Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Being a Slave of Christ

I recently finished reading Murray Harris' excellent book entitled, 'Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ'. This is a technical book that can be easily applied devotionally (I read it mostly on weary mondays as a means of understanding where my allegiance ought to lie). It examines slavery in the 1st century context, and then moves to apply that to the New Testament teaching that Christians are slaves of Christ/God. For example, the Apostle Paul identifies himself as a slave of Christ in his introduction to Romans, Philippians, and Titus, as do James, 2 Peter and Jude in their respective introductions. 1 Peter 2:16 has this command for all Christians: live as slaves of God. What does this mean? What does this look like? Is this desirable? This past Sunday night at Binbrook Baptist Church, we walked through the content of this very helpful book. Below are the notes I used to lead the discussion. Although they may be a bit skeletal, I hope they are helpful. Some of the people in attendance were writing feverishly, so I told them I'd post the notes here. Also, some were away and I thought they might appreciate the content of the study to work through in their own time. Here is the copy/paste:

For tonight I want us to look at a single theme from the New Testament. It’s simply this: if you are a Christian, you are a servant, or a slave of Christ.
The desire for this study came from two places. Lately on my days off I’ve been reading a book that traces the theme of ‘slave of Christ’ through the entire New Testament. I’ve wanted to grow as a totally committed follower of Christ, so I thought I’d read this book to help me understand what that should look like in my life. I found the book very helpful in its teaching.
Then this week I was back in 1 Peter, preparing for our morning sermon for Father’s day. And as I was looking at the context this line stuck out to me from 1 Peter 2:16 “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God”. Usually when I see a line like that it doesn’t hit me. But I just finished reading a book on the theme of slaves of Christ in the New Testament.
Then I remembered that the idea of being a servant of Christ in 1 Peter 2:16 is the introduction for Christians husbands, is their preparation, for hearing strong commands to love and nurture and care for their wives. This teaching on being a servant of Christ is practical for life.
So tonight, in the time that remains I want to unpack the idea of what it means to be a servant of God, or a servant of Christ, as a Christian. What does it mean? What does it look like? Why would I want to be this?
This is not going to be a study that looks at one passage. Rather, it’s going to be a study that looks at a theme throughout the Bible.

In our New Testaments, we often see phrases like ‘servant of Christ’ or ‘servant of God’.
Can you think of some places it is found, off hand?
Intros -
Romans, Philippians, Titus. . . James, 2 Peter, Jude
1 Pet 2:16 - live as servants of Christ
Gal 1:10 - trying to please men, not servant of Christ
When our Bibles use this phrase we often find a footnote. What does the footnote say?
Greek: bondservants
What is a bondservant?
Someone who is voluntarily a servant for life - awl through ear, permanent mark to make him a slave of a master for life
Still by way of introduction, why would anyone ever want to be a servant, or a slave for life?
Kind master, security, nowhere else to go, married and wants to stay with his wife and kids, etc
The Greek word behind ‘servant’ with the footnote, ‘bondservant’ is ‘doulos’. Paulos, doulos ieisou Christou - Paul a servant of Jesus Christ.
In the book I just read, the author pointed out a tension: the Greek word ‘doulos’ means more than simply servant. It literally means ‘slave’. However, when we hear the word ‘slave’ today, we most often think of what?
The tragedy of African American slavery
I’m not going to debate how to translate certain words. Tonight, I hope to overview some of the background of the 1st century concept of slavery, to help inform our understanding of the Biblical metaphor of what it means to be a slave of Christ.
What’s the difference between a servant and a slave?
A servant gives service to someone, and a slave belongs to someone
If you’ve seen any movies from England 100 years ago, you probably know the ‘upstairs, downstairs’ dynamic. Can anyone explain it for us?
The master and his family lived upstairs, and the servants lived downstairs. Being a servant was hard work, especially if you were a scullery maid - the worst job. But as a servant, you were an employee. You could quit at any time you wanted.
A slave is so much more - a slave is owned by a master.
So when we see the term ‘servant of Christ’ in the NT, we should think in terms of being owned by Christ. We are not our own.
Three things are true of a slave:
A slave is exclusively owned by a master
A slave is totally available for his master (no slave can serve two masters - love one, despise other, etc)
A slave is completely dependent on his master (food, lodging, pay, good treatment, etc)
Later, I’ll give you a handout that outlines all the NT passages that speak of being a slave of Christ/God. We won’t need that for now.
For now let’s understand more about 1st century slavery.
Then we’ll compare it to African Slavery of more recent history.
Then we’ll be able to soak for a time in what the first readers of the Bible understood when they boldly claimed to be servants of Christ.

A. 1st Century Slavery
So what was slavery like in the 1st century AD in the Roman empire?
There were actually three cultures we need to look at to understand slavery in the 1st century. We’ll look at the two that apply to the interpretation of the NT.
Jewish Slavery.
Jewish slaves most commonly performed menial household tasks. At various points in Israel’s history, they also were engaged in forced labour, and in doing menial tasks in the Temple.
How do you think slaves were acquired in Ancient Israel?
Capture in battle, birth to slave parents, purchase, default on debt, inheritance
Compared to other cultures, Israel’s views on slavery were much more humane:
They were regarded as a part of the master’s family and participated in the Sabbath rest, religious feasts, etc
Had to be released after six years unless they chose to remain slaves forever
Injured by master - set free in compensation
Sell self into slavery = treated like an employee
Manumission - through redemption, Jubilee year
No external mark of status as slave unless ear pierced with awl as lifetime slave = symbolized attachment to a family, rather than servant status
Lev 25 - masters must not rule over slaves ruthlessly
Slavery in the OT was viewed as an unalterable fact of life. It was regulated.
But the OT also looked forward to a time when there would be no distinction between master and slave: Joel 2:28-29; Job 31:13-15.
What NT passage shows direct fulfillment of the Joel passage?
Gal 3:28

Roman Slavery
We could have looked at Greek slavery, but we’ll focus here instead.
We needed to look at Jewish slavery because the OT is the background for the NT. And Paul and Peter were Jewish Christians who were steeped in the OT.
But we also need to look together at Roman slavery because Paul and Peter and all 1st century Christians lived in the Roman empire.
The first Christians did not have the freedom to practice slavery as the OT commanded. They were ruled by Rome. As we understand Roman slavery as well as OT slavery, we’ll be best prepared to understand what the metaphor of slave of Christ is means.

One author writes: “Rome evolved the most complex slave system of all the peoples of the premodern world”.
In the Roman Empire (= the whole civilized world) in the 1st century there were a total of 50-60 million people. 10-12 million of them were slaves. 1 out of every 5 citizens was a slave!
In the city of Rome itself, 1 out of every 3 citizens was a slave!
The number of slaves you owned reflected your status. A poor citizen might own 1-2 slaves. A senator may own 400+ slaves!
Remember the reference to Caesar’s household at the end of Philippians? This is a reference to the 20,000 slaves who cared for the administrative details of the empire.

How much did a slave cost, in terms of annual income? Does anyone want to take a guess?
Unskilled male adult = 2 years income
Skilled = up to 8 years income!
Roman slaves served a wide variety of roles. From menial tasks to tutoring children to managing shops or ships. Chain gangs, cooks, cleaners, doctors, sexual partners.
The only thing they had in common was the fact that they were owned by someone else.
Broadly speaking, there were urban (city) slaves and rural (country) slaves. It was typically better to be a city slave.
Whether he had a good role or not, a slave could not own property, make a contract that was legally binding (e.g. Marriage), hold public office, or serve in the army.
If a slave ran away, what do you think the punishment often was?
Crucifixion, or branding the forehead with an F - for what?
- breaking of bones, amputations, hot tar, restraining collars, the rack, flogging
Runaway slaves were common. Slaves wanted to be free.
Also common was for a city slave to serve his master well, earn money, and but his freedom after 10-20 years of faithful service.
Some masters were kind to slaves and slaves wanted to stay with their master. Some masters were harsh and slavery was hell.
*Whatever the case, the word ‘slave’ was regarded as a term of disgrace or insult.
Although some slaves were treated well, and had it pretty good, most were not, and most did not want to be slaves. Most had one goal: to be free.

B. 1st Century Slavery Compared with African Slavery
So that’s a bit of a picture of Roman and Jewish slavery. What are some ways this sounds different from African-American slavery in the more recent past?
Not distinguishable by race, speech, or clothing
Sometimes more educated than their owners
Often held very responsible professional positions
Reasonable hope of freedom after 10-20 years of service (by their 30’s at the latest)
Were not denied the right to public assembly
Were not socially segregated (at least in the cities)
They could accumulate savings, and buy their freedom
Their natural inferiority was not assumed
Not stolen!

So, 1st century slavey was very different from African American Slavery. But it was still much more than being a servant (hired employee).
Slaves were owned by someone else, they were totally dependent on their owners, they lacked the power to refuse work, they always faced dire consequences if they disobeyed their master.
We are embarrassed by African slavery of the recent past - and we should be. It was a tragedy. But we should learn this picture of Roman slavery and have it in mind as we read the NT.
The scholar who wrote the book I read argues that we should always translate the term ‘slave of Christ’ to help this hit home.
I still see a problem with this b/c when we think of slavery we think of African slavey. I’d simply suggest that we have in mind this picture as we read our Bibles.

C. NT attitude towards slavery
With this understanding of slavery, notice that the NT does not condemn it. In fact, 13 of Jesus’ parables have slaves as a part of the story.
But aspects of slavery were spoken against strongly. Can you think of any?
Exploitation of slaves for financial gain - Acts 16
Man-stealing - 1 Tim 1:9-11
The NT also elevated slaves as equals in the church. Gal 3:28 - no distinction. Slaves and masters worshipped in the same church. Slaves could be elders over their masters!
We could say a lot more about why the NT did not raise a rallying call to end slavery immediately. But we don’t have time! For now, we’ll say that Xians didn’t want to be seen as a primarily social institution, and that evangelism was the primary priority. Ultimately, the gospel laid the foundation for the obliteration of slavery. If you’d like to go deeper here, you can borrow my book!

D. Slaves of Christ/God
This all raises a question for us. If slaves in the NT always wanted to be free - if some would save for a decade or two with one goal: freedom, and if others would risk beatings and even crucifixion, just to run away - if that was the case, why would it be viewed as positive to be a slave of Christ.
If it was shameful to be known as a slave, or be called a slave, why did the earliest Christians refer to themselves as slaves of Christ voluntarily?
Why would they also love to confess, ‘Jesus Christ is Lord’ = sovereign, in control, absolute ruler?

Before we answer this, let’s soak in some of the passages on our handout. We won’t read them all, but let’s soak this in.
Acts 16:17; Rev 1:1; Rev 19:2; Luke 1:38; Titus 1:1; Gal 1:10

If you are a slave you are owned by someone else
If you are a slave, you do not have a say how you will spend your time
If you are a slave you obey orders
If you are a slave you are completely dependent on your master
If you are a slave, you may have a good position or a bad position, but you are not free!

So I’ll throw it out to you. What is the foundational reason why Christians delighted in calling themselves slaves of Christ?
Christ became a slave for us!
Mark 10:45 - the son of man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many
Phil 2:6-8 - Christ, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Isa 52:13-53:12 - the servant of Yahweh
John 13:2-5 - washing the disciple’s feet
Christ, the eternal Son of God voluntarily became the lowest of slaves for you. He gave up all his rights in order to purchase your freedom.

Really, according to the NT, everyone is a slave.
You used to be a slave to sin. But Christ redeemed you. In Christ you are a slave to righteousness. Christians have just changed yokes.
Cf. Mt 11:28-30 - my yoke is easy and my burden is light
You used to have a harsh master who would lead you to hell eternally. In Christ, you have a kind master who only ever does you good.

In Christ you now enjoy having your person and service belonging wholly to him.
You love to humbly submit to him.
You have no place to question your obedience to him.
You have an exclusive preoccupation with pleasing him.

You don’t fear serving a harsh master. The master became a slave and bore all the harshness for you.
What is more, you are also made sons of God and heirs of a great inheritance.
The image of slavery breaks down because of how elevated your status is in Christ. You are bought with a price. You do not own yourself. But you have been given every blessing!
That is why Peter can command in 1 Peter 2:16 - live as slaves of God.
Then he can go on to command behaviour that is completely counter-intuitive and completely non-desirable.
Why would anyone submit as a citizen of a harsh government?
Why would anyone submit as a slave to a harsh earthly master?
Why would anyone submit as a wife of an unbelieving husband?
Why would anyone tenderly serve as a husband of a wife, no matter how she treated him?
Why would anyone humbly love and serve others in his or her local church?
Because they have been served by Christ.
Because they have been given every spiritual blessing by Christ.
Because they live under the watchful eye of their master, Christ, who controls all things, and who never lets them suffer beyond what they can bear.
Because they are preoccupied with two things:
Pleasing Christ in all their behaviour
Seeing others become slaves of Christ

We could have said a lot more. But I’m going to have to close things off there for now.

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