A More Positive View Of Slavery: Establishing Servile Identity In The Christian Assemblies -- By: John G. Nordling

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 19:1 (NA 2009)
Article: A More Positive View Of Slavery: Establishing Servile Identity In The Christian Assemblies
Author: John G. Nordling


A More Positive View Of Slavery: Establishing Servile Identity In The Christian Assemblies

John G. Nordling

Concordia Theological Seminary

Author’s note: I would like to thank Rev. Grant A. Knepper, Zion Lutheran Church, Hillsboro, OR, for taking a careful look at earlier drafts of this article and offering suggestions I have used, and Rev. Peter F. Gregory, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Ft. Wayne, IN, for formatting this article.

Recent scholarship calls attention to violence, sexual exploitation, and other indignities experienced by slaves. For most slaves in the Christian assemblies, however, the abuses associated with slavery were not an issue, and so slavery functioned as the place where countless servile believers demonstrated their faith in Christ by serving the neighbor. Three subpoints support the basic position:

(1) Paul called himself a slave repeatedly to form an identity with epistolary audiences, large portions of which were servile; (2) directives to slaves to endure suffering for doing good (1 Pet 2:18-21) were paradigmatic for all Christians, not just slaves; and (3) Jesus’ death by crucifixion (servile supplicium = “the slaves’ punishment”) was presented as the common experience of every Christian, not just slaves. Since slaves were the ones for whom much parenesis was intended originally, the argument can be made that biblical slavery remains pertinent for its applicability to Christian vocation.

Key Words: slavery, identity, servile identity, Christian identity, Paul, Paul’s self-understanding, suffering, 1 Pet 2:18-21, the cross, servile religion, Christian vocation

Slavery does not fare well in the estimation of many who have written on the topic lately.1 Usually emphasized are certain undeniably negative

aspects of slavery to which slaves were subject, such as violence and sexual exploitation.2 Although one may not dispute these findings, I find problematic the idea that gratuitous violence, disgrace, and degradation were endemic to ancient slavery as such.3 That opinion cannot abide the possibility that slavery—at other times and amid other peoples—may have existed far differently than it did among Americans in the antebellum South, for example.4 The first Christians offer a case in point: for them, slavery was arguably a morally ambiguous institution. O...

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