Sunday, April 27, 2014

Institutions, or Individuals?

I didn't have to teach Life Group today, but I did prepare, just in case my co-teacher was called away to help an animal. Even though he's not supposed to be on call this week, sometimes he still gets called out. So I prepared, then didn't have to teach.

The passage was Ephesians 6:5-9, the one about slaves and masters. It's a tough lesson because it causes us to have to answer the question: Did the New Testament condone or condemn slavery? What did Paul the Apostle say about it? What did Jesus say about it? Yes, we can take that passage and make it about employees and employers, and gain much insight from it. But the original readers, the church in Ephesus and whatever other churches it was circulated to, would have understood it in the context of the time. Something like 2/3 of the Roman Empire was slaves, owned by maybe 1/100th or at most 1/10th of the Empire. They were owned. They had meaningful work, true, including trades. But they did not have freedom to leave their job and go elsewhere.

Some have said slavery was a different animal in the 1st Century than it was in the 16th through 19th Centuries. That's correct, but only in the fact that race wasn't the basis for one's becoming a slave, and kidnapping or bribing a tribal leader wasn't the basis for acquiring slaves. How one became a slave was a complex situation, resulting from many things, none of them racial, none of them as a matter of a system of trade and procurement. Yet, slaves were bought and sold. Some were held to breed more slaves. Many or most were mistreated. Few were ever freed. If they became too sick to work they were kicked out of the house, not nursed back to working health.

If this is so, why didn't Jesus condemn it? Why didn't Paul? Paul says, "Slaves, obey your masters," and goes on to explain what this means. He tells masters to treat their slaves well, true, but never does he suggest they set them free.

In search of an explanation, I found guidance in John MacArthur's commentary on Ephesians. I'd love to develop his full argument, but afraid I'm almost out of time and words on a Lord's Day where I really haven't taken the time to rest as I should, so I'll give the short version. Perhaps, in a follow-up post down the road, I'll expand on it more. MacArthur's take is that the Bible isn't a textbook on how to structure social systems. It's a textbook on how to structure our relationship with God, and what this means to our relationship with mankind. He says the best social institution will be wrecked by sin, and the worst social institution will be improved by righteousness.

I find a lot of truth and wisdom in that. I'd love to take more time on it, and will someday. In fact, a book about it has been occupying space among my gray cells for some time. Perhaps that will someday find its way out. For now, however, it's just this post. As Christians we can change the world, but it won't happen because we jump up and down and insist the government end this program or start that one, or improve this social institution or scrap that one. It will happen one person at a time, until critical mass is reached and the institution is as it should be for the benefit of mankind.

Of course, that all depends on Christians following Christ—fully, wholeheartedly, unwaveringly, boldly, and lovingly. Since I don't see that happening, I'm not optimistic that the world will improve.


vero said...

I can understand your pessimism, especially in light of how long social and institutional change seems to take at times. However, my whole life's work is predicated on the hope and belief that mankind can change at a phenomenal rate when guided through specific practices, processes and bodies of knowledge. This is a promise of the Bible, and an expectation.

David A. Todd said...

It will happen, if it happen at all, one person at a time. The more people working to effect that change the faster it will happen.

vero said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vero said...

Yes, in our discusses over the last two years,I've stated repeatedly, world change comes with changing the individual. Individual transformation can initiate and spur geometric transformation of global proportions. An article I wrote for our local paper about two years or so states the same thought. The thought isn't original to me. It is evident in Jesus' teachings and Ghandi stated, "Be the change you want to see."