Trinity Fellowship Church | Syracuse, NY

Q & A Regarding 1 Timothy 6:1-2 and 1st Century Slavery

This Sunday’s sermon text runs all the way to 1 Timothy 6:2. However, I intend to focus on the verses up through the end of chapter 5. So then, let’s look for a few minutes at 1 Timothy 6:1-2 from a couple of different angles:

What were the conditions like for slaves in the Mediterranean world in the 1st century?
According to some estimates, one-third (!) of the population of Greece and Italy were slaves. Slavery was such an accepted institution in ancient times that slave rebellions were protests about conditions, never about abolishing the institution as a whole. As a generalization, slavery of that day was brutal; slaves were considered property; they worked hard and had little personal freedom. Now, some masters were good and considerate, while others were harsh (see 1 Pet. 2:18-20). Unlike the later African slave trade, this slavery did not typically begin with kidnapping (although piracy was a source of slaves). A person became a slave through, among other things, indebtedness (there was no such thing as bankruptcy), criminal conviction, after being captured in wartime, or by being born to slaves. Some slaves served for a set term of years, not for life. In some cases, slaves were allowed to own property and to save up to purchase their freedom. Many slaves worked in the fields or as domestic help, but others were assigned to positions of conspicuous responsibility: teachers, medical care, administrators, and civil servants. Unlike slavery in American history, slavery in the Mediterranean world was not based upon race.

Why does Paul tells slaves to be submissive?
One of Paul’s primary concerns in 1 Timothy is evangelism (see 1 Tim. 2:1-7; 5:14). Paul wants the orderliness and good behavior of Christians to be a good ambassador for the gospel. Throughout the Roman Empire, there was a significant level of fear that minority groups might encourage disruptions and revolts that would threaten the fabric of society. These fears would be confirmed if non-Christians found evidence suggesting that Christian teaching encouraged slaves to be disrespectful or lazy. Paul expects slaves to honor the structure of the society in which they live. The respectful and honest behavior of Christian slaves will help make the teachings of and about Jesus attractive (1 Tim. 6:1; Titus 2:9-10).

What is the stance of the New Testament toward the institution of slavery?
The New Testament writers do not see slavery as a divinely-ordained institution. When Paul discusses subordinate roles within the family and the church, he appeals to fundamentals such as creation, the relationship between Christ and the church, and the Ten Commandments (Eph. 5:23, 31; 6:1-3; 1 Tim. 2:13; 1 Cor. 11:8-9). In striking contrast to this, Paul never appeals to some fundamental reason for slavery. Also, two texts about kidnapping seem to be condemning slave trade (1 Tim. 1:10; Rev. 18:11-13).

If slavery is not of God, why don’t the New Testament authors speak out more forcefully against it?
Christ in his First Coming did not seek to overthrow the existing social structure by force, but rather by intruducing a new Spirit behind enemy lines, within the church. It is also important to recognize that the New Testament relativizes slavery; what matters more than one’s social situation is one’s relationship to God and to Christ’s people (1 Cor. 7:17-24; 1 Tim 6:2). Thus the slave can remain a slave and work as for the Lord. Likewise, the master must recognize his accountability to God (Eph. 6:5-9; Col 3:22-4:1). At the same time, social situation is not meaningless, so if a slave can legally gain his freedom, the New Testament presents that as a good thing (1 Cor. 7:21; Philem. 12-14).

What difference did the gospel make in the relationships between masters and slaves?
In a case where both the master and the slave were Christians, Paul states that unity in Christ trumps the distinctions created by society (Gal 3:28). Paul encourages Philemon to treat his slave Onesimus as one who is “better than a slave,” as a “beloved brother” (Philem. 15-21). In our text Paul expects slaves to treat their Christian masters as brothers loved by God (1 Tim. 6:2). The new relationships created by common commitment to Christ abolished the inequity created by the social convention. In this way, the gospel put an end to the institution of slavery in Christian circles, although this took some time.

Why does Paul admonish slaves but not slave masters here in 1 Timothy 6?
Because there were more slaves within the churches than masters: “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26). Having said that, note that Paul does admonish Christian masters in Ephesians 6:9 and Colossians 4:1.

In 1 Timothy 6, what is the difference between verse 1 and verse 2?
Verse 1 primarily speaks to slaves who have non-Christian masters, and verse 2 speaks to slaves who have Christian masters.

What about the translation of 1 Timothy 6:2 found in the 2011 edition of the NIV?
Most commentaries present two possible translations of the description of masters found toward the end of 1 Timothy 6:2. We can see the two options in English by comparing the text of the NIV (2011) and the alternative presented in the NIV footnote: (a) the masters are “devoted to the welfare of their slaves;” or (b) the masters “benefit from the service [of the slaves].” I have looked carefully at the Greek text and read the arguments for and against both translations; it is not an easy question. What is decisive for me is the fact that this phrase is closely associated with the words “believers” and “beloved/dear,” which in this context are reasons that the slaves should work hard for their Christian masters. Paul is saying that these Christian slaves should serve their masters because their masters are believers, are loved (by God, and/or by believers), and also because their masters are devoted to the welfare of the slaves.

We live in a very different situation, so what should we take away from 1 Timothy 6:1-2 today?
Two things: (1) Even where your role in society is challenging, live with integrity and upright behavior so that people will not be able to use your lifestyle as a reason to mock Christian teaching. (2) Even where your status in the eyes of society is very different from that of another Christian (whether lower or higher), treat that person with all respect as your brother/sister in Christ.

George W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles. NIGTC. Eerdmans, 1992.
Andrew T. Lincoln. Ephesians. WBC. Word, 1990.
I. Howard Marshall, The Pastoral Epistles. ICC. T & T Clark, 1999.
William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles. WBC. Nelson, 2000.
Herman Ridderbos, Paul, An Outline of His Theology, Eerdmans, 1975.
Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament. Zondervan, 2005.


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