“Care From Slaves: Honor Your Masters” – 1 Timothy 6:1-2
“All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against. Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles.”
Even though we have begun a new chapter, this text is tightly connected to chapter 5. We should take note of how this section begins and how it ends. The theme of honor is still present as it was with widows (5:3) and elders (5:17). This is strong evidence to include these verses in the context of Paul’s exhortations for the necessary care within the church. But also notice that v. 2 ends with a conclusion that we’re familiar with – Teach and preach these things. It’s the phrase these things that should hold our attention. Paul made similar statements in 5:7 (Prescribe these things as well…), 4:16 (Persevere in these things…), 4:11 (Prescribe and teach these things…), 4:6 (In pointing out these things…), 3:14 (I am writing these things…), and 1:18 (This command I entrust to you…). Each time the demonstrative pronoun points back at what has already been stated. If we’ve been looking for an indication of subject change, it doesn’t occur until after 6:2.
The context of this text then is within this section of care for the church. That care begins with loving confrontation of sin from every conceivable relationship (5:1-2). That care must include the most often ignored widows (5:3-16). That care is extended to the most indispensable elders (5:17-25). And that care includes the seemingly insignificant slaves within the congregation.
It is at this point that I feel we must reorient our thinking. What comes to mind when you hear the word “slave” or “slavery”? If you’re anything like me, I immediately think of the American slave trade most frequently practiced in the American southeast during the 18th and 19th centuries. This was an evil, barbaric, and inhumane practice that, praise God, was brought to a halt after our American Civil War. But that is not the proper context to view this text.
What I’m going to say next may shock the reader, but that does not negate the truth of it. There is nothing intrinsically evil with the concept of slavery. I told you that you would be shocked. But let’s examine a few biblical texts.
The Greek word for slave is δοῦλος. The word means what you think it means. It indicates a person who is wholly subject to another (a master) who is expected to execute his master's will. He lives to serve his master. Many of our translations attempt to soften this word by translating it as bond-servant. Yet there’s no getting around the fact that everywhere you see bond-servant in your Bible, the Greek δοῦλος is behind it. So if the concept of slavery was evil in of itself, then why does Paul claim to be a slave of Christ Jesus (Rom. 1:1; Gal. 1:10; Phil. 1:1; Titus 1:1)? And not only Paul, but James (James 1:1), Peter (2 Pet. 1:1), and Jude (Jude 1:1) follow suit. Paul does not keep this designation to himself, but places the term on fellow believers (Rom. 6:18; Eph. 6:6; Col. 1:7; 4:7) and even upon Jesus Christ in His incarnation (Phil. 2:7). If the term and the concept are inherently and intrinsically evil, why would Paul attach the term to Christians (slaves of Christ and slaves of righteousness) and even to our Lord Himself?
Slavery in the ancient world has much more in common with the modern concept of employment than it does with our recent American practice while retaining some overlap. To be a slave is to be a contracted servant where certain individual rights are given up in exchange for basic care (i.e. food, clothing, and shelter). A master would be expected to care for his slaves while they provided him with service. Some slaves in the ancient world even drew a kind of salary to accompany the basic care provided for them by their master. All in all, it was not a horrible arrangement if managed honorably.
The ancient world did not know the kind of economic structure that we have today. There was no such thing as an employee. You were either a small business owner (merchants, craftsmen, commercial fishermen, farmers, etc.), a day laborer hoping to be hired for a days work (Matt. 20:1-16 is a picture of just such laborers), or you were a slave (under the authority and care of another). By the first century it is said that between 30-40% of the Roman Empire were slaves. Not much of a middle class in those days. But keep in mind that many of those slaves were not only household servants, but tutors, artisans, and skilled workers.
Because the heart of man is desperately sick (Jer. 17:9) and thoroughly evil (Rom. 1:18-20; Eph. 2:1-3), the range of authority that comes with being a master of slaves was naturally abused. It was lawful under Roman law for a master to kill his slave for whatever reason he deemed necessary. After all, the vast majority of gladiators condemned to fight or die in the Coliseum were slaves. Many slaves were taken as a result of war booty (which I suppose is preferable to being killed during conquest). But as an institution, the ancient practice has more in common with the modern employer who provides a wage and safe working environment for his employees than it does with the American slave trade that assumed Africans were subhuman beasts and used them accordingly.
Please understand that I am not condoning or even making an argument for slavery in any context. The practice of slavery in the Americas was nothing but pure evil that denied the image of God as being present in all human beings. But it’s necessary for us to understand the context in which Paul is writing has much less to do with the context of American slavery than we at first might suppose.
As we come back to our text, it’s worthy noting that the care being commanded here is not for slaves. Rather, care and honor is demanded from them. This entire letter is a polemic of sorts. It’s a defense of the gospel.
The care demanded from slaves fits into this polemic. To cut to the chase, Paul demands that slaves conduct themselves in a manner that adorns and protects the gospel of Jesus Christ rather than detracts from and discredits it. Paul gives two reasons why slaves (and by implication every Christian) must be concerned about their conduct as they serve men.
Connecting Service to the Gospel (v. 1)
“All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against.”
Paul had already written to the churches in and around Ephesus while he was awaiting trial. In Ephesians 6:5-9 Paul addressed both slaves and their masters with the same exhortation: both slaves and masters are slaves of the Lord Jesus Christ. In that light Paul commanded slaves to serve their masters obediently and masters to treat their slaves well. Yet in writing to Timothy who is ministering to the same group a few years later, there is no mention of masters. Why? We can assume that the masters were no longer the problem.
This verse addresses all slaves within the churches in or around Ephesus. Christianity was actually quite popular among slaves and those who were under the yoke heavily populated the early church. This verse makes no comment on the masters of these slaves. It is a general statement that includes all Christian slaves. The very term under the yoke calls slavery for what it is: oppressive. Even in the best of circumstances (which were limited) a slave was not free to choose his occupation or even leave one master’s service in search of another. They were bound by law to their master as an ox is yoked to the plow. Yet their circumstances did not excuse them from living a life in submission to Christ.
The command here to regard (ἡγέομαι) can also be translated as consider. It assumes that a situation has been studied and sized up with an appropriate action to follow. Paul commands these slaves to study their masters and come to the God-honoring conclusion that they are worthy (i.e. deserving – same term used of elders in 5:17) of honor.
There’s that word again, honor. It calls for respect, protection, provision, and care. To honor someone is more than to tip your hat to them. It means that they are valuable in your sight and demands that you treat them as such.
How can Paul make such a blanket statement? This verse assumes nothing about the masters in question. Even the very term master (δεσπότης – from where we get our English despot) denotes one with extreme and ultimate authority to wield at their pleasure. They may be believing masters or the may not be. They may be good and fair masters or they may be extremely abusive. Nothing qualifies these masters other than the fact that their Christian slaves are to recognize that they deserve honor.
On the one hand, this is where the believer must be grounded in God’s complete and utter sovereignty in all matters. Paul has already written the Christians in Rome to remind them that there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God (Rom. 13:1). In other words, it did not escape God’s notice that one of His children happens to be a slave under a tyrant. But did you stop to consider that God saved that slave and placed him under that tyrant on purpose? Is God sovereign or is He not?
But on the other hand, this is not Paul’s point here in 1 Timothy 6:1. Paul is first and foremost concerned with the gospel of Jesus Christ and the glory of Almighty God. Look again at the reason he gives for commanding honor to masters from slaves.
So that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against
The pronoun our is inserted into the text by the NASB. The Greek says simply the doctrine. What is in view here is the teaching concerning the name of God. What is the name of God? We’re not talking about a proper noun that God goes by. The name of God is a reference to His revelation of Himself. The name of God is how people know Him. It speaks of His very identity as creator, sustainer, and savior. The teaching that is tied to this blessed and holy name is what reveals this name. It includes the entirety of Scripture, but more specifically the gospel itself. The purpose for slaves to honor their masters is directly tied to the revelation and reputation of God and the gospel. But to refuse or fail to honor masters is to speak against this very revelation.
The phrase will not be spoken against is a pretty soft translation of βλασφημέω – to blaspheme. Slaves that refuse to honor their masters are in practice blaspheming God and the gospel. They are conducting themselves in a way that contradicts the nature of God and the message of the gospel. What are the two foremost commandments upon which the law and the prophets rest? You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Matt. 22:37-39).
This call to love both God and neighbor is not excusable due to adverse social circumstances. For a believer in Jesus Christ to abandon them, for any reason, is to blaspheme the very gospel that they profess and the very God they claim to serve.
Connecting Service to Christ’s Bride (v. 2)
“Those who have believers as their masters must not be disrespectful to them because they are brethren, but must serve them all the more, because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved. Teach and preach these principles.”
If failing to honor any master is equivalent to blaspheme, then how much worse if slaves disrespect their master who is a fellow believer?
Now, I’m not sure that we can fully appreciate the scenario before us. Imagine coming to Christ as a slave and attaching yourself to the local body only to come to church one week and see your master has also repented of his sin and is now a fellow member of the body. Now you both are members of the same body, but you remain his slave and he remains your master. What is your reaction to this?
Do you place your hope in the thought that he will free you since he now understands that you are both joint heirs with Christ (Rom. 8:17)? Is it not true that in Christ there is neither slave nor free but that we are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28)? What happens on Monday morning when he still continues to expect you to fulfill your duties? Does he now owe you something that he did not before? Is there an expectation of favoritism that was not there before? What is your reaction to this?
Let me make something very clear: The gospel of Jesus Christ is not about social reformation but about heart transformation. The church is not called to right the wrongs of an evil and perverse world but to preach the gospel so that God the Holy Spirit might transform evil and perverse people. Social reform calls to make this present cursed world a world that is very good. The gospel calls cursed people to repent so that they might inhabit the world that God will recreate to be once again very good. Never confuse the two.
Paul combats this foul attitude with the most obvious of reasons – because they are brethren. In what world is it permissible to disrespect, slander, or give anything other than honor to another human being? In what paradigm is that same attitude allowed among the saints of Jesus Christ? If he truly is one with Christ and a joint heir with Christ, then he is deserving – worthy – of all the honor that you can bestow. He’s a brother!
Paul doesn’t leave well enough alone, but gives another command.
But must serve them all the more
The command is not simply to knock off your bad attitude, but to serve this master all the more. It’s the reason that he gives that is absolutely shocking in its impact while so simple in its truth.
Because those who partake of the benefit are believers and beloved
Let me break this down for you. It is the masters in question who are those who partake of the benefit. The service rendered by the slave is a genuine and tangible benefit to them.
Just think on this for a minute. How many Christians live day in and day out with a fellow member of the congregation and have as their occupation the role of serving that member? These slaves are in a beautiful situation to love and serve another member of the body! They don’t even have to get inventive! To do their daily duties with joy as unto Christ they tangibly and genuinely get to love another member of the bride of Jesus Christ. What a wonderful situation to be in!
While the exact situation Paul speaks to does not exist in our culture, there are numerous implications from this text that directly impact each one of us. We all serve human masters. We all have jobs with supervisors over us. To give those supervisors anything less than honor and a full day’s work is sin. This sin is to blaspheme the fair name by which we have been called and the gospel that we supposedly proclaim and believe. Our testimony is only good if what we profess with our mouths remains consistent with our conduct.
I can’t help but think that many of us are in similar situations to this slave in the sense that we live in the same home as other members of Christ’s body. Each and every day we wake up with new opportunities to serve them as unto the Lord. Every morning brings new ways to genuinely and tangibly love them and thus benefit them. Why don’t we start there.