Embracing Mystery: Children and Slaves

Reflections from Dr. Howell

We have romanticized and indulged childhood in modern times; but in Paul’s world, childhood was far from glamorous. Most children endured poor health, barely enough food, no medicines or braces, no schools, play places, camps, or legal protections; as soon as they were able, they labored for the household’s survival.

Modern childhood has issues too. Neil Postman wrote of The Disappearance of Childhood: because of the media, technology, and open-minded parenting, children are no longer sheltered from adult “secrets,” and are exposed far too early to a tawdry adult world. But then, unlike ancient people, we segregate children and insure they are in age-appropriate situations and groups – so they do not get to live with adults in order to learn how to become adults. And then technology simply devours our children.

Paul, not anticipating the threats of child abuse or dysfunction we understand today, make a blanket demand: Children, obey your parents – and then adds in the Lord. Raising A+, type-A achievers is not Paul’s goal! He is interested in children as members of the Body of Christ. They revere Christ above all. They “honor” father and mother. Not “have warm fuzzy feelings for them” but “be respectful,” “care for them in their old age.”

In what must have shocked ancient readers, Paul not only orders the children to obey, but then turns the tables on the parents: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” In the ancient world, fathers had unlimited power; there were no social workers, no judges to punish for abuse. Paul reins in that power! Notice also Paul does not say “Treat them as center of the universe,” or “build their resumes or cram their hectic schedules as full as yours.” Rather: “Bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” There is a discipline about bringing up Christian children: not punishment, but having order, a plan, reading every day, praying regularly through the day, making biblically-informed decisions.

Paul then adds, “Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling.” Masters were granted free rein to be as brutal and capricious as they wished, so Paul is encouraging – what? – a more gentle kind of slavery? Paul, in other letters, boldly contravened his society by saying “with God there is neither slave nor free” (Galatians 5:1). Paul puts the masters in their place: “The only true Master is God, equally of you and of your slaves!” If you thumb ahead a few pages to Paul’s letter to Philemon, you Paul urging a slaveowner to set his slave free.

Was this the best Paul could do? Recently we’ve been reminded that our revered founding fathers of America owned slaves despite their talk of freedom. Instead of taking Paul’s advice to slaveowners literally, we read the heart of Scripture, rightly deducing that slavery was and is abhorrent to God, as is any belittling or mistreatment of any human being.

I love the baptismal font over at Belmont Abbey (and God does as well): when the Benedictines built their cathedral, they reworked a stone that had been used as a trading block for slave auctions! The plaque attached to the stone says, “Upon this rock, men once were sold into slavery. Now upon this rock, through the waters of Baptism, men become free children of God.”