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Paul and Oppression

July 2, 2018

“Let as many servants as are under the yoke count their own masters as worthy of all honour, that the name of God and his doctrine be not blasphemed,” (1 Tim. 6:1, KJV).

The NIV translates this, “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect.” Now, the teachings of Scripture that all men are made in the image of God, and Paul’s teaching to Philemon regarding receiving Onesimus as a brother and not as a slave (Phm. 16), as well as other scriptures, establish for us that slavery, especially what we saw with American slavery, is not the biblical norm. The passages of Scripture that speak to those in slavery do not advocate the institution, but direct those living in that situation on how they are to live and trust in the Lord.

What then does Paul say to these slaves? He tells them to “count their own masters as worthy of all honour.” As the NIV puts it, they are to treat their masters as worthy of all respect. He then tells those that have masters that are believers to, “not despise them,” but to “do them service, because they are faithful and beloved.” As he moves on in the passage, Paul rejects those who would advance any form of discontentment and who advocate that godliness is a means to gain (e.g. power and money) and instead says, “But godliness with contentment is great gain,” (6:6). Further, he says, “And having food and raiment let us be therewith content,” (6:8). He then warns about those who desire to be rich piercing themselves through with many sorrows (6:9-10). The point is, it is clear that Paul thought people who live in lowly circumstances can still live a live of full joy and contentment in Christ, and that a life lived to honour God did not hinge on a certain social status.

Why is this important in 21st century America? Today, many view any sort of statistical inequality as the result of oppression, of which slavery would be considered the eminent example. First of all, to assume any sort of statistical inequality is simply the result of oppression is incredibly reductionistic and unbiblical (although it is Marxist). Take for example poverty. What are all of the reasons someone might be poor? While oppression, whether by private citizens or government officials, is certainly one of the options, so are external circumstances like natural disasters, and access to natural resources. In addition, internal circumstance that affect economic status can include one’s disposition and personality, education, family situation, one’s tendency to think long-term versus being focused on the present, or even their spiritual beliefs. As for the latter, think about the way the caste system in India keeps many people poor based on a sort of unchristian fatalism. What do many in our culture say is the cause? Oppression, and oppression alone. No wonder they are unable to institute helpful policies when they so misunderstand and oversimplify something like poverty.

But let’s assume for a moment that statistical inequality does by definition mean oppression. In our passage for the day, Paul was speaking to people who were slaves. Certainly, by our contemporary definition these people where oppressed. We have already looked at what Paul tells these people. Compare that to the way our contemporary culture, even many in the Church, tells the “oppressed” of our day to live. A local theologian recently told people to divide from Christians who voted a certain way in the last presidential election. The people who voted the way the author did not like were part of the “oppressor class.” They should be rejected and disregarded, and the only unity that should be sought should be with those who voted differently. How loud in our day is the call to political and social revolution. “Do not be content, but fight!” is the mantra of our day. “Go get what you deserve and what everyone else is keeping from you!” Of course, for many, “Go and get what you deserve,” is synonymous with fighting for socialism (concerning which we have said much in the past).

Do you see the difference? Here is one group of people saying, “Do not be content but make gains!” Paul tells actual slaves to count their masters as deserving of full respect. He tells actual slaves to not despise their believing masters but to serve them. Paul says, “godliness with contentment is great gain,” and do not be obsessed with money and power, for doing such has destroyed many. However, many in our culture say, “Don’t be content! Fight! Go get the power! Contentment and happiness is found by getting the power and money!” Contemporary Christians are saying, “Divide from those who voted a certain way because they are oppressors!” Again, as reductionistic as that is, even if we assume that voting a certain way makes you an oppressor, Paul tells slaves, “do not despise” believing slave-masters, and “count them worthy of all honour.”

Does this mean Christians should be OK with a situation when oppression exists according to Biblical standards? No it does not. Christians should be prophetically calling sin what it is and demanding repentance and faith in Christ. Christians should take the opportunities granted them to end sinful institutions. We should celebrate those Christian men like William Wilberforce, John Newton, C.H. Spurgeon, B.B. Warfield, and Alexander Macleod and the American Covenanters who were anti-slavery.

But what we should also do is make sure that we are teaching people the same things Paul the Apostle taught. As we have seen, the message of Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to those who were actually slaves is much different than the message of many in our contemporary culture. They say that, “godliness is a means of gain,” (6:5b, NASB) and to despise anyone who could be considered an oppressor. Paul says that godliness with contentment is great gain, even in difficult circumstances and lowly social and economic conditions. Many in our day say to never be content unless you have the power. We should ask people like our local theologian, “Would you consider people who voted a way you do not like analogous to slave-owners? If so, can you speak of them the same way Paul does? Can you encourage others to have full respect for them because they are brothers even if they hold a position of power that could be considered oppressive? Certainly if actual slave-owners were worthy of respect than so are those who voted a certain way in a difficult election, no?”

What does Paul say about those who do not teach what he does in this regard? He says, “If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords to godliness; He is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputing of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself,” (1 Tim. 6:3-5). What this tells us is that the Church should divide over these issues in a certain way, but it is not the way that tends to be assumed. Christians should withdraw themselves from those who cannot teach according to the pattern of Paul’s teaching on these issues, namely those who do not encourage people to respect those in powerful positions, or who encourage people to despise their brothers in Christ, or who do not teach that godliness with contentment is great gain, but instead exhort that gain is godliness whether that gain is financial, social or political.

Brothers and sisters, if your worldview does not allow you to tell people the things Paul the apostle does, then your thinking has gone astray. If you despise what Paul says here, or anyone who teaches what Paul does regarding how the “oppressed” should live, then you have abandoned a biblical authority and have adopted the worldview that Paul rebukes. We must ask ourselves, “Am I content teaching people the things Paul does? Can I tell people in oppressed situations that godliness with contentment is great gain, or must I demand that gain is godliness? Can I tell people to consider those in what I believe to be an oppressive position (rightly or not) worthy of all honour, or do I tell people to disregard them and despise them? The former of these are consistent with the inspired teachings of Scripture, the latter are a worldview rebuked by the inspired teachings of Scripture. Which do you want to be preaching?

Of course, none of this has really spent the time to address whether or not voting a certain way justifies being called an oppressor, or which side of the American political spectrum can rightly be said to advocate policies that are oppressive. That would require another long post. But what is clear is that the teachings of Paul the Apostle to slaves regarding their masters is much different than what many in the contemporary Church are saying. Again, if you are unable to say what Paul says, inspired by the Spirit, perhaps that should be evidence that you have chosen the wrong worldview.

May God give us wisdom and discretion to hold to the teachings of Scripture in a day of so much idolatry. May God cause us to believe those things which are taught in Scripture and use God’s Word to filter out unbelieving philosophies. May God bless us to preach the truth in a day of so much falsehood.

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