Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ
The biggest paradox of faith is one day emancipation will be complete
A couple of weeks ago, I saw a tweet that said, “the least exvangelical about me is that I like Paul.” Paul is a difficult figure, but I felt that quote so deeply. Paul has to be the most misunderstood figure in the New Testament. Well, I guess other than Jesus, I guess. I’m not sure I thought that one all the way through.
I’ve been reading Romans 1 lately and I know we have our baggage with the text. It has been used to hurt. It has been used to exclude. It has been used to paint Paul as the worst asshole in religion. But I don’t think a complete asshole would love a congregation the way Paul loves the Romans.
Paul is writing because he cannot get to Rome. It’s too far. He’s in Corinth, over 1000km away from Rome. There are no cars, no buses, and definitely no airplanes. Beyond that, he’s too busy where he is with the myriad of crises in the Corinthian church. We have two letters in the Bible outlining that turmoil. Whatever the reason, he’s not gonna make it anytime soon, so he hopes to share the core teaching of the faith en absentia. It captures my imagination to think that we wouldn’t have Romans if Paul had been able to travel to Rome.
I just finished writing an article recently in which I argue that Paul would have loved Zoom because he wouldn’t have had to travel so much. It must have been so taxing on his body to travel thousands of miles on foot in his lifetime. By the end of his life, he wasn’t so young, and some scholars think he had a horrible eye infection ( that he called his thorn in the flesh) that made travel very difficult, but he traveled anyway because he loved Jesus and he loved people.1
The reason Paul writes Romans is that there is growing resentment between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. On the one hand, Paul demanded offerings from the Gentiles for the Temple in Jerusalem, yet many Jewish Christians saw them as second-class believers. On the other hand, many of these Gentile Christians believed they are going to be replacing the Jews. This system of belief in which Christians are meant to replace Jews is an incredibly old theology that ends up being called supersessionism.2
To combat this resentment, Paul has to lay it out very clearly. He talks about circumcision, relationships, leadership, government, etc. As he writes to the Romans, sometimes he will say things meant as guides to staying safe living in an empire. At other times, he will say things that he believes to be eternally true. Romans covers almost every theological thought. There’s a reason Romans is the first book after the gospels New Testament. Most importantly, Paul will describe Christian Universalism, telling the story of a God who loves enough to be for everyone. Paul believes all means all.
That said, leaning into reading Paul takes us out of our comfort zones because he says many things that challenge our view of what it means to be a good Christian in the modern world. Mark Charles, one of the authors of the amazing book, Unsettling Truths, is known for having a Facebook page full of controversies. We all know how something that feels uncontroversial as we post in one moment still has the potential to blow up in our faces the next moment. In his book, he tells the story of one such post. One day, he posted on the topic of systemic racism and one commenter replied, “If slavery were legal, I’d probably have two myself. That would not [make] me a racist.” 3
Charles recognized a losing proposition when he saw one. He realized that, for his mental health, he needed to log off for the day, as opposed to leaning in, fighting, and potentially taking one on the chin. Yet when he came back to the discussion, he found that it had become even worse than when he left it. In response to the first horrid comment, another person had written something milquetoast like, “come on, have a heart.” That quote not exactly being controversial, one might be surprised to find that the original commenter said, “on the contrary, I do have a big heart, but the law is the law. I would have slaves, but wouldn’t treat them harshly because after all, we all are humans. Last time I checked, slavery was acceptable back in Bible days. So, if slavery was cool with God, it’s cool with me.”
Mark eventually decided that he would never respond. He did say that if he had, he would have responded with this: “If slavery were legal today, what makes you so confident that you would be a slave owner and not one of the enslaved?” He continued: it is almost certain that he would “have a different opinion of the institution of slavery if he and his race were the ones being enslaved.”
Moving back to Paul, in Romans 1, Paul begins his letter, “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ….” What a way to start! If he is trying to catch our attention, well done. If he is trying to alienate us, he’s been successful in that way too. What do we do with someone who, while living in a system propped up by slavery, calls himself a slave? It seems flippant. It seems harsh. It seems like he doesn’t understand the situation. Some might be thinking, “Doesn’t my Bible translate it as servant?” That is honestly a good catch. Most translations do translate the word as servant. That said, I’m not sure why. My Greek has always been consistently one thing: rusty. That said, even I read doulos (δούλος) as slave. Does it mean a person who is living unpaid, forced to give their labor to the powerful, and living in a violent system? That’s a more complicated distinction, but it is incredibly hard to remove Western history with African slavery from the way we read Paul. It’s hard to remove ourselves from the violent history we find in knowing that Africans were stolen from their continent and brought as chattel to another continent.
Because my Greek is so bad, I reached out to a New Testament scholar (I guess I could have just read a book) to get his take on the word and his response was clear. He said this: “When Paul said he was a slave to Christ he meant Christ was his owner. Like the Roman system, but with Christ the head, and Paul the slave.” Living in the time of the Roman Empire, Paul would have come into contact with slaves almost every day of his life. Slaves would have walked beside him in the market. Slaves would have been messengers. He even had slaves who were a part of his church. Scholar Sylvia Keesmaat and others say there were definitely slaves who were a part of the church in Rome, the church Paul is addressing today.
I cannot imagine someone as thoughtful and intelligent as Paul being flippant about the condition and flourishing of the members of his congregation. What’s going on then? Is his theology akin to the one who commented, “If slavery were legal, I would own a couple”? Is he just saying, “Because slavery is legal and common, I can make light of it”? If I believe that Paul is too thoughtful for that, what is it then?
When we look at the history of slavery and the subjugation of indigenous people, in our time and in Paul’s, we can’t help but wonder where God is for them and, by extension, where is God for us. I’ve often tried to figure out how to move beyond “thoughts and prayers” when I face the suffering of others and often come up empty. It always reminds me of the old movie, Cool Hand Luke. There is a famous scene in the movie in which Luke, played by Paul Newman, stands out in the rain, staring at the sky in the middle of a thunderstorm, begging God to do anything. He says in his prayer, “Love me. Hate me. Kill me. Just let me know that you are here.” It’s a prayer that I want to pray with him. Maybe you want to as well. Maybe you know what it is to want God to intervene so much that you’d take even heartbreak as a gift from God just because you want to know you’re not alone. For Luke, when nothing happens, he sadly says, “I’m just out here talking to myself in the rain.” He feels so let down by God.
Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish theologian, is known for his relationship with that kind of despair. It may be a misunderstanding by casual readers, or it may be the truth. He says that despair cannot win the day. He says, “If a human being did not have an eternal consciousness, … what would life be then but despair? ….How empty and devoid of consolation life would be!”4 That’s the thing, he believes (and I believe and Paul believes) that there actually is an eternal consciousness, there is an eternal connection between the heart of humanity and the heart of the divine. That means we do not have to despair. There is a fullness made real for us. There is consolation available. There is the love of God that is in every cell in our bodies, every atom in the universe.
Knowing the love of God preached by Paul, do we believe that he, in fact, makes light of the situation of slavery? Absolutely not. He’s redefining the categories. He can’t free them from slavery. He does not have the power to do so. Because he cannot free them, he enslaves himself with them. They have not chosen to be slaves, but he is a self-made slave to Christ. He has put away his privilege, he has hidden his Roman citizenship, he has left unsaid his status as a Pharisee, and he puts his very life on the line to be an ally and names himself as one of the marginalized with them.
He does not do it to make himself feel better. It isn’t to assuage his guilt. It’s because he believes that the world has changed forever with this Jesus, his master. Like the Kierkegaard hinted above, Paul believes that the cosmos, everything there is, has been touched by the resurrection. We live and breathe and move in a state of resurrection and it’s for everyone. Paul ends up saying there is no Jew nor Greek, slave nor free….” The principalities and powers that hold us and harm us in this world, their days are numbered. Christ’s kingship hasn’t reached its final form in this world because not everyone has noticed and joined the chorus. And so he waits. And so we wait.
The pop singer Bjork says it in her own way: “All the modern things, Like cars and such, Have always existed, They've just been waiting in a mountain, For the right moment.”5
So is the state of God’s love living fully in a world of freedom. That love is waiting for the right moment, so we wait.
So what Paul is doing is reordering the nature of things. If Christ is king, then Caesar is not. If Christ is our master, then the slaveholder is not. He’s speaking dangerous words in a dangerous world. If Christ is the true savior, the true king, the true redeemer of all things, then as a servant to that same Christ, Paul is more than any king, more than any Caesar. Paul wants the Romans to know they more than any king or queen. They are so much more; they are children of God. Paul stared pain and struggle in the face and realized that God is good anyway. He knew people mistreat and hurt and crush and break each other, but God is still good and God will redeem everything. So Paul begged the Roman churches to look past their wants, their concerns, their struggles, and their fear and see the work of God that calls them onward. That’s the truth for all of us. We are free and we are all called to work for freedom. We are not okay with slavery and subjugation because we were freed by the redeemer. Living this truth, may we encourage one another and pray for one another. May we inspire one another to take heart and keep faith, even when times are tough and we struggle. May we continue supporting one another and know that we are supported by God in that same way.
1 Greg Riley, River of God, HarperOne, 2003.
2 Tertullian, An Answer to the Jews, Translated by Sydney Thelwall, T&T Clark, 1870.
3 Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Ra, Unsettling Truths, 2019.
4 Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trebling, Translated by the Hongs, 1983.
5 Björk, "The Modern Things, 1995.