“Slaves, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are crooked.” 1 Peter 2:18
There is no doubt that slavery was commonplace in the Roman Empire. It was an intricate part of the societal structure, and something with which people living in the first century were well acquainted. It is of little surprise, then, that the subject of slavery appears often in the New Testament. For this reason, it is essential to understand what the institution of slavery looked like in the Roman Empire when attempting to study the New Testament.
Why so Many Slaves?
As Roman control was militarily extended to new territories, the inhabitants of conquered cities would become part of a vast slave supply.
Slaves might also include those taken by force (kidnapped), bankrupt debtors, criminals, abandoned children, and children born to slaves.
Slaves were used for a wide range of work including construction, janitorial services, various domestic services, farming, fighting (as gladiators), and prostitution. Slaves were also used in “white-collar” work involving administration and accounting. Some slaves had business experience prior to enslavement and their masters would happily employ such skills.
Treatment of Slaves in the Roman Empire
The abuse a slave might suffer was largely dependent on the temperament of the master. Slaves held the status of private property and possessed no legal rights. It is not hard to understand why physical and sexual abuse was relatively common. Without legal rights and significant societal status, justice (as we understand it) was hard to come by in the Roman Empire.
Mistreatment might range from mild flogging to the separation of a family (by selling) or extreme forms of punishment (such as crucifixion). One famous account given by Tacitus tells of the crucifixion of 400 slaves of a household for one slave’s crime (A.D. 61). “Ancient custom required that the whole slave-establishment which had dwelt under the same roof should be dragged to execution…” (Annals 14.42). Granted, such extreme collective punishment was condemned by some. But in this case, the execution was carried out.
The Context of 1 Peter Reiterated
As I (unintentionally) work backward in the text from last week, notice again the context of 1 Peter 2:11-3:7. Recall what I set forth a week ago:
In 2:11-12, Peter has applied the metaphor of ‘aliens’ and ’strangers’ once again to his audience (cf. 1 Peter 1:1, 17). He exhorts them to “keep their behavior excellent among the nations” in order that God might be glorified “in the day of visitation.” In the greater context of 1 Peter, this is most likely a reference to the potential that some of these unbelivers will be saved and glorify God when Christ returns in judgment.
Peter then commands submission in the context of three social structures, all of which are significant in the Roman Empire: (1) Civil Authorities (2:13-17); (2) Slave-masters (2:18-20); (3) Husbands (3:1-6). The principle apparent in each section is submission even when the authority is in some sense abusing its powers. The ultimate goal in enduring such abuse is Gospel-witness (2:12; 3:1, 15).
Within this discussion, Peter exalts Christ as the primary example of an ‘alien-stranger’ living in submission (2:21-25). Christ did not retaliate while enduring such unjust abuse. Rather, He “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (2:23). Peter seems to call his audience to do the same.
Peter’s Command to Submit, Even to Crooked Masters
In 1 Peter 2:18, slaves are commanded to submit, even to crooked masters. The word translated “slave” or “servant” here is οἰκέτης. It can refer to “household-slaves” in particular, but it probably refers more generically to “slaves” here (cf. BDAG). In the immediate context, the reason given for patiently enduring unjust treatment is that it “finds favor with God” (2:19, 20). Peter asks a rhetorical question: “What credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience?” The answer: no credit. Retaliating will discredit the one suffering abuse, especially as it relates to Gospel-witness. Peter calls for patient endurance instead, even in the midst of suffering.
Obviously, Peter is not condoning the use of abusive power by authorities. But as his readers are undergoing mistreatment and without legal recourse, Peter outlines the manner in which they are to respond: submissive obedience. Such a response is not characterized by weakness and frailty, but as I mentioned last week:
…Enduring mistreatment is an intentional decision by a believer to sacrifice temporary wellbeing for the sake of others, to be a witness of “the hope that is in you” (3:15), a hope of unfading inheritance (1:4). After all, Peter affirms that believers have a “Shepherd and Guardian” of their souls (2:25), a “faithful Creator” to whom they should “entrust their souls” (4:19), just as a suffering Christ “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (2:23).
Such an attitude requires extreme faith that what Peter affirms is true: We are alien-sojourners in a foreign land, and our inheritance is reserved elsewhere, namely heaven. How do you think his readers handled these commands? What about those slaves who unfortunately faced cruel masters? I would suggest that God’s priority (obedience and Gospel-witness at any cost) is too often not our priority (self-preservation at any cost).