1 Timothy 6 – Independence Day and the Christian in Chains

1 Timothy 6 Bible with Green and Blacks Organic 60 Percent Cacao Mint Dark Chocolate

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Today’s Passage1 Timothy 6

Yesterday, I listened to a story on NPR’s Here & Now about the history of Independence Hall in Philadelphia and its role in contemporary Independence Day celebration. The story begins at 15:21 here, and I was struck by National Parks Service Ranger Adam Duncan’s remarks on the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s early draft included a passage indicting King George III for fostering the slave trade in North America. The document’s editors removed the anti-slavery passage from the final Declaration of Independence, and it would not be until January 1, 1863 that the Emancipation Proclamation would legally free American slaves. (EDIT: technically, with the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union declared slaves in the Confederacy to be free, and only in 1865 would the 13th Amendment to the Constitution establish the illegality of slavery in America. Thanks for the correction, Randy!)

So today, as Americans celebrate their freedom and independence, what better topic for us to return to than the Apostle Paul’s views on slavery?

It’s not my intention to gloss over Paul’s other points and instructions in this chapter, or to give them short shrift. He takes a strong stand for the orthodox position of the gospel and the teachings of Jesus Christ in the early verses. He opposes “a morbid interest in controversial questions and disputes about words” leading to “envy, strife, abusive language, evil suspicions, and constant friction” (4-5). And few would dispute the value of his teachings on contentment: “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction” (8-9). It’s sound advice; few things wreck your peace like pursuing wealth and neglecting gratitude for what you have.

But as he concludes his letter to Timothy, Paul gives him instructions for slaves. He states:

All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against. Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. (1-2)

Let’s be clear on what he’s advocating. He instructs slaves to respect and esteem their masters, and particularly to serve Christian masters diligently, because in that case their labor will be benefiting a believer. Unlike the last time we saw Paul discuss slavery in Colossians 4, there’s no corresponding instruction to masters. Moreover, Paul considers slaves’ obedience to help the reputation of the gospel.

And I feel like I have to wipe the slime off my hands after I type that. I can assent that we should consider all human beings worthy of honor, as made in the image of God, and that we should disrespect no one, even if they disrespect us, abuse us, and view us as property. To be Christian is to endure and forgive mistreatment, as Christ did. But for Paul to advocate all this without any reciprocal injunction for the slave-owners in the church strikes me as irresponsible. And how can he say that slaves’ submissive cooperation with their masters, especially their Christian masters, aids the spread of the gospel–implying that God wills Christian masters to own their slaves and not release them? Why isn’t he advocating for Christian masters to release their slaves and recognize their equal dignity as fellow heirs of the grace of Jesus Christ?

It’s time for me to reveal my secret: sometimes I think Paul is wrong about certain things.

That’s not a statement to be made lightly. I’m conscious of the doctrines of Biblical inspiration and inerrancy, and I’m aware of my responsibility to my readers to teach truth. And James states, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). But my theology accommodates the possibility of error in Paul’s commands.

So: tomorrow we’ll return to 1 Timothy 6 to ask the question, “What if Paul is maintaining that it’s God’s will for some human beings to own other human beings as property, in the same way that it’s God’s will for human beings to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18) or to refrain from getting drunk on wine (Ephesians 5:18)?” I’ll respond by arguing for the Biblical position against slavery and by maintaining that the possibility of errors in Paul’s letters doesn’t compromise the integrity of the Bible as a whole. Until then, enjoy your 4th of July, and I’ll leave you with the words of abolitionist Frederick Douglass from his 1852 Independence Day address, originally delivered in Rochester, NY:

What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages.

…The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and the crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

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2 thoughts on “1 Timothy 6 – Independence Day and the Christian in Chains

  1. “it would not be until January 1, 1863 that the Emancipation Proclamation would legally free American slaves”

    Not quite. Read it yourself at http://www.historynet.com/emancipation-proclamation-text

    Those who were still slaves in the north were not freed. Those slaves in areas of the southern states which had been occupied by the northern army were not freed. He *only* was ‘freeing’ the slaves in the unconquered south. But arguably, since the south had seceded, and later had to be re-admitted to the Union, he had no authority to do so, as he was not the Confederate President. So essentially the Proclamation freed no slaves at all, at the time it was issued.

    It *did* start the process of freeing slaves as the north conquered the counties and cities of the south. The slaves of those areas were set free. But at the time of Proclamation? Not one.

    As to Paul, I think he’s not at all condoning slavery. He’s giving practical advice for people stuck in the reality of slavery to behave in the manner best for the kingdom of God. All of us are similarly slaves of the state. (You think you *own* your home? Try not paying taxes and you’ll see that you at best rent it from the state. You think you own your income? The state thinks it does, and leaves you with only as much as it thinks you need to live and not rebel against it.)

    And Frederick Douglas is awesome! Notice he is calling for proclaiming and denouncing and exposing, NOT riots.

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    1. Thanks for the catch on the details of the Emancipation Proclamation and exactly what effects it had. I’ve incorporated the corrections into the post.

      I’m not entirely convinced that Paul is simply giving practical advice for Christian slaves in his day and age, but I do think you and other similarly-minded individuals make a strong case for it. And all said, I’m inclined that way too. There’s certainly a sense in which we’re all slaves to something, and we in America tend to overlook that.

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