Submission is a prominent theme in 1 Peter. He speaks of the younger being submissive to the older (5:5), wives to their husbands (3:1,5), slaves to their masters (2:18) and disciples to civil authorities (2:13). Additionally, there are other places where he uses the word “humble” to urge submissive conduct (3:8,5:5-6). The central section where he develops much of this is in 2:13-3:18. The most challenging part of this for us is probably the instructions for slaves to submit to their masters.
Slavery in NT times was not the slavery of the new world where people were kidnapped, put in chains and sold. Neither was it the servitude of the Mosaic law, which had a rehabilitative function as it took people who were on the margins due to financial problems, criminal offenses (of a minor nature) and moved them toward the center. There was no need for bankruptcy courts or prisons in Israel because people in these situations were absorbed into functional households where they served for up to six years and then were released and set up for success (Deuteronomy 15:12-15).
The slavery we come across in the New Testament was somewhere between these two extremes. People most often became slaves through birth (if your parents were slaves then so were you). Large numbers became slaves after they were taken prisoner in war. But it also wasn’t uncommon for people to voluntarily enter into slavery for the security and/or upward mobility it could bring. The number of people who were slaves was staggering—depending on who you read it was anywhere between one-third to two-thirds of the population.
Texts like these can be treated in such a way that the end result is we spend all of our time either putting God on trial or defending Him. While there’s certainly a time and place for questions along these lines, we need to understand that they miss the point of the text. God knew the conditions these disciples were living under better than we ever will, told them them to submit to their masters and to their everlasting credit and His glory—that’s just what they did!
We get lost in questioning the command, they got lost in obeying it. Which group sounds like they were living out their freedom (1 Peter 2:16) and proclaiming Jesus (v. 9)? Which group was living out the story of Jesus before the watching world?
We have this bias toward “changing the system.” Being an election year, that’s true now more than ever. So many of us are convinced we are just one candidate away from changing the world (and we know who that candidate is!). Lots of time and energy is spent advocating, berating and debating. Yet even when our person gets in, it’s not what we hoped for. In this we are no different that the people who wanted to make Jesus a political king (see John 6:14-15). I suppose politics will always be a hot topic, but it’s not the way to change the world. Tolstoy said it best, “Everyone thinks of changing the world, no one thinks of changing himself.” Peter agreed with that, the early disciples lived submitted lives and today Rome is tourist destination and the kingdom of Jesus is all over the world.
I wonder how that happened?
Now, can we get back to a really important issue like why the writers of the biblical witness don’t condemn slavery?