“Slave” is an awfully strong word for Paul to use, don’t you think?
Here’s part of what makes it so strong for us Americans: only five societies in the history of the world that have had true slave economies. Just five – and we’re one of them. So even though it’s been 154 years since the Emancipation Proclamation, it still feels “too soon” to toss around the word “slave” in polite conversation. We treated people as merchandise. You just don’t get over that quickly.
Paul, of course, was not writing his letter to the Romans as a modern-day American; he was writing as a Roman citizen. That put him in one of those five societies as well. A staggering number of people were enslaved in the Roman Empire between 200 BC and 200 AD; historians estimate sixteen to twenty percent of the population, meaning ten to twelve million people in all. Those slaves weren’t set apart by race; they were made by war, kidnapping, criminal punishment, or birth. Some even sold themselves into slavery in order to pay debts or simply survive.
In both cases – Rome and the U.S. – there were slaves who had decent lives; some were treated as members of the family or given important responsibilities. But in both cases, many slaves were horribly abused as non-human objects. Let’s be clear that in either case, being free was the desired status. Runaway slaves were a “massive” problem in the Roman Empire. In the United States, as many as 100,000 slaves travelled the “Underground Railroad” to freedom.
The word “slave” brings up complicated feelings, a dangerous cocktail of shame and defensiveness and anger. It’s not a word to be used lightly. For that reason, I’d rather not use it at all.
But there it is in today’s Scripture: “slaves to sin” and “slaves to obedience.” Did Paul have to pick a metaphor that’s so… extreme?
Maybe. Maybe the situation is that extreme.
Let’s think about being “slaves to sin” first. Think of the stuff you do that you know you shouldn’t do. The stuff that serves your own desires even if it means hurting other people. The stuff that breaks down the image of God made in you. Let’s think about that “sin” stuff. Do we really have to go so far as to say we are enslaved by it?
As a case study, let’s look at the relatively benign example of eating ice cream before bed. I love ice cream, but I know it’s best taken in (1) limited doses and (2) not right before bed. So I’ll resolve to restrain myself after 8pm. This is a good choice, one that’s easy to keep it in mind all day long. When I get home around 5 and see the kitchen I am tempted – but no! I know it’s best not to have a delicious bowl of ice cream. As I eat dinner, I’ll remind myself again that it is not good for me to pile velvety scoops of Moose Tracks in a bowl, and certainly not to bury them under layers of Magic Shell and whipped cream. But as I put the kids in bed I am weakening. And before I know it, I’m watching myself open the freezer door. Some small corner of my mind is whispering, “no!” but my stomach is taking over with a resounding “YES!”
Ever felt that way about something you shouldn’t do?
Now tell me that’s not like being a slave to ice cream… or whatever it is that you can’t seem to resist.
This is the kind of hold sin can get on us… and typically not with ice cream, but with darker things that do more damage than an extra five pounds. This “slavery” is what Christ frees us from. Remember last week: we are justified (made right, legitimized) through Christ; we are atoned (made at one) with God because of Jesus’ self-sacrifice. In both these ways Paul is saying that sin is defeated. The shackles have been obliterated by self-sacrificial love! We’re free!
…only to become slaves again?
Now, Paul says, we’re supposed to be slaves to obedience, slaves to righteousness. So what’s the point of being set free only to be locked up again?
Maybe… maybe… we always have some master, and it’s just a matter of which one.
This is not an easy thing to say living in one of those five societies that have owned slaves. For some, this metaphor does not work; it’ll reopen a barely-healed wound. But let’s give Paul a chance and see if this might be true.
The Bible professor Achtemeier compared it to being imprisoned – which is an analogy we might more easily swallow. I’m picturing Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption. Toward the end of the movie “Red” is declared rehabilitated – he’s set free after 40 years in prison. But he’s not free to do whatever he wants. He lives in a sad little apartment and works a sad little job bagging groceries. He’s been institutionalized for so long, he can’t even go to the bathroom without someone giving him permission. He doesn’t know how to live without someone else in control of his life. On the walk home from work one day, Red considers exercising the full extent of his freedom by buying a gun and robbing a store – a decision he knows will put him right back “inside.”
Red has been set free, but he isn’t really free. Society won’t allow him to truly do whatever he wants. And even the freedom he does have, he doesn’t know how to handle… so much so that he misses his old life behind bars.
Our release from sin can be similar to this. We can get accustomed to living with sin. We know it’s not good, but sin tells us what to do and we’re so used to obeying. So even once we choose the Way of Christ – even once we know we’ve been set free – we might find ourselves wandering back to the same old bad things. Because they’re comfortable. Because we want direction and they’re giving it to us. Because we don’t know what else to do.
The moment of our liberation isn’t anarchy; it’s not the freedom to do whatever in the world we want. The moment of liberation is when we come under the direction of a new, good master.
In Shawshank, things turn around for Red once he gets a new purpose: to figure out where his friend Andy escaped to, and go live with him there. Only then does Red start acting like he’s really free. The same is true for us: freedom isn’t doing whatever we want, but shackling ourselves to a better purpose, a better master – the one we were originally designed for.
So we become slaves to God’s righteousness instead.
In the Roman world the best slaves developed what was known as auctorias, or “mastery.” Harrell writes that slaves achieved “mastery” when they understood what their master wanted so well, they could anticipate his or her needs. It wasn’t like robotically following commands, but more like “moral intuition” built around the master’s wishes.
Think of this kind of “mastery” with verse 16: “Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?” So we can be slaves to sin – and develop sin as our moral intuition – or, we can be slaves to God’s righteousness – and assume God and God’s will as the directing force in our lives.
Here in the United States, “slavery” isn’t a word we like to use. We love freedom. Who wouldn’t? But we are not gods, you and I; we need direction and guidance and leadership. What we need most isn’t complete and utter freedom; what we need most is a perfect master.
And we’ve got one. One that loved us enough to die for us, so that we could freely choose to love him back.
S. Scott Bartchy, “Slaves and Slavery in the Roman World,” in The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social, and Historical Contexts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013).
Harris, Murray J., Slave of Christ: A New Testament Metaphor for Total Devotion to Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1999).
Albert J. Harrel, “Slavery,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Dictionary of the Bible, Volume 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2009).