Tag Archives: slavery

The world-changing power of forgiveness – Philemon 8-25, Part 4.

29 Aug
Photo by Priscilla du Preez on Unsplash

Have you ever been in a situation where you needed to forgive someone who hurt you? Did you find it difficult to do so? It can be scary to forgive, especially when the pain runs deep. Will that person respect your forgiveness? What if they hurt you again? Are they really sorry? How do you truly know? There are many questions surrounding broken relationships, questions that can make forgiveness seem murky. In our study of Philemon, Paul is addressing a situation of brokenness, and one that needed forgiveness. But this wasn’t any ordinary brokenness, and what Paul is asking is, well, a lot.

If you want to catch up on the broken situation I’m talking about, start with Part 1 of this series, and continuing reading Parts 2 and 3. Then look at verse 17 of the letter to Philemon.  Do you see where Paul says to Philemon, “If you consider me a partner”?  It is almost certain that Philemon would have considered Paul a partner.  Guess what Greek word Paul used there for “partner”? Koinonia.  Remember that from the previous series on Philemon 1-7, when we discussed verse 6? “Sharing” is the word koinonia, and it means “fellowship, sharing or participation.” Paul has come full circle, and then some!  Paul says, “Welcome Onesimus as you would welcome me, as a close friend, because that’s what Christians do!”  Further, if Philemon is to welcome Onesimus, just as he would welcome Paul, do you see how Paul is putting Onesimus on an equal level with himself!  That’s the kind of amazing equality that we all have in Christ.

Paul continues.  In verse 18 he says that if Onesimus has done Philemon any wrong, or owes Philemon anything, he should charge it to Paul.  As we said in Part 2 of this series on Philemon 8-25, it is highly likely that Onesimus did something more than just run away; in the process of running away he probably stole money and possessions from Philemon.  Paul knows this, and does not want that offense to get in the way of Philemon embracing Onesimus as a brother.  Paul wants this reunion to go well.  This could be an amazing example to many people of the power of Jesus, and how Jesus wants to reshape the world.  A master welcoming back his runaway slave who stole from him?  The normal response for Onesimus’ behavior would have massive punishment, maybe even death.  Also Philemon’s honor was at stake in the community.  Paul knows that if Philemon acts in a surprising upside-down Jesus kind of way, Philemon’s forgiveness and brotherly-welcoming of Onesimus could have significant ripple effects in Colosse. Imagine the people in the city talking as word gets out: “Did you hear that Philemon welcomed back a slave who ran away from him, and stole from him?” That would get notice! Sure some people, maybe even many people, would think Philemon is crazy, but they would still be seeing an amazing example of forgiveness and brotherhood that Jesus brings to the world. What an impact that could make in the church!  In the world!

Therefore, what we see Paul pushing for is the beginning of the eradication of slavery.  This is how Christians can clearly say that slavery is not supported by the Bible.  This is an upending of the social order and seeing God’s Kingdom come to earth as it is in heaven.  Paul is teaching Christians to be willing to go against the conventions of their day, in the name of Jesus.  To cross color lines sacrificially, lovingly.  To repent where they need to repent.  To forgive.  To pay for crimes they didn’t commit.  This is a distinctly Jesus way of life, isn’t it?  That kind of self-sacrifice, Paul says to Philemon, is what it takes to be the church.

Still Paul isn’t done.  In verse 19 he says he is writing this with his own hand.  Often Paul would just talk and one of his friends would write.  But he is writing this one himself.  It is very personal and important to him.  It could be that his friend wrote the rest of the letter, but at verse 19, he picks up the pen and says, “Philemon, I’m serious about my offer to you to charge Onesimus’ damages to me.  I will pay it back.”  And then he gets back to some, well, could we say, urging?  Manipulating?  Maybe.  Paul says, “by the way, Philemon, remember that you owe me you very self.”  I don’t know what that means.  Paul doesn’t say.  It could be that Paul guided Philemon to faith in Christ. We don’t know. Clearly, though, Paul is pulling out all the stops to help Philemon see things his way.

Then he lays it on a bit thicker in verses 20-21.  Read those verses. How much does Paul want Philemon to forgive Onesimus and welcome him as a brother?  So much.  He wants a benefit from Philemon, so Paul tells Philemon to refresh his heart, as he said Philemon was so good at back in verse 7.  Then he says in verse 21, “Philemon, I know you will do even more than I ask.”  Maybe Paul is trying too hard here.  What we know by all his cajoling is that this situation is extremely important to Paul.  I read this letter and think, “Did Philemon have any choice but to do what Paul is asking of him?” Then Paul finishes up the letter with some further greetings and a closing blessing of grace.

But let’s go back to that question: Did Philemon have a choice?  Sure, he did.  With Paul far away in Rome, Philemon had a choice.  Paul couldn’t make Philemon agree and receive Onesimus, no longer a slave, now a brother.  Philemon would have to overcome his personal anger, embarrassment, and hurt.  He likely felt betrayed by Onesimus.  He would also have to overcome societal pressure that said masters do not forgive slaves.  In a society of honor and shame, Onesimus had greatly shamed his master, and the common response by the master would be severe punishment.  What Paul is asking Philemon to do, then, is radical, earth-shattering, Jesus kind of forgiveness and acceptance.   Paul’s teaching that all are one in Christ, that Jesus removes the distinctions between slave and free, is right, but it presents a tall order for Philemon.  What will he do?

What did he do?  We don’t know for sure.  Ancient historians tells us that there was an Onesimus who eventually became a Christian bishop.  Maybe it was this Onesimus, and if so, that would indicate a possibility that Philemon did exactly what Paul asked him to.  We really don’t know.  Scholars also point out that because we still know the content of the Paul’s letter to Philemon, that, too, is an indication that Philemon received Onesimus as a brother. Why? Because this letter was almost certainly private, and Philemon could have crumpled it up, thrown it away, and burned it. Most likely, he didn’t, and instead allowed the letter to become public, copied and transmitted to many other churches, so they could also benefit from Paul’s teaching. Again, how did Philemon respond to the letter? We don’t know for sure.

The better question is: what will we do? And we attempt to answer that next in Part 5.

How to transform your life from useless to useful – Philemon 8-25, Part 2

27 Aug
Photo by Linh Nguyen on Unsplash

Have you ever felt useless in life? Maybe you watch others around you, friends and family, and it seems they are successful, advancing, making a difference in the world, enjoying life. Then you think about your life, and maybe you see a past littered with failure, broken relationships, and poor choices. Even if that describes you a little bit, know that you are not alone. Today we meet a man with a broken past. In fact, he was described as useless. At the outset, though, let me give you a hint: there is hope!

So far in our study of Paul’s letter to Philemon, in verses 1-7 we’ve seen Paul profusely encourage Philemon to see himself as a lover of Jesus who also loves all of Jesus’ followers. Then in verses 8-9, Paul begins to make an appeal to Philemon, because there is a specific situation in which Paul wants Philemon to practice that love for Jesus and all his followers. Paul knows that Philemon has a broken relationship in his life, and in verses 10-21, Paul makes his appeal to Philemon to fix that relationship.

What relationship? Paul is writing Philemon on behalf of Onesimus who used to be Philemon’s slave.  But something happened.  We don’t know all the details, but in verse 18 Paul gives some clues.  It seems that Onesimus not only ran away from Philemon, but may have even stolen from him.  Onesimus then made his way to Rome where he met up with Paul.  My guess is that one of three things led Onesimus to Paul. 

First option: Paul had previously become friends with Philemon.  It is possible that Paul would have also met his slave at the same time.  As time goes by, Paul ends up in Rome on house arrest, and Onesimus runs away from Philemon, hoping upon hope that Paul will help him.  If you’ve just committed a crime, and you don’t know where to go, you often seek a person you think will be understanding.  In Onesimus’ mind, Paul fits the bill.

Second option: It could be that Onesimus and Paul hadn’t previously met, but Onesimus still seeks out Paul for help, simply because of Paul’s reputation.

Third option: Onesimus just so happens to end up in Rome and comes across Paul.  Seems unlikely, but as we all know, unlikely things happen all time. 

The rest of the story, Paul tells us.  There in Rome, as he says in verse 10, Onesimus becomes his son.  That is strong family language, right?  Paul writes like this often, calling people his “son” in the faith.  What he means is that he shared Christ with Onesimus, and Onesimus chose to place his faith in Christ, giving Jesus both his assent and allegiance.  In other words, through Paul’s ministry on house arrest, Onesimus becomes a Christian. 

In verse 11 you see Paul’s literary flourish as he uses a wordplay, and most of your Bibles will point to this in a text note.  Almost certainly Onesimus was a difficult case for Philemon, and Paul knew this. If he hadn’t previously heard the story of Onesimus’ running away, he now heard it from Onesimus. Maybe Onesimus was a bad worker, maybe he was insubordinate, a back-talker, a slacker, we don’t know. As a result, maybe Philemon was hard on Onesimus, and that led to his running away. Or maybe Onesimus just wanted to be free. When Paul describes Onesimus as “formerly useless,” it could be all of the above. But here’s wordplay: Onesimus’ name means “useful,” and what does Paul say in verse 11?  Onesimus has gone through a transformation from uselessness to usefulness.  Through the work of Jesus in Onesimus’ life, a great change has happened. Onesimus is now as his name suggests, useful!  And not just to Philemon, Onesimus, Paul says, is useful to Paul too.  Apparently Onesimus was on fire for Jesus, serving, helping Paul. 

So Paul has a tough decision to make.  Do you send a runaway slave back to their master, knowing that it might not go well for that slave?  Or do you keep him with you, especially considering the amazing change that has taken place in his life?  There’s a lot riding on this.  If Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon, how will Philemon handle it?  Philemon really seems to be a good man, but Onesimus had betrayed Philemon, and Philemon could have a bad reaction. Also consider this from Onesimus’ point of view.  How much convincing did Paul have to do to get Onesimus to agree to this, after having wronged Philemon and run away?  How scared was he to go back there?  We can imagine Paul having a talk with Onesimus: “Now that you are follower of Jesus, there’s something we need to discuss. Philemon. Your master. How you treated him. Your broken relationship. Jesus is in the business of making things right. We’re going to need to deal with this.”

Now are you seeing why Paul gushes so much over Philemon in verses 1-7?  All that talk about loving all Christians?  Yeah.  It’s because Paul is dropping a bomb right in Philemon’s lap.  And that bomb is Onesimus.  Paul chooses to send Onesimus back, as we read in verse 12, which is the right thing to do. In fact, under Roman law, it was the legal thing to do. Philemon owns Onesimus, and Paul chooses to submit Onesimus to that relationship, as he says in verse 14.

At this juncture we need to pause and talk about slavery in the Roman Empire.  Even just saying “Philemon owns Onesimus” feels wrong.  But that is what was going on.  He was legally seen as property. 

Doesn’t it seem really odd that Philemon, a Christian, owns slaves, and that Paul would send a runaway slave back to his master!  Shouldn’t Philemon set his slaves free?  And shouldn’t Paul say, “Onesimus, you are not going back there into slavery”?  Yes, it seems like that should be happening, but none of it did.  As we’ll see, Paul has a whole lot more to say, but for now I want to point out that slavery in the Roman Empire, while it was awful, as slavery always is, was not like slavery in our American past.  Frankly, American slavery was worse.  A horrible, racial, terrible evil.  It was evil in the Roman Empire too, but it was not racial, and slaves actually had some measure of opportunity for freedom and advancement.  What I do not want you to hear me saying, though, is that slavery was okay in the Roman Empire.  It was different than American slavery, but it still was not okay.  It was evil and wrong back then and went against God’s desires.  I, too, wish Paul would have said more to denounce it.

So what did he say?  Next if Part 3 we continue observing his flow of thought, which will have significant implications for not only Philemon and Onesimus, but so much more, including the practice of slavery.

Learning how to be a good employee from an unexpected source – Titus 2:1-10, Part 5

19 Jul

Are you a good employee? How do you know? Do you receive good evaluations? What would your bosses say about you? In this post we’re going to learn how to be a good employee from an most unexpected source.

In this series of posts on Titus 2:1-10, Paul has been talking to various groups in the church: older men and women, and younger men and women. That pretty much covers it, right?  Especially when you consider that parents are to lead their children. But nope, there is another group.  It might have been the largest group.  Do you know who Paul hasn’t talked about yet?

Slaves.  In the Greco-Roman era around first century AD, there were millions and millions of slaves.  Slaves in the churches?  Yes.  Slavery was a normal part of that culture, though theirs was a different kind of slavery than what we are used to in our American past.  Ours was racially based. There’s was not.  You could become a slave through war, for example, when Rome defeated your country and conscripted all your people.  Slaves could also earn freedom, become Roman Citizens, and gain property and wealth.  But slavery in any era is still slavery: slaves are people owned by other people, and at times the owners could treat their slaves horribly.

So why were there slaves in churches? Shouldn’t the Christians set their slaves free? As we look at verses 9-10 where Paul addresses the slaves in the churches in Crete, I first want to confirm that Paul is not supporting the concept of slavery.  Paul’s approach to the institution of slavery will come up on this blog in the near future when we finish Titus and study the next short letter in the New Testament, Philemon, so we’ll get there.  For now, Paul is simply providing teaching for slaves who are Christians, and how they should live the life of Christ in their current enslaved position. 

He says, “Please your masters.  Don’t talk back or steal, so you can be trusted.”  Interestingly, in Ephesians 6, Paul says, “slaves obey your masters because it is the right thing to do, not just to win their favor.” Now here in Titus he says that slaves should obey their masters to win their faith in Christ. See what he says in verse 10, “so that in every way slaves will make the teaching about God our savior attractive?”

Paul is showing how much he is concerned for the mission of God.  Imagine, in other words, a Christian who also happens to be a slave behaving with respect and truth and honor before their master.  That will stand out.  Especially if the master is a jerk.  That will increase the likelihood that the master could become a Christian.

Even though slavery is illegal in the USA, and many parts of the world, it is still an awful problem. As I mentioned above, we’ll talk about Paul’s thoughts on the institution of slavery when we study the letter of Philemon in a few weeks. Because Paul doesn’t address the institution of slavery in his letter to Titus, what can we learn from his teaching to slaves? I think there are some principles in verses 9-10 that carry over to employees and employers.  How many of you are an employee who has a boss?  Me too.  In my denomination, I have a District Field Director and a Bishop who are my bosses.

I’m not saying our bosses are like slave driver, by the way!  What I am saying, though, is that they way you work, the way you handle your employment, will say a lot to your boss about your faith in Jesus.  Maybe your boss is a Christian.  But maybe not.  You make the teaching of Jesus attractive by working hard, by being competent, trustworthy, and creative. 

So we need all these groups in the church.  Especially, we need the older to teach the younger.  First, older men and women, you set the example for the younger by how you live.  Live lives of discipleship to Jesus, clearly showing the young what it means to be selfless, committed to Christ, passionate about the mission of his Kingdom. 

And then train others to follow Jesus.  Teach them to live like Jesus.  Meet with them.  Weekly.  Read the Bible together.  Talk about how to apply it to your lives. 

Who is your Titus?  This passage is a discipleship passage.  Paul is discipling Titus through a letter, and in turn he wants Titus to disciple or train the people in the churches in Crete to train others.  Who are you investing in? You’ve got a really wonderful guide here in Titus 2:1-10.  As you meet with a person, read this passage, maybe for starters, and talk about how their life and your life is demonstrating all these areas that Paul is talking about.  So, who is your Titus?

How Peter could tell slaves to submit to masters without dignifying the institution of slavery

11 Jul

Image result for does the bible condone slavery

Does the Bible condone slavery?  The passage we are studying this week, in particular 1 Peter 2:18-20, seems to do just that.  As I mentioned in this week’s first post, Christian slave-owners used this passage to support slavery.  Imagine being a slave hearing sermons telling you to submit to your master, even when he beats you.  Here’s how authors Powery and Sadler describe it:

“The God [slaves] met in these sermons was firmly on the side of their tormentors, opposing their freedom, reifying the status quo.  The religion they were offered did not emphasize the love of Christ in response to their choice of will, but the subjugation of their wills as a divine duty to other humans who laid claim to their bodies.”  – The Genesis of Liberation, page 1

It is a wonder that Christianity became and remains so prominent among African-Americans.  Is there perhaps more to the story?  Let’s see what we can uncover.

What we are looking at this week is a key principle Peter taught in 1 Peter 2:13: “submit to created human authority, for the Lord’s sake.”  Yesterday’s post examined how Peter applied the principle to government.  In the second of three illustrations, today Peter mentions something incredibly hard for us to hear.  In 1 Peter 2:18-20, he speaks to Christians who were slaves, and he says “submit to your masters, even to those who are harsh and maybe beat you.”  Whew. That is a tough passage.  What was Peter thinking?

First of all, slavery in the Greco-Roman Empire had some differences from slavery in our American history.  Our slavery was racial.  In Peter’s day, it was often not racial.  Slaves in the Roman Empire could earn their freedom, become citizens, purchase land, and rise in society.  Slavery was very widespread, however, and as Peter indicates, it could be brutal.

From our vantage point in 2018, given what our nation went through and still struggles with, to hear Peter say to a slave in verse 18, “submit,” and in verse 19, “it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering,” we cringe.  We want him to say, “Slave, you throw off your chains and be free!”

But Peter doesn’t say that and you can see a Southern slave owner in 1850 pulling out his Bible and proclaiming, “Look, it says right here in 1st Peter 2 that slaves should respect their masters.”  And that’s exactly what those slave-owners did!  Their way of interpreting the Bible, and the racism inherent in their interpretation, is a factor that led to our bloody Civil War.  Those slave-owners were wrong.  They interpreted this passage wrong.

Peter is absolutely not trying to support slavery and beatings.  Peter is talking to Christians who were currently slaves, giving them advice on how to handle the difficult situation, from a distinctly Christian perspective.

Peter says to them, “submit.”  Why though?  Because when they consider the freedom they have in Christ, they will best serve the cause of Christ by being submissive and respectful to the authorities around them.  God is the focus once again, as Peter notes in verses 19 and 20.  “Be conscious of God,” he says, and “This is commendable before God.”  The principle has nothing to do with whether or not slavery is right or wrong.  The principle is simply, submit for God’s sake.

Peter is laser-focused on the mission of God.  “Christian slaves,” he is saying, “you have a grander mission, the mission of Jesus, to see people become followers of Jesus, and so therefore, you give every part of your life to that mission.”

But maybe that doesn’t help you understand Peter’s heart.  Maybe you’re still thinking, “Yeah, but Peter still could have told those slaves that the mission of God also included their freedom from slavery.  God wants slaves to be free.  And therefore, he should have told them to rise up and rebel.”  If you’re thinking that, you’re not alone.  There is a significant portion of the my thinking that agrees with you.

But let’s give Peter the benefit of the doubt, that he too likely thought through this.  He had already in verse 16 said that they were to live as free men. And yet, Peter knew what would happen if Christian slaves chose to take their freedom from their masters.  Think about the slave rebellions in our American past.  They generally didn’t go well.  They almost always led to increased pain and suffering for slaves.

I suspect Peter was well aware of this and had witnessed this.  If the Christian slaves chose to embrace their freedom in Christ and not submit, they would not only face increased beatings, but they would also forfeit just about every opportunity to win their masters for Christ. Peter sees a much improved situation for slaves who are respectful, submit, and through their good lives provide a much greater chance of reaching people for Christ.

But isn’t Peter, then, preserving the institution of slavery?  Shouldn’t he still condemn it?

Even though Peter doesn’t condemn the institution of slavery, and in fact, no biblical writer does so, they did however, lay an ingenious groundwork for slavery to be abolished.  Biblical theology absolutely supports abolition of slavery and the total equality of all humanity. That discussion goes beyond the scope of this post, but I do think it is important to mention it briefly.  The biblical writers talked about racial equality, about freedom in Christ, about how in Christ there is neither slave nor free.  But we are all one in Christ.  They made a culturally-shocking theological argument against slavery.

As Christians we should passionately pursue abolition.  Thankfully slavery is no longer a part of our American situation, but the reality is that there is more slavery, globally-speaking, now than there was during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.  There is much work to be done, and we Christians should be leading the charge for abolition.

Check back in tomorrow as we look at the final illustration Peter uses for how to submit to authority for the Lord’s sake.

One Bible passage slave owners used to justify owning and beating slaves

9 Jul

Image result for slavery chains

Southern Christians who were slave-owners in our American past used the Bible to justify how they could sing praises to God at church on Sunday and then beat their slaves Monday through Saturday.  Were they right?  Does God condone slavery?  As we continue our study through 1 Peter, this week we come to one of those passages that slave owners cited to support their ways.

Turn to 1st Peter 2:13-25, and what do you read?  Look at verses 18-20, and you’ll find Peter says, “Slaves submit to your masters.”  Then he even says that if a slave receives a beating and takes it respectfully, he is being commendable to God.  What’s more is that Peter goes on to point them to Jesus as the ultimate example of one who was beaten for God’s sake.  It almost sounds like Peter is saying, “Slaves, just take your beatings with a smile.  That’s what Jesus did, and so you should too.”  Is Peter saying that slavery is okay?

All week long we are going to try to answer these questions and look at how this difficult passage might apply to Christians in our day.

First, we need to tie in to the previous verses 11-12 where Peter tells these Christians to “live such good lives among the pagans, that though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God.”  That sentence is key to understanding 1 Peter 2:13-25.  Peter is writing to Christians who were a tiny minority in the vast, powerful Roman Empire.  He is thinking of the mission these Christians have.  It’s not a mission Peter made up.  It was the mission Jesus had given to Peter and the other disciples.  Three decades later, Peter conveys that same mission to Christians who never knew Jesus and yet believe in him and want to follow his way.  That mission, Peter recalls, is to live such good lives that the people around them will be impacted for Christ.  Allegiance to the mission of God, therefore, is the baseline for all Christian behavior. 

With that mission in mind, Peter has a principle to share, a principle that will guide these Christians about how they should live in a culture that was toxic to them.

The principle is in verse 13: “Submit yourself for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men.”  Before we examine how Peter illustrates this principle, including slaves’ response to their masters, we need to understand this guiding principle in verse 13.  And to understand this principle, we need to do a bit of study. Let’s examine each of the principle’s three parts.

The first part I want us to look at is the phrase: “every authority instituted among men.” How many words in that phrase?  Five.  But in the original language in which Peter wrote, he only used three words.  “Every human institution” is the simplest English way to translate the three words Peter wrote in Greek.  So why does the New International Version of the Bible add those other words?  Well, the scholars tell us that the words “every” (pas) and “men” (anthropos) are pretty much straight from the Greek.  Easy to translate with one word each.  The words “authority instituted among” are a bit more difficult to translate.  There is only one Greek word in that phrase.  I suggest that “institution” is the best English word to translate it. But it has some other elements that can help us more fully understand what Peter is referring to.

The word Peter used for “institution”, ktisis, has at its root the concept of something created.  That means that these are not God’s institutions.  They were created.  So Peter is not talking about the Kingdom of God.  He is talking about institutions created by humans.

Additionally, “ktisis” carries the idea that those created institutions have authority.  What are some examples of human-created institutions that have authority?  Governments.  The State.  Police forces.  School systems.  Many even use the word “authority” in their title.  The sewer authority.  The water authority.  The port authority.  There are actually a lot of them.  As we’ll see tomorrow, Peter is going to mention a few human institutions that were in power in his day.

To summarize, the first phrase in verse 13 is “every human created authority.”

Now we come to the second phrase, which can be a tough pill to swallow.  It is the words, “submit yourselves”.  Peter says to the Christians that they should submit to these created institutions.  For a guy who just said in verses 2:4-10 that these Christians are a holy nation, a people belonging to God, it’s actually kind of shocking that he says “submit to human authorities.”  Imagine being in the room at the house church when someone first read this letter out loud to Christians.  They could easily have been thinking, “What?  Peter, you’re confusing.  You just told us that we a holy nation belonging to God.  Why should we submit to human authorities?”

To answer that we need to first look at what he means by the word “submit”?  Submit is the concept of obedience to the orders that the authorities give.  To submit is to obey.  It’s actually a pretty simple concept.  Thus far, as we have been looking at his principle in verse 13, we have put two phrases together, and they say: “obey the orders of the created human authorities”.

The third and final part of the principle is the phrase “for the Lord’s sake.”  Peter says that they are to “obey the orders of the created human authorities, for the Lord’s sake”.  That last piece is crucial.  It’s putting God at the priority.  The submitting to or the obeying of human authority is to be done for God.  God is the focus.  There is a godly, spiritual purpose that undergirds why we submit to human authority.  Flowing from what he said in verses 11-12, the “live good lives” phrase, you could even say that in order to promote the mission of God’s Kingdom, we Christians submit to human authority. But how?

Peter is not saying that submitting to human authority is the mission of God’s Kingdom.  Submitting to human authority is like a key that can help unlock a door to advance the mission of the Kingdom. Again, I ask, how?

As we seek to answer how Christian submission to human authorities could advance the Kingdom of God, I want to muddy the waters even further.  The fact that these Christians were being persecuted leaves us feeling like something is off here.  You would think that Peter would say, “That persecution is wrong, and you should not stand for that.  You need to rebel and fight back and free yourselves.  Overthrow the oppressor.  Take up arms!”  In other words, Peter says “submit” when it seems like he should be saying, “Don’t submit!”  But Peter doesn’t do that.  Why? Is he wrong?

No, Peter is not wrong.  He has the right focus: the Lord’s sake.  Peter knows that if the Christians are submissive and obey, they will be in a far better position to advance the Kingdom of God.

But you might say to yourself, “Yeah, but Joel, where should we draw the line?  Isn’t there a time and place to rise up and rebel?”  Very good question.  We’re going to get to that.  But first, let’s keep walking through the passage and see how Peter illustrates the principle of how submitting to human authority will actually help advance the Kingdom of God.  Tomorrow we’ll look at the first of three illustrations: submitting to the State.

How I found out I owned 62 slaves (and what I’m doing about it)

2 May

Does the Bible affirm slavery?  The guy in the video below sure thinks so.

No doubt this man’s methodology was really insensitive and hurtful.  Inexcusable.  But take a look at his argument.  He claims the Bible supports slavery.  Is he right.  On the billboard, he lists a Bible verse that seems to endorse slavery.  At Faith Church two weeks ago, we continued our series through the biblical letter of 1st Timothy, this time looking at just two verses about slavery: 1 Timothy 6:1-2.

In their The Genesis of Liberation, authors Powery and Sadler note that the problem with passages like 1 Timothy 6:1-2 is that Southern slave-owners used passages like this one to retain their stranglehold on their slaves and promote the culture of slavery.  Were the slave-owners right?  Does a passage like this justify slavery?

In the years of 1820-1860 slaves and Northern freed blacks were reading these same passages coming to a very different conclusion.  Many of us today would say “No Way! The Bible doesn’t support slavery.” Who is right?  Let’s take a closer look.

What we find when we survey the New Testament approach to slavery is that the NT writers did not endorse the system of slavery.  They never say “Slavery is a just and good system, and we should promote it and affirm it.” Instead Paul taught Christians how to live in the reality of their slave culture.

First up are Ephesians 6:5-9 and Colossians 3:22-4:1.  Paul says essentially the same thing in both passages.  Here is what he says in Ephesians 6:5-9:

“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free.  And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.”

We have to see that in a context where slavery was the norm, where slaves outnumbered free people, what Paul is teaching here is radical.  He is teaching Christian slave-owners to remember that they themselves also have a Master in heaven. Therefore they should treat their slaves well.

This was very unexpected teaching.  But maybe you think Paul should have been more radical than that. Take a look at Titus 2:9-10.  What Paul says here is similar to Ephesians and Colossians, but he adds some detail:

“Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.”

Sounds very similar to the Ephesians/Colossians passage, doesn’t it?  Paul wants slaves to see their masters as people who need salvation from Jesus.  Paul wants them to see how their lives can make teaching about Jesus attractive or repulsive.  If slave owners can become followers of Jesus, then maybe something more radical can happen.

And that is exactly what he says to a slave owner by the name of Philemon.

Are you familiar with the story Philemon?  Philemon was a genuinely great Christian man who owned a slave named Onesimus.  Onesimus, we think, had stolen from Philemon and ran away.  Under Roman Law, this was punishable by death.  Somehow, Onesimus and Paul crossed paths, and Onesimus became a Christian under Paul’s teaching.  So now Paul’s letter to Philemon is a plea to Philemon saying “I’m sending Philemon back to you and I want you to treat him right when he returns.”

Listen to how Paul words it:

“Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back for good—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord.”

Paul is demonstrating clearly the transformation that can take place.  A slave can become a brother!  Now that is radical.  That is pretty much another way of saying “set your slaves free”.  In fact, it is better than saying “set your slaves free.”  It saying “Slave-owner: followers of Jesus have transformed relationships, to the point where your slaves are no longer your property, they are your family.  You don’t’ just set them free, they are your dear brothers and sisters.”

What we see, then, is that Paul, writing in a society that was dominated by slavery, injected his writing with a view to a better future of equality!  This new picture of the future is clear in what Paul says in Galatians 3:26-28

“You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul is launching a brand new theological understanding of humanity for that culture.  In Christ he says, we are all the same.  We know this from the very beginning of Creation where God says in Genesis 1 that he made all humans in his image.  We are all the same in Christ.  There are different ethnicities, yes, but we are all equal in Christ.  Because of that, there should be no slave, no free.  All are one in Christ.

This theological foundation that Paul taught was the very thing that led to the eradication of slavery in years to come.  Timothy did not live in a world where slavery was eradicated.  The application of Christian theology clearly leads to the eradication of slavery though.  Because we do live in a society where slavery is no more, we should press on to remove even the last vestiges of slavery, including racial bias and injustice, human trafficking and the like.

Slavery does still exist in various forms in the world.  And this is where it impacts us.  Our inexpensive products often come from places across the globe that utilize slave labor in order to keep our prices low.

What if the coffee you bought this morning on your way to work was harvested by farmers that were not paid a fair wage?

What if the chocolate you ate this week was made by slaves?

What if the shirt and pants you are wearing right now are made by child laborers?

In James 5, James the brother of Jesus says this:

“Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. … You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.”

James is speaking to us as well.  Think about it.  The reason we get such cheap coffee is often because the workers used to farm and harvest the coffee were not paid a fair wage.  Some of our products are made by outright slave labor.

Wouldn’t you want to know if you are part of the system that keeps people enslaved even today?  As Christians we should want to know and do something about it.

Here’s something shocking I found out as I was preparing this sermon.  I own slaves.  You read that right.

Here’s the kicker: You, too, might be a slave owner! Visit slaveryfootprint.org and you can find out for yourself.  This organization has created a website and app with a quick survey you fill out in which you describe your life.  How many rooms does your house have?  How many cars do you have?  How much clothing do you have?  You enter basic info on your eating habits, sports, technology, etc.  Then it gives you a result.  Based on your lifestyle, and what researchers have found about where our products come from, you will get a number of how many slaves you own.

I was appalled to find out my number.  62 slaves.  How many slaves do you own?  This is a reality check.

I know, I know, I don’t actually own any slaves, and neither do you.  But what James says applies to us.  We might not be the slave-owners, but we buy the products those slave-owners enslave people to make!  And thus we are just as culpable, James says.  The unpaid wages of the workers cry out, and James tells us that cry is heard by God!  We should be very concerned about that.

So what can we do?

When I preached this sermon, one person came up to me afterwards frustrated.  It seems like we are trapped in a consumer system where ethical consumption isn’t realistic.  Can the church, for example, realistically purchase a new HVAC unit for $20,000 when a foreign-made unit, one possibly made by workers not paid fairly, will only cost $6000?  The reality is that we’re not just talking about big ticket items like HVAC units.  Nearly everything we purchase from food to clothing to gadgets just might be part of this system.  If we were to restrict ourselves to only ethical purchases, it seems like our lives would shut down and we wouldn’t be able to exist.

So let me encourage you to start somehow, somewhere.  If this is new to you, perhaps you might start with coffee.

It is very possible and accessible to purchase fair trade coffee.  It will be more expensive than the cheap brands.  But that is kinda the point isn’t it?  You pay more for the coffee because the workers who harvested it were paid fair wages.  So consider visiting Equal Exchange.  They sell fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas and other ethically-produced foods.  I was so proud a few years ago when Faith Church made the switch to fair trade coffee.  It cost us more, but it was the right thing to do.

Consider ethical clothing companies like Imagine Goods.  The employed formerly enslaved women, paying them a fair wage, empowering them through employment, lifting them out of poverty.  I’ll admit it, I’m biased. My wife and her partner started Imagine Goods, but if you’ll read their story and see their vision and how they are accomplishing it, I think you’ll see why I’m so excited about them.

Here’s an article featuring three apps that can help you make ethical purchases.  This one features six apps.  Another very easy option is to consider purchasing your clothing at Goodwill or consignment shops.  That way you are supporting an unethical industry, you are supporting local businesses.

It will take some work, but it can be done!

How you might be a slave-owner without knowing it (or…does the Bible condone slavery?)

22 Apr

How are you treating your slaves?  You don’t have any, you say?  Wrong.  You almost certainly do.  You just don’t know it.

Are you a good slave master?  How many of you benefit from slaves?  You’re thinking, “I don’t have slaves!  That was a thing of the past.”

I thought you might say that. Would you be surprised to hear that your answer is wrong?

You might not own slaves.  But it is almost certain that just about all of us benefit from slaves.

Here’s a little test you can do right now.  Read the tag on your shirt.  Where was your shirt made?

Do you know who made your shirt?  How were they treated?  How much were they paid?  What kind of working conditions were they in?  Do they get any benefits, like health insurance?

You’re wearing the shirt they made.  Wouldn’t you want to know who they are, and especially how they were treated?  Or would you prefer not to know, not to have to wonder if you are connected to slavery?

Slavery?  Yes, slavery.  Garment workers around the globe produce our clothing, doing so in conditions that amount to slavery.  Take a look at this article for example.  Or this one.  And how about this one?

My shirt was made in Cambodia.  But there is something special about my shirt.  I can guarantee you that it was not made by slaves.  Here’s why.

Yours though?

Slavery is real, and though we might not own slaves, our consumer choices enable slavery around the world.

Tomorrow at Faith Church, we continue our series through the biblical letter of 1st Timothy, this time looking at just two verses about slavery.  You can read them at 1 Timothy 6:1-2.

You might wonder if this is a passage we don’t need to study because we don’t have slavery in our culture?  Maybe we should just skip it?  I think you’ll find that even though our country got rid of slavery long ago, this is a passage that is still very important to study, especially given the prevalence of slavery around the world today and how slavery is still connected to America through the many products we can purchase that are slave made.

The problem with 1st Timothy 6:1-2 is that it seems to be okay with slavery.  But is it?

For the last two years, I have been participating in a program for pastors called the Clergy Leadership Program of Central Pennsylvania, based out of Messiah College.  We meet up 5-6 times every year for retreats and seminars to help us learn about the intersection between faith and the many spheres of life. It has been a wonderful leadership training opportunity.  One aspect that has been so helpful is that it has put us in touch with other leaders, authors, thinkers.   The program directors have given us books to read, one of which was written by a Messiah College professor, Emerson Powery, who is also one of the program directors.

Powery, and his co-author, Rodney Sadler, wrote the The Genesis of Liberation, an excellent study about how formerly enslaved peoples in the United States South read and interpreted the Bible in the 40 years or so leading up to the Civil War.  Powery and Sadler note that the problem with passages like 1 Timothy 6:1-2 is that Southern slave-owners used passages like this one to retain their stranglehold on their slaves and promote the culture of slavery.  Were the slave-owners right?  Does a passage like this justify slavery?  It seems a little like it does.  Does the Bible affirm slavery?

Join us Sunday, April 23, at Faith Church to learn what the Bible says about slavery, how we might still be culpable of slavery, and what we can do about it.