WHAT? Peter tells slaves to obey their masters

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
February 12, 2023
1 Peter 2:18-25

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, February 10, 2023

At the beginning of worship:

To really understand Scripture, we must strive to hear it in the way it was first heard. We must also place the passage within the entirety of Scripture. Otherwise, when we pick and choose verses, it’s easy to read into the Bible our own biases. This has been done for years by using the Bible to support slavery, male dominance, and other things modern society shuns. Furthermore, for each of these topics with a verse that might support it, you can also find verses that has helped reject the idea. 

I tell you this because the next two weeks, we’re moving into a difficult part of 1 Peter. Peter says slaves should submit to their masters and wives to their husbands. Taken at face value, most of us would find this offensive. So, we must ask ourselves about the audience Peter addressed and how these passages fit with the rest of Scripture. Hang on, it’s going to be a bumpy ride, but we’ll come out of it with a better understanding of our purpose in this life as followers of Jesus. 

Before reading the Scripture:

We’re in the middle of Peter’s first letter, a section which I noted last week helps people learn their place in society. Such “household codes” were common in the Roman world and Peter uses them to help his readers understand their position in society while doing God’s work.  Of course, Peter alters the “code” for his readers. They are to follow Jesus and live according to Jesus’ example while showing honor and respect to those in power.[1]Peter’s readers are in a difficult position. The Apostle wants them to be seen as good members of society and not troublemakers.

To grasp what Peter says, we must go back to his audience. As I have pointed out over the past month, they are marginalized. The Romans don’t like them, thinking their faith is built on a fantasy. The Jews don’t like them and have pushed them out of the synagogue. Many of these Christians were probably slaves. If possible, when we listen or read this letter, we should put ourselves into their position. How would Peter’s letter sound to us if we were slaves or living on the edge of society, without resources and no protection from the law? 

Read 1 Peter 2: 18-25

The good and the bad of this passage

Part of this passage I love. In the Assurance of Pardon following the Prayer of Confession, I often proclaim verse 24: “Jesus bore our sins in his body on the cross that we might be free from sin.” That’s the good news. We’re sinners! It’s nice to know there’s a way out of the slavery our sinfulness. 

But before we get there, there’s another part of this passage which sends chills down my back. “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters.” What’s gotten into Peter? We can be free of sin yet enslaved to a bad master? 

Problems with those in authority

I have been told on more than one occasion that I have a problem with authority. There’s a streak of rebel blood in me and I don’t like Peter’s advice here. But it’s in scripture and we must deal with it. So, why do you think Peter tells his readers they must accept the authority of masters even if it means suffering unjustly. Why do slaves have to be noble even when their masters aren’t? 

Peter’s readers didn’t have had the option of the legal system, as we have as free citizens. In Peter’s case, if the authorities said they were guilty, they had no recourse, at least not in this life.[2]We often forget that God is a God of justice and hates evil. Sooner or later, even our persecutors will stand before the judgment throne. 

Enduring suffering, taking the high road

But for now, Peter tells people to endure their sufferings and to set an example for others, being willing to suffer as Christ himself suffered. As Christians, we’re to take the high moral road, regardless of what others may do. 

The recipients of this letter knew there was little they could do to change their status. This passage doesn’t condone their position in life. Instead, it focuses on how they, in their humble state, can set a good example in the hope it would bring more glory and honor to Jesus.  After all, Jesus himself suffered. Furthermore, if they endure, God will witness their suffering. 

Non-violent resistance 

You know, during the Civil Rights movement, leaders like Martin Luther King called for nonviolent resistance. Those protesting were not to fight back. They sat quietly at a white’s only lunch counter in Greensboro as ketchup, mustard, and sugar were poured on their heads.[3] They fell to the ground as the batons of Bull Conner’s police force in Birmingham struck their bodies. I’m not sure I could have done that. But by not striking back, they drew national attention to their plight and hastened the breakdown of an unjust system. 

The roots for nonviolent resistance are found in Scripture, the teachings of Jesus in the Black Church, along with the movement Gandhi established in India. For those of us in position of power (and because of race we all have some privileges), it’s hard to comprehend the idea of non-violent resistance. But based on this passage, it appears Peter would have agreed with the concept. After all, he tells slaves to obey even harsh and unjust masters. 

In an article in the Christian Century in 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr, then a young pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, laid out his theory. Non-violent resistance was an alternative to armed revolt, something King hoped to avoid and mostly did until his death. Nonviolence, King points out, is not for cowards. It’s resistance to an oppressive system and takes a whole lot more courage not to strike back. Furthermore, such resistance doesn’t seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent. You direct your resistance against the system, not against individuals caught within the system. Finally, it avoids not only physical resistance, but also the internal violence within the spirit of the resistor.[4]

An example of not striking back

When I was in high school, I thought I might want to join the military. I went with a group of students to Camp Lejeune. We watched Marines go through advance infantry training. In this one area, they had to crawl under barbed wire for a couple hundred feet. A few feet above the barbed wire whizzed bullets shot out of several mounted gun emplacements. If you stayed under the wire, you were fine. There were also some bunkers which were easy to avoid. Occasionally they explored and sprayed sand over the crawling Marines. I was ready to run and crawl through this obstacle. It looked like fun. Sadly, that wasn’t an option as we were only observers. 

But there was one Marine who freaked out. He was scared and didn’t want to do it. His Drill Instructor was in his face yelling and spraying spit as he said all kind of nasty things. The Marine tried to run away while holding his rifle at port arms. I saw this and thought, if he said that to me, that sergeant might end up with my rifle butt embedded in his head. As soon as I thought this, I knew if that had been the case, I’d be in the brig. It was about this point I decided I probably didn’t need to enlist. 

Peter, a fellow sufferer 

When Peter, a fellow Christian, writes this letter, he’s doing it as a brother to those saints in Asia Minor as well as a Christian who will continue to suffer abuse. There is something important for us to understand. Peter’s words wouldn’t have had any meaning if they had been written by a master or someone in authority. His influence comes not from being in authority but suffering as they suffer and as Christ suffered. Martin Luther King recognizes this, as he points out in another article: 

When the white power structure calls upon the Negro to reject violence but does not impose upon itself the task of creating necessary social change, it is in fact asking for submission to injustice. Nothing in the theory of nonviolence counsels this suicidal course.[5]

Taking this passage out of context

Sadly, this passage like others, throughout history, have been taken out of context and used by those in power to keep others in submission. That’s a misinterpretation. If Peter had been writing this letter to those who were oppressors, he’d written a much different message. He’d be more like Jeremiah, calling for justice. That’s why I stress our need to understand this passage from the point of view of its original readers and not to be too quick to adapt it to our purposes. After all, if we learn one thing in Scripture, it’s not about us. It’s about God! 

Applying this passage to our lives

So how do we apply this passage to our lives since none of us are slaves except to Christ? Certainly, we should obey those in authority. When things get out of hand, we can rejoice that we live with a system of government that allows us to redress injustices. 

As Christians, we need to be setting a good example. We should obey the law if it does not go against the teachings of Jesus. This includes traffic laws. Don’t be seen with an “I Love Jesus” bumper sticker if you’re speeding, cutting in and out of traffic, or ignoring stop signs. That’s not the best witness, although it may be a way to reconnect face-to-face with Jesus sooner than expected. 

While our kingdom is not of this world, we should show respect for those who work for the kingdoms of the world. We honor those in political offices, even those for whom we didn’t vote. I know this is hard. I have been guilty of failing to honor those I dislike. We hear the rhetoric of political commentators and get whipped up into a frenzy. But we can disagree without belittling. Followers of our humble Savior from Galilee should be at the forefront of showing the rest of the world a different way to express our differences. 

Furthermore, we should also rejoice in the second part of this passage. Because of Christ’s sufferings, our sins are forgiven. We’re free from sin’s bondage. Peter, however, wants to make sure we don’t take or misuse our freedom.[6] As followers of Jesus, we realize there will be bumps in the road. And when those bumps happen, we shouldn’t get mad or try to get even. Instead, as strange as it sounds, we should rejoice, for we are following in Jesus’ footsteps. 

Remembering those who suffer today

And finally, we should remember our brothers and sisters in this world who are more akin to Peter’s audience—those who are marginalized, isolated, and persecuted. We need to be willing to stand with them, to pray for them, and to call out for justice on their behalf. Amen. 

[1] Joel B. Green, I Peter (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 70-71.

[2] Jesus told Peter this would be his situation later in his life. As a young man, he did what he wanted, but when he was older he would be dragged to where he did not want to go.  See John 21:18-19.

[3] I was reminded of photos of these events by Scott Hoezee in his commentary on this passage in the archives for the “Center for Excellence in Preaching. 

[4] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Nonviolence and Racial Justice,” The Christian Century as quoted in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., James M. Washington, editor (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986), 7-8. 

[5] King, “Negroes are not Moving too Fast,” Testament of Hope, 179-180.

[6] See last week’s sermon: https://fromarockyhillside.com/2023/02/05/loving-our-persecutors/

Early morning photo of Buffalo Mountain taken on Feb. 8, 2023. Photo taken by Jeff Garrison
Buffalo Mountain in the morning, February 8, 2023

12 Replies to “WHAT? Peter tells slaves to obey their masters”

  1. I’m not so sure our current American society is rejecting male dominance, Jeff. It seems like women and girls are going backwards and losing rights. Aside from that, I like the clarity you gave to what Paul wrote. It’s really important to see things in context.

    1. I agree, male dominance isn’t over, but I don’t think it is as bad as it was even earlier in my life. But like many things, we take two steps forward, one step back. Glad you found some clarity in the sermon.

  2. Good discussion on this tricky topic. I think we all submit to masters during our life. We just don’t call it that. The difference is we can escape if it becomes too onerous (even from the modern military).

    My Army son says they can’t yell in recruit faces anymore. Hmm…

  3. I agree with Bob. I appreciate that you point out how we can’t cherry pick verses to fit with our lives the way we want them to. Context (historical or otherwise) is important.

    1. the older I get, the more I dislike verse memorization which often leads us to memorize those we like and forgetting the other. More important than verse memorization is knowing the gospel story.

  4. I really appreciate your admonition about how we read Scripture — in context and with deference to the original audience. I also appreciate your words about how we should conduct ourselves. I recently read Andy Stanley’s “Not In It to Win It” (one you recommended, I believe) and was struck by how much division and infighting there is not just in our country as a whole, but also among people of faith. It should not be that way.

    BTW the only way I can now get to your comments section is by going to your blog from Ed’s blog list, a tip Kelly gave me! Otherwise I would have to read and be silent (which you might be fine with 😃)!

    1. Thanks for your comments. I don’t know what is going on with my blog post. Others have said they have to click on the individual post to be able to comment.

    2. Yes that definitely works and that’s easier than going by way of Ed’s blog. Kelly also gave me another tip. You can’t get rid of me that easily! HAHA!

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