Reflection | After issuing a broad declaration for all Christians to submit or to be subject to every human authority – specifically, the governmental authority held by emperors, kings, and governors, Peter narrows his focus, applying this principle of submission to specific groups of Christians. He begins by first addressing the most vulnerable in the community. What he commands has proven quite controversial in the history of the Church. Still today, it shocks and surprises and perhaps even offends our modern ears: “Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters” (verse 18).


A little context as well as some background are essential before we proceed further. First, the specific word Peter employs here, what is often translated as “slaves” in English, is NOT the typical Greek word for slaves. The actual term Peter uses is best translated as “servants” – referring more to domestic or household servants. Despite this nuance, the line between servants and slaves often became blurry in the ancient world.


Historians estimate that anywhere between one quarter to one third of the population of the Roman Empire were slaves or servants. Slavery in the ancient world had little to do with race and more to do with economics and social class. Slaves and servants consisted of those captured in war, those born into slavery as children, and also those who had sold themselves into servitude for a set time. Despite representing a significant portion of the population, very few legal protections existed in regards to the treatment of slaves and servants.


Some slaves and servants were highly educated and well-cared for, working as artists, artisans, and accountants. Other slaves and servants were handled like property and thus were exploited and abused, working under terrible conditions – excavating mines, for example. Given the statistics, it is more than likely that a significant percentage of Peter’s audience for this letter – those who were part of the early Christian Church – were slaves and/or servants. And despite the precarious circumstances of at least some in this group, Peter instructs them to submit to their masters.


Even more than this, Peter adds one ought to submit “not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh.  For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God” (verses 18 – 19). What follows doesn’t get any easier to read as Peter basically argues if one is beaten when doing wrong, there’s no credit for enduring that, “but if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God” (verse 20).


No doubt Peter’s counsel in this passage is troubling to us, particularly for African Americans and other persons of color. We must acknowledge and repent of the wrongful history in our country alone of white slaveholders using Peter’s words as a means to justify and to defend both their ownership and treatment of slaves. But even on its own terms, Peter’s words here raise many questions. Why does Peter not condemn slavery as wrong? Why does Peter not call for justice or equality? Why doesn’t Peter, at the very least, direct masters to be kind and compassionate to their slaves and servants?


There are no obvious or satisfying answers to these questions. All that we have is the broader context of the times in which Peter existed – context that offers not an excuse but rather a perspective as to why slavery was not condemned by the early Church. We need to remember that the readers of this letter, the first followers of Jesus, were but a relatively small band of believers within the vast Roman Empire. Many who were not slaves or servants were still socio-economically poor and already viewed by their surrounding neighbors as dissidents and therefore, troublemakers.


In modern, Western society, we are blessed to have many rights and freedoms – that are at least on the record, if not always consistently exercised. Things were very different in the first century. Regularly ostracized, often threatened, and increasingly persecuted, the first Christians did not have the power or the influence to change their situation – yet.


Much like America’s checkered past, the economy of the Roman Empire was built on the backs of slaves. Day-to-day life – in terms of access both to work and basic resources – was structured around a clearly defined and tightly enforced hierarchy and patriarchy. As a result, the first Christians had little choice but to live in difficult conditions and put up with unjust situations, especially slavery.


It is into this particular context that Peter offers this counsel. His words were not meant to condone or to condemn slavery. To slaves and servants alike in his day and age – to those without political or social power who were simply trying to survive in the most faithful way possible, Peter purposes to give them practical direction borne of the hope of the Gospel. In essence, his message is, no matter what injustice they are facing, they can endure it knowing that the Lord has not forgotten them and will, in the end, redeem their struggle.


To underscore the certainty of this, Peter adds, “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps” (verse 21). With the verses that follow, Peter quotes heavily from both the verses and the imagery of Isaiah 53, a passage that anticipated the coming of Jesus as our suffering servant. In other words, those to whom Peter is writing can be both assured and encouraged that they are not experiencing anything that Christ himself did not go through.


Peter, however, in these verses, in addressing how Jesus suffered for us all, does much more than make the case for Christ’s solidarity with those slaves and servants who likewise suffer for doing good. He also specifically points to the way in which Jesus responded to his persecutors as modeling how they can and should respond to their abusers. “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (verse 23).


Through Jesus’ example of not returning the abuse of his persecutors but silently entrusting the reckoning of justice to God, we witness the power of non-retaliation. It is the stronger choice to refuse to participate in a system of violence. It is an act of integrity that, in electing not to retaliate, resists becoming the very wrong that we abhor and protest. To dare to love rather than hate our enemies is a defiant expression of one’s faith in the God whom we trust we always have the last word.


While Peter directly address slaves and servants in this passage, it is important to understand that his guidance in these verses applies to all Christians regardless of their social status. Everyone faces moments or seasons in their life when we suffer unjustly at the hands of another person – a boss or a superior – anyone who “lords over us.” Such experiences are decidedly different, as Peter earlier delineates, from suffering that results as the natural consequence of our bad choices (verse 20). But whenever we suffer for doing good – what is right and true as directed by God, we are called to endure our torment like Christ did for us. This too is what it means to follow Jesus. Not striking back but turning the other cheek. Not hurling back words of condemnation but prayers of forgiveness. Not claiming vengeance but exercising mercy and deferring judgment to the Lord.


Once again, let it be understood – it is not God’s will for any of His children to encounter abuse or to suffer injustice. All of the brokenness and pain of this life are a consequence of humanity’s rejection and rebellion against our Creator. Individually or corporately by association, we as human beings are the problem. We are our own worst enemy. Human suffering in all its forms is inevitably traced back to the reality of sin and not God’s design. Through Jesus Christ, God works for and offers our salvation from a life of mourning, of crying and pain, of death and destruction.


Therefore, let it also be clear, staying in a dangerous or hurtful situation—whether we have brought it upon on ourselves or not – also is not Peter’s message. Cruelty, maltreatment, and assault are not circumstances in which we must remain indefinitely trapped. The apostle Paul advocated that if slaves could gain their freedom, they should do so (see 1 Corinthians 7:21) and even personally advocated for the freedom of a slave named Onenismus (see the letter to Philemon). When it is within our power to end our suffering or to get out of an unhealthy and harmful situation, we can and should do so.


Furthermore, Peter’s words here do not legitimize our own passivity before any and all forms of abuse and injustice. The testimony of the whole Bible, the very impetus for the Great Commission to share the Gospel, is to work for and serve the benefit of others – particularly the marginalized and the ill-treated. When, by the grace of God, it is in our power to do so, we as Christians are commanded to ease suffering, to make peace, and to promote love – all in the name of Jesus.


In many parts of the world, including our own nation, many of our brothers and sisters are still denied basic rights, freedoms, and protections. As Christians, we should be at the forefront of both protesting injustice and working for needed reform. And following in the footsteps of Jesus, we ought to do so – to resist the evils of this world – nonviolently.


Consider & Discuss | In considering this passage, we must reflect in terms of our life context, which is not one of slavery (thank God!), but more in terms of our work places and other circles of relationships. As you reflect back on moments or seasons in which you have been or are currently being wronged by a boss, someone in authority over you, a family member, a friend, or even an enemy, how have you/are you reacting? If you were to pull up all your social media posts over the last year and review them, would both the majority and the content of your posts reflect how Jesus responded to hardship and criticism or would they reflect the opposite approach? What would it look like and what might the outcome be if you choose to adhere to Peter’s counsel – to follow Jesus’ example instead?


Prayer Focus | Lord, we submit our lives to You so that we can, by Your grace, submit ourselves before others – even those who wrong us, who treat us unjustly. Teach us to patiently and courageously endure the suffering in our lives that we cannot control. Guide us out of and away from those situations of abuse and injustice from which we can be free. Either way, protect us from becoming what we fear, what we protest, what we hate. Continually focus our attention on Christ — on how He responded to suffering for doing good for all humanity. Remind us that thanks to the Spirit of Jesus who lives within us – we have the power to follow in His footsteps and to respond like He did – resistance through non-violence, defiance through faith, and conquering evil with selfless, sacrificial love. Thank you for being our Shepherd who watches over us, who is bringing us home, and who works everything together for our good and his glory. Amen.