Summary: Always take time to consider how your behavior is honoring or dishonoring God before the world. That’s what matters. You are not your own persons. You are servants of God. That leads us into our next passage, verses 18-25, in which Peter directly addresse
We continue to step through our minefield of authority. Peter has moved from his encouragement section of his epistle to practical instruction and exhortation. His topic is how Christians are to live in the world, and he approaches the subject in terms of how they are to regard the authority systems of society. Verses 13-17 addressed civil authority, including also general relations with neighbors. Peter instructed his readers to be good citizens by submitting to the governing officials and by showing proper respect to everyone.
The point that Peter was trying to impress upon his people was this: Always take time to consider how your behavior is honoring or dishonoring God before the world. That’s what matters. You are not your own persons. You are servants of God. That leads us into our next passage, verses 18-25, in which Peter directly addresses servants.
Bear Up Under Unjust Punishment 18-20
If we thought Peter was being overly strict in his admonition to submit to every authority, consider his comments to slaves. Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. These are tough words. Put yourself in the place of these slaves.
For example, consider yourself in a bad work situation. Your supervisor is treating you terribly, and you are not in a position to confront him because you may lose your job, which would be disastrous for you. You come to me to share your burden and seek counsel. Then I question you: “Do you deserve your treatment? Are you sure? Then what’s the problem? It is good for you to bear up under the pain of unjust treatment.” That would be a good approach for me to take if I wanted to deter anyone from coming to me for counsel. Well, again, let’s try to put aside the red flags that pop up with such a statement and try to understand Peter’s concern.
First of all, who are these slaves? The common Greek word for slave is doulos. The word here is oiketais, a word used for household or domestic servant. Peter is discussing authority in terms of the household. He will next move to marital relations.
A domestic servant may or may not be a slave, although it seems likely in this context that Peter is addressing slaves. Even so, such slaves, though regarded as second class citizens, were not viewed as some lesser form of humanity. Many were individuals who sold themselves into slavery with the intent to later buy out their servitude. Many were educated and had professional status as high as, or higher than, their free counterparts. There were slave doctors and teachers; many ran the household and business affairs of their masters.
Having acknowledged that many slaves had good circumstances, the point is they were still slaves under the control of their masters, and their fortune in life depended upon the whim of the masters. Joseph’s situation is a good example. Sold into slavery by his brothers, he became the slave of an Egyptian official. His master gave him complete control over his estate. Then, because of a false accusation by an adulteress wife, he was thrown in prison without a fair hearing.
That was the uncertain status of the domestic servants. At the whim of their masters they were subject to harsh punishment including beatings. They had no protection from the law, nor could they leave. Peter is addressing such persons who have received the gospel and, in his words, are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God (2:9). How should they respond to harsh pagan masters?
Peter tells them they should submit to their masters, and, yes, even to those who treat them harshly. The contrast made between masters helps us to understand what is meant by submit. The issue is not about submitting to masters who order their servants to carry out unethical and immoral practices; rather, it is about enduring unjust treatment. Indeed, the case may well be that Christian servants are being harshly treated precisely because they will not act unethically or immorally.
(That, by the way, may help us understand the admonition to submit to every authority. The issue there is not submitting to laws that cause us to act against our faith, but submitting to laws that are burdensome to us.)
Peter further adds that the servants are to submit to their masters with all respect. A possible interpretation, which is supported by the NIV’s translation, is that servants are not only to obey but do so with a respectful manner towards their masters. That’s possible, but the term for respect is the same term used in the previous sentence for fear God. It is probable that Peter means for servants to submit to their masters out of fear of God, especially considering his next comment in verse 19 about being conscious of God.