Paul and Slavery, Part 2
People who have grown up with Christianity are used to hearing Paul refer to himself as the slave/servant of Christ. We take this as a reference to his humility, but was it? How would a 1st century audience from a Hellenistic (Greek culture) background have heard it?
“I am the slave of Christ” had to make sense in the 1st century world
Humility was not a positive moral quality (virtue) in the 1st century. Humility was considered to be a moral failure (vice). The idea that one should not boast or be prideful was something introduced to the world by Christianity.
If Christians invented the idea that it was good to be humble, then Paul could not use it as a way to connect with the outside world. If outsiders heard him preaching slavery to Christ and humility as a virtue, they probably would have laughed at him - that is, unless there was another meaning.
Slavery could sometimes have a positive meaning in the 1st century
Most often, someone became a slave as a result of being unable to pay his debts or being on the losing side in a battle. However, there were rare occasions in which someone actually chose to become a slave. This usually occurred when he had the chance to become the slave to a rich and/or powerful person. This would actually be a move up the social ladder and was something that was understood in Paul’s day.
The reason this was considered a move up was because a slave like this one (who probably had special skills in business or politics) would often act on behalf of his master. This gave the slave quite a lot of power and authority because of who he was representing.
Let’s consider this in terms of something more familiar - Downton Abbey. A noble like Lord Grantham would regularly give orders to his servants. But, what would happen if a servant came to Downton Abbey on behalf of the King? Who has the higher position in this case? The servant of the King does, because while the servant holds a low status himself, he represents someone whose status is much higher.
In this case, Lord Grantham had better listen to and obey the King’s servant - that is, if he wanted to retain his position. The King’s servant speaks on behalf of the King and comes with his authority. To reject the servant is to reject the one who sent him.
Paul’s statement about being the slave of Christ was a statement about his authority
Paul was like a free man who had the opportunity to become the slave/servant of the King. Only, in this case, he was not the slave of any earthly King. Paul was the slave of the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
When Paul referred to himself as the slave of Christ, he was not expressing his humility but his authority. He was, in effect, saying, “I serve the Creator God, and I am speaking to you on His behalf.” If what he was saying were true, then every single person needed to listen and obey, because he represented the ultimate authority.
You can find Paul and Slavery, Part 1 here.