by John Wijngaards, Mission Today, Autumn 1994

THINGS are not always what they seem.

Scripture is God’s Word.

It was inspired to heal, to teach, to lift us up.

But sometimes words of Scripture seem to achieve just the opposite.

They confuse us and retard progress. Simply because they are misunderstood.

Take the example of slavery. No one in his right mind would dare to maintain today that owning another person as a slave is allowed. Or even, that it is a natural thing, willed by God. But many Christians in past centuries did precisely that. They contended that Scripture endorsed the practice of slavery.

They pointed out that Jesus himself referred to slaves in examples and parables. On one occasion he even said that we can learn from a slave who has worked the whole day on the field and, on return home, has first to prepare his master’s supper before eating himself.

“With regard to God,” Jesus taught, “you are in a similar position. You have never done enough. At the end of the day say to him: ‘I am no more than your slave. I am only doing my duty’” (Luke 17:7-10).

Now we have to be very careful here. Jesus says we can learn something from the service of a slave. But does he thereby approve of slavery itself? Jesus often takes lessons from existing situations without thereby approving of what is wrong in them.

Think of the unjust manager from whom we learn to plan (Luke 16:1-12); of the merchant who buys a field without disclosing its treasure (Matt. 13:44); and of the thief who burgles in the middle of the night (Matt. 25:42-44).

Similarly, Paul advises slaves to respect their masters and work hard (Col. 3:22-25). This does not mean that he sanctions slavery, only that he accepts it as a fact of life. Elsewhere Paul teaches clearly that it is better to be free (1 Cor. 7:21-23) and that “in Christ there is no longer any Greek or barbarian, man or woman, free or slave. In Christ we are all one” (Gal. 3:28).

The examples taken from slavery caused still another mis­understanding. This time in the area of spirituality. The focus on obedience and service led some people to think that these were the only, or the highest, virtues.

The result was a one-sided stress on “doing as you’re told”, on submissiveness and on downgrading oneself at all times. This was supposed to show humility. In fact, it made people doubt their own self-worth.

Jesus intended just the opposite. To those who believe in him, he gave the power to become children of God (John 1:12). The whole point of the Incarnation was that he offered us the new status of being God’s adopted children.

Now there is an enormous difference between being a slave or being a child. A slave has no choice, a child has. A slave acts out of fear, a child relates to his parents through love.

A slave cannot give anything, but we as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own family” which can offer him spiritual and pleasing gifts (1 Peter 2:5,9).

Like Jesus, we are on familiar terms with God. As God’s children we can say “Dad” Abba to God. “Therefore,” Paul says, “You are no longer a slave, but a child” (Gal. 3:7). There is consequently no room for a doormat spirituality. Loving parents do not enjoy walking over their children!

There is also no room for imagining that God expects us to live as religious robots, thinking as we are told to think and doing what we are programmed to do. Jesus shared his inmost secrets with us. “You are no longer servants, but friends,” he said (John 15:15). “And you will do greater things than I have done” (John 14:12).

Is that not a marvellous thing to tell us – greater things than Jesus did?

Yes, we can learn lessons from slaves: punctuality in fulfilling our duty, humble service and that God owes us no gratitude. “Wash each other’s feet,” Jesus told us (John 13:14). But God does not consider us slaves. Jesus set us free from sin and from anything that could enslave us (John 8:31-38).

As Paul says: “For freedom Christ has set you free! Don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery!” (Gal. 5:1).