DAILY DEVOTION - MAY 21
This Daily Devotion is from A Living Hope, by Sarah Viggiano Wright, published by Bible Study Media, and made available to us through Presbyterian Women.
“Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor. [Servants], in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.”
1 Peter 2:16–18
Slaves! If “be subject” in verse 13 didn’t stop you in your tracks, “live as God's slaves” in verse 16 will.
Honestly, the word makes me shudder. My stomach turns and my heart sinks. It is cringe-worthy for many reasons. Enslaving someone, ripping them from their family and forcing them into labor, is only the half of it. Some slaves experienced torture beyond comprehension. And the dehumanizing nature of the institution was made worse by the word used for this person forced into labor—“slave”—as if that was their primary identity. This stirs up strong emotions, and there is nothing that can take the discomfort or horror away!
So what do we do with this difficult passage in 1 Peter? We can address it and try to understand the heart and will of God on such sensitive matters. We can look at what slavery and servanthood were in antiquity, and what they were not. We can try to understand what and who this passage is really about.
Let me point out that there are two parts of this passage: verses 16–17 are addressed to Peter’s entire audience of exiled believers, while verse 18 is particularly addressed to people holding the position of a servant in a household. The word “slave” is used in both parts (or “servant,” depending on the translation) but they are two different words, each with their own distinctions. We will look at those more closely in a moment.
Notice first that though this passage mentions slavery, it is not about slavery. It is about a believer’s relationship to God. Peter mentions slavery not because he is commenting on the practice, but because he is addressing household servants (in v. 18) and also trying to put into human terms a believer’s connection to God (v. 16).
Second, remember that this passage was written during a certain time, under certain conditions. At the time of Peter’s letter, about 1 in 5 people were enslaved (in one way or another) of the 60 million people living in the Roman Empire. The society was culturally, economically, and structurally dependent upon enslaved people; it was an accepted, unchallenged reality. The fact that Peter is talking with people who are enslaved means he acknowledges this reality but it doesn’t mean he supports it.
You may ask, “Why didn’t Peter try to dismantle the practice, then?” Some readers have interpreted his silence as passive endorsement. Let’s take a closer look at what’s going on here.
The purpose of Peter’s letter was to share the living hope of Christ with everyone, no matter their position in society. This is what his letter is about. The apostle was speaking into an existing social structure and offering hope to the lowliest in it (first servants, then wives in chapter 3). Peter is addressing suffering. He knows people in these low positions suffer. Encouraging his readers to embrace suffering patiently is not the same as encouraging them to embrace the cause of their suffering.
From his own life, Peter knows how sad and difficult suffering is. He doesn’t have the power to thwart suffering, just like those enslaved don’t have the power to free themselves. However, they do have the power to be obedient to God in their plight. They actually “live as free people” (v. 16) when they are obedient to God in the midst of injustice. That’s because neither fear of their masters nor threat of violence now dictates what they do—God does. They are free to obey him first!
Going back to the two parts mentioned earlier, let’s look at the second part first. In verse 18, Peter is addressing as “slaves” household servants (oikétai), taken from the Greek work oíkos for house: “Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters...” These household servants were teachers, doctors, businesspeople, agrarians, and people of various other professions. While such domestic servants did not have real freedom and were forced to perform their roles, some were like members of the family. Many voluntarily indentured themselves into servitude to pay off a debt, with freedom being obtained upon full repayment.
Obviously, these were not the same conditions as those of the abominable enslavement and oppression of Africans in the United States, or as those of victims of war, colonization, or enemy invasion at various times throughout history. Nor was this domestic servitude in the culture Peter addresses like the current enslavement, trafficking, or unjust imprisonment of some 40.3 million vulnerable men, women, and children worldwide.
Yet, while there were significant differences in the severity of treatment in these arrangements, it doesn’t change the fact that people owned and controlled other people—an abhorrent injustice.
Turning back now to the first part of our passage, Peter uses a different word in verse 16 when he says we are to live as “slaves” of God. The word here is doulos which carries more of the traditional meaning—to adhere strictly to the word and command of another to whom you are bound for life. This is Peter’s analogy of a Christian’s relationship to God.
Now let me say that the abominable treatment of enslaved peoples and the atrocities they’ve suffered have negatively affected our view of living as “slaves” to God. So what does it actually mean to be a slave or servant to God?
First, we must again acknowledge the myth that anyone is completely free (see Week Two, Day 2). We all serve someone or something. The freedom God grants us through redemption by the “precious blood of Christ” (1:19) absolves us of our unrepayable debt and frees us from Satan’s tyrannical power. With the freedom we’ve received, we are to enslave ourselves to our Redeemer, the One who ransomed us, as he is our kind Master.
Moreover, we know God is a perfect Ruler, a fair Judge, and a compassionate Lord. His love and kindness are so evident that these suffering sojourners desire to submit to him.
Freedom is submission to their Heavenly Master. So when Peter urges us to live as “free people,” it is with regard to evil. We are free not to do evil! This is because we have been freed from sin, death, hell, and their powers. If we choose to use our God-given freedom as an excuse to sin, it is like scorning God and returning to our former wicked master.
Think back on the situation of Peter’s original audience. In both private and public settings, these Christians were being persecuted for being good (v. 20). If a master gave an unethical command and a servant didn’t comply out of reverence for Christ, that servant faced severe punishment, even beating. Yet, though they were suffering, these believers were exercising their freedom in Christ—freedom to do God’s “good” instead of obeying an unethical command.
And interestingly, even though the freedom Peter speaks of does not dismantle the institution of slavery, it does help to erode it. When Peter reminds his hearers that God sees them and knows their plight, that they are “free” to do good because God will judge justly, he is helping destroy the fear often used to hold people in captivity. Proper fear and reverence get transferred from human masters to God himself.
So we are to be slaves (bound for life in obedient love) only to God, even as we submit to earthly authorities when it does not require disobedience to God. God alone is the perfectly Good Master and the work he asks us to do helps spreads goodness in the world. It is a delight and honor to be in his service, even if we suffer for carrying out his good work.