Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to answer back, not to pilfer, but to show complete and perfect fidelity, so that in everything they may be an ornament to the doctrine of God our Saviour.
I was horrified to learn that in 1791, when a bill to abolish the slave trade lost in the House of Commons, Church bells rang out in celebration. This piece of Scripture is a real challenge.
At the time that it was written, perhaps, a third of people in the Roman world were slaves. Many were born into slavery – members of an underclass who were often treated more as animals than as people. Yet this letter to Titus seems to tell them to accept their lot.
Perhaps it helps to hear in these verses an echo of Romans 12: 1 “..present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God..”. Just as the Christian lives to serve God, so the Christian slave lives to serve others, but always as a child of God, with choice and dignity.
Maybe the best we can do is to see these verses as a reminder that what is true for those slaves is true for all of us. “You might be the only Jesus someone ever sees” may seem like a faded old preacher’s phrase, but how those of us who call ourselves ‘Christian’ behave can have a lasting impact on the people around us.
This is a verse of its time, not our time. Perhaps that is all we need to say.
And yet how to defeat evil and how to be good surely belong together. As we fight against the horrors of injustice, we do well to remember both that our behaviour should bring glory to God, and that those for whom we fight are worthy of being treated with dignity and not merely as those to be helped by us.
We need to fight against slavery and all injustice in our world. We also need to act as those whose lives glorify God.
God of justice, Give us eyes to see the needs of our world and courage to fight where there is evil. Yet give us, too, grace to serve others as we would serve you, and to treat each person as your beloved child, as Jesus did Amen.
The Rev’d Ruth Whitehead is a member of Taunton URC and currently serves as South Western Synod Moderator.