Verse one of chapter six of the first letter to Timothy introduces a stark counter-cultural element. As we are careful to understand that the slavery mentioned herein is not the race-based slavery with which most of us in the western world are familiar, but more likely the debt-based slavery that was prevalent in the world of Paul, we hear it said that “Those who are under the yoke as slaves must regard their own masters as deserving of full respect” (6:1a). Though some take Paul to task here for not simply condemning slavery, which would have been the ultimate counter-cultural move (and ultimately counter-productive in that moment in time), or for not ordering Christian masters to release their slaves, this is really not the issue at hand. At the same time, this was probably not a sensibility possessed by the tiny church at this point.
Slavery was a social institution that provided stability, while also in many cases providing life’s basic necessities for the one forced into slavery, along with a mechanism for the erasure of debts and the achievement of a state of freedom. It was not necessarily a permanent situation, and it was not necessarily a state that was inflicted upon a class of people. Slaves could and did become free men. Some slaves would hold slaves of their own, who had become indebted to them. Slavery, in some limited cases, was preferable to “freedom,” especially if freedom meant going without food, clothing, and shelter. If we want to see Paul’s treatment of the issue of slavery, we would need to look to his letter to Philemon (in which Paul sends a believing, runaway slave back to his believing master, who were both going to be a part of the same body of people that worshiped Jesus as Lord).
In the case of Timothy, and with his words, Paul is being quite counter-cultural. Inside the church, it was well understood that there were no class-distinctions, and that all were equal. Outside the church, however, was a different story. Clearly, with the words of the first verse, Paul is addressing an issue with Timothy involving slaves that were part of the church body, whose masters were not a part of the church body. This is quite a bit different than the picture painted by the letter to Philemon, or for that matter, that of the circular letter that has come to be called Ephesians, or the letter to the Colossians. Both of these letters, along with the letter to Philemon, offer instructions to both slaves and masters, though the “instructions” in Philemon (Paul presents them as requests, as the letter is quite rhetorical in nature) are primarily directed to the recipient. Such is absent from this letter to Timothy. Paul deals only with the response of slaves to their masters.
The encouragement to “regard their own masters as deserving of full respect” would represent quite the change of pace in that day, as most slaves, we can imagine, probably treated their masters with a grudging respect. Naturally, it is not difficult for us to surmise that this would have been quite the counter-cultural witness, which provokes Paul’s additional statement that “This will prevent the name of God and Christian teaching from being discredited” (6:1b). The Christians had enough issues with being called atheists, while also being viewed as seditious and disruptive of social order and harmony, so the last thing that was needed was to sow seeds of disruption in this area as well. In addition, this conferring of respect, in light of the knowledge of the humanity that God truly expected, in which situations of master and slave did not exist, would certainly be an act of love, self-sacrifice, and preferential treatment that could only be explained by the activity of the Spirit. This is not to sanction the social arrangements, but rather, to “prevent the name of God and Christian teaching from being discredited.”
A natural objection would be raised by those who were slaves (who may very well have had slaves of their own, which we should probably take into consideration as we hear what comes next from Paul), which could be “What if our master is a believer? Should he not be forced to free us?” It may be the case that the church met in the very household of a believer who was also a slaveholder. Undoubtedly, Paul would let the Spirit have its work (we could hear Paul’s words to Philemon about avoiding compulsion), and we hear this in his response to the theoretical objections: “But those who have believing masters must not show them less respect because they are brothers. Instead they are to serve all the more, because those who benefit from their service are believers and dearly loved” (6:2). With these words, we are reminded that Paul, in general, is far more concerned with that which benefits the body as a whole, rather than that which benefits individual believers, which this being quite easy to discern from his letters to the Corinthians and the Romans (not as a source of proof texts, but as communications that reveal the heart of the Apostle). Again, this will require love, self-sacrifice, and preferential treatment on behalf of the slave.
This is quite the role-reversal in that day, for it would usually be the master, in the position of patron and benefactor to those that are his slaves, that were looked to as those with the opportunity to be generous and magnanimous. Here, Paul has effectively reversed those roles, and it is now the slave that is in said position. We do not look to this culturally reversing element as a justification for the extension of slavery, but as an element of the last becoming first and the first becoming last, and as something of an in-breaking of the power of the kingdom of God.