As an African-American, I cringe when I hear the word “slave” as it immediately evokes images of four hundred years of oppression of Black people. I wince when I think of the beatings, lynchings, and inhumane treatment that people of African descent endured. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation, Jim Crow laws made life a living hell for many of my ancestors. Slavery equals oppression and denial of rights. Slavey means injustice and poverty. But, could slavery also be a blessing? When considered in the context of scripture, it is this question that challenges me to consider developing the voice of a slave.
The apostle Paul, once a persecutor of the early Christian church, became one of its staunchest and most fearless advocates after his conversion to Christianity. After his personal encounter with God on the road to Damascus, Paul (formerly named Saul) was enlightened as to God’s displeasure with persecution of Christians. When confronted under the light of God, Paul transformed his life to become one of Christianity’s greatest missionaries. Paul’s two missionary journeys are nothing short of amazing. But, what was the secret to his success? Some might argue that it is his courage and conviction to preach the gospel. I certainly think that that plays a part. But, many courageous and convicted people are not as successful in their endeavors. I believe the answer is found in the book of 1 Corinthians. He learned the voice of a slave. That is the true voice of influence.
Here is Paul’s account of his slave voice:
“Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)
Here are a few of the questions that immediately come to my mind as I read Paul’s slave.
Why would Paul make himself a slave to everyone? What’s wrong with him? Won’t he lose his own sense of identity in trying to accommodate everyone else? Does it really take all of that to live for the sake of the gospel?
As we see in this passage, Paul’s motivation is to promulgate the gospel in winning people to Christ. His method was to craft his voice to as he says “become all things to all people.” When amidst the Jews, Paul focused on the law. But, when speaking to Gentiles, he abandoned legalism.
When working with those in a weakened state, he too took on a posture of weakness to identify with them. Paul identifies himself as a “slave to everyone”.
I think, however, it may be more appropriate to say that he was a slave to Christ. He says as much in Romans Chapter 1:1. Paul actually addresses his letter to the Roman church and identifies himself as “a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach his Good News.” (NLT).
I surmise then that being a slave to Christ is in fact the same as being a slave to everyone that Christ calls you to influence.
Yes, the term “slave” understandably has a negative stigma in Western culture because of the history of oppression it connotes. But, in this biblical context, however, it is better understood as being a servant.
Five times in this seminal passage does Paul emphasize a focus on winning. A winning voice is one that seeks to serve first.
And, here are five practices that I learn from Paul in how to develop my voice as a slave.
Practice #1: Choose your master
Every slave has a master. Paul understood that his master was Christ. Therefore, he could readily admit that he was a slave to Christ. Because this was his starting point, he accepted that this meant he was a slave to the people Christ called him to serve. Who is your master? There are only two, God or Man. Your actions and voice will always be directed towards who you serve. As Joshua said “As for me and my house, we will sere the Lord” (24:15).
Practice #2: Prioritize your purpose over social stigma
Paul maintained a focus on his mission which was to save souls for Christ. Nothing else mattered. The voice of a slave does what it takes regardless of what other people might think.
Practice #3: Be more open-minded
Many of us Christians are ineffective in winning people to Christ because we are too close minded. If people do look, think, or act like we believe they should we really prefer not to deal with them. We certainly do not think that we should adjust ourselves to them. But, the voice of a slave challenges this thinking. It is not a “one size fits all” mindset. Rather, it asks how we can adjust the subjective elements of our voice while maintaining its objective focus on Christlikeness. As Paul models, this is only achieved by actively listening rather than singularly proselytizing those whom we are called to serve. It is here, not in dogma and legalism, that true Christian liberty is experienced.
Practice #4: Accept that you can’t change everyone
Paul understood that his slave voice would not save everyone. He wouldn’t successfully convert everyone. But, this didn’t dissuade him from his mission. He states that he uses the voice of a slave to save some. Too often, we lose the focus of our ministry when we don’t see the quantity of change that we had hoped to see in others. Our spouses and children don’t change fast enough. Some friends abandon us. Some people who you approach reject you. These are not reasons to quiet your slave voice. Even your best efforts will only save some. Celebrate them.
Practice #5: Accept your blessings
I appreciate Paul’s conclusion to the passage. It points out how adopting the voice of a slave is a countercultural message for receiving one’s own blessing. We don’t associate slavery with blessing. But, Paul did. By using his slave voice, Paul notes the blessings that accrue to him. This, of course, is why Christ tells us that it is more blessed to give than to receive. In the end, anything that we do for Christ positions us as beneficiaries of his blessings. These words of Paul encourage me to receive those blessings rather than having a false piety or scarcity mindset. God bestows many types of blessings on his children. But, sometimes we need to open our eyes to recognize them as gifts.
I am convinced that Paul’s slave voice is primarily responsible for his unparalleled success in spreading the gospel of Christ. While his fellow apostles focused intently on the Jewish population initially. Paul had broader insight. He exuded flexibility in his actions while staying centered in his faith. He did that simply because he saw himself as a slave to Christ. That, of course, is the challenge for all of us.
What constrains your own slave voice? You have to let it go so that ultimately you receive the full blessings intended for you.