Last week I went to see 12 Years a Slave, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It’s a harrowing portrayal of slavery in the American South. One of the galling features is the repeated church services in which Paul’s instructions to slaves to obey are read. Although there seems to be some historical exaggeration in the movie version–Master Ford was, according to the real Solomon Northrup, an exceedingly kind master–there’s no question that those verses were regularly repeated to slaves. Their Christian sensibilities were used to control them.
For those who see Christianity as inherently conservative and repressive, Paul’s views on slave obedience are of a piece with the whole. For those of us who understand Christianity as fundamentally liberating and pro-justice, those verses are a puzzle–one that I, for one, generally prefer not to think about.
Any close reading of Paul will show that he is not actually pro-slavery, any more than he is anti-woman or pro-emperor. For example, he tells the Galatians that “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith…. There is neither slave nor free… for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (3:26-28, also Colossians 3:11) He warns slave masters not to threaten their slaves, for both slave and master serve a Master in heaven “and there is no favoritism with him.” (Ephesians 6:9, also Colossians 3:25) In 1 Timothy 1:10 he puts slave traders in the same list with murderers, the sexually immoral, liars and perjurers.
If slaves and free are all one in the Messiah; if God shows no favoritism one over another; and if trading in slaves is the worst kind of immorality, then the highly hierarchical Roman way of thinking about slavery (and many other things) is undermined, to say the least. How can you own your brother or sister? How can you sell them? Tom Wright says that Romans could no more imagine life without slavery than we can imagine life without electricity–it was the way things got done. Yet there is clearly subversion going on. And it goes on even more powerfully whenever the church gathers. For, walking down the Roman street on the way to the ekklesia, the difference between slave and free is a chasm like the Grand Canyon. But once inside, there is no difference. They sit together, eat together, pray together, lay hands on each other, learn together as complete equals. They would never do this outside, but they always do it inside. When you have that kind of experience inside the church, how can you help thinking differently about the slave or master who walks out with you and down the street? In class-ridden, honor-obsessed Rome, the ekklesia was a revolutionary institution.
Yet Paul, while showing no respect for slavery, equally shows no interest in overthrowing it. Even if he thinks institutional change is impossible, he could at least betray the wish. He doesn’t. He tells slaves to obey, in very strong language. He tells masters to treat their slaves well. If they both do what they are told, slavery may last forever.
Is Paul conservative, then? Well, no. He believes that the present world is being turned upside down, and that it is being replaced by a new order that is ruled by the Messiah. In that order there is no slave or free. The God who freed the slaves from Egypt is not going to leave some of them in slavery in Rome’s outposts. All slaves will be freed under the new government. The question is, how do you get from here to there?
I think it is fair to say that Paul’s attention is focused on what happens within the ekklesia. It seems as though everything happening outside of that fellowship is just a passing and ephemeral reality for him. He, Paul, goes to prison unjustly, some of his friends are tortured or put to death, there are shipwrecks and famines and other mishaps, but he can barely be bothered to talk about all that because he wants to talk about the church. When its members are fighting or mistreating each other, that is a disaster worth discussing at length.
So Paul is miles away from our present-day approach to change. He believes in change completely, but seems disinterested in change that is based on institutional or coercive power. He believes in change that is implicit in the Messiah’s execution and resurrection, that has begun within the walls of the ekklesia, fueled by the power of the Holy Spirit, that will spread as those walls open out to cover the entire world. Not to mention that the Messiah will come back to call out those ekklesia to himself and then, with them, to rule.
That vision of change is precisely the pattern we see in Philemon, in which Paul writes his old friend in a letter carried by that friend’s runaway slave, Onesimus. Onesimus has become a Christian, and (in the process?) a very precious aide to Paul. But there is this little matter of his legal status. Paul sends him back–what courage and trust Onesimus shows, to go carrying the letter. Paul wants Philemon to free Onesimus and send him back to Paul unfettered. (Alternatively, he might want Philemon to give Onesimus to Paul, whereupon Paul would free him.) But that legal transaction–which Paul never actually mentions–is not at the urgent heart of Paul’s appeal. He wants the slave and his master to become brothers, exactly as Paul and Philemon are brothers. He begs Philemon to welcome Onesimus back “as you would welcome me.” (v. 17) He wants them to become partners (v. 6)–as unthinkable a relationship for slaves and masters as anyone could name. He wants them to share in the ekklesia.
And interestingly, he also himself longs to have that kind of relationship with Philemon. For just as a master controls his slave, so Paul, as Philemon’s benefactor (“not to mention that you owe me your very self” (v. 19)), could in Roman society order Philemon to do whatever he asks. He will not make that power play. It would be simpler and more direct, but it would bypass the more needful thing: love. (v. 9)
What about us, today? Can we, in the name of Christ, work to change institutional injustice? As reformers can we fight modern-day slavery, with its allies in sex trafficking, police and courtroom corruption, labor abuse? I feel sure Paul would say yes. For one, we are no longer in the Roman empire. Political power is widely democratized, and there are laws protecting human rights. “If you can gain your freedom, do so,” Paul advises slaves in 1 Corinthians 7:21. As opportunity is given to do good, we are certainly meant to do it. Regarding slavery, Christians did. It was abolished. A little late, but nonetheless.
All the same, Paul’s theory of change ought to challenge us to think bigger. We tend to think that practical and institutional reform is the only way to bring change. But Paul would surely want to enlarge our hopes.
After all, social reformers (many of them Christians, or inspired by Christian ideas) have been working hard for hundreds of years. Have they made progress? Yes. Are there signs that we will ever–let alone soon–reach our destination? No. We will never become the society we are meant to be by that route.
Paul’s grand hopes shine through his letters repeatedly. He believes in the coming kingdom of Jesus, and he knows he has been called to help found the ekklesia that presage it. That ekklesia in principle contains the material both for reform–for its members have their ideals stretched upwards and outwards–and something ultimate. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters….Just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man…. We will be changed. ‘” (Romans 8: 28, 29; 1 Corinthians 15: 49-52)