Should Slaves Obey Their Masters?

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November 16, 2017

Colossians 3:22-4:1

22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.
4 Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

CONSIDER THIS

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything. . . 

Surely this must be among the most controversial texts in all of Scripture. Suppose a child living in a remote part of the world reads (or has read to them) Colossians 3 today. Suppose they were a modern day slave making mud bricks or grinding grain. We would want them to heed v.20 about obeying their parents, right? But how would we expect them to deal with today’s text? How would we have expected slaves in America in the 19th century to deal with it?

Just a few verses earlier, with the stroke of a pen, Paul seemed to abolish slavery when he said in Christ there is neither slave nor free. Now he says slaves obey your masters. We need to go all the way back to v.2 to frame our understanding:

2 To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ:

Remember those four key words? “In Colossae,. . . in Christ.” It is only as the “in Christ” reality takes root “in Colossae” that the New Creation begins to flourish and change. So Paul begins with the new reality and then he goes to work in the real world. You can’t expect to read the letter on Sunday and abolish slavery on Monday; however, everyone who heard the letter can change the nature of slavery immediately through the power of the Holy Spirit changing their own hearts.

On the one  hand, change cannot wait on new laws to be formed. The kind of change most needed cannot even be effected by laws. It must happen in the hearts and minds of masters and slaves. On the other hand, slaves can’t wait on masters to change (i.e. come to Jesus). Gradualism, as Martin Luther King, Jr., called it, is not a strategy. We can look to the likes of Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth on the one hand and William Wilberforce on the other to see the ways salvation “in Christ” upends sin “in England” and “in America” through the abolition of slavery.

As you are likely aware, slavery in the world today is worse than it has ever been. There are many modern day Tubmans and Truths and Wilberforces striking major blows on a daily basis. I would encourage us all to join them in one way or another as a part of our discipleship to Jesus.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything. . . Paul is not somehow affirming the institution of slavery in the Bible. He is dealing with discipleship on Monday morning in Colossae. On another front, Paul is working on behalf of one of his associate pastors, Onesimus, who happens to be a run away slave. That’s what his letter to Philemon, also in the New Testament, is all about—setting slaves free.

THE PRAYER

Abba Father, we thank you for your son, Jesus, who being in very nature God took on the nature of a slave. Open my eyes to the ways I am yet enslaved to sin and help me understand how my own slavery contributes to slavery everywhere it is found. I want to live fully “in Christ” and I want that for everyone else. We pray in Jesus name. Amen.

THE QUESTIONS

  1. How do you reflect on the reality that the Bible has been used to justify slavery through the centuries owing to texts like todays?
  2. How do you deal with the fact that sweeping social change takes time and yet an approach of “gradualism” is not an acceptable strategy?
  3. Are you presently involved in the movement to end slavery in the world? Check out enditmovement.com to learn more.

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J.D. Walt, is a Bond Slave of the Lord Jesus Christ. jd.walt@seedbed.com.

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