A Slave's Duty - 1 Peter 2:18-20
“Slaves should remain submissive, with every fear, to masters, not only those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are crooked. For this is favor, if, because of consciousness concerning God, one endures pains when suffering unjustly. For what kind of honor is it if you will endure after sinning and being beaten? But if you will endure after doing good and suffering, this is favor before God.”
After commanding submission from citizens, Peter now turns his attention to slaves. It is interesting that while Paul usually saves his discussion to slaves toward the end of his exhortations (Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-25; Tit. 2:9-10), Peter frontloads his instruction to slaves ahead of other kinds of social groups. It is also interesting that unlike Paul (Eph. 6:9; Col. 4:1), Peter has no direct address to the masters of these slaves. The reasons for this seemingly lack of balance are twofold: (1) There are undoubtedly many more slaves in these Christian churches throughout Asia Minor than there are masters. Approximately half of any given city’s population in the Roman Empire at this time would have been comprised of slaves. But more to the point, (2) Peter’s main point at this junction is to exhort his readers in Christian submission. It is mainly for this reason that he turns from citizens to slaves.
As the lowest position in society, slaves had little hope in this life. One became a slave through conquest, birth, or poverty, leaving little room to anticipate emancipation. On occasion, slaves were granted freedom and there were instances of temporal indentured servitude, but for the garden variety of slaves, they would live out their days as another man’s possession. With such a glum outlook on life, it is of little wonder that slaves made up a large percentage of the early church. The gospel of Jesus Christ gave purpose to their lives now and hope for their eschatological future. It is concerning that very purpose and hope that Peter turns to slaves with the following exhortation.
Before getting into the text, it would be worthwhile to understand the significance of this text to us. We live in the 21st century where slavery is far from common place and is in fact illegal. What benefit could these verses possibly have for us? The answer is as simple as it may be alarming. There is an astounding amount of similarity to the slaves of the Greco-Roman 1st century and the hourly employee of the western 21st century. When you show up to work and clock in, you belong to your employer. You’ve entered into an agreement for so much pay for so many hours of work and are thus obligated to hold up your end of the bargain. With the exception that once clocked out, your employer no longer has any authority over you, this arrangement is not so dissimilar to the relationship of a slave to his master.
A Slave’s Duty Stated (v. 18)
“Slaves should remain submissive, with every fear, to masters, not only those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are crooked.”
Technically what we read here is not an imperative (submit!) but the participle (ὑποτασσόμενοι) which comes from the same root (ὑποτάσσω) as the injunction in v. 13 (ὑποτάγητε). The king and his governors (vv. 13-17) are not the only forms of human creatures to which Peter’s readers are to submit themselves. Slaves are to likewise subject themselves to their masters with a similar mindset as citizens are to submit to their king.
While many English Bibles may read “with all respect” the Greek text reads plainly “with every fear” (ἐν παντὶ φόβῳ). In such close proximity to a command to fear God (v. 17) and the fact that Peter later forbids any fear of man (3:6, 14), it is impossible that this prepositional phrase means that slaves are to submit to their masters in a respectful manner or that they submit in fear of retribution from their masters. The object of fear here is the same as the object of fear in v. 17; namely, God. Just as a citizen’s submission to his king is tempered by the love of the brotherhood and the fear of his God (v. 17), so too is the slave’s subjection to his master.
Yet, a slave is not able to pick and choose what kind of master is worthy of his submission. It would be relatively easy to submit to a good and gentle master (τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς καὶ ἐπιεικέσιν), that is, a master who treats his slaves well and yields his legal prerogatives when necessary. But slaves are commanded to also submit to masters who are crooked. The Greek term σκολιός (from which we get scoliosis) describes an object that is twisted or bent out of shape. Used in a moral context, the term indicates one who is unscrupulous and dishonest. Peter may be describing a master who dishonestly withholds wages or whose temperament is so crooked that it is impossible to please him as he constantly contradicts previous instructions. Likely Peter uses this term as a blanket to describe any sort of hard master that no slave would willingly submit to. Yet, the quality of the master is not the determining factor of a slave’s submission. Thomas Schreiner is helpful when he points out that “Peter was scarcely saying that Christian slaves should participate in evil or follow a corrupt master in an evil course of action…A secretary cannot refuse to type a letter for a manager simply because the manager is an evil person. Refusal to type the letter would be defensible only if the contents of the letter are evil.”
A Slave’s Duty Stimulated (vv. 19-20)
Verses 19-20 form an inclusio with the phrase “this favor…this favor before God” (τοῦτο γὰρ χάρις…τοῦτο χάρις παρὰ θεῷ) and thus are taken together. The English “for” that introduces v. 19 expresses the reason for Peter’s insistence on a slave’s submission to his master. In these verses, Peter provides Christian slaves with the right kind of motivation for their submission (v. 19) before making specific comments regarding what kind of submission is looked on with favor in the presence of God (v. 20).
Stimulation Stated (v. 19)
“For this is favor, if, because of consciousness concerning God, one endures pains when suffering unjustly”
Peter begins to describe the motivation or stimulation of a slave’s submission by first explaining what pleases God or what God looks upon with favor; namely, enduring trials as one rests upon God.
God is pleased when His people endure (ὑποφέρω) various pains and unjust treatment. Peter presents these trials in both a physical sense (pains) and a moral sense (injustice) and casually opens the discussion up to all within the church by suggesting that they can happen to anyone, not just slaves. By stating that it is favor when one (τις) endures, he suggests that the principle applies to all his readers. But for what cause are they enduring pains and injustice? Because of consciousness concerning God.
The phrase διὰ συνείδησιν θεοῦ indicates the reason or cause of their physical and moral abuse. It is on account of the fact that they are conscious (συνείδησις) of God, meaning that they are aware of God’s presence, power, and program. They fear God more than their masters and hold themselves as God’s subjects refusing to do anything that would dishonor Him. It is likely that many masters were not pleased when their slaves converted to Christianity. It is likely that slaves were no longer willing to perform various tasks that would compromise their new faith. Masters may have been annoyed that their slaves were gathering with other misfits and miscreants every Sunday. Yet these slaves continued to be consumed with the ever-present and all-knowing God of the universe. As they bowed the knee to King Jesus, they were treated harshly and unjustly. Yet this endurance, continual bearing up under trials, finds favor with God. Why would a slave continue to bear up under their master’s abuse rather than rebelling against his dominion? Because this quiet submission pleases God. What further motivation does a Christian need?
Stimulation Specified (v. 20)
It is at this point that Peter stresses a few points of clarification. There is nothing commendable in the act of suffering in of itself. Many people suffer justly as a result of their wickedness. It is not enough to say that suffering pleases God, because that is simply not true. When a Christian suffers because he stands for Christ, this finds favor with God. To prove this point, Peter examines two kinds of suffering.
“For what kind of honor is it if you will endure after sinning and being beaten?”
The question presented here is rhetorical and the obvious answer is “none.” There is nothing commendable about enduring under a beating if that beating was well deserved. The main verb in this conditional statement is “endure” (ὑπομενεῖτε) and is modified by two participles, “sinning” (ἁμαρτάνοντες) and “being beaten” (κολαφιζόμενοι). The participles first present the cause (while sinning) followed by the effect (being beaten). It is possible that Peter doesn’t apply a theological sense to ἁμαρτάνω (to sin) but merely uses the secular sense of falling short. Yet, as a Christian slave, for one to fall short in their duties is sin. Is there any honor in enduring a beating that is the result of sin? It may be strange, but most do not consider the patient bearing up under just punishment to be meritorious.
“But if you will endure after doing good and suffering, this is favor before God”
Peter introduces a contrast here with the exact same form of cause/effect modifying the same kind of endurance. The rhetorical question ended with the previous example. There is no honor in bearing up under just punishment. But what if one suffers while he is doing good? The “cause” participle (ἀγαθοποιοῦντες) reflects the same root as the object of the government’s recognition program (ἀγαθοποιῶν) or those who do good. What if, instead of being recognized and rewarded for their good deeds, a slave suffers (πάσχοντες) for his trouble? Peter’s answer is crisp and to the point. He points at this sort of suffering and says THIS is favor before God.
As with the citizen before his government, the submission of a slave to his master is not a blind and unconditional submission, but a submission that is balanced by right and wrong. A slave is bound to obey his master and perform his duties, but he is compelled by a holy fear of God and is motivated by a continual consciousness of God’s presence. If he suffers at the hands of his master for doing what can only be described as “doing what is good,” this pleases God. Is this not our ultimate objective?
If all things were equal, a life that pleases God would please all those around us. Our hard work and ethics should please any employer blessed enough to have Christians under his command. That is, so long as the employer’s aim is not evil, and his Christian employees live in submission to Christ. Every Christian be they slave or free, employee or self-employed, should work hard with the objective of pleasing God by their conduct. An employee should never arrive on time, work his shift, and follow company procedure because he is fearful of the repercussions from his employer. Rather, he submits to these policies because he is consciously aware that God knows his heart and watches his hands. His objective is to please God. If this is our mindset, then it becomes easier to suffer for doing good when our employer makes demands upon us that would displease God. It is His glory that we seek, not our own. May He find us faithful when He returns.
Soli Deo Gloria!
 D. Edmond Hiebert, 1 Peter (Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books, 1984), p. 174-7.  Thomas Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, vol. 37, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2003), p. 138.