Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
Luke 7:18-23; Colossians 3:18-4:1; Psalm 135:13-21; 2 Chronicles 6
Our passage in Colossians comes immediately after Paul calls on the listeners to do everything in the name of the Lord. The Christian life begins at home, where those who know us best see how our faith impacts our everyday lives. Paul’s instructions on marriage and parenting will be examined when they are addressed in more detail in Ephesians 5 and 6. The focus here will be on what is said about slavery and its relevance for contemporary work settings.
The instruction to slaves to obey their masters is jarring today. Many denounce Paul (and the Bible) for its stand on slavery. By giving instructions to slaves and their masters, some claim it accepts and even endorses slavery. We may be surprised and disappointed that the Bible does not denounce slavery as evil. Would that not have led to its abolition sooner in human history? We might disagree with the approach taken by the Bible towards slavery, but we must also understand how engrained it was as a social practice. Rather than denounce slavery explicitly, the New Testament calls on people to relate to one another in such a way that slavery’s foundations would be fatally undermined. The tragedy is not what the New Testament says about slavery, but how long it took Christians to act according to what is stated.
By giving moral instruction to slaves, Paul is undermining one of its core premises. Slavery in Greek, Roman and modern times (unlike slavery in Old Testament times, which will be addressed elsewhere) assumed that slaves were little more than animals or tools. Roman authorities did not think slaves could decide between right and wrong because they were controlled by instinct and passions—like animals. Moral instruction is not given to animals, but they are ordered or trained to do what they are told. Paul instead grants slaves full moral responsibility by calling on them to choose to do right, and to do so with a sincere heart. He also holds them morally responsible for their wrong behaviour.
Paul regards slaves as having the same spiritual nature as other humans, reminding them of their faith in God and their future inheritance. He is even more explicit when he calls the slave Onesimus ‘a man’ and ‘a dear brother’ (Philemon 16). More generally, Paul states that there is no difference in value between slaves and free, as all are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28). By the way he addresses slaves, Paul is overturning social norms.
At the same time, Paul calls on masters to be right, fair and just in their treatment of slaves. This would have been a shocking command in a culture where slaves had no rights. The great Greek ethicist, Aristotle, stated that justice applies between citizens and therefore a man’s dealings with his slaves could not be unjust as slaves were merely belongings (Nicomachean Ethics 5.1134b). Reminding masters of their Master in heaven is a call to be and act like God. Psalm 135:14 tells us that God will vindicate his people, and that he has compassion on his servants. If that is how he relates to those who serve him, that is also how we should relate to those who serve us.
Whether husband, father, master, employer or modern woman, the one with power should exercise it with love, mercy and justice. While there are major differences between ancient slavery and modern employment, the principle is to do everything as the Lord would want. Those who manage or supervise others should be compassionate, always respecting others and promoting their dignity. This passage lends no support to being a male chauvinist or a cruel task-master, but calls on all Christians to be fair and compassionate in our relationships.