Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Friday, March 29, 2019

Do Masters Love their Slaves? (1 Tim 6:2)

Sometimes Paul’s writing style can be so succinct that interpretation becomes difficult. A good example is ἀγαπητοί in 1 Timothy 6:2. Who is “beloved”? Slave loves the master, or the master loves the slave?

People have long wondered why Paul did not attack the institution of slavery. While it is true that he did not do so explicitly, he clearly planted the seeds for the future abolition movements (see my commentary, 329-332).

Rather, Paul is concerned that nothing hinder the spread of the gospel. “As many as are under the yoke as slaves should consider their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and the teaching might not be blasphemed” (1 Tim 6:1). (Of course, things are different today, and taking no stance on slavery would probably hinder the spread of the gospel. This illustrates the difference between a cultural expression and its transcultural meaning.)

Paul continues by telling the slaves not to despise their believing masters just because they are Christians. You can see how this would happen. Both master and slave go to church and worship together and learn about Jesus together, and then go home and one still owns the other.

As encouragement to the slaves, Paul writes, “Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service (οἱ τῆς εὐεργεσίας ἀντιλαμβανόμενοι) are believers (πιστοί) and beloved (ἀγαπητοί)” (1 Tim 6:2a, ESV).

In reading this in the NIV, I came across a most peculiar exegetical decision. It says the master is a Christian (πιστοί) but then shifts attention to the slaves and says the slaves are beloved (ἀγαπητοί) by the master. “Instead, they should serve them even better because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves.

It’s not an impossible translation but certainly highly unlikely.

  1. No other translation goes this direction nor any commentary (as far as my memory is concerned). This does not mean the NIV’s reading is wrong, but it does urge caution.
  2. The context from both v 1 and v 2 is how the slave thinks of their master and not the reverse. The slave “should consider their own masters as worthy of all honor.” The slave “must not be disrespectful.” The slave “must serve all the better.” The slave “must serve all the better” for two reasons: “those who benefit by their good service” are πιστοί and ἀγαπητοί.
  3. There is no textual hint that these two adjectives don’t apply to the same person.
  4. This is part of the challenge of Paul’s succinct writing style. By just saying ἀγαπητοί, it leaves the reading of the NIV open, but I can see nothing in the context that would suggest a change of subject.

From my commentary:

“Paul’s refusal to condemn slavery has often been exploited by those who would use the text to argue for slavery. This is amply illustrated by antebellum writings in the American South. General arguments for the perpetuation of slavery included: (1) slaves do not have souls; (2) African slaves are suffering from the curse on Ham (Gen 9:25); (3) Scripture does not prohibit slavery; (4) God ordains slavery, like marriage, and problems exist only because of poor administration; (5) slavery, along with the institutionalized church, is one of the stabilizing influences on society; and (6) owning slaves does not violate the spirit of the gospel.”

“Now, unless Slavery is incompatible with the habitudes of holiness, unless it is inconsistent with the spirit of philanthropy or the spirit of piety, unless it furnishes no opportunities for obedience to the law, it is not inconsistent with the pursuit or attainment of the highest excellence. It is no abridgment of moral freedom; the slave may come from the probation of his circumstances as fully stamped with the image of God, as those who have enjoyed an easier lot—he may be as completely in unison with the spirit of universal rectitude, as if he had been trained on “flowery beds of ease.” (J. H. Thornwell, The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell [1875; repr. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974] 4:424) (p 330f.)

Here are some of the seeds of abolition Paul planted (from my commentary, p. 331):

  1. Nowhere does Paul say that slavery is good or acceptable. In fact, slave trading comes under the scope of the prohibition against kidnapping (1 Tim 1:9).
  2. Nowhere are masters told to demand submission from their slaves. The slaves are told to submit voluntarily.
  3. Eph 6:10 asserts an equality of slave and master, both having the same impartial divine master. This idea is reflected here in Paul’s assertion that master and slave are brothers (v 2; cf. Phlm 16). The gospel breaks down humanly defined structures (Gal 3:28).
  4. Although slavery in any form is heinous, the slavery of Paul’s day had many startling differences from that practiced in America. In Paul’s day it was not racially based but resulted from war, poverty, and other social circumstances. It was not unusual to find people voluntarily submitting to slavery in exchange for economic security.
  5. Although interpretation of 1 Cor 7:21 is difficult, it is most likely that Paul is admonishing slaves to take advantage of any proffered opportunity for freedom (cf. Fee, First Epistle to the Corinthians, 315–18).
  6. The early church was convinced that the Lord would return very soon; consequently, the need to reform society naturally took a lesser place of importance to that of evangelism.
  7. Paul’s eschatological view of reality mentioned above sees that those in Christ transcend the bonds of social structures.

Slavery is one of the most disgusting realities in our history and continues today in both racial and gender enslavement.


This is an example of how the Bible is interpreted and read through the lenses of modern culture, especially American culture and history. Even you categorically say, "slavery in any form is heinous" and "a disgusting reality." Now, it is true that in recent American history we have seen the horrors of the African slave trade and slavery, which was outlawed in Great Britain in 1833, and then in the U.S. in 1863. This was rooted in the abduction of Africans from their homeland, so was evil to start. Then, in modern times we hear stories of sex slavery and other similar horrors. But in biblical times slavery could be as simple as, "You borrowed such a large sum of money, and now cannot hope to pay back what you took, so now you become the slave of your lender." Your very self was the implicit lien, the security, that was seized. Is that unfair? Or is it fair that the modern American can borrow huge sums of money to buy a house, cars, and merchandise on credit cards, and then not pay back what they owed? That is real money borrowed, which real people earned, from which you bought real merchandise, so to not pay it back is stealing money. People in America are allowed to steal money in this way and not even go to jail for it, let alone be accountable to their lenders to the last penny. So now, which is the evil? My point is that the Bible definition, δουλος, does not necessarily carry the same implications as the word "slave" does today.

True, but I think of what you describe as an indentured servant, albeit a relatively modern term.

And "indentured servant," as you say, "a relatively modern term," is not what I describe, because it is not a bilateral, mutually agreed upon contract. The person hopelessly in debt became the slave of the lender indefinitely, against his will. It would only be exceptional circumstances that he would go free, such as in the Old Testament Law of Moses, where slaves were to be set free after six years.

An "indentured servant," as you say, "a relatively modern term," is not what I describe, because it is not a bilateral, mutually agreed upon contract. The person hopelessly in debt became the slave of the lender indefinitely, against his will. It would only be exceptional circumstances that he would go free, such as in the Old Testament Law of Moses, where slaves were to be set free after six years.