1 Peter 2:18-20 – Living as Slaves in the Empire

Even “slaves” in the empire are “free.”

They are “free” because they are bound to no authority other than God (cf. 1 Peter 2:16). But they “submit” as “slaves” within the empire because they fear (worship) God. This is the mystery of exiles living for the sake of Gospel within an oppressive empire:

free from worldly authority,

            but enslaved to God, and

                        therefore, submissive within worldly structures

                                    for the sake of the gospel.

As noted in the previous post, however, “submission” is not absolute. It is limited by Christian profession (often we obey God rather than human authority), and it is circumstantial. Slaves, generally, could do little to change their situation. This submission is missional, that is, for the sake of God’s mission, given the circumstances in which people find themselves within human authority structures (empire, slaves, married to unconverted spouses).

Slavery comes in many different forms throughout history. Not all slavery was like what existed in the New World (17-19th centuries). Slaves in the Roman world might be born into it, or the result of imprisonment (including prisoners of war), or even voluntary (for economic reasons). And not all enslavement was the same in the Roman world. Household slaves (oiketai), whom Peter addresses in 1 Peter 2:18, were sometimes rather privileged persons, and they could be well-trained doctors or teachers. Slaves who worked in the mines, however, essentially received a death sentence.

Scott Bartchy (Abingdon Bible Dictionary, 6:66), as quoted by McKnight (NIV Application Commentary), identifies the following differences between Roman and New World slavery. Unlike New World slavery, the following was generally true of Roman slavery.

  • Racial factors played no role.
  • Education was often encouraged.
  • Many slaves carried out sensitive and highly responsible social functions.
  • Slaves could own property, including other slaves.
  • Religious and cultural traditions were the same as those of the freeborn.
  • No laws prohibited the public assembly of slaves.
  • Majority of urban and domestic slaves could legitimately anticipate being emancipated by the age of 30.

Nevertheless, slavery was often harsh in the Roman world, including beatings, sexual abuse, and restricted freedoms. Whether New World or Roman slavery, neither represented the freedom envisioned within the Christian worldview where people are “free” from human authority and enslaved to God.

Yet, Peter writes, submit to both kind and harsh masters, and they submit because the have no other legal or peaceful recourse in the situation. Violent revolt is not an option, and while some could pursue available peaceful legal options, those options were few. Consequently, unless one embraced violence, there was little option other than to “submit” until such time they could secure freedom.

So, the question becomes, “how do we submit?” I think Peter’s answer is something like “peaceful resistance” or “subvesive conformity,” perhaps even “kill ’em with kindness.”

One might regard Peter’s specific address to slaves as a subversive act itself. Slaves are addressed as responsible human beings who must decide how to act in their slavery and how they will relate to their owners and supervisors. When Peter calls slaves to submit, he addresses them as people with dignity and choice.

This is the substance of Peter’s counsel for slaves:

Situation: unjust, harsh, painful suffering, including beatings.

Response: they endure such treatment

Behavior: they are called to do good rather than do evil.

Motivation: they fear God and are conscious of God

Result: grace (charis) from God

Rationale: Calling to follow Jesus

Peter has no allusions.  Slavery is dangerous and often harsh, though not always (some masters were gentle and kind). In fact, the term “harsh” (skoliois) literally means bent or crooked; it has the connotation of cruel or inhuman. This treatment might include beatings (1 Peter 2:20), and Peter probably mentions this particular in the light of what happened to Jesus of Nazareth, who is his model for the endurance of suffering.

Their submission means they willingly (given their circumstances) endure such treatment. The word “endure” means to stand up under the pressure. They persevere under pressure and hardship.

They are empowered to do this because they “fear” God and they are aware of God’s presence in their lives. While some think the word “fear” refers to their masters (in the sense of respect for masters), every other use of “fear” in 1 Peter is directed toward God, including the contrast between “fearing God” and “honoring the emperor” in 1 Peter 2:17. It would be rather strange to draw that contrast, and then call slaves to “fear” their masters. “Fear” is Peter’s word for a submissive, reverent, trusting orientation toward God. It contributes to the sense of what it means to have a consciousness or awareness of God. Slaves live out their faith through the awe-inspiring presence of God rather than out of a terrifying fear of their masters. Their “subversive submission” is motivated by their trust in God rather than the lash of their masters.

Slaves are called to subversive behavior, that is, to do good. They are neither to wrong their masters nor do them evil. Rather, they embody goodness and kindness. In this way, they do good to overcome evil. “Doing good,” as slaves, is a subversive lifestyle against the unjust human system in which they find themselves. As righteous sufferers, as mistreated innocents, they bear witness to justice and goodness by their godly lives. This is itself a path to liberation, even if they cannot find legal means to secure their freedom otherwise. It is a leaven that will, eventually, leaven the whole lump. Unfortunately, that leaven did not fully displace slavery until the mid-19th century in the Western world, and still has not yet in many places in the world.

Even if they cannot eventually secure their freedom, they have God’s grace in their lives. Twice Peter uses the term charis or grace (1 Peter 2:19-20). This grace is divine favor, which is both present and future. Slaves, suffering unjustly, will experience God’s grace through godliness in the present, but they will also experience a future grace in the resurrection when their salvation is fully revealed (1 Peter 1:3-12).

Living in the empire, a slave’s options were limited. Some had the option to buy their freedom over time, but others had no other option than to stay and serve or revolt. Peter, we might surmise, would not dissuade a slave from purchasing their freedom if they had the resources to do so. In time, many “household slaves” did that, but not all. He might encourage the use of all legal means available to pursue freedom. But, given their gospel commitments, some options were not on the table (including violence).

Rather, given the inability to legally or practically change their circumstances, Peter calls them to follow Jesus who also endured unjust suffering for the sake of the mission of God (1 Peter 2:21-25). He calls them to “peaceful resistance” or “subversive conformity” shaped by the model of Jesus the Messiah (1 Peter 2:21-25).




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