Healthy Teaching Produces Healthy Christians, Part 4: Slaves
We are now over the halfway mark in our study of Titus. There are 46 verses in this compact epistle, and we have already studied our way through 24 of them. The theme of godliness has emerged as a focal point and, why not? For, in the very first verse, Paul introduced himself as an apostle for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of truth which is according to godliness. Our faith, if it is genuine, produces godliness.
In the first 8 verses of chapter 2, Paul has commanded that this godliness be on display within the context of the church. He dissected the church into groups according to age and gender and demanded they portray godliness according to their God-given roles. The text before us continues the trend of godliness but leaves the context of the church to the context of the culture.
We might think it odd that Paul chose slaves as the single representation of how Christians are to conduct themselves in society, but upon reflection this is hardly surprising. In the early days of the church Christianity was considered to be the religion of women and slaves due to the gospel’s rapid spread in both of those demographics. It is likely that the Cretan churches had many slaves and very few slave holders as members when Paul was writing this letter to Titus.
But there’s something more to consider here. It would be most unkind to Paul if we were to think that he pays no attention to other societal relationships simply because they were poorly represented in the Cretan church. Paul, under the direction of the Holy Spirit as he writes, is giving a model for all Christians through the exhortations here of slaves. For if the exhortation which he delivers upon the lowest members of society is able to adorn the gospel of Jesus Christ, then it is fitting for all others within the church to use this as a model when they interact with a pagan society. This is an argument from the lesser to the greater. By arguing from the lowest level of society, Paul presents slaves as a model for all Christians to demonstrate the power of the gospel to transform sinners into saints.
Exhortation: Slaves to be Submissive (v. 9-10a)
There is nothing special about the term bondslave found in some of our modern Bibles. The Greek δουλός refers to a common slave, one who is the property of a master. Slaves were obtained in a variety of ways. They were taken captive through acts of piracy or as prisoners of war. Some entered into servitude by means of a contract, service in exchange for room and board. And many more were born into slavery, being the product of two slaves.
Being a slave in the Roman world of the first century A.D. may not have been as bad as we might at first think. True, you would be the property of another to do with as he pleased. Slaves had no civil rights to speak of. Their masters could kill them without fear of any legal repercussions, choose to feed them or not, beat them or not, and allow them to marry or not. But on the whole, slaves in the first century Roman Empire fared better than the laboring lower class.
Slaves had little to no living expenses and were commonly given a meager allowance. Many slaves were granted freedom after seven to ten years of service and in that time would enter society as a freedman with over a year’s wages in his pocket if he’d been thrifty. A Plebe of the laboring class would be lucky to have saved half of that in the same amount of time.
Yet, slaves were still the property of another man forced to do his bidding. How is a Christian slave to respond to this treatment? Even in the best lighting, slavery still runs afoul of Christian doctrine that states all human beings are bearers of God’s image. How should Christian slaves conduct themselves in the confines of their environment? Should they rebel against their masters, claiming that they serve King Jesus alone? Should they keep their heads down and their noses clean until such a time that they can procure their freedom? Paul has a single exhortation for these Cretan slaves and the church at large.
Exhortation Given: Submit (v. 9a) – “Urge bondslaves to be subject to their own masters in everything”
The force of the imperative urge or exhort (παρακαλέω) used in v. 6 of younger men is carried through to slaves as well. There is a standard to which Titus must continue to call slaves. The standard is quite simple, they are to submit to their own masters in all things.
There is actually a great number of similarities between these slaves and the women of vv. 3-5. The older women are to teach the younger women to be subject (ὑποτασσομένας) to their husbands while the slaves are exhorted to submit (ὑποτάσσεσθαι) to their masters. The same verbal root (ὑποτάσσω) is used to command the conduct of both women and slaves. There is also a specific sphere in which these two groups are to submit. The women are to be subject to their own (ἰδίοις) husbands while the slaves are to submit to their own masters (ἰδίοις). Both find themselves in a particular context and Paul wants Titus to exhort them to fully commit to their role.
There is a dangerous and erroneous way of thinking, even in our own day, that the gospel gives permission for believers to escape unwanted circumstances. The context of vv. 3-5 reflects the common scenario of a woman coming to faith and now finding herself bound to an unbelieving husband. What does Paul tell her to do? She must submit to her husband. The same is true of a slave who has heard the gospel and confessed, repented, and believed. Even if his master is a cruel unbeliever (especially if he is an unbeliever), slaves must submit to their own masters in everything.
Some have looked at that phrase in everything and immediately try to put qualifiers on it. Surely the apostle does not want slaves to be subject to their masters in sinful and evil things, does he? There is no need to strip the phrase here of the weight intended. Paul wanted this phrase to carry the burden of total obedience, but he goes on to qualify exactly what he means. We don’t need to insert our own definition of what all things means. Paul qualifies his own terms.
Exhortation Explained (vv. 9b-10a) – “to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering, but showing all good faith”
What follows is a similar list as we saw with the older women, in content as well as in form. There are four things listed in a similar chiastic structure with two negative characteristics framed by two positive characteristics. But even the characteristics of what these slaves are to be mirror that of the older women.
Motivated by Worship – While the older women are to be reverent (ἱεροπρεπής) or to conduct themselves as possessions of God, slaves are to be well-pleasing (εὐάρεστος). Most would consider that the slave’s master is the object in view, that they are to please their masters with their work. While that is certainly one of the implications in view it is hardly the main focus.
Εὐάρεστος (acceptable/pleasing) is a term often used by Paul (9x in the NT and all from Paul) but is exclusively used to describe the actions/lifestyle/conduct of Christians as being acceptable or pleasing to God (Rom. 12:1-2; 14:18; 2 Cor. 5:9; Eph. 5:10; Phil. 4:18; Col. 3:20; Heb. 13:21). The focus here is that slaves must first consider if their obedience and level of submission to their masters is pleasing to God. This goes well beyond exterior action and immediately gets to heart-level obedience.
Just as any employer would be ecstatic to have a worker who serves with a strong loyal ethic a first century slave holder would likely be impressed by the service rendered by these Christian slaves. But these human masters are only receiving some of the fringe benefits and blessings of those who serve their heavenly Master with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength. Paul expounds on the heart that is well pleasing with the next two negative characteristics.
Executed with Righteous Humility – Just as the older women are commanded not to be malicious gossips or slanderers (μὴ διαβόλους) these slaves are not to talk back or be argumentative (μὴ ἀντιλέγοντας). Notice that speech always takes a prominent role in our witness. The idea seems to be that slaves are not to backtalk, give sass, or reply to their master’s commands with snide remarks. But just as slander (διάβολος) carries the connotation of doing the devil’s (ὁ διάβολος) work, argumentative (ἀντιλέγω) also carries a nuance of being anti-gospel.
The Greek ἀντιλέγω literally means to speak against or to oppose and is almost always used (this being the only exception) in the context of those who speak against or deny biblical truth. The Sadducees were those who deny (ἀντιλεγόμενον) the resurrection (Lk. 20:27). The Jews of Pisidian Antioch contradicted (ἀντέλεγον) the gospel preached by Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:45). And Paul has already commanded Titus to raise up elders so that they will be able to refute those who contradict (ἀντιλέγοντας) the sound doctrine (Tit. 1:9).
There is, or course, the implication of not backtalking or arguing with their masters, but just as the slanderous women are in reality doing the devil’s work, backtalking slaves are actually contradicting the gospel that they supposedly profess and affirm. The correspondence continues with the next term.
Pilfering (νοσωίζω) describes one who holds back for himself or one who skims off the top. The only other occurrence of this term in the NT is used in Acts 5 to describe the actions of Ananias and Sapphira. It describes one who steals, largely through the conviction that what they take is owed to them. This is a similar heart motivation to old women who sip on mimosas all morning, moscato in the afternoon and merlot in the evening. They’ve earned this right. An older woman is useless as a wife and example if she’s three sheets to the wind. A slave is useless if he seeks his own wages in stealth and through theft. Both of these actions, while different, reveal the same rebellious attitude that refuses to submit in all things.
Displayed as Evidence – The fourth and final characteristic that defines what submission in all things looks like for slaves bears a strong resemblance to the final characteristic defining what older women are to be (but at this point why would we expect anything less). The older women are to teach what is good (καλοδιδασκάλους) or to teach that which is in accordance with God’s good (καλός) creation. Slaves are to show all good faith.
Many take this to mean that slaves are to show themselves to be trustworthy or faithful, but there is an alternative that better fits the context. The adjective good (ἀγαθός) is not attributive to the noun faith (πίστις) but rather it compliments it. In simpler terms, Paul is not saying that slaves are to show all good faith but rather that they are to show all faith to be good. Just as the older women are to teach that which is consistent with God’s good (καλός) creation, slaves are to reveal their faith to be good (ἀγαθός) or that their faith is actually beneficial. This becomes clear as Paul reveals the purpose for this well-pleasing submission.
Purpose of the Exhortation: To Adorn the Gospel (v. 10b)
“that they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect.”
This is the third time that Paul has been concerned with the gospel’s reputation among the Cretan Christians. Christian women are to busy themselves with godliness so that the Word of God will not be blasphemed (v. 5). Titus must be an example for the younger men to follow so that there will be nothing sup-par to say regarding Christianity (v. 8). And here, slaves must submit to their own masters so that they might adorn the gospel.
The word adorn (κοσμέω) means to make beautiful and is where we get our English term cosmetics. Their submission to their masters must make beautiful the gospel of salvation in every respect. Every word they speak, every task they perform, every expression of their eyes, and every slight communication of body language must testify to the beauty of the gospel.
Paul has gone through the church with a fine-toothed comb. He has looked at every matrix within the body and demanded godliness. Now he has addressed a single group in the context of their relationship with the outside world. But if this is true of the lowest level of society, how much more so of everyone else? Our conduct either adorns the gospel of grace or tramples it underfoot. The gospel we profess with our lips must be confirmed by our deeds.
While we do not have slavery as such in our 21st century America, this exhortation is still largely applicable. The birth of the middle class has replaced the slavery of the Roman variety. We all answer to an employer to whom we must submit. It is likely that our employer is an unbeliever. Hopefully, this same employer is aware that we are believers. Does our service adorn the gospel that we profess? Our attitudes and actions in the workplace matter so much more than we dare to consider. If our employer is not pleased with our service, what makes us think that God is? May all that we do, please Him in every respect. Soli Deo Gloria!