by Jason Micheli
1 Peter 2.18-21 (click to see Scripture text)
“Slaves, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the kind and gentle but also to the overbearing.”
This is the Word of God for the People of God?
I could take the edge off. I could gaslight you by informing you that the Greek word Peter uses here in verse eighteen, translated by the NRSV and many other editions as slave, is actually, oiketai.
Oiketai means servant, someone paid for their labor. Oiketai comes from the same root word from which we get the word economics. It’s “Oiketai, be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the kind and gentle but also to the overbearing.”
Peter does not, in fact, use the New Testament’s word for “slave” here in his epistle.
That word is doulos.
I could simultaneously reassure you that in our passage today, despite how it so often gets translated in English versions of the Bible, Peter’s talking about servants, not slaves. Of course, it would be dishonest of me to teach you that word, doulos, and not also mention that, after the word and (kai), doulos (slave) is one of the commonly used words in the New Testament.
When his rotten son returns home from the far country, the prodigal father said to his doulos, “Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And fetch the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry.” On his way back from the far country, the son had hoped that maybe his scorned father would treat him as one of his oiketai. But after his father runs out to him, weeping and embracing him, we discover that his father has doulos on his estate, too.
The New Testament used the word doulos 125 times. And before you rush in to lay the blame on Paul or Peter, you should know that you will find most of those occurrences in the four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
Despite the core story of scripture— and the narrative by which Jesus framed his own meaning and ministry— being the exodus by which God delivered the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, you can see how, in the hands of sinners, the Bible— even the New Testament— can become an ambivalent book. And thus, a tool for the exploitation of people and a tool for the justification of oppression.
A little history—
One of the displays at the colonial museum in Williamsburg, features an explanation for the process by which Africans became slaves for life. The heading on the display reads, “Key Slavery Statutes of the Virginia General Assembly,” and it details a law enacted in September 1667. One of the questions decided by the Virginia General Assembly was a theological question about Christian baptism. Did the sacrament of baptism render a slave free? The Virginia General Assembly decreed, “It is enacted and declared by this Grand Assembly, and the authority thereof, that the conferring of baptism does not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom.”
Now, what’s telling about this decree is that in 1667 in order to serve in the Virginia General Assembly you had to be a member in good standing of the Church of England. And, as good Anglicans, all those representatives in the Virginia General Assembly would’ve already known that the Church of England had for quite some time banned Christians from owning other Christians.
Baptism did make you free.
Over a hundred years before the Declaration of Independence, there was a tacit understanding in the colonies that slavery was a moral evil, because their own ecclesial law forbade Christians from enslaving one another. But a century before the founding, Christians in the Virginia General Assembly knowingly broke the law of their Church in order to preserve and perpetuate the institution of slavery.
How about an example closer to home?
This church, Annandale United Methodist Church, was founded in 1846 by the Methodist Episcopal Church South, a denomination which had begun two years earlier by a vote of 110-69 over the question of whether or not Methodist bishops and clergy could own slaves. As early as 1808, the Methodist Church left it up to individual Annual Conferences to determine for themselves their position on slavery. The Methodist Church divided seventeen years before the United States split over the slavery question— and Methodists did not reconcile that question and reunite until 1939. Even then, Black Methodists were segregated into their own polity in order to make sure that no white congregation would be under the authority of a Black bishop.
I don’t need to tell you, do I, what scripture texts were used along the way in each of those instances to justify and safeguard the status quo?
It wasn’t the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It was texts like today’s passage, which is the same passage that prompted Cassius Clay to renounce his Christian faith, convert to the Nation of Islam, and change his name to Muhammad Ali.
Clay saw an evangelical tract of a white slave-master whipping a slave while reciting to that slave, “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.”
If Christians were people who said, “Thanks be to God” to such a passage, then he no longer wanted to be one.
Look, I could spend a little effort and a lot of hot air to rehabilitate this passage from 1 Peter for you.
I could tell you that Peter and Paul both, for example, speak of slavery not to endorse it, but to draw analogies from it to our life in Jesus Christ. This is why today Peter turns to servants right after he speaks of submitting ourselves to the ruling authorities. To Paul and Peter, slaves are paradigms for how free Christians and Christians of privilege and power are to understand living the cruciform way of Jesus in the midst of the Principalities and Powers, I could say.
Though today this text rubs against the grain of all our emancipatory impulses, Peter and Paul gave to Christian slaves an agency they did not have apart from Christ. Even slaves, Peter says, are free in that they possess right now by baptism and the Holy Spirit the power to imitate the Lord who, in Jesus Christ, became the servant of all.
In the ancient world, Peter’s words today were revolutionary not repressive, I could say.
I could tell you how for Peter here, an oiketai is the best image for what it means to be a Christian, for the Gospel creates a fundamental inequality among humans; that is, as a Christian, like a servant or slave, I am always to regard every other person more highly than I regard myself.
And, I could say how neither Peter nor Paul called for a forceful overthrow of an institution like slavery, because the cross of Jesus Christ, as the Bible says, was the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Peter and Paul did not advocate the violent overthrow of oppressive systems because they believed the cross itself reveals violence to have been exposed and defeated as a weapon of the Enemy.
Everything I just told you about today’s passage (and others like it) is true, but I’m not sure it sounds convincingly like Good News. So, instead of attempting to rescue and rehabilitate this text and show you how the Apostle Peter says something other than what sinners throughout the centuries have said Peter said, I want to consider a more general question.
What is the Bible?
It’s an important question, because when you understand how the Bible has been used as a a tool to exploit people and justify their oppression, you can also begin to understand how (or why) the Bible became not just a tool, but an idol.
Take John 8 as “Exhibit A.”
In John 8, the Pharisees haul an adulteress up the Mt. of Olives and throw her at Jesus’ feet.
She’s guilty. The Pharisees remind the Rabbi how the Bible clearly commands that they stone this woman to death for her sin. And, certainly, any rabbi, who can quote scripture chapter and verse like Jesus, knows they’re correct.
Leviticus 20 commands it.
Deuteronomy 22 commands it.
Numbers 5 commands it, too.
The Bible says it.
A rabbi should believe it.
So, they ask Jesus to settle it.
And Jesus responds with the parry, “Whoever is without sin cast the first stone” and, seeing no one left to condemn her but himself, Jesus tells her ,“I do not condemn you. Go. And sin no more.”
Jesus chooses mercy, not sacrifice.
In this instance where the Bible is clear and unambiguous, Jesus chooses grace and mercy.
And by choosing grace and mercy, in this instance Jesus contradicts the clear command of scripture.
The Bible says it. They all believe it.
But, in this instance, belief in the Bible does not settle it for Jesus.
Now, is this just an instance?
Would Jesus say “stone her” next time?
Sure, he tells the woman to go and no longer sin.
But what if she did?
What if the Pharisees caught this woman again in adultery a few months later and again brought her to Jesus, how do you think Jesus would respond the second time? Or, say, the fifth time?
Do you think Jesus would say to the Pharisees, “You’re right guys. The Bible’s black and white on this. Since I’m without sin, I’ll throw the first stone?”
Doesn’t feel like it jives with who Jesus is does it?
Of course, the woman at Jesus’ feet on the Mt. of Olives— She’s just one example.
Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus trespasses upon the clear, black-and-white, face-to-face commands in scripture.
The Bible prescribes stoning for Sabbath-breakers.
And Jesus heals so many people on the Sabbath, it’s like he refuses to do anything, but.
The Bible says that the sins of parents will be visited upon their children.
And Jesus says to a man born blind that God would never punish him for his father’s sin.
The Bible recommends exacting eye-for-eye vengeance upon your enemies.
And Jesus refuses to take up the sword, giving up his life rather than take one.
And then when you get to the end of the Jesus story, it’s those most committed to the Bible who conspire to kill the God revealed by the Bible. If our own nation’s history doesn’t make it clear, the Passion Story certainly does.
The Bible can lead you to carry a cross or to build one.
As with that word doulos, this is only a problem if you confuse the Bible for the full revelation of God. It’s only unsettling if you think the Bible is the capital-W Word of God.
Now, I know when we read scripture in worship we’ll say, “This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.” And you hear it all the time that the Bible is infallible or inerrant or inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Except, pay attention now—
The claims we so often make about the Bible, the Bible makes about Jesus.
Now that couldn’t be more important, so let me repeat it.
The claims we so often make about the Bible, the Bible makes of Jesus.
As the Apostle Paul writes in his Letter to the Colossians, Jesus is the image of the invisible God. Jesus is the One in whom all things hold together. Jesus is the One in whom the fullness of God dwells.
Jesus— not the Bible— is the One through whom the totality of who God is, is revealed.
Paul merely echoes the audacious claim made by John in his Gospel, “Scripture was given through Moses,” John writes, “but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known.”
And then John doubles-down on that claim in his first epistle. Apart from Jesus Christ the Son, John writes, “No one has ever seen God.”
A former law-enforcement officer like Paul would know that can’t be. After all, the Bible says Adam and Eve and Enoch walked with God. The Bible says Abraham and Sarah ate with God by the oaks of Mamre, and that Jacob wrestled God by the riverside. The prophet Isaiah saw God in the year King Uzziah died. So did the prophets Daniel and Ezekiel.
According to the Bible lots of people, patriarchs and prophets, saw God.
So, what could John possibly mean by asserting that no one has ever seen God?
What could Paul mean when he proclaims that Jesus, only in Jesus, is God made visible, that only in Jesus does the fullness of God dwell?
Listen up—this couldn’t be more fundamental.
They mean that Jesus, not the Bible, is the full revelation of God.
Paul means that the eternal “Logos,” the capital-W Word of God, became flesh.
The Logos did not become a book.
Paul and John, they mean for you to understand that the Bible is not perfect.
The Bible is not the redemptive mediator between God and humanity.
You are not justified by the Bible.
You are justified in Jesus Christ by His grace alone.
The Bible is not infallible or inerrant.
But as the Thirty-Nine Articles confess, what the Bible can do reliably is bear witness to the work of Almighty God in Jesus Christ for you and for the redemption of the world. And don’t forget what Peter already told us in Chapter One. Redemption means “to free from slavery.”
The claims we so often make about the Bible, the Bible makes about Jesus.
Karl Barth illustrated the relationship between Jesus Christ and the Bible and our proclamation with three co-centric circles. He called it the “Three-Fold Form of the Word of God.”
At the center, in the inner, centermost circle, is the Logos, the eternal Word of God that was made flesh in Jesus Christ. Christ is the only capital ‘W’ word of God in which Christians believe and after which Christians must conform their lives.
Next in the trio is the testimony to the Word of God given to us by Israel, the prophets, and the Church. This testimony to the Word of God is the word we call “scripture.”
In the final, outermost, circle is the Word of God as its proclaimed and interpreted in the worship and ministry of the Church to which Christians will often reply, “This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.”
The only true, literal, infallible, eternal Word of God then is Jesus Christ, the Logos of God. The Bible is the Word of God in that it points us to the one Word of God, Jesus Christ. Our reading and preaching of scripture is— or rather, becomes– the Word of God for us only when it faithfully proclaims and embodies the one Word of God, Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 2.18 is not the Word of God, therefore, when it is used to exploit and oppress, because it is at odds with the one who declared, “I have come to set the captives free.”
Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible.
Jesus is what God has to say to us.
Jesus is the fullness of God made visible; such that, compared to Jesus, you might as well
say, “No one has ever seen God.”
Because all those patriarchs and prophets who saw God, they saw God only “partially.” Only imperfectly.
At most incompletely.
Only Jesus has made the Father known.
Only in Jesus does the fullness of God dwell.
Only Jesus is the image of invisible God.
And that means, God is like Jesus.
And more importantly, it means God has always been like Jesus.
It means there has never been a time when God was not like Jesus.
And because God elected to be for us God in Jesus Christ from before the Big Bang, it means there has never been a time when the Will of God is not synonymous with the Way of Jesus Christ.
And that means if there’s one calibrating principle of Christian belief, one grammatical rule for Christian speech, one foundational posture we present to others, it’s this one—
God is at least as nice as Jesus.
I know that sounds like the bare minimum but, given the world we live in today and the Christians who use the Bible to justify all sorts of anti-Christ positions, I’ll take it.
God is, at least, as nice as Jesus.
Because Jesus, not the Bible, is the fullness of God revealed.
When it becomes the character of a congregation, I think there is no more important distinction to draw than that one.
Because, let’s be honest, it would be much easier and would require much less of us to be a community based on the Bible, a community devoted to the Bible, a community that believes in the Bible and believes it to be the full revelation of God.
A community that makes the Bible an end in itself can find within the Bible justification for all sorts of attitudes and actions that came naturally to sinners like us.
A community can be based on the Bible and be angry and judgmental and holier than thou. A community can be based on the Bible and be hateful and homophobic. A community can be based on the Bible and be sexist and self-righteous. It can be a community that condemns sinners and cast stones and convinces itself that God blesses their violence and shares their prejudice.
A community that treats the Bible as the capital-W Word of God, the fullness revelation of God, can find within the Bible justification to believe in all sorts of contradictory, callous and un-Christlike ways.
But a community based on Jesus Christ, a community devoted to Jesus Christ, a community that believes Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, that believes Christ to be the fullness of God, the full revelation of God- that community has no choice, no excuse, no leeway.
It has to be a community characterized by love: humble, self-giving, sinner-embracing, enemy-forgiving, sacrificial, merciful, gracious love. The kind of love defined by, made flesh in, revealed through the Word of God, Jesus Christ.
The Bible says that Jesus Christ— NOT THE BIBLE— is the Word God speaks to us.
Jesus Christ, the One who lived briefly and died violently and rose unexpectedly to free you from the Pharaoh called Sin and Death.
Jesus Christ, who raised Israel from slavery in Egypt.
Christ Jesus, whose cruciform way is the logic of Creation.
Jesus is the Word of God for the People of God.
Thanks be to God.
18 Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh. 19For it is to your credit if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, where is the credit in that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.