Studies in 1, 2 Timothy, Titus—Lesson 15 (1 Timothy 6:1-2)
by Reta Halteman Finger
Any Christian today reading the first part of 1 Timothy 6:1-2 probably reacts with disgust, anger, or bewilderment: “Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor.” And if we read further, we see no corresponding admonition to masters to treat slaves fairly and justly, as in other letters attributed to Paul: Colossians 4:1 or Ephesians 6:9. Nothing.
Instead, these two verses open another window into the hierarchical household structure of life in the Greco-Roman world of the late first century CE. Not only are women told to stay in their places and never teach others (1 Tim. 2:12), but slaves of both genders, who reside at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy, are expected to honor their owners at all times. Why do these instructions seem so far removed from the freedom language of Galatians 3:26-28?
In this lesson I will explain a few confusing aspects about this short text. Later we will look at the larger picture of slavery in the ancient world, followed by some of the ways this text has been interpreted or challenged since that time. It will take more than one lesson!
Slave or servant?
The Greek word for “slave” is doulos. As a doulos, you are the property of your owner, with no rights even to your own body. New Testament translations are not consistent and at times weaken the impact by using “servant” for doulos rather than “slave.” However, the most common term for “servant” in NT Greek is diakonos and implies a deacon or a free person working in a service occupation. I agree with Annette Huizenga, who always translates doulos as “slave.” “This emphasizes the social location of the text,” she says, “reminding us of the harsh realities that many of the enslaved believers experienced” in the Roman Empire, as well as slaves in our own American past (Huizenga, pp. 70-71).
A slave would be either a war captive, the child of another slave, or an abandoned baby (usually a girl) who has been picked up and raised to serve the household; race or skin color was not an issue. Slaves in the Roman Empire did not get paid for their work nor did they have rooms of their own. House slaves would sleep in the kitchen or wherever they found a spot on a floor; their meals were the scraps of food they could snatch while working. Field slaves were worse off, and those unlucky enough to be sent to the tin mines rarely survived more than a year.
According to 1 Timothy 6:1, the reason for slaves maintaining their inferior position in society was “so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed.” As we saw in earlier lessons, our author is constantly concerned about the reputation of the “household of God” within the household structure of Roman culture. Is he unable to imagine an alternate egalitarian community surviving in that context?
Puzzles in 1 Timothy 6:2
Verse 2 contains another translation that somewhat obscures its original meaning. “Those [slaves] who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church.” Instead of “church members,” the original Greek is adelphoi, meaning “brothers.” (The NRSV is gender-inclusive, but in this case, most or all slave owners would have been male.) What the author means to say is that, even though a slaveowner may be an equal brother in Christ, slaves in their everyday working lives should accept their position as property of their master. They should not disrespect him by treating him as an equal. (Can we hope that spiritual equality existed between owners and enslaved in private worship services, where they shared bread and wine together at the common meal?)
The rest of verse 2 says: “Rather, they [slaves] must serve them all the more, since they [masters] are believers and beloved, who devote themselves to good deeds.” The Greek grammar here is difficult, so I’ve chosen the alternate reading in the NRSV footnote because it makes more sense in light of the system of patronage that structured both household and political life.
The inequality of patronage
With no concept of democracy, the functioning of Roman society could be diagrammed as a pyramid, with the emperor at the top and everyone else below in descending and unequal patron-client relationships, down to the lowliest slave. People retained their social status by doing favors, or benefactions, for their socially inferior clients, who in turn affirmed their patron’s status by publicly showing their devotion to him or her. Clients in turn were patrons to clients beneath them. Even slaves had a pecking order.
Evidently, some or all of the Christian slaveowners were benefactors within the church community, possibly helping it maintain social respectability and survive economically. In return, they would have expected special honors and public expressions of gratitude from other church members. A rebellious slave who demanded social as well as spiritual equality with his or her master just wouldn’t cut it in that rigidly structured society.
In the next lesson, I will provide some basic information on slavery as an institution in the ancient Roman Empire and how it compares with the American experience of slavery. We will also learn from Christian slaves, descendants of slaves, and believers from other marginalized groups. How have they have interpreted texts like 1 Timothy 6:1-2, which appear to current readers as racist and oppressive?
In the meantime, do your own research on Roman slavery. For example, see the chapter on slavery and patronage in the book by George D. McClain and me listed below.
Questions for discussion or reflection
- From reading past lessons on 1 Timothy, how might the larger literary context of this letter help you better understand how to interpret 6:1-2?
- Do you have a friend or acquaintance who holds the concept of biblical inerrancy? If you do, ask how she or he would interpret 1 Timothy 6:1-2.
- How might ancient Rome’s patronage system compare with current American politics regarding relationships between government officials and powerful corporations, organizations, and individuals?
Sources used or consulted
Finger, Reta Halteman and George D. McClain. “Engines of Exploitation: Slavery and Patronage.” Creating a Scene in Corinth. Herald Press: Harrisonburg, VA, 2013, pp. 76-83.
Fiore, Benjamin. The Pastoral Epistles: 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus. Sacra Pagina, Vol. 12. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007.
Huizenga, Annette Bourland. 1-2 Timothy, Titus. Wisdom Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.
Martin, Clarice J. “1-2 Timothy, Titus.” True to Our Native Land: An African-American New Testament Commentary. Brian K. Blount, gen. ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007, pp. 409-36.
Zehr, Paul M. 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2010.