18Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps (1 Peter 2:18-21).
It is a little more politically correct to translate the opening word of this passage as “servants” rather than “slaves.” However, it doesn’t change the meaning and the Greek word literally referred to a house servant or a slave. Our modern culture would be more comfortable with this text if Peter had said something like, “slaves, be patient while we seek your release.” Of course that is not what Peter said. None of the New Testament writers condone slavery, but also none of them call for the abolition of slavery (the only text that comes close to this is the book of Philemon and it only addresses the situation of one particular slave and his owner). We don’t, however, have to be embarrassed that Peter is giving instructions to slaves without calling for the overthrow of the institution of slavery.
Slavery in Asia Minor in the first century was not all that different from the kind of slavery that was practiced in our country 150 years ago. The main difference between the two is that slavery in first century Asia Minor was not racially driven. People were sold into slavery for economic reasons rather than for issues of race. Often times a man was a slave because he incurred a large amount of debt and could not pay it off, so he sold himself into slavery. Many were, however, born as slaves. In the first century there were masters that treated their slaves with respect and there were certainly masters who ruthlessly beat and mistreated their slaves. There is nothing about slavery in the first century that was fair.
Slavery was not and never has been fair. This makes it all the more shocking that Peter simply says, “slaves, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentile but also to the unjust.” The word “unjust” is actually better translated “evil” or “crooked.” Peter is telling slaves that whether you have a master who treats you fairly or not, the command remains the same—be subject to your master. Now I ought to mention that Peter does not tell slaves to obey their masters when their masters ask them to do evil—a believing slave’s first master is always God, a slave is first subject to God before anyone on earth (c.f. 1 Peter 2:17). The idea behind Peter’s command to slaves in 2:18 is that slaves live lives marked by obedience to their masters no matter whether their masters are fair or not.
Slavery is an unjust institution and we should praise God that it no longer takes place in our country. There are, however, two good reasons why the New Testament writers never call for the overthrow of the institution of slavery. First, it was an institution deeply woven into the fabric of 1st Century Roman society and most Christians in the 1st Century were social outcasts and did not have a strong political or social voice. Christians were considered strange at best and terrible nuisances at worst. Christians often faced persecution from Rome and slavery was too firmly fixed in Roman culture, thus Christians simply did not have a social voice loud enough to even imagine the possible abolition of the institution of slavery.The second and more important reason that Peter and the writers of the New Testament do not call for the abolition of slavery is that they were not social revolutionaries. Peter’s goal was never to become a political figure that would change the social landscape of Asia Minor. Peter was an apostle of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:1). And he understood his purpose in life, along with all Christians, to be to “proclaim the excellencies” of Christ (1 Peter 2:9).The New Testament writers were much less concerned with making social wrongs right than they were with proclaiming the message that could make individuals in any situation right with God—namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ. The New Testament writers had much bigger issues to address than the unfair nature of slavery. They were addressing man’s rebellion against his creator and the just judgment from God that all men deserve. The New Testament writers addressed specific people in specific situations and called them to trust Christ who faced God’s wrath on the cross for all who would believe.
If Peter had called for Slavery to be abolished, it would have only caused more difficulty and pain for Christian slaves and may have even resulted in greater persecution of Christians in general. There is a powerful principle behind the New Testament passages about slavery: your circumstances do not define you, your relationship with God through Christ is what defines you. No matter what your circumstances, you have the opportunity to proclaim the excellencies of Jesus.
There is nothing fair about slavery. The Bible never promises us that life will be fair. Thus there is a challenge in the New Testament’s teaching on slavery and it is this—see Christ as so precious that you would be willing to suffer anything if it would magnify Jesus. Set your hope completely on Jesus and not on your circumstances (c.f. 1 Peter 1:13). In fact unfair circumstances are a huge opportunity to proclaim the gospel.
We face unfair circumstances all the time. It would be easy to just look at Peter’s teaching on slavery here and just think it doesn’t apply to us because we are not slaves. But this text does apply to us because we are not called to fix every social evil in the world but rather we are called to proclaim the gospel in everything we do. Unfair circumstances provide a prime opportunity to share the gospel—a message that addresses the really big problems of life such as sin and separation from God for eternity. The gospel is a message about true freedom—freedom from the wrath of God, freedom to delight in Jesus!
I didn’t intend for this post to be so long. I promise I am going to start writing shorter posts. I wanted to address how this text applies to our tendency to quit but of course I have already written too much. So I will write a third and much shorter post addressing another key text on slavery (1 Cor. 7:17-24) and summing up how the issue of slavery addresses our tendency to quit. Christians should never be seen as quitters, especially when the gospel is at stake!