1 Timothy is conducive to squirming. False teaching, male and female roles, church leadership, church discipline—all those politically correct topics—can cause us to shift in our seats. And now, slavery! Squirming saints should be as a young boy on his first big roller coaster, shifting nervously, putting on a face, yet crying, “I don’t want to,” on the ascent, then exclaiming, “Do it again!” at the ride’s conclusion. Saints may squirm, but they must stick in their seats.
Squirming is serious. It’s for fear of texts like these that many abandon the Bible as God’s holy, inspired, and inerrant word. The one thing we mustn’t do is explain away such texts. We must not antiquate them, making them obsolete relics of the past. Small compromises here lead to big falls; gradual slopes turn suddenly into violent plummets. Differ with Douglas Wilson where you will on how slavery should have been addressed, this is a wise word:
If those who hate the Word of God can succeed in getting Christians to be embarrassed by any portion of the Word of God, then that portion will continually be employed as a battering ram against the godly principles that are currently under attack. In our day, three of the principal issues are abortion, feminism, and sodomy. If we respond to the ‘embarrassing parts’ of Scripture by saying, ‘That was then, this is now,’ we will quickly discover that unembarrassed progressives can play that game even more effectively than embarrassed conservatives can. Paul prohibited eldership to women? That was then, this is now. Moses condemned sodomy? That was then this is now.
This isn’t 1+1=2. This is calculus, but the problem is workable. When conditions are similar, and I doubt they will ever be even close to identical, obedience should look similar. Squirming?
We hear words through a filter. A particular word might be thought dirty, when it isn’t the word, but the filter. “Damn” is a word that is oft abused, but it can be used truthfully. To be damned isn’t a good thing (for the damned), but the Bible’s word on damnation is good (for them to hear). “Slavery,” isn’t good (for a man to be in), but the Word’s word on slavery is. When the Bible says, “slave,” don’t think you need to clean the Bible. You need to clean your ears. If a filter were immersed in mud, and then clean water put through it, only a fool would say, “The water here is putrid. This is what it looks like after I ran it through this filter.” God’s mouth never needs to be cleaned, but our ears often do.
If you squirm at the Scripture’s mention of slavery, rememberer that our dark history was their dark present. That ought to alleviate some twitching, but in case you’re still doing the truffle shuffle, let’s do some ear cleaning. Don’t assume you know exactly what Paul is speaking of when he says “slavery.” Ancient slavery was different in many ways. It wasn’t based exclusively on race. Reasons for being a slave ranged from being captured in war, to selling yourself into slavery. Day laborers had the harder existence, living in poverty and doing hard menial labor while slaves acted as cooks, artisans, doctors, and teachers with their needs provided for. It wouldn’t be rare for you to be better educated than your master, or for you master to see to your education. You could be ransomed or you could ransom yourself. Ancient slavery was unique. Hebrew slavery according to the Pentateuch more so. Yet, to the degree that a person finds themselves in a similar situation, even that of employee/employer, they are under similar obligations. The Word stands.
Lap bar now secure and fastened, some jitters should be alleviated, but only one thing can convince you the ride is good. Only one thing can make you shout, “Again! to this ride, “Amen!” to these truths—the gospel that Paul bases all these commands on. We must see the gospel as the more stunning and surprising reality in this dark world. Slavery should appall us, but not as much as the gospel awes us. The more surprising thing isn’t that slavery is, but that the gospel is. In sum, here is Paul’s point, the gospel is to be goal (v. 1) and grounds (v. 2) of all our behavior, even in ghastly situations. One might labor to end human trafficking, upon the grounds and for the sake of the gospel, while another obeys his master, upon the grounds and for the sake of the gospel. When a man so lives, as a slave of Christ, it matters not if he is in human chains, he is free.