Since slaves were part of the Hellenistic household, it is quite possible that the false teachers' disruption of Cretan households (1:11) accounts for the kind of disrespectful behavior among slaves implied by this set of instructions. Something similar had occurred in Ephesus (see 1 Tim 6:1-2).
What is godly behavior in the case of Christian slaves? Propriety in the master-slave relationship was clearly defined in the ancient world. While despotism and cruelty among masters were generally disdained, in practice the bulk of the load in maintaining a peaceful relationship was borne by the slave. The slave was to be obedient and respectful toward the master at all times.
Paul did not dispute this arrangement. Rather, with the customary exhortation, he commanded slaves to be models of decency in their respective roles. "Subordination" (or "subjection") was the traditional abbreviation for willing acceptance of the realities of this social institution and compliant, respectful behavior within it (1 Pet 2:18; "obey" is equivalent, Eph 6:5; Col 3:22). This meant complete recognition of the master's authority.
The remainder of the instructions break this general command into specific applications. First, slaves must seek to please their masters. Only by doing their best could this level of satisfaction be reached. Slaves were generally motivated to this level of excellence by the hope of freedom; Paul does not rule out such a hope, but his motivation is different (compare 1 Cor 7:22-23; Col 3:23-24).
Next, Paul urges that Christian slaves be fully compliant. Not to talk back suggests that Paul is thinking of the stereotype of the ill-mannered, unruly and rebellious slave. One of the first ways that people under authority use to express rebellion is verbal challenges: sarcastic comments given under the breath, defiant contradictions. Generally speaking, orders must not be questioned (especially) by Christian slaves.
The last two items pertain to the slave's performance of household responsibilities. Many slaves managed their masters' business interests and were responsible for any money involved. A Christian slave must not be caught with a hand in the till or embezzling or juggling the books. Rather, the genuine faith of a Christian slave will be reflected in complete honesty and trustworthiness.
This description of the subordinate slave makes use of the secular vernacular. But Paul shows where the difference between respectability and Christian respectability lies in the purpose he describes. For the third time, a purpose clause (so that) connects appropriate conduct within a particular social institution to Christian witness. Slaves were known to be attracted to new religions, often with disruptive results. Christian slaves were to behave in such a way that they would actually validate the "new religion" in front of their skeptical masters. Obviously, excellent behavior and full respect for authority which the slave attributed to the Christian message would make it attractive to the master. Slaves in their humble circumstances either helped or hindered the gospel's penetration.
What appears at first glance to be a time- and culture-bound instruction to slaves applies to all who find themselves under the authority of someone else. But times have changed. For a number of reasons, the modern employer, supervisor or teacher does not necessarily expect to be treated with respect by those under his or her charge. As a social value, respect for those in authority is a thing of the past, even though disrespect is regarded as a disruptive force (affecting the quality of education and workmanship). But it is just at this point that a Christian can step into the confusion and make a powerful impression. Where all around there is disrespect or indifference to those in authority, a Christian's respectful attitude and speech, backed up by good performance, will demonstrate that God's message of salvation produces positive, visible results. This is an opportunity for witness that we must not miss.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.
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