1 Corinthians 7:20-23. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. 21 Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men.
Paul is trying to show the Corinthian Christians that in Christ they have all that they need. His advice to them to “stay as you are” (v.20) is rooted in contentment and seizing the opportunities you have been given in the moment for the Kingdom of Christ. But this advice takes a little turn when it comes to slavery.
At its core slavery is evil. It was never God’s desire for humans to own each other. God is the God of liberty. But ever since the Fall of mankind, and the introduction of sin into the world, God has condescended to us and operated within many of our fallen human structures (including slavery) to guide us back gradually to his ideal. Consider Israel. Slavery was allowed but in very limited practice. Slaves were to be treated as image bearers and given rights (Sabbath rest) and opportunities for freedom (every 7th year, year of Jubilee, etc.). And if you look at how the Law required people to help the poor you could even argue that there should never be a slave in Israel.
Slavery in ancient Rome was common and complex. The slave may have been captured in conquest, or sold into slavery to avoid crippling debt. Slaves were often well educated. They served in government jobs, households, and marketplaces. Many slaves were treated fairly well. Slaves could also petition to buy their freedom. And in some cases slaves may even be adopted as sons of their master (Paul’s illustration in Galatians 3-4). Probably up to 1/3 of the population of Corinth was enslaved. So it is certain that the Corinthian church had both slave and free believers united together in Christ. Yes, it is true that slaves had no legal rights, and often slaves were abused. But slavery was deeply woven into the fabric of Roman life. And in Paul’s time, no ancient society or kingdom had ever abolished slavery (including Israel). Paul’s objective is not to start a revolution to end slavery. In fact, such advice at this time in history might prove to be very detrimental and unloving. His objective is to show us how “to live is Christ” works, even for slaves.
So what is Paul’s advice to slaves?
Do not be concerned about it – The Christian slave should not be obsessed over their low social status as a slave. You are free in Christ. Therefore, your eternal state does not hinge upon your earthly freedom.
But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. – But Paul does say that if you have the opportunity for freedom then grab it!
do not become bondservants of men. – Paul also tells Christians not to sell themselves into slavery. He recognizes that slavery is not God’s ideal. The church should take care of its family so that none feel the need to enslave themselves.
OK, what does all of this have to do with union with Christ?
You were bought with a price.
You are not your own. You belong to the Lord. You are free so that you can be Christ’s bondservant. Christ is your master. You are not free to choose what part of Christ’s law of love you will obey or not obey. And yet this bondage to Christ is true freedom. We are finally alive and human again.
If you are a slave- rejoice, you are free in Christ! If you are free- be humble, you are Christ’s slave. No Christian is truly enslaved and no Christian is free. In Christ, we are all free and bondservant, at the same time.
Galatians 5:13. For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve (bondservant/slave) one another.
If both slavery and freedom can image Christ, then what does this tell us about our social status today? Our choice of career? Our choice of where we live? Our choice of where our kids go to school? If the highest aim is love, then how does that completely change how we see social status and self-fulfillment?
“To live is Christ” means that we can serve Christ no matter what our social status. Free or slave, married or single, Jew or Gentile. All offer opportunities and challenges. Today we tend to consider all changes in our lives in terms of self-fulfillment. The career you choose is most likely rooted to some degree to your desire for self-fulfillment. But is that what the indwelling Christ would have motivate us? Of course the slave might find freedom to be more satisfying and self-fulfilling. But should he run away or start a revolt in the master’s household to achieve this? Is it possible the the satisfaction of Christ could be enough? Is it possible that even slavery afforded unique opportunities for the gospel?
Could it be that your situation, although it might feel like slavery, might be a unique kingdom opportunity for Christ? Are you constantly trying to find self fulfillment in a change in circumstance? Or are you finding that more and more Christ is satisfying you?
Note: Many have read Paul’s words as a defense of slavery. In American history passages such as these were used to justify the enslavement of Africans in a system of chattel slavery. This slavery in America’s past was far more evil on many levels than the slavery of Paul’s day. In fact, the idea of kidnapping others into slavery was expressly forbidden by God (Exodus 21:16). Paul is not defending or endorsing slavery at all. In fact, he is putting into place a theology rooted in Christ that when truly implemented by the church would seek to abolish slavery in the name of Christ. The theology of union with Christ would equalize the slave and the master and this reality, over time, should end slavery (much like God’s law for Israel, over time, should have ended slavery).