Slavery and the Love of Money

For this sermon I want to move in four directions. First I want us to go into the Scriptures and make a few observations about what’s there. Then I want us to go inward and identify a discomfort that we feel about what’s there. Then I want us to go backward to the past to attempt to resolve that discomfort. And then I want to close with some exhortations for us as a church going forward. Into the text, into our hearts, into the past, and forward to the future.

Into the Text

One of the difficulties of a chapter like this is that the chapter breaks don’t track with actual structure of the letter. In this case, verses 1 and 2 belong with the previous chapter and Paul’s instructions for the church (the church as a family, the care of widows, the honoring of pastors, and due process for accusations). “Teach and urge these things” is a structural marker in the letter (Paul does this earlier in 4:11), and Paul then transitions to discuss the false teachers once more. Paul has been urging Timothy to put God’s house in order by teaching and exhortation. Timothy should teach Paul’s doctrine, the sound words of Christ, as well as the teaching that accords with godliness. So there’s doctrinal and ethical content involved. False teachers reject both because they are arrogant and ignorant. They love controversy and fights about words, and these controversies do not press toward unity and maturity, but instead tear the body apart with envy, dissension, slander, suspicion (people begin to wonder whose side everyone is on), and there’s a constant friction among the false teachers that spreads to the church.

In this case, the false teachers view godliness as a means of gain. The ability to define and regulate what is true and false, what is good and evil, is a way to gain wealth, status, prestige, fame, and social advancement. Paul rejects this motive in favor of godliness with contentment, which means recognizing that there are no U-hauls behind hearses. You come into the world with no material possessions, and you leave it the same way. He concludes this section with a warning about the desire or craving to be rich. Notice the progression that he highlights. 

1) The desire to be rich leads to 2) falling into temptation, a snare, into harmful desires, which leads to many people (not just the greedy person) being plunged to ruin and destruction. This ruin and destruction includes abandoning the faith and self-induced harm (“pierce themselves with many pangs”). So, you desire to be rich, you fall into temptation and many harmful desires. This leads to ruin and destruction all around, which includes apostasy (falling away from the truth) and reaping what you’ve sown. And at the heart of this warning is the famous phrase: the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Or perhaps, the love of money is the root of all evil. It’s the sort of phrase that has applications in every direction.

Slavery in the New Testament and the New World

One more textual observation that will then move us to the internal discomfort that we feel. The first two verses of the passage encourage slaves to honor and respect their masters, whether they are Christians or not. Now these types of passages are difficult for us for a number of reasons. For starters, modern individualistic people chafe against the idea of being owned at all. The entire notion of slavery seems incomprehensible to us. And this discomfort with the idea of slavery in general extends to being owned by God. That’s probably not a biblical image that we like. But everyone is owned by God because he made everyone. And Christians are doubly owned by God because he bought us with the blood of Jesus. You are not your own, Paul says. You’re not your own; you’re owned by God. That’s not our favorite metaphor; we like the family image—God is our father and we are his children. And yet the Bible gives us both. Second, these passages are hard for us because we have a different social and economic order. It’s difficult for us to imagine life in slave society or even a formal hierarchical society like feudalism. And so these passages are puzzling, even as we may try to apply them to our own context by thinking about the employer/employee relationship. 

But the most central reason why these passages bother us is because of our particular history as Americans, and the reality of race-based slavery in our past. Living on this side of the Civil War, we wonder how to think about the fact that Paul does not simply urge Christian masters to free their slaves, but instead encourages slaves to respect and honor and obey their masters. That makes us uncomfortable, because we know that these verses were applied directly to black slaves in America. And so we wonder, “Does the Bible approve of slavery?”

Now that is a big question, and I know that I will not adequately address it in this sermon. But I want to make some progress by offering a way of understanding the Bible and its historical application. In what follows, I’m relying on a number of resources, but especially the following:

So, let’s explore this tension. Why doesn’t Paul do what we want him to do when it comes to the question of slavery? Why doesn’t he just tell masters to free their slaves and be done with it? One strategy for addressing the tension is to draw a sharp dichotomy between Greco-Roman slavery and New World slavery. The argument runs like this: Greco-Roman slavery was more like indentured servitude, in which someone would sell themselves into slavery to pay off a debt. Often such people could eventually buy their freedom. What’s more, such bondservants had considerable prestige in society, sometimes functioning as doctors and civil servants. In contrast, New World slavery was racially-based and brutal, with most slaves working impossible hours in the fields and possessing little to no legal protections. In other words, what Paul is addressing isn’t the same sort of thing as what occurred in Mississippi and Georgia and Haiti and the Dominican Republic in the 1700’s and 1800’s. Therefore, these verses have no bearing on the American situation and were radically misused by white slaveowners in justifying their wickedness. 

The problem with the Dichotomy strategy is that, while there were indentured servants in Roman world and some did purchase their freedom, that’s only one type of Roman slavery. Slavery in the Roman Empire could be just as brutal as anything that occurred in New World slavery. While slavery has existed in almost every society in history, Greeks and Romans were truly slave societies. This means, at various times, more than half of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves, and that the primary means of production in society was built on slave labor. Many slaves were taken captive in war and sold in slave markets throughout the empire, some of which could handle 20,000 slaves per day. Others sold themselves into slavery, and others were born into slavery. These slaves were used in a variety of capacities. Some were elite slaves—managing households or acting as doctors and civil servants. But many more were production slaves—in agriculture (on large plantations called latifundia), mining (where slaves were kept at their labor with the whip and chains and died in torment), and construction (building the great monuments of the empire and working in the ancient equivalent of factories). Many were consumption slaves—actors, entertainers, musicians, concubines, and the gladiators. And others were domestic slaves—cooking, cleaning, looking after children, and aiding in the functioning of the household. In fact, at various times, it’s thought that every household in Rome and Athens had slaves. 

Legal protections for slaves varied, but at a basic level, a master owned his slave and had the right to punish (and even kill) his slaves, direct their behavior, and transfer ownership of his slaves. There were even laws about freeing slaves. You couldn’t just free all of your slaves at once (presumably because this would threaten the social order), so if you wanted to free them, you had to do so a few at a time as regulated by law. The slave system was philosophically justified in various ways. Aristotle, in his Politics, argued that there are some people who are naturally only fit for slavery and that it is just and right to enslave such persons. They are tools who belong to their masters. Cato the Elder, the George Washington of Rome, famously put this into practice when he described how he got rid of one of his longest serving slaves when he was too old to be of any use. He simply discarded him the way you would an old tool. This is important, because while some pagan philosophies (like Stoicism) sought to humanize slaves, many people viewed slavery as a natural and normal institution and thus treated slaves like tools for use by their masters. 

In light of that, I don’t think that we can draw a sharp dichotomy between a benign Roman slavery and a brutal New World slavery. The evidence doesn’t support it. Greco-Roman slavery could be absolutely brutal. Now perhaps Paul is only addressing domestic slaves and masters, as opposed to production and consumption slavery. But he doesn’t give any direct indication of that here. So what does Paul say here?

Paul’s Exhortation

In these verses, we have two situations—a slave with an unbelieving master, and a slave with a believing master. Those who are under the yoke as bondservants (the language of “yoke” indicates the hardship of being a slave) should treat their masters with all honor, so that God’s name and the teaching (the gospel) might not be reviled. So the gospel—that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—is preached to everyone, including slaves, and some slaves believe. But they have unbelieving masters. So what happens if these new Christians return to their households and farms and treat their masters with contempt and dishonor? Paul thinks it will reflect badly on the gospel. God’s name will be reviled. In other words, this is a part of the same approach to society that Paul identifies in 1 Timothy 2 when he says that Christians should aspire to leave peaceful and quiet lives, godly and dignified in every way (2:2). Showing honor to one’s master is a way of honoring God and commending the gospel (see Colossians 3:22–25; Ephesians 6:5–8; Titus 2:9), including to masters who are unjust and treat you badly (1 Peter 2:18–21).

Now when it comes to having a Christian master, what does Paul say? His counsel to the slave doesn’t change. The fact that you’re brothers doesn’t mean you can be disrespectful. Instead, you ought to be more faithful, more respectful, more diligent in your service to a Christian master, because he’s a Christian and you love him as a brother. 

And that word “brother” is key for how we should think about the gospel and slavery in the ancient world. Paul says that Christian masters and Christian slaves are brothers. In other words, the master-slave relationship doesn’t trump 1 Timothy 5:1, which Pastor Michael preached on a month ago. Christian masters should treat their elderly slaves like fathers and mothers; they should treat their male and female slaves like brothers and sisters. They should greet one another with a holy kiss, which is a sign of a familial bond, not a master-slave relationship. You don’t kiss your slaves like their family. 

In other words, Paul’s exhortation to slaves in these two verses accomplishes two things: 1) It maintains the gospel’s witness in Roman society by encouraging slaves to honor their masters. No call for a revolution, no demand for immediate abolition, no call for an uprising, for casting off the yoke of slavery. 2) It undermines the oppressive hierarchy of slavery by replacing it with the loving bonds of family. From one side, he reinforces the existing social order (“Be a better slave than anyone else”), and from the other side, he fundamentally transforms the social order at the root (“You are brothers in Christ”). Put another way, Paul offers a strategy of intentional gradualism to transform Roman society. Leaven the lump of society by encouraging slaves to serve well while also creating within the Roman Empire an alternative society—the household of the living God. In this household, everyone is family. This strikes at the root of the Greco-Roman social order in a gradual, reformational way, rather than a violent, revolutionary way. And this passage is just one instance of it in the New Testament. We see the same strategy at work whenever Paul exhorts Christian masters to treat their slaves well by reminding them that they have a Master in heaven, and will give an account to him (Col. 3:22–4:1; Eph. 6:5–9). Or when Paul insists that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free (Gal. 3:28). This doesn’t completely abolish the social order; rather it restores proper social order by insisting that in Christ all people have equal access to God. Or whenever Paul echoes Christ’s command that we love our neighbors as ourselves (Rom. 12:9–10). And, of course, we see it especially in the book of Philemon, as Paul exerts apostolic pressure on Philemon to receive his runaway slave back as a brother, and not a slave. In all of these and more, Paul and the other New Testament authors offer a gospel strategy for renewing all of society. Establish and order the household of God by teaching the gospel and the way of life that accords with it. The church is planted within a pagan society as an alternative social organism with the goal that the church will gradually transform society as people come to know Jesus and the nations are discipled. 

And here’s the thing: it worked. The spread of the gospel in the Roman Empire was a key factor in the ending of slavery in Christian lands. The decline of Roman military conquests cut off the supply of slaves and led to an economic transition to free labor. Theologians like Augustine and Lactantius argued that slavery was not a natural institution, as Aristotle had said. The Christian emperor Justinian revised the Roman law codes to allow masters to set their slaves free. By the high Middle Ages, slavery was largely eradicated in Christian Europe (though it did persist in Africa, in Muslim lands, as well as in areas of Spain, Portugal, and Italy that had significant contact and conflict with Islamic slavery). 

In sum, by calling Christian slaves to honor their Christian and non-Christian masters, and by insisting that Christian slaves and masters are brothers in the household of God, Paul enacts an intentional, but gradual effort to undermine and transform the institution of slavery as it existed in a pagan society.

Revisiting the Tension

Now let’s briefly revisit our own history in the New World and the African slave trade and its presence especially in America. I’ve already argued that I don’t think we can draw a sharp dichotomy between a supposedly benign Roman slavery, and the brutality of New World slavery. Both Roman and New World slavery denied many legal protections to slaves. Both were filled with brutality and violence inflicted upon slaves. And both likely had some masters who treated their slaves relatively well. And so the question is: should the same reformational strategy of intentional gradualism have been applied in order to undermine New World slavery while still upholding the existing social order in some respects? There are many Christians who argued that way in America, and still argue that way. They see the parallel between Roman slavery and New World slavery and argue that Southern masters should have treated their slaves well, slaves should have honored their Southern masters, and slavery should have been intentionally but gradually abolished.

However, that parallel ignores what I think is perhaps the most significant difference between Paul’s day and the situation with New World slavery. Roman slavery was a pagan institution, upheld by pagan philosophies that said that some men were only fit to be slaves, and enforced by pagan rulers. The gospel undermined that pagan institution by supplementing the master-slave relation with a familial relation that transformed society, and was eventually established in law by Christian rulers. New World slavery was reintroduced in a Christian society and regulated and enforced by Christian rulers. Slavery disappeared under the influence of the gospel, and was reintroduced by professing Christians. And, to return to our passage, they did so “for the love of money.”

When Portuguese and Spanish merchants bought African slaves from African slave traders and brought them to Europe, such slavery was met with Christian resistance. Slavery was regarded as a pernicious and dangerous injustice. Countries like France, Belgium, and Holland passed “free soil” laws that said that any slave that was brought into those countries was immediately freed. That attitude in Europe persisted until European countries realized the need for a labor force in their New World colonies in South America, North America, and the Caribbean. The Native American population proved intransigent and was decimated by disease. And so, when faced with the choice of persuading free Europeans to travel to the New World to labor in the fields for sugar cane, and coffee, and cotton, and tobacco, or buying African slaves, who were captured by other African tribes, and transporting them across the Atlantic, Europe chose the latter. The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. 

The reintroduction of slavery in European Christian society was an undoing of the fruit of the gospel. And it was done because of the love of money. Over time, in order to justify the reintroduction of this practice, Christians in essence re-paganized the social order in the New World, arguing that some people, some ethnic groups, were only fit to be slaves. The desire to be rich led to snares, to many harmful desires, and many people were plunged into ruin and destruction, including abandoning the biblical view of human beings. As time goes on, this re-paganization hardened into a firm racial stratification, with “whites” on top and “blacks” on bottom. 

So the situation facing Paul and Timothy in Ephesus in the 1st century, and the situation facing Christians in America in the 18th and 19th centuries are not the same. Paul looked out at a pagan society and pagan rulers and sought to maintain the stability of the social order while intentionally transforming it within the church as the gospel spread to the ends of the earth. American slave-owners lived at the ends of the earth, in a society that publicly professed Christ, and rather than moving with a sense of urgency to undo the repaganization around them, they accommodated it, they defended it, they rationalized it, they baptized race-based slavery with appeals to Scripture. And God hated it. And when those professing Christians persistently refused to reform and transform slavery into a more just social system, God brought his judgment on this nation, and 600,000 people died in a self-inflicted war. This country was plunged into ruin, into destruction, and pierced itself with many pangs.

Bringing the Word Home

This short sketch does not answer all the questions. There are many more passages, many variations of slavery and servitude to consider, historical questions about the efforts of Christians to resist and reform slavery after it had been reintroduced. And of course, there is the lingering effects of the repaganization and racialization. Because while slavery officially ended in the ruin and destruction of the Civil War, the racial stratification that had upheld it, not only lived on, but grew stronger and spread through Jim Crow, and the effects of that racialized hierarchy are still with us today. So there’s more to be said. But I want to close by bringing this passage home to us. Here are five brief exhortations.

1) I’ve argued that historically, the love of money led to a repaganizing of Western society—an undoing of the gospel’s effects—in the form of a hardened racial stratification. This racial stratification took God's good gifts of nations and cultures and ethnicities and sorted them into a fixed hierarchy based primarily on skin color. This racial stratification did not agree with the sound words of Jesus. It was not teaching that accorded with godliness. One continuing result of this ungodly framework is a widespread confusion about the meaning of words, as well as intractable controversies. In other words, the kinds of things that Paul says accompany false teaching. And so here’s the exhortation: as we seek to navigate the fallout of the racial stratification today, let’s beware of the sins that Paul lists here. Let’s beware arrogance, conceit, and sinful ignorance that makesconfident pronouncements without actually understanding where people are coming from and the complexities of the issues involved. Let’s beware envy, which often masquerades as a concern for fairness and justice. Let’s beware of evil suspicion, that looks upon our brothers and sisters with a skeptical eye and refuses to give them the benefit of the doubt, that refuses to believe all things and hope all things. Let’s beware of constant friction in our midst. There’s a difference between hope-filled, iron-sharpening-iron that seeks the good of our brethren, and the suspicious and perpetual chafing and friction and angst that wears each other down and robs us of our joy in Christ. The pressures of our present cultural moment, the necessity of loving each other in our life together as a congregation, and our commitment to the gospel of Jesus and the good of these Cities calls us to press into the sound words of Jesus with godliness, humility, and hope, and not arrogance, ignorance, envy, and suspicion. 

2) While modern employment is not the same as slavery, the principle that Paul gives us in verse 1 applies just as much to our modern context. As a Christian, you ought to show all honor to those in authority over you at work. You should be known for your respect and humility before your non-Christian boss. In doing so, you are aspiring to live a peaceful and quiet life that commends the name of God and the gospel of Christ. At your workplace, may it be known that the best workers are faithful Christians. So consider how you work, and in particular, how you orient to your superiors at work, whether they are good bosses or not.

3) This principle applies even more if you’re employer is a Christian. Don’t think that your brotherhood in Christ completely obliterates proper hierarchies (we call them org charts) at work. If your boss is a Christian, work hard because he’s a believer and you love him. Beware of taking liberties at work because “we’re all family in Christ.”

4) The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. Desiring to be rich. Craving gain and wealth (whether it’s money or social status or prestige). Heed Paul’s warning here. See where that path leads. Ruin, destruction, apostasy, self-induced harm. The love of money and the craving for gain can lead you to do unthinkable things. So beware (Pastor Jonathan will give the positive side of this exhortation in two weeks).

5) The most personally challenging word to me in this passage is verse 8: “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” Food on my table, roof over my head, clothes on my back, godliness in my heart: am I content? No craving for wealth? No desire for riches? No love of money? Am I content? Are you content? It’s hard to live in a wealthy society. It’s hard to keep luxuries from becoming necessities in our minds and imaginations. It’s hard to be content with godliness, food, and a covering. And yet that’s what God is calling us to.

The Table

Which brings us to the Table. Here is food. No luxury here. Just simple bread and wine. But this food points us to our true covering, to our deepest clothing. This food reminds us that Christ is our righteousness, that he covers our sin and our shame, and that he is for us and with us, despite our failures. We don’t look to heed these exhortations in order to gain his approval. We seek to obey the sound words of Jesus and to walk in godliness because of the finished work of Jesus, who though being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but instead emptied himself, by taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  So come and welcome to Jesus Christ.