Rethinking Slavery

Just to head off any misconceptions, notice that the title is not “reconsidering slavery,” as though Abraham Lincoln might have been hasty in issuing the Proclamation of Emancipation. I am concerned, though, that American slavery might skew our thinking on this institution, especially biblical references to it.

We are going through Philippians 1:1, meditating on each word. Today’s word is “slaves,” the term Paul applies to himself and Timothy. Virtually all translations employ a euphemism such as “servants” or “bondservants,” but the Greek word is the common term for slave.

This attempt to soften the meaning probably stems from our tendency to think of American slavery. However, biblical slavery differed in several ways. First, it did not necessarily include a racial connotation. Slaves during biblical days included one’s own countrymen. Also, some slaves were assigned administrative positions and treated well. In addition, life with a kind and moral master could be relatively pleasant, leading some slaves to voluntarily commit themselves to a lifetime of slavery. That decision may have been prompted by the tenuous nature of existence during that time and the relative security and provision found in the master’s house.

Of course, many slaves during those times were treated cruelly, but life for those with considerate and caring masters could be quite good. Therefore, the inclination to invariably recoil at the concept is not warranted.

Paul and Timothy’s enslavement to Christ was of the voluntary type mentioned above and placed them under the best Master ever. Life as His servant offered security and provision not to be found in independent living.

These blessings, however, do not diminish the reality that they committed themselves to a slave/Master relationship with all of the attendant implications. I plan in my next post to consider some of those.

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