Every now and then legislation comes along, which radically influences the moral fabric of society. In 1969, Ronald Reagan signed the first ever no-fault divorce bill, a decision he would later call the biggest mistake of his political career. The bill allowed anyone to end their marriage for any reason – or no reason at all – and within a decade the divorce rate jumped from 20% to 50%. 1969 was also the year a landmark decision in the case of Stanley vs Georgia paved the way for the legalization of pornography in the US.
As Christians, it can be frightening to recognize our own powerlessness in the face of governmental policy. What do we do when the law of the land doesn’t align with the law of God? It’s an age-old question, and one the apostle Paul himself confronted.
In Ephesians 6:5-8, Paul pens some of the most controversial words in his entire letter:
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free.
Why would Paul encourage enslaved people to obey their masters? Is Paul condoning slavery?
Absolutely not. The 17th and 18th century slave trade would have been abhorrent to Paul, and he explicitly condemns it in I Timothy 1:10, listing slave traders among the ungodly and sinful. Paul writes:
We know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers – and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glofy of the blessed God (I Timothy 1:9-10).
Paul likewise denounces slavery in I Corinthians 7:21-22 by encouraging slaves to gain their freedom if at all possible. “Were you a slave when you were called?” Paul asks. “Don’t let it trouble you – although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave.”
Clearly, the Roman institutionalization of slavery was an abomination in Paul’s eyes. So why doesn’t Paul call for a political uprising to overthrow the entire system? This corrupt system was unfortunately the law of the land in Paul’s day, and launching a revolt would have likely tied Christianity to social dissonance. So Paul takes a different approach. He subverts the system from the inside out, by wielding something far greater than politics — the love and humility that comes through the gospel.
After urging slaves to respect and obey their masters, Paul writes, “And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him” (Ephesians 6:9). Theologian P. T. O’Brien calls this exhortation “outrageous” for Paul’s day. Paul is flipping everything upside down by pointing to the ultimate Master who declares all people equal in Christ.
Paul uses the same strategy in the book of Philemon when a runaway slave named Onesimus becomes Paul’s helpmate in prison. Much to the surprise of modern readers, Paul sends Onesimus back to his master, Philemon — not because Paul is condoning slavery, but simply because it is lawful.
However, Paul doesn’t send Onesimus empty-handed. He gives him a letter to take to Philemon, in which Paul ardently pleads on behalf of Onesimus:
Although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. I appeal to you for my son Onesimus. I am sending him — who is my very heart — back to you. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever — no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord (v8-10, 12, 15-16).
Do you see how Paul uses the gospel to undermine the corrupt systems of his day? In his book Is God a Moral Monster? Paul Copan writes:
New Testament writers often addressed the underlying attitudes regarding slavery. How? By commanding Christian masters to call their slaves ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ and to show them compassion, justice, and patience. No longer did being a master mean privilege and status but rather responsibility and service. By doing so, the worm was already in the wood for altering the social structures.
Jesus did the same thing. He didn’t show up in Israel with an economic reform plan. Instead, He spoke to the heart attitudes that fed the oppressive economic social structures of His time. This is how we preserve the beautiful witness of Christianity: we work and pray with and love people — regardless of the system — to bring about change from the inside out, which will then change everything. We influence culture with the most compelling tool we have — the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is why the gospel is the central mission of the Church. We can’t change every broken law, but the gospel can change every broken heart that cries out to God. And that’s our greatest hope for reform in the world today.