A Commentary by John Stott
1 Timothy 6:1-2. 3) Slaves.
Having given Timothy instructions about the treatment of widows and elders, the apostle now broaches a third social relationship, namely the behaviour of slaves towards their masters.
Slavery has been described as a ‘monster abomination’. Not that there is anything demeaning about service, when it is given voluntarily. On the contrary, Jesus himself demonstrated its dignity by washing his disciples’ feet. He called himself both servant (Lk.22:27) and slave (Cf. Phil.2:7, literally), and added that each of his followers must be ‘the slave of all’ (Mk.10:44). What is degrading, and fundamentally destructive of a person’s humanness, is when one human being is forcibly owned by another and is thus robbed of all freedom. Slaves have three defining characteristics. Their person is another’s property, so that they may be bought and sold; their will is subject to another’s authority; and their labour is obtained by another’s coercion.
Paul does more than hint at these things here by describing slaves as being *under the yoke of slavery* (1). For yokes are designed for animals, particularly for oxen. And when the yoke is used in Scripture to picture a human experience, it usually symbolizes an oppressive regime (E.g. 2 Ch.10:4; Is.9:4). True, Jesus spoke of his teaching authority as a yoke, but he added at once that, unlike other yokes, his is ‘easy’ to wear (Mt.11:29-30).
So slavery was a form of tyranny. Even though some slave-owners were kind to their slaves, since they saw them as a valuable investment, the institution itself was a denial of human personhood. It was also a ‘gigantic cancer’, which drained the political, economic and moral forces of the Roman Empire.
Why is it then, that neither Jesus not his apostles called for the complete and immediate abolition of this horror? Probably the main reason is that slavery was deeply embedded in the structures of Graeco-Roman society. All well-to-do people had slaves, and very wealthy people had several hundreds. They were regarded as essential, especially as domestic servants and farm labourers, but also as clerks, craftsmen, teachers, soldiers and managers. It is believed that there were more than fifty million of them in the Empire, including one third of the inhabitants of Rome. In consequence, to dismantle slavery all at once would have brought about the collapse of society. Any signs of a slave revolt were put down with ruthless brutality. The fact is that ‘monstrous evils’ like slavery ‘are not, like giants in the old romances, to be slain at a blow’. They are so firmly rooted that any attempt to tear them up may pull up the foundations of society with them.
At the same time Paul enunciated principles which undermined the very concept of slavery and led inexorably to its abolition, even though Christians are ashamed that it did not happen sooner. What are these principles? At the beginning of this letter he has declared ‘slave traders’ to be in breach of God’s law (1:10); in his earlier letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians he has also shown slavery to be in breach of the gospel. He has implied the equality of slaves and slave owners by declaring that they have the same heavenly master, who shows no favouritism (Eph.6:9). In consequence, he has told masters to provide their slaves with what is ‘right and fair’, although in those days there was no such thing as ‘justice’ for slaves (Col.4:1). Paul has also written of the radical transformation of relationships which the gospel effects, so that slave and slave owner become brothers (Phm.16; 1 Tim.6:2). Indeed, ‘there is neither …slave nor free…for you are all one in Christ Jesus’, equally God’s children and heirs without any distinction between them (Gal.3:26ff.). Meanwhile, even while slaves remain in bondage outwardly, they can enjoy an inner freedom in Christ (1 Cor.7:22).
Tomorrow: 1 Timothy 6:1-2. 3). Slaves (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Timothy. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.