Some thirty years ago, I was in our front yard at home when I overheard a very loud disagreement between one of the neighbour children and his mother. I forget the precise cause of the disagreement, but I distinctly remember the boy at one point shouting, “Children have rights, too!” and the mother laughing and retorting, “What rights?” It was illustrative, even three decades ago, of our obsession as South Africans with our rights.
I am thankful for a society in which human rights can be protected but I often fear that we are tempted to emphasise our rights to the detriment of our responsibilities. Peter recognised the same temptation when he wrote about slaves responding righteously to their masters (1 Peter 2:18–25).
As I did on Friday, it may be helpful to make a preliminary comment about this text before focusing on its primary burden. This is necessary because of the tensions that frequently arise towards the Bible’s relation to slavery.
Without going into inordinate detail, it is necessary to note that slavery in the first century was quite different from the chattel slavery that William Wilberforce and others laboured to end. Chattel slavery was certainly practised in New Testament times and Paul in no uncertain terms condemned it when he wrote of the immorality of “enslavers” (1 Timothy 1:10), using a Greek word that exclusively described those who traded in slaves and treated them as possessions. The writers of the New Testament would have firmly supported Wilberforce in his efforts to end the slave trade.
But the slavery of which Peter wrote was very different. In his study of slavery in the Greco-Roman world, Scott Bartchy summarises,
Central features that distinguish 1st century slavery from that later practiced in the New World are the following: racial factors played no role; education was greatly encouraged (some slaves were better educated than their owners) and enhanced a slave’s value; many slaves carried out sensitive and highly responsible social functions; slaves could own property (including other slaves!); their religious and cultural traditions were the same as those of the freeborn; no laws prohibited public assembly of slaves; and (perhaps above all) the majority of urban and domestic slaves could legitimately anticipate being emancipated by the age of 30.
While the parallel is not exact, the slave-master relationship in the New Testament was a little closer to an employmentrelationship than to chattel slavery, and our application of these instructions must take that into account.
While rights played zero role in chattel slavery, they do play a significant role in the modern employer-employee relationship. The South African Labour Guide provides an extensive list of employer/employee rights and an array of legal channels exists to fight for one’s rights. We should be thankful for that. At the same time, there are times when fighting for our rights does not exemplify biblical ethics.
As he continues to warn against “the passions of the flesh” (2:11), Peter turns his attention to this tendency to insist on fair treatment in the workplace. We remember that he was writing specifically of unfair treatment for the sake of Christ. His readers were being mistreated because they were Christian. This still happens today. Christians sometimes get passed over for job offers or promotion, or lose out on increases or bonuses, or face exclusion from other privileges for no other reason than their commitment to Christ and his gospel. When this happens, “the passions of the flesh” kick in and we immediately want to fight for our rights. Peter directs us differently.
Sometimes, it is best not to insist on our rights, but to instead endure the shame of injustice for the sake of the gospel. Whether our employer is “good and gentle” or “unjust,” submission usually displays Christlikeness better than standing for our rights. As Scot McKnight observes, “The way of Jesus was not the way of assertion; it was the way of self-denial and of suffering, by which he came to inherit the greatest glory of all—the right hand of God.”
Sometimes, standing for our rights is good and necessary. When we face injustice for the sake of the gospel, the way of Christ more frequently points us in another direction.
In your workplace, are you known more for your assertiveness than for your industrious work ethic? Do your colleagues know you better as the one who fights for your rights or for your kindness, fairness, loyalty, and honesty? Christlikeness may cost you dearly in this respect, as it dearly cost Christ himself, but it is “to this” that “you have been called.”
As you meditate today on 1 Peter 2:18–25, ask God to help you to display greater Christlikeness through humble non-assertiveness. Follow in his steps as you joyfully endure wrongdoing, entrusting yourself ultimately to the one who judges righteously.