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Messiah: Head Over All Things

[Notes and Resources for A Sunday School class I Teach]

I pray… that you may know what is the hope of his calling, and what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance among the saints.

Paul, apostle of Messiah Jesus

Introduction and Ephesians 1

This study guide was developed for youth Sunday School at my home church. The assignment was “Biblical Distinctives: The gospel and salvation, separation from the world, and the head covering.”

I use Ephesians as the primary text since it integrates the themes of gospel, salvation, separation, and headship.

The Gospel and our salvation is based on the victory and kingship of Messiah, who has brought us redemption as the forgiveness of our sins.

  • Christ (Messiah) is now reigning, and we share that reign.
  • The Spirit “seals” us as Messiah’s people and is the first installment (arrabon) of the inheritance.
  • The riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints astound—the Kingdom of God in full.

Believers are set apart as saints in light and do not partner with deeds of darkness.

Christ is head of the church and of everything. Any other application of headship must be understood in that light.

  1. Running course assignment: Read or listen to the entire letter at one time or at least in one day. Do this at least twice over the course of the study in at least two translations.
  2. Read Ephesians 1 and identify as many descriptors of separation, salvation, gospel, and headship as you can.
  3. Paul prays that they may have wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ so that they can grasp what three things? (Ephesians 1: 17-19)

Before God, After God Ephesians 2

Ephesians chapter two divides nicely into parallel situations which powerfully describe life before the gospel, what God did (the gospel), and life after the gospel. In class we will fill out this table. Creating or filling out your own is a powerful way to observe key themes in Galatians.

Ephesians 2:1-10Ephesians 2:11-22
Before…
But God…
After…

The Spirit and the Inheritance

Central to the gospel of our salvation is our king, the Christ. He brings marvelous gifts, the Spirit and (now partially) the inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14).

The Spirit serves as God’s identifying seal, which marks believers. The spirit also brings Jesus kingship to bear among his people. It is the first installment of the kingdom which is to be our inheritance.

AlreadyNot Yet
First InstallmentInheritance
SpiritInherit the Kingdom
InauguratedEschatology
The Already / Not yet in Ephesians 1
  • Ephesians 1:13-14
  • Ephesians 4:30
  • Ephesians 5:18-19

How does the choosing and predestination in Ephesians 1:4-5 and Ephesians 1:11 relate to the Spirit’s role as seal and down payment of the inheritance?

One theological angle would run roughly as follows: God picked out certain specific persons before creation, and independently of anything he might know about their future choices adn chose these people to be his saints. He predestined these specific people to be his adopted children manifesting his glory. The sealing with the Holy Spirit functions as a guarantee that this position of sainthood and sonship cannot ever be undone. (This would correspond to the traditional Calvinist points of unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.)

Contrary to this Calvinist interpretation of Ephesians, many believers insist that humans (at least those who have heard the gospel) have a genuine option as to whether or not they will be among God’s chosen ones, that all humans have the ability to resist and reject the grace of God, and that (tragically) some saints fail to persevere to the end. These views are supported by common sense readings of the stories, invitations, and warnings of scripture. Does Ephesians contradict these beliefs?

Before getting dogmatic about this set of theological claims we should take a closer look at what specificly Ephesians says about choosing, predestination, the seal, and the inheritance.

Filling All Things: The King and His Body

God gave Jesus as head over all things to the assembly, which is Jesus’ body and the fullness of him who fills all things in every way.

Paul, Apostle of Messiah Jesus

We are used to thinking in terms of a good heaven, unspoiled by evil, and an earth in which the struggle takes place. But the book of Revelation gives us an entirely different view. Satan’s abode was in heaven, until he was cast down, not directly by his sin, but by the Lamb’s victory. Therefore heaven no less than earth has been corrupted by evil. …The chief forces of evil are heavenly creatures.

González and González, Vision at Patmos, 108–9

Compare this piece from John Piper (text and audio)

  1. Read the following sections of Ephesians: 1:15-23, 2:18-20, 3:8-11, 4:6-16, 6:10-12, 6:18-20.
  2. What is the Kingdom of God? “Heaven” where we go when we die? A millennium between the church age and the final judgement? Whenever people do what God wants them to do?
  3. How do we participate in filling all things?

God’s kingship in (at least) 8 stages:

  • Creation
  • Exodus
  • David
  • Jesus’ Ministry
  • Jesus Death and Resurrection
  • Pentecost
  • The Church in mission and maturity
  • The Inheritance

The Gospel of Peace: Jesus creates one new humanity

The unity of the Christian fellowship is not a mere matter of theory. It is a reality which must be realized within the brotherhood on the local as well as on the inter-community level. The welcoming hand of the church must reach across all social barriers with the call of the Gospel to include all who repent into the fellowship of the church.

Guy Hershberger, “The Way of the Cross in Human Relations” ch. 22. Quoted in Rebekah Mui “Racism and the Way of the Cross” https://kingdomoutpost.org/racism-and-the-way-of-the-cross/

Does the universal church consist of a set of culturally homogeneous groups that exist separately side by side until they finally get to rub shoulders in front of God’s throne at the end of time, or are those cultural boundaries supposed to be transcended on earth at the most local level? 

Anika Fast in Reclaiming Mission
https://open.spotify.com/episode/1qxDTgeSVg6W63i6ETqE90?si=M0S1NTABQY-huyY1r6akbA&fbclid=IwAR34ABkDMtCdeWeqq9ZFw4-4KxOG9RPkoQHoSYka1pmTa8x82x74a4nmBW0&nd=1
https://open.spotify.com/episode/3lZv2ugQ8LvSgCwzNUngVR
What priority do we put on churches reflecting a cross section of the population rather than different churches for different ethnicities?

What was the deep problem with not being part of Israel? Were all non-Israelites damned?

How does God create a new People?

What is the difference between the Law, which had to be  set aside to bridge the cultural divide, and the prohibition of  porneia (sexual immorality) which Gentiles had to embrace as part of the new humanity? How do we distinguish attempts to impose mere culture on others from upholding the culture of the Kingdom that comes from being clothed with Christ?

Eleven o-clock Sunday morning has been famously said to be the most segregated hour in American life. (1950’s and 1960’s) Is that phenomenon of serious concern?

Living as the “Co-enlivened” and “Sealed”

No Partnership with Darkness: Separation from the world in Ephesians

Money Modesty and Body Modesty

  • Primary emphasis: Avoid any hint of, or the slightest endorsement of, the sins which bring wrath on the “sons of disobedience.”[1]
  • Secondary emphasis: Every pornos, impure person, and pleonektes is excluded from inheriting the Kingdom and subject to the wrath of God.

[1] “Sons of disobedience” –the ones in whom the prince of the power of the air is working—they do the willings of their flesh and thoughts. Compare 2:1-4

  1. What three sins are listed as things that “must not even be named among you” as God’s holy ones (vs. 3)? Where else are these same sins listed in the selection?
  • The various forms of evil speech inv verse 4 presumably connect to the sins which must not be named among us and which keep one from inheriting the kingdom of God. The most obvious example would be what we term “dirty jokes.” What other speech forms result in playing with or “naming” these sins?
  • There are many references to light, to what is pleasing, acceptable, or God’s will, and to what is wise. What clues are in the passage to help us flesh out what a light filled, wise, acceptable to God life looks like? Be specific.
  • What is the practical alternative to being partners with the “sons of disobedience”? How can you “expose” evil deeds without “mentioning” them?

Can someone enlivened and enthroned by God and sealed with the Spirit as a pledge of the inheritance still revert to being a pornos, an impure person, or a pleonektes?

The meaning of separation can be thought of with four S’s

  • Special to God
    • Set Apart, Holy, Chosen, Saints
    • This is foundational across both Testaments.
  • Symbols
    • Sabbath, Circumcision, Blue Fringes, Purification, Cleanness
    • This figured large under the Law.
  • Social
    • Marry in the Lord, Don’t choose fools as your best buddies, Avoid schismatic teachers, don’t associate with those who claim Christianity but walk in sexual immorality, greed, or slander
    • Listed social dimensions of separation that remain in the New Testament. Old Testament had more social separation because of symbolic separation.
  • Sin Avoidance
    • No Partnership with Sexual Immorality, Greed, or Slander.
    • This is the primary manifestation of separation in the New Testament.

The Concept of Holiness

What is the difference between holiness and righteousness? What kinds of things can be holy but can not be righteous? Pots, pans, and clothing are a few examples. It makes sense to speak of holy garments, but not of righteous garments. The Sabbath day was holy, and to be treated as holy; but the sabbath was not righteous. Righteousness can describe the character, actions, and relationships of persons, divine or human. Holiness can describe persons, but also physical items, offerings, and holidays (holy days).

The core idea of holiness is that something is set apart for a special purpose. It is not “common” but holy and so must be treated with utmost respect. Think of the fence around Mt. Sinai before God spoke, or think of the requirement to wash clothes and abstain from sexual relations in the leadup to the giving of the ten commandments. Think of the “Holy of Holies” in the tabernacle which could only be entered by the high priest once a year. Think of the death penalty for picking up sticks on the Sabbath.

The prophets thunder, however, that such external holiness as this, without righteousness is a vile mockery.  God says, in the words of Isaiah, “I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.” “Bring no more vain offerings.” (Chapter 1) Treating the things of the temple carefully and following the protocols for the Lord’s offering is of no avail when righteousness is lacking, when we rob, steal, extort, oppress etc.

“Saint” and “holy” are the same word (Greek hagios). Most English Bibles render it as holy when used as an adjective (You must be holy), but as saints when it is used to as a plural substantive to name a group of people (the inheritance of the saints).

As with holiness more generally the idea is of being set apart or consecrated for God. The designation saints is not just a statement about the morality or righteousness of believers (though it is that), but a statement of God’s choosing and valuing them as a special group.

Righteousness is moral correctness but it has strong relational dimensions, rightly related to others, and in some cases, especially in the Psalms, comes close to the meaning of loyalty. Justification is often described primarily as right standing with God and that is definitely part of the meaning of justification.

Texts: Exodus 19 and 20 Isaiah 1:1-23

In the Old Testament there is a lot of emphasis on Holiness as cultural distinction, and proper ritual and symbolism However, the Old Testament is also clear such “outward” holiness apart from justice in relationships with others is not acceptable holiness before God.

The New Testament shifts the emphasis even further toward holiness as practicing justice with others before God and greatly reduces the ceremonial aspects of holiness. However, even in the New Testament holiness cannot be reduced to simply practicing justice or morality.

The Blue Fringe Principle or the Doctrine of Affected Dissimilarity

I am not anabaptist but I attend a Mennonite church for the past 6 weeks. The draw I have is the outward look the brethren have is a witness to their faith. The women are obvious. The men can hide it if they want to but the gentlemen in this church don’t. It has been a draw for me and helped me with my concept of a world view versus a biblical view.

Karl Stine commenting on YouTube

What in the World Are We Separate From?

There are two terms in the Greek NT sometimes rendered “world” in our English bibles. One is kosmos “world”, and the other is aionos “age.” In Ephesians 2:2 both terms are piled together “the age of this world” (NRSV “course of this world”; HCSB “the ways of this world”)

Teaching about separation from the world often assumes that the audience shares the speaker’s assumptions about what fits into the category of “worldly.” In various contexts this might be alcoholic beverages, blue jeans, cowboy boots, instrumental music, working on Sunday, sporty vehicles, movies, dancing, tv, living in town, driving cars, bowling alleys, theatres, ice rinks, off-roading, atv’s, drinking coffee, celebrating Christmas or any number of other things. This background understanding is convenient for the preacher. He need not make a case against blue jeans or bowling alleys, he can simply talk about separating ourselves from worldly things and trust his audience to fill in the blanks. Of course, this doesn’t work so well when the audience has a quite different impression of what counts as worldly. The approach of this study is not to rely on background assumptions about what counts as worldly, but to work out the idea of separation from Biblical texts.

For a helpful discussion of the abuse of the term “worldly” listen to this episode from Think-Truth.org https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/how-we-get-worldliness-wrong/id1542710155?i=1000566703156 In part two, they follow up with their take on what exactly wordliness is. https://open.spotify.com/episode/2lEmPES4pmixBH76gBOKwK?si=14bac3317a2e4c69&fbclid=IwAR3CFlfGbdWNAFL5ChU3Css2GBun7SSwXfen2HpWM8mN8r_ksFyIp9BdjL0&nd=1

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"Wordliness" has had many definitions in Christian circles. Based on your perception of your church growing up, which of the following were considered worldly?

What is Headship?

“Head” is used in the Septuagint to refer to the capital city in a country and the king located in that city. (Isaiah 7:8-9)

Colossians: Used of Christ

Ephesians: Used of Christ and husbands

1 Corinthians: Used of God (The Father), Christ, and Men/Husbands

Ephesians 1:20-23; Colossians 1:15-18

Ephesians 4:15-16; Colossians 2:8-19

Ephesians 5:22-30; 1 Corinthians 11:3-12

[compare headship ideas in Ephesians and women passages in other epistles]

  1. Headship versus authority
    1. Does being “head” over someone always entail having authority over them?
    1. Many relations of authority do not involve headship in the robust sense it is used in Ephesians and 1 Corinithians. A mother has authority over her children but she is not their head. Elders in the church have authority over others but they are not the head of the church or of individuals in the church. Christ is the head not just of mankind in general but of every man. Describe what headship involves in addition to having some level of authority

The Main Line of Argument in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16

The sister’s veiling is a historic Christian practice which is elaborated in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 11:1-14. However, few American churches practice it, and the result is that churches that do practice it have generally had to put a lot of emphasis on demonstrating that the scripture indeed teaches it. Bible scholars who do not wish to insist on its practice have come up with various explanations that, they claim, show that Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 was only giving specific advice for a specific situation.

The primary goal of this unit is to push you to wrestle through the details of the passage to reach an understanding of the purpose and meaning of this Christian practice.

The central rationale for covering and uncovering rests on two principles.

  1. Of every man the head is Christ and the head of a woman is the man (=her husband?)
  2. (A) man is the image and glory of God while (a) woman is the glory of man being made from man and on account of man.  (with the clarification that neither is independent of the other in the Lord)

While there is much that is puzzling about this passage it is clear that the physical observance of covering and uncovering is based on those two fundamental realities.

Texts

1 Corinthians 11:2-16

Genesis 1:26-28; 2:18-25; 5:1-3

1 Timothy 2:8-15

Puzzling Questions

  • Headship head or anatomical head?
    • Verse three lays out three headship relations. We then learn that we should do(or avoid doing) certain things with our anatomical heads because of these headship relations. Label each occurrence of the word “head” after verse three either as “anatomical” or with the appropriate headship head. I.e. there are four possibilities for filling out verse 4 (some of them are obviously incorrect)
      • Every man who prays or prophesies with Christ uncovered dishonors Christ
      • Every man who prays or prophesies with his anatomical head uncovered dishonors Christ
      • Every man who prays or prophesies with Christ uncovered dishonors his anatomical head
      • Every man who prays or prophesies with his anatomical head uncovered dishonors his anatomical head
  • General relationship between men and women versus specific relationship between a husband  and a wife. Which is in focus in this passage? Do single women have a human head?
  • What does it mean to have “authority on ones head”.
    • Most translations take authority here as a reference to covering “a symbol of authority on her head”. What is the authority symbolized here?
      • Her authority (authorization, right) to pray and prophesy?
      • The authority her head has over her?
    • Who are the “angels” ?
      • Human messengers from other churches
      • Godly angels
      • Fallen angels
    • What do the angels have to do with covering?

Common but not particularly compelling objections.

This passage does not teach any covering other than full length hair. What Paul is arguing for is either simply that women continue a cultural practice so as not to offend the sensibilities of those around them or else it is simply a culturally specific way of expressing the more general principle he is really concerned with.

Practical Questions about Covering and Uncovering

{Polls will be available here at the proper time.}

Why do you think most churches the consistently practice covering and uncovering, extend it beyond specific times of prayer and prophecy? (i.e. why do most churches that practice covering and uncovering treat it as something to be done all day long (at least for women), rather than just something to do at church and during devotional times?)


[1] Consider this quote from Finny Kuruvilla: “The age at which a woman would begin [to cover her head] would sensibly correspond to the age at which she properly begins to be able to make spiritual exercises such as prayer and prophecy. Parents may choose an earlier age for their daughters for the sake of modesty.” King Jesus Claims His Church. Anchor-Cross Publishing, 2013. p196.

Categories
Bible

New Testament “Slavery Texts” and the Gospel

{This article was originally published on the Kingdom Outpost }

Why does the New Testament tell slaves to submit to their masters? Numerous passages give advice to slaves. Some give advice to Christian slave masters. How can this fit with the gospel of the Kingdom and the proclamation of God’s righteousness?

If we hear these “slavery texts” rightly, they can offer us fresh insight regarding the upside-down kingdom of Christ and what it means to take up our own cross and experience his life. If we hear these texts rightly we will not minimize the badness of slavery; neither will we see these texts as mere accommodations to the moral blindness of the time in which they were written. We may still wonder why the New Testament church approached slavery in exactly the way they did, but it does become clear that their approach was rooted squarely in the gospel.

While it has often been distorted, the New Testament approach to dealing with slavery is simply one manifestation of how Jesus would have us approach relationships, institutions, and structures. The beautiful thing about the kingdom is that we can approach good and bad situations out of the same basic orientation of mind and heart. For example, we don’t apply hatred to enemies and love to friends; instead we extend love toward both friends and enemies. More generally, when we face evil, we overcome it with good (Romans 12:21).

Following are three dimensions of our posture toward human relationships and institutions.

  1. We identify first and foremost as God’s child and God’s slave. All other service, whether to friends or enemies must find its proper place as part of our service to him.
  2. We operate with love. This includes both proactively doing good for others and accepting the various sufferings that result from others doing evil.
  3. We trust God’s vindication, reward, and overflowing blessing both within and beyond our present life.

I believe these three points, and more, are embraced in the call to take up our cross and live a cruciform (cross-shaped) life. The New Testament approach to slavery puts a good deal of flesh on this bare outline.

The deep problem with slavery is that masters claim what only belongs to God.

Slavery is bad. Though the New Testament gives advice for dealing with slavery, it does not call it good. Slavery is often brutal; sometimes more so, sometimes less so. The material conditions of slaves vary; some are better provided for than others. But there is one constant about slavery: the slave’s labors and living arrangements are under the control of the master.  Another person holds the (legal) right to say where one goes and what one does. This level of control should not be held by another human.

To be sure, a Christian in the situation of slavery can serve God triumphantly, but the arrangement does not befit their status as a slave (servant) of God. Paul does reassure slaves that they can serve God as “a freedman of the Lord.” But he quickly adds “Do not become slaves of men.” Jesus bought us with a price. Choosing to be a slave shows a failure to appreciate that Christ is our master. Even when Paul counsels slaves not to “be concerned about” their condition, he adds a qualifier: “But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity” (1 Corinthians 7:21-23).[1]

Servants of the Lord guard their freedom to serve him without restriction.  Israel was not to allow their fellow Israelites to be sold as slaves because they were God’s servants, whom he rescued from slavery in Egypt (Leviticus 25:39-55).[2] In the letter to the Galatians, Paul enjoins us to stand firm in freedom as sons of God (rather than living as slaves or minors under the guardianship of Torah). This freedom, though, results in serving each other through love.  Peter emphasizes freedom as well, even when he is urging believers to be subject to human institutions.

Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a coverup for evil, but living as slaves of God. (1 Peter 2:16)

The Master in Heaven Relativizes “masters according to the flesh.”

The New Testament proclaims that in Christ there is neither slave nor free (Galatians 3:28). Yet, various texts mention or imply that there were Christian slaveholders. Does the fact that slavery remained in the church represent a failure to live up to the teaching that in Christ there is neither slave nor free? Perhaps in a sense it does.[3] As we have seen, slavery is definitely not to be accepted as a good, or even neutral, thing. Slaves should avail themselves of opportunities to be free. The letter to Philemon is often seen as indirectly requesting that Onesimus be set free. However, the proclamation that there is neither slave nor free in Christ Jesus also finds its application even when the legal institution of slavery remains in place.

In a certain sense, Christianity declares slavery irrelevant. The gospel declares that any useful work, whether done by enslaved or free Christians, will be rewarded by God. All Christians, even slave masters, have a master in heaven to whom they will give account. All, slaves included, are to be treated with justice and fairness. No one has a license to employ threats to manage other people. All should be willing to serve and provide benefits to other people. The Christian assembly and the Lord’s Supper are to embody social equality.

The term lord or master (Greek kurios) is worth digging into in this connection. Kurios was a common term for God in the Greek translation of the Old Testament.[4] Itwas a title claimed by Roman emperors. Kurios was also the word used to describe a master who had slaves.[5] Referring to Jesus as Lord thus conveys multiple resonances. Translating Kurios as “Lord” brings interesting nuances to the slavery texts. Human masters are “Lords according to the flesh” while the slaves are really “slaves of Christ.”  And ‘lords’ have a Lord in heaven who will show them no preference over those they hold as slaves (Ephesians 6:5-9). While Christian slaves should obey their earthly lords, they are really serving the Lord Christ (Colossians 3:22-24).  In this way the whole question of slaves and masters is reframed in light of the true Master in heaven.

The institution of slavery must not be allowed to negate brotherhood or the human value of loving service. This is why Paul can say such things as, “Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved.” (1 Timothy 6:2) Slavery is bad, but it does not change the fundamental reality that work is good. It is a way of serving the Lord and serving other people. Work is not first and foremost about getting paid but about getting something worthwhile done. Of course, the worker deserves a share of the benefit deriving from their work, but whether we are well or poorly compensated on earth, “whether slave or free,” we work for the love of God and for an eternal reward. I explore what slavery passages teach us about the goodness of work and how we should think about its value in “What We learn from New Testament Advice to Slaves.”

The Dinner of the Master in Heaven, or the Lord’s supper, speaks to the social status of slaves. Slaves shared with their masters not only the loaf and cup of remembrance, but the full love feast.[6] This contrasts sharply with the standard custom of slaves serving their masters food first, and only getting to eat afterward.[7] 1 Corinthians 11 severely rebukes abuses of the Lord’s supper and makes clear that the love feast is a shared meal of rich and poor. It is to be eaten together and shared among all or else the Lord’s dinner will degenerate into a bunch of private meals and make a mockery of the body of Christ.

The Way of the Cross Grows from Trust in Divine Vindication and Reward

Nowhere is the NT response to slavery more closely tied to the way of the cross than in 1 Peter. In chapters 2 and 3, Peter puts all relationships in the context of Jesus’s example. Jesus’s way is love and honor for all people even when they are unjust and evil. For the Lord’s sake we are submit to human institutions of government and empire. We honor all people. Slaves honor and submit to even harsh and violent masters without revenge or reviling just as Jesus suffered and did not seek revenge or return reviling with reviling. Jesus rather committed himself to the Father who judges justly, our Shepherd and Overseer. Peter then applies this concept to wives, especially those with unbelieving husbands. Their practice of honor and submission might even draw their husbands to “obey the word.” Husbands are to apply the principle by living with their wives in honor and understanding. Peter wraps up by describing how this mindset applies to all relationships:

Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless… (1 Peter 3:8-9)

This reminds us that Christian exhortations to slaves are simply specific ways of working out the Christian approach to all of life and relations, the way of Jesus that honors all people and bears the cross without resorting to slander, violence, or threats. Slavery, as other forms of ill-treatment is a chance to identify with the cross of Christ and his suffering love.

This cross-bearing is sustained out of confidence in God. We imitate Christ who “continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).  We too “entrust [our] souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (4:19). We are “guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1:5). And, God “will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish” us (5:10).

Do the Epistles Reflect a Social Conservatism that Waters Down Jesus’ Prophetic Teachings?

Do slavery passages in the letters of Peter and Paul domesticate Jesus’s message and the fiery words of James and the Revelation? Paul counsels slaves to be good slaves and masters to be good masters. Doesn’t this leave the underlying unjust structures in place? Everybody is supposed to play nice, but the fundamental problem seems left in place: some people are regarded as the property of others, their function in life—this temporal life anyhow—is to make things better for their masters. Where is the message of liberation, justice, and a new society?

On the face of it, Paul’s letters seem to mark a step backward from the Torah. The Old Testament forbade outright slavery (for fellow Israelites), limited debt service to seven years, and imposed a land regime that, if followed, ensured widely distributed land ownership and prevented the rise of permanent, generational, landed and landless classes. If indeed the gospel calls for more radical righteousness than Torah, why don’t we see explicit calls for a wider distribution of capital and the elimination of slavery for all people, not just Israelites? Why don’t we at least get a blunt command: “Slave owners repent and free your slaves!” (The closest we see to that is the letter to Philemon where Paul’s indirectly worded non-command command seems to be that Philemon should free Onesimus, but the letter still acknowledges Philemon’s claims on Onesimus.)

I don’t have a fully satisfactory answer to that question. I think the slavery texts in the Epistles clearly portray a response that is thoroughly rooted in the Gospel. At the same time, it seems like blunt statements that slaveholding is, in and of itself, sinful would also fit with the Gospel. Perhaps part of the answer is that demanding immediate emancipation could do more harm than good, if master’s simply threw their slaves out to fend for themselves.  The New Testament emphasis rather places responsibility for the wellbeing and respectful treatment of slaves onto their masters. It seems to me that if masters really take responsibility for their slaves and learn to treat them with justice and fairness as brothers (eventual) emancipation is the only logical outcome.

Masters (“lords according to the flesh”) are reminded that are reminded that they too are under a Lord. He shows no partiality. The significance of this can hardly be overstated. Double standards are the norm of fallen human society. Let a master attack a slave out of rage or mess around with a slave woman and, while frowned upon, it will be generally accepted without serious consequences. Let a slave lash out physically or fool with a free woman in the house and the indignation and consequences will be severe. God makes no such distinction. Paul is keen to remind the rich of this:

Masters are to avoid threatening and to treat their slaves with justice and fairness. What does the apostle have in mind by justness and fairness? Avoiding threats and violence is surely part of what he means. So too is adequate material provision. Everyone deserves the fruit of their labor. Paul stressed this eloquently in 1 Corinthians 9. Even draft animals get to eat. Those tending cattle share the milk. Those plowing fields share the resulting crop. Workers are to enjoy the benefit, and even if Paul does not demand emancipation of slaves, he surely calls for them to enjoy the fruit of their work. The words justice and fairness call for respect toward slaves as fellow human beings and brothers in Christ. Humane treatment is not enough. Respect is required. In practice this respect should lead to clarity about what is and is not the slave’s responsibility, time off for rest and for participation in the life of the assembly, respect for slave marriages and families, and in general respect for human dignity. I believe the logical outcome is transitioning away from slavery altogether toward other arrangements for work and social and economic structure.

Some Implication Questions

How should free people respond to slavery around us or in other parts of our world? Should we, nonviolently but actively, help others escape? Should we negotiate with slaveholders to bargain for freedom? What difference does it make if slavery is illegal or legally sanctioned? I don’t have experience in working with these situations, but the question was driven home to me as I helped children in church prepare a skit based on the American underground railroad. In those stories we encounter slaves who purchased their freedom from their masters, slaves who ran away, and other people who helped them escape to safer jurisdictions. This forces a question, does Christianity commend the option to escape from slavery when such an opportunity exists? Certainly, if one has a chance to purchase his own freedom, that chance should be taken. If that is not feasible or desirable, should one run away? Should those not enslaved facilitate an (often illegal) escape? It seems we should at a minimum live up to the Old Testament standard for treating escapees. “Do not return a slave to his master if he has taken refuge with you. Let him live among you wherever he chooses, in the town of his pleasing. Do not oppress him.” (Deuteronomy 23:15-16)

Do modern free persons face situations that are analogous to slavery and call for an analogous response? Sometimes people attempt to apply advice to slaves directly to employees. “Employees be subject to your employer!”  Of course employment is (should be) quite different than slavery in that it is both better compensated and voluntary. Employment is also specific rather than all encompassing. An employee devotes himself to the employers purposes for specific hours, whereas a slavemaster lays claim to direct the slaves entire life.

One takeaway for employees is the simple point that God values and rewards all legitimate work. Another take away for employees, and all of us, is how we respond to situations where someone else gets the better end of the deal. Sometimes these are situations where we have limited options and the other party (perhaps an employer) holds all the leverage. If we have opportunity to escape from those situations to situations where we are treated with justice and fairness, we should avail ourselves of the opportunity. If we don’t have the opportunity we should still do our work out of love and service for other people and ultimately for God himself.


[1] Scripture cited  from the ESV but may be slightly adapted: for example reading “slave” where the ESV used the softer term “servant” or technical term “bondservant.”

[2] Why does Leviticus 25 allow buying non-Israelite slaves and treating them as property? I see the OT Law as the civil law of a nation, which does make concessions to human nature and prevailing mores. Torah left the institution of slavery intact but limited it by proclaiming every Israelite to belong to God.  The New Testament build on and advances the ethics of the Old Testament. The New Testament does not give a civil law for a people group but calls forth the church whose members reside within every nation.

[3] Galatians says there is not Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, for those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus. As regards the first pair, scripture enjoins that Jews and Greeks live in full fellowship without demanding that Greeks become Jews (or Jews become Greeks). With regard to the second pair, male and female obviously remains a significant difference, though the exact nature and extent of that difference is greatly disputed. Clearly slave and free can be equally Christian, but it seems like slave and free is a difference that should utterly disappear, unlike the difference between male and female.

[4] The Septuagint used it not only for the Hebrew word meaning Lord, but also as a euphemism for the divine name YHWH (Jehovah or Yahweh). This practice was indicated in the Hebrew manuscripts was well, and continues in many English Bibles with the use of LORD (all caps) for YHWH in the Old Testament.

[5] Additionally kurios could be used as a term of respect like our “sir.”

[6] I am glad that those potlucks which we call “Fellowship Meals” remain among Anabaptist churches. We need to recover and reemphasize the theological meaning of such meals and recover the deep connection between the love feast and the remembrance.

[7] Jesus references this practice in the parable of the unworthy servants. “Will any of you how has a slave plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’?” (Luke 17:7-8)