slave. According to the culture of his day, he remained the property of his master. But Paul saw their relationship as permanently altered because of their mutual relationship with Jesus Christ.

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul addressed them regarding their newfound status as followers of Christ. It seems that some were thinking that the freedom they had found in Christ was an opportunity to escape their current conditions. Women who came to faith were wondering if they should leave their unbelieving husbands. Jewish males who accepted Christ were questioning whether their circumcision somehow invalidated their status as Christians. Gentile males were confused as to whether they should be circumcised like their Jewish brothers. And Paul’s counsel to them all was the same: “Each of you should remain as you were when God called you” (1 Corinthians 7:20 NLT). And he had a specific word of advice for slaves.

Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you—but if you get a chance to be free, take it. And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, you are now free in the Lord. And if you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave of Christ. God paid a high price for you, so don’t be enslaved by the world. – 1 Corinthians 7:21-23 NLT

So, in Titus 2, verses 9-10, Paul turns his attention to the men and women within the local congregations on Crete who were slaves. These individuals were just as important to Paul as the wealthy and influential. Their status as slaves in no way influenced Paul’s attitude towards them. He singled them out because they were slaves, knowing that their particular circumstance was unlike anyone else’s in the church. And he doesn’t encourage them to escape the injustice of their slavery. He doesn’t demand that their masters set them free.  No, he calls on them to live godly lives amid their unjust and unpleasant circumstances.

While many have tried to soften the edges of these verses by making them a call for employees to serve their employers well, we can’t escape the fact that this is the apostle Paul addressing a group of believers who were living as unwilling slaves, not paid employees who had the right to quit at any moment. Notice that he calls on them to obey their masters and to do what pleases them. As slaves, they really had no other choice. Refusal to obey meant punishment. Failure to please could bring down their master’s wrath. But Paul is providing them with new motivation for their behavior.

No longer were they to be driven and controlled by fear. And they were not to allow their old sinful natures to drive them to retaliation or rebellion. The sin-fueled desire to lie, steal, and disobey was to be replaced with a Spirit-empowered desire to live lives that exhibited “all good faith.” In other words, their faith in Christ was to show up in their status as slaves, “so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior.” 

The way they responded to their life circumstances would enhance the gospel message. Their response to injustice and ill-treatment would be a living testimony to the life-transformative power of the gospel. And what a lesson these individuals would be to the rest of the church as they practiced their faith in far-from-ideal conditions. Peter gave similar advice to believing slaves in the church to which he wrote.

You who are slaves must accept the authority of your masters with all respect. Do what they tell you—not only if they are kind and reasonable, but even if they are cruel. For God is pleased with you when you do what you know is right and patiently endure unfair treatment. Of course, you get no credit for being patient if you are beaten for doing wrong. But if you suffer for doing good and endure it patiently, God is pleased with you.

For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps. – 1 Peter 2:18-21 NLT

If Paul could have waved a magic wand and set free every individual suffering from physical slavery, he would have probably done so. But his job was to set free all those who were enslaved by sin and death. Paul knew that, had Onesimus run away from Philemon but had never found faith in Christ, he would have been nothing more than a former slave enslaved by sin. As far as Paul was concerned, every individual within the body of Christ had an obligation to let their faith in Christ manifest itself in whatever circumstance they found themselves. Old or young, male or female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free – it didn’t matter. What mattered was that each and every one of them had been set free from slavery to sin by Jesus Christ. And Paul drove home that point on a regular basis.

There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.Galatians 3:28 NLT

In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. – Colossians 3:11 NLT

Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:13 NLT

We tend to believe that a change in our circumstances is the key to joy, fulfillment, and contentment. But Paul would have us understand that it is the change in our relationship with God, made possible through faith in Christ, that brings us true contentment. And he knew first-hand the power of contentment that comes from faith in Christ.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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