Escaped slave, abolitionist, and statesmen Frederick Douglass observed, “Between the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked.”
Modern readers of today’s passage are often troubled to see Paul include masters and slaves in his directions about how Christian families ought to operate. It is a fact, however, that in the New Testament era, slaves were considered a part of the household as much as children were. Obedience was expected of both (vv. 1, 6).
As we read Paul’s directives, it is crucial to recognize that he is not endorsing the practice of slavery (see this month’s “Practical Theology” column). Rather, he is offering guidelines for Christians forced to live within that social structure. He does not tell them to unravel the practice but to be Christlike within its constraints. His directions to children, however, while essentially the same, are based on something else. They grow out of the commandment to “Honor your father and mother” (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 5:16). Paul observes that this is the first of the ten commandments to include a promise.
Family was a biblical institution grounded in Creation. Slavery was not. Yet followers of Jesus in Paul’s day were called to live Christianly within both. This does not mean they were obligated to accept either institution’s “bad, corrupt, and wicked” elements as part of God’s will. Elsewhere, Paul advises slaves to gain their freedom if they can (1 Cor. 7:21). He says that those who submit should take comfort in knowing that God sees their obedience as something rendered to Him. Those who expect obedience must keep in mind that they will one day answer to God.
>> While our own experience may not fit this passage exactly, we all have people to whom we must submit. How can we do this in a way that will bring glory to Christ?
“There is no authority except that which God has established” (Rom. 13:1). Submission to earthly authority begins with submission to You. Whatever our qualms about our earthly leaders, we trust that You are ultimately in control.