1 Corinthians 14:33b-37 (From the comments: Slaves who are elders)

roleofwomenContinuing to post material from the comments for the benefit of readers who subscribe only to the main posts.

Reader John F posted a comment asking for support for my earlier statement that in early Christianity some elders were slaves in my summary of Webb’s book, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis, but it has no topical index and I have no searchable, electronic version.

I thought that was common knowledge, but I found sourcing the claim to require more work than I had anticipated — especially since I’ve evidently lost my copy of the precious Early Christians Speak by Everett Ferguson — perhaps the first work of serious Christian literature I’d ever read other than the Bible itself. (Vol. 1 is out of print but available through iBooks on iTunes but not Amazon. It’s only $9.99 at iBooks but not available for reading on a PC.)

So this is what I came up with —

There is the International Critical Commentary on 1 Timothy  by I. Howard Marshall, p. 627, where he speaks of the possibility of slaves becoming elders in the early church.

A more detailed analysis can be found at J.R. Miller’s “More Than Cake” blog.

Following are the items of internal evidence I see that argue for the possibility that some of the Elders in the church might also have been bond-slaves in the community.

1.The Elders in [1 Tim] 5:17 are the Bond-slaves of 6:1 and Paul is giving instruction for how these men should lead first in the church and then how they should conduct themselves outside the church.

2. In the church Elders were to be given double “honor” (5:17) for their service, but outside the church, they still needed to “honor”(6:1) those who were in authority over them.

3. Paul is concerned that Elders not be men who persist in sin (5:20) and demonstrate good works (5:25) .  Some sins, Paul says, are harder to discern (5:24), so he gives some specific examples of what sin looks like for an Elder who is also a bond-slave (6:1 and 6:2).

4. Earlier in the first letter to Timothy, Paul made it clear that Elders were to be men of good repute outside the church (3:7). Here in 6:1 he makes it clear that Elders who are bond-slaves must act so as not to bring disgrace to the teachings of God.

It’s true that the end of 1 Tim 5 includes a series of rules regarding elders, and then 6:1 states,

(1Ti 6:1-2 ESV) Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled.  

2 Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these things.

We assume a change in subject, but that’s not necessarily true.

Frankly, given Paul’s repeated emphasis that, in the church, there is “neither slave nor free,” and the highly educated state of some slaves in Grecian lands, it hard to imagine that churches would not have ordained slaves as elders.

From A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography

A third Century bishop of Rome had been a slave and was freed by his predecessor bishop by buying his freedom.

He tells us that Callistus was originally a slave in the household of a rich Christian called Carpophorus.

“CALLISTUS (1),” A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 143.

Pope Leo forbade the ordination of slaves, which indicates that slaves were being
ordained —

Among his disciplinary directions were regulations forbidding the ordination of slaves (Ep. iv.), which, though justified on the ground that they are not free for the Lord’s service, are couched in language breathing more of the Roman patrician than of the Christian bishop (cf. “quibus nulla natalium dignitas suffragatur,” “tanquam servilis vilitas hunc honorem capiat,” “sacrum ministerium talis consortii vilitate polluitur”).

“LEO (5) I.,” A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 653.

Marcellus, another Roman bishop, was a slave —

Marcellus (3), bp. of Rome probably from May 24, 307, to Jan. 15, 309, the see having been vacant after the death of Marcellinus, 2 years, 6 months, and 27 days (Lipsius, Chronologie der röm. Bischöf.). 

This pope appears as a martyr in the Roman Martyrology, and in the later recensions of the Liber Pontificalis, a story being told that he was beaten, and afterwards condemned to tend the imperial horses as a slave.

“MARCELLUS,” A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 689.

Saint Patrick began life as a slave.

He became the slave of Milchu, the king of Dalaradia, the commencement of whose reign the Four Masters assign to 388, so that the very earliest year for St. Patrick’s birth would be 372. Dalaradia was the most powerful kingdom of N.E. Ireland. It extended from Newry, in the S. of co. Down, to the hill of Slemish, the most conspicuous mountain of central Antrim. In the 7th cent. traditions about his residence there were abundantly current in the locality, as indeed they are still. He lived near the village of Broughshane, 5 or 6 miles E. of Ballymena, where a townland, Ballyligpatrick, the town of the hollow of Patrick, probably commemorates the position of the farm where he fed Milchu’s swine (cf. Dr. Reeves’s Antiq. of Down and Connor, pp. 78, 83, 84, 334–348) After 7 years he escaped, went to Gaul and studied under Germanus of Auxerre. He remained for a very long period, some say 30, others 40 years, in Gaul, where he was ordained priest and bishop. He then returned to Ireland, visiting England on his way.

“PATRICIUS (10),” A Dictionary of Early Christian Biography, 805.

Clearly, the early church bought the freedom of slaves at every opportunity, and many former slaves became bishops (and hence elders). Several commentators believe it all but inevitable that some slaves served as elders very early in church history. Barclay’s Daily Bible Study commentary on Philemon argues that Philemon became bishop of Ephesus. And it would so consistent with early Christian attitudes.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink.
My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.

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10 Responses to 1 Corinthians 14:33b-37 (From the comments: Slaves who are elders)

  1. John F says:

    Thanks for the expansion . . . there is no Biblical knowledge for which I am not grateful and blessed.

    BTW, my wife’s grandfather (D.F. Nickell) was at Nashville Bible School (1906-07) and went out summers to lead singing with H Leo Boles (I’ll Stand on the Rock, by Leo Boles and Choate, pg 132ff) so I have a close affinity for the school. I stepped off the plane to attend a Mission Worship in October, 1977 (midnight, 80 degrees and 100% humidity) and thought I was going to drown!
    Still have good friends nearby.

  2. John says:

    Wonderful piece. I am very surprised there are so few comments.

    This not only shows the value that Christianity placed on the human being, but also the savvy of the early Christians in obtaining the freedom of the slaves. The early church never called for a violent uprising by the slaves; they used the resources from their labor. Of course, that throws open the question “Is it allowable for a Christian to fight in war?” Most Christians in our country would take the stand that Christians are allowed to engage in warfare in order to keep from being enslaved; yet, hold the view that the master/slave passages of the NT demand that Christians slaves remain peaceable.

    But the last thing that crossed my mind, is what a church fight the twentieth century CoC would have had in using “church money” to buy the freedom of slaves. Some would have insisted only individual money could be used, while others would be open to using the treasury. In the mean time, the enslaved would be trying to get our attention: “Hello, a little help here!”

  3. Jay Guin says:


    Some early Christians sold themselves into slavery to free others. The bishops became concerned and tried to stop the practice. After all, swapping one slave for another is no real net benefit to society. They were delighted to buy freedom for slaves, just not at the cost of creating more slavery.

    Modern elders aren’t often asked to deal with such problems. But in the early church, the bishops had to deal with so many Christians giving themselves up for slavery or for martyrdom that the church often lacked for members and leaders. The best and bravest had given themselves over to the pagans.

  4. R.J. says:

    “must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers.”

    I never got this passage. Why would a slave despise a benevolent master?

  5. Jay Guin says:


    2 The crux of the problem with slaves in Ephesus, for which v. 1 provides the corrective fundamental principle, may well be implied in this second situation. Here Paul specifies “slaves who have believing masters.” In this case, the present tense prohibition from “showing them disrespect” is a command to stop something already underway. The verb essentially means “to show contempt” (see on 4:12), which in this context is acted out by slaves who fail to acknowledge their Christian masters’ authority over them.
    Paul’s treatment of this situation differs from that envisioned in 6:1 in two respects. First, with a first causal clause he explains the basis or reason underlying the disrespect of these slaves. Second, with a parallel causal clause he lays a different type of groundwork for the appropriate demeanor of Christian slaves towards their believing masters. The first of the causal clauses (hoti) is potentially ambiguous, but is best read as supplying the reasoning of the slaves’ show of contempt for their masters: “because they [their masters] are brothers” (cf. TNIV, NRSV). The phrase might almost have been the slaves’ slogan: the declaration that the gospel has leveled the playing field within Christian households, so that it is most appropriate now for slaves to disregard the old rules of the slave/master relationship and regard their masters as brothers in Christ.26
    This disregard, in Paul’s opinion, amounts to a show of contempt, even if the gospel has been cited as authority. The same danger to the church’s witness drawn out in 6:1 also applies here. Unbelievers observing households disrupted by slaves who claim some sort of gospel privilege would conclude that the foreign “Christian” teaching underlies the disturbance.
    Consequently, Paul issues the counter command to slaves with Christian masters: “[but] instead they should serve them.” The present tense command requires Christian slaves to continue to recognize their masters’ authority and to give them the quality of service their station warrants,28 even though they are fellow believers.
    Now follows the second causal clause, this time providing the grounds for the Christian slaves’ faithful service to their Christian masters. The first part of this reason presents a minor problem, which is best seen in a literal rendering of the Greek before the TNIV’s resolution of it: “because they [i.e. the masters] are believers and beloved.” Here the language of “belief” (see on 1:2) describes the masters (cf. 6:1). But to call them further “beloved” is either to stress the masters’ standing with God (i.e. “loved by God”; Rom 1:7; 11:28) and therefore worthiness to be served by fellow Christians, or possibly the slaves’ Christian love for (= obligation to) their masters (cf. “dear to them” [i.e. to the slaves]; TNIV/NIV). Whichever nuance is intended, the most critical thing to see is that the shared bond of faith does not function as the slaves had imagined (6:1b)—namely, as grounds for disregarding and actively dissolving the institution of slavery. Rather, it places the masters, as fellow believers, into the category of those to whom slaves as Christians must render superior service.
    It is the second part of this reason, which further describes the masters, that raises the more important questions. All agree that the participial phrase that closes the Greek sentence stands in apposition to the preceding “because they are believers and beloved,” and so refers to the masters. But two interpretations are possible, as the translations of the TNIV and NIV illustrate:

    TNIV: “because their masters are dear to them as fellow believers and are devoted to the welfare of their slaves”;
    NIV: “because those who benefit from their service are believers, and dear to them.”

    Thus the phrase in question (in italics) either depicts the masters as benefactors who devote themselves to doing beneficence for their slaves or in general (TNIV) or it depicts them as the recipients of benefits proceeding from their slaves’ service (NIV, NRSV). Before we resolve this conflict, the controlling cultural concept of “benefaction” must be set out.
    Behind the two translations observed above is the noun that means “the doing of good” or “the good that is done” (TNIV “welfare”; NIV “service”). What the translations generally cannot really bring out is the technical meaning this term acquired within the system of patronage and honor that defined so much of social interaction in ancient Mediterranean culture. In the cultural context, the “good deed” (euergesia) was an act of benefaction done normally by a person of some means and influence (the benefactor) for someone who was socially inferior, for which in return he would receive honor in the form of public recognition of some sort. Perhaps it is the taming of this term in translation, which effectively removes it from the sphere of benefaction, which has allowed the majority of English translations to think in terms of slaves doing “service” to their masters. But if the term’s likely meaning of “benefaction” is acknowledged, then we have to contend with the more surprising possibility that Paul depicted socially inferior slaves as benefactors of their socially superior masters.
    The issue revolves around the action expressed in the Greek participle that translations usually render in terms of “devotion to” (TNIV), or “benefit from,” depending upon which social direction the action is thought to be moving—from top down, or from bottom up. This term, too, figures in the ancient discussions of the system of benefaction.32 And within that context, the term will indicate either the giving or receiving of a benefit (or a return on a benefit).
    If Paul has employed benefaction language, it would be most in accordance with normal usage to think in terms of the masters (who are social superiors) as those acting in behalf of their slaves. In this case, the instruction would be exhorting Christian slaves to honor their masters as a way of helping them [the masters] in their efforts to be benefactors, which also benefits the church’s reputation in the world.34 And Paul would be viewing the slaves’ attitudes entirely from the standpoint of the masters’ and (perhaps) the church’s reputation. Further, this would represent a return to (cf. Gal 3:28) or reinforcement of a very conservative position.
    But quite apart from the questionable adequacy of this ideological reconstruction of the early church, this interpretation (masters as benefactors) complicates the logic of the text: simply put, the statement that the masters are “believers and beloved” is a far better reason for the slaves “to act in behalf” of their masters, as most translations have observed.37 Consequently, the closing phrase is better taken as an elaboration on the service the slaves are instructed (“but instead let them serve”; or “but let them serve all the more”) to render.
    Yet what sense can it make for slaves to be described as if they are “benefactors”? Paul has been known to co-opt the language and concepts so dominant in his culture in the effort to redefine, challenge and rather intentionally subvert the “givens” of his day on the basis of the transforming truth of the gospel he preached. However, here in reversing the roles of slaves and masters and speaking of slaves as benefactors Paul was not thinking entirely in an unprecedented way. Seneca (d. c. 65 CE) introduced the possibility of slaves as benefactors (On Benefits 3.18–20):

    … there are certain acts which the law neither enjoins nor forbids; it is in these that a slave finds opportunity to perform a benefit. So long as that which he supplies is only that which is ordinarily required of a slave, it is a “service”; when he supplies more than a slave need do, it is a “benefit”; it ceases to be called a service when it passes over into the domain of friendly affection (3.21) … And, just as a hireling gives a benefit if he supplies more than he contracted to do, so a slave—when he exceeds the bounds of his station in goodwill towards his master by daring some lofty deed that would be an honor even to those more happily born, a benefit is found to exist inside the household (3.33.1 Loeb).

    Two things call for comment here. First, Seneca has reversed the typical direction of benefaction; the socially inferior one is found capable of bestowing a benefit on a social superior. Second, a part of his argument is that benefaction in the case of the slave involves going above and beyond the normal call of duty, a theme that may be present in 1 Tim 6:2a.
    Within the early church’s growing body of teaching, the Jesus tradition preserved by Luke also laid the groundwork for the reversal of certain fundamental social realities, and “benefaction” is at the center of his illustration:

    Luke 22:25–27: But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”

    If this illustration is taken seriously, then certainly one point of its relevance within the social world of the early church would be to redefine genuine beneficent action in terms of an attitude of humility and its product—genuine service. Could Jesus’ “reversal” teaching have found a fruitful testing ground in the Christian slave-master relationship? At least we can conclude that in the light of Seneca and the Jesus tradition the way forward toward a “reversal of roles” thinking had been prepared.
    Within the immediate literary setting, the reader of 1 Timothy quickly discovers that Paul is operating on a couple of different fronts. He has been engaging false teaching in the community and addressing the issue of Christian behavior within the structures of society. The latter issue (however much it might have been influenced by the heresy) is most crucial here. All of 1 Timothy falls within the framework of God’s order of reality in the world—God’s oikonomia (see on 1:4). Paul did not rigidly differentiate between God’s will understood in this way and the structures of human society, but rather saw the latter structures as continuous with God’s order. It is for this reason that the household codes, borrowed from secular ethics, could, once adapted to Christian theological realities, be applied to encourage believers to pursue appropriate behavior within the household and the church.
    When read sensitively, these codes are hardly evidence of a wholesale return to patriarchal conservatism, or of abandonment of the Pauline vision of equality. But they are evidence that the biblical writers were sensitive to the expectations of wider society, and knew as well as anyone that the household was the basic social unit. Disorder at this level (no matter what the cause) could spell disaster for the church’s reputation in the world. The teaching about relationships in the household sought a creative middle-ground with secular ethical values. Christian adaptation and grounding assured that the church would not simply capitulate to social conventions. But it must live and move in society in a way that communicated with that world and at the same time articulated and embodied God’s oikonomia. God’s presence in the world aims at reformation and transformation of its structures, never uncritical acceptance of them. Tension is unavoidably created as God’s values clash with the world’s. Paradoxically, the household codes sought to control the effects of this tension while also sustaining it; they kept Christians engaged in the culture and urged against any radical dismantling of the social structure. Yet the instruction also encourages critical assessment of traditional assumptions and values that shape the institutions, by placing human household relationships under the Lordship of Christ and redefining things such as honor and benefaction with agape and service. The tension in Christian existence remains acute, and it can be easily felt in 1 Timothy, where the church overlaps with the household.
    This brings us back to the teaching to slaves in 6:1–2a, teaching which belongs to or grows out of the household code tradition. In the instruction to Christian slaves whose masters are believers (v. 2a), we have the supreme example of a situation in which social obligations belonging to the household come into conflict with the values and goals that shape Christian existence and life in the church. Giving rise to the specific instruction is the dissonance between the Christian ethos of egalitarianism (“because they are brothers”) and the cultural household reality of slavery (“they are masters”). In this paradoxical context Christian slaves are told that the common bond in Christ they share with their masters (“because they are brothers”) is not legitimate grounds for exercising equality (despising them, showing contempt); but in fact precisely that bond (“because they are believers and beloved”) calls the slaves to even better service. Typically (cf. 1 Cor 7; Eph 6; Col 4), Paul refuses to resolve this tension by tampering directly with the structure (e.g. “Masters, release your slaves who are brothers”). Even where Paul comes closest to doing so, in writing to Philemon, he never forces the master to regard the institution of slavery as null and void. Rather, in this case his solution is spiritual, which is not to say ethereal (“Slaves, act as though you were the masters”). This reversal, which is determined in our text by Paul’s application of honor and benefactor language in the closing phrase, is both subtle and surprising. The subtlety is seen not so much in the ambiguity of the phrase itself, but in the fact that by all appearances the slave-master relationship is kept intact. The surprise comes in the description of the slaves’ extraordinary service as a benefaction received by the masters (for which, we have seen, there is some precedent in Seneca and in the reversal teaching of Jesus): “Instead slaves should serve their masters even better because those who receive the slaves’ benefaction are believers and loved (by God/by the slaves).”
    Paul has turned the tables. The slaves serve, but in God’s surprising oikonomia they do so from the position of power; nobility and honor, the rewards of benefaction, are accorded here implicitly to the slaves. In all of this, the privileges of honor which that culture reserved for well-to-do patrons, benefactors, slave-owners are not denied; nor are the obligations of slaves to their masters trivialized. But the meaning and value of life lived at that level are relativized by the more fundamental reality of the universal Lordship of Christ within God’s oikonomia.

    Philip H. Towner, The Letters to Timothy and Titus, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2006), 383–390.

  6. Hi, I am glad you are continuing the conversation here and made use of some of the material from my blog More Than Cake.


  7. Dwight says:

    I Tim.5:17-20 ” Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear.”
    I Tim. 6 “Let as many bondservants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed. 2 And those who have believing masters, let them not despise them because they are brethren, but rather serve them because those who are benefited are believers and beloved. Teach and exhort these things.”

    But in between ch.5:17-20 & ch.6 are three changes in context- no partiality, advised Timothy to drink wine and evidences of sin. So there is an obvious shift in context between elders and slaves.

  8. Dwight says:

    Problems with the arguments:
    “The Elders in [1 Tim] 5:17 are the Bond-slaves of 6:1 and Paul is giving instruction for how these men should lead first in the church and then how they should conduct themselves outside the church.”
    But there is never a distinction made between inside and outside the church, as if a saint could step outside that which he is a part of. The church isn’t a thing, but people of Christ.
    “In the church Elders were to be given double “honor” (5:17) for their service, but outside the church, they still needed to “honor”(6:1) those who were in authority over them.”
    But the elders or ch.5 and the bodservants of ch.6 are both in the church as they are saints. The directions are change between chapters in that the elders recieve double honor due to thier service, but in ch.6 the elders are now giving honor to thier masters? The elders in ch.5 are never called bond servants and the bond servants in ch. 6 are never called elders.

  9. Dwight says:

    “4. Earlier in the first letter to Timothy, Paul made it clear that Elders were to be men of good repute outside the church (3:7). Here in 6:1 he makes it clear that Elders who are bond-slaves must act so as not to bring disgrace to the teachings of God.”
    Again much is predicated upon the concept that one can step outside the church that you are a member of, but you can’t. The elders were over those that were among them in the town that the elders were appointed in. As elders, they were servants, but not bond-servants unless of Christ.
    While it is evident that slaves became Christians and it is possible that slaves even were regarded as elders, it is a far stretch to argue that I Tim.5,6 reflects anything of this sort and it is very improbable that they were a slave and an elder at the same time. Even the listed Leo became a slave and Patrick came from a slave, but they weren’t one in thier positions as elders.
    This is speculation that doesn’t change the context and meaning of the passages to any degree of what elders are to be counted worthy of and what slaves and masters are to do as Christians.

  10. Monty says:

    Very interesting video debate at J.R. Miller’s blog: More Than Cake, debating Theistic Evolution and Literal Creationism for those interested. I have watched round 1 so far.

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