The New Testament has been the most influential collection of documents in history. Taken by both commoners and those in power as the inspired and infallible “Word of God,” and interpreted ofttimes outside its historical context, its fateful influence has often emerged from single passages with far-ranging consequences:
Slaves, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. (Colossians 3:22-25)
In this and other passages in the letters of Paul he clearly expects an imminent apocalyptic “reversal” of status so that those who are “slaves” will be liberated from their condition and evil doers will be punished justly (compare 1 Corinthians 7:17-31). Unfortunately such a “transformatiion” of the world never came about and those who suffered as slaves in the Roman empire increased exponentially in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE. Paul’s instructions to slaves–that they were really “free” in the Lord, and that they should serve faithfully their masters, was unfortunately used for centuries to offer a Divine sanction for whatever “state” humans found themselves in and a justification for slave owners to see their role as “masters” as an acceptable one.
The letter attributed to the apostle Peter echoes these instructions of Paul and even makes clear that evil and abusive “masters” are also to be obeyed and respected, since suffering injustice is a “gracious thing” that pleases God!
Slaves, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.(1 Peter 2:18-19)
Continue with Part 5 here: “Rulers are God’s Servants“