22 April 2021Romans 6.15-23
…you, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (v. 18)
Slavery has been one of the uglier aspects of human life for millennia. Even in contemporary Britain there are those who live as slaves in a whole range of industries, but it is a slavery that is largely hidden from view. In the Roman empire, though, slavery was not only out in the open, it was taken for granted. It was simply the way the world worked, and many early Christians were themselves slaves.
So, even though it may be shocking to us, it is quite natural for Paul to use slavery as a metaphor in his discussion of the Christian life. It’s not that he approves of it as an institution, it’s simply part of the social reality that was familiar to him and his readers. As he says in verse 19, “I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations." In the very first verse of Romans, Paul described himself as a slave of Jesus Christ. Now he invites the Roman Christians to think the same about themselves. A slave is completely identified with their owner, they become part of the same household. In the same way, says Paul, Christians have moved from an identity shaped by their slavery to sin (a focus on what they can make of themselves) to a new identity shaped by their slavery to the righteousness and justice of God in Christ. It can be helpful to think of the groups of Christians in Rome who would have received and read Paul’s letter. Recent television documentaries on ancient Rome give us a sense of the precarious life lived by most poor Romans. Whether enslaved or free, they were trapped in crowded tenements and subject to the whim of landlords and overseers. How radical and liberating the Christian message must have been, especially to those who were living as slaves.
- How do you react to Paul’s use of the language of slavery? Do you find it helpful, or an obstacle to accepting his message?
- What might be a helpful illustration from your own social situation to express Paul’s message about our relationship with God in Christ?