EVERY week, I try to spread my observations across the readings, with an emphasis on the Gospel, because everyone always hears it. But, sometimes, a verse is so challenging that it dominates completely. Romans 6.22 is one of those verses.
It reminds me of special offers: “Buy life insurance and get a free pen.” You want one thing, but buy in because of another, because it is free. In this case, we choose to be liberated from sin. Then what? Surely some freebie is on offer, too — a complementary dove, perhaps, on our next visit to the temple. While stocks last.
We are guaranteed the thing we really want — “freedom from sin” — but with it comes something we think we could do without — “enslavement to God”. True, the enslavement has sanctification thrown in. Perhaps we shall become so holy that we will not mind being “enslaved”.
I am not qualified to say how this verse is read by people today in whose lives the slave trade casts its shadow. Nor am I certain how it sounded to his original recipients. But I think most of us would rather not be enslaved. Enslavement in any language, in any time, means that we do not belong to ourselves, whereas the autonomy of the individual has emerged in our history as a triumphant ideal, a goal for all right-thinking people.
Whether we find the language distasteful, and whether we accept this teaching or not, slaves — according to Paul — is what we are. I do not feel entitled to disagree with him — not until I have turned the idea inside-out and striven for a way of making sense of it rather than dismissing it out of hand.
In Bible days, as I have said here before, slavery was just the way things were. Earlier in his ministry, Paul had written to Christians, “You are not your own; for you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6.19-20). Put like that, it does not sound so, well, slavish. It makes us feel valuable, even precious. But that still may not be enough to detoxify the concept.
Two things suggest to me that Paul is right. One is that he was honest about inequalities in society — more, surely, than we are. The other is that his frankness about the nature of human existence is reassuring. All our life long, constraints of human obligation tie us to work that we may not enjoy, people whom we sometimes find annoying, situations from which only money can liberate us (and sometimes not even money is enough). That our bonds are invisible does not mean that they are not bonds. The more I hear the language of human autonomy and freedom, the more I become sensitised to what appears to be an ideal/reality gap.
Being God’s slave cannot be attractive, admittedly, unless we accept that he is a just and kindly lord (though that still may not be enough to render it palatable). We did not choose to be born, or to exist. We cannot feed, shelter, or clothe ourselves apart from him (Luke 12.24). No, we are not our own; for he bought us. We belong to him.
I no more wish to be free of this bond-service to God than I wish to shrug off the ties that bind me to my family, my workplace, and my many Christian brothers and sisters. None of this feels to me like a burden. I embrace it gladly, as the opposite of an enslavement; for I believe from experience that “his service is perfect freedom.” I also trust in Paul’s visionary promise of the “glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8.21).
So, are we lowly slaves, or beloved children? There is nothing divine about religious quietism, or robotic obedience. But, however ingrained our love of liberty and autonomy, there are places where those hard-won blessings for human society do not reach.
Unless we are so allergic to hierarchy that we refuse to acknowledge our smallness in the face of almighty God, we have to admit that — unlike our earthly fathers, and our priestly fathers — our heavenly Father always knows best. When Paul wrote of our enslavement to God, he did not negate the “glorious liberty” that emerges from that enslavement. He “enslaves” his body, too (1 Corinthians 9.27), but his body is him. He chooses this path. Not all service is servitude.