Slaves Obey Your Masters

Friday, February 15, 2013 — Week of Last Epiphany (Year One)

Thomas Bray, Priest and Missionary, 1730

[Go to for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 950)

Psalms 31 (morning) // 35 (evening)

Deuteronomy 7:12-16

Titus 2:1-15

John 1:35-42

Today’s readings are a reminder that the scriptures are both a revelation of God and a human expression. The Bible is the record of humanity’s encounter with the divine. As such, it offers exquisite wisdom and inspiration, but does so in the language and idiom of its writers and within their historical and cultural context.

That’s especially true of today’s passage from the letter to Titus. The ethical directions given to Titus himself in the first two verses, then to older women in verses 3-5, and finally to the younger men reflect the conventional values of first century Roman world. The Epistle to Titus voiced a first century concern that the Christian movement in Crete needed to fit in with the wider community in such a way that they would not cause scandal or publicly be discredited. Be well behaved, says the writer. Wives take care of the household and be submissive to your husbands. Men be of good report.

And then the directions to the slaves. First, there is a wonderfully progressive thing to say about the fact that slaves are being addressed. It points to the presence and acceptance of slaves in the Christian community. There is evidence that slaves were active members of the early church and were received with a measure of equality within the congregation. But the advice given to them is safe and conventional: “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk 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 Savior.” The implication is that if slaves were to act liberated and fully human, it would backfire upon the church which inspired such rebellion.

In fact, throughout the scripture, slavery is presumed to be an ordinary institutional condition of life. There is advice to masters to avoid cruelty to slaves. There are lots of ordinary references to slaves and their proper conduct. There is the story of slavery’s origins in the scandal of Noah’s youngest son Ham, whose offspring are cursed as “lowest of slaves,” and the story of the banishment of Abraham’s slave Hagar and her child. Though the Exodus is the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt, the Torah laws of the new community addressed various matters concerning the administration of slaves. Nowhere is there a clear Biblical instruction that condemning the institution of slavery and urging God’s followers to dismantle it. The closest thing we have is Paul’s letter to Philemon where he urges Philemon to treat his runaway slave Onesimus “no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother.”

It is a graceful wonder that no literalist believers now promote the restoration of the Biblical norm of slavery. The texts have not changed. They are still there. But minds and hearts have changed as our moral imagination has opened to the possibility that slaves are fully human and their treatment as less that that is unjust. That change was a slow and difficult process. But one worth claiming and celebrating, especially when literal interpreters use the Bible as their defense for other forms of injustice.

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