Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honour, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church; rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these duties.
Oh dear! The record of Christianity with regard to slavery is not a good one. Our instinctive tendency is to play that down – as many Bible translators do. The Message, for example, says that the author’s advice to slaves is “to make the best of it”, which is not what he wrote at all. Alternatively, we simply ignore the passages advocating obedient slavery, placing them in square brackets and moving swiftly on. Today, however, let us pause.
Friedrich Engels, in his essay on the Book of Revelation, describes Christianity as a religion of slaves. He saw in Revelation the seeds of the revolt of the slaves against the empire – the whore of Babylon. The trouble is, he noted, that those in power have been only too ready to promote a less revolutionary and more compliant form of the religion. Slave owners had a particular motivation so to do. They have then co-opted others – such as the author of this letter – to defend and justify the system in the name of good order and Christian conduct.
We do not have to believe all of Engels’s revolutionary creed to accept his insight. In popular usage, “being Christian” often means being nice, compliant, not rocking the boat, even being a doormat. Note how the author is especially keen that Christian slaves with Christian masters should be obedient and hard-working – for such good “Christian” relations are what makes the world go round. At least, the world of the well-off slave-owner and the middle-class epistle writer.
And yet, at much the same time as this epistle was being written the revolutionary religion of Revelation was also taking hold. The later slave-owners of the American South and the West Indies were only too pleased to make their slaves into obedient, 1 Timothy 6, Christians. But when those slaves sang of the exodus, they were beginning also to see possibilities in the gospel that their masters had ignored. Their Bible pointed to a world that could and should be turned upside down, in which slaves are freed, empires fall and justice reigns. The Christian slave-owners who made their slaves Christian so that they were obedient were in fact unknowingly arranging their own downfall.
In generations to come, people will look back on the church of 2017 and be amazed at the things we got so wrong. Our complacency about climate change. Our scandalous silence as child tax credit was limited last month to only two children per family, with rape victims having to prove that they did not want the third child. Our blind eye turned to the refugees being shipped back from the European continent and treated like slaves. We have no right to criticize the author of this letter; we are in the same boat. The gospel already contains the seeds of the destruction of our complacency and hard-heartedness too.
Loving God, father of slave and slave-owner, obedient slave and revolutionary, prophet and justifier of the status quo, open our eyes to the fullness of your gospel and challenge us to see the seeds of our own downfall in the poor and the oppressed around us. Amen
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys is policy officer for Cytun and a member of Parkminster URC in Cardiff.