18 Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God.20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
22 “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”[e]
23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,”[f] but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
There are a couple of problems reading this text. One is that it seems to advocate slavery. The other is that it is difficult to apply to today’s context. Of course, it is documented by the UN and others that there are more slaves today than ever before in history. This does not mean more per capita, it means more numerically. Does this passage advocate that they should just submit to their masters and continue in their hellish conditions. Slavery in the west in ancient times was quite different than it is today. Today, if you are a slave, you have no freedoms and we imagine that you will never be free. In ancient times someone often became a slave temporarily and to pay off debt. Slaves could have high honour and could own slaves. It was nothing like the subjugation of the black race as seen in movies like roots. So when we imagine Peter telling a black slave to subject himself to the lashes of a white master, we imagine quite the wrong thing.
So if our views of slavery are completely out of sync with the slavery of the ancient world, how do we apply principles from the text? The principles are to maintain order and respect in the hierarchy of the economic world. The common attempts to apply this passage to present situations of employment are well founded. When we find ourselves in a power structure that is essential for the economic fabric of the nation, we should carry out our responsibilities with diligence. The overarching principle is that more than asserting our own rights, we should be focused on living in such a way that it brings most glory to God.
As a note, God shows the eternal perspective on slavery (as we would understand it) when he frees his people from oppression in Egypt.
Father, let us work in such a way that our co-workers respect us and our bosses trust us. Let us not be shy in the work-place about Jesus, your Son. Let all that I do in my job glorify you.
- What must slaves do because of their new, salvation identity?
- How were slaves in ancient Turkey different from the slaves of the last 200 years?
- Who might be won over by watching a diligent slave?
- How might this passage be applied to the workplace?
- How might a modern slave caught in sex-trafficking view this passage?
I often have to consciously fight against the cultural conditioning that has shaped my thinking on the concept of slaves. While modern-day slavery is awful, unjust, and reprehensible, this is not what Peter and the Holy Spirit have in mind when they talk about slaves. In the times of Peter, slavery would have been a humbling experience in which the slave would have had some part in choosing to become one–perhaps because of circumstances, but a choice nonetheless (they could steal or cheat their way to pay off a debt). Submitting to a new master must have been an incredibly humbling action, especially if the person was harsh. (Again, Antebellum South is not to be pictured here). Peter exhorts the slaves to show the same sort of humility that Christ showed in His passion.
This exhortation to imitate Christ (here specifically, His humility, meekness, and trust) certainly transcends those who are slaves and extends to all who follow Christ.
Being a slave of God (who is a kind master) we should submit to Him–but also to those who are in lesser positions of authority over us in any aspect of life.
A modern day slave caught in sex-trafficking should first understand that they are being held by evil people and visited by equally evil people. It also seem to be significant that Peter talks about receiving a beating for doing what is right before God. There is plenty more in the Bible discussing disfigured intimacy and injustice/justice that there is for this particular variety of slavery. Also, others like this dealing with legitimate authority, not forced labor (of any kind) that literally involves stealing people who bear the image of God.
Christian slaves are to follow the example of Jesus. Jesus was without sin yet suffered unjustly for our sake. In a similar way, Christian slaves should be submitted to their masters, and live in a commendable manner. They should work hard and endure the suffering that may come to glorify God. A master may be won over by the example of the diligent slave. Slavery was much different in ancient times than it has been in recent centuries. Slaves were more like workers for a boss, which was temporary and had rights, than abused pieces of property owned by cruel owners and have no intention of giving freedom or rights.
An employee can live by Peter’s words in the workplace. He or she can be faithful to the job that has been given to them and to honor their employer, even when it seems unfair. Employees should work and live in such a way that brings glory to God and may win their employer for Christ. I think about my own job and how this is my prayer as a worker there.
I don’t think that modern sex-slavery can be compared to the slavery described in this passage. Modern sex-slavery is more similar to being in an abusive relationship than just another job. Like everyone else, I think that modern sex-slaves can reflect Christ through their lives, but should not use this passage, or passages on slavery, to excuse the horrors that are being done to them. They should escape if given the opportunity.
Today at church my pastor preached on how Christ was faithful for us. He perfectly fulfilled God’s law on our behalf! I love that in this passage in 1st Peter, we’re taught on Christ’s substitutionary work, but also on how He is our example. Both of these roles that Christ is are not juxtaposed. They blend beautifully. He suffered for us, He bore the punishment for all the times we were not respectful of our employers in His own body on the tree, that we might die to this old way of being an employee and obey His commands in the newness of the Spirit!
I’m reminded of Psalm 25, in which David sings, “To You, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in You I trust, Do not let me be ashamed; Do not let my enemies exult over me.” Is it possible that Jesus was thinking these same words throughout His unlawful trial and hanging? I believe this “lifting up his soul unto God” was not a one-time thing for David. Just as David, petitioned God to act on his behalf against his enemies and persisted to wait on God, so Jesus, “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.” Praise God He didn’t retaliate or resist submission to the Father’s will. He perfectly obeyed from the heart and because of that, I have His imputed righteousness and God’s power to be an employee that pleases Him. Wow. The gospel!
Because of slaves’ new identity in Christ they are to honor God by being willing to suffer due to harsh masters. This is in the same vein of thought as the previous immediate passage concerning respecting authority. It is not done because they deserve it in and of themselves, but rather because it honors God. So too the slave should honor God through obedience to his master and exhibiting godliness. The master may not deserve it.
The slavery in the Roman Empire was part of the established economic system, especially in regards to debt. Unlike today in America, those in way over their heads could not simply file for bankruptcy–those whom they owed still demanded payment from the individual. This resulted in volunteer slavery. While conditions could be bad, sometimes the slave’s status and protection was such that it was better than poverty and being free.
Those whom we owe, have made commitments to, serve under, etc.–we ought to honor God by honoring them in our place. I think the same principles I offered in the discussion on respecting government apply here too. If the “master” is demanding evil things from the slave then I think that the slave should not do them–we are first and formost slaves to Christ. Someone caught in sex trafficking should not obey her master. I agree with Eric’s comments.