Today’s Chocolate: Madécasse 92% Cocoa Pure Dark Chocolate
Today’s Passage: Ephesians 6
On the whole, this All the Paul study has surprised me. I expected to encounter more friction between me and Paul; I’ve never been quite the Paul enthusiast that some of my church peers are. In my thirty-ish-year history with his writing, at times certain passages have struck me as too authoritarian, while others have seemed too theologically nebulous, too Greek, borderline pantheistic. But in tackling All the Paul here, while I’ve had to grapple with a few passages, on the whole I’ve been able to take something valuable away from each passage, dig up some good stuff and share it with you.
And then Paul starts talking about slavery.
Judeo-Christian religion has had a complicated historical relationship with slavery, to the point where I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole if Paul hadn’t brought it up himself in today’s chapter. (Thanks, P-Money.) Modern secularist critics of Christianity will assert that the Bible supports slavery, but even while some 19th-century slaveholders attempted to justify slavery with scripture, such abolitionists as William Wilberforce in Britain and Frederick Douglass in the United States were compelled by their understanding of the Bible to oppose slavery. Having seen the themes of liberty and emancipation in the Exodus, the prophets, the teachings of Jesus and the writings of Paul, I’m inclined to stand with them and assert the dignity of every human being as made in God’s image. But man, if some sections of Leviticus don’t seem to lay out the conditions under which it is permissible to own a slave. I expect at some point I’ll have to deal with slavery as a social institution and the actual Biblical position on it.
But one thing at a time. Now that I’ve written this three-paragraph introduction (dang, son!), let’s talk about Paul on slavery in Ephesians 6.
Paul bases his instructions to the slaves and masters among the Ephesian Christians on the fact that all Christians have in effect enslaved themselves to God. To the former, he says, “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh” (5), and elaborates that they are “as slaves of Christ” (6), adding “With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men” (7). And in a move that anyone within the Roman Empire would find utterly bizarre, he urges masters to serve their slaves! He tells the masters among his readers: “And masters, do the same things to them, and give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (9). No matter their social standing, all are called to “render service with good will,” to those over whom they have authority and to those who have authority over them. At the end of the day, there’s only one Master over all creation, and “masters according to the flesh” will have to answer to him for any violence or even threat of violence they issue to their slaves.
But even on a theological level, this notion is problematic. It’s been over a year since we visited Romans here at Chocolate Book, but you may recall where Paul says, “For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Romans 8:15). More recently in our memory, we have verses from Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) and “Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7). The New Testament teaching is clear: through Christ’s mediation on the cross, we become children of God, friends of God, heirs of the kingdom. The whole point of Galatians 4, with its metaphors about Sarah and Hagar, was that Christ has set us free. If that’s Paul’s position, how can he turn around and say that we’re still slaves?
The best answer I can provide is that the metaphors are intended to point out particular aspects of our relationship to God. We are set free from the bondage of the law, the obligation to carry it out and try to measure up to perfection, and the death penalty that we’ve incurred by violating it. We do stand to inherit all kinds of good things from God, gifts that we’ve already begun to receive, gifts freely given and freely accepted. But there’s a sense in which we’ve become slaves to Christ when we left behind our old master. He bought us by paying the price with his own blood, his own life, and he’s got a purpose for us. We serve him, and even as we call him a friend and savior, we also call him “Lord.”
Yes, he’ll forgive us if we screw up. Yes, we don’t have to live in fear of losing our salvation if we stray–even a little bit!–from his will. And yes, that’s the foundation, that’s the crucial truth, that’s the fundamental reality on which we stand when we say that we’re genuinely free in Christ. But we’ve still got things to do in service to him, not the least of which is treating our fellow humans humanely. We’re free, but we’re also slaves.