WHEN WE THINK OF SLAVERY it is the American experience which automatically comes to mind. America’s slaves were mostly Africans who were captured, bought and sold as a commodity. Slavery was permanent (you could not be freed), hereditary (the children of slaves were automatically slaves), and racial.
In the Roman Empire, however, none of these categories applied. Slaves were generally prisoners of war. They could earn or receive their freedom and there was no identification of slavery and race. In both countries, however, slavery meant loss of freedom, hard work, and at best a second class status in society.
St Paul uses slavery as an image to describe the sinful behaviors which he saw in pagan society. Rome was peaceful and prosperous; as a result, people were free to be self-indulgent. He saw their behavior, not as freedom, but as a self-surrender to degradation. People had become slaves of their passions, leading to death. No one would personify this more than the emperors. Its greatest leader, Julius Caesar, was said to be “… every wife’s man and every man’s wife.” Nero, who was emperor at the time Paul was writing, castrated and “married” a boy who reminded him of his late wife. Both Nero and the boy would die at their own hands.
Slavery to Sin
Calling himself a “slave of Christ Jesus” (Romans 1:1), St Paul says that the godless present themselves as “obedient slaves” to “sin, which leads to death” (Romans 6:16). He is speaking here of a spiritual slavery which results in spiritual death. Like slavery, sin can possess a person exclusively – we need only think of some examples of addictions which take over people’s lives in our own day. But there are other sinful acts, less harmful to our physical life, to which people can become enslaved. Habits of sin, such as cursing or gossiping become as much part of us through repetition as addictions. They are simply other forms of slavery to sin.
Culture can play an important part in this kind of slavery. When a behavior, which the Gospel portrays as sinful, is accepted in the wider culture as “normal,” people become more easily enslaved to it. We may think of sexual or reproductive practices which our society finds acceptable but the Church does not approve. Christians who decide there is “nothing wrong” with these practices do so because the wider (secular) society has accepted them.
There are other, less controversial examples of socially acceptable contradictions of the Gospel. Does anyone in our society, for example, take seriously these words of Christ: “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ [an insult] will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna” (Matthew 5:22).
Most if not all Christians pay scant attention to this teaching. But if people habitually look down on others in the Church, how able are they to keep Christ’s commandment: “Love one another. As I have loved you so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34,35).
Slavery to Righteousness
Twice in this passage St Paul notes an alternative to the slavery of sin. In v.19 he calls believers “slaves of righteousness” while in v.22 he uses the expression “slaves of God.” Righteousness was used throughout the Old Testament to describe a life pleasing to God. It was equated with a life lived in accordance with the Commandments.
By this standard St Joseph, the spouse of the Theotokos, and St Simeon, who received the infant Christ in the temple, are both called “righteous” in the Gospels (cf., [reference-pericope]Matthew 1:19[/reference-pericope] and [reference-pericope]Luke 2:25[/reference-pericope]). The supreme example of righteousness is, of course, the Lord Jesus Himself. As the centurion testified on seeing the manner of His death, “Certainly this was a righteous Man!” (Luke 23:47)
Our liturgy describes Christ in the same way. In both the troparion of His Nativity and that of His Encounter with Simeon and Anna we praise Him as “the Sun of righteousness.” This term, prophesied in Malachi 4:2, suggests that the Lord Jesus is the One shining the light of authentic righteousness into the world.
The term is used twice in the Beatitudes: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” and “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”. Living the Godly life is clearly of paramount importance to Christ. By using “slaves of righteousness” interchangeably with “slaves of God” St Paul is clearly following His lead. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” the Lord advised, and you will have everything you need.
The Result of a Righteous Life
This term dikaiosyne in the Greek of the New Testament is sometimes translated as justice, but that word in Western society has a legal or even penal connotation absent from its meaning in Scripture. This becomes clear when we look at the intended result of the righteous life as St Paul describes it here. He asks his readers, “What fruit did you have then in the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death” (v.21). The sin to which the Roman Christians had once been enslaved had only one ultimate result – death. In contrast, living as slaves to God brings about sanctification with its end, everlasting life (cf., [reference-pericope]Romans 6:22[/reference-pericope]).
The fruit of righteousness in this life is sanctification, the same word the Church uses for certain rites, such as the great sanctification of water or of other objects. A “sanctification” in the language of the liturgy is more than just a simple blessing – it unfolds through psalms, hymns and Scripture readings and prayers forming a kind of process concluding in the act of benediction. Likewise the sanctification of the believer is a process, consisting in the blossoming of the Christian life through the love of God and of others, concluding in eternal life.
What St Paul described as “righteousness unto sanctification” would come to be called theosis – the process beginning with baptism and developing through prayer, fasting, almsgiving and the other aspects of Christian life, with its goal of that communion with God which is eternal life.
“God has done the same as if a person was to take an orphan who had been carried away by savages into their own country, and was not only to free him from captivity but to set a kind father over him and raise him to a very great dignity. This is what has happened in our case. For it was not just that God freed us from our old evils; he also led us into the life of angels. He opened the way for us to enjoy the best life, handing us over to the safekeeping of righteousness and killing our former evils, putting the old man in us to death and bringing us to eternal life.”